jump to navigation

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

Posted by Jenny in Boer War, history, military history, travel.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

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.
Tags: , , , , ,

"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

Deneys Reitz in WWI/ Farewell to a brother. March 20, 2010

Posted by Jenny in Boer War, military history, World War One.
Tags: , , , , ,
(l. to r.) Front: Deneys, Atie.  Back: Hjalmar, Jack, Joubert. Photo courtesy of Conrad Reitz.

(l. to r.) Front: Deneys, Atie. Back: Hjalmar, Jack, Joubert. Photo courtesy of Conrad Reitz.

This is the seventh part of a series that starts here and alternates with other posts. The last post described the historical background to German East Africa in World War One.  This one concerns the personal experiences of Deneys Reitz as he fought in German East.

Of the five sons of Francis William Reitz and Blanca Thesen, the four oldest had fought in the Boer War.  Deneys and Joubert, aged 17 and 18 when war was declared, spent much of the first year of the war side by side, sharing a tent, galloping next to each other over the veld, crouching together in a trench as the “khakis” came running with their bayonets.  There was a period of several months when all four of the brothers managed to stick together.  But the large invisible currents of the war swept them off in different directions, and Joubert was captured by the British and sent to prison camp in late 1900.  He remained there three years.

In German East Africa, in 1916, Deneys and Joubert had been so little in contact for many years that it was a surprise for both of them when they crossed paths on the Mgeta River north of the Central Railway.  As it turned out, they were to encounter each other once more in German East, and that would be the last time they would ever see each other.

Both of the brothers had come to German East voluntarily, out of a sense of duty.  Deneys described his view of it:

General Smuts assumed command of the campaign, and he left South Africa in December 1915.  I decided to go too.  I had no animus against the German people, but I thought then, as I think now, that a victorious Germany would have been a disaster to human liberty.  Also, my chief was going and, further, I could not hang back while so many of my countrymen were moving forward to an adventure in the wilds of Africa.*

He joined Smuts on the south side of Kilimanjaro, where the general had his troops waiting for the rains to end before moving south along the Pangani River toward the Central Railway.  For a while Reitz enjoyed all of the sights that today’s visitors pay thousands of dollars to see on tourist safaris:

Within this charmed circle lie game-covered plains, and swamps and jungles and impenetrable forests.  There lie the snow-capped peaks of Kibu and Mawenzi with their base in the tropics and their summits wrapped in eternal ice and snow.  There is Mount Meru like a basalt pyramid to the east, and there are lakes and craters, and a network of great rivers, with strange tribes and beautiful scenery…

Mount Meru

But Reitz was always restless by nature, and when he heard of a contingent pushing ahead to join Jacob van Deventer in a preliminary advance, he immediately decided to join it.  They caught up to van Deventer at Kondoa Irangi, having learned that his men had captured a company of the German Askaris.  Reitz ran into Jack Borrius here—an old pal from the Boer War.  Borrius was the first to give Reitz the news that Joubert was also serving in German East: Jack and Joubert had a connection from the days both had been sent into prison camp by Manie Maritz.

If Reitz was looking for immediate action, he did not find it.  A great proportion of van Deventer’s troops were laid up with malaria, they were short of supplies, and the rains and the muddy roads were holding them up.  For the next two months Reitz stayed put, holding a position on the left flank of van Deventer’s line.  Conditions were less than ideal.  As Reitz described it, “Food was scarce and sometimes lacking altogether, and cold biting rains, varied by oppressive heat, prevailed much of the time.”

The problem was getting artillery like this 15-pounder down the muddy roads

The fighting consisted of sporadic skirmishes with a largely invisible opponent.  As described in the last post, von Lettow’s forces were severely outnumbered, so his strategy was to avoid frontal combat in favor of picking off a few British troops here and there, then dissolving again into the bush.  He was willing to let disease and supply problems work their damage on his enemy.  Reitz wrote humorously of a little 6-pounder German gun that would appear at random points around the British lines, get off a few rounds, then disappear again.  The men took to calling it “Big Bertha.”

In July the Germans retreated to the south and van Deventer pushed forward after them, moving south into dry scrub country, with Smuts advancing behind him.  Two mounted regiments engaged the Germans at the wells of Tissu-Kwamedu.  As the Germans surrendered, Reitz encountered a familiar figure:  it was Joubert, serving as a sergeant with the 3rd Mounted.  Joubert had been suffering from fever and had only just returned from hospital, which explained why they had not seen each other before.  He looked haggard and ill.  “He had much to say of how he had fared in the past, of Maritz’s treachery, and of his long months in a German prison camp in South-West.” The brothers were to be in the same vicinity but not again in contact for several months.

There were further skirmishes at Hanetti and Mei-Mei, but outnumbered as they were, the Germans could not make a stand, and before long the British side had control of the Central Railway.  Van Deventer’s forces advanced from Dodoma eastward along the rail line to join Smuts at Morogoro.  The Germans did as much damage as they could as they retreated, by means of rifles, mines, and even at one point a 4.1-inch naval gun mounted on a railcar.  Again and again, when the British cordon tightened, the Germans “filtered away like water through a sieve,” as Reitz described it: the enemy generally set up a new position from some bush-covered rise and resumed their fire in short order.

Morogoro during the war

They had left behind the dry country and entered complex tropical terrain that harbored a new enemy: the tsetse fly.  The horses sometimes stayed alive for weeks after the bite, but always succumbed sooner or later.  “The mortality amongst the horses was one of the saddest features of the East African expedition.  More than thirty thousand of these dumb gentle brutes died here, and that part of me which loved and understood horses somewhat died too.”

At Kissaki there was a pitched battle; Reitz was disturbed to see some of the dead of his side lying with their skulls smashed by the Askari.  Apart from the fortunes of battle, there was much hardship, with very little to eat.  “We fought our way through dense forest, mostly along elephant paths, though these sagacious creatures had disappeared, leaving the jungle to mankind and his follies.” At length the Germans vacated Kissaki, but the conflict continued downriver.  By day Reitz and his comrades rarely saw the enemy, but at night they could hear them singing “Deutschland uber Alles.”  It was a time of torrential rain, buzzing mosquitoes, and countless men down with malaria and dysentery—not to mention being surrounded by the rotting corpses of horses dead from the tsetse fly.  But “the fact remained that we had driven the Germans into the wilderness.  The railways and towns were in our hands, and only the remote southern half of their territory was left to them.”

It was October, and the South African troops were being replaced by Indian battalions who would be manning garrisons scattered in the rough south part of the country.  Reitz had been a sort of freelance, not a member of any regiment but nominally belonging to Smuts’ staff.  He expected soon to be discharged: between the lines one can read that he wanted to go back home, though he does not say so.  Much to his surprise, van Deventer summoned him one morning and told him he was to take command of a mounted regiment remaining in the country, the 4th S.A. Horse, and to advance south to Iringa.

Before long, crossing swamps and jungle, Reitz reached a ford of the Ruaha River, and there he found Joubert again, in a shelter made of grass, “in a dying conditionunable to go on.  He was pitifully weak from malaria, but his mind was clear.  He spoke a little of the days when we were boys…”

Ruaha River (in dry season)

Joubert had never had good luck.  “He was a poet and a dreamer by nature, so he did not prosper…” In the Boer War, Joubert had latched onto the idea of being an artilleryman, and in the battle of Ladysmith he had separated himself dangerously from his brother to help the crew of one of the big “Long Tom” guns that was under withering bombardment.  Deneys had run over to try to persuade him to leave his post, but Joubert refused, even surrounded by the damaged corpses of the crew.  When the guerilla phase of the war started, Joubert left his three brothers to stay with a struggling remnant of the Transvaal artillery.  It was probably the relative immobility of the artillery that led to his soon being captured and sent to prison camp in Bermuda.  There he wrote a haunting poem about prison life titled “The Searchlight.”

After the war, he learned that his brothers Deneys and Atie had gone to live in Madagascar, and he attempted to join them.  But he arrived on the far side of the island and became stricken with malaria—indeed, all three of them suffered from malaria there—too weak to make the journey eastward and find his brothers.  Deneys had word of Joubert from a traveller there, but they never managed to connect.

And now Joubert had emerged from nine months of captivity in South West Africa, greatly weakened by starvation but still determined to join the fight against the Germans, “and now he lay broken.  He was taken back to the Union and died there, so I never saw him again.”

Reitz’s regiment penetrated into wild country of steep hills and deep gorges, then, under orders from van Deventer, attempted to encircle an important German camp.  In the rough terrain, the enemy filtered out into the forest through invisible loopholes.  Finally new orders came: the regiment was to return to South Africa.  “We were glad to go.  The campaign had degenerated into something like searching for a needle in a haystack…”

Within a few months, Reitz was on his way to the Western Front.

*All quotes from Trekking On.  In The Trilogy of Deneys Reitz, Wolfe Publishing, Prescott AZ, 1994.

"The Searchlights" (1917), etching by Marc-Henry Meunier