COLONEL ALEXANDER STEWART ORR, DSO

c.1861-1914
Soldier, Royal Irish Regiment


The capture of General Viljoen
The capture of General Viljoen.
Illustration from 'My Reminiscences of the Anglo-Boer War' via Project Gutenberg.

Introduction

We are aware that a number of senior army officers retired to the Epsom and Ewell area (particularly Generals Sir John Stokes and Robert Barlow McCrea) in the late 19th/early 20th centuries. Colonel Orr is another and, whilst I have not been able to find out a great deal about his career, he did receive considerable publicity for a significant exploit in 1902.

Colonel Orr lived at Hillcroft, Ashdown Road, Epsom from at least 1911 until his untimely death. He was born at Ballymena in about 1861 and was a cadet at Sandhurst, becoming a Lieutenant in the Royal Irish Regiment in 1881; he was appointed Captain and Adjutant of the 4th Battalion in 1888 and promoted to Major in 1900. In 1901 he was awarded the DSO.

Background to 'the exploit'

After the 1st Boer War (1880-81) Paul Kruger had become President of the South African Republic and he remained in office until the end of the second conflict in 1902. However, he had fled Pretoria in May 1900 as the British advanced; he embarked for Europe and never returned, dying in 1904.

Paul Kruger
Paul Kruger by Leslie Ward ('Spy')
Image source: Vanity Fair of 8 March 1900 via Wikimedia Commons.

In Kruger's absence Schalk Burger became Acting President of the Republic; the Government was mobile, most of the country being in British hands, nominally at least. The Boers, however, still held much of the northern part of Transvaal and harassed the enemy constantly with guerrilla raids. General Ben Viljoen, with a unit known as the Johannesburg Commando, operated in the north-east of Transvaal.

Schalk Willem Burger.
Schalk Willem Burger.
Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

The British had a garrison at Lydenburg, which was in Viljoen's area of operations, and Orr, then a Major, was stationed there with the 1st Battalion Royal Irish Regiment. In the spare words of Lord Kitchener, as contained in a telegram dated 27 January 1902 and published by The Times of 29 January, 'At Lydenburg, receiving news of intended meeting between Schalk Burger and General Ben Viljoen, parties sent out under Major Orr, Royal Irish Regiment, ambuscaded General Viljoen's party near blockhouse line south of Lydenburg on Friday night. Adjutant Nel was killed. Adjutant Besters, and one other, besides general, captured'.

Viljoen wrote a book about the 2nd Boer War, called 'My Reminiscences of the Anglo-Boer War' and we have his own account of what happened.

We were just approaching Bloomplaats, which is about two and half miles to the west of Lydenburg, when we observed something moving. A deadly silence enveloped the country, and the brightly-shining moon gave a weird appearance to the moving objects in the distance which had attracted our attention. Our suspicions were aroused and we went in pursuit, but soon lost sight of the object of our quest. We discovered afterwards that our suspicions were well-founded, and that the moving objects were kaffir spies, who returned to the British lines and reported our approach. Having failed in this enterprise we returned to the road, I riding in advance with Adjutant Bester, the others following. Presently we approached a deep spruit, and having dismounted, we were cautiously leading our horses down the steep bank, when suddenly we found ourselves the centre of a perfect storm of bullets. We were completely taken by surprise, and almost before we realised what had happened, we found ourselves confronted by two rows of British soldiery, who shouted "Hands up," and fired simultaneously. Bullets whistled in every direction. The first volley laid my horse low, and I found myself on the ground half stunned. When I recovered somewhat and lifted my head, I discovered myself surrounded, but the dust and the flash of firing prevented me from seeing much of what occurred. It seemed hopeless to attempt escape, and I cried excitedly that I was ready to surrender. So loud, however, was the noise of shouting that my cries were drowned. One soldier viciously pressed his gun against my breast as if about to shoot me, but thrusting the barrel away, I said in English that I saw no chance of escape, that I did not defend myself, and there was no reason therefore why he should kill me. While I was talking he again drove his rifle against me, and I, having grasped it firmly, a very animated argument took place, for he strongly resented my grasping his gun. Outstretching my hand I asked "Tommy" to help me up, and this he did. I afterwards learned that the name of my assailant was Patrick, and that he belonged to the Irish Rifles.

MY CAPTURE.

Four or five soldiers now took charge of me, and at my request consented to conduct me to an officer. Just as they were about to lead me away, however, they all fell flat upon their chests, and directed their fire at an object, which turned out later to be a bush. I very soon discovered that the "Tommies" were not very circumspect in their fire, and I sought safety by lying on the ground. Having discovered the innocent nature of their target, my guards conducted me before one of their officers, a young man named Walsh, who seemed to belong to the British Intelligence Department. This officer enquired, "Well, what is it?" I answered him in his own language, "My name is Viljoen, and not wishing to be plundered by your soldiers, I desire to place myself under the protection of an officer." He was quite a minor officer this Mr. Walsh, but he said kindly, "All right, it is rather a lucky haul, sir; you look quite cool, are you hurt?" I replied that I was not hurt, though it was a miracle that I was still alive, for a bullet had struck my chest, and would have penetrated had my pocket-book not stopped it. The fact was, that my pocket-book had served the providential service of the proverbial bible or pack of cards. Bester was with me, and not seeing my other adjutants, I enquired what had become of them. Walsh did not reply at once, and one of the "Tommies" standing close by said, "Both killed, sir." This information was a terrible blow to me.

Major Orr, of the Royal Irish Regiment, was in charge of the force that had captured me, and presently I was taken before him. He greeted me most courteously and said, "I believe we are old friends, General Viljoen; at least you captured some of my comrades in that regrettable affair at Belfast*." I was greatly touched by Major Orr's kindness, and asked that I might see those of my men who had been killed. He immediately consented, and led me a few paces aside. My gaze was soon arrested by a heartrending spectacle. There on the ground lay the two lifeless forms of my brave and faithful adjutants, Jacobus Nel and L. Jordaan. As I bent over their prostrate bodies my eyes grew dim with the sad tears of my great bereavement. Major Orr stood uncovered by my side, touched by my deep emotion and paying homage to the brave dead. "These men were heroes," I said to him with broken voice. "They followed me because they loved me, and they fearlessly risked their lives for me several times." The good Major was full of sympathy, and made provision for the decent burial of my poor comrades at Lydenburg.

Bester and I were now conducted under an escort of 150 soldiers with fixed bayonets to the village, which was two and a half miles off. We reached Lydenburg very wet and gloomy, after having waded through a drift whose waters reached up to our armpits. Major Orr did his best to console us both with refreshment and kind words.

Our procession was presently joined by an officer of the British Intelligence Department, and this gentleman told me that he knew of the approach of my party, and that the chief object of the British in attacking us was to capture our itinerant Government, who they learned were to accompany us. He was very anxious to know where the Government was, and whether it was intended that they should pass that way. But I answered his queries by telling him that it was quite unworthy of a gentleman to put such questions to me, and to attempt to exploit my most unfortunate position.

Arriving at the village, I was treated with great courtesy, and was introduced by Major Orr to Colonel Guinness, the commanding officer. Colonel Guinness declared that he regarded it as an honour to have a man of my rank as a prisoner-of-war, and that we had fought so frequently that we were quite old friends. I thanked him for his compliment, expressing, however, my regret that we had renewed acquaintance under such unfortunate circumstances.

*A town in South Africa

General Viljoen, seated c.1904
General Viljoen, seated c.1904
Image source: Project Gutenberg via Wikimedia Commons.

Endings

In 1909 in London Orr married Alice Callcott (born 1868 Newtownards). He died on 10 January 1914, aged only 52, and is buried in Epsom Cemetery (Grave B203A).

General Viljoen was exiled to St Helena for a short time and then led a most interesting and adventurous life until his death in 1917: details are on Wikipedia.

Linda Jackson 2014.



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