Sunday 27th of October 2002 11:35 AM 
 
 
Essay [14]

A BOER WAR GHOST STORY
By Owen Coetzer



100 years almost to the day - December 11 - Owen Coetzer marched on Magersfontein with more than 570 other pilgrims from all over the world to commemorate one of the seminal and bitter battles of the Boer War. But he was no stranger to the battleground. He had been there before - 100 years before in fact . . .

It comes as a shock to see yourself - unmistakably - in a picture drawn 100 years ago. But there I am, arms folded in my usual manner, head slightly angled. I am bare-headed, but in uniform. And I am looking down on the grave of one of Scotland's great heroes - General AJ "Red Mick" Wauchope.
There are others with me, hatless too, but Sam Brown belts shining and boots like mirrors. They too watch as two Highland Brigade - perhaps Black Watch - soldiers let the body down into its gaping grave.
A padre is on my right. Behind me are serried ranks of helmeted Highland Brigade men, rifles at the traditional "Present". Pipers play the lament - the full version of Flowers of the Forest. I know. I was there.
Well, it is a picture of me, isn't it?
It is not an ugly place despite the death and carnage - but it carries that undeniable tangible ethereal atmosphere of tragedy, of spirits and spectres. Of many things left undone; unsaid.
And they will tell you that if you are on the hill at midnight, you'll hear a ghostly piper playing that same lament - one that never ends as he, unseen, paces the summit.
I've heard him.
And sometimes, too, you will hear the anguished cries of ghostly soldiers of the Black Watch or the Seaforths or the Argylls or the Sutherlands or the Gordons calling for water - and for God - on the plain below.
I knew nothing of Magersfontein when I was transferred to Kimberley in 1962 from the then Natal Daily News to work on the historic Diamond Fields Advertiser. Kimberley was - and still is - one of the finest training grounds for young newspaper people. I learned more there in six months than I would have by staying in Durban for the next six years. I did everything. Because I had to.
I was introduced to the hill of death one Sunday afternoon by Bobby Cooper - who was handling sport. We took some wine, (bought over the counter from Eddie at Sneddon's bar the Friday before) some fags, some stale meat pies from Mannie's in Pan Road, and headed down the gravel in his car.
There were two miracles - the first was that we actually got there.
The second was beyond belief. As we rounded the curiously-shaped hill, with its Celtic cross on the summit, the hair on my arms began to rise. There was a strange tingling - and a split second flashback. Shot and flame, death and terror.
Remember, I had never been there. Cooper said it was the wine.
I demanded to know what had happened as we drew up before the farm gate that gave entry to the site. But he didn't know - except the "Scots really got it here. And the Boers used trenches."
I knew there were trenches. "They're over there," I pointed to Cooper. They were. We drew up at the first of the monuments - the Black Watch - it was as familiar to me as if I had been there yesterday. I remember the feeling - a hazy miasma of shuffling figures. And the lament. I knew that lament - my school had been affiliated to the Transvaal Scottish in those days of "school cadets" and we had a successful pipe band. It was the pipe-major's tour de force at the Armistice Day parade each year in the silence of arms presented at the cenotaph that occupied the centre of the quadrangle. At the 11th hour of the 11th month.
Flowers of the Forest.
Cooper's answer was simple - "Let's go for a beer."
And we landed up at Modder River - the Crown and Rose hotel. It was worse there, because the barman brought out "his collection" - Mauser bullets, tunic buttons, Lee Enfield slugs, bits and pieces of the conflict on the plain we had just left.
And that night I tried to explain it to my new wife, but could not.
First thing next morning I went to the Kimberley public library, and headed for their books on the Boer War. The first volume I took down was Rayne Kruger's Goodbye Dolly Gray.
And the answer lay in the pictures between pages 148 and 149 where I opened the book. Because there I was - looking down on the grave of Andy Wauchope. Hatless, arms folded, body at a slight angle.
I took the book out, stumbling into the Bean Street flat where we lived.
"Who's that?" I asked my wife. She came over and had a look - her reaction was the same as mine. "My God," she said, aghast, "that's you," drawing away from me as if she was living with a ghost.
Magersfontein became a place of pilgrimage for me. While we lived in Kimberley it was hard to get to because we did not possess a car. And Cooper vowed never to go there again with me - although we tried once or twice to approach it from the Spytfontein railway crossing side, which meant a hike of some three miles.
But the closer we got the effect was always the same.
I think it frightened Cooper to whom ghosts were, well, garbage. And I caught him looking strangely at me from time to time.
There was one more thing. News editor Sjoerd Meijer - a robust Hollander from Amsterdam who had made Kimberley his home and perfect English his almost-home-language - decided to take a piper up Magersfontein hill one December 11 and there to photograph him at midnight, silhouetted against the moonlit skyline. Yes, there would be a moon.
We - I was to be with him, he insisted - got hold of one Mac (his last name escapes my feeble brain) and arranged with him to come with us. However, Mac had other commitments but said he would meet us on top of the hill just before midnight in full regalia.
Meijer and I, plus some other curious hangers on, sat waiting as midnight approached. In those days one could drive up the back of the Magersfontein hill without going through an entrance gate. However we saw no approaching car lights and as the seconds to midnight ticked away, we decided to call it a night.
But as we rose to leave - there it came, Flowers of the Forest. Mac had arrived at last. We sprung into action to go and meet him - but there was no one there. His car was not at the parking place and of him there was narry a sign.
We stood aghast looking at one another pale in the torchlight. Who then had we heard? When we got to Meijer's flat his wife said Mac had called - he had had a slight accident with his car, and couldn't make it.
I never saw Meijer's face so white.
Then we left Kimberley.
And its ghosts.
But my work on the DFA had results - I was called on thrice to go back to produce specialist tabloid sections marking various milestones in the old city. This time I had a car (courtesy of the company). Invariably I went to Magersfontein.
But my last visit was a fey affair. It was 9.30 one morning when I arrived at the gate, alone. It seemed a disrespect (and still is) to drive the car onto the field of battle - there is a circular drive, and has been for many years.
I did not take it, choosing instead to walk it beyond the last of the graves - the Norse crosses that marked one of the bitterest phases of the morning of December 11 where volunteer Scandinavian troops, fighting for Boer freedom, were shot to death. Some 50 metres beyond them is a fence marking the border between the Northern Cape and the Orange Free State.
There I turned, and walked back.
The silence was deathly. Nothing moved. Nothing was there to move - no cars (no dust), no cows, no sheep, no horses, no people. Only the silence of the dead.
Then I heard the lament.
It came and went on the hot breeze - from where I knew not. Except it was pretty close by. I was armed with binoculars and, mystified, I brought them up to my eyes immediately, scanning the hills - and the observation post that looks out over the battlefield. It was empty.
There was no one there.
There was no one anywhere. Except an invisible ghostly piper, keeping pace with me. The sound lasted three or four minutes as I resumed my walk back past the Black Watch Memorial - and then vanished out to the left, leaving that avalanche of silence once again.
It wasn't only the heat that made me perspire and march through the spectres of the past.
It is not a happy place.
There was bitter anger over Magersfontein. Anger that welled up at among the troops at Modder River in the terrible aftermath of the slaughter of the Highland Brigade. Anger and bitterness, too, that swelled in Scotland at the mowing down in that dawn of the flower of her youth.
The regiments, it was said, were sent as lambs to the slaughter - and then left for more than 36 hours hours to burn in the sun and shiver in the cold of night without water, food or help.
"We were taken into a butcher's shop and left there," said one survivor.
Another wrote: "It was not fighting, it was simply suicide. Men were hung on the wire like cows and were riddled with bullets."
A third: "I got my rifle blown out of my hand, and a bullet through my helmet and another grazed my leg . . ."
A Seaforth: "It was seen that someone had blundered."
Indeed someone had. Paul Sanford, Lord Methuen, had ordered the night attack on a position he had not reconnoitred, an enemy he had misread, and a hill he could not take. "Someone shouted Retire, and we did - well not a retirement but a stampede - 4000 men like a flock of sheep running for dear life. We were led into a trap . . . Our hearts were broken . . . the whole brigade fled for their lives," wrote another Seaforth after the battle.
"The troops," wrote a Black Watch private, "were dying for want of food and water. The sun had risen about eight o'clock and we lay there getting our legs burned and blistered - frightened to move, as the bullets were flying all around."
It was a nightmare.
"The advance," said Lord Methuen after the dead had been collected, "was executed exactly to the time and the place that I had given orders for, and we were within an ace of carrying the position in a short and decisive engagement. Everything depended upon one word; that word was Forward!"
To where? The Scots wanted to know. Into the trenches of death?
Only one concerted rush was made later on that December 11 day. And that ended in disaster.
Methuen determined however to cling stubbornly to his position in the hope that the Boers would retire from their positions overnight. They did not and so during the night of December 12, the British moved back despondently to Modder River - defeated.
The British press had a field day.
The night marchers were betrayed by someone flashing lights from the marching off point (they even named the culprit as a "double-dyed traitor and thief named Greener. This man a Sergeant-Major of the Royal Engineers had been detected in wholesale theft at Aldershot. Deserting the colours and betraying the country which had given him birth, he fled to South Africa and took service with the Boers.").
Greener was captured by Methuen's troops at Modder River after the battle of Magersfontein, but swore he had nothing to do with the "lights".
Were there lights? There are conflicting reports - but if there were they could inadvertently been British.
There were also the "barbed wire entanglements" which were laid to deliberately impede the British advance. There were not - there was only one fence - the one demarcating the border between the Cape Province and the Orange Free State and also the borders of the farm Magersfontein. It was into this fence that some Black Watch troops fell and their noise as they extricated themselves that alerted the Boers in the trenches to the approaching army.
Barbed wire entanglements were later put in place and there were pictures of British soldiers marching over them.
In his despatch explaining his loss, Methuen said there were "16 000 Boer troops" facing him. There were, in fact, 3 919 of whom 150 were wounded and 71 killed. Methuen's loss was staggering - some 948 including those who died and who were wounded.
The flower of Scotland had died in blood on the field of battle.
There was madness at Magersfontein - the correspondent of London's Morning Leader wrote in May 1900: "The lunatic asylum is worse than the hospital. We are carrying back nine men who have lost their reason at Magersfontein . . . two have been mercifully treated and have lost it completely . . ."
Methuen, too, apologised to General Cronjé for firing on Boer positions "after they had suspended fire for the purpose of allowing us to attend our wounded."
A London Standard report had this to say too: "In the intervals of armistice which were subsequently arranged, the enemy behaved with great courtesy. They had given water to our wounded of the Highland Brigade early in the morning after the battle. These poor fellows had laid all day Monday under heavy fire and hot sun, and all Monday night which was particularly cold, without water, and they had had no food since Sunday evening. The Boer Commander, General Cronjé, was exceedingly courteous and kind, assisting in every way possible. He further offered 50 burghers to help bury our dead. Lord Methuen sent a letter of thanks to General Cronjé for his courtesy."
But Cronjé had to point out two days later - on the Wednesday - that the British had been buried on the field of battle so hastily that limbs were protruding from the too shallow pits in which the bodies had been interred. They were reburied.
The saddest tale of all was that of Andrew Wauchope - hero of Scotland.
At whose burial I am pictured.
Wauchope's body was found by his aide-de-Camp, Captain Albert Rennie. Wauchope had been hit by a bullet over the left eye, and had died instantly. There was a second bullet through his thigh, but this had probably been received after his death.
Rennie ran to a Boer field ambulance (at the later armistice) with wounded aboard and pleaded to be allowed to place Wauchope's body inside. His request was politely refused. The ambulance was for the wounded, not the dead, said a Boer doctor.
Distraught, Rennie then lashed Wauchope's body to the ambulance's side with rope and despondently followed it to Modder River.
It was decided to bury Wauchope at the Modder River military cemetery that evening. At sunset on December 12 his body was wrapped in a soldier's blanket and laid on a stretcher borne by four Highlanders of the Black Watch.
Pipers from every regiment solemnly preceded it, playing a different - but equally poignant lament, Lochaber No More.
In front of them marched a firing party with arms reversed and behind, hundreds more marching unarmed.
Andy Wauchope was laid to rest in front of me as the sun tipped the horizon and the black night descended.
But it is here the tale takes a bizarre turn. Five days later, on December 17, the Honourable James (Jimmy) Douglas Logan, Member of the Cape Legislative Council, Laird of Matjiesfontein arrived at the Modder with a handsome coffin.
It appears, says an unpublished autobiography by Lieutenant-General Sir Spencer Ewart, KCB, then Brigade Major of the Highland Brigade, that Logan had telegraphed to Mrs Wauchope at her home in Niddrie, Scotland, offering to place a vault at Matjiesfontein (then a British staging poing and hospital) at her disposal for the interrment of her husband.
She had accepted.
Logan then supervised the bizarre disinterrment of Wauchope's body and, on December 21, it was placed in a coffin and on a train - for Matjiesfontein.
It was a mistake.
Mrs Wauchope had no idea Matjiesfontein was hundreds of kilometres from Magersfontein. Later, when she was informed, she refused to have her husband's body moved again - so Andy Wauchope lies some 600 kilometres from the troops he left on the battlefield of blood.
Meanwhile I have endeavoured to find out who the mysterious "me" was - to no avail. But whoever he was, he has imbued within me the spectral tragedy of Magersfontein - and my blood tingles at the very thought.
Last December 10 more than 574 people from all over the world took the midnight march led by a pipe major of the Black Watch. In the pitch dark we stumbled over rocks, fell into thorn trees, walked into ant heaps - and that cursed barbed wire fence. It took three and a half hours to walk 6.2 kilometres, first to Headquarters Hill, and then right and again left to end up at exactly 4.15 am - as the pale shadow of Magersfontein massif appeared out of the gloom and the dawn broke the sky - where the Highland Brigade found itself on that fateful December 11.
And we were attacked - by an exhibition of pyrotechnics and mock Mauser flashes.
When it was over, we marched along the gravel road.
To Flowers of the Forest . . .

Footnote: We marched on a Friday night arriving at Magersfontein at 4am on Saturday. The troops marched on Sunday night, the battle took place on Monday.



Owen Coetzer is the author of the book Fire In The Sky: the Destruction of the Orange Free State, to be published in South Africa later this year. He is also author of The Road to Infamy, on the Natal Campaign of the Boer War. He is a retired journalist formerly with the Daily News, in Durban, and the Cape Argus in Cape Town.

 

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Further Reading

Olin, K.G.. Afrikafeber. (Africa Fever), Jakobstad, Finland: Ab Olimex Oy, 2000.
(Several richly illustrated chapters of this book deal with the struggle of the Finlanders in the Scandinavian Corps and the battles of Magersfontein and Paardeberg. There is also a chapter on the fate of the Finnish P.O.W.s on St. Helena.)

Uddgren, H.E. Hjaeltarna vid Magersfontein. Stockholm: 1924.