A Boer War Story

This is another photo from my grandfather’s collection. In his album the caption at the side reads, “1938. Dad (E. J. Anderson) and fishing buddy Mr. Monaham (Boer War Vet). (Dad age 49)” As in my last post, this photo inspired a story from my grandfather.

I don’t know Mr. Monaham’s first name. I’ve run a search through the list of the 7,000 Canadians who served in the Boer War, but there isn’t a Monaham among them. Mr. Monaham must have served in a British unit, and there are far too many of them to attempt a quick check for the sake of a given name. Whatever his full name, to my grandfather he would have been ‘Mr. Monaham,’ a man who enjoyed fishing every bit as much as his father did. What stands out in my grandfather’s memory, though, is an old war story he once heard.

My grandfather heard a lot of war stories as a little boy. He says most nights when he was young, the grown men he knew would come together around someone’s kitchen table and talk about their experiences in the Great War by the light of kerosene lamps. In the days before television –when even a radio wasn’t available in every home– telling a story was how people passed the time before going to bed, and the Great War was a common experience they all shared, something that had changed every one of them. I wish I could have heard some of those stories, but to my grandfather they blended together, too common to remember any one in particular. Mr. Monaham was different, though: Mr. Monaham’s war had been in Africa, a full generation before the First World War. His story was about death, and life, and a staggering coincidence.

Mr. Monaham was not a great admirer of British infantry tactics: Marching in the open very slowly towards an enemy under cover with high-powered rifles seemed a damned foolish idea to him, but those were his orders during the Boer War. The British commanders wasted hundreds of brave young men in Southern Africa with uphill frontal assaults against dug-in Afrikaaner sharpshooters, and after one such battle it fell to Mr. Monaham to guard the British dead.

They were stacked like cordwood, and a man needed to stand over them with a rifle to keep the hyenas and jackals away until they could be buried. The sun was setting, and Mr. Monaham was standing next to this mountain of corpses, and it was all very macabre, and then he heard a moaning. At first he took it for his nerves getting the better of him: It was getting dark, and he was surrounded by dead men in a foreign land ten thousand miles away from home. The mind can play tricks. Still, the moaning came and it went for a very long time, and Mr. Monaham’s flesh began to crawl with the thought, “What if one of them isn’t really dead?”

The battle was long over, and the living had been separated from the dead. These bodies were being stacked here, and their next stop was a hole in the ground being dug by a party of soldiers nearby. What if one of the dead men had merely been unconscious during the post-battle triage? What if the medics had missed his pulse? What if they were about to bury a wounded man alive?

Unable to ignore the sound any longer, Mr. Monaham set down his rifle and started pulling men off the top of the pile. The moaning became clearer, and he dug through the heap of corpses with more urgency until, just as the sun was setting, he saw a pair of eyes looking up into his own, and they blinked.

Mr. Monaham hauled the wounded soldier out from under his dead comrades and carried him to the surgeon’s tent. He was then sent back to guard the dead again. Years passed, and Mr. Monaham would probably have set the story aside as just one more war story; that is until one day in the early thirties, he was walking down a street in Detroit and bumped into the man he had rescued three decades before.

Did they recognize each other?

You don’t forget a face when you see it under circumstances like that. Three decades and ten thousand miles wasn’t enough to blur their memories. My grandfather does not know how they celebrated their reunion, but Prohibition was still going on at the time, and most of the Andersons’ friends were tee totallers anyway, so I imagine a stiff drink wasn’t in the cards, however much it was in order.

I don’t know the end of the story. I don’t even know Mr. Monaham’s first name. I found what I heard interesting, though, and as the purpose of this blog is to share what I find interesting with you, I’m happy to have taken this opportunity to do so.

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2 Responses to A Boer War Story

  1. [...] Murray Anderson, who I’ve mentioned before at least in passing here, here, here, here, here, and here on this blog, passed away last Sunday. He was a few months shy of his eighty-sixth [...]

  2. [...] The South African War: The First Total War of the 20th Century I came across the old university essay the other day, and I thought it blog-worthy (after a few minor edits, corrections, and of course a healthy contribution of pictures). I already have one post about the Boer War on this blog. You can find it here. [...]

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