Graaff Reinet has always been the seat of rebellion of the Dutchmen against British Imperialism. When my regiment arrived there to garrison the town, the local English-speaking residents and what they called the "loyal" Dutchmen agreed to form a Town Guard for the outskirts to relieve our own forces. This was recreation to them for a little while, but they began later to complain that there were many more of their fellow citizens who refused to join, and they urged the Commandant, Colonel Henniker, to make these join. But they said they were abiding by the proclamation of Lord Milner to remain neutral and loyal. This refusal under martial law resulted in them being marched to the local prison, and there were detained till they submitted. There were about fifty so imprisoned.
Subsequently a compromise was accepted. They agreed to help fortify the town. I, being a military artificer, was given about twenty-five of them in my charge to fortify the district in the vicinity of Spandau Kop. Working hours were from 8 a.m. till noon. It did not take them long to find in me a fellow rebel, though perhaps with a different outlook, hence we methodically arranged our work, and also our recreation. A sentry was always posted after we had made a bit of show at digging a trench, or piling up a barricade of stones. Then the lunch-bags were opened; some brought cards and others indulged in some kind of sport, while one, A. J. Smith, a correspondent and later editor of the local paper, Onze Kourant instructed me roughly in the Dutch language. Some of the men in my group were the wealthiest men of the town.
Jurie Laubscher was, and C. L. Olivier is now, a member of the Graff Reinet Town Council, and I accepted invites to afternoon tea and made acquaintance with their families. A photograph was taken of us in a group, one of which is reproduced in these pages.
I am going into this matter to show that the exigencies of the moment are always prevalent during conditions of war; proclamations, treaties and such moral guidance become mere scrap of paper. According to the Milner proclamation the military authorities there had no right to demand that conscientious objectors should join their forces as combatants. Further, there were many executions there of supposed rebels during our stay, being- residents of Cape Colony who had joined the Boer forces. They were certainly all court martialled, and their sentences read out before a military parade on the Church Square. Three were shot and buried not many yards from where my squad of prisoners were erecting fortifications, and the latter asked the next morning to be shown the spot where they were buried. I took them and showed them, but there was no mound left-we used to level it off as you would bury a dog.
A few days afterwards it was found that someone had put a ring of stones round the places of their burial, and a cross of stones inside the ring. This meant that I was brought before the officer at our main camp the other end of the town and questioned as to what I knew about it. I truthfully said that I knew nothing about it, nor had I heard anything about it from my squad, but I did not admit-as I was not asked-that I had shown them where the spot was. However, it was concluded that my group were the culprits, and I was informed that my fraternising with them had also become known. Therefore, I was to see that the stones were removed, and bring my kit and myself back to the main camp. So that ended my supervision of them, both to their regret and mine.
A particularly revolting incident happened in the execution of the three who were shot. This was, that the firing parties were a body of ten men, five with ball, and five with blank cartridges. After the word "present," which brings the rifle to the shoulder, one of them "'pulled off" before the command "fire" was given, and the bullet blew off the top of one man's head.