Saturday, August 21, 2010

Wolwehoek (F 10)

Name: Wolwehoek


Driving down the long straight of the R59 highway to Vereeniging, its hard to imagine that the very fields we drive past were once a bloody battlefield of the Anglo Boer War. However, as you pass the south-bound Engen 1 Stop, there stands the one reminder we seem not to notice, the lone stone structure of the Witkop Blockhouse over-looks the hillside it was built to protect.

Built during 1901, the Witkop Blockhouse, along with thousands of other fortifications, played a vital role for the British war effort during the Anglo Boer War of 1899 – 1902. The British army needed to impose military control and overcome a problem that military strategists have always grappled with – the need to manage a 'real estate' problem, as presented by a fluid opponent, moving unhindered across vast tracts of countryside. This became all the more real as the conflict evolved into a rural based guerilla war during the latter half of 1900.

Their solution was a three pronged, interlocked counter guerilla warfare strategy. The first saw the clearance of all civilians, both African and Boer, from their farms and traditional settlements into forcible internment centers, which soon became known as concentration camps. Any livestock and provisions that could not be moved were shot, bayoneted, burnt to deny the Boer commandos' supplies. Homesteads, outbuildings, huts, mills, wells and irrigation infrastructure were burnt or shattered with explosives.

The railway network, vital for communications, logistics and troop deployments was secured with thousands of fortifications which were also extended across the countryside in order to 'fence' in the 'real estate problem', thus creating military paddocks into which the third prong was inserted - superior numbers of mounted troops then hunted down the weakened commandos and broke up their fighting formations.

This strategy's success hinged on consolidating and extending military control over swathes of countryside, block by block at a time, taking a while to implement. It eventually proved devastatingly effective as the military net cast itself further into the vast interior of South Africa's countryside.

As for the blockhouses, the Royal Engineers commenced with construction works towards the end of 1900, once the Boer forces had either discarded or had their artillery captured and thus posed no threat of bombardment to the garrisons manning these forts.

Two basic patterns were used, although the architectural designs differed widely. Major General Wood designed the first - a standardized masonry blockhouse, built from stone and which stood between two to three stories high. The fort was roofed and loop-holed to provide a 360 degree arc of rifle fire. In certain cases machine guns were fitted. Provisioned with water, rations and ammunition, its garrison of about 30 infantrymen could withstand a prolonged siege or determined attack. The Wood pattern blockhouse was placed so that its garrison could defend bridges, water supplies and permanent garrisons. Each blockhouse cost between £ 800 to £ 1000 and took the military engineers, troops and African labourers approximately six weeks to erect, dependant on local conditions. By 31 December 1900, some 441 such stone sentinels had replaced the more vulnerable encampments, which had been fortified with sandbags and rock enclosures.

The second blockhouse type, known as the Rice Pattern, was more suited to the military situation unfolding in South Africa during 1901. These corrugated iron blockhouses were named after Major SR Rice of the Royal Engineers who Lord Kitchener appointed to devise a more cost effective and mass producible method. Each Rice pattern blockhouse cost approximately £ 16 and took its garrison of between 7 - 10 men one day to erect.
Built from two layers of corrugated iron, the space between the interior and exterior layer was filled with sand, which rendered the blockhouse bullet proof. An exterior stone wall from ground level to loophole height reinforced the fort. The building materials could be transported overland by ox wagon so that Rice pattern blockhouses might be flung up wherever they were required. In many cases the corrugated iron required was looted from the roofs of Boer homesteads. By 1902, more than 8 000 Rice pattern blockhouses straddled the South African veld.

The troops could never be too careful - Boer snipers were known to conceal themselves and open fire on the sentries at dusk before bolting into the dark. Nightfall brought increased dangers when the Boers attempted to sabotage the railway line. The burghers crawled beneath the entanglements and planted explosives to derail trains or they crossed their forces over the line at night. The blockhouse garrisons opened fire, aiming at demarcated spots or returned fire against the muzzle flashes of the Boer rifles. Nervous soldiers were known to shoot for hours on end at a stray animal or nothing at all, setting off a panic that induced their neighbors to blast away with rifles, flares and in certain cases machine guns. Very quickly as the panic spread, many miles of blockhouses along the line were engaged in a night battle with the invisible enemy.

Blockhouse garrisons communicated with each other by telephone and telegraph. Signal flags, heliograph mirrors and lanterns substituted to relay messages over long distances if the Boers had cut the communications cables. Each blockhouse was surrounded with barbed wire entanglements which extended to the next adjacent blockhouse located some 600 to 1 000 meters away. Bells and tin cans were hung from the entanglements as an alarm system and trip flares set up. As each blockhouse was within rifle range of its neighbours, the open ground between was a killing zone, to be crossed at great peril. Towards the end of the war when the gaps were tightened, crossing the line proved extremely dangerous and in many cases downright impossible.

By May 1902, approximately 50 000 British troops and 16 000 Africans were deployed in blockhouses, backed up by cavalry, mounted infantry and armoured trains. This military grid in turn provided an anchor for the stronger columns, which swept the countryside.

During the latter half of 1900, the British divided the railway networks up into military management areas, which were linked into a network of headquarters, garrisons, fortifications and subsequently blockhouses. The line running north through the area today known as the Vaal, had Wolwehoek in the Free State as its southern anchor and Irene near Pretoria, where headquarters were set up, as its northern point.

Throughout 1901 and 1902, the line between Irene and Wolwehoek was characteristic of the guerilla war: protracted fighting, attacks against the railway lines, land clearances, farm burnings and concentration camps which incarcerated both African and Boer civilians.

One example is the clearance of all civilians from the farm Slangfontein, today home to Henley on Klip. On the 26th and 27th December 1900, British troops based at Meyerton destroyed all the farm dwellings and dispatched the civilians to the concentration camp at Vereeniging. Consequently the Boers retaliated two days later and raided an African settlement near Meyerton, making off with 187 cattle, 975 goats and sheep and 17 horses. During their raid, they shot and killed an African who had tried to alert the garrison near Meyerton Station.

During the early dawn of 18th February 1901, about 400 Boers derailed a British goods train at Palmietfontein, between Klip River and Natalspruit sidings. After looting the wreckage, the burghers made off with a machine gun, cavalry greatcoats, saddles and other supplies but no gold, as local legend would have us believe. Two British fatalities were buried at Klip River Stations.

As Boer attacks against the line continued between Irene and Wolwehoek, blockhouses were erected to counter this, while the surrounding countryside was laid waste. All the civilians were forcibly removed from the farms – the Boer refugees were incarcerated in camps at Vereeniging, Turfontein, Irene and Vredefort Road. African concentration camps were established along the line at Irene, Oliphantsfontein, Zuurfontein, Kaalfontein, Natalspruit, Klip River Station, Meyerton, Vereeniging, Taaibosch and Wolwehoek. A military labour camp for African men was set up at Elandsfontein, while labour for the Vereeniging Collieries was provided by African refugees near Viljoen's Drift.

Two stone blockhouses were built at Witkop to replace the garrison and guard two small stone bridges, which both survive beneath the railway tracks to this day. Only one remains and is known as the Witkop Blockhouse. It stands on the hill, one mile north of the original garrison's position which was also marked by a second southern blockhouse that was demolished in the 1970's.

The northern blockhouse was underway in February 1901. On the 7 June 1901, the Witkop garrison occupied the southern blockhouse. Presumably the northern blockhouse was complete and garrisoned by this date. Both blockhouses were commanded by the garrison Commandant at Klip River Station. Rice pattern blockhouses subsequently plugged the gaps between Klip River and Meyerton, one of which stood adjacent to the site of the Henley on Klip railway station.

The Witkop Blockhouse stands as the sole surviving sentinel of what were probably more than a hundred Rice pattern blockhouses and at least several other stone sentinels erected along the railway line between Wolwehoek and Irene. Some of the collapsed stone reinforcing walls of the Rice pattern blockhouses can be located in the veld. The graves of the African settlement at Witkop lie to the east of the blockhouses, as do the approximately 450 graves of the African inmates at the site of the Taaibosch concentration camp. The larger townships near Vereeniging have their origins in what was once known as 'Top Location,' which in turn originates from the African inmates of the Vereeniging Department Camp, separate to that of the Boer camp.

During their stay the British army imported fodder from Argentina to feed their cavalry and mounted troop's horses - animals vital to the counter guerilla warfare strategy. The pollen of the Cosmos flower, indigenous to Argentina inadvertently traveled inside this feedstock. Today, when the Cosmos blooms, it still marks with its colorful splash of flowers many of the sites of this military conflict; more than a century later, after the guns fell silent.

Google count:Date:Historic fact:Other interesting info:Where to stay:

No comments: