The Anglo-Boer War is a bottomless well of tales of exceptional, eccentric and astonishing characters. Love him or loathe him, Harry Harbord “Breaker” Morant remains a fascinating case more than a century after his execution, and his defiant last words to a firing squad — “Shoot straight you bastards! Don’t make a mess of it!” continue to echo down the years. The duel between the American scout Frederick Russell Burnham and the brilliant Boer Danie Theron is one for the ages.
The dark and macabre fate of Commandant Scheepers still has the power to chill. Deneys Reitz turned his experiences on commando into one of the great war memoirs of all time. You’ve got Irish Republican commandos and American-Irish Republican Commandos.
And you’ve got a Scottish Boer master train-wrecker.
Oliver “Jack” Hindon was born in Aberdeen, Scotland, in 1874 and shipped out to South Africa as an army band boy at the age of 14. It must have been a tough go, because he deserted in Zululand and made his way to Wakerstroom in the South African Republic (Transvaal). Whatever his problems with the British Army, he certainly had no problem serving his adopted country. In 1896 he joined the Commandos that rose up in defense of the Transvaal when Leander Starr Jameson attempted his rash filibuster to raise the Union Jack in Johannesburg. Hindon so distinguished himself that he was made a burgher — a full citizen of the South African Republic.
When war finally broke out between the Boer Republics and Great Britain, Jack Hindon sided with his adopted people. He was noted for his bravery at the battle of Spion Kop, where Boer rifle fire swept over a British force that had gained the top of a ridge and decimated it. Winston Churchill and Mohandas Gandhi were present at the battle — Churchill as a correspondent, Gandhi as a stretcher-bearer.
Hindon raised the Vierkluer (The Four Color) flag of the South African Republic at the summit of the hill, which is the kind of act that got a man noticed in the Victorian era. It also, quite often, got a man killed. Hindon got away with it, and went on to serve for a time under Danie Theron in his scouting corps.
Then he was detailed to form a scouting battalion that specialized in wrecking trains. Jack Hindon had found his calling.
The British Army relied heavily on the railroads to move supplies and troops — especially the line that ran from Delgoa Bay on the Indian Ocean. Just as they would be for T.E. Lawrence and the Arab Rebels in the Hijaz during World War I, the railroads made a lovely target for disruptive guerrilla operations.
Captain Jack Hindon became an expert in laying what we would today call IEDs — improvised explosive devices. SouthAfricanMilitaryHistory.org reports:
During this time, a number of trains, bridges, culverts and even the railway track itself fell prey to Hindon and his ingeniously-manufactured special mines. These were made by using Martini-Henry rifles sawn off about four inches (10 cm) in front of and behind the magazine, filing the trigger guard to leave the trigger mechanism exposed, placing the device in a carefully covered up hole under the tracks in such a way that the trigger was in contact with the dynamite and at just the right height to be affected by the weight of the train on the tracks, yet so little exposed that it went unnoticed. All surplus railway stones were carried away in a bag and great care was taken to conceal all traces of the mine. After a train had been immobilised using the mine, Hindon and his men would ride up to it and loot it. Even armoured trains, guarded by British troops, were attacked and often destroyed.
Hindon’s train-wreckers almost got British General Lord Kitchener with one of their IEDs. A pilot engine and a couple of trucks were blown up in front of the general’s train, which escaped by steaming backwards down the track.
The train-wrecking campaign wasn’t just about disruption; supplies looted from the trains helped keep Boer Commandos in the field through the guerrilla phase of the war. Gradually, the British adapted, and the raids became more dangerous as the British learned to fight back. Captain Hindon switched to night ops, but the British took to spotlighting the raiders, and casualties mounted. The British were also building infrastructure to contain the commandos. They notoriously swept Boer women and children up into concentration camps to rob the Commandos of their support in the field, and built a network of blockhouses linked with barbed wire, which were especially deployed to discourage attacks on the railroads.
And they also began to place Boer prisoners — and, purportedly, sometimes Boer women — on the trains to discourage attack (the use of women may have been a threat that was never actually carried out).
Hindon was forced to abandon the train-wrecking campaign as the war wound down to its bitter end in 1902. One account states that he staged punitive raids against Africans who had aided the British. He finally took his raiders off to the Northern Transvaal (Morant’s zone of operations) where they held out for a while before surrendering to the British at the end of the war.
Lord Kitchener thought that the train-wrecking campaign violated international standards of warfare, but Hindon and his scouts were never tried. The British, had, after all, wrecked their share of trains early in the war, when the Boer forces still controlled some lines and rolling stock. Just ask Fred Burnham about that. And, perhaps, the British Command didn’t want to delve too deeply into the sordid details, where it might be widely revealed that they had been using human shields to frustrate attack.
Anglo-Boer War enthusiast Herman Labuschange notes that:
Nobody knows for sure how many trains had been derailed and wrecked during the war. As with most other military statistics, the numbers had been manipulated greatly by the authorities in order to lessen the embarrassment, but it must have been an exceedingly large one. The archives are full of pictures of numerous trains which had ploughed into the ground next to their tracks. How many bridges the Boers had blown, nobody can say, but again, dozens and dozens of pictures attest to the fact that nearly all the major bridges in the old Boer countries had been blown sky-high. Culverts and miles of railway track had likewise been demolished. Whatever the statistics might be, one fact stands clear: The Boer train wreckers had been some of the most daring heroes of the entire war era. Together they had struck at the very arteries of England’s war machine, and managed to keep the commandos fighting right until the bitter end. Their role had been a great one indeed.
Hindon died after a long illness in South Africa in 1919.
Hindon’s contributions to the Boer war effort were given a special military notice decades later, when the Jack Hindon Medal was established by the South African Defense Forces in 1970. The medal, which depicts Hindon’s flag-raising on Spion Kop, honored those among the rural component of the defense forces for exceptionally diligent and outstanding service.
Paul McNamee says
I think my favorite Anglo-Boer war train story is from the second war, at the siege of Mafeking.
Noticing the Boers had failed to remove any of the rails, the British commanders had an armoured train from the Mafeking railyard loaded with sharpshooters, armed with the Martini-Henry Mark IV rifle, sent up the rail line in a daring attack right into the heart of the Boer camp (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Siege_of_Mafeking)
Truth is stranger than fiction – someday I am going to work that into a steampunk or alternate history story.
The Boer War is fertile ground for steampunk. Mex Rev, too. I’ve long had a secondary world fantasy epic bubbling around in my consciousness based on the era. It’s as weird and wild in its way as any era, ever.
That sounds interesting.
Paul McNamee says
I’d read that!
Jim’s steampunk/whatever stuff is good. I’ve seen some of it.
Stirling’s alternate history/steampunk novel THE PESHAWAR LANCERS (an homage to Mundy, REH and others) features a secondary South African villain.
john roberts says
Is Danie Theron any relation to South African actress Charlize Theron?
Great-great grandniece, in fact. Posted on it a while back. Many pictures…
Beautiful Blonde Boer Badass
john roberts says
I’m getting old. I’d completely forgotten that article. At least I can remember stuff that happened a long time ago clearly.