The Boer Vikings — Scandinavian warriors in South Africa
Scandinavia is maybe most famous for the viking’s in the rest of the world. Men who travelled the known and yet unknown world searching for fame, wealth or sometimes just recognition. According to Nordic tradition the time of the Vikings ended in 1066, more precisely at the battle of Hastings. After this event most forgot about the vikings, however, many remaining institutions, towns and their pagan belief still existed and continues to do until our days. However history seems to have repeated itself many times and the story of the voluntarily Scandinavian Corps helping the Boer’s during the Boer wars could have taken place a thousand years earlier.
The second Boer War took place between October 1899 and May 1902 in a try from Great Britain to take over the Boer regions of the Transvaal Republic (South African Republic) and the Orange Free State. Great Britain would in the end stand as winner and the two states got incorporated in the Union of South African in 1910. Great Britain got most of their support from the colonies such as Canada and India, however the Boer states were left without support since most countries in Europe didn’t want to interfere with Great Britain, the most powerful empire of the time. But the Boer’s would get some support, mostly because of the historical roots from The Netherlands, but also Scandinavian’s volunteered.
The Scandinavian Corps were founded just before the war outbreak in Pretoria, South Africa. Most of the recruits were miners from the area around Johannesburg but also a few sailors came to volunteer. The statistics from the time are a bit unclear, but the most probable number of the Scandinavian Corps were around 100 persons, most of them Swedes but also Danes, Norwegians and Finns. For the title of Company Commander they elected Johannes Flygare from Sundsvall, Sweden. None of the foreigners received any wage of compensation. The Boer government supported them however with weapon, food and horses. Before he could join the forces he was obliged to swear an oath which in translation reads:
I hereby make an oath of solemn allegiance to the people of the South African Republic, and I declare my willingness to assist, with all my power, the burghers of this Republic in the war in which they are engaged. I further promise to obey the orders of those placed in authority according to law, and that I will work for nothing but the prosperity, the welfare, and the independence of the land and people of this Republic, so truly help me, God Almighty.
In October 1899 50 of the men paraded before President Krüger before they all left for the front. Most of their tasks would be sabotage but they would also take part in a few battle’s, the most famous the battle at Magersfontein. The second man in command, Erik Ståhlberg wrote his memories of the war after he got back to Scandinavia in 1901. He wrote that:
The bombardment continues day after day. But it is not impossible getting new friends on the opposite side. Sundays and holidays hostilities cease and it is possible to meet the British in all friendliness, swapping meat for whisky!
On December 9th 1899 a group of three officers and 49 of the men were posted at a ridge with the task to warn and delay a British attack.
The attack from the British forces came two days later, led by the Highland Brigade. The Norwegian military attaché in South Africa had joined the Scandinavian’s this day in the trenches and he wrote back about the start of the battle:
It was a rainy, dark night, the men suffering from the cold, which at this time of the year can be severe. Everything was quiet until around 4.30 in the morning, when a few shots were heard on our right. Then silence for a couple of seconds, perhaps a minute that seemed to us, waiting tensely, as an eternity. It was so silent you could hear your heartbeats. Suddenly a firestorm broke out at the foot of the hill on the Boer right flank, and in the next second the mauser’s began to smatter, the wounded screamed and the English hurrahs and commands sounded. This went on for about 15 minutes, then silence fell anew. The first assault was beaten back with heavy losses.
The Scandinavians were greatly out-numbered; 4000 British soldiers were now attacking. According to Captain Ståhlberg the Scandinavians were firing 18–20 shots a minute. After around half an hour the British had worked around the Scandinavian right flank and the losses among the defenders fast got higher. 17 men had tried to countercharge, but only 8 Scandinavians managed to get back into the Boer lines, the other all dead or wounded. Captain Ståhlberg continues:
After three hours our resistance is broken. Our CO, Captain Flygare falls in the beginning of the battle, shot in the heart. Lieutenant Berentsen is wounded and man after man falls, drilled by bullets. The Highland Brigade, with the Gordons on the right encircles us. In the final act they fell over us like hungry vultures, and our resistance is over. Carl Albert Olsson from Gothenburg tries to save his brother Edvin, shot in the head by pulling him under cover. He is attacked by two scots whose heads he smashes with the rifle butt, only to fall from several bayonet wounds.
A Swedish nurse who worked for the Boers wrote afterwards that seven of the men had escaped the battle and that the rest had either died or got wounded and was now to be considered prisoners of the British.
The battle ended with a Boer victory, much because of the Generals Piet Cronjé and Koos De La Rey. In the early morning General Cronjé had ordered the outpost to be abandoned but this order never reached the Scandinavian section which therefor got left alone.
But the Scandinavians denied the Highland Brigade access between the hills and the British men could not reach the rest of the Boer guns and army. General Cronjé thought the Scandinavian contribution as vital and later on wrote in a letter to President Krüger that: “next to God we can thank the Scandinavians for our victory”.
After the battle of Magersfontein the remaining soldiers of the Scandinavian Corps got sent to Bloemfontein where they received 80 new soldiers and got reorganized.
The Scandinavian prisoners that were captured after Magersfontein were to be sent as prisoners of war to the British island of St. Helena (where also Napolean were held after his defeat). Three of the men escaped before the ship had left Simonstown, two got buried after had killed themselves on the beach and a third jumped overboard with a lifebelt and a knife just as the ship was about to leave Simontown. The men that escaped all came to reach back to the Boer lines safely.
In 1920, 18 years after the war had ended 15 members of the Scandinavian Corps including three nurses received medals at a ceremony in Stockholm. Another 30 Swedes got medals in Stockholm 1937 and 1925 a special remembrance medal was given to all the participants still alive.
A Swedish soldier who fought on the British side was Erland Mossberg. He later on started a collection to raise money for a monument at Magersfontein. The money got quickly raised thanks to Swedish newspapers and on April 25th 1908 4 large monuments were raised, one for each Scandinavian country. Each stone carries the names of the men lost in the battle, along with a Valkyrie, women of the old Scandinavian mythology which carried fallen soldiers to the gods in Valhall.