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The French 'general' who died for the Boers

2001-02-21 10:21

It was a striking scene: moonlight bathed the limestone walls and cypress trees of the cemetery in Boshof as a group of English soldiers solemnly buried a "French general" with full military honours. The man in question was Count Georges de Villebois-Mareuil, the brave warrior who fought like a Boer general in the Anglo Boer War.

While preparing for the Anglo Boer War General Jan Smuts realised that the Boers would need a trained militiaman to advise them.

At the time France was in military crisis as a revolution loomed.

Colonel De Villebois, who had a brilliant military record and was the renowned author of several military books and novels, had become frustrated at the magnitude of the problems in France where the honour of his army was at stake.

These unbearable circumstances compelled him to write to Dr Willem Leyds, mandatory envoy of the Transvaal in Brussels: "The tension in diplomatic relations between South Africa and England could lead to a war. Should that happen I would like the honour of defending your country with my sword."

Shortly after his arrival in the country, De Villebois travelled to Natal, where heavy fighting was under way under the command of Commander-in-Chief Piet Joubert. From there he travelled to the Kimberley, Magersfontein and Perdeberg districts.

It must have been a severe blow to De Villebois when neither Joubert nor General Piet Cronje paid attention to his advice or gave his military skills and experience any recognition.

Demotivated and fuming with anger, De Villebois departed for Kroonstad, which had become the new capital of the Free State after the fall and capture of Bloemfontein. A meeting of the council of war was scheduled to take place there on March 17 1900.

When De Villebois arrived at the meeting, President Paul Kruger and President MT Steyn stood up to greet him. Kruger requested he take the seat next to him.

To his surprise, De Villebois was appointed commander of the Foreign Legion and given the rank of general. Serving under him were troops from France, Holland, Germany, Ireland, America, Italy, Scandinavia and even South Africa.

Given the task of dynamiting the railway line near the Modder River south of Kimberley, De Villebois left for Hoopstad to collect horses and supplies.

The railway line was the main link between the Cape and Kimberley and therefore vitally important to the British.

The town of Boshof, occupied by about 400 British soldiers, was en route and De Villebois decided to attack.

On April 3 his army arrived at Leeukop, 25 kilometres north of Boshof. There they encountered a Boer battalion under the command of one Field-Cornet Daniels. Daniels' orders were to circle Boshof and cut the telephone cable to Kimberley while De Villebois and company attacked the town from the east.

Meanwhile, however, British commander Lord Methuen's company was marching on Boshof where he would complement the forces there with 7 000 men.

Daniels received word of this and told De Villebois an attack would be foolish. The Frenchman, realising that they were outnumbered, ordered his men to continue their journey that night.

The Boer company and its commanders became lost in the dark. At about 1am on the morning of April 5 they arrived at Spitskop, north east of Boshof, where they rested for two hours. When they were to told to continue, the Dutch soldiers complained that their horses were in no condition to proceed.

On discovering that the men had no cause for complaint and not being the kind of man to tolerate reluctance, De Villebois ordered the soldiers to leave and so lost 20 men.

At daybreak Boshof could still be seen in the distance and the company continued in a southerly direction until they reached a merchant by name of Lewis Beck at Merriesfontein. He said he could not let them stay on his farm as British patrols came to the area every day.

Despondent and exhausted, the company continued to the area just south of Pionierskoppie, where they came upon the farm Kareepan. The owner, Hendrik Groenewald, was in prison in Kimberley. They decided to rest there. The horses grazed while the soldiers slept in the shade of some trees.

Minutes after the company had left Merriesfontein, Beck took a buggy to Boshof with a farm labourer following on horseback. By 10:30am Methuen knew where De Villebois and his company were. In his official report Methuen claimed he got the information from two black men. Just after 11am Methuen, accompanied by 750 men and heavy artillery, departed for Kareepan with the informants.

A little earlier, two women - one Mrs Ryneveld and one Miss Enslin - who were in a store buying groceries overheard two black men telling the owner, a woman with a British surname, that they had given her note to Methuen.

The women suspected something and left the shop immediately.

On the way to Kareepan they were stopped by two British and ordered to accompany them. The two women were concealed behind a hill with a Maxim machine gun deployed on it and became reluctant spectators to a battle. (Later, Enslin would marry Chris van Niekerk, President of the Senate.)

At approximately 1:30pm, De Villiebois realised that the British were on the way. He ordered his company to take up position on the hill.

About 700 metres to the north west were the hills from which the British would launch their attack. Some Boers saw the size of the oncoming army and took to their heels while the British executed a pincer manoeuvre and circled them.

Half an hour later, at 2pm, the battle began in earnest.

There were Boer casualties and although the remaining troops wanted to surrender, their French commander vowed to fight to the bitter end. He was hoping an impending thunderstorm would deliver him from his desperate situation, but not a drop of rain fell - only the continuous rain of British bombs and bullets.

The embattled Boer company maintained its position for more than four hours until De Villebois went down, his heart pierced by a piece of shrapnel. Minutes later the storm broke.

De Villebois's fanatical pride caused his own death and those of eight other men. The white flag was raised.

From behind the hill the two women heard the British soldiers' cries of joy. They were allowed to continue their journey in the pouring rain and reached their destination late that night.

The remaining 51 Boers were captured and spent the night with eleven other wounded men in the Kareepan farmhouse. They were astonished by the kindness with which their captors treated them.

At dusk on April 6 1900, Colonel Kekewich and 1 500 British troops marched to the cemetery with its limestone walls to attend De Villebois's funeral. The British commander Lord Roberts ordered the funeral be carried out with full military honours.

Methuen wrote in his journal: "I have never seen so beautiful or impressive a scene, the moon giving light to the little Dutch churchyard surrounded by cypresses."

The British casualties were then buried while a Dutch Reformed Church minister conducted the funerals of the Boer dead in the southern part of the cemetery.

One of the British casualties was Sergeant Patrick Campbell, the estranged husband of the well-known actress for whom George Bernard Shaw wrote Pygmalion. Campbell was buried close to De Villebois.

Nearly two months later Methuen wrote a letter to De Villebois's only child, 16-year-old Simone, who had been orphaned by her father's death. (Her mother had died five years earlier.)

In his letter Methuen included a photograph of the marble tombstone he had had erected over her father's grave and for which he had paid himself.

Inscribed on the stone, in French, were the words: "In memory of the Count De Villebois-Mareuil, in life colonel of the French Foreign Legion and general of the Transvaal. Died on the battlefield near Boshof on April 5 1900 in his 53rd year."

Wessels writes that it is unfortunate that De Villebois' remains were reburied in Magersfontein in 1969 as it had been his wish to be buried where he died. The reason for his reburial was that more people visit Magersfontein than Boshof.

The French made a national hero of De Villebois. Several monuments were erected in his honour and a memorial service for him in the Notre Dame in Paris was attended by about 10 000 people.

A few years ago a marker was erected on the Boshof battlefield, while memory of his bravery has been preserved for posterity in the Chris van Niekerk Museum at the town.