Freemasonry and the Anglo-Boer War

By Right Worshipful Brother Rodney Grosskopf

Published in the 2012 GLSA Southern Division Spring Ball Magazine

 

Towards the end of September 1899, when war seemed inevitable, Charles Aburrow, the Deputy District Grand Master (EC) of the Transvaal, sent out a circular to all the Lodges urging them to close. “Owing to the lamentable circumstances under which this State is at present” it directed, “all lodges in the District are placed in recess.”

 

Not long after, on 11 October 1899, came the fateful day when President Paul Kruger sent a telegram to all his local leaders throughout the Transvaal Republic stating simply: “Oorlog!” (“War!”). This was after the British Government had ignored the ultimatum of the Transvaal Republic demanding the withdrawal of British troops from its borders.

 

Despite the circular, those Freemasons who were still in Johannesburg tried to meet informally as often as possible, simply to keep in touch. On one occasion they even signed the Doornfontein Lodge Attendance Register.

 

Many Masons belonged to the schul and had formed a Jewish Ambulance Brigade because they didn’t want to fight on one side or the other as everyone had friends and family on both sides. So they came together once a week to learn First Aid. Many of them met for lunch at the Rand Club from time to time.

 

The brethren of the El Dorado Lodge in Zeerust in the Western Transvaal reacted:

 

‘Three brethren, Frost, Whiley, and Markson Jnr at once visited the lodge room and with a small hatchet destroyed whatever furniture they thought necessary. They packed up the charter, regalia, books and other documents and placed them with the National Bank at Zeerust for safekeeping. The Masonic Emblems were buried by Markson in his garden, so that they could be dug up again when the lodge revived after the war. Bro de Beer, the Landdrost, took charge of the parcel of regalia. The lodge building itself was cleared and used as a hospital for the sick and wounded’. Many other country lodges did the same sort of thing.

 

Many brethren were more interested in the general strategic picture. They could not fathom why the Boers attacked on two fronts; they felt that it would have been more sensible to keep their forces together. Others were surprised that they attacked at all. They thought the Boers should have just sat tight and waited for the British to come to them.

 

The siege of Ladysmith was most memorable from the point of view of the Freemasons and shows how the spirit of Masonry can keep going even in the most adverse circumstances. A few days before war was declared, the District Grand Lodge of Natal had its usual half-yearly meeting in Ladysmith and the District Grand Master, RW Bro Wesley Francis, laid the foundationstone of a new Masonic Hall ‘in proper form’.

 

The regular meeting of Biggarsberg Lodge Unity, which was formed in a tiny village set in a range of hills near Ladysmith, was apparently not held on 19 October 1899 because ‘the enemy’ was close.

 

Back in Ladysmith, where the sick and the wounded began to arrive after the action at Dundee, the Junior Warden of the Klip River County Lodge, which was domiciled in Ladysmith, Bro Lieut. AC McLachlan, and his brethren discussed what should be done with the Masonic records and so forth. Most of these were buried and the warrant entrusted to Bro McLachlan for safekeeping.

 

In honour of the Grand Master, HRH Prince Edward’s, birthday it was decided to hold a meeting. The various attendance, accounting and minute books were dug up, the warrant retrieved from Bro McLachlan and on Monday, 20 November 1899 the first Lodge meeting of the siege was convened. Five days later, a meeting was held at the Royal Hotel, because the Lodge premises had been commandeered by the military.

 

The Lodge in Mafeking continued to hold their regular lodge meetings throughout the siege. Although he was not a Freemason, Baden Powell encouraged the brethren to meet.

 

Johannesburg changed within the first days of the war. Shops such as Hart and Hennochsberg, a favourite store, had locked their doors and boarded up the windows. Both Hart and Hennochsberg were lodge brothers and friends. Some Masons like Solomon Hershfield worked for the Transvaal Republic and he, 17 in a sense, was a Boer. He remained for a while.

 

Winston Churchill, who became a Freemason after the War, was captured near Chievely on 15 November 1899 by a member of the Boksburg Commando, Field-Cornet Oosthuizen.

 

A Colonel in a Canadian Regiment was part of Meuthuen’s force stuck on the banks of the Modder River in December 1899. One Sunday morning he went for a stroll along the river and drifted too far from the camp. Suddenly he found himself looking down the barrel of a rifle, at the other end of which was a shaggy looking fellow with a slouch hat and the clearest, steady blue eyes. He got such a fright that he yelled out “Don’t shoot!” and at the same time instinctively threw up his hands in a Masonic salute. The Boer immediately dropped his weapon and hurried across to the Colonel, informing him that he was a member of the Broederband Lodge in Pretoria and was on General Cronje’s staff. He gave the Colonel a coin as a souvenir and implored him to return to his lines. ‘They parted as brothers, both richer for the experience’.

 

Many examples exist of fraternal links across enemy lines. One Australian sergeant found himself outside a Boer farm house. He asked the farmer to give or sell him something to eat. The latter demured. He then caught sight of the Masonic trinket on the old Boer’s watch chain and determined to ‘try’ him, gave some proper Masonic signs which the farmer returned in regular order. He was then invited inside the farmhouse and given what he described as ‘the best square meal’ he had had since he left Sydney.

 

George Kendal tells another remarkable story of a British soldier who was on horseback patrol. He had his ritual propped up on his saddle and was learning one of the degrees. Suddenly he was jolted back to reality by a Boer who covered him with a rifle and ordered him to dismount. On noticing the ritual, the Boer said that he too was a Freemason and offered to test whether he knew the ritual. They sat down in the veld together and rehearsed the ceremony; and, if ever there was a perfect example of fraternal amity between Boer and Briton, this must certainly have been it. Cecil John Rhodes was in Kimberly during the siege.

 

The last Lodge meeting was held in October. Adams, the local secretary of ARS Quatuor Coronati (the Masonic Research Lodge based in London) had his office open during the whole period of the siege. Rhodes was still working on his dream of the United States of South Africa. He was satisfied at the British progress in the war but sad that it was necessary. He had hoped that Reitz could see the bigger picture and avoid this stupid war. He knew him quite well and had lived with him for a week or so when Reitz, as the President of the Orange Free State Republic, opened the railway line to Bloemfontein. Reitz was of course a Freemason and he and Rhodes spoke about that a lot. Rhodes knew that Sir Johannes Brand, a previous President of the Orange Free State, had also been a Freemason.

 

When Winston Churchill escaped from captivity in the Staats Model School in Pretoria, he eventually and very fortunately met up with John Howard, the manager of the Transvaal and Delagoa Bay Colliery, in Witbank. Howard was an Englishman and a Freemason who worked for a German mine owner who was pro-British. He had a number of Englishmen working for him and was prepared to shelter Churchill. Howard had not been idle and had enlisted the help of Charles Burnham, a local shopkeeper and shipping clerk who was sending a consignment of wool to Lourenco Marques in Mozambique, the closest port. He rearranged the bales to form a little cave, his mother provided food, they tucked Churchill inside and sent him off with a clanking rattle. Burnham accompanied the train to make sure that the consignment was not shunted off the main line and forgotten about. He had to bribe and threaten several railway officials but he eventually got his passenger across the border at the village of Ressano Garcia. Churchill threw off the tarpaulin and crowed and sang his heart out to the heavens, even firing off his revolver in pure joy.

 

General Buller eventually was replaced as the General Officer Commanding South Africa, mainly due to his inability to break through the Boer lines and relieve Ladysmith. Lord Roberts was his replacement. Earl Kitchener joined him as his chief-of-staff. The latter two were good friends, probably due to the fact that they were both Freemasons and very senior ones at that. The British now had four Masonic Generals (the other two being Lt General Sir Charles Warren and Major General Sir Leslie Rundle) and three of them were Past Grand Wardens.

 

Both Warren and Rundle had been associated with South Africa for a number of years and both had regularly attended local lodges. Warren visited Rising Star Lodge in Bloemfontein as a guest of President Brand on his way back from the Holy Land where he had been excavating various archaeological sites. Rundle was initiated into the Transvaal Lodge in Pretoria in 1880. He was only 24 years old at the time and a lieutenant. He quite often attended the Southern Cross Lodge in Harrismith.

 

The Master of the Rising Star Lodge in Bloemfontein during the war, Ivan Haarburger, was a most remarkable fellow. When the war broke out in October 1899 many of the Brethren wanted to close down the Lodge but Haarburger would not hear of it. Not only was his Lodge going to continue meeting but he believed it had a part to play in the war that was coming. Haarburger and his brethren threw themselves into alleviating distress and were able to give relief to the suffering on both sides, as was extensively reported in the Masonic journals.

 

After Roberts entered Bloemfontein, British officer Masons were invited to attend the Lodge meetings. A most interesting, important and instructive meeting of the Rising Star Lodge, held on St George’s Day, 23 April 1900, was attended by 29 member and 47 visitors, mostly military brethren from all parts of the British Empire. The official record of this meeting reads: ‘To the right of the WM sat RW Bro Lord Kitchener, DGM for Egypt and Sudan, VW Bro Lord Castletown, Grand Secretary for Ireland and other distinguished Masters and Past Masters’. In fact there were representatives from every continent. RW Bro Lord Roberts, Past Grand Warden, wrote expressing regret that owing to indisposition, he was unable to be present.

 

There was some confusion about this meeting, understandable in a time of conflict and poor communication. ‘The Masonic Illustrated’ of London reported that it was a ‘scratch’ meeting – one thrown together on an ad-hoc basic and that Arthur Conan Doyle and Rudyard Kipling (both Masons) were there. Their presence was denied by the Lodge, as was the suggestion that this was an ad hoc occasion. To them it was important for the world to know that here was a Lodge which met through thick and thin, come what may. A remarkable feature of the meeting was that not one member of the Lodge had fought for the British. On the contrary, three had fought against them. Haarburger must rank up there as one of the great Freemasons of this country, perhaps of the world. His hard work and charismatic leadership were recognised by his promotion to Past Assistant Grand Director of Ceremonies in the Grand Lodge of England (a high rank). On vacating the chair after three years, the Lodge presented him with an illuminated address.

 

On 24 April 1900 Begbie’s Ironworks in Johannesburg experienced a tremendous explosion, which destroyed most of the factory. As it produced arms and ammunition, its destruction was a serious blow to the ZAR government. In consequence, the remaining English ‘Uitlanders’ were expelled. Thomas Begbie, co-owner with his father of the business, was a member of the Corona Lodge. The father, William Begbie, was charged with sabotage in the Republican court. The case was dismissed for lack of evidence but the Begbies were forced to leave the Transvaal.

 

The first ‘Initiate’ in Doornfontein Lodge in Johannesburg was a young prosecutor, Fredrick Edward Trugott (Fritz) Krause. By now he had been promoted to ‘Special Commandant’ for Johannesburg. He was a sort of Governor, representing Paul Kruger in Johannesburg. He was also the Treasurer of the Lodge and he was a very fine one at that. Towards the end of May 1900 the British army was knocking on the door of Johannesburg. They were already in Germiston and were camping at the Germiston Lake, some 8,000 of them. Everyone was panicking; many of the Uitlanders, particularly the English, were being banned – and some of them were his Lodge brethren. Fritz Krause must have known about it or even been called upon to execute painful instructions. He became a hero for refusing to blow up the mines, even though he had to overpower and arrest Judge Antonie Kock to prevent this happening.

 

Krause was invited to ride to Germiston Lake and discuss the surrender of Johannesburg with Lord Roberts. When Roberts became aware that Krause was also a Freemason, the discussions became very friendly and productive. After a considerable time Krause headed back to Johannesburg with a signed armistice agreement in his saddle bag. The agreement was that Roberts would hold back for 24 hours and then march into Johannesburg. In that time Krause would get the Boer Commando out of the Fort and on their way somewhere else. Then Roberts would march into the town and receive its surrender. One would have thought that everyone would have been happy but it was just the opposite. The Boers called Krause a ‘Verraaier’ (traitor). Whitehall thought it was the biggest mistake Roberts had made in his whole career. By letting the Boers escape to regroup with their armaments and all the gold mined in the previous month, the war carried on for a further two years instead of ending within a month or two.

 

Two lodges in Johannesburg decided to keep their light shining throughout the war. One was the youngest Scottish lodge in their district, Lodge Zion. The other was an Irish lodge, Abercorn No. 159, which eventually emerged, sadly reduced in strength, to resume labour on 20 December 1901.

 

Those Boer prisoners-of-war who were Freemasons and who were sent to St Helena, were fortunate that there were two lodges there. One prisoner-of war wrote

 

‘Existence here is exceedingly dull and a few of us are indebted to the local Lodges for being enabled to spend a few pleasant evenings in town at Lodge meetings. There are two Lodges in St Helena, viz St Helena Lodge, no 488 and the Old Rock Lodge, no 912 (both working under the English Constitution) of which Bro G Finch and Bro W Harrison are the Worshipful Masters for the present year and whatever our political differences are, we have no reason to complain of our fellow Craftsmen in St Helena, who have most generously extended to many of us the right hand of fellowship and welcome. A few of us have been allowed parole, through the courtesy of Bro Lieut-Col A L Paget, our esteemed Camp-Commandant, to accept invitations to attend Lodge meetings and there our welcome has been all that could be desired. We meet on a common base – English officers, rank and file soldiers, St Helena merchants and prisoners of war, fraternising in such fashion as to make it difficult to realise that we have been and to some extent remain, so far apart in our secular relationship in the world beyond the Lodge room: and when release does come, our recollections of Masonic ties in St Helena will be carried from this island and will have a better influence in healing the sore places than all the sophistry of Statesmen and legislators’.

 

Eventually, after much wrangling by the Boer representatives at the Peace of Vereeniging negotiation site, it was agreed to accede to the British Government’s peace proposals and in consequence the Peace accord was signed at Melrose House, Pretoria, on 31 May 1902. The Anglo-Boer War was over.

 

What is so remarkable is the mutually supportive and friendly relations that Masons had and continue to have towards each other. The Masonic ideals and ethos were so thoroughly instilled in each Mason’s conscious that no other consideration took precedence, be it of race, language, enemy action, religion, social standing or any other factor that normally divides people.

 

No doubt this extremely influential fraternal association was instrumental in forging lasting ties between the erstwhile foes, resulting in South Africa being a fully independent and prosperous country within eight years of the cessation of hostilities. It also helps to explain how Jan Smuts, the Boer General became a British Field Marshal in later years and how a young Boer like Deneys Reitz, who refused to accept the authority of the Crown in 1902 was, by 1916, a Colonel in the British Army in France in the midst of the First World War.

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