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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

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

Professor Barnard and the Isaac Malherbe corporalship September 7, 2009

Posted by Jenny in Boer War, memoir, military history.
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British naval gun at Pieters Hill, Natal

British naval gun at Pieters Hill, Natal

In February 2005 I was fortunate to meet Professor C.J. Barnard in Pretoria. He was the author of a book about Louis Botha and the phase of the Boer War that was fought in Natal from 1899 to 1900. I had been studying papers of Boer fighter Deneys Reitz at the Brenthurst Library in Johannesburg and drove up to meet Professor Barnard. It was my first experience driving in South Africa, and after a bit of confusion in downtown Pretoria, I found the professor’s house.

His modest house, surrounded by a wall and set back from the street, turned out to be stuffed to the brim with the Boer War.  The war’s people, its events, all lived in the teeming floor-to-ceiling file cabinets and bookshelves.  At Brenthurst, the war had been just one of many subjects—the librarians were probably happier to work with the beautiful illustrated tomes about African flora and fauna—but here I had arrived at an epicenter of Boer War scholarship.  So much dedicated reading, searching, striving, thinking had been accomplished by the tall, congenial man who graciously invited me into his sanctum.

We talked about Reitz’s life and the reasons why he hadn’t published his 1903 memoir soon after returning from his post-war exile in Madagascar.  Professor Barnard thought that by the time Reitz fully recovered from his malaria, convalescing for many months at the Jan Smuts household, he felt that everyone was tired of the subject.  Many others had published their memoirs, and Reitz was inclined to get on with his life.  I was interested in Barnard’s simple judgment about the difference between the unpublished memoir and the much-edited version that was published in 1929 under the title of Commando.  “The original manuscript had more feeling,” he said.

We talked about the Isaac Malherbe corporalship.  This was a group of about 20 young men, a subunit of the Pretoria commando, who had elected the 25-year-old Malherbe to be their leader.  Malherbe was much admired by Reitz for his way of instantly determining the place where men were most needed within any conflict and leading his men straight to the danger point, as if by magnetic attraction.  Malherbe and the rest of the corporalship, those who had not already been killed or captured at Spion Kop or earlier, were wiped out at Pieters Hill on February 27, 1900, in a massive barrage of artillery followed by a charge of Scots Fusiliers and Dublins with flashing, thrusting bayonets.  The air would have been alive with voices, there would have been a great deal of shouting and screaming.  By chance (a chain of circumstance involving Reitz’s uncle), the Reitz brothers had not been on that hill, they had not been brushed by the gliding black shadow.

Professor Barnard spoke of the members of the Malherbe corporalship as if he knew each one personally.  Barnard knew which ones were members of the Pretoria Rugby Football Club, their ages (all teens and twenties), which ones were married, their occupations.  He told me the story of Jan de Villiers, who escaped from a British prison camp in southern India by dressing as an Indian.  He made his way by rail and on foot to Pondicherry, which was French territory.  Ill in a hospital, de Villiers found himself in a bed next to the captain of a Norwegian ship.  The captain took him to Marseilles, and de Villiers eventually returned to South Africa to fulfill his destiny as an engineer in Potchefstroom.

J.L. de Villiers in garb he used to escape prison camp

J.L. de Villiers in garb he used to escape prison camp

I later saw a picture of de Villiers posing in the garb he had used to escape the Indian camp.  He wears a turban, and he has one of those moustaches that grows straight out to the sides, ending in sharp points that continue the undeviating east-west direction rather than curling up in handlebar style.  He has a white tunic and white leggings.  He wears what look like Boer shoes that have had the toes cut out to make them look like sandals.  He stands on an ornate Victorian-style carpet, and behind him is a photographer’s studio backdrop that has a little bit of everything: waves lapping against a rocky shore, a Grecian urn entwined with ivy, and a cluster of tropical-looking flowers.

Our discussion moved on to the guerilla phase of the war.  Barnard thought it important to impress on me that General Botha, commander of Transvaal forces, had a complete plan of battle entered into a notebook that he carried with him at all times.  Barnard emphasized this to counter any notion that the Boer campaign had become chaotic and disorganized at that stage.  The notebook contained a complete listing of commandos and generals, and Barnard pulled a transcription of it from one of his file cabinets to show me.  I was struck by his determination to understand that page of the Boer past, when the weight of the Empire was steadily crushing them, as the working of disciplined and meticulous minds.  Having since read the memoirs of De Wet, Viljoen, and others, I am inclined to agree with him.

The professor generously took me out to lunch.  Pretoria has changed much in recent years.  The metropolitan area is now known by its African name, Tshwane.  The large old buildings have colorful encrustations of awnings, tables on the sidewalks, street vendors, and street activity.  It is one of the many patterns in which white and black coexist in present-day South Africa: a growth of exuberant black forms of life upon old white structures, like beings thriving on a coral reef.  As we walked along, I felt that the tall slender man with silver hair was entirely apart from his surroundings, like a sepia-toned photograph amidst color images.  The world described in his file cabinets has become nearly invisible now.