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A Picture from History: Escaping the Boers

Train crossing the Modder River in 1899 (Photo: John Benett-Stanford)
In this Picture from History, we follow the harrowing journey of a young Brit captured by the Boers during the Boer War of South Africa.
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    The year was 1899, and England found itself embroiled in The Boer War of South Africa.

    Things were going terribly for the Brits. For one young Englishman, things were about to get even worse.

    Boer soldiers
    Boer soldiers

    Sent to act as a reporter on the war, the correspondent boarded an armored military train headed to Chieveley along with several soldiers.

    The only problem? They were running right through the heart of Boer-occupied territory. 


    Riding through the heart of Africa in a steel box before the advent of air conditioning was about as miserable an experience as possible. But when the train came to a screeching halt due to a large boulder that had been rolled onto the tracks, things got even worse. 

    The train stumbled into a Boer ambush. 

    Boer commandos
    Boer commandos

    Boers hid throughout the undergrowth and then opened fire. For 70 minutes, the reporter assisted the soldiers in clearing the track so they could get out of there.

    But the ambush was too much.

    The man was taken prisoner by Boer General Louis Botha, who aimed his Mauser pistol at the man as he sought cover in a nearby ditch, covered in blood. 

    General Louis Botha
    General Louis Botha (Photo: Rudolf Steger)

    Some of the Englishmen escaped into the jungle, but the Boers marched the rest off to a prisoner-of-war camp at the Boer capital of Pretoria. 

    For four long weeks, the reporter chafed at his imprisonment. He later wrote that he hated his time in the camp “more than any other period in my life.” 

    Boer War: wounded soldiers arriving at Pretoria train station
    Boer War: wounded soldiers arriving at Pretoria train station (Wellcome Collection)

    And so, late one night, when the guards weren’t watching, the reporter stuffed a biscuit and a bit of chocolate into his pocket and climbed over the 10-foot wall that separated the prison from the rest of the world. 

    Somehow, he was free. But freedom was seldom safe, and for the reporter, this truth stuck hard. Three hundred miles of African wilderness lay between him and English territory.

    He had to brave hunger, thirst, black mambas, and, of course, the Boers if he was to succeed. 

    Black Mamba
    A black mamba (Photo: Nick Evans)

    But what other choice did he have? And so he pressed on. 

    Moving only under the cover of darkness, the correspondent happened across a railway that he knew headed east to Delagoa Bay, where safety awaited. When thirsty, he would drink from streams.

    When hungry, he would steal food from homes he stumbled across. But eventually, his hunger got the best of him. He decided to take a chance and knocked on the door of a nearby coal mine manager.

    Delagoa Bay
    Delagoa Bay (Photo: Image Science and Analysis Laboratory, NASA-Johnson Space Center)

    As fortune would have it, the man who opened the door was another Englishman named John Howard. Howard knew that the Boers had placed a bounty on the reporter’s head and secreted him away in a nearby mine until he could safely smuggle the reporter out. 

    For several days, the reporter only knew the company of the rats that skittered across the floor. Eventually, however, the time was ripe for escape.

    A freight train was headed to Mozambique. If the reporter could sneak aboard, he would have a chance.

    Train crossing the Modder River in 1899
    Train crossing the Modder River in 1899 (Photo: John Benett-Stanford)

    The reporter followed John’s advice. He managed to get aboard the train without anybody noticing and made his way to freedom.

    England was ecstatic when it welcomed the correspondent back to its arms…that correspondent…future Prime Minister Winston Churchill had just done the impossible. 

    This is a new style of article for Pew Pew Tactical, if you liked it — let us know in the comments! If you didn’t enjoy it…well phooey. To catch up on previous Pictures from History, click on over to our History Category.

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    18 Leave a Reply

    • Commenter Avatar

      Great reading. Keep up the good work!!!!!!!

      January 3, 2023 7:07 am
    • Commenter Avatar

      Crazy time period with much change, plus reading & writing prevalent for record / opinion / perception. 1880s to 1940s, growing up in woods + horse back, then to guerilla war, dog fights, trench war, mechanized, and then nukes. Some boer war characters (books): Deneys Reitz (bib / trilogy), Frederick Burnham (bib / ww west / scout), Jan Smutts. Check out many characters from the opposing sides and in same battles.

      January 2, 2023 8:48 pm
    • Commenter Avatar
      George R Webber

      I enjoyed the article. I wonder if a little history lesson would help. Englands role, Who were the Boers, Dates. But this little bite of history is great! keep it up. This, in addition to your legendary gun and ammo reviews, makes your site a worthwhile read.

      January 2, 2023 4:38 am
    • Commenter Avatar
      Juan Manuel Cambefort

      Excelent story. Keep them coming.

      January 2, 2023 4:13 am
    • Commenter Avatar

      excellent keep them coming

      January 2, 2023 3:25 am
    • Commenter Avatar

      Well written history lesson. Churchill is one of my favorite men of action. Keep it up

      January 2, 2023 3:25 am
    • Commenter Avatar

      Okay. I enjoyed and appreciated the article. Keep ‘em coming and I’ll read ‘em.

      January 2, 2023 1:19 am
    • Commenter Avatar

      Keep it up guys. Love it

      January 1, 2023 7:12 pm
    • Commenter Avatar

      Excellent article. Pls keep them coming.

      January 1, 2023 6:31 pm
    • Commenter Avatar
      Vincent Alberry

      Like Len C wrote, " the surprise ending " got me. Always a great write, I enjoy these little tidbits. Keep them coming.

      January 1, 2023 6:14 pm
    • Commenter Avatar
      Chris Rose

      I enjoyed the article on the Boers and Churchill. I think the pictures in history series will be a hit. Well done!!

      January 1, 2023 5:49 pm
    • Commenter Avatar
      Chuck Hunt

      Very enjoyable!

      January 1, 2023 5:41 pm
    • Commenter Avatar

      Great story. Thank you.

      January 1, 2023 4:49 pm
    • Commenter Avatar
      Len C

      Wow! The surprised ending caught me off guard.

      January 1, 2023 4:38 pm
    • Commenter Avatar

      Great history. Thanks!

      January 1, 2023 12:58 pm
    • Commenter Avatar

      Good article. I did not know this story. Keep em coming.

      December 31, 2022 9:21 pm
    • Commenter Avatar
      Ted Neelands

      This is a great article about an amazing person and leader. Churchill wrote about this time in his life in his book “London to Ladysmith”.

      December 31, 2022 5:10 am
    • Commenter Avatar

      I've read a number of articles about Churchill, without a doubt one tough resourceful guy. Thanks for this one.

      December 30, 2022 11:44 am
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