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In South Africa: At last, I visit Spionkop October 23, 2010

Posted by Jenny in Boer War, history, military history, travel.
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Deneys Reitz came up this side

For an introduction about my recent trip to South Africa, go here.

Spionkop. Also spelled Spion Kop, Spioenkop. “Spying Hill” or “Lookout Hill.” A tableland kind of mountain (plateau, mesa, flat-topped mountain with steep sides), a place, as it turned out, on January 24, 1900, of many kinds of concealment.

A mountain with a particular shape that prevented observers below from seeing clearly what was happening up on the top. The Boers and the British who fought there had to scramble steeply up its sides to get there, and then once on the tableland, entered a different world entirely: one of continuous artillery bombardment and relentless rifle fire. The young Winston Churchill, present as a correspondent for the London Morning Post, described it as a “bloody reeking shambles.”*

The actual moment of arrival at the top seemed burned into the memories of the participants, to judge by the accounts I’ve read. Ben Bouwer of the Ermelo commando described coming up over the rim: “I was once so tightly wedged in among furious sweating bodies that I used one fist freely. The electric, exciting, and somehow intensely coloured and full moment passed,” and the English melted back into their trench.**

Boers at the base of the mountain

As we rode a bus to the top of the mountain on an overcast, chilly day, Professor Kay de Villiers told me that he conceived of the battle as a Homeric struggle. And I could easily imagine the gods arranging and controlling the scene, bringing down a curtain of mist to confuse the British when they dug their defensive trench—in the wrong place; interfering with British communications; endowing certain of the Boers with a miraculous invincibility while killing others instantly.

We spent a whole morning there, visiting the various places where human spirits shone boldly or were destroyed, where bad decisions were made and where individuals desperately improvised, where the British had 1500 casualties and the Boers 300. The tableland is populated with many memorials and graves and with many ghosts.

Arnold reads to us about the battle

Much of the discussion was in Afrikaans, but I could tell what was being discussed from the familiar names of individuals who fought, and at different points people kindly translated for me. Having learned much from the knowledgeable and helpful members of the tour, I would like to return someday by myself and simply walk quietly around.

Certain descriptions of moments of the battle had been learned by heart by many of the tour participants, such as the words of Deneys Reitz in Commando, “The English troops lay so near that one could have tossed a biscuit among them…”# Reitz was 17 years old when he fought in the battle.

I was glad that the wind was blowing and that the sky was gray. It seemed appropriate. The actual battle featured a misty night followed by burning hot sunshine. Most of the men fighting did not have adequate water.

Following is an excerpt from my account of the battle in my book, Transvaal Citizen.

*   *   *

An assault column of 2,000 men clambered its way up the south slope of Spionkop in the small hours of the very black night. There was only a narrow path among the giant smooth boulders, just a track for sheep or goats. A man named Thorneycroft led the column, looking for landmarks he’d memorized from a scouting trip two days before—a steep ledge with rocks in a certain configuration, a clump of mimosa bushes that gripped the upper slope. The drizzle of rain made it even harder for the heavily laden soldiers to get a footing. But eventually they reached the tableland and chased away the small party of Vryheid men who were posted there. The English rushed forward with their bayonets, sending their opponents running so quickly that most of them left their boots behind.

Thorneycroft's column climbed up this ridge

Having conquered the summit, the English set to work scratching a long shallow trench into the stony ground. The trench would become immortalized in photographs as a burial pit heaped high with corpses.

English dead at Spionkop

The trench has been made into a memorial

As January 24 dawned and the mist cleared under the powerful summer sun, the British saw at once that their trench would do them no good. They were completely vulnerable to artillery fire coming at them from surrounding heights. And although they had indeed located their trench on the highest point of the plateau, there was plenty of ground around them toward the rim where the Boers could fire at them from behind rocks.

They would have needed to create a semicircular defense heaped high with sandbags or rocks to protect themselves from Boer rifle fire to the west, north, and east. (There were thousands of sandbags waiting below, but no one had brought them up to the summit.) The surrounding hills—Conical Hill, Twin Peaks, Aloe Knoll, and Green Hill—were either occupied by Boers or about to be occupied very soon.

Deneys Reitz and Field-Cornet Zeederberg heard the sounds of battle as they got up at dawn and drank their coffee. One of their comrades galloped up to tell them the khakis had captured the mountain. Deneys and Zeederberg hurried to grab up handfuls of cartridges from a big box on the supply wagon and rode quickly to where hundreds of saddled horses were tethered in long rows.

The hill seemed to rise a very long distance up into the sky. Its receding slope was interrupted by jumbles of boulders. A few sparse, scraggly mimosas clung to the uneven ground. The flat top looked small and empty from this perspective. In fact, it was an acre across, full of men shooting each other.

Deneys watched with fascination as swarms of Boers climbed the steep hill, some of them dropping under a withering fire. “For a moment there was confused hand-to-hand fighting, then the combatants surged over the rim on to the plateau beyond where we could no longer see them.”# At once he shifted his pespective and realized that he should be with them, right now. He and Mr. Zeederberg tethered their horses and made their way up the dry, bristly grass, past the boulders. All along the way he found the bodies of men he knew.

Tentmate Robert Reinecke, shot through the head. John Malherbe, a bullet between the eyes. Further along, Walter de Vos of his tent, shot through the chest “but smiling cheerfully as we passed.”# Cheerfully: a small moment of ordinary heartbreaking courage. De Vos would miraculously survive, only to be killed in an unimportant affair in the Cape Colony, early 1902.

The ones who had made it all the way to the top had been stopped in their advance right at the tableland’s edge by intense rifle fire. They dropped for cover behind the line of boulders that rimmed the summit most of the way around. As Deneys arrived near the top and sized up the situation, his brother Joubert came the other way with a group of captured soldiers. By some turn of circumstance he’d been given orders to escort them to Ladysmith. The brothers hurriedly shook hands, and Joubert went on down the mountain.

He’d lost Mr. Zeederberg in that short moment of meeting his brother. Where were the rest of his comrades? Where was Isaac Malherbe? Here were some men huddled behind rocks—maybe they would know. The answer came from Red Danie Opperman, who had just sent the Pretorians around to put some pressure on the English flank. Deneys crept behind protective boulders until he reached a point where the rocks abruptly ran dead. A wide, airy gap stretched ahead before the fringe of boulders resumed. A man here told him the Pretorians had run across this gap. Deneys stood up to follow, but as soon as he emerged from his cover, a swarm of angry Lee-Metford bullets came whistling around him. He dived back. No, he would not run across this gap.

A huddled heap lay out in the open not far from the English trench, someone who hadn’t quite made it to the outcrop. He took a second look: it was his friend and tentmate Charlie Jeppe, lying close enough that he could see Jeppe had been shot through the leg and the head. “I felt dreadfully upset when I saw this, for Charlie and I had been very close friends from the beginning…. He had always lived in the same tent as Joubert and I, and to see him lying there was a great blow. I was so upset that I could hardly aim and my first shot hit the ground halfway to the breastwork, where it threw up quite a cloud of dust.”##

Opperman shouted to Deneys that he should go home if he couldn’t shoot better. Children were not needed here! Deneys pulled himself together and started shooting accurately. He called out to Opperman to watch as his shots kicked up dust on the English parapet.

The portion of the Kop held by the Pretoria men was called Aloe Knoll. It was a severe, brittle place inhabited by shrilling insects and clumps of the spearlike aloe plants. The sharp tang of the arid ground mixed with the smell of human blood. The sun-heated ledges were splashed with the liquid parts of human beings.

For long hours under the staring sun, with little or no water, the two sides exchanged rifle fire at close range. Swells of violent noise rolled constantly over them. The Boers saw their own casualties pile up among them, but they couldn’t see what was happening in the English trench. Everywhere swarms of flies covered the bodies of dead men. As the hours ticked by, small groups of discouraged Boers slipped quietly down the hillside, despite Opperman’s yelling at them. They were demoralized in part because they could see many of their comrades sitting on horseback in the area to the north, watching but not coming to help.

*   *   *

*Winston Churchill, London to Ladysmith via Pretoria. Longmans, Green & Co., London, 1900.

** Ben Bouwer (as written by P.J. le Riche), Memoirs of General Ben Bouwer. Human Sciences Research Council, Pretoria, 1981.

# Deneys Reitz, Commando. In The Trilogy of Deneys Reitz. Wolfe Publishing, Prescott, AZ, 1994.

## Deneys Reitz, Memoirs of the English War, 1899-1902. Translated by Michael Reitz.  Unpublished manuscript, Brenthurst Library, Johannesburg.

Wildflower blooming amidst the dry grass of Spionkop

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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

A visit to “Die Hel” August 7, 2010

Posted by Jenny in Boer War, military history.
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Slopes near Swartberg Pass. Photo by Winfried Bruenken.

It was late October or early November 1901. A group of seven Boers had become separated from the commando of General Jan Smuts as it fought its way across the hostile Cape Colony, doing what damage it could to the pursuing British columns, trying to obtain necessary supplies of food, clothing, and ammunition along the way. One of the group of seven, Deneys Reitz, had lost his companions during a shootout at an English farm (in other words, the farm owner was of English descent and loyal to the British, unlike many Cape Afrikaners sympathetic with the Boers). His pony had been shot from under him, and after a long night of hiding from the soldiers and then walking for hours before dawn, he recognized the particular hoofprints of the pony of one of his companions. Miraculously, he was able to follow it and find his friends. They still hoped to rejoin the larger commando.

In this episode, the seven men, led by Willem Conradi, travel from the valley of the Caminassi River, not far from Oudtshoorn, northward across the Swartberg mountains. They encounter a strange little settlement tucked into the mountains, known as “Die Hel” (now also called Gamkaskloof)—located off the present R328 south of Prince Albert.

The people they met in the valley told them Smuts’ commando was making its way west, maybe a few days ahead, but several thousand mounted troops were nipping at the commando’s heels. Smuts had left behind territory of the detested Scobell, but now he was pursued by Colonel Crabbe’s column. When Crabbe’s men and horses became exhausted, Colonel Kavanaugh took up the chase. But the English never caught up, since as usual they were encumbered by their heavy supply wagons. Smuts wrote in his journal that the clumsy convoys moved “like a wounded snake, winding their slow length along.”*

Jan Smuts in the Boer War

Willem Conradi’s men could see towering clouds of dust miles ahead that were raised by the convoys. At times they heard the boom of artillery. But the real trouble was that bands of troopers kept riding past to join the columns ahead. Each time, they had to hide themselves away, sometimes for hours on end.

Conradi at length proposed that the group would be better off crossing back to the north of the Swartbergen and continuing west on a parallel, less populated route. They’d have to get up the near side, which was infested with cliff bands, but the far slope was gentler. That would put them back into the Karoo.

Rock in Swartberg Pass. Photo by Winfried Bruenken.

So they headed north again toward the looming blue barrier of the mountains. It took them several days to reach the foot of the Swartbergen. One of those nights, they had a fine celebration. They had (somehow or other) obtained a goat, slaughtered it, and brought it along in pieces on the horses. That evening they stayed up till late, eating roast goat around a roaring fire, singing and telling stories. Albertus van Rooyen, who had a fine voice, sang a full program of English songs, and the others took up the choruses and filled the night air with their music.

They reached the Swartbergen near the pass of the Seven Weeks Gorge. But the road through the pass was garrisoned and patrols were buzzing about, as usual. They made directly for the scraggy top of the mountain, climbing steeply. A cold, heavy rain began to fall. The sky turned purple, then black, as they reached the crest of the first ridge. They dropped down a bit on the other side, hoping to find shelter, but they ended up sitting huddled in the dismal chill until dawn.

In the morning the shivering men found themselves wrapped in dense fog. They picked their way down an invisible slope. In the afternoon they finally got down beneath the clouds. Below the mist, which boiled off the rocks in changing, streaming formations, they beheld a remarkable hidden canyon closed in snugly by cliffs on three sides. At the bottom, a thousand feet below, they made out some small, primitive buildings. They scrambled down through a gap in the cliffs.

They had stumbled upon a strange little settlement known as “Die Hel,” inaccessible except by a rough path on the Seven Weeks Gorge side. It had been settled by a small group of trekboers who’d turned their backs on the outside world and developed their own peculiar dialect of Dutch. The Boers had always been fond of creating their own little isolated kingdoms, but this one was likely the most inaccessible of all.

A tall, wild-looking man dressed in goatskins came out to greet them. His name was Cordier, and it was his valley. He lived there with his wife and children in perfect isolation. He’d been expecting Conradi’s group. His son had heard them up on the ridge, crept up and spied on them without their knowing it, and reported back to his father.

Cordier was eager for news of the outside world. No English had reached this valley, and Conradi’s men were the first Boers to do so in a very long time. He had heard of the war—it had been going on for more than two years now—but his knowledge of it was sparse. He served them a meal of goat’s meat, milk, and wild honey. They stayed up late around a fire, roasting goat chops and talking. He was so interested in every thing they had to tell him that he wouldn’t let them sleep. His son climbed a long distance to be with them, too, arriving in the middle of the night to join the visiting Transvaalers.

Every night Deneys had been sleeping curled up tight in the Standers’ grainbag, but now Cordier’s wife gave him a nice heavy blanket, “so I could almost pass as a well-to-do man once more.”# That night in Die Hel, Cordier stayed out with them. Deneys realized how tough he’d become when mountain-man Cordier started complaining about the cold and the rain, while Deneys didn’t find it cold at all.

In the morning the visitors were not allowed to depart. Cordier produced, as if from nowhere, two buckets of honey beer that he thrust upon his guests. No matter that it was early in the day. They spent several jolly hours before the men got to their feet with a bit of a wobble and insisted they must move on toward their destination. Smuts would be getting far ahead. Cordier and a couple of his sons led them up through the rock labyrinth and stayed with them through another night, guiding them out the next morning to where they had a view to the vast hot plains to the north.

*  *  *

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

*Jan Smuts, Memoirs of the Boer War. Edited by Spies/Nattrass. Jonathan Ball, Cape Town, 1997.

# Deneys Reitz, Memoirs of the English War, 1899-1902. Translated by Michael Reitz.  Unpublished manuscript, Brenthurst Library, Johannesburg.

Swartberg Pass. Photo by Winfried Bruenken.