Six of the One...

We sat at table watching my grandfather carving - step-grandfather, actually, as grandma had traded in a missionary for a general-

“Wouldn’t get much change from that transaction,” broke in Gall.

“Why did she do it?” asked Yin-Yin the Wise.

Because she preferred ballroom dancing to roller skating, and he again preferred roller skating to ballroom dancing-

“Huh?” asked Maqina.

His religion - I think it was the Dopper Kerk - believed that dancing was an instrument of the devil to lead one to damnation. The doppers were so narrow-minded they make Staphorst look enlightened. Now, where was I? Oh yes. We watched him expertly carving the chicken we had seen running about headless only two hours earlier.

I remember well how shocked I had been. My brother, two years my senior, and I had been playing in the yard at the time. I had been watching as he, only six but already showing signs of the scientist he was to become, dismantled a radio with the help of a kitchen knife. He wanted to find out how it worked. Instead of being praised for his investigative mind, he got into trouble when it was discovered. But that was after the merriment had died down.

I had been shocked at the plight of the chicken, but the sight of my grandparents and the servants whacking their knees in hysterical laughter, elicited a sense of indignation in me. There you have the budding vegetarian.

“You get my vote,” said Jean-Philippe de Chantepie, who had lost his legs to a Paris restaurant.

Now a lot of people can carve a chicken expertly, but try doing it with only one hand, like Brigadier-General Manie Botha could. Not that he was showing off. No. It’s just that his left wrist had been shot to bits in one of the world wars. He had served in both.

After the main course a maid brought in the Christmas pudding. It wasn’t Christmas, but that was the name of the rich, fruity, heated pudding. Grandma then took charge - the way (the troops had whispered) she had tried to do with her husband’s brigade a year or two earlier - and doused the pudding in brandy. My eyes grew big as she set light to it, producing a dazzling spectacle. I was now halfway to heaven, and completed the journey by gorging myself on that delicious dish.

“Having an elegant sufficiency,” corrected Miss Quote, genteelly extending the little finger on her right hand.

“Oh blow it out the other end!” spat Gall, not her greatest admirer.

Then grandma, instead of regaling the social pages of the local papers with stories of her importance, (she had, after all, been presented at court to Britain's reigning monarch) began to reminisce about her experiences during the Boer War.

Of course, the way it is recorded here is not the way a four-year-old would have remembered it, but I have the advantage of having heard the tale repeated in the course of my teens. What’s more, the climax is documented in the autobiography of one of the key players, none other than Winston Churchill. But I am getting ahead of myself. Grandma was speaking...

“We had to pack the ox wagon in a great hurry and flee if we were to evade the approaching enemy forces. Our farms were being burnt and the women and children were being herded into concentration camps by the rooineks.”

“What’s a rooinek?” asked File.

“A redneck. That’s what the Afrikaners, or Boers, called the British soldiers,” explained King Sigurd. “They were not used to the baking hot South African sun, and those parts of their bodies not covered by their uniforms were burnt red, especially their necks.”

“Most important were our provisions, consisting mainly of a large supply of eggs which we had packed carefully and cushioned against shocks from the poorly sprung wagon by wrapping them further in blankets. I donned my kappie, so hiding much of my face - as befitted a well-brought-up teenage girl - and joined the rest of the womenfolk atop the wagon, and off we went helter-skelter. There were no menfolk, of course. They were fighting with their commandos.

“The oxen could pull a great weight - hadn’t our people crossed mighty mountain ranges in the Great Trek from the Cape to the Transvaal? - but, alas, they are not known for their speed.” Here her face grew dark. “It was only a matter of time before we were overtaken by British soldiers.

“‘Draw up!’ called a haughty corporal, ‘and dismount. Back, back from the wagon,’ which he and his men then began to inspect for weapons we might be transporting to our menfolk. Then he prodded the large bundle of blankets which appeared suspicious to him.

“‘And what’s in here?’ he demanded.

“‘Just some eggs,’ my mother replied. ‘Provisions for our journey.’

“Gingerly he flicked away the corners of the outer blanket, but remained apprehensive. What did he think? That a snake would jump out and bite him?

“‘You there,’ he pointed to me. ‘Unwrap this lot.’

“As I passed him he bent so he could get a better look at me under my kappie, which made me nervous. Carefully, oh so carefully, I unwrapped our valuable supply of eggs.

“‘Stand back now. Go join the others,’ he ordered, then scrutinized the eggs long and hard to verify they weren’t implements of war. I thought that was pretty obvious but evidently, in his judgement, they were.

“‘Could feed a regiment for a week on this lot. What do you think, Harry?’

“‘If not longer, corporal,’ replied the soldier.

“‘You know what they say? An army fights on its stomach.’ He appeared to consider what to do about this bounty, then slowly a vindictive expression began to form on his face.

“My mother must have guessed what he was up to, for she pleaded with him: ‘Please, please don’t. My children. We’ll go hungry.’

“He waved her back, then addressed the soldier named Harry.

“‘I think we should do the Boers a favour and prepare a meal for them. Now, how do you think they’ll like their eggs? Hm? Fried? Or perhaps-’ Here he paused dramatically. ‘Or perhaps scrambled?’

“‘It’s six of the one, half a dozen of the other,’ responded Harry, smug with his word play.

“The corporal was already walking towards the remains of a wall at the side of the dirt road. With a stone, he drew the rough outline of a large cooking pot on it, then returned to the wagon where he carefully picked up one egg.

“‘The idea is this,’ he addressed his men. ‘We must deposit all these eggs into that pot there.’ Whereupon he sent the egg hurtling threw the air, to dash messily against the wall. Then he motioned to his men to step up to the wagon. They needed no second invitation. Amidst raucous laughter his platoon set to work, ‘scrambling’ a hundred eggs or more.

“The corporal, seeing all was going well, then turned his attention on us. We were crestfallen, and our faces showed it all too clearly. It was not just the loss of our provisions, but the sadistic pleasure he took in seeing our distress that really upset me.

“‘Just you wait,’ I thought, ‘we will get even with you. Six of the one, bah!’

“Actually,” interrupted her husband, “it was they who were getting even with us. My uncle Louis had given them such a thrashing at the Battle of Colenso, they must still have been smarting from it. What the English had achieved at Agincourt in 1415, my uncle Louis had accomplished - and more - at Colenso.” The old soldier, soon to be distinguished with a state funeral, was in his element now. Idly massaging his maimed wrist, he continued. “The odds against him were overwhelming. Whereas King Henry had been outnumbered six to one, the Boers had faced odds of nearly seven to one in men, and nine to one in guns. Yet by the time he had whipped the pants off General Sir Redvers Buller the man was lucky to escape with his breeches on.”

Here grandma interrupted. “Now, children, do you know who’s being referred to? It so happens your- your grandfather here is not the only general in the family. Although I had not yet met Manie, I - and our whole nation - had heard of his uncle. He had joined the fight against the invaders as a burgher, which was the same as a private in the British army, and within three months - yes, only three months! - he was made a general. The great General Louis Botha. Now what do you think of that?”

“Can I have some more pudding?” I asked, but my apparent lack of reverence was rewarded with a scowl.

“At 37 he was the youngest Boer general by far. And within a decade he would be Prime Minister of the Union of South Africa ,” grandma glowed.

“A brilliant tactician,” mused her husband. “The way he ambushed that armoured reconnaissance train near Ladysmith a month before the great battle, tjonge tjonge. Got his men to roll a large rock onto the line, which derailed some of the carriages-”

“And who did they capture in that skirmish?” demanded grandma, looking directly at me.

“Please?” I pleaded, pointing to the remains of the pudding.

“Winston Churchill!” the name resounded. “None other than the future Prime Minister of Britain.”

As you will have deduced by now, I was none too impressed with this information. Years later, reading Churchill’s autobiography “My Early Years”, I most certainly was. He wrote of how the British, trapped in their immobilised train by the Boers, had tried desperately to fight their way out of the ambush. He was about to make a run for it when he saw a Boer horseman riding towards him at full gallop. With only one hand on the reins, this expert rider pulled up in the space of a few yards, and with the other hand he levelled his rifle at a spot between the 25-year-old war correspondent’s eyes, never wavering. Churchill was staring down the barrel of General Louis Botha’s rifle.

That is what he wrote at the time, and subsequently in his memoirs. He was later quoted as having said: “History will be kind to me for I intend to write it.”

He was imprisoned in Pretoria, escaped, and by the time he returned to Britain the following year Louis Botha’s fame had spread to Europe, thanks in great part to his sensational victory at Colenso. Churchill, a political opportunist-

“Show me a politician who isn’t,” sneered Gall.

Churchill put all this to good use in securing a seat in the British Parliament in the year 1900, aged only 26.

But his claim that he was captured personally by the dashing young General Botha appears unfounded. Boer records show it was indeed Field-Cornet Sarel Oosthuizen. There are many references to the incident on the internet. Here is one:

P.S.: During the Boer War, a young Indian lawyer organized an ambulance corps for the British army and commanded a Red Cross unit, operating in the field as a stretcher bearer. He was Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, later known as Mahatma Gandhi. Thus there were three future heads of state in the field near Ladysmith at the same time.

P.P.S.: I can’t remember if I got that extra helping of Christmas pudding, though if I close my eyes and think back, I can almost taste it. Yum.

“I’m hungry,” piped Maqina. “Can I have some pudding?”

Hush my little one. That was a long story tonight, and it’s way past your bedtime.

“I’ll sing them a lullaby,” volunteered General Smelly Foot, and immediately launched into song.

“Kiss me goodnight sergeant-major
Tuck me in my little wooden bed.
Kiss me goodnight sergeant-major
Sergeant-major be a mother to me.”