Topic: The Iliad of Trooper Oppenheim

Topic type:

In memory of Harry Ernest Oppenheim, 1881-1900, Regimental No. 3006, 2nd New Zealand Contingent, South African (Boer) War.

Page looking wrong? Archived version here.

Then Uncle Jim was off to the wars

With a carbine at his saddle

And was killed in the Transvaal

– I forget in just what battle.

                              Denis Glover, Sings Harry

 

“Uncle Jim” was unlucky. Of the 6,500 New Zealanders who went off to the South African War, only 71 were actually killed in combat. Some 230 died, but mostly of disease or in accidents. Harry Oppenheim, a farm labourer fromCanterbury, was unlucky too. On 29 November 1900 he was shot in the abdomen at Rhenoster Kop and took hours to die in the hot sun.

Harry was the second son of Ernest Oppenheim, publican and storekeeper, and his first wife Helen Kate, née Pearcy. He was apparently a favourite son and brother. There are stories about him which are fragmentary and cannot be verified now, as the people who could confirm them are no longer alive. But even the fragments give an impression of a competent, energetic, kind-hearted young man. According to family lore, he marched all the school children down to the beach and organised a day of swimming and games when the teacher had a brainstorm. At the age of fourteen he is said to have mounted his horse and gone on a desperate ride for the doctor on the night his mother miscarried her tenth child and died. The only photograph that survives is a family group portrait from 1897, in which he is shown proudly sporting the signs of adulthood: a tweed cap, a watch-chain across the waistcoat, and a sturdy bicycle.

 

 

Oppenheim family, 1897. Harry is in the back row on the extreme right, with bicycle.

Two years after that photograph was taken, the South African War began. The First Contingent of New Zealanders departed on 21 October 1899, to great public acclaim. The Second Contingent consisted mostly of men from Canterbury. They left for South Africain the Waiwera on 20 January 1900, but although Harry was to join that contingent he did not go with them – possibly because they had to supply their own horses and equipment. Instead he travelled as one of 15 grooms on the Undaunted, a ship chartered by the New Zealand government to transport horses to South Africa. The war was notoriously, mercilessly greedy for horses, and constant remounts were needed to replace the dead. The Undaunted sailed on 27 February with 96 animals on board and a cargo of oats and other produce. When it got to Cape Town, Harry joined up. In the Maitland camp on 23 April 1900 he signed a hand-written Volunteer Attestation Form in which he lied about his age, stating that he was 20 when the truth was that he had turned 19 on 4 March. As a veteran of Christchurch’s volunteer E Battery, he was one of eight grooms from the Undaunted who were drafted into the 2nd Contingent’s Hotchkiss Battery, which was short of men. This was unfortunate, as the Hotchkiss Battery was not a happy group.

The Armstrong Gun Company had donated four Hotchkiss machine guns to theNew Zealandwar effort, provided that theNew Zealandgovernment could muster the men. Although this seemed like a good deal, and the transaction was talked up in the newspapers by excited journalists, the Hotchkiss Battery ran into trouble from the beginning. The guns were designed to be carried into position on horseback and assembled for fighting, but they were too heavy for this to be truly practical. Also, disastrously, their range turned out to be less than that of the 1895-model Mauser rifle. The Boer forces positively bristled with Mauser rifles, and many Boers were skilled marksmen. In addition to the difficulties with their equipment, the Hotchkiss men suffered from what today would be called industrial unrest. Their officers, like many career soldiers, were unused to dealing with volunteer troopers, and relationships between the ranks soured quickly. A letter to Major Robin, theNew Zealandforces commander, dated 20 June 1900 and preserved in Archives New Zealand, eloquently detailed the grievances of the men, which included unreasonable punishments, deliberate withholding of rations, and constant hectoring abuse. Harry did not sign the letter, perhaps because he wasn’t there when it was written, or perhaps from an instinct to keep out of trouble.

 Shortly after the delivery of the “round robin” letter, the Hotchkiss Battery was disbanded, its guns delivered into store in Pretoria, and its men and horses handed over to Major Robin to be reabsorbed into the 2nd Contingent. Its officers were quietly sidelined into other duties. Harry was transferred to No. 2 Company of the Second.

Typhoid was one form of trouble which he did not avoid, although he recovered from it after a spell in Bloemfonteinhospital in July 1900. The illness, which was usually called enteric fever, was common among the troopers, whose drinking water and food often came from contaminated sources. It accounted for more than half of the 130 or so New Zealanddeaths from disease during the war. The editor of the Veldt Lyre described the water at Kroonstadt after 15,000 men and their horses, plus transport mules, had used it for various purposes: “When boiling it, a scum would form on top, and when after much labour most of the scum was skimmed off, not one-fifth of liquid remained” (Veldt Lyre, p27). And near Rhenoster Kop Corporal Twisleton and his comrades found – and were grateful for – “only swamp water, thick, black, and stinking” (Twisleton, p122).

On 26 June 1900 Lieutenant Lewin, also a former member of E Battery, wrote home toChristchurchfrom Heilbron. His long letter was published in the Star on 20 August. Part of it reads:

Major Howe, Hall, Johnson and myself are together in a house belonging to a Boer, who is away on commando, and we are very comfortable. The men are just outside with the horses. You will be pleased to hear that Hall, Wilson and Oppenheim are considered very smart chaps in the Battery. Wilson is away at the front, Oppenheim is with me acting as a mounted infantry trooper, and Hall is left behind sick at Kroonstad.

 Presumably Oppenheim was one of the men outside with the horses. It would have been taken for granted that officers had more right to comforts than troopers did.

 After his stay in hospital in July, nothing more is heard of Harry until 29 November. By this time the 2nd Contingent was very well-travelled. Its commanding officer Montagu Cradock estimated that between 25 February and 28 August 1900 it had covered some 2,183 miles (Cradock, p31). In November it was helping to implement the scorched-earth policy which had been adopted by the British. The intention was to starve out the Boers by burning crops, slaughtering animals, and destroying farm equipment: dispiriting work for New Zealanders, many of whom – including Harry – had been farm workers themselves. Towards the end of the month they were in and out of Pretoria, where the Australasian contingents cut a dash and were much admired as “the roughest, toughest, division that had left the capital” (“From our Special Correspondent”, Evening Post, 10 January 1901, p5). According to Twisleton they were supplied with much-needed soap and clothing before joining a large force under Generals Paget and Plumer. At Eerste Fabrikien, near Pretoria, they camped for a couple of days, swimming in the river by day and trying to shelter from spectacular thunderstorms at night (Twisleton, p118).                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  

Twisleton described the army encamped on the veldt:

 …hundreds of fires dotted all over the veldt, their flickering light dimly lighting up the horse lines, the scattered saddlery and accoutrements, and the different postures of the men, some knelt at the fire cooking, some old campaigners squat like Indians, some standing, some stretched at full length, but nearly all smoking and talking, discussing fights and marches and the ability of the Generals. From a distance the murmur of the camp sounds like the murmur of an incoming tide on a sandy beach (Twisleton, p119).

 On 25 November they marched 20 miles to Wagendrift, going on the next day to Fousters Hoek, skirmishing with the Boers as they went. On the 28th they marched to Hartebeestfontein and engaged in more “desultory fighting”, as Colonel Cradock put it (Cradock, p34). At two in the morning of the 29th they were roused to pack their kits, saddle up, and get ready to move out towards Rhenoster Kop at dawn. Rhenoster Kop (rhenoster means rhinoceros) is a long ridge of hills in theTransvaal: the battle there, on 29 November 1900, is often described as the last set-piece battle of the war, before it became essentially a guerrilla campaign.

 There were several factors working against them that day.

 One was that the landscape of Rhenoster Kop – sometimes referred to as Rietfontein – presented, in the words of Corporal Twisleton, “magnificent country from a picturesque point of view, and also from a defender’s point of view; but awful country in the eyes of an attacking force” (Twisleton, p122). The Boers were able to shelter in the rocky outcrops and trees at the top of the ridge, protected both from enemy fire and from the sun. Meanwhile the attackers had to advance over level, empty ground where they would be clear targets.

 In addition, the Boer general who was making a stand on the kop was the astute and capable Ben Viljoen, MP forJohannesburg, the youngest and most dynamic of the Boer high command, well known for inspiring his men. He was not an easy person to subdue, even when outnumbered and equipped with substandard artillery, as he was on this occasion. He indicated in his memoirs that if General Paget had understood the lie of the land, the British could easily have made a flanking movement towards the north which would have won the day. However, “we [the Boers] were in hopes the General would not think of this” (Viljoen, p159), and he did not. Viljoen’s opinion of General Paget’s intelligence was not high. “General Paget seemed resolved to take our positions, whatever the sacrifice of human lives might be. …Pride or stupidity must have induced him not to change his tactics” (Viljoen, p162-3).

 As a third factor in the New Zealanders’ fate, then, the approach chosen by the British commanders must be included. Kipling wrote of the South African War, “We have had no end of a lesson: it will do us no end of good” (The Lesson, 1899-1902). Sadly, he was wrong. The same ludicrously simple tactics, brutally wasteful of men, were to be employed in World War I. 

 At Rhenoster Kop General Paget had two battalions of infantry, the Royal Munsters and West Ridings, nine guns, and 1,200 mounted men, consisting of Australians, New Zealanders, and Yeomanry (Childers, p61-2). This was numerically greatly superior to Viljoen’s force which cannot have been much more than 1,000 men. Viljoen had deployed his Johannesburgers and Theunissen’s Scouts on his left, theJohannesburgpolice in the centre, and Boksburgers under Captain Müller on the right. Paget had put his infantry in the centre, with the Queensland Bushmen and Yeomanry on the left, the 2nd and 3rd New Zealand Contingents under Colonel Cradock still further on the left, and the Victorians and West Australians on the extreme right. From Viljoen’s point of view, the attack on Rhenoster Kop looked formidable:                                                         

 It gave me a turn when I suddenly saw the gigantic army of “Khakis” right in front of us, slowly approaching, in grand formation, regiment upon regiment, deploying systematically, in proper fighting order, and my anxiety was mingled with admiration at the splendid discipline of the adversary (Viljoen, p160).

 His admiration did not stop him mowing them down, of course. The New Zealanders, as the advance guard, were in action very early in the morning, and although they came closer than anyone else to the Boer position, that was as far as they would get all day, as they were pinned down by fire until seven at night. It is not easy to deduce the exact sequence of events from the sometimes conflicting accounts of the battle, but it seems that the first man to drop to a Boer bullet was Lieutenant Tucker of the 3rd Contingent. When Dr Godfray went to attend to the wound he was hit also. (Both of them were to recover from their wounds.) At this point everyone dismounted and sent their horses to the rear (Twisleton, p123). Captain Crawshaw then led the Second up even closer to the enemy, at a high price in casualties.

 The first man hit was Farrier-Sergeant Smith (Second Contingent), mortally; then Oppenheim. MacBride carried Oppenheim out of the fire, only to get hit himself. Captain Crawshaw, then dangerously wounded, was attended by Hill, Beath and Foreman dropping. Hill ran to them, and was shot badly through both hips himself (Hawdon, p90).

And that was only the beginning. It was a disastrous day for the New Zealand contingents, though their courage was universally praised. The Auckland Weekly News gave its readers a wildly romantic and inaccurate depiction of the battle:

 

THE GALLANT CHARGE OF THE NEW ZEALANDERS AT RHENOSTER KOP, NEAR RIETFONTEIN, SOUTH AFRICA, NOVEMBER 29, 1900. The battle of Rhenoster Kop took place between the forces of General Paget and the Boers under Viljoen and Erasmus. It was signalised by the splendid charge made by the New Zealanders who rushed the enemy's positions, and carried them. Lord Roberts, in his dispatch, said that New Zealandmight well be proud of such men. [Drawn by our special artist]. Taken from the supplement to the Auckland Weekly News 01 February 1901 p010. Sir George Grey Special Collections,Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19010201-10-1

The reality was that the Third Contingent had seven wounded and two men killed; out of its 51 men the Second had 15 wounded and three killed, four if the count includes Farrier-Sergeant Smith who was to die of his wounds on 2 December. While trying to rescue Harry, for which he was mentioned in despatches, Saddler-Sergeant A. L. McBride was shot in the foot. As for Harry himself, he was shot in either the stomach or the lung. Accounts stress the pain of the wound.

Poor Oppenheim was next hit. He was sitting near Captain Crawshaw and Lieutenant Montgomery when a bullet found him and laid him low in agony, shot through the stomach (“From our Special Correspondent”, Evening Post, 10 January 1901, p5).

 Poor Harry Oppenheim was one of the Second killed. He was shot through the lungs with an explosive or Martini bullet (Letter from Trooper Vallance printed in the Star, 14 January 1901, p4).

A standard Mauser rifle bullet tended to drill a neat hole in its victim, but other types of bullet were used in the South African War which made considerably more mess. English surgeon George Makins deplored the use of Martini-Henry ammunition, which was intended for shooting game animals. Although it contained no explosive charge, such a bullet could have an explosive effect: “In the case of the viscera their power of doing serious damage was very striking compared with that of the bullets of small calibre” (Makins, Chapter III: see External links). 

Viljoen was accused of not respecting the Red Cross flag by firing on ambulances at Rhenoster Kop. In his memoirs he admitted doing this, but attempted to justify himself by stating his conviction that the attacking forces were using the cover of the ambulances to sneak their artillery pieces closer to the Boer positions. He had received a heliograph message to that effect and decided that the ambulances were there under their own responsibility. He believed a white flag should have been used instead to retrieve the casualties (Viljoen, p163). 

It is bad enough to be shot. But the distress of the wounded was compounded that day at Rhenoster Kop because they, along with their able-bodied companions, were trapped in position for fourteen blistering hours with no water or shelter. The heat of the sun was unrelenting, and any movement was likely to draw fire from the Boers.

As the sun got higher in the heavens, the position became more and more irksome. We had no water, and nothing to eat, whilst the sweat simply poured out of us. It was almost impossible to bear the hand on the butt of the rifle, so hot had the sun made it, whilst the barrel would burn the hands (Twisleton, p124).

The noise can only have added to their torment: the “constant roar of musketry, the rat-tat-tat-tat-tat of the pompom and the boom of the 12 and 15 pounders. It was terrible, and seemed as if all the demons in hell were let loose” (“From our Special Correspondent”, Evening Post, 10 January 1901, p5).

But it was the thirst that was hardest to endure. The wounded, already dehydrated by blood loss, cried out for water in the heat. Amazingly, after being shot so early in the morning, Harry clung to life through the whole long day. However, when evening fell, 

…Sergeant T. H. Overton, unable to bear the cries of Private H. E. Oppenheim, crawled out to fetch him some water only to return and find his comrade dead (Stowers, p26).

 

 

Graves of New Zealanders killed at Rhenoster Kop, South Africa. Original photographic prints and postcards from file print collection, Box7. Ref: PAColl-6001-02. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22589303 Permission of the Alexander Turnbull Library,Wellington,New Zealand, must be obtained before any reuse of this image

 Harry and the others who had been killed in the battle were buried by their fellow troopers in neat graves on the veldt. The above photograph shows the barbed wire, the rocks which were piled up to keep away jackals, and a touching attempt to soften the bleakness by tucking plants around the edges. Harry is buried under the tablet at the forefront of the picture. It was this image, published in Michael King’s New Zealanders at War (King, p90) with a mistake (“Rhenoofer Kop”) in the caption, which triggered my researches into Harry’s career. In the 1990s it took six letters to various agencies inNew Zealand and overseas to find out what had happened to those graves. The men had been disinterred in the 1960s and reburied in the Diamond Hill Garden of Remembrance, nearJohannesburg.

 The Premier’s telegram, stamped 6 December 1900, would have been delivered to Ernest Oppenheim inNew Zealandwhen Harry had been dead for a week. The text reads:

 Deeply regret to inform you that Governor of Capetown cables me that an Oppenheim was killed in the recent action at Reitfontein. Regimental Numbers of all other men are given, but there is no number opposite your son’s name his name. I fear it is your son. If so I heartily sympathise with you. You have the consolation, however, small as it is, that he died the death of a soldier nobly fighting the battles of the Empire. R. J. Seddon.

 (Harry’s regimental number is often misquoted as 306, a three-digit number like that of most troopers, whereas in fact it was 3006. The other men from the Undaunted who were accepted into the Hotchkiss detachment also had four-digit regimental numbers.)

 On 27 December 1900, Ernest Oppenheim wrote to Colonel Gordon at the Defence Department inChristchurch, on the elaborate letterhead of the Leeston Emporium of which he was proprietor.

 Dear Sir

Your memo to hand Re my Late Son Harry Ernest Oppenheim Killed at RietfonteinS.A.I beg to inform you other than being part of our Staff when in Business he has no one who was reliant upon him for Support Of Course it makes all the difference to me Seeing I have to employ others to fill the position in our Business that we were Keeping open for him and in Consequence has entirely upset my Arrangements We feel our Boys Loss Very Keenly but are Satisfied to Know he died nobly doing his duty on the field of Battle I should esteem it a Great favour if the Department will Give me all information in their power relative to Him and his effects at their earliest Convenience if possible I Should like to have anything belonging to him forwarded

I Have the Honour

To Remain Yours

Faithfully Ernest Oppenheim

 “Oppenheim had nothing on him of any value”, went the terse note from Lieutenant-Colonel Cradock preserved in Harry’s army file. Fortunately Captain Joyce, a staff officer at Wellington HQ, understood that a dead trooper’s belongings would naturally be wanted by his family, and he wrote more politely. Eventually Harry’s knapsack arrived at the Oppenheims’ house, where it apparently sat untouched on a table in the hall for days (or weeks or months) before Ernest could bring himself to open it. 

 What the knapsack contained is not known. It has been lost, and only one item from it survives: a dilapidated little book, measuring about five inches by three. The name of the owner, Poony Braun or Brauer, is inscribed on the flyleaf. On one of the blank pages at the back Harry has written, in faint pencil, “Commandeered by H. E. Oppenheim At Bethlehem on the 10th [?] of July 1900”. (Underneath Ernest wrote, in equally faint pencil, “Killed at the Battle of Rhenoster Kop south spur Nov 29th 1900. Ernest Oppenheim.”) In effect, the book is loot. But as loot goes, it’s not much. It is an 1825 edition of Alexander Pope’s translation of the Iliad, published and printed by J. F. Dove inLondon, and it is in very poor condition, with detached boards and other serious damage, including water damage – perhaps from those thunderstorms on the veldt. It is an interesting choice, however. Was it possible that a young New Zealander far from home took comfort in poetry and saw himself as a Greek besiegingTroy?

 

 

Relics of Harry are few. There is the battered Iliad. There are two large tropical shells which he sent back fromCape Town and which are retained by family members inAuckland and inLondon. There is also his Queen’sSouth Africa medal. With its Transvaal, Wittebergen, andCapeColony clasps, it is a hefty and now quite valuable piece of silver – certainly more valuable than anything Harry owned in his lifetime. But his chief legacy is his name, which appears on several war memorials. Unfortunately his surname is misspelt as Opperheim on the wall at theAucklandMuseum and as Openheim on his grave at Diamond Hill. More happily, descendants of one of his young brothers have been named for him in two out of three generations.

 The last word goes to Ben Viljoen, who mystified and infuriated his enemies by silently stealing away from Rhenoster Kop after the battle, as there was no strategic point for him in continuing to hold the position. He described the aftermath of the fight (Viljoen, p166):

 As the battlefield looked now, it was a sad spectacle. Death and mutilation, sorrow and misery, were the traces yesterday’s fight had left behind. How sad, I thought, that civilised nations should thus try to annihilate one another. The repeated brave charges made by General Paget’s soldiers, notwithstanding our deadly fire, had won our greatest admiration for the enemy, and many a burgher sighed even during the battle. What a pity such plucky fellows should have to be led on to destruction like so many sheep to the butcher’s block.

 Stephanie Smith, Tauranga, January 2014

 

Sources

 

 Acknowledgements

Pamela Collier, pers. comm. Many years ago Pam very kindly told me all the Harry stories she knew. I hope I have remembered them correctly as she is no longer here to consult.

John Osborne for further information about the Hotchkiss machine gun.

 

Publications

  • Childers, E., ed. 1907. The Times history of the war in South Africa, volume V.London : Sampson Low, Marston and Co. Ltd.
  •  Cradock, M. [1915?]. Diary of the Second New Zealand Mounted Rifles on active service in South Africa, from 24th February, 1900, to 21st March, 1901, also from 1st April, 1901, to 8th May, 1901.Dunedin : The Evening Star Company.
  • Crawford, J., and Ellis, E. 1999. To fight for the Empire : an illustrated history of New Zealand and the South African War, 1899-1902. Reed :Auckland.
  • Crawford, J., and McGibbon, I.2003. One flag, one queen, one tongue : New Zealand, the British Empire and the South African War.Auckland :AucklandUniversity Press.
  • Glover, Denis. 1995. Selected poems edited by Bill Manhire.Wellington :VictoriaUniversity Press.
  • Hall, D. O. W. 1949. New Zealanders in South Africa, 1899-1902.Wellington : Department of Internal Affairs, War History Branch.
  • [Hawdon, S. E.]. [1907]. New Zealanders and the Boer War, or, Soldiers from the land of the moa / by a New Zealander.Christchurch : Gordon and Gotch.
  • King, Michael. 2003. New Zealanders at war. Revised ed.Auckland : Penguin. [The edition I used originally was the first: Heinemann, 1981]
  • Rees, E. A., et al. [1901]. The veldt lyre, with which is incorporated the 2nd N. Z. Contingent chronicle. Published at Rhenoster Kop, Transvaal, on Christmas Day, 1900. By E. A. Rees, L. Price, and R. Johnstone.Wellington : Whitcombe and Tombs.
  •  Stowers, R. 2008. Rough riders at war. 5th updated ed.Hamilton : R. Stowers, 2008.
  • Twisleton, F. 1902. With the New Zealanders at the front : a story of twelve months’ campaigning in South Africa.Christchurch : Whitcombe and Tombs.
  • Viljoen, B. 1973. My reminiscences of the Anglo-Boer War.Cape Town : G. Struik.

 

 External Links

 From Chapter III:

            One cannot help feeling some astonishment at the strong feeling that has been exhibited regarding the use of expanding bullets of small calibre, both at the Hague Conference and during this campaign, when the Martini-Henry, a far more dangerous and destructive missile in its effects at moderate ranges, is allowed to pass muster without notice.

 Lastly, we come to bullets of large calibre unprovided with a mantle. The Martini-Henry is practically representative of all these, but I append a photograph of some twenty out of thirty varieties which came into my possession during searches amongst captured ammunition. Some of these were provided with a copper core to facilitate 'setting up,' others were cupped at the top, and others flattened, to increase the resistance on impact. I can say little about them except that I believe some of the forms were responsible for a considerable proportion of the most severe injuries we met with, in some of which a large and regular entry made their use certain, while a considerable proportion of them were retained. In the case of the viscera their power of doing serious damage was very striking compared with that of the bullets of small calibre. As with the small sporting bullets I think their use was often due to the fact that the sporting Boer preferred to use the weapon he was accustomed to rather than his military weapon.

 A considerable number of the Boers were armed with Martini-Henry rifles, and this was particularly the case with small bodies of men, rather than with the larger commandos fighting regular engagements. The Transvaal Government, moreover, had Martini-Henry rifles made as late as 1898. The Martini-Henry bullet was responsible for some of the worst fractures that came under my notice, but it is of interest to remark that its capability to do damage did not satisfy some of the Boers, who cut them as is shown in fig. 43. I cannot say what the effect of this manoeuvre was, although it may have accounted for some of the wounds of the calf such as are mentioned below.

 

----

 

This page archived at Perma CC in January of 2017: https://perma.cc/6Y7C-7NTU 

Discuss This Topic

There are 0 comments in this discussion.

join this discussion

Tags

The Iliad of Trooper Oppenheim


First Names:Harry Ernest
Last Name:Oppenheim
Date of Birth:1881
Date of death:1900