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Survived Magersfontein, killed in skirmish February 27, 2009

Posted by Jenny in Boer War, history, travel.
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Along a remote dirt road in the Cederberg

Along a remote dirt road in the Cederberg

A small sign near the dirt road for the Wuppertal turnoff points to “The Englishman’s Grave.”  We are in South Africa’s Cederberg mountains.

A dark tree with rustling leaves, clearly planted on the site (no other trees grow anywhere nearby) leans protectively over a grave that is sharply separated from the surrounding veld by a low iron railing of a Victorian style.  The headstone is in the form of a Celtic cross and bears the words “BRAVE AND TRUE.”  At the base of the cross is inscribed:

In sacred and loving memory of Graham Vinicombe Winchester Clowes Lieutenant 1st Battn. the Gordon Highlanders… killed in action near this spot on 30th January 1901.

I learned after I stopped at the grave that the soldier’s mother had journeyed all the way from England after the war to find this remote spot and have the memorial erected.  Mrs. Clowes would have embarked on a steamship, probably in Southampton, and journeyed over the sea for three weeks to reach Cape Town.  Then she would have taken a horse-drawn conveyance such as a Cape cart to the north, a journey of three days through barren spaces filled with peculiar sandstone formations in constantly changing patterns.

She would have arrived at this isolated spot, not the site of a great battle but of a tiny skirmish.  Clowes may have been the only one killed that day as he went on a scouting mission to find the location and strength of Boer forces between Clanwilliam and Calvinia.  Mrs. Clowes may have experienced a crystalline silence at the intersection of two lightly travelled dirt tracks in this valley rimmed by stones that sit looking down like guardians.  She may have seen the teeming populations of stars in their alien southern hemisphere configurations.

Lt. Clowes’ Gordon Highlander regiment was famous in South Africa.  It had suffered a catastrophic defeat in the battle of Majuba Hill that concluded the lesser-known First Boer War of 1880-1881 (British casualties at Majuba, 280; Boers, 1).  When the Second Boer War started in 1899, British soldiers who had a spirit of revenge would run into battle shouting, “Majuba!  Majuba!”  The words had the rhythm of a powerful steam engine as thousands of khaki-colored infantry charged over dusty ground.  That word had been chanted at Elandslaagte, when the 2nd Gordons wore their kilts into battle and chased the Boers from the crest of a ridge as a violent thunderstorm split the sky.

Lt. Clowes’ 1st battalion shipped out to Cape Town after Elandslaagte, arriving just in time to march out for the ill-fated battle of Magersfontein.  It was part of General Methuen’s program to lift the siege of Kimberley.  The Boers were thought to be concentrated on the monolithic Magersfontein kopje that rose from the desert floor with a front edge shaped like a ship’s prow.  The Highland Brigade bivouacked three miles away and advanced by night, ready to take the kopje at bayonet-point by first light of day.  Another furious African thunderstorm bore down on them as they stumbled in strokes of lightning over ant hills, rocks, thorn bushes.  As the rain subsided and a blinding morning sun abruptly topped the horizon, the Highlanders heard the tremendous roar of thousands of Boer rifles, described by one participant as like the bursting of a dam.  The Boers were not on the hill but protected in a well-crafted deep narrow trench a hundred yards in front of it that was camouflaged with branches.  The Boers had run strands of barbed wire in irregular patterns through the bush.

The Highlanders could do little but flatten themselves.  The slightest movement—the lifting of a canteen to parched lips—was answered by marksmen’s bullets.   The bare legs of the kilt-wearing soldiers burned as they lay in the sun.  It was around noon that Methuen ordered the Gordons onto the field to “clear the trenches.”  They soon found themselves exposed to an enfilading fire from the right.  What happened next is confused, as often—no, usually—occurs in battle.   Colonel Downman of the Gordons ran forward, calling for the right to fall back and the left to move up.  The Seaforths received similar orders.  As Downman shouted his command, he was mortally wounded.  The backward movement among some of the Gordons and Seaforths triggered a spasm of retreat across the field, and many Highlanders were shot in the back as they fled.  By the end of it British casualties numbered 902, compared with 200 for the Boers, and they had made no advance: a disaster.

Lt. Clowes lived a year and two months longer, only to fall victim to a small band of Boer guerillas on an ordinary summer day.

A haunting poem about Magersfontein, written by one of the regular soldiers, can be found here.

These sandstone blocks are found in all sorts of patterns in the Cederberg

These sandstone blocks are found in all sorts of patterns in the Cederberg