Alloway and Southern Ayrshire FAMILY HISTORY SOCIETY Robert Burns Cottage, Alloway, Ayr
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Wednesday, 18 May 2011

17 May 2011 - "Girvan - The Boer War Connection"

Around 38 members and guests were present at the McKechnie Institute in Girvan where Sheila and Andrew Dinwoodie gave a fascinating, well-illustrated talk on "Girvan - The Boer War Connection".  

Their research into the topic began when the Society transcribed the Monumental Inscriptions from the Girvan Doune Cemetery which includes a Boer War Memorial. A later visit to South Africa, where they spent 4 days exploring some of the Battle sites, only served to fire their interest in the connections between the 10 men named on the Memorial and the places where they fell.  

We learned of the origins of the war in the struggle between Britain and the Boer settlers of Dutch origin for control of the South of Africa.  In October 1899, Kruger mobilised his forces, thrusting into Natal before British reinforcements could arrive.  Following this a total of 465 volunteers left Ayrshire for Aldershot for the parade-ground training considered essential for military exploits of the time. Research in local newspapers of the time showed a population favourable to the war with one mother giving her son a real Spartan send-off to "... avenge your father's blood".

The opposing sides were organised in very different ways - the Boers being essentially a voluntary militia composed of farmers, while the British, under General Buller (who had his own bath taken around with him), were traditionally organised in ranks for a frontal assault. Consequently the British relied on discipline and superior numbers to attack in force, after softening up with artillery, firing by rank as ordered and finally, in theory, a cavalry charge to mop up survivors. The Boers, on the other hand, tended to use guerrilla tactics, attacking from concealed positions, using their hunting skills to make every bullet count.  For example, at the battle of Colenso, the British had to cross the Tugela River under heavy fire, after which Buller sent his troops straight up a well defended hill. Facing a bloodbath, they finally withdrew abandoning the 1002 wounded and the 143 dead, while the Boers had 29 casualties of whom 7 died.

The Ayrshire volunteers who arrived in Africa were soon involved in action.  Many memorials, beautifully laid out on the tops of hills in South Africa, recorded the same names as those on the Girvan memorial.  These included J. Gordon of the Imperial Light Infantry, J. Connell who served in Egypt and then in South Africa and Captain A.W. Inglis who re-volunteered after being medically discharged. Meanwhile back in Girvan people were encouraged to knit "stockings and mufflers" (considered essential for January in South Africa...) and to provide other comforts for the troops, such as "half a pound of tobacco" for each man!  As always in war, there was terrible suffering on both sides and, while the Relief of Ladysmith and other besieged towns was celebrated in Britain, Enteric fever was devastating the troops, with more deaths being caused by the fever than in action. A letter to the Times described the appalling conditions in which the sick and wounded were treated - hinting strongly at the neglect and indifference of the military at Bloemfontein. As for the Boer population, a scorched earth policy by the British included the setting up of Concentration Camps for women and children where many died of sickness and starvation, leaving a legacy of great bitterness.  

At the Annual Concert in Girvan in 1901 special gold medals were awarded to Cpl. Watts and to brothers J. and S. Dunbar who were there to receive them, while medals awarded to J. McChesney and J. McLean, who had fallen, were received by relatives.  A. Birch, a civil surgeon, died of fever in St Helena only 3 days before the peace treaty.  By the time this was signed on 31 May 1902, over 20,000 British soldiers and 7,000 Boers had been lost but between 18,000 and 28,000 Boer civilians died in the infamous concentration camps.  Winston Churchill said "This miserable war - unfortunate and ill-omened in its beginning, inglorious in its course, cruel and hideous in its conclusion".

The script of this presentation is availiable in the Members' Library, in the "Military" section

Patricia Weston

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