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Great Boer War Discoveries ( Nov. 2004)

Paul Kruger's Boer War Trophy Flag - Aug. 1900

A Great Canadian Flag from a Great Canadian Hero!
Great Canadian Heritage Treasure
Transvaal Vierkleur Boer War trophy flag
Cotton, sewn - 6' x 7'4"
Found - Toronto, ON
Some fading and rips, "liberated" by Capt. Agar Adamson, Lord Strathcona's Horse, Aug. 1900.
A Transvaal Republic Vierkleur:

This phenomenal flag is an official Transvaal Republic "Four-colour" that flew over a Transvaal Republic public building at the end of 1899 and early 1900. It was "liberated" by Capt. Agar Adamson of Lord Strathcona's Horse (right), who brought it back to Canada. The Vierkleur was the official flag of the Transvaal Republic from 1857 - 1902.

This is one of the extremely rare genuine Boer War flags in existence. Unlike the usual "pocket size" flags that appear from time to time, claiming provenance to the Boer War, this is a giant 6' x 7'4". The four colours (red, white, blue, and green) are somewhat faded and there are some rips in the material, such as one would expect to find in a "liberated" flag. But it also shows genuine signs of usage. The ends are frayed from flapping in the Transvaal winds during the war years 1899 and 1900.

The provenance for this flag is bullet proof; it was in the Adamson family till it was donated to the Canadian Boer War Museum.

Capt. Agar Adamson 1865-1929: Agar is one of those mysterious human beings who come along from time to time who find life meaningless unless they are constantly pushing the borders of danger and adventure. He was also phenomenally lucky to have survived to the age that he did.

In 1899 Agar married Mabel Cawthra of the wealthy Cawthra family who had a huge estate in the west end of Toronto. This assured Agar a place in Toronto and Ottawa high society on the eve of the outbreak of the Great Anglo- Boer War. He was also a militia officer in the Governor-General's Foot Guards.

The Boer War - Oct. 1899: When the Boer War flared up, there just weren't enough positions for all the officers who wanted to go. Many militia officers, in fact, gave up their commissions in order to serve as privates - anything to get to South Africa and tackle those Boers who were threatening the might of the British Empire. This was not Agar's style; he had married "up," and did not relish "stepping down" from the officer class to which he had aspired.

Agar's Boer War: The Canadian Contingents left for South Africa, leaving Agar disconsolate on the dock... Agar used Mabel's social contacts to get him a Captain's commission in Lord Strathcona's Horse. (Below, Agar & Mabel in 1898, during their courting days.)

It all took time so the regiment had already gone without him; Agar escorted the 50 reinforcements sent later to fill in the holes in the ranks of the Strathconas when men were killed or died of illnesses. He landed in Cape Town in May, 1900. The British Army of Lord Roberts - which included the Canadian Contingents - was already four months into its victorious "March to Pretoria."

Agar wrote letters home to his wife Mabel, and left us a marvellous record of what he saw of men - and women - in action during the Boer War. (These letters were used by Sandra Gwyn in "The Private Capital" which deals with Ottawa society during the time of Sir Wilfrid Laurier. There is a lengthy section on Agar and his letters during the Boer War.)

Agar tells Mabel everything, warts and all. Shortly after arriving in Cape Town he tells her of attending, with five brother officers, a dinner hosted by the wives of British officers, in the Mount Nelson Hotel. He was the only one who did not end up spending the night with a married "host." The husbands of the six women were all officers in the British lancers, fighting the Boers "up country," and had left their wives in Cape Town so they would be "safe" from the Boers. He tells Mabel that it was only with great difficulty that he escaped the clutches of his own dinner partner, "a major's wife."

Later, up country, at Ermelo, Agar recounts how he was wakened by a frantic Boer woman telling him that her two daughters were being raped by several soldiers. Agar hurriedly dressed, and went to chase off "the brutes" and save whatever virtue was still salvageable. "I greatly fear," he told Mabel, "that they were ours."

Marching to Pretoria: On June 6, 1900 Lord Roberts liberated the Transvaal capital of Pretoria and started pushing Paul Kruger's government forces east along the railway. The Boers retreated and the seat of the Transvaal Government became Paul Kruger's train, which was kept at Machadodorp.

Agar was part of General Buller's army, which was the southern pincer coming up to join Roberts and crush the Boers for the last time. Agar was one of the very first to enter Machadodorp. Kruger fled the country; the war was over and everyone - including the generals - prepared to go home.

In November Agar got sick and was invalided to England. When he finally got well he joined up again and left for South Africa only to find that the war had ended in May 1902.

Agar returned to Toronto society after the war. But one gets the feeling that somehow something important was missing in his life. One cannot but feel that he was glad when World War I came along to give him a reason to go on.

Col. Agar Adamson, DSO: After enlisting in 1914, Agar spent four years giving noble service at the front. He became commanding officer of the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, miraculously surviving while countless others died on every side. He even won the DSO, second only to the Victoria Cross, for gallantry in action. Through it all he wrote letters home to Mabel. These have been published by Norm Christie (above.)

But though Agar survived the war (below with Mabel in 1918) his marriage did not. In 1921 Agar left her and went to live in France, to wine and dine as a free spirit, at all hours of the day and night. Somehow, having seen so much death, and so few survivors, he had finally found what really mattered in life.

Agar became a flying enthusiast. On one flying adventure in October 1929, his plane ditched in the Irish Sea. Agar was saved, but three hours in the cold water had weakened his old body and he contracted pneumonia. He died at age 63, worn out by his adventures. Mabel was at his side when he breathed his last.

When she looked upon him for the last time, at the morgue, she commented to her son, "It is a beautiful face, isn't it?"

Agar's Provenance: Two stories seem to be attached to where and how this flag came to be liberated.

Race for the Flag: One author quotes Agar's son Tony remembering hearing Agar say that when his group entered the Boer town of Ermelo, Agar was involved in an epic race, with a British Capt. Birdwood, to be first to pull down the flag from the town hall. Agar won the race, and the flag. (Capt. Birdwood later became General Birdwood of Gallipoli fame and a Field Marshall much beloved by the Australian Army. Right)

Paul Kruger's Last Flag: Another story says that this was the flag taken from Paul Kruger's last headquarters at Machadodorp when Agar's advance column reached the town, sending Paul Kruger to run for Komatiepoort, Portuguese East Africa, and a Dutch warship to exile in Europe.

This latter story certainly has the ring of truth. Agar was a man with a sense of history and was not a common pillager of ordinary souvenirs. Just any old flag would not have been his style; only something special would have been worth carting home to show off. In later life he was noted for his after dinner speeches and story telling ability. And he certainly was one of the first into Machadodorp as Paul Kruger's government fell for the last time. Captain Birdwood was also there and was wounded.

Also, the flag is ceremonially huge, not the kind one flies in small towns; it would have ridiculously dwarfed the small, single storey buildings which served as town halls in the rural regions. The flag's enormous size hints that it was made large for an important use, like to flag a major building for a Head of State, which Paul Kruger was.

If that is the case then it is possible that this flag also previously flew over the Parliament Building at Pretoria, and was removed from there when Kruger's Government abandoned the capital, and set up first at Machadodorp, and then at Waterval Onder. It would again, have flown a large official government flag there. Why not the one from Pretoria?

(Above the British armies drawn up before the Boer Parliament on June 6, 1900, raising the Union Jack where Paul Kruger had just - days before - pulled down the Vierkleur for the last time. Did he bundle it off to Waterval Onder?)

Above, a disconsolate Paul Kruger sitting on the left side of the porch above of the last official Government headquarters, at Waterval Onder. The building still stands as a museum. His "railway car headquarters" is at Machadodorp, only a few kilometres away.

Flag Size: A short rule of thumb is that major government buildings fly 8 x 10s, and smaller industrial companies fly 6 x 8s. Homes today - larger than small Boer town halls a century ago - typically fly 2 x 3s or 3 x 4s.

Agar's flag, at 6 x 7.3 feet is far too large for "home" size, and is perhaps slightly small for flying from the Parliament Building at Pretoria.

Is it more likely that this flag was Paul Kruger's personal flag that he flew at his official residence on Church Street (below), and packed up when he left to go to Machadodorp as the British troops approached the city?

The official residence of the President of the Transvaal Republic, clearly shows, as well as two guards and their horses, a 40 foot flagpole. The recommended flag size for a forty foot flagpole is 6 x 8 feet!

Is this the flag Paul Kruger had first used at his house in Pretoria during the early part of the war, and then taken by train to Machadodorp - where his railway car and the Transvaal Government's mobile headquarters was located?

And is that the place where Paul Kruger's giant state flag and Capt. Agar Adamson of Lord Strathcona's Horse and Captain Birdwood had a rendezvous with destiny?

Machadodorp - Seat of the Transvaal Government June-Sept. 1900: For four months, after the fall of Pretoria, Paul Kruger and his government sat around this table in their train car as it was parked above at Machadodorp. The Transvaal Government's flag was flying here. Agar was one of the first into the town and helped to chase Paul Kruger and his ministers - at last - into exile.

Agar's Diary, Aug. 28, 1900 - "We in the advance started early, dismounted and advanced as infantry, being the first to enter Machadodorp, did a little looting..." He also mentions Capt. Birdwood as having been wounded.

Finally - A Fit: Did Agar's son, Tony, through the mists of time, get Ermelo mixed up as the place for the "epic race with Birdwood." Dutch names of towns sound unfamiliar to the untrained British ear, such as Tony's. Given that there was an "epic race" why would it be for a minor objective in just another insignificant small Boer village like Ermelo?

Could it be that the "epic race" was, instead, at Machadodorp, and was for Paul Kruger's flag? Had Tony, through time, simply mixed up the names of the towns with the anecdote? It's a simple mistake when one is in his late eighties, trying to recall what he remembers his father telling him fifty years before, and at a time when he wasn't really all that interested... (Right, nine year old Tony helping his father Agar recover from World War I wounds in the summer of 1915.)

(In fact in private correspondence between Sandra Gwyn and Tony, it is evident that exactly where the "race for the flag" took place is a point of debate. In one letter Sandra very much doubts that Ermelo is the town where it all took place, and suggests to Tony that Machadodorp is much more likely the place where the flag came from, that Agar was one of the first in the town and adding that Birdwood was also there and was wounded. Could this have possibly been as a result of his heroics in going after the flag?)

What a story this flag could tell, of overhearing Paul Kruger and his ministers debating their next moves as the British Army dismantled their Republic around them. And in later years, how many times did Agar haul out this flag for friends and recount tales of its exciting liberation!

Go to Agar Adamson in World War I

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