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Rob Milne

In July 1901 during the height of the guerrilla war in the Magaliesberg Mountains, a young Boer woman enrolled as a nurse at the British Army Field Hospital in the town of Rustenburg. Both British and Boer wounded were brought in from the field to the temporary hospital set up in the new Dutch Reformed Church and the Boer nurse, Aletta van der Merwe, nursed the wounded from both sides with equal care and compassion.

One day a dapper young officer serving in the Scottish Horse, Lieutenant Frank Irving, brought in an ambulance, and it was love at first sight between him and Aletta. As often as he could he visited Aletta on her farm Rietvlei, just east of Magatos Nek. Her mother was against their romance and reminded Aletta that her father and two brothers were fighting on Commando against the British. However, she protested that Frank was an upstanding and well brought up young man from a good Scottish family. “I am very much in love with him”, she said, “and want to marry him”. “I do not only nurse Boer wounded, but also wounded British. I give all my love, peace and nursing to friend as well as foe. I receive a reasonable salary, and this will help to keep our farm on the go. I have been assured by the British commanding officer that no British soldier will be allowed to damage our farmhouse and orchards”.

Three months later, at first light on Monday 30th September 1901, the Boers attacked Colonel Kekewich’s temporary campsite at Moedwil, 25 kilometres west of Rustenburg. Firing from the top of the steep western banks of the Selons River, the Boers fired relentlessly into the camp. Their targets were silhouetted by the rising sun and one of the bullets struck Frank in the chest. After the battle, he was rushed to the hospital in Rustenburg, together with many other wounded soldiers.

Aletta waited anxiously as he underwent an emergency operation to remove the .303 bullet from his chest. After the operation, Aletta pressed out some oranges and helped Frank to drink the juice. She nursed her lover throughout the night as he was suffering from severe blood loss and dehydration. Early the next day he tried to whisper a few last words to her, but he was too weak and died in her arms. He was buried the same day – 1st October 1901 – in the Rustenburg cemetery.

Aletta planted twelve orange pips near his grave and every day for a few weeks she placed fresh flowers on his grave and watered the orange pips with her tears. When the plants came up, she selected the best sapling and planted it next to Frank’s grave. An endearing reminder of their last moments together, and Aletta, the bride-to-be who would never stand at the alter with Frank in her a white wedding dress with white orange blossoms in her hair.


The orange tree represents generosity and wisdom. In the Middle Ages brides wore the white orange blossoms in their hair, symbolising purity and chastity.

In the early 1970’s Steve Vercuil saw this orange tree, which had somehow survived unattended for nearly 70 years, whilst helping the local MOTHS on a cemetery clean-up. Sadly, today all the cast iron grave markers of the second Anglo-Boer War British dead have been stolen and sold for scrap. The Genealogical Society of South Africa through their National Cemetery Recording Project recorded all the grave markers in the old Rustenburg cemetery and there is a photo of Lieut. F.J. Irving’s cast iron cross taken by Penny Shaddock on 3rd April 2012.

Aletta vander Merwe

If you look carefully you will see the stem of an orange tree sapling behind the cross to the left. The original tree must have died and been removed, but someone must have replaced it. Sadly, it has not survived the latest cemetery desecration.

Orange pips were brought to the Rustenburg area from the Cape by the Voortrekkers in 1837, and the first orchards were planted in 1859. Jan van Riebeeck had brought the first orange pips to the Cape in 1652, but it was not until 25th July 1661 that his wife picked the first oranges from the VOC Company Gardens.

From 1870 to 1875 President Paul Kruger planted over 500 orange trees on his farm Boekenhoutfontein (now Kedar Heritage Lodge), and the oranges were known throughout the district as being deliciously sweet. The trees were still there in 1960, but now one can only see the crop marks of the neat rows of trees in front of Kruger’s historic farmhouse on Google Earth.

From 1910 until 2000 an orange tree was part of the South African Coat of Arms, representing the Orange Free State Province – a symbol of the Dutch House of Orange-Nassau after which the Province was named.

Returning to Lieut. Frank Irving’s final hours in the tender care of his lover, Aletta. His last sustenance was fresh orange juice which reminds one of the accomplishment of Jan van Riebeek’s original mission: “….so that tired and sick travellers between the east and the west can give thanks in this oasis established through your dedication, to those in need, fresh and good for their health – water, vegetables, and fruit”.

(Source and further information: ’N MANDJIE VOL WOORDVRUGTE UIT DIE KOMPANJIESTUIN, deur Helena Liebenberg)


Rob MIlne

Rob Milne was born in Johannesburg in 1953 and educated at St. David's Marist College and the University of the Witwatersrand. From an early age he spent most of his free time in the veld exploring the South African battlefields with his father, developing a keen interest in the Second Anglo-Boer War, archeology and geology.

Rob Milne