Returning from the Kruger National Park down the fast-flowing N4 towards Johannesburg the road bypasses Machadodorp where the Boer President Paul Kruger, in August 1900, waited in his railway carriage following the British capture of Pretoria. Kruger was well placed on the railway line to Delagoa Bay in Portuguese Mozambique whence he would later make good his escape to Europe. Continuing the drive towards Dalmanutha and Belfast an extraordinary edifice comes into view on the left side of the road; so out-of-place that the first instinct is to pull off the road down a narrow rocky track to investigate.

The Zarps' memorial at Bergendal. Click on image to enlarge it.

At first sight it is reminiscent of Soviet-era memorials of the sort one might encounter in Kazakhstan or Azerbaijan. And like such Soviet work it is in brutalesque style of reinforced concrete, shaped like an early space rocket. It is also in sorry condition with cracked black marble and grass growing between the uneven brick slabs. And yet this is a celebration of the role played by the Johannesburg Police (known as Zarps) during the Battle of Bergendal, the last conventional action in the Boer War before the onset of “the guerrilla war”. Bergendal was a small British victory, fought by General Redvers Buller in the presence of his Commander-in-Chief Frederick Roberts. Buller would later write to his wife; “We had a pretty little fight on Monday with the Field Marshall and the whole Guards Brigade looking on so we had plenty of swagger”.

Thomas Pakenham describes the scene before the battle. “The Battle of Belfast (alias Bergendal), the last set piece battle of any size in the war, began on 27th August. It was a big red kopje [isolated hill] near a farm called Bergendal, a jumble of fantastic boulders spread across three acres, whose own great natural strength belied its fatal weakness in relation to [General Louis] Botha’s defence line” (455-56). Rayne Kruger continues.

From an incorrect reconnaissance report [Buller] believed that the Boer line ended on the farm Bergendal, north east of him and still on his side of the railway. In fact this was merely a small gap in the Boer positions, ... but he thought that by going for the gap he would turn the whole Boer line. He therefore took it upon himself to abandon his commander-in-chief’s plan and march not east but north east to Bergendal.... The rocky entrenched platform which was Buller’s target was actually an outpost thrown forward of the gap in the Boer line. It was held by only seventy-four Johannesburg Zarps supported by about a thousand men to their left rear and on either side of the railway line to their right rear.

For three hours the guns blasted the outpost at the rate of four to five shells per minute, including 50lb lyddite shells, turning it into a cloud of splintered rock and fumes... thus not only was Buller’s force of 8000 opposed by a mere 1000 along the Boer centre, but at the specific point he had selected for attack he was opposed by what was left of the 74 Zarps... Under cover of the continuing barrage the Rifle Brigade and the Inniskilling Fusiliers advanced into a furious fire... that brought down over 80 of them including the Colonel of the Rifles before their bayonets gleamed at the throat of the enemy. Then the Zarps broke, many of them dashing for their horses and away. [356-60]

John Stuart (Winston Churchill’s successor on the Morning Post) commented that “the Boer dead lay where they had fallen. The faces were yellowed and a powder of dust lay over them... They were massive in their repose, those dead Vulcans... Peace unbroken peace to their souls for they were brave men.” Pakenham adds “How ironic that the notorious Zarps, the bully boys of Johannesburg, the epitome of the brutal Boer, who had helped precipitate the war by shooting Tom Edgar, how ironic that it should be these men who now came to be regarded by the British as heroes cast in their own mould”.

After the Boer War the Treaty of Vereeniging of May 1902 ensured that the Boer republics came under the sovereignty of the British Crown in return for eventual self-government. The Union of South Africa proclaimed in 1910 led to Afrikaner (deemed a less offensive term for the Boers) rule under British sovereignty until 1961 and thereafter under (white) South African government until 1994.

xxx xxx

Left: The new memorial to the Rifle Brigade at Bergendal. Right: The plaque on the Rifle Brigade memorial at Bergendal. Click on images to enlarge them.

Naturally enough the British placed a small memorial to the Rifle Brigade near Bergendal, the farm which still stands today amidst the rocky boulders that were once much larger before the British artillery blew them to smithereens. In the early 1970s, however, the Rifle Brigade memorial was dismantled to make way for the Zarps’ monument, which was unveiled by John Vorster, the South African Prime Minister. Understandably Vorster would have wished to celebrate the courage of the Zarps that day but the massive structure stands for more than that. Not only does it represent the high-water mark of apartheid (of which Vorster was one of the most enthusiastic exponents) but it also reflects Vorster’s animosity towards the British.

Vorster was far from alone in this attitude. The nature of Britain’s Pyrrhic victory in the Boer War (and the criminal neglect in managing the concentration camps) made sure of that. In 1939 Vorster had been one of those who had opposed South Africa’s entry into the war against Hitler’s Germany. He was a member of the Ossewabrandwag, an anti-British, pro-German, organisation and he was held in detention from 1942 to 1944 although he always denied taking part in any terrorist activity.

As for the Rifle Brigade they had to raise the money to rebuild their understated memorial out of the way of the Zarps’ edifice. And yet following the demise of apartheid the Zarps’ memorial has suffered from serious neglect. Its upkeeep would require considerable expense and commitment and it is doubtful that the new South African Police or the dwindling Afrikaner population in the area could muster the funds or time to dedicate to its upkeep.

xxx xxx

Two war memorials by Sir Edwin Lutyens, one famous and the other almost forgotten. Left: All-India War Memorial Arch (India Gate). Rajpath, New Delhi. Right: Boer War Memorial, Johannesburg. Click on images to enlarge them.

Perhaps even more bizarre is a triumphal arch in the outskirts of Johannesburg itself. Built by the great Sir Edwin Lutyens himself, the Duke of Connaught laid the first stone in 1910. It was intended to celebrate the role of the Rand Regiments, those South African units which had supported Britain during the Boer War. However the timing was hardly propitious since the Afrikaners took control of local affairs in the same year. Originally intended to stand at the intersection of five large avenues, the arch was deliberately neglected so that it became a forgotten relic in the leafy and somnolent suburb of Saxenwold and now stands, completely bereft, outside the South African military museum which celebrates not only South Africa’s role in both World Wars but also in the wars of the apartheid era. Too late was it rededicated in 2002 to commemorate all those who lost their lives in the Boer War. Meanwhile a larger version, Lutyens' magnificent India Gate stands in the centre of New Delhi where it is viewed daily by the tens of thousands who travel down the Rajpath (formerly Kingsway) in the ceremonial centre of the city. Although begun in 1931 to commemorate the fallen in the Great War of 1914-18 Lutyens India Gate has been wholeheartedly adopted by independent India and is perhaps the most famous war monument after the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, and alongside Lutyens’ Cenotaph in London and the Vietnam War memorial in Washington.

Further reading

Jooste, Cecilia. The Battle of Bergendal. Pretoria; Military History Journal Vol 12 No 4, 2002.

Kruger, Rayne. Goodbye Dolly Gray. The story of the Boer War. London; Cassell, 1959.

Pakenham, Thomas. The Boer War. London; Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1979.

Symons, Julian. Buller’s Campaign. London; Cresset, 1963.

Created 25 January 2015