Bloemfontein White Horse

The seven white horses are characteristic icons in the sweeping Wiltshire countryside. But there is another white horse, equally prominent, on a hill in South Africa. Made of rocks painted white, it is planted on the east side of Naval Hill in Bloemfontein. It is about 20m long, from head to tail, and about 12m high.

Like the Uffington White Horse, there is some mystery and controversy concerning its origins. When was it put there? Why was it put there?

There have been several men who have claimed to be its creator. In 1932 Captain R A Ironside of Leeds returned to the scene where he had been wounded (at Winburg) 30 years before. He said that he and Colonel Deacon, both of the Royal Fusiliers, had been stationed in Bloemfontein in 1902 and, having spare time in abundance, had organised a number of equally idle African and Indian troops to construct the horse on the slope of the hill. They modelled it, he said, on the celebrated Uffington White Horse.

Some have claimed that the horse was made by British troops in the likeness of the white horse ridden by General de Wet. Another account has it that it is the work of sailors from the Wiltshire naval regiment.

In 1935 local farmer J D M Lynch (whose family fought on the Boer side) rubbished both these versions. He pointed out that after Lord Roberts captured Bloemfontein on March 15 1900 a military remount camp was established at the foot of Naval Hill (so named, not because it was anywhere close to the sea but because it was fortified with naval guns). At this remount camp, to which were attached the sick lines, or hospital, for horses, the remounts for troops were cared for.

The collectors of these remounts had to travel miles over a strange country to round them up and needed some visual guidance, so it was decided to provide them with a direction marker. "Make for the White Horse" became the instruction given to the men bringing the remounts into the city. Soldiers' efforts to construct a satisfactory horse failed so the task was entrusted to Lynch's cousin William Lynch, who was employed at the remount depot.

Then again, in 1962 E C Holmes said he had laid the horse out but that it was finished by Dan Keys "as I could not get the legs right". He added: "We did not have to quarry the stones: we simply collected boulders and whitewashed them. I may say it was very difficult to get the horse in position."

In the face of these contradictory versions that meticulous scholar of Free State history Karel Schoeman, while associating the horse with the remount depot, has concluded that it is not clear who the architects of the horse were.

Certainly it seems as though we can never be conclusive. But some observations can be made and some myths laid to rest.

We must be sceptical about Mr Ironside of Leeds, who does not sound like a Wiltshireman. The Bloemfontein horse is nothing like the Uffington White Horse and 1902 is a bit late for the figure to have been of much real use. Equally, the idea that it represents De Wet's Fleur seems far-fetched even given the average Tommy's wry sense of humour. And Wiltshire, being landlocked, is as likely to have a "naval regiment" as Bloemfontein is to have a submarine.

But Wiltshire did play a significant part in the war in the Free State. Wiltshiremen made up 1 and 2 companies of the senior regiment of the Imperial Yeomanry (as well as 63 Company), which arrived in Cape Town in March 1900. They were moved to the eastern Free State to try to help trap De Wet, Prinsloo and Olivier. They took part in the capture of Bethlehem and fought at Slabbert's Nek, Thaba'Nchu, Ladybrand and Senekal.

In addition, the 2nd Battalion of the Duke of Edinburgh's Wiltshire regiment (disembarked at Port Elizabeth in January 1900) joined General French in his defence of Colesberg, Naaupoort and De Aar, and fought a bitter action near Arundel in February.

The next few months were full of hardship, as the regimental history of 1st I Y pointed out: "It was the African winter, and . . . the nights were bitterly cold, the men's water bottles being nothing but a solid mass of ice in the mornings. There was none of the pomp and glory of war, none of the stirring excitement of a pitched battle and the glorious exaltation brought by a decisive victory. The troops plodded on, through icy winds, dust and rain, snow and hail; ill-clothed, fed on the coarsest food, and not too much of that; sleeping on the ground with no covering but a ragged blanket; under fire night and day from an unseen and elusive enemy, and bearing all with a cheerful and dogged endurance beyond all praise."

Throughout the Free State there are many graves of these Wiltshiremen. The 2nd Regiment was particularly hard hit by enteric fever when they were moved to the Bloemfontein area after Roberts took the city.

Operating between the remount stations of Bloemfontein and Kroonstad was an Indian whose job it was to round up stray horses and sheep. Those unfortunates who lost their mounts had to submit themselves to the discomfort and ignominy of joining what came to be known with some bitterness mixed with wry humour as Mahoud's Foot Regiment and march, weighed down by their saddles, at the pace of the slowest sheep to the remount stations to get a fresh horse. The white horse was indeed the marker for the Bloemfontein remount station.

What Lynch claimed may or may not be true - that the soldiers who started marking the horse were not happy with it and turned it over to someone else. But I have no doubt who first designed it. A white horse carved into a hill immediately signals a strong suspicion of its Wiltshire provenance. In addition, there just happened to be plenty of Wiltshiremen in the area - the 2nd Regiment was there for two months in April and May 1900, which is when the horse was most likely constructed. Finally, any true-blooded Wiltshireman will tell you immediately that that is a Wiltshire white horse.

In the century that followed the white horse had its ups and downs. During World War Two the Ossewabrandwag adorned it with a swastika, and periodically university students have turned it into a zebra. But it is the most prominent reminder of the AngloBoer War in Bloemfontein and is now a national monument.

It should be treated with reverence. Those impoverished souls who do not necessarily care that it is the eighth white horse of Wiltshire should at least give it the respect it deserves as a memorial to the multitude of horses who died beneath its gaze.

Bloemfontein White Horse

Reproduced with the permission of the South African Sunday Times