COLLECTIBLE BOOKS: Acts of chivalry in a time of war
Boer and Brit were bitter and brutal enemies in the SA War, but sometimes humanity shone through
Two notable acts of chivalry in the SA War involved a French count, an English lord, a horse and a Boer general’s wife.
One of the incidents is reported in a recent edition of British publication The Oldie (theoldie.co.uk) in an article headlined "Where greyhounds may safely leap" by Lucinda Lambton.
One of the acts took place at the Battle of Boshof in April 1900. It was at this battle where, for his incredible bravery, Count George de Villebois Mareuil, a French mercenary fighting for the Boers who had been promoted to the rank of general by president Paul Kruger, was given was given a full military funeral by Lt-Gen Lord Methuen.
In "Good-Bye Dolly Gray", Rayne Kruger describes the French general as "a colourful character" who was formerly a commander in the French Foreign Legion. The Boers found his name impossible to pronounce and referred to him only as "The Colonel".
According to The Oldie, the French general, with a force of 300 men (some sources say 150), kept Lord Methuen and his force at bay for four hours.
Lambton writes that De Villebois and his men were under heavy Maxim machine-gun fire from the British. When he was eventually killed, after a what Kruger describes as an "a quixotic last stand", on April 5 1900, only a handful of his men were left.
Lord Chesham, who was part of the Methuen force, ensured that the French general’s horse, a "small dark Arab", was nursed back to health. It was taken to England when the war ended and kept on Chesham’s estate in Buckinghamshire where, renamed Villebois, it lived for 11 years.
The Oldie says that when it died, its heart and ceremonial trappings were buried beneath "a mound-of-stones memorial with the plaque [that read] ‘The horse ridden by General de Villebois Mareuil at the battle of Boshof South Africa April 1900 in which the general was killed and the horse wounded.’"
Chivalry was again seen in the Battle of Tweebosch, which Kruger describes as the battle where "the British sustained their worst defeat of the whole guerilla war". Nearly 200 men were dead or wounded and 600 were captured, Methuen among them.
Gen Koos de la Rey found Methuen in a tent, a meeting Kruger describes as "the most poignant encounter of the war".
De la Rey issued the prisoners with rations and allowed them to go to the nearest British post.
Methuen was a different matter. The burgers thought that such a high-ranking officer should be kept or at least exchanged for a similar-ranked Boer prisoner.
Instead, De la Rey, concerned about Methuen’s wounds, ordered that he be taken to the nearest British hospital. A Boer messenger was sent under a flag of truce to the British lines to arrange for a telegram to be sent to Lady Methuen "expressing his concern at the gravity of her husband’s wounds".
Thomas Packenham writes in "The Boer War" that the news knocked Lord Kitchener flat. He took to his bed for two days and refused to eat or see anyone.
According Johannes Meintjes, the author of several books on the SA War, De la Rey’s wife, Nonnie, supervised Methuen’s nursing at first. He was given roast chicken — a scarce commodity because of the scorched earth policy — for dinner.
Apparently Methuen was astonished at the hospitality as he was responsible for burning many homesteads and destroying large areas of the country. As Meintjes says: "Methuen expected little clemency from his captors."
Meintjes point out that De la Rey’s humane treatment of Methuen resulted in major changes in the British attitude to the Boers. Executions of Boers ceased almost immediately, which Meintjes says was a welcome relief from the savagery which had characterised the last few months.