About ten years ago I visited the cemetery at Ventersdorp, in search of information concerning a certain soldier buried there, of whom strange tales were told. His name was George Shaw, an Irishman. The grave I sought was a good fifty metres away from the graves of the other soldiers. The details on the metal cross above it indicated that Pte G.Shaw, 1st Loyal North Lancs, Regimental Number 5437, had died for ‘King and Empire’, but the date on which he died, and the manner of his passing was not indicated.
The grave in 1970.
The grave was shaded on the right by a large pepper tree, and to the left by a pine, obviously as old as the pepper. On the mound were several caskets of everlasting flowers which had obviously been there for some time. The graves of fellow-soldiers in the cemetery were strictly regulation, their remains reposing in neat rows, with details of when and how they died stamped out on the respective crosses. But none of them had flowers of any sort on their graves, nor were there any trees shading them.
I pondered on these matters and set out in search of information. Nobody could tell me anything, and it took me several years to piece together ‘the Legend of the Flowers’. It was only in 1976, when Dr Leask’s diary became available to me, that I was able to take the story further.
Lord Methuen’s columns made many marches along the fertile Schoonspruit-valley, between Klerksdorp and Ventersdorp, and not for nothing were they called ‘Burning-Johnnies’. They burnt almost every house in this valley, and destroyed the outbuildings on all farms.
The North Lancs were stationed at Ventersdorp, and one day a platoon was sent to burn down a Boer homestead. The soldiers ordered out the three women living there, and set fire to the building. When the flames took hold, the youngest woman, a mere girl, hid her face and wept bitterly. Her tears so upset Pte Shaw that he went at once to his officer and denounced his Commander-in-Chief’s policy of destruction, which he said was wanton and unnecessary. As one might expect a row of some magnitude developed which ended when the exasperated officer said: ‘Well Shaw, if you don’t like it, why don’t you go and fight for the Boers?’
There exists some doubt as to whether Shaw deserted, or was captured by the Boers. In either event the end result was the same. He donned civilian clothes and joined the Boers. He is believed to have acted as an unarmed driver, and he grew a beard. He met, and fell in love with, a Boer girl, prohably the one whose tears moved him to approach his officer. Sometime later he was captured, but, because of the beard, was not recognised, and he escaped. It appears that he spent ‘some time’ with the girl, doing the household chores. He was later captured again, identified, court-martialled, and sentenced to be shot.
The officer in charge of the firing squad borrowed from the Krige family a chair, to which the condemned man was bound. Legend has it that the four men comprising the firing squad deliberately missed their target with their first volley, but shot straight in the second. The dead man was lowered into the isolated grave far away from the other soldiers, who in consecrated ground, even in death, might have been contaminated by a deserter’s shame.
And there the matter ended officially.
Unofficially, and unbeknown to the authorities concerned, a Boer girl had hidden herself in some bushes nearby, and had watched the execution of her soldier. A week later a posy of wild flowers appeared on the raw red mound. Week after week, month after month, year after year, until three score years had passed by, flowers appeared on Pte Shaw’s grave. I asked a Black man (who had worked in the cemetery for twenty years) who put the flowers on the grave. He said that they were there when he arrived at work, and that he did not know who put them there. He thought it was a woman, but could tell me no more.
It appears that the Boer girl’s name may have been, and probably was, Martha Engelbrecht, though some people who know something of this story mention other names as well. Martha married a friend of Shaw’s called Fleischer, and was often heard to say that she must attend to ‘the grave’. She did so until she became too frail to undertake her weekly pilgrimage to her soldier’s grave in the cemetery. Then the caskets of everlasting flowers appeared. One presumes that she planted the two trees near the grave shortly after his execution. Their size suggests this to be so.
When she died several years ago the Minister at the graveside said: ‘Many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it’. Few of those present knew what he meant.
In a year or two, natural decay will automatically destroy what few flowers are left on that grave, and then nothing of ‘the Legend of the Flowers’ will remain.
For this reason I have written down what I have found out over a good many years. I hope that those interested will share with me in a sentimental and unusual story of the Anglo-Boer War.
This was added following a lecture by Rob Milne to the Society’s Johannesburg Branch on 10th August 2000:
On 17th January 2000 I re-visited Ventersdorp with my business partner, Roger Webster, a fellow historian. He introduced me to Martha’s son, John Fleisher, and we were able to complete Orford’s story. We established that Private Shaw succeeded in preventing the destruction of Martha’s house, and we found it near the village – a partially ruined “Hartebeeshuis”. Nearby is the delightful Victorian home, dating back to 1884, where Martha and John brought up their son, John Fleisher junior. Martha’s garden is scattered with very old pepper and pine trees, where she must have obtained the seedlings, which she planted beside George’s grave. John Fleisher directed us to his parents’ grave in Ventersdorp cemetery (nos. 128 and 129): Martha Engelbrecht was born on 1st October 1877 and died on 18th September 1957, seven years after John Fleisher.
Before leaving Martha’s childhood home, I walked into an old overgrown apple orchard to photograph the “Hartebeeshuis”. It was only after my photographs were developed that I realized the significance of what I had seen. On the left hand side of the house was an ancient pepper tree, and on the right hand side a pine tree: as Martha planted them at George Shaw’s grave! And I was standing under a very old apple tree. I looked up the quote from Song of Songs, went back a few lines and this is what I found:
“Under the apple tree I woke you,
in the place where you were born.
Close your heart to every love but mine;
hold no one in your arms but me.
Love is as powerful as death;
passion is as strong as death itself.
It bursts into flame and burns like a raging fire.
Water cannot put it out;
no flood can drown it.”
Still deeply moved, I feel that Martha has shown us the special love that is in her heart, and is passing on that inspiration to enhance our own love relationships.
The South AfricanMilitary History Society
Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging
Military History Journal – Vol 4 No 2
The Legend of the Flowers