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A "Toff's Life" in the blockhouse

During the third stage of the war in South Africa more than eight thousand blockhouses were built in an attempt to curtail the Boer guerrillas' freedom of movement. Although occasionally placed to defend railways or areas of strategic importance, their general purpose was to divide the open countryside into sectors with fortified lines. These were often crude structures consisting, in their most basic form, of a single storey building with corrugated iron sheets filled with rubble, surrounded by a stone or sand bag wall and placed upon an eminence. Blockhouses were usually built within rifle range of each other and were supplemented by barbed wire entanglements and other impediments between each structure. (1)

It was Kitchener's hope that, during British attempts to track down Boer forces, the Boers would increasingly find themselves with a choice between turning and facing their pursuers or having to force their way through these fortified lines. There is still considerable debate between historians as to the effectiveness of this strategy. Certainly the blockhouse lines were not impenetrable and the guerrilla leader De Wet referred to the blockhouse system as the 'blockhead system'. (2) However, the system did slow the guerrillas down and certainly hindered their operations.

Conditions inside the blockhouses must have been spartan and duties, whilst manning the system, must have been tedious for the common soldier. However, some press correspondents claimed that the troops often preferred the inactivity of guarding blockhouses to the danger, stress and exhaustion involved in tracking down the Boers. (3) Military life is often said to consist largely of boredom and routine duties with occasional incidences of violent action, particularly in the case of manning fortifications.

Private Ernest Griffin of the Third Leicestershires, found himself stationed in a blockhouse towards the end of the war. Writing to his half brother, Athur Moore, Griffin described his impressions of life guarding the veldt. Arthur Moore had another brother in the Leicestershire Regiment who had been besieged in Ladysmith, this letter being found amongst their correspondence. Joseph Moore had written to Arthur describing the squalor, starvation and sickness during the siege of 1899-1900 (4) and Griffin's letter must have provided an interesting contrast.

At the time of writing Griffin had only recently arrived in Cape Colony and the war was drawing to a close. Indeed the letter is dated the twenty fifth of May 1902 and the war ended only six days afterwards. Griffin described his post as being between Knapdaar and Burgherdorp in the north west of Cape Colony. This location is, in fact, in the north east of Cape Colony, south of Bloemfontein in the Orange Free State. Griffin was probably unaware of how large this area and South Africa were and his error is possibly due to the fact that he may have passed through Queenstown on his journey, his post being northwest of that city.

In many accounts of military life tales of squalor, depviation and back breaking work are commonplace but Griffin's letter conveys a refreshingly different impression. The first few lines of his letter summarise his initial attitude to life in the South African Field Force:

It is a toffs life in a blockhouse no work to do but to sleep and eat. As for the eatables we get very good food, the reation train comes every two days and drops at each blockhouse ¼ of a sheep, 6 loaves, 4 pounders and 1 pint of rum, then every 12 days a supply train comes with sugar, coffee, tea, jam or marmalade, potatoes, candles, pepper, salt, etc. and don't forget there is plenty of it...(5)

Although this letter is written very shortly before the end of the war it illustrates that efforts were still being made to ensure the blockhouses were well supplied. The end of the struggle was far from certain even with the peace talks in progress. After all, it had been assumed that the situation in South Africa would be swiftly settled in 1899 when such a small state matched itself against the might of the British Empire. It had, powever, dragged on for three years proving to be a hard fought contest against a resourceful and elusive foe. It is possible that Griffin tried to give a better impression than was the case to reassure his family and friends but this is unlikely. Having recently arrived he would know all about Joseph's experience in Ladysmith. Griffin also endorses the army supply system, implying that he had heard people deride it in the past:

... we can afford to eat 2 tins of jam a day. Whenever you hear anybodey calling the army about the neglect of the troops you call them a liar and stand upon me for the proof. Each man is also entitled to 1 pint of beer a day but the regiment has got to get a canteen train up first. (6)

Griffin's letter suggests that he is agreeably surprised at the quality of army logistics at this time. Admittedly a static defence line is far easier to supply than troops on the march or searching the bushveldt for commandos, but it is notable that many troops found the food in the army far better than what they were used to at home. The army was still a way of escaping poverty in civilian life and recruits were at least certain of regular food. (7) Griffin finishes his comments on the supply system by claiming that if he spent his entire twelve months of service at the same post he expected to return two or three stones heavier.

In all likelihood Griffin's section of the line had been completely finished before his arrival and he would not have been required to do much building other than maintenance. The standard blockhouse was easily and swiftly constructed, the best recorded time of construction being three hours. (8) Five men and a corporal manned Griffin's blockhouse and the time spent on guard duty was relatively short in comparison to the civilian work Griffin may have been accustomed to:

The country round here is probably clear of the enemy, we have to take our turn at guard at night 1 hour on and 4 hours off so you see we get 8 hours of sleep every night. (9)

During the guerrilla phase of the war Cape Colony was generally free of enemy activity although there were exceptions. However, the difficulty in fighting the Boers was in estimating where they would strike next, the elusiveness of De Wet being an example of how the British were never sure where the next contact with the enemy might be. Despite Griffin's assertion, there was no such thing as a clear sector and guard duty was more than just routine. Griffin's opinions may well have changed in the following months and if this was a letter from a soldier who had served longer in a blockhouse the contents could well have been markedly different. Having only recently arrived, Griffin would not have experienced the boredom that living in such an isolated place could induce. Furthermore, with the war near its end, supplies would doubtless have been superior to previous months with a decreased amount of guerrilla attacks. However, it is interesting to read an account illustrating a soldiers cheerful and optimistic nature and implying that army life for this soldier, for a time at least, was an easy one.

Acknowledgements

The author is grateful for the assistance of the staff at the Leicestershire Record Office and their permission to publish extracts from the sources quoted.

(1). Marix Evans, Martin, 'Encyclopedia of the Boer War' (ABC-CLIO Ltd, 2000), p25

(2). Pakenham, Thomas, 'The Boer War' (Weidenfeld & Nicolson Ltd, 1979, 1993 ed) p265-266

(3). Sibbald, Raymond, 'The War Correspondents - The Boer War' (Bramley Books, 1997) p222

(4). Letters of Privates J. Moore & E. Griffin, 17th Foot Royal Leicestershire Regiment, Leicestershire Record Office, Ref: P114

(5). Ibid, Ref: P114

(6). Ibid, Ref: P114

(7). Knight, Ian, 'Go To Your God Like A Soldier' (Greenhill books, 1996) p18

(8). Marix Evans, Martin, 'Encyclopedia of the Boer War (ABC-CLIO Ltd, 2000) p25

(9). Letters of Privates J. Moore & E. Griffin, 17th Foot Royal Leicestershire Regiment, Leicestershire Record Office, Ref: P114

Reproduced from ‘Soldiers of the Queen' issue103, December 2000

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