A story of war in the words of four brothers

Bullet in the Heart, by Beverley Roos-Muller (Jonathan Ball Publishers)

Books on war tend to be about armies, battles, generals and the statistics of casualties, but the stories that stay in your mind are those about people.

Bullet in the Heart has plenty of the above, but at its heart it is the story of four Free State farming brothers who found themselves caught up in a war against what was then the world’s mightiest fighting machine.

The Boers lost, of course, in the process changing the course of South African history in ways still felt today.

The brothers were Michael, Chris, Pieter and Lodewyk (Lool) Muller, from the Ladybrand district, and they ranged in age from 33 to 22. The older two were married with young children.

Many other Boer soldiers probably had similar wars, but what makes the Muller men’s stories special is that three of the four kept diaries in which they recorded their experiences, their longings and eventually the reality of all being taken prisoner. Only three came back alive.

As author Beverley Roos-Muller points out in her introduction, war diaries are often written by the well-connected or those with an agenda. But when written by ordinary soldiers without benefit of hindsight, “they give an unabridged view of exactly what the writers experienced. These are the authentic, unedited voices of what happened and when it happened”.

Roos-Muller has also been able to draw on other documents, among them letters between the brothers during their imprisonment as POWs, as well as a journal written many years later by Nelie, Michael’s wife. She described her war on the run from the English with two small children, desperate to stay out of the camps where so many Boer women and children perished.

The book opens with the battle of Magersfontein in December 1899, one the Boers won. Chris is crouched on a ridge as bullets fly overhead. He sees his commander, Commandant APJ Diederichs, hit by what Diederichs immediately realises is a doodskoot.

From Chris’s vantage point he sees horses “shot dead in heaps”, and many of the enemy’s dead and wounded. “Some of them are trying to stop the bleeding with handkerchiefs. Others cry from the pain.”

The events of the life-changing battle of Magersfontein were the subject of the first of Chris’s war diaries.

The Boer armies were very different from those of the British they were fighting. Officers were elected, not appointed, and without supply lines commando members relied on Boer farms for food and clothing. As the war went on, and as Kitchener’s scorched earth policy destroyed the farms, finding supplies became increasingly difficult.

But unlike their British counterparts, the Boers were able, occasionally, to go home. In March 1900 all four brothers had a few days of R&R at the family farm, the last time the whole family was together.

By mid-1900 all four brothers had been captured, and ended up serving longer as prisoners than soldiers. Time was spent at the camp on Green Point Common, also later at the Bellvue camp outside Simon’s Town, where many of the Boer soldiers saw ­­– and swam in – the sea for the first time.

At Green Point young Lool contracted typhoid, and on May 17 he died. He was just 22.

His brothers also caught typhoid, Michael in Simon’s Town and Chris and Peter in Ceylon, but all survived. Michael’s war ended in a prison camp in Bermuda.

Roos-Muller says she wrote the book so we can all understand each other’s stories and hopefully, by extension, each other. But another reason was that her husband, Professor Ampie Muller, was Michael’s grandson, and he inherited Michael’s war diary.

This, along with an 1898 group photo of the Commissiepoort Debating and Sharp-Shooting Society, which included all four brothers, was the first document she had to begin the research that led to this book.

Michael’s diary began in July 1900, when he was captured. It was small enough to be carried in a breast pocket, yet it contained more than 100 pages of writing.

Roos-Muller had a stroke of luck when, after news of her project got about, Chris’s granddaughter sent her all his eight surviving diaries, sources she had not known existed. There was also a box of mementos that contained letters and souvenirs including the bloodied bandana he used to staunch the bleeding when he was wounded in the leg at Magersfontein.

After he died, Lool’s diary was rescued by a fellow POW who took it with him to the camp on St Helena, and after the war returned it to his parents in the Free State. Lool’s last entry, written in a shaky hand, read: “During this unwellness, I think more and more of home. It is as if these heavy thoughts make me more ill.” He was just 22.

Bullet in the Heart is a moving account of the effects of war on ordinary people, a war they did not want but in which they did their best. The invasion of their countries – the Free State and the Transvaal – by a vastly superior and better equipped army, reminds one of the conflict in Ukraine. May the outcome of that war be different.

Roos-Muller, who has an Irish background, is scrupulously fair in her description of the war and its context. It was a devastating conflict for both sides.

The diaries, originally written in Afrikaans-Nederlands of course, give a deeply personal glimpse of the horrors of war. As the author writes: “Their witness forms part of that endless human chain of yearning to be heard… the sound of the silenced made visible.”


2 thoughts on “A story of war in the words of four brothers

  1. David Bristow

    Sounds riveting. However, on my way back from Bots recently I was subjected to a large number of podcasts on the Boer War by one Des Latham. Cannot find out anything about him, but there are more the 100 of them, they are good but I’m now ABW burned out.


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