|Great Canadian Heritage Treasure|
|Map, Battle of Belmont - Lt. James Cooper Mason DSO, Dec. 16, 1899|
|Orig. map - Size - 23 cm
Found - Cambridge, ON
A fabulous sketch map, drawn by Lt. JC Mason, on site, of the battlefield at Belmont, only three weeks after the battle took place Nov. 23, 1899. Some 8,000 British troops under Lord Methuen had chased away some 2,000 Boers who occupied several big kopjes (Afrikaans for hills) east of the railway station.
In fact James drew this map on Dec. 16, which was only five days after Methuen suffered a disastrous defeat at the Battle of Magersfontein, only 40 miles north. Col. Otter had wanted the Canadians there for the battle but some of his staff officers opposed sending green boys to be slaughtered. Instead the Canadians, mostly volunteers fresh off civvy street, went to Belmont to take over security and get some military training. Canadians escaped the awful slaughter.
It was Black Week, in December 1899. On Dec. 15, General Buller suffered a huge defeat at Colenso far to the east, in Natal. Only hours after learning of the latest British defeat at Colenso, James took up his pencil and drew this map. His heart must have been pounding as he sketched. Three huge British defeats in one week. Just what had he and his green contingent of Canadian civilians, all duded up like soldiers, gotten themselves into?
These Boers clearly, were not to be trifled with by amateurs.
The Canadians arrived at Belmont in early December and started training in drill and marksmanship, since few men had any experience at either.
Drawing maps of battles and terrain was standard training for officers, and James, fresh from Canada, was eager to try his hand at drawing a real battlefield map. (In fact James drew a second one, with even more detail, that he sent to his girlfriend Florence MacArthur - whom he later married - so she could put it into her scrapbook of photos and newspaper articles on the Boer War.)
But the best paper James could scrounge was Canadian Contingent letter paper. This created problems for him, which he notes on the margin. In fact not only are his distances off, his kopjes are too far north of the railway station. Scot's Kopje or Table Mountain, should be directly east and opposite the station. Lacking good maps of the area had been Lord Methuen's problem during the battle.
The small kopje south of Scot's Ridge is actually Gun Hill right facing west, the direction from which the British attacked. The Boers had an artillery piece where the monument stands.
The Canadians used to hike up from the railway station and carve their names on the rocks there. The Canadian Anglo-Boer War Museum actually sleuthed out these great Canadian Historic Sites, in 2000, and publicized their existence for the first time, bringing them to the attention of the Canadian Government.
As a result of our campaign the first ever Canadian heritage signage by the Canadian Historic Sites and Monuments Board will be posted on the African continent.
Below the same scene as the map above. The British attack had come from the west against the Boers who had guns and emplacements all along kopjes 3, 4, and 5.
1- Belmont Station above where the Canadians had their tent camp and guard house. From there they went on route marches into the surrounding area to do target practice, picquet duty, and drill to harden up flabby civilian muscles.
2 - The direction from which Lord Methuen's attack on Belmont had come, seeking to capture the hills: 3 Gun Hill, 4 Table Mountain, 5 Mont Blanc.
3 - Gun Hill above right with a Boer monument.
The Canadians hiked up there and carved their names on the rocks. Many of the larger ones have signatures which, unfortunately have been defaced by patriotic Afrikaners over the years who don't believe people who invaded their country and were responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of their women and children should have their names memorialized.
But that phase of the war was a year down the road. At Belmont the war was still a Gentleman's War fought between men in the honourable traditional ways, with due courtesies shown by victor to vanquished.
5 - Mont Blanc a major second line of defence for the Boers.
6 - The valley which Lord Methuen mistakenly thought was a hill bridging 4 and 5.
7 - Where James took his celebrated picture of a partially buried Boer. The British had found some 30 dead Boers after the battle, and seemingly had not done a very good job of burying them all.
8 - Where two crimped shells (fire starter), lost by a Canadian, were found.
9 - The Thomas farm where James took the Canadians to bathe, and where he took his famous picture (see Mason page 7)
|Great Canadian Heritage Treasure||
An extremely rare photo showing a dead Boer partially buried, with his knee sticking up from under the rocks.
The Boers had fled as they were being overrun with overwhelming numbers. It was up to the British to bury the dead, some 30 of whom they found.
The ground is extremely rocky and sometimes, as here, they apparently didn't do a very good job.
Or - much more likely - did some photo fiends - there were more than a few among the eight thousand British soldiers who swept through here after the battle - roll the rocks away to get a better picture?
It looks most suspicious because several rocks look like they would be easy to roll over the body. And other smaller ones are nearby...
We can recall a similar practice by photo fiends in Canada's high arctic in remote Cambridge Bay, NT, in 1973. An Inuit woman, said to be a shaman, had been left in her wooden coffin, exposed on the open tundra just outside town. White people passing through town would routinely make her coffin a photo stop to take her picture, since some photo fiend - who claimed it was the wind - had removed the lid to better show her wizened features.
Needless to say the exposed Boer grave must have become an object of intense interest for the greenhorn Canadians, for whom war was still a romantic pursuit. None had fired a gun in anger at anyone before. Seeing a real dead Boer gave many a cold dose of reality. Is this how I'm going to end up here?
James was intrigued enough to take a very carefully posed picture. He brought in one of the sentries guarding the camp at the far eastern edge of the ridge - another can be seen keeping a lookout for Boers intent on launching a surprise attack, at right.
The location is near the east end of Scot's Ridge on Table Mountain at 7. One can see the rock piles the Boers threw up from which to fire at the British who would advance across the top of the kopje.
The Boers then abandoned them and took up new positions on Mont Blanc, a bigger kopje that you can see in the distance, across a slight valley.
|Mason Photo, Sentry at Boer's Grave - Dec. 1899|
|Orig. Mason photo - Image Size - 8.5 x 8.5 cm
Found - Cambridge, ON
|Great Canadian Heritage Treasure||
A fabulous and huge Bacon print of the Battle of Belmont, produced to celebrate the British victory.
It is hugely fanciful, in terrain and colourful uniforms, but does show masses of British infantry swarming up the hills beyond the railway station.
The artists, in far away London, can be excused for their inventive depiction of the landscape. And James his distorted map. No one could get accurate maps.
Even Lord Methuen who attacked Belmont had faulty maps of the area into which he was sending his men. It almost led to disaster when he sent a column to occupy what he thought was a height 6 that turned out to be a valley between Scot's Kopje and Mont Blanc.
|Bacon Print, Battle of Belmont, Nov. 23, 1899|
|Orig. litho - Image Size - 56 x 76 cm
Found - Hay on Wye, UK
|Great Canadian Heritage Treasure||
A fabulous treasure trove of Lt. JC Mason's private collection of photographs, many of which he annotated on the back.
They can be grouped into: those he shot on the troopship Sardinian, those he took at Belmont, and those he took while convalescing in Wynberg Hospital in Cape Town.
Some are ultra rare, like the one top right of the burial at sea of the first Canadian to die in the Canadian Contingent.
Some are unique, like the Canadian officers sleeping in a tent in the awful heat at Belmont top left.
Others are famous, like the Canadians swimming in the nude at Belmont, probably at the Thomas farm.
And bottom left the inevitable officers recuperating at the hospital in Cape Town.
|Boer War Photo Collection, Lt. James Cooper Mason DSO, 1899-1900|
|Orig. Photos - Size - 12.5 x 12.5 cm
Found - Cambridge, ON
Copyright Goldi Productions Ltd. 1996-1999-2005
The Saga of Belmont Station - Abandoned by South Africa in 2000 - Abandoned by Canada in 2003
Right Belmont station photographed by James Mason in January 1900.
For two months the station served as the guard room and hospital for the Royal Canadian Regiment during its stay there during the Boer War.
In 2000, Canadian historian John Goldi, produced the first ever television documentary of the Canadian role in the Boer War, to which Canada sent some 7,000 volunteers. Some 300 men and women who served, never returned.
His ground research in South Africa was the most massive ever undertaken by anyone on the people, places, and events of Canada's role in the Boer War. He spent two months, and drove 11,000 kms to ferret out all the important Canadians sites of the Boer War.
The four hour documentary he co-produced with his wife Joan Goldi, "The Great Anglo-Boer War: the Canadian Experience" won an unheard of four international Gold Medals for excellence in competition with the best documentaries from around the world at the largest film and television festival in the United States.
|Go to International Honours|
It won Gold as Best Television Series, Best History/Archaeology Program, Best News and Documentary Writing for Joan Goldi and John Goldi, and Gold for Individual On-camera Talent for Cameraman/Director John Goldi, who performed 27 stand-ups before the camera (which his wife shot) at South African Boer War sites to win the award.
Canadian historian John Goldi was utterly dismayed to find
NOT A SINGLE CANADIAN GOVERNMENT SIGN, OR DISPLAY OR MUSEUM OF ANY KIND ON ANY SITE RECOGNIZING THE SERVICE OF 7,000 CANADIANS IN THE BOER WAR AND THE SUPREME SACRIFICE OF 300.
He sent a massive proposal, that incorporated many thousands of dollars of his original research, supported by his four hour, multi-Gold medal winning documentary programs as illustrations, requesting the help of the Minister for Canadian Heritage, Parks Canada, the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada, and Veteran's Affairs, to cooperate with him in rectifying this century of neglect, and set up a museum in Belmont station and putting up proper signage elsewhere.
Below At Belmont Station, Lord Roberts right walks beside Canadian Col Otter, and Gen. Kitchener, just before the March to Pretoria in Feb. 1900.
South African Boer War Guide
We were in the Belfast, South Africa cemetery, where the Canadian Department of Veteran's Affairs Boer War Consultant Dave Gyles led us, breathlessly...
"Come this way. It's right over here. The grave of a Boer woman spy shot by the British during the Boer War."
This I had to see because I had never heard of such a thing in all my research.
We came to a stop in front of a memorial similar to the one below.
I burst out laughing...
At the moment of Dave Gyles' greatest triumph, as a Boer War tour guide, I just couldn't stop myself. I tried hard, but there was just no stopping it... He looked at me most oddly, and asked "Hey! What's the matter?... What wrong?"
We were standing in front of a memorial - not a grave. It had nothing to do with the Boer War, but World War I. And the event it commemorated happened in Europe, not South Africa. And it was not about a Boer spy, but a British one. She was not shot by the British but by the Germans.
Just how wrong is it possible to be?
We were standing in front of a memorial to Edith Cavell, the gallant British nurse shot by the Germans in Belgium, in 1915. And for those who didn't know the story - as I did - it was clearly written on the memorial... But I had not known that el supremo Boer War Guide and Canadian Government Heritage Consultant Dave Gyles, either, could not read, or be bothered to...
In fact I discovered, in the two weeks we engaged him as a body guard in South Africa, that, though he was making thousands for Boer War heritage consultation for Canadian clients, he did not own a single book on the Boer War; not one...! He repeatedly asked to use the ones I had brought from Canada.
The Canadian Government's Boer War expert knew there had been a shooting, of someone, somewhere, by somebody, but he didn't have the foggiest what the memorial was about. He had never heard of Edith Cavell and knew nothing of her tragic story. Just picked up a vague reference to a spy story he overheard in a bar somewhere.
But then this was pretty well his standard of accuracy for history and the Boer War, for which the tax payers of Canada paid him thousands of tax money to work on so-called Canadian heritage projects in South Africa.
Dave Gyles has done heritage consultation work for the Royal Canadian Regiment (London, ON), the Museum of the Regiments (Calgary, AB), the Canadian Department of Veteran's Affairs, Canadian Heritage, Canadian Dept. of National Defence.
Thanks to his Canadian heritage projects in South Africa, he gets to travel to many Boer War sites, giving him a marvelous opportunity for excavating relics.
His Boer War collection of dug relics is one of the finest in South Africa.
Above & below Canadian historian John Goldi stands in front of Great Canadian Heritage Buildings - the Boer War RCR guardroom and hospital, which, through his research, he discovered in Belmont, South Africa.
He discoverred they were totally unknown to Canadians, experts and public alilke.
The station was being closed as we examined it in 2000. We were subsequently, in frequent and long-term contact with the manager for the South African Railway (Spoornet) who managed the area.
Aubrey Blom, the Spoornet Regional Manager, was, initially, utterly blown away to find out the historic significance of a building - the stone station - he treated as a redundant shack of no further use to the railway.
He had never heard that it had any historic connection whatsoever.
He expressed great delight at our attempts to save the building for a historic purpose to commemorate the Canadian Boer War Experience. And we were subsequently in frequent contact with him over the building's future, by phone and email.
He delivered these documents in person to top people in all departments, including to the office of the Heritage Minister.
Then, a veil of secrecy...
The Boer's Grave - Belmont
This view probably tells the story best. Clearly this was, originally, a major construction by people who didn't mind bringing in huge rocks. The area behind is relatively free of them so these were undoubtedly brought in and piled up by a conscientious British grave detail, after the battle.
They had to live there so they didn't want cadavers exposed all over.
But clearly someone must have thought it a neat idea for a photo to show the folks back home "what we do to them Boers," and decided to roll back the tombstones for a better picture. Probably done by battle hardened, British rank and file soldiers, to whom corpses were a normal part of their routine as long term Tommies on life contracts to deal death and destructions upon the Queen's enemies.
Neither James, nor Canadians, would have done this. They were all babes in the woods at war; none had shot at an enemy, let alone kill one before. James too was a sensitive, and religious man, but one who wanted to document the Canadian experience of Canada's first ever war overseas, for himself and the folks back home.
On the voyage over, on the Sardinian, James had taken a photo of the burial, at sea, of a Canadian volunteer who never made it to Africa. He died, depending on whom you believe, of heart failure, or complications from a huge farewell drunk when he overdid the last night in port, and never recovered.