14 April 2012 by Chris Marais

The boys in the blockhouse

Seven soldiers in an armoured hut with a tin roof - no fun in the Free State sun. Dotted around the South African landscape, you’ll see blockhouses from the South African War, fought between Boers and Britons from 1899-1902.

First light on an old Anglo-Boer (South African) War blockhouse in the Free State.

As you drive around the South African hinterland, you’ll often see strange little fort-houses with tin roofs and gun slits in the walls.

More than 8 000 of these blockhouses were built by Britain during the South African War (or Anglo-Boer War) at the turn of the 20th Century. They cost the British public more than a million pounds Sterling – massive money in those days.

Where the Union Jack still flies in the Free State - next to an old military blockhouse.

Their job was to split South Africa into north-south and, by spanning barbed wire in strategic places between the blockhouses, prevent free movement of the mounted Boer guerrillas and provide safety for the vital rail system.

There is still sign of a cooking shelter. Old rusted tins that once held ‘blow-me-down’ bully beef lie discarded outside the door.

But what were the blockhouse dynamics of the day? Interesting stuff, as I found out on Blackie de Swardt’s farm in the southern Free State, where a beautiful blockhouse looms over the N1 highway between Johannesburg and Cape Town.

A trooper’s name is engraved in a nearby rock. There is still sign of a cooking shelter. Old rusted tins that once held ‘blow-me-down’ bully beef lie discarded outside the door.

A squad of 7 British soldiers would be housed in this tiny hut for up to 4 months at a time, before being relieved. There would be weeks of dead quiet, with nothing happening but the wind blowing across the vast Free State plains outside. Then there would be a sudden skirmish, and the Boers would disappear into the low hills like ghosts.

The 7 ‘Tommies’ would sit around and play cards, race insects and re-read letters from home. Their biggest enemy would be boredom. In this way, more than 50 000 British soldiers would be deployed at any time, while their enemies often rode rings about them.

The blockhouses varied in their designs, from rather grand and sturdy 3-storey constructions to the humbler hut-style you see on Prior Grange, the De Swardt farm outside Springfontein. Either way, to be cooped up inside a blockhouse in the middle of the South African prairies was never seen as an assignment of choice.

No wonder then that the Boers called the blockhouse system the ‘blockhead’ system...

View of the Free State prairies from a blockhouse on a hill.

Category: Culture & History

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