‘As you get older you begin to look back; you think of your roots, because you know you’re soon going to be a part of those roots’, Henk mused as we bit into biltong and drank coffee out of tin mugs. Maybe that’s what the search for Alf was all about
Alfred Faulding Tomlinson was – like me – a ‘yellow belly’: a Lincolnshire lad, hailing from the flat fens, muddy fields and grey skies of Lincolnshire. Born in the little village of Rauceby in 1875. His only surviving photo shows him sitting comfortably in a deck-chair, clad in serviceable tweed, gun ready, dog at his side. His brown eyes look out at the taker of the photo, and at us, the viewers of it, over one hundred years later. He half-smiles, and appears thoughtful, confident, prosperous. He was red-haired, 6ft tall, and weighed 13 stone. Likeable, the second son of a well-off Lincolnshire landowner. One of the most popular followers of Lord Yarborough’s hounds. He loved his nieces and nephews and was close to his family. Those are the bare facts of Alfred and there’s nothing more. Because he lived so little of his life.
He was 25 when he arrived in Cape Town in the February of 1900. He’d joined the Sherwood Rangers Company of the Imperial Yeomanry to help defeat the Boers. He volunteered to go. Like so many young men, in so many wars, he roused himself for queen and country, no doubt thinking of duty and empire, yearning for adventure and excitement and wholly unprepared for the reality of it all. In a letter to his sister, Ann, he wrote: ‘Everyone seems to think that the war will be over at the end of this month’. He concedes that he’s having ‘a pretty stiff time of it’, but reassures her by saying ‘I have never felt better in my life than I do now and am fit for anything just at present’.
How different South Africa must have seemed to the damp Fens and to his comfortable life with family. Alf writes ‘there has been a great deal of illness.. out of the 120 odd that came out we have only about 50 fit for duty’. He makes light of the lack of water for washing, saying that although he sometimes cannot shave for a week, he looks good with a beard. He goes on: ‘It seems impossible that it could be so fearfully hot in the daytime and yet be so cold at night’. ‘This last few nights we have had the Wide World for a tent and I really think I prefer it to a canvas tent as you seem so much more refreshed in the morning’.
What was he really feeling? Did he relish the difference, or hate it? He recounts his exploits in Boys Own comic-book style, but knows he could die at any moment. He describes chasing an enemy buggy at ‘full tilt’ and being caught in a ‘regular hail of bullets’. ‘I can’t imagine how it was we were not all killed as the bullets seemed to strike all over us, you could see them hit the ground all amongst the horses and right in front of you and every second you expected one would hit you in the back of the neck. I shall never forget that ride as long as I live it makes me shudder to think of it even now’.
His letter was written in May and he died on the first of June. Sent to the relief of the Irish Yeomanry in Lindley, Alf and four comrades became detached from their unit. Galloping, seeking cover he ‘was shot dead, through the back and the heart’. Life gone in a moment. He lay all night, alone. Boers may have taken his gun, shoes, clothing. They had so little themselves. If this indignity occurred it could not have mattered to Alf.
But Alf was loved. Was missed. The words of his comrade scream out the waste and sadness of it all. ‘The saddest event of the whole day was the death of our Sargeant Tomlinson, he was the very best fellow we had in the Rangers, everyone in the whole squadron admired him, I do not know a single friend I should put the loss of more than him; he was a thorough gentleman, a splendid sportsman and horseman, and the most generous and kind hearted fellow I know; I had been with him all day and he had two horses shot under him and still he was not hit; we had been behind the same rocks each time we had to dismount and fire. At last the odds were too great and our company had to retire … I never saw (Tomlinson) again, he must have been shot dead almost directly after I left him…..’
Alf was Jim’s grandad’s cousin. He stood out in the family-tree research. Dying young and so far from home piques the interest. The research radiated, rippled like a pebble thrown into a pool, and reached Johan – a local historian in Lindley, South Africa. He was ostensibly a fact and figures man. But his real interest lay in keeping history alive, connecting people, and weaving stories. Through him, Jim got in touch with Henk, the present-day owner of Kromdraai, the farm where Alf died.
Any trip to South Africa was always going to include a meeting with them and a trip to honour Alf.
Johan booked us into Will Wisp, a revamped hunting lodge, four kilometres down a dirt track, in the middle of the back of beyond. We all met up with Henk in the little town of Lindley and bumped off to Kromdraai – hundreds of acres of space and peace; grazing Brahmin cattle, a carpet of wild purple flowers, green grasslands and rocky ridges. Hard to imagine it as a scene of battle. Yet that is where Alf breathed his last, and where Henk has erected a plaque to his memory – from one soldier to another. ‘Anyone who tells you they survived a war because of their skill is mistaken, it’s all God’s will’, Henk told us. ‘That young man volunteered, he was brave, and I have respect for him as a soldier’.
Suddenly, the peace was shattered. A rifle fired. A noise so loud, it was physical, bouncing inside my head, and buzzing inside my ears. The shock was enormous. Henk had fired a British 1899 Lee Enfield rifle. Just one shot; and it wasn’t fired at me. The Boers were expert snipers, he told us, and could fire in quick succession. Henk let rip again. Crack, crack, crack. ‘You want to try?’, he asked ‘Press the butt into your shoulder, keep it tight, line up the sights, here and here…’ The rifle was long, heavy and cumbersome. I fired and it kicked back. The stamina required to fire round after round must’ve been huge. Once in the hands of a British soldier, once in the hands of a Boer; who had it killed, who had it saved? A link to a long-ago war, a link to soldiers, men, sons, everyone and everything.
Henk’s story takes place on the other side of the war. His grandfather was only sixteen when he enlisted to fight. His great-great-grandfather was too old to fight, but was deported by the British – sent to Ceylon, lest he should provide aid to his kin and countrymen. Forced to leave his wife and children behind; they faced the war alone; had to flee their home as it was burned to the ground, and endure a concentration camp. On Henk’s living-room wall, a faded photograph of a four-year-old toddler – his great-grand uncle. He died in the camp. One war. So many people. So many memories.
Violence, war and cruelty transformed through chance, luck and a bit of research into friendship, respect, hospitality. ‘Hats off to Henk’, said another distant cousin of Alf, ‘who by most accounts should have been spitting on the spot, never mind erecting a plaque’.