Hartford House

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Unveiling of South African “Horse Memorial”

british war horses

British War Horse Hospital
(Illustration : Fortunino Matania)

A memorial to horses, mules and other animals killed in service during human conflicts and particularly the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902, is to be unveiled at Weston Agricultural College near Mooi River in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands, on 31 May 2009. The memorial is apparently one of only four in the world: the others are located in Port Elizabeth, Argentina and Britain.

Weston Farm and Weston Common were the site of the British Army’s Number 7 Remount Depot, in service from 1899-1913 and used during the South African War of 1899 -1902. It also served during the 1906 Bhambatha Rebellion. An estimated 30 000 horses and mules are believed to have been buried on the farmlands in the area, with thousands of these graves located on the farm where Weston Agricultural College, one of the area’s leading high schools, is situated.

Weston College farm manager Warren Loader, a military history enthusiast, and Jeannine Tait, history teacher and museum curator, believed that it would be fitting for military – and public – recognition to be given to animals lost in battles fought in this and other regions.

The Horses

“The memorial is not only in recognition of the thousands of British Army horses who arrived at Weston Remount Depot to be broken in and/or recover from the weeks-long sea and train journeys that brought them here, but also pays tribute to the thousands of Boer horses who served loyally alongside their masters during the Anglo-Boer,” says Paul Tait, Weston’s Principal.

Mounts for the British Army were brought to South Africa from Argentina, and suffered terribly during the sea voyage, with an estimated 13 000 dying before they even landed in Durban. Mules also paid a vital part in the war, and were imported for military purposes from America for the first time, also suffering terrible losses. Of 150 000 mules purchased, some 50 000 perished. Animals injured during battle were brought to Weston to recover from their wounds.

Boer mounts were hardy non-Thoroughbreds that could live off meagre grazing and travel for many miles a day. An assessment of the Boer ponies by an English source, concluded, “He is a hardy, in some essential respects a disease-proof, animal; his life has been largely spent in the open. Limited fare has rendered him both economical in use and an excellent forager...He is docile, hardy and wary, but small and frequently plain; he is light in both body and limbs, which leaves the impression that he is not up to the weight of the British soldier, although he mostly carries a man whose body weight is greater than that of the average mounted British soldier.”

The Memorial

Evidence of Weston’s history can be found daily, with horseshoes, buckles, bottles and other artefacts being unearthed all the time. The memorial has been designed in a horseshoe shape, mounted by an obelisk-shaped monument created out of old horseshoes found on the farm. The inverted horseshoes of this centrepiece are in keeping with the tradition at a cavalryman’s funeral, where his boots are reversed in the stirrups on his horse. The structure is topped with a specially crafted bronze statue of a horse that is the work of Weston old boy and acclaimed Midlands artist, Kim Goodwin. The monument is backed by a Wall of Remembrance where plaques commemorating the animals lost in the battle will be mounted. A box containing some bones of horses buried on the farm will be placed within the Wall of Remembrance.

The entire monument will be surrounded by shells donated by the Natal Mounted Rifles, one of the regiments to be present at the unveiling, which takes place on Sunday 31 May at 2.10pm. This is the exact time when the ceasefire between Boer and British was signed in 1902, when the Peace Treaty of Vereeniging was agreed.

Weston College will host the consecration ceremony, assisted by the Cavalry Association, representing traditional mounted regiments, and the Natal Mounted Rifles (NMR) and Umvoti Mounted Rifles (UMR). Regiments have been invited to display their Colours and flags of the day will be flown at half-mast. A mounted Guard of Honour will be in attendance.

Fun Day

The unveiling of the memorial will be the highlight of a public open day at Weston, starting at 9am, with various horse-related activities such as dressage and carriage-driving displays, tent-pegging by the UMR team, battle re-enactments by the Dundee Diehards, pony club demonstrations, talks by battlefields' tour guides and historians Ken Gillings and Maureen Richards, tours of the College (including its museum and significant heritage sites on the property), plus static displays by the Society for Preservation of Militaria and others. A commemorative booklet will be on sale on the day.

Weston’s Long History

In the 1800s, the town of Mooi River as we know it today did not exist. Instead, the village of Weston, laid out in 1866 and named after Martin West, the first Governor of Natal, was the centre of human settlement, with a store, a post office, a pound and a hotel.

At the end of 1898, mounted troops from Pietermaritzburg were sent to Weston to protect their horses from the deadly horse sickness that flourished in warm, wet conditions. In mid-1899, the 18th Hussars, the 1st Battalion Leicestershire Regiment, and a brigade of the RFA from Ladysmith were sent to camp at Weston to avoid the enteric fever that was rife in Ladysmith. When the Anglo-Boer War broke out in the latter part of that year, the Imperial authorities established a Remount Depot on the thousands of hectares of commonage near Weston, with the land being leased to the War Department.

Many of the original wood and iron buildings built for the remount depot remain in use. Three are provincial heritage sites – the officers’ mess, the commanding officer’s house, and a house built for doctors and nursing quarters for staff at Mooi River’s 600-bed, tented hospital. A 200-horse stable block, panelled stables for officer’s horses, old feed sheds and the original toll-house/post office (built in 1854 and today the farm stall), are in daily use. Some of the original red-brick College buildings were built in 1914.

Weston Agricultural College, its museum and the Horse Memorial are on the Midlands Meander tourist route, and as such are open to the public.

Weston Agricultural College

The College has a long-standing reputation as a learning establishment, with pupils combining an excellent academic education with hands-on farming experience in a genuine, sustained agricultural setting. As an operating farm, Weston is entirely self-sufficient and there are numerous farming enterprises underway on its 1200 hectare extent, set within a region with a rich farming heritage (dairy farming, cattle, potatoes, mealies, and world-class equine stud farms are just some of the agricultural enterprises that the area is known for). Surrounded by such a strong sense of history, many pupils become keen military history enthusiasts and trips to nearby battlefields are enjoyed. Horsemanship, too, continues to play a leading role, with the school producing many polo players of note.

A Memorial Ball will be held on Saturday 30 May at the college. The gate-fee for Sunday’s entertainment and the unveiling of the memorial is R5 per person.

Should you require further information, contact the school on +27 (033) 263-1328.