Sunday 27th of October 2002 12:00 PM 
Essay [12]

Extract from the Sunday Tribune

South Africa - Sunday 30th January 2000

There was a sign in the sky as homage was paid to the fallen of the Battle of Spioenkop earlier this week. For some it seemed like a divine omen. Myrtle Ryan came away deeply moved

It was shortly before midday and a blazing sun was sovereign of the burnished sky. Wreaths had just been laid at the British memorial site and the crowd moved to the Boer memorial for a similar ceremony

Suddenly someone looked up into the sky and began to point excitedly. Others began shading their eyes and gazing upwards. There was a frisson of excitement, an electric charge followed by a deathly hush. The sun was surrounded by a huge ring - circled entirely by a perfect rainbow.

It hovered directly above Spioenkop, spotlighting the proceedings in an eerie white light. It was one of those "fingers down the spine", never-to-be-forgotten moments.

It was the culmination of four memorable days of commemorating the tides of war at Spioenkop and Thabamnyama organised by the Winterton Historical Society. Many present said the events were among the finest yet staged in memory of the Anglo-Boer War.

My personal walk along the trenches of history began on the Sunday morning. I joined a walk up Spioenkop following the assault route of the Boers in a counter attack.

Fluttering against the blue of the skyline were the combined flags of the old Transvaal and Free State Republics, carried by descendents of the Krugersdorp Commando who were among those who had died in the original battle. It was a brave and colourful display.

As we progressed we were told of how young Deneys Reitz had dodged along the ridge, following a call by Louis Botha to try to recapture Spioenkop which had been seized by the British.

One hundred years ago there would have been a few scattered trees. There would have been little cover from the withering rifle fire. Now thorn bushes cover the face of the mountain. We heard Reitz's tragic account of how, one by one, he came across the bodies of his former tent mates, how he was the sole survivor of that little band.

There to relay history in their field, Guide Reg Storh was not the only co-ordinator of all the Winterton events, but is also the great-grandson of Paul Kruger.

There was Russell Mapp. Louis Botha made his headquarters and directed the battle from the Mapp family farm below Spioenkop. Many making the climb had made a specialised study of the battle, which they willingly shared with those interested.

On the Monday morning we followed the route taken by the British on that fateful night exactly 100 years ago. Now the guide was Gilbert Torlage who was based at Spioenkop and is now at the Pietermaritzburg Museum.

As we labored upwards, Gilbert would stop at significant points and in his gentle voice read excerpts from accounts by Colonel Thornycroft, as well as notes written by men of more humble rank in the British Army.

By the time we reached the top, the original battle would have been in full spate. Under the boiling sun we could imagine the carnage, the cries for water, the exploding shells, the prayers, the tears, and sudden death as another young man's life ended.

We heard valiant tales of bravery and caring on both sides. But mostly we heard of forgiveness. Mr Stroh told how he had brought a 96 year old veteran back to visit the battlefield in 1978. "The first thing he did was to remove his hat, and tears glinted in his aged eyes"

"'Those poor young men, those poor young men, how they suffered', he whispered," said Mr Stroh.

"I then realised he was speaking about the British. I felt so proud that an Afrikaner's first thought after more than 76 years were for his former enemy"

That same spirit of reconciliation was present during all the proceedings. Afrikaner and British stood shoulder to shoulder laying wreaths on the memorials of former enemies. There was the granddaughter of General Botha and the grand-niece of General Woodgate on the British side.

There too, was the great-grandson of President Steyn, Colin Steyn. Descendants of the men who had fought in the Heilbron, Pretoria, Krugersdorp, Carolina and several other commandos laid their flowers.

In a moving moment a gentleman from England laid a wreath on the behalf of the Lancashire Regiment who had suffered such heavy fatalities. He had flown in just in time to pay his tribute.

Mr Stroh later said, "All those many names of the various monuments did not really die because we were there to remember them. As long as people remember them, they will never die."

And overhead that rainbow of promise hung in the sky

(Extract from the Sunday Tribune) Copyright - Independent Newspapers, KwaZulu Natal, South Africa


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Further Reading

Coetzer, Owen. The Road to Infamy, 1899-1900: Colenso, Spioenkop, Vaalkrantz, Pieters, Buller and Warren. Rivonia: William Waterman, 1996.

Torlage, Gilbert. The Battle of Spioenkop.
Ravan Press
ISBN 0-86975-516-1
(Part of the Battle Book Series)

Ransford, Oliver. The Battle of Spion Kop. London: Murray, 1969. DT934S65R3.