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Survived Magersfontein, killed in skirmish February 27, 2009

Posted by Jenny in Boer War, history, travel.
Tags: , , , ,
Along a remote dirt road in the Cederberg

Along a remote dirt road in the Cederberg

A small sign near the dirt road for the Wuppertal turnoff points to “The Englishman’s Grave.”  We are in South Africa’s Cederberg mountains.

A dark tree with rustling leaves, clearly planted on the site (no other trees grow anywhere nearby) leans protectively over a grave that is sharply separated from the surrounding veld by a low iron railing of a Victorian style.  The headstone is in the form of a Celtic cross and bears the words “BRAVE AND TRUE.”  At the base of the cross is inscribed:

In sacred and loving memory of Graham Vinicombe Winchester Clowes Lieutenant 1st Battn. the Gordon Highlanders… killed in action near this spot on 30th January 1901.

I learned after I stopped at the grave that the soldier’s mother had journeyed all the way from England after the war to find this remote spot and have the memorial erected.  Mrs. Clowes would have embarked on a steamship, probably in Southampton, and journeyed over the sea for three weeks to reach Cape Town.  Then she would have taken a horse-drawn conveyance such as a Cape cart to the north, a journey of three days through barren spaces filled with peculiar sandstone formations in constantly changing patterns.

She would have arrived at this isolated spot, not the site of a great battle but of a tiny skirmish.  Clowes may have been the only one killed that day as he went on a scouting mission to find the location and strength of Boer forces between Clanwilliam and Calvinia.  Mrs. Clowes may have experienced a crystalline silence at the intersection of two lightly travelled dirt tracks in this valley rimmed by stones that sit looking down like guardians.  She may have seen the teeming populations of stars in their alien southern hemisphere configurations.

Lt. Clowes’ Gordon Highlander regiment was famous in South Africa.  It had suffered a catastrophic defeat in the battle of Majuba Hill that concluded the lesser-known First Boer War of 1880-1881 (British casualties at Majuba, 280; Boers, 1).  When the Second Boer War started in 1899, British soldiers who had a spirit of revenge would run into battle shouting, “Majuba!  Majuba!”  The words had the rhythm of a powerful steam engine as thousands of khaki-colored infantry charged over dusty ground.  That word had been chanted at Elandslaagte, when the 2nd Gordons wore their kilts into battle and chased the Boers from the crest of a ridge as a violent thunderstorm split the sky.

Lt. Clowes’ 1st battalion shipped out to Cape Town after Elandslaagte, arriving just in time to march out for the ill-fated battle of Magersfontein.  It was part of General Methuen’s program to lift the siege of Kimberley.  The Boers were thought to be concentrated on the monolithic Magersfontein kopje that rose from the desert floor with a front edge shaped like a ship’s prow.  The Highland Brigade bivouacked three miles away and advanced by night, ready to take the kopje at bayonet-point by first light of day.  Another furious African thunderstorm bore down on them as they stumbled in strokes of lightning over ant hills, rocks, thorn bushes.  As the rain subsided and a blinding morning sun abruptly topped the horizon, the Highlanders heard the tremendous roar of thousands of Boer rifles, described by one participant as like the bursting of a dam.  The Boers were not on the hill but protected in a well-crafted deep narrow trench a hundred yards in front of it that was camouflaged with branches.  The Boers had run strands of barbed wire in irregular patterns through the bush.

The Highlanders could do little but flatten themselves.  The slightest movement—the lifting of a canteen to parched lips—was answered by marksmen’s bullets.   The bare legs of the kilt-wearing soldiers burned as they lay in the sun.  It was around noon that Methuen ordered the Gordons onto the field to “clear the trenches.”  They soon found themselves exposed to an enfilading fire from the right.  What happened next is confused, as often—no, usually—occurs in battle.   Colonel Downman of the Gordons ran forward, calling for the right to fall back and the left to move up.  The Seaforths received similar orders.  As Downman shouted his command, he was mortally wounded.  The backward movement among some of the Gordons and Seaforths triggered a spasm of retreat across the field, and many Highlanders were shot in the back as they fled.  By the end of it British casualties numbered 902, compared with 200 for the Boers, and they had made no advance: a disaster.

Lt. Clowes lived a year and two months longer, only to fall victim to a small band of Boer guerillas on an ordinary summer day.

A haunting poem about Magersfontein, written by one of the regular soldiers, can be found here.

These sandstone blocks are found in all sorts of patterns in the Cederberg

These sandstone blocks are found in all sorts of patterns in the Cederberg


1. iheartfilm - February 27, 2009

It’s funny – part of me really wants to go to South Africa, but then the other part is rather unsettled.


2. Jenny - February 27, 2009

It’s interesting that you would say that. I recently was communicating with someone South African by birth who said, “South Africa is a country of oppositions. There is no neutral ground.” That sums it up perfectly! On the plus side for a prospective visitor: friendly people, fascinating landscape, incredible wildlife, intriguing history. On the negative side: crime, the frustration of seeing a country with such potential finding yet another way to tear itself apart.

Regarding crime, someday I will post on this blog the full account of my experience at an ATM in Cape Town, when someone came running to hand me money instead of trying to rob me of it, as the tourist guides had warned.

3. Heather Vallance - February 27, 2009

Jenny, this is a fascinating story. So typical of the twists and turns of Fate.

Your story about the ATM sounds intriguing. I look forward to reading it.

4. ForestWander Nature Photography - February 28, 2009

A mothers love like that is precious.

It is sad that he had to die away from home.

5. Brian Harrison - January 31, 2013

I did some research on Lt.Graham Vinicombe Winchester Clowes.He was born in about December 1880 at Reigate,Surrey England to Winchester Clowes born in Bloomsbury,London and Ettie Clowes born in Sligo Ireland.His father was a wholesale paper merchant and painter in Reigate and the family appear to have been well off with many servants.His military record shows that he was killed at Doorn River,Cape Colony.The beneficiary of his estate was his brother Lt.Winchester St.George Clowes of the 19th Hussars who inherited Pounds 16,133.Their father passed away in February 1900 so he was saved from the trauma of his sons death.

Jenny - January 31, 2013

Thank you very much for adding this information.

Noel Pratten - April 24, 2013

Lt. Clowes’ grave forms part of my earliest memories of going on road trips in the area with my grandfather, who used to stop there for us to pay our respects every time we passed by. I have often thought of the grave over theyears, and it has become for me a symbol of the pointlessness of war.

Jenny - April 24, 2013

Thank you for visiting.

6. The Beauty of the Cederberg Mountains and Stories of Past Struggles | Phototune Photographic Services - April 3, 2013

[…] text below extracted from: https://streamsandforests.wordpress.com/2009/02/27/survived-magersfontein-killed-in-skirmish/ […]

7. Ian Newton - January 7, 2016

We visited the grave today very interested in any further information about Lt Clowes.

8. tlp - March 19, 2016

Thank you for this post. Lt. Graham Vinicombe Winchester Clowes was my grand-father’s first cousin. This article and the additional comments have helped give life and detail to my family tree. One day I hope I, or a family member, will be able to visit this site and pay respects for all the tragic losses from this long ago war.

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