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War and Rugby

Boers at Spionkop

To the unenlightened and uninitiated, a rugby game can come across as a war zone. 30 men on
opposite sides hurling their beefy bodies into a mound, running to and from their enemy. Blood,
broken bones and the odd eye gouge or punch. So perhaps it is not so difficult to understand that
for many, the game of rugby came to them because of war. The Anglo Boer War, 1899-1902.
The war pulled over 70,000 boers and 448,435 mostly British troops into the conflict. It is well
known that 28,000 boer women and children died in the British concentration camps formed in
South Africa, but less is known about the 24,000 Boer men and boys (aged 7-78) and their
sympathisers who were sent to prisoner-of-war camps off South African shores. In fact, my dad, a
passionate home historian didn’t know this! This was done to stop them being freed by their own
countrymen to rejoin the fighting. But what it also did, was cause the spread of the game of rugby
through-out the more rural areas of Southern Africa, and other parts of the world, ensuring it
became the game of all games amongst the Boers.

Although rugby was already well established by 1890 in certain provinces and towns, and two tours
had taken place, in 1891 by a British team, and in 1896 by an Anglo-Irish team, the rural boers
sporting accomplishments were riding and shooting. And then the second boer war broke out in
1899.
The captured men were first sent to two camps on St. Helena, 5 in Sri Lanka ( then known as
Ceylon),14 camps in India and 6 in Bermuda, in that order as the camps became overpopulated.
Some were also sent to Portugal which is where some historians say rugby was first introduced,
although their first ever international was against Spain in 1935. Rugby never took off in Bermuda
due to the rocky ground and limited space. India was hot, sandy and not really conducive for
running fast and tackling so a kicking game of soccer was more prevalent.
The men had been savagely ripped from their families, their farms burnt and they were shipped far
away to foreign countries. Depression was sure to set in. In every camp were some Afrikaners who
had played rugby and used the game to alleviate their stress and boredom. The first camps were
established on the Island of St. Helena. Games amongst the prisoners were soon being played at
the Deadwood and Broadbottom camps. Sympathisers from the Netherlands had sent them a
shipment of 8 rugby balls, but before they arrived they managed to round up 14 players and an old
soccer ball. Three of these players had played for South Africa against the touring British side
before the war and one of them, Sommie Morkel, was later to play four test matches as a
Springbok on the 1906-7 tour to Britain and France. The garrison men refused to play rugby with
the Boers. Soon another 14 men had joined in and they recruited 16 young boys to make up
enough teams to be playing matches. Two years later the youngsters had enough members for
their own tournament. Games were played amongst each other and against the other camp.
As these camps became overrun with prisoners, new ones were shipped to Ceylon where the
biggest camp, Diyatalawa, held 4000 men. The boers divided this camp into two groups, the
Transvaalers and the Free Staters, after the respective provinces of South Africa. Soon rugby
games were filling their days, with matches happening 6 times a week. At one game, watched by
1500 spectators, Transvaal beat the Free State by 3 points and most of the players left the field
injured.
Most of them had not only never played the game before, but had never actually watched a game
either. It was completely new as rugby had been played in the cities and on the gold mines in the
Transvaal but never in the rural areas where most of them were from, and very rarely in the
Orange Free State.

It was not only the men in the concentration camps which became keen rugby players, but that
famous ceasefire letter from General Manie Maritz to the besieged British garrison at Okiep in
South Africa, calling for a ceasefire so that a game of rugby could be played between the enemies,
shows that the passion had grown. Although this game was never actually played, it is a
remarkable occasion to have happened.
Here it is translated from High Dutch into English

The Honourable Major Edwards,
O’kiep
Dear Sir,
I wish to inform you that I have agreed to a football 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
who I am sending to you.
I have the honour etc.,
pp. S.G. Moritz
Field General
Transvaal Scouting Corps.
Concordia, April 28, 1902

 

 

These four years of imprisonment and rugby had a remarkable effect on the boers when they
returned home after the war. The British found a stronger local team in their tour in 1903, less than
a year after the end of the war. And in their first ever overseas tour to Britain and France in 1906/07
the Springboks, as they became known, captained by Paul Roos, lost only 2 games out of 28,
drawing one.
One wonders in which direction South African rugby would have gone if it were not for the war.

One Response to “War and Rugby”

  1. John Dann

    Very interesting piece! Now we know why the South Africans are good at rugby -good sharpshooters in their day too, especially at Spionkop!

    Reply

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