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C.M. Dixon's 'Flag of Truce after Surprise Hill'

Recently I had the chance to borrow an original printing of "The Ladysmith Leaguer", a collection of watercolor illustrations made by Captain C.M. Dixon of the 16th Lancers. Unfortunately this book is more than a century out of print, and online you can find scans of only about 1/4 of the watercolors published in the book, so I will upload a few of the missing watercolors here. Trapped in Ladysmith for the duration of the siege, Dixon recorded his experiences of siege life with his brush and pen, and the resulting illustrations are a very vivid insight into some of the more memorable events of the siege from Dixon's perspective. As a regular officer of the British Army, Dixon was very familiar with the exact appearance of uniforms and weaponry, which appear in his artwork with a great amount of detail and accuracy compared to the illustrations of the average British or European war correspondent artist sent to South Africa in the early stages of the war.

The original text caption for this watercolor reads as follows: 
The day after Col. Metcalf, with four Companies of the Rifle Brigade, surprised and blew up a Boer gun on Surprise Hill. A report was brought in that the enemy refused to let our doctors and ambulance, who had gone out to attend the wounded, return to Ladysmith: Col. Duff, Assistant Military Secretary to Sir George White, was sent out with a flag of truce to make enquiries. We were met by General Schalk Burger and Commandant Erasmus at the foot of Surprise Hill. The report turned out to be without foundation, our doctors being only detained till the Boers had decided which of our wounded were too badly hurt to be kept as prisoners. General Schalk Burger is the smaller of the two Boers, with the goat beard, and Commandant Erasmus is the big bearded man in dark blue. The Boer in uniform acted as interpreter. Schalk Burger was commanding the Boers round Ladysmith at the time vice-General Joubert was sick.

The mentioned attack on Surprise Hill is, of course, the Rifle Brigade's famous nighttime storming of the hill on 10 December 1899 and the sabotage of the ZAR Staatsartillerie's 12cm Krupp howitzer emplaced there, which went almost entirely unopposed by the Boer picket guard of Corporal Frederick De Witt Tossel, the Scottish ZARP corporal commanding the position at the time. A handful of Pretoria Commando burghers, including most famously the celebrated Deneys Reitz (who provides a detailed account of the incident in his memoirs), contested the Rifle Brigade's assault on the hill, but their gallant defense was not enough to deter the British raiders.

The watercolor itself is very interesting for its depiction of the Boer officers, which are not too dissimilar from their actual appearance in life. Schalk Burger is seen with a sjambok, a rhino-hide whip that was favored by some Boer kommandants (most famously Christiaan de Wet) as symbols of rank and a means to forcibly keep both Boer burghers and native agterryers in line. The unnamed Boer interpreter is depicted in a rather fanciful uniform that is likely an imaginary embellishment. Except for those with the ZARPs or artillery services, most Boer officers who chose to wear uniform-like clothing often preferred plain khaki hunting suits. The starred collar and Austrian sleeve knots are characteristically European features that would not likely have been seen on a Boer officer's privately acquired uniform. The British-style singly-looped leather bandoleer is also an uncommon, but not unheard of, choice of gear for a Boer on commando, as many privately purchased British-pattern .303 bandoleers were pressed into service by Boers even before the war had begun, and of course captured gear was routinely pressed into service by Boers on commando for the duration of the war.

Although Dixon depicted Boer arms with remarkable accuracy in some of his other illustrations, here the Boer rifle at the interpreter's side is a bit lacking in verisimilitude. Although clearly meant to be a Mauser long rifle by its length and profile, the rifle here has the side sling mounts of a Mauser carbine, and it has the characteristic steel butt socket ring of a British Lee-Metford, visible at the wrist of the stock. Still, even with these faults, it is much better than many other contemporaneous illustrations of Boer rifles. A fair quantity of Boer rifles, munitions, and bandoleers were captured by the besieged British garrison at Ladysmith in the aftermath of several successful raids on the outlying Boer positions and especially after the failed Boer assault at the Platrand, so Dixon would undoubtedly have had the chance to closely examine captured arms during the lengthy siege, though it is unfortunate the rifle in this watercolor does not reflect that knowledge.

I wish I could remember the significance of the white-and-blue striped puggaree on the hatband of the British soldier in the background. A number of colonial (ie locally raised) British units sported colored puggarees to denote their identity, and I think the blue-and-white stripes might be the insignia of Remington's Scouts. It is either the blue-and-white stripes, or blue-and-white polka dots, in which case the blue-and-white stripes could represent the Imperial Light Horse.

Anyway, I will probably upload some more of the missing watercolors in the near future. Unfortunately, I did not copy down the original text captions for the remaining watercolors, and I have had to return the borrowed copy of the book, so my own written explanations will have to suffice.

There are also many more rare Boer photos I would like to share, but I was thinking that some contemporary illustrations, as opposed to photos, would be something of interest given the nature of this site. I am now borrowing a book with a very nice selection of rare Boer War illustrations by contemporary British, South African, American, and European artists, so I may also share some interesting finds from that book from time to time.
Image details
Image size
4096x2304px 2.33 MB
Shutter Speed
33340/1000000 second
Focal Length
4 mm
ISO Speed
Date Taken
Jun 14, 2018, 11:05:42 PM
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menapia's avatar

wait, you actually got your mitts on an genuine copy of The Ladysmith Leaguer? you lucky sod, I've been looking for a copy to go with my 1903 copy of The Transvaal War by Louis Creswicke a veteran who mentions a guy called Eustace who my family are distant relatives of.

Still trying to track down our relative who fought for the Orange Free State on Commando, there are records but in some cases they're sparse especially with those who were foreign born or just joined up as unofficial volunteers.

Perhaps the poor sod died as a bitter ender, osprey publishing did a few decent books on the Boer commando's,

I've been thinking of having a veteran turn up in my alternate history, sort of imagine a guy who marries an Irish nurse and ends up in Ireland when her brothers get killed off during WW1 so she inherits the farm.

Sooo you have a guy who a) has a big friggin' axe to grind re: the Empire, b) knows one end of a gun from the other and who can teach shooting and c) has veteran experience of guerrilla warfare on account of surviving the bitter end part of the B.W campaign.

ColorCopyCenter's avatar

I wish I had a copy of it. I just borrowed a fragile copy through interlibrary loan and took photos of what I considered the more interesting illustrations. Namely those depicting Boers and Boer armaments.

menapia's avatar

I could have bought a copy of it a few years an antique fair down in Wexford where they have a big Opera Festival and a massive antique fair with loads of dealers from all over Ireland and europe.

One dealer from Belfast had a copy and a load of N. Irish govt. publication for R.U.C. from during the troubles. I thought sure, it's on for 4 days I can get it tommorow.....of course it was sold. The guy wanted 140 euro for it, not perfect cond. but it had all the illustrations.

ColorCopyCenter's avatar
not my work, just sharing some artwork that is very difficult to find if you do not have access to the proper library resource