Unique invitation: When rugby, nearly, stopped a war
SPOTLIGHT: @rugby365com‘s acclaimed writer Paul Dobson has produced another one of his beguiling compositions about the game from yesteryear.
This time he looks at how rugby stopped a war!
There has never been a war without horrors. From start to finish and beyond there is pain and suffering in any war you like to mention.
It is the horror of war that makes its few light moments all the brighter in contrast to evil in the background. The evening star on a dark sky, the diamond broach on a black dress.
There was nearly such an occasion up in the Northern Cape 118 years ago.
World War I with its trenches and men gassed to death was horrid, and yet on Christmas Day in 1914, in response to Pope Benedict XV’s call, there were ceasefires in which opposing troops could wish each other a happy Christmas, exchange cigarettes and sing Silent Night.
And they played a game of soccer.
Something like this had been proposed during the sad South African War, sometimes called the Boer War or the Anglo-Boer War.
It was not Christmas time and it wasn’t soccer.
All wars are trade wars, or so it is said, and this one was about gold.
South Africa had endured many wars, most of them British against locals – the Dutch at the Cape, the Xhosa, the Zulus, the Griquas, the Sotho and the farmers called Boers who ruled the Orange Free State and the South African Republic, sometimes called the Transvaal.
There was an element of imperial greed in their actions – circumcising Kimberley from the Free State for its diamonds, and eager to get the Transvaal for the gold.
The Boers fought back and did rather well against the trained soldiers of the UK, Australia, New Zealand and Canada.
They even seemed about to drive the British away as they laid siege famously to Mafeking, Kimberley and Ladysmith.
They also laid siege to Okiep (sometimes O’Okiep, sometimes O’Kiep) – a small town in the Northern Cape, which just happened to have the richest copper mine in the world.
The war was near over, the Boers beaten, in 1902, but some still fought on – the Bittereinders, the men who fought to the bitter end.
One of them was General Jan Smuts, who led his commando down into the Cape Colony, taking the war into British territory. His commando captured the Namaqualand towns of Springbok and Concordia and laid siege to Okiep, where they were resisted by the British garrison of some 700 men.
The siege started on 4 April and lasted a month, not an exciting time for those besieged and those besieging.
Inevitably, where you have a large conglomeration of physically active young men, there will be games.
The Boers had theirs – athletics, boxing, including bare-fisted fighting, and rugby.
The British forces, too had rugby. In fact there were some top players amongst them – including Dave Gallaher, the captain of the first team to be called the All Blacks. He was one of some 6 500 New Zealand troops in South Africa during the war. They established clubs called New Zealand in Pretoria, Ladysmith and Pietermaritzburg.
So feelers went out between Boer and Brit in O’Kiep and eventually two white-flagged Boer delegates were given safe passage to the British commander, Major Edwards. The two Boers brought a letter from their commander, 26-year-old General SG (Salomon Gerhardus, but usually called Manie) Maritz, described by a missionary in Namaqualand JG Locke of the Methodist church as “one of the strongest men, physically in the country”.
Maritz would probably have captained the Boer team
The letter was written in Dutch in those pre-Afrikaans days.
Translated it says:
The Honourable Major Edwards
I wish to inform you that I have agreed to a rugby match taking place between you and us. I, from my side, will agree to a cease-fire tomorrow afternoon from 12 o’clock until sunset, the time and venue of the match to be arranged by you in consultation with Messrs Roberts and Van Rooyen whom I am sending you.
I have the honour, etc,
p.p. SG Maritz
Transvaal Scouting Corps
Concordia, 28 April 1902
Major Edwards readily agreed to the ceasefire and the match and said that he would get a field ready.
Alas – and lots of ruder words – the match never happened.
That very afternoon a group of Boers ambushed a British column and fighting broke out. Four British soldiers and six Boers were killed.
A rugby match was clearly inappropriate in such circumstances. It was called off.
A sad ending to a match of great possibilities.
On 4 May 1902, Okiep was relieved by a force that had sailed from Cape Town up to Port Nolloth.
That same month, the British gave Smuts and Deneys Reitz safe passage, via Port Nolloth, Cape Town and Pretoria, to Vereeniging where a peace treaty was thrashed out, approved by 54 Boer delegates against six disapprovals. On 31 May 1902 the Peace Treaty of Vereeniging was signed in Pretoria. The South African War was no longer being fought on battlefields.