Commando by Deneys Reitz
(More images at this link Spioenkop. Music: Danny Boy)
ABOUT a week later, Mr Zeederberg said I could go to Pretoria for a fortnight, so leaving my brother in charge of my horses, I once again boarded a north-bound goods train and travelled home in a cattle-truck, getting-there in three days time. My father did not know I was coming, and although he gave me a warm welcome, he insisted on my returning at once, as he said the British were on the eve of delivering another great blow on the Tugela, and that my place was in Natal. I told him that the burghers thought there would be no more serious fighting, but he shook his head and said he only wished he could share our optimism.
I was disappointed, as I had been looking forward to the luxury of home life and good food for a little while, but I saw his point and started back on the second day.
I reached our camp at Ladysmith on January 23rd (1900) to find that volunteers were being called for to go to the Tugela, and I now heard that General Buller had moved the English army twenty-five miles upstream from Colenso in preparation for another big-scale attack in the vicinity of Spioenkop, a Prominent hill forming part of the Boer line on the north bank of the Tugela. Already they were hammering away at different points, seeking a weak spot at which to thrust; so my father had been right, and, indeed, the situation was so critical that reinforcements were being sent from every commando lying around Ladysmith.
From the Pretoria laager fifty volunteers were asked for, and more than three times that number immediately offered themselves. The Field-Cornet made a selection which included Isaac Malherbe, my brother and myself and our three remaining tent-mates, Charles Jeppe, de Vos and Heinecke, as well as several more of our corporalship.
We set out within an hour of my arrival from Pretoria, and crossed the Klip River after dark, riding all night round by the west until we reached the rear of Spion Kop at day-break. As we rode, we could hear the sound of heavy gun-fire from the forward hills, and it never ceased for any length of time although we were still too far back to be in it, danger.
After a short halt to rest our horses and cook breakfast, we were ordered to the top of a steep ridge lying about a mile to the right, where we had to dig a reserve trench. A mule-wagon had accompanied us from Ladysmith carrying provisions, ammunition and a supply of pick-axes and shovels, with which unaccustomed tools we started up the slope, horses and all.
When we had dug for some time, Field-Cornet Zeederberg, who was always very kind to me, said that as I was the youngest I need not dig any more and could go down to where the wagon had been left for a rest. Nothing loath, I made haste to reach the halting-place, and, leaving my horse in charge of the mule-drivers, I started out to see what was going on in the front positions, which were out of sight from where we had been digging.
Ever since sunrise there had come the unbroken boom of guns and the rattle of small arms, and now that I was free I decided to walk across the intervening hills to the firing-line. As I went, the gun and rifle-fire grew louder, and before long I reached a point from which I could see the Boer front strung out along the top of the next rise.
Image right: This jacket in the Balson Holdings Family Trust collection was worn by a Royal British Navy Officer in the 1900's and used during the Boer War. The Royal Navy provided heavy field artillery at the battle of Spion Kop with a number of 4.7 inch naval guns mounted on field carriages devised by Captain Percy Scott of HMS Terrible. More at this link.
Black mushrooms of earth and smoke hung along the course of the positions from the heavy shells flung across the Tugela, and puff's of shrapnel flecked the air above. From the noise I judged that a battle was in full progress and, after some hesitation, I hurried on and reached the line in safety. The spectacle from here was a fine one. Far below on the plain the Tugela wound shining in the sun, and the bank beyond was alive with English foot and horse. From the wooded hills farther back came the flashes of the British guns, and in the din I asked myself more than once why I had been foolish enough to come.
During the preceding days the English had effected a lodgment at numerous points on our side of the river, and their troops were occupying such spurs and ridges running up from the water's edge as they had been able to seize. The Boers, on being pushed back, had reformed along the crest of the height, where they were now holding a series of hastily dug trenches and whatever natural cover they could find, and were stoutly resisting any further encroachments of the enemy, who in places were lying within a few hundred yards of us.
Image Right: Officers of the Naval Brigade, the gunners who fought at Ladysmith (Natal) and Graspan (in the OFS). The uniform above could well be one of those worn by the smaller officers in the picture.
The Positions here were held by Free State commandos while downstream lay the Transvaalers. There were probably ten or twelve thousand burghers in all on these hills, with the bastion of Spion Kop standing like a pivot in the centre. For the most part the men made slight reply to the fire in order to husband their ammunition, and our artillery kept silent for the same reason, although it was estimated that there were over two hundred guns firing at us, and I have heard that this was the heaviest concentration of gun fire that has been seen in any war up to the present.
The casualties were considerable and I saw some men fearfully mutilated, including a father and son of the Frankfort commando who were torn to pieces by a howitzer shell, their rifles being sent spinning down the incline at the back of us.
It was a day of strain. Not only was there the horror of seeing men killed and maimed, but there was the long-drawn tension and fear of the approaching shells.
This tremendous volume of fire indicated an early attack, and throughout the day we looked to see the storm break at any moment, but, as it turned out, the bombardment was a feint, the real blow being delivered after midnight at a different point.
I was entitled to quit the line as my unit lay in the rear, but I did not like to go, and remained until things died down towards sunset, when I could return without loss of face. I found the Pretoria volunteers where I had left them digging that morning. They must have worked well, for they had completed quite a long trench.
I joined Isaac Malherbe and others sitting round the fires cooking their supper, and, watching the light fade away over the distant Drakensbergen, I chatted for a quiet hour with men who were mostly dead next morning.
Field-Cornet Zeederberg now ordered me down with him to the supply wagon. He said he was going to spend the night there, and, as he might require to send a message up to the trench, I was to come with him for I had good climbing legs.
When we got below, a tent had been pitched for him which I was allowed to share, and I was soon fast asleep. It rained at intervals during the night, and towards three in the morning we were waked by an angry stutter of rifle-fire coming from Spion Kop. We sat up listening, but as there was nothing we could do in the rain and darkness, and as after a while the firing died down, we fell asleep again.
At sunrise loud gun - and rifle-fire broke out along the front on which I had been the day before; but, as it was no worse than it had then been, Mr Zeederberg and I were not unduly perturbed and sat sipping our morning coffee in the lee of the wagon out of the way of the spent bullets that whined over our heads.
As we breakfasted one of our Pretoria men galloped up with a message from; Isaac Malherbe to say that the British had made a night attack and had captured Spion Kop. This was most serious, for if the hill went-the entire Tugela line would go with it, and we could hardly bring ourselves to believe the news. The man, however, assured us that it was true, but he said that a strong force of burghers was assembling below the hill and that Isaac Malherbe had ridden down by a short cut with all the men who were with him, so we shouted to the mule-drivers to saddle our horses, and filling up with ammunition from a box on the wagon we followed on the heels of our guide.
Heavy shells were lobbing over as we went but we had not far to go and in less than fifteen minutes reached the bottom of Spion Kop. Here stood hundreds of saddled horses in long rows, and we looked up at an arresting sight.
The Boer counter-attack had started shortly before. Eight or nine hundred riflemen were climbing up the steep side of the hill in face of a close-range fire from the English troops who had established themselves on the flat summit overnight. Many of our men dropped, but already the foremost were within a few yards of the rocky edge which marked the crest, and soldiers were rising from behind their cover to meet the final rush. For a moment or two 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. Spellbound, we watched until our men passed out of view, and then, recovering ourselves, dismounted, and tying our horses with the rest, hurried up in the wake of the attack.
Dead and dying men lay all along the way, and there was proof that the Pretoria men had gone by, for I soon came on the body of John Malherbe, our Corporal's brother, with a bullet between his eyes; a few paces farther lay two more dead men of our commando. Farther on I found my tent-mate, poor Robert Reinecke, shot through the head, and not far off L. de Villiers of our corporalship lay dead. Yet higher up was Krige, another of Isaac's men, with a bullet through both lungs, still alive, and beyond him Walter de Vos of my tent, shot through the chest, but smiling cheerfully as we passed. Apart from the Pretoria men there were many other dead and wounded, mostly Carolina burghers from the eastern Transvaal, who formed the bulk of the assaulting column. Spion Kop, although steep, is not very high on the northern slope where we went up, and it did not take us long to reach the top. Here we found that the advance had got no farther than the fringe of loose rocks that runs like a girdle around the upper tableland. For the rest of the flat stretch beyond was still wholly in the hands of the British, who lay in a shallow trench behind a long low wall of stone about twenty yards away. From here came a vicious rifle-fire that made further progress impossible. It was marvellous that the Boors had got even thus far, for they had swarmed up the bare hillside in the face of a devastating fire, and they had pushed home the attack with such vigour that the narrow belt of rocks was thickly strewn with their dead.
I met my brother coming down in charge of captured soldiers and did not see him again as he had orders to escort them to Ladysmith, and he took no further part in the battle.
Giving him a hurried handshake, I went forward to the firing-line a few yards farther on. During the short delay I lost touch with Mr Zeederberg, and when I inquired from the men crouching behind the rocks for Isaac Malherbe, I was told by Red Daniel Opperman, the officer in command, that he had sent the Pretorians round to the ledge a few minutes earlier to rake the English flank. Working my way in that direction, I reached a spot where the out-crop of rocks came to a dead end. From here spread a patch of open ground until the ledge reappeared a hundred yards beyond.
One of the men holding this point told me that the Pretoria men had doubled across the gap shortly before and were now lying among the rocks on the far side, so I decided to follow; but the moment I left cover I drew so hot a fire that I was thankful to dive back for shelter and give up the attempt. Halfway across lay the huddled body of a dead man, and now that I had time to look more carefully a him I recognized Charles Jeppe, the last of my tent-mates. His death affected me keenly, for we had been particularly good friends. Outwardly he was a surly man, but he had shown me many a kindness since first we messed together on the Natal border. As I was unable to find my Corporal, I now returned to where I had first reached the top and took my place in the firing-line.
During my absence about fifty soldiers had run forward to surrender, but otherwise things were going none too well. We were sustaining heavy casualties from the English 'schans' immediately in front of us, and the men grew restive under the galling point-blank fire, a thing not to be wondered at, for the moral effect of Lee-Metford volleys at twenty yards must be experienced to be appreciated. The English troops lay so near that one could have tossed a biscuit among them, and whilst the losses which they were causing us were only too evident, we on our side did not know that we were inflicting even greater damage upon them. Our own casualties lay hideously among us, but theirs were screened from view behind the breastwork, so that the comfort of knowing that we were giving worse than we received was denied us.
Fortunately, towards nine o'clock the situation eased, for the Transvaal artillerists got their guns into action on a commanding spur a mile away, and they began to fire over our heads into the troops crowded on the restricted space on the plateau before us. As the guns searched the hill-top the English fire slackened, and from then onward our losses were less. The position, however, remained unsatisfactory. The sun became hotter and hotter, and we had neither food nor water. Around us lay scores of dead and wounded men, a depressing sight, and by midday a feeling of discouragement had gained ground that was only kept in check by Commandant Opperman's forceful personality and vigorous language to any man who seemed to be wavering. Had it not been for him the majority would have gone far sooner than they did, for the belief spread that we were being left in the lurch. We could see large numbers of horsemen collecting at the laagers on the plain behind, but no reinforcements reached us throughout the day. I repeatedly heard old Red Daniel assure the men that help would be forthcoming, but from the way he kept scanning the country below I could see that he was getting uneasy himself.
As the hours dragged on a trickle of men slipped down the hill, and in spite of his watchful eye this gradual wastage so depleted our strength that long before nightfall we were holding the blood-spattered ledge with a mere handful of rifles. I wanted to go too, but the thought of Isaac and my other friends saved me from deserting. No further attempt was made to press forward, and for the rest of this terrible day both sides stubbornly held their ground, and, although the battle remained stationary, the heavy close-range rifle-fire continued hours after hour, and the tale of losses mounted while we lay in the blazing heat.
I saw a strange incident during the morning. Near me was a German named von Brusewitz. He had been an officer in the German army, but the year before he had run a civilian through with his sword during some scuffle in a Berlin cafe. There was a great outcry over the incident, and to allay popular clamour the German Emperor broke him from his regiment. They say that in Germany the word 'Brusewitzerei' is still used to denote the arrogance of the officer caste. However that may be, von Brusewitz was now on top of Spion Kop, where he seemed bent on getting killed, for although we warned him not to expose himself too recklessly, he paid no heed, and repeatedly stood out from among the rocks to fire.
As the English soldier were so close to us this was sheer folly, and after he had tempted providence several times the inevitable happened. I saw him rise once more, and, lighting a cigarette, puff away careless of the flying bullets until we heard a thud, and he fell dead within a few feet of me, shot through the head. Not long after this something similar happened. An old Kaffir servant came whimpering up among us from below, looking for his master's body. I advised him to be careful as he went from rock to rock peering over to examine the dead men lying in the open, but he would not listen, and soon he too had a bullet through his brain.
The hours went by; we kept watch, peering over and firing whenever a helmet showed itself, and in reply the soldiers volleyed unremittingly. We were hungry, thirsty and tired; around us were the dead men covered with swarms of flies attracted by the smell of blood. We did not know the cruel losses that the English were suffering, and we believed that they were easily holding their own, so discouragement spread as the shadows lengthened.
Batches of men left the line, openly defying Red Daniel, who was impotent in the face of this wholesale defection, and when at last the sun set I do not think there were sixty men left on the ledge.
Darkness fell swiftly; the firing died away, and there was silence, save for a rare shot and the moans of the wounded. For a long time I remained at my post, staring into the night to whew the enemy lay, so close that I could hear the cries of their wounded and the murmur of voices from behind their breastwork.
Afterwards my nerve began to go, and I thought I saw figures with bayonets stealing forward. When I tried to find the men who earlier in the evening had been beside me, they were gone. Almost in a panic I left my place and hastened along the fringe of rocks in search of company, and to my immense relief heard a gruff 'Wer da?' It was Commandant Opperman still in his place with about two dozen men. He told me to stay beside him, and we remained here until after ten o'clock, listening to the enemy who were talking and stumbling about in the darkness beyond.
At last Opperman decided to retreat, and we descended the hill by the way which he had climbed up nearly six-teen hours before, our feet striking sickeningly at times against the dead bodies in our path. When we reached the bottom most of the horses were gone, the men who had retired having taken their mounts and ridden away, but our own animals, and those belonging to the dead or wounded were still standing without food or water where they had been left at daybreak.
The first thing to do was to quench our raging thirst and that of our horses at a spring near by. We then consulted as to our next move. Most of the wounded had been taken off in the course of the day, but we found a few serious cases that would not bear transport Collected in charge of an old man, who, by the dim light of a lantern, was attending to their wants. We could get no coherent information and stood discussing what to do next, for we did not know that the English had also been fought to a standstill, and that they in turn were at that very moment retreating down their own side of Spion Kop. We fully believed that the morning would see them streaming through the breach to the relief of Ladysmith, and the rolling up of all our Tugela line.
While we were talking, Mr Zeederberg came out of the dark. I had lost sight of him during most of the day, but he had been on the hill all the time, and had only come down shortly before us. He had seen nothing of Isaac Malherbe and the rest of our Pretoria men, and had no idea of what had become of them. A few more stragglers joined us and we agreed to lead our horses to the Carolina wagon-laager that, as we knew, lay not far off. We foraged for food in the saddlebags of such horses as were left, and then went off. When we reached the laager we found everything in a state of chaos. The wagons were being hurriedly packed, and the entire Carolina commando was making ready to retire They had borne the brunt of the day's battle and had fought bravely, but, now that the struggle was over, a reaction had set in and there was panic in the camp. Fortunately, just as the foremost wagons moved away and the horsemen were getting ready to follow, there came the sound of galloping hoofs, and a man rode into our midst who shouted to them to halt. I could not see his face in the dark, but word went round that it was Louis Botha, the new Commandant-General, appointed in place of Piet Joubert who was seriously ill. He addressed the men from the saddle, telling them of the shame that would be theirs if they deserted their posts in this hour of danger; and so eloquent was his appeal that in a few minutes the men were filing off into the dark to reoccupy their positions on either side of the Spion Kop gap. I believe that he spent the rest of the night riding from commando to commando exhorting and threatening, until he persuaded the men to return to the line, thus averting a great disaster.
As for Commandant Opperman and our party, now that the Carolina burghers were returning we led our horses back to the foot of Spion Kop, to wait there.
We woke with the falling of the dew and, as the sky lightened, gazed eagerly at the dim outline of the hill above, but could make out no sign of life.
Gradually the dawn came and still there was no movement. Then to our utter surprise we saw two men on the top triumphantly waving their hats and holding their rifles aloft. They were Boers, and their presence there was proof that, almost unbelievably, defeat had turned to victorythe English were gone and the hill was still ours.
| Below are four images scanned from Michael Davitt's excellent 1902 book "The Boer Fight for Freedom". The images graphically display the tragic loss of life by the British over a stupid hill in the middle of nowhere. A copy of this excellent book
is in the Balson Holdings Family Trust.
Leaving our horses to fend for themselves, We were soon hastening up the slope past the dead until we reached yesterday's bloody ledge. From here we hurried across to the English breastworks, to find them abandoned. On our side of the fighting-line there had been many casualties, but a worse sight met our eyes behind the English schanses.
In the shallow trenches where they had fought the soldiers lay dead in swathes, and in places they were piled three deep.
The Boer guns in particular had wrought terrible havoc and some of the bodies were shockingly mutilated. There must have been six hundred dead men on this strip of earth, and there cannot have been many battlefields where there was such an accumulation of horrors within so small a compass.
Shortly after I reached the top, Isaac Malherbe and the remaining Pretoria men came up. They had spent the night somewhere below the kop, and like ourselves had come up the moment they realized that the English were gone. Isaac looked grim and worn, grieved at the death of his brother and of our other companions, but he was full of courage, and so were we all, for from where we stood we could look down on the Tugela River, and we were now able to grasp the full significance of our unexpected success.
Long columns of troops and long convoys of transport were re-crossing to the south bank, and everywhere the British were in full retreat from the positions which they had captured on this side of the streams and the clouds of dust rising on the Colenso road told us that General Buller's second great attempt to pierce the Tugela defences had failed. We spent the next hour or two helping the English Red Cross doctors and bearer parties that came up to bury their dead and carry away their wounded. By now hundreds of other burghers had arrived, mostly men who had retreated the day before, but like ourselves had loitered in neighbouring kloofs and gullies to see if they could renew the fight.
Towards midday Isaac Malherbe ordered us to collect our Pretoria dead. We carried them down in blankets, and when the commando wagon came up we placed the bodies on board and escorted them to Ladysmith, whence they were sent to Pretoria for burial. So we rode behind the wagon which carried all that was left of our friends and companions, their horses trotting alongside with empty saddles.
I personally came home to a deserted tent, for within a few weeks four good friends had gone from it to their death, and our fifth messmate, de Vos, was lying dangerously wounded at some laager below Spion Kop. Only my brother and I were left, and he had been sent to Pretoria with the prisoners, so I was all alone, except for our faithful old native retainer, who did what he could to cheer me up.
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