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The Railways in the Free State - A Trojan Horse?

At the start of the war, there were 5 024 miles (8 038 km) of railway line in operation in South Africa. Of this, 392 miles (627 km) were in use of the Free State. These were the main railway lines from Norvalspont and Bethulie to Springfontein, and from there, northwards to the Orange River.

1890, the railway line between Norval’s Pont (on the Orange River) and Bloemfontein was completed, thereby linking the interior of the Free State with Port Elizabeth and Cape Town. In 1892, Springfontein was joined to the new railway line to Bethulie and East London. These were heady days of progress!

The Free State line was constructed by the Cape Government Railway, and in 1898, handed to the Free State Government. The railway employees were mostly Cape Colonials.

During the first part of the war, the railway line transported Burghers to the front, via the junctions at Springfontein, Bethulie and Norvalspont. With the fall of Paardeberg, the Boers fell back to Bloemfontein. General de la Rey moved 1000 men, with horses, in ten trains, northwards, on 1 March 1900.  After the last train left the station at Norval's Pont, De la Rey's men blew up 3 spans of the railway bridge across the Orange River in order to delay the British advance (Blackie de Swardt, 963 Days at the Junction, p. 50).

Between Springfontein and Norval’s Pont were two fairly big sidings – Priors and Donkerpoort – which served surrounding farmers. Each had a shop or two. To the north of Springfontein, about 30 km away, the siding called “Jagersfontein Road” served the flourishing diamond town of Jagersfontein (about 50 km away). Jagersfontein Road was later renamed “Trompsburg”, and today it is an important administrative centre in the southern Free State.

Springfontein junction and nearby sidings
The railway system under British control

When the British reached Norval's Pont, they constructed a set of rails across the road bridge, and all the goods had to be pulled across by the men, very slowly and tediously.

Subsequently, the railway line became the most important logistical support system of the British. In effect, it brought the British forces into the heart of the Free State - and kept them there.

Once Lord Roberts reached Bloemfontein, his main challenge was to supply his forces, who had to rest and recuperate in Bloemfontein. Lieutenant-Col Girouard now headed the Imperial Military Railway. He had to repair the lines as soon as possible. Until the railway bridges were restored, goods were brought across the Orange River by means of the road bridge at Bethulie and an aerial tramway (using trolleys) at Norval's Pont). The glut of traffic on the single line (Norval's Pont-Bloemfontein) was relieved by creating sidings at Springfontein. Troops and remounts could be detrained at Springfontein, leaving the line open for supplies. A massive number of railway trucks (9 298 trucks in six weeks) were sent up to Bloemfontein (Blackie de Swardt, 963 Days at the Junction).


Arteries to the interior

Lieut-Col Edouard Girouard: The head of the new railway system

Girouard, a French Canadian, was a highly talented engineer. He was the son of a Supreme Court Judge in Canada. While in his twenties, he was recruited by Lord Kitchener to construct a railway across the Sudan; thereafter, he was appointed President of the Egyptian Railway Board. In 1889 he accompanied Sir Redvers Buller to the Cape as Director of Military Railways, at the very young age of 33.  Alongside the Railways Pioneer Regiment (established to protect the railways against Boer attacks), Girouard's men constantly and rapidly had to repair train sabotage, so that the British army could maintain its supply lines.


After the war, Girouard became High Commissioner for Northern Nigeria, and Governor of East African Protectorate 1909-1912. In the Great War he served as Director General of Munitions.

The train experience around 1900 ...

For almost all British soldiers, the journey inland, by train, was their first exposure to South Africa. 

Here is the diary description of Private HD Hirst of the 3rd Battalion East Kent Regiment (the "Buffs"):  "Travelling through the veldt is not an exhilarating pastime, the rails of this single line being laid almost straight across country, which runs in huge waves, two or three miles in length, crawling up gradient after gradient. At one of them the slope was too much for our engine and we had to get out and push!"  

And here is Winston Churchill (after his famous escape from Pretoria), reporting from Bethany (the mission station north of Springfontein), on 13 April 1900: " The spell of the great movements impending in tyhe Free STate began to catch hold of me before I had travelled far on the line towards Bloemfontein. Train loads of troops filled every station or siding. A ceaseless stream of men, horses, and guns had been passing northwards for a fortnight ... Lord Kitchener had ordered that in future all troops must march beyond Springfontein, because the line must be cleared for the passage of supplies, so that, besides the trains in the sidings, there were columns by the side of the railway steadily making their way to the front."

Source: Blackie de Swardt, 963 days at the Junction.

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