The Border Historical Society, in association with the Friends of the East London Museum (FELM) held their first talk of 2020 at the Margorie Courtenay-Latimer Hall on Tuesday.
Presented by Denis Walters, author of Bridging the Eastern Cape, the topic of the night was “Repairs by the Royal Engineers of the Railway Destruction During the Anglo-Boer War 1899 to 1902”.
Before the war broke out, the British Empire had only a small military presence in South Africa.
“At the time, it [British forces] comprised of less than 10,000 soldiers,” said Walters.
These were 4,000 troops in the Cape Colony and 6,000 in Natal. The Royal Engineers (RE) only had unit, the 29th Fortress Company.
This changed quickly once the war started, however.
“During the October of 1899, Lt Cnl Percy Girouard was appointed director of railways for the South African field forces,” Walters said.
Girouard had previously made a name for himself as part of the British forces in Sudan.
“His first step was to create a railway organisation by recruiting existing RE staff to control the existing railways of the two colonies.
“His second step was to assemble sufficient railway troops for the rapid reconstruction of anticipated damaged rail lines.”
To help bolster RE numbers, members were recruited from the ranks of Uitlanders, the foreign mine-workers who had been displaced by the war.
These new members formed the Railway Pioneer Regiment (RPR) and would prove crucial in many repair projects.
By December 1899, the RE had 150 officers and just over 3,000 non-commissioned officers and sappers. One RE field company was attached to every army infantry and cavalry division in the field.
Their duties were broad and included repairing roads and railways, field fortifications, constructing defences and even supplying water for troops and animals.
Soon after the war began, it became clear that the RE would have their work cut out for them.
Thanks to the local Modderfontein Dynamite Factory, the Boer forces had easy access to dynamite which allowed them to carry out extensive sabotage campaigns.
One example was the destruction of the Norvals Pont Bridge in March 6, 1900. This bridge was the main supply route for British forces in Natal so its destruction was a serious blow.
Royal Engineers assembled and within 12 days had constructed a temporary bridge next to Norvals Pont, allowing crucial supplies to continue their journey.
Five companies of RPR were brought in to repair the main bridge which was open to traffic once more by May.
Four days later, the Bethulie Bridge faced a similar fate. In a strange twist, the wagon bridge nearby was spared when the wires connecting the dynamite malfunctioned.
RE forces under Major Grant Thompson were sent to conduct repairs and a temporary bridge was up within nine days. However, it was not strong enough to handle trains so RE troops had to push the carriages across.
The next Border Historical Society talk will take place on February 18.