This story arose from thinking how different colonial wars may have turned out with steampunk technology available, in this case the Second Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902. The nature of the story was inspired by the song ‘Orange Crush’ (1988) by REM which is about aspects of the USA’s colonial war in Vietnam 1965-73.
I’ve Got My Orange Clasp
Extract from an article in the ‘Labour Leader’ edition for the week beginning Sunday 10th January 1904.
This article is based on an interview between our war and foreign affairs correspondent and a soldier who served in the Boer Wars. The soldier’s identity and other identifying elements have been concealed in order to protect him from retribution for coming forward to reveal a little more of the picture that is emerging of how British armed forces executed the recent wars in southern Africa.
Correspondent: What part did you play in the Second Boer War?
Soldier A: I served as a gunner aboard the _________.
C: An airship?
S.A.: Yes, but assigned to the __ Air Dragoons. People forget that the dirigibles of the Air Dragoons are manned by Army men, not ratings and officers from the Navy of the Skies.
C: What armament were you assigned to?
S.A.: The Hotchkiss machine guns.
C: What was the role of those guns?
S.A. They are to clear the ground before we come into land so the companies transported on board can disembark in safety.
C: What do you mean by ‘clear the ground’?
S.A.: Shoot anyone of the enemy who is visible. Other men would drop grenades.
C: How much hazard is there in such activity?
S.A.: Usually there is no hazard at all. I have fought against the Zulu and other tribes and on occasion we would keep firing with no response from them at all; just putting them Africans to flight. Once the dragoons disembarked they just had to clear up. The Boers though, well, they were different. They were a danger even before they started receiving those rockets from the Germans. The Boers, they are the best shots in the world, can hit a target at two thousand yards, so, a man in a slow moving dirigible a few hundred feet above them was all too easy. By late 1900 they were putting in armour plating around our positions on the airships because too many men were being killed; being shot up between the legs or shot through the head from some mountain top as we came down to land.
C: Did you have any moral compunction at shooting men on the ground who had no skyborne forces to support them?
S.A.: In the early days, perhaps, it did seem too easy. Some of the officers seemed to enjoy it too much; calling us something like the Angels of Death, raining bullets down on the ‘filthy farmers’. That was before the bombing from flights of Navy dirigibles over Pretoria started. With the quantities of bombs they were dropping our attacks then came to seem as nothing major. Once a couple of our men had been killed by Boer snipers then, well, we did not feel anything should stop us shooting them: it was a battle, they fired at us, we fired back. Then, of course, late in 1900, the German rockets, the ALRs, began arriving in the veldt. They sent them to the frontline units first, well two or three of them. I know they kept a lot for defending Bloemfontein and Pretoria, but from then on, you had to approach so carefully otherwise in a couple of minutes there would be a rocket coming through the gas envelope and in moments the whole airship would be a ball of flame.
C: You saw that happen?
S.A.: Yes. The air dragoons lost more dirigibles in southern Africa than the Navy of the Skies, but the numbers get lumped together. We always fly at lower altitudes, they can bomb from a safer altitude and actually hit something if they get their calculations right. Well, for us, we had to come in far closer, even if the dragoons slide down ropes the last stretch, and that is when a dirigible is most vulnerable. The rockets could destroy you in one, but even a well-aimed shot at an engine could end the mission and the Boers, well, they are ______ good shots. I have heard the air dragoons lost twenty-four airships up to 1902.
The worst had to be in the run into Mafeking when we were trying to drop food supplies. We had to fly so close and we dropped it at night, but the Boers would be listening, with look-outs in rings around the town, so even if we cut our engines for the last stretch and glided in, they would have already heard us a mile, two miles, back out. How my ship managed to survive I have no idea. Seeing the sky light up when a dirigible got hit at night was incredible. The only consolation was that the Boers more often than not would bring it down among their own lines. It was difficult for them not to do so because they were right around the town.
C: The supplies you brought helped Mafeking hold out for seven months did they not? Until Colonel Mahon’s relief column arrived?
S.A.: Yes, they did.
C: You were at Spion Kop?
S.A.: Yes, I was. That was a battle which drew in almost every dirigible we had operating in southern Africa at the time, certainly those that could do any good at low altitudes. If it had not been for us, then, well, I doubt the British force could have survived. I know here had been reconnaissance from the skies, but, you know, these generals in their steam carriages just blunder around. Saying that, a lot of the time out there, they could not get sufficient coal and they were reduced to going on horseback. Anyway, they have to see the land for themselves and they trust their view far better than the best collodion-calotype or sketch the Corps of Observers can produce from dirigibles. I can accept that, from above, it can be difficult to judge just how hard it would be to lead a unit up a particular slope; how well they can be seen by the enemy. However, at Spion Kop, they did not even seem to notice the whole other peak. Even if it had not stood higher than the hill they went up, it would have been a redoubt the Boers could have used.
The air dragoons saved the ground force at Spion Kop. We circled again and again. We were firing the Hotchkisses as much as we could without melting the barrels. That was the time we ran clear out of ammunition. The dragoons on board were firing from the windows. The thing that is eerie about any gunfire from an airship is how quiet it is. The slap, slap, slap as the air guns fire. The carbines do not have that long a range range, but the men with us kept firing at anything that looked Boer. There were a dozen, fifteen, perhaps twenty dirigibles circling by the end. They say that there is no square foot of that hilltop that is not peppered with lead. Then, of course, it was the air dragoons that we put down who cleared the top, not the units that had marched there. I know the dragoons are light troops but seizing hilltops that has always been the task for light troops; you only have to look at what Wellington did in Portugal and Spain.
C: You feel Spion Kop marked a change in the war?
S.A.: Certainly. From then on, every column then had at least two dirigibles assigned to it, at least one with a company or two of Air Dragoons. The Boers changed tactics too. I do not know if they were going to get the rockets before but it was certain that they had them afterwards and every man of them could use them. You would shoot dead one, two, three, teams setting a rocket up and then someone else would take up their position; boys, even women could fire those things. You learned to spot a cluster of Boers even if was underage boys, women or old men and you would target that group with Hotchkiss rounds, grenades, carbine bullets, whatever you could throw at them.
C: You were awarded the Orange Free State clasp?
S.A.: Yes, I have my Queen’s South Africa medal with my Spion Kop clasp, I have my Orange clasp; I have my Transvaal clasp. That will not identify me from many hundreds others who fought in the war. If you survived, you got those.
C: In the public imagination, however, the Orange clasp has become most associated with the latter phases of the war; the most controversial period.
S.A.: Perhaps. The fighting was different then. The Boers had seemed like worthwhile opponents; frightening men if you fell into their hands. By 1902, however, we had the impression they were fanatics, no different from dervishes, apparently willing to fight to their last rifle round. Normal countries would have surrendered by then, but they kept on and we were running out of ways to stop them. They would attack and scatter, attack and scatter. Grenades and machine gun bullets cannot stop that kind of attack. We took to ringing them with flame. If we saw a unit on the veldt, it would be out with the incendiary grenades, something you do not really want to be carrying on an airship, but you could burn up the veldt, burn the _______ Boers, kill herds of their cattle or ruin the grazing land.
C: Did the men, the ordinary soldiers, approve of those methods?
S.A.: Maybe back in ’99 or 1900 we would have griped, but by the end we wanted the war to be finished and we wanted all the Boers with their rockets out of the way.
C: And the arrests, the internment of the families? The ___ Air Dragoons were heavily involved in that?
S.A.: Yes, yes, we were. However, again, it had to happen. Until then we had simply flown over these isolated farms with women and children scowling at us from the verandas, but then we realised that, of course, the men would be hiding somewhere, not to far off, concealed among the rocks and, at night, they would come back to the farms and eat and then head out to attack one of our forts or a town or some supply column. If we took away the farms then they had nowhere to get the support.
C: You would shoot the farms and drop grenades before air dragoons were landed to arrest the families?
S.A.: No, not at first, but once the Boers knew what we were doing they would set traps. Dropping some grenades first was a precaution, send them running out. We had to burn the farmsteads anyway so it seemed we might as well do it straight off. It speeded things up a great deal; if they had ammunition or rockets they blew apart when the grenades detonated or fire burned through. Those Boers love their rifles like they love their horses, British people would not understand it. You would hear the rifle rounds cracking once you were burning even the most ordinary looking place.
C: In time, though, you came to see how invidious this policy was?
S.A.: Yes, yes, I did. By the end we were not fighting men we were simply rounding up wives and children; we were like cattle rustlers but taking people. As more and more of them were brought in to what they began calling the concentration camps, you know, where the civilians were concentrated, it became worse and worse. The battle was a long one, but by the end they were simply starving the young and the old, killing them with disease rather than bullets. Even the worst, most callous Boer rifleman, well, even he did not deserve that kind of death. You treat prisoners of war decently. Treat them like animals and you just make them as ferocious as animals; it made them fight all the harder. They would rather die with a gun in their hand than slowly of not getting enough food. In the end, we only won because they no longer had anywhere to hide, not enough bullets or horses and they saw their families would die for their continued resistance.
C: Do you believe the war was right?
S.A: I do not like the Boers. They are a very arrogant people and I can see why they caused problems with the Cape Colony and the lands Rhodes’s company set up. At the time I blamed them for the war, but now I feel the British, well, certainly the men of commerce and politics, were as much to blame. The cause appears to be not even about the growth of Britain’s empire, but the simple desire for gold and diamonds and rich men getting even richer.
C: Do you believe what was done to suppress the Boers has established methods the government may use against others who resist their will?
S.A.: I do not know. Southern Africa is a particular place; the Boers are very particular people. I guess though, someone has written manuals on how to repeat what we did in the last year of the war and so could do it again somewhere else.
C: Thank you Mr. A for speaking with me.
S.A.: Thank you for giving me the chance: there were things I had to get off my chest about what happened out there.
C: The people need to know what actually happened in their names.
The ‘Labour Leader’ opposed the war in southern Africa throughout its duration and now calls for a public inquiry into its conduct and in particular the methods employed against the civilian Boer population. This soldier’s account emphasises the nature of the methods of airborne assaults and the use of soldiers to intern the families of suspected combatants in what are increasingly being acknowledged as inhuman conditions. Such accounts simply add weight to this newspaper’s call for a full investigation and the calling to account of those involved.
• Even in the 1970s, books would often have a patch of underlining in the place of a name or a date that was not to be revealed, e.g., 'In 19__ I was staying at the Hotel _____'. It was often used to cover expletives and you would see ‘b_______’ in the place of ‘bastard’ or ‘bloody’.
• The ‘Labour Leader’ was a Socialist newspaper growing out of ‘The Miner’ and launched as a monthly in 1888. It was run by Keir Hardie until he sold it to the Independent Labour Party in 1904 though he remained editor until January 1905 when John Bruce Glasier took over. It became a weekly in 1894 and turned into ‘Socialist Leader’ following the First World War. It was renowned for its high quality investigative journalism and it maintained a pacifist attitude in the face of wars, in contrast to the rival Socialist newspaper, ‘Clarion’.
• The Second Anglo-Boer War ran 1899-1902. It was over the British attempt to annex the Boer Republics: the Orange Free State (capital at Bloemfontein) and the South African Republic, commonly called the Transvaal (capital at Pretoria). The Boers had launched a pre-emptive strike in October 1899 and put British forces under siege at Kimberley, Ladysmith and Mafeking. The Siege of Mafeking lasted 217 days being ended by Colonel Bryan Mahon’s forces in May 1900. In this story rations for the besieged did not fall to the level that they did in reality because of the availability of dirigibles to fly in supplies.
• The Battle of Spion Kop occurred in January 1900. British forces had sought to recapture the hill in Natal from Boer forces. It was the highest area in the western part of the region. In the dark they captured what they thought to be the summit only to find they were faced Boer troops on three sides on higher ground and with artillery in position. The Boers were able to pick off the British forces. Due to the continued misapprehension of their position, despite having exhausted the Boer forces, the British who had lost many of their senior commanders, retreated from the important high ground effectively gifting the victory to the Boers. In the steampunk version, the appeal for support semaphored out by Colonel Maltby Crofton led to the arrival of dirigibles able to mow down the Boers on the heights and force them to retreat. Of course, with air support the British forces’ appreciation of the topography should have been better, so potentially avoiding blunders of the kind that occurred at Spion Kop. However, the Second Anglo-Boer War was marked by errors on the part of British commanders anyway.
• The Air Dragoons are a branch of the British armed forces I have used in a number of stories. They are ‘dragoons’ in the original sense, i.e. infantry carried to the combat zone, in actual history on horseback, in this story by airship, and so they equate to an aerial version of the marines. By the 19th century, in our world, dragoons had generally become just another type of cavalry. The Navy of the Skies is the equivalent of the air force but developed far earlier in this steampunk world and based on dirigibles rather than heavier-than-air aircraft.
• Société Anonyme des Anciens Etablissements Hotchkiss et Cie, was an arms and car company established in France by American Benjamin B. Hotchkiss in 1867. It produced cannon and machine guns before also beginning to manufacture cars at the start of the 20th century. The Hotchkiss M1909 light machine gun was used by British forces in the First World War and was known as the Hotchkiss Mark I. In this story the British forces have adopted Hotchkiss machine guns earlier and have used them in their ground-support dirigible force.
• Collodion-calotype is a form of photograph that has featured in my other steampunk stories. Calotype was an early form of photography invented in 1841 and using a paper negative which made it less cumbersome than the glass and metal plates used in other processes such as ambrotype (invented 1854), tintype (1856), collodion process (1851 – because it created a negative first, it allowed duplicates to be made) and, the best-known, the daguerreotype invented in 1839. The collodion process needed trays of chemicals which were difficult to use in the field, but this was generally overcome by the use of an emulsion, invented by in 1864 in our world.
• The campaign medals issued for the Second Boer War were the Queen’s South Africa Medal and, after King Edward VII’s accession to the throne in 1901, the King’s South Africa Medal. A whole series of clasps were issued. Clasps such as the Transvaal and the Orange Free State were issued to troops serving in particular theatres of the conflict but not at specific battles, this would apply to troops such as the dirigible gunners participating seemingly indirectly in a number of land-based battles. Of course, in our world no Spion Kop clasp was issued as it was a defeat, but, in this story, the intervention of the dirigibles altered that.
• In our world, Bloemfontein was captured by the British in March 1900 and Pretoria in June 1900. This did not end the war, simply changed it into a guerilla conflict, with, by September 1900, 30,000 Boer troops still in the field refusing to surrender. To combat these methods, the British followed the example of the Spanish approaches against guerillas used in The Ten Years War (1868-78) and by the Americans in the Philippine-American War of 1899-1902. The British adopted a scorched earth policy destroying farm land and buildings; constructed 8000 blockhouses to defend strategic routes; had fast moving mounted units numbering 20,000 troops by the end of the war; used armoured trains to respond to Boer attacks and cut off their retreats and, most controversially, introduced concentration camps to intern Boer families in. The bulk of the 28,000 Boer prisoners-of-war had been sent outside Africa but 26,000 Boer civilians died while interned in the 45 camps in the country, which, by July 1901 held 93,000 Boers. A further 107,000 black Africans were interned in 64 separate camps and casualties are not known but at least 14,000 died. The causes of death of Boers and Africans were malnourishment and diseases such as typhoid, dysentery and measles.