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Surprise Hill September 4, 2010

Posted by Jenny in Boer War, history, military history.
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"He lay on his blanket gazing at the great populations of stars"

This concerns an action on Surprise Hill, one of the positions around Ladysmith occupied by Boers during the 1899-1900 siege of Ladysmith. Sources for this account include Commando by Deneys Reitz and unpublished writings by Reitz.

December 10, 1899. A warm, clear, dark, moonless night. Twelve men of Isaac Malherbe’s corporalship were on sentry duty. They marched out to a vantage point over the town. Two went on lookout while the others slept. The 17-year-old Deneys Reitz awakened at 12:30 a.m.: he was to take his turn at 1:00. He lay on his blanket gazing at the great populations of stars.

The sound came of many men walking close by, a muffled trampling. The sound of rifle-fire and wild cheering at the top of nearby Surprise Hill. A tremendous roar and a sheet of flame. The English had done it again. They had blown up a Boer howitzer.

Malherbe right away led his group of twelve straight to the hill. He told his men not to worry. They would soon be joined by a group under Corporal Tossel that lay closer to the base of the hill. And then the Pretoria commando would surely come forward to help cut off the English as the soldiers returned to Ladysmith. But he was wrong on both counts. Tossel’s men had fled without even firing a warning shot, and the gunners had been bayoneted by soldiers who shouted out “Rule Britannia!” as they lunged. The Pretoria field-cornet judged the situation too hazardous. The twelve men were on their own.

Map of Ladysmith. Surprise Hill is at upper left.

The English they faced were four companies of the 2nd Rifle Brigade. These men, unlike the colonial irregulars of Lombaardskop, all had bayonets. They intended to use them as much as possible to avoid drawing the attention of large numbers of Boers with rifle-fire. The most conspicuous features of the night were: darkness, Boer rifles, British bayonets.

By no accident, Deneys was up front with Malherbe as they approached the black shape of the hill. There they ran smack into pickets. Both fired. A sergeant fell dead and the rest ran away. Now a larger party swam forward. Malherbe’s men fired until this group dissolved in the darkness. The Pretoria young men moved along the bed of a spruit at the base of the hill, looking for a place where they could fire on the English. As Deneys walked closely behind his tentmate Samuel van Zijl, a bullet from close range struck van Zijl in the throat and set his beard on fire, eerily lighting his face. He was badly wounded. Deneys lay van Zijl down with a blanket under his head, then hurried to join the others further up the spruit. They waited for the mass of English to come down the hill.

There was just enough time for Deneys to run back and check on van Zijl. Samuel asked him in a faint voice to turn him on his side. As Deneys did so, van Zijl stiffened, then went limp. He was dead.

Varieties of ammunition collected at Ladysmith

The British had no idea anyone was waiting for them. They tramped down the slope, shouting and singing. Deneys saw the glow of their cigarettes in the dark. “Good old Rifle Brigade!” the soldiers sang out.

Malherbe waited until the massive dark shape of the men came within 15 yards, then gave the order to fire. Deneys wrote of the events in a letter to his father.

We then fired amongst them. They stopped, and all called out, “Rifle Brigade.” They must have supposed that we belonged to their people. Then one of them said, “Let us charge.”

This was the first time in the war that Deneys, on foot, had a large number of enemy soldiers up close rushing toward him. He and his 18-year-old brother Joubert stayed firmly where they were, next to each other behind the bank of the spruit.

One officer, Captain Paley (I am writing this letter with his silver pencil-case) advanced, though he had two bullet wounds already. Joubert gave him another shot, and he fell on top of us.

In writing of this in Commando, Deneys said that he and Joubert had called on Paley to halt, and only shot him when he kept coming. In the letter, they did not go through the formality of a warning.

Four English got hold of Jan Luttig, and struck him on the head with their rifles, and stabbed him in the stomach with a bayonet. He seized two of them by the throat, and shouted, “Help, boys!” His two nearest comrades shot two of the nearest soldiers, and the other two bolted. But then the English came up in such numbers, about 800 [there were actually about 200] that we all lay down as quiet as mice along the bank. Farther on the English killed three of our men with bayonets and wounded two.

The tiny band of fighters managed to get off quite a few shots before they had to lie low. Jan Luttig would survive, only to be killed at Pieters Hill.

…Tell Atie [16-year-old brother Arnt] he must not insist on coming to the front, for it is no picnic. I shall now conclude with love to all — Your affectionate son, Deneys Reitz.

As the damaged British column streamed into Ladysmith, the Boer men sat quietly and waited for daylight.

At dawn Deneys saw, arranged in a rough circle around them, 55 dead or wounded British soldiers. Among them lay three burghers who had bravely come through the dark to help them, two now dead and the third in his last throes. They were horribly punctured by bayonets. To the side obediently sat a few English prisoners captured during the conflict. Gradually came other Pretorians to look on what had happened and to praise the courage of Malherbe’s men.

They carried Samuel van Zijl back to the tent. His body would be sent back home on a goods train. Here is what became of Deneys and his tentmates:

Samuel van Zijl, killed at Surprise Hill / Frank Roos, killed at Red Fort / Charles Jeppe, killed at Spion Kop / Robert Reinecke, killed at Spion Kop / Walter de Vos, wounded at Spion Kop, killed near Van Rhynsdorp in 1902 / Joubert Reitz, taken prisoner in 1901 / Deneys Reitz, active until end of war.

# # #

Adapted from my work about the Boer War, Transvaal Citizen.

Ladysmith town hall, damaged by Boer bombardment during the siege



1. testazyk - September 4, 2010

Another fascinating account!

Did you take the star picture?

Jenny - September 4, 2010

Oh no, you must have some misapprehension about my ability as a photographer. It is a photo I grabbed from Wikimedia Commons, a depository of images that are not subject to copyright. I am strictly a snapshot photographer, very much hit-or-miss. But thank you for the comment!

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