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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