Friday 20th of December 2002 09:29 AM 


24 January 2000
The weekend of the 22nd to 24th of January was the centenary anniversary of the famous Battle of Spioenkop, near Ladysmith, Kwa-Zulu, Natal. A wide range of events was organised by the Publicity Association of the nearby town of Winterton, specifically designed to encompass all representatives of the diverse cultural origins of our new Republic. Whilst your correspondent was unable to enjoy all of these activities, there was one in which I was anxious to take part.

In order that visitors could understand the battle from all aspects, the association had arranged the unusual prospect of the reconstruction of the night route march undertaken by the British troops with the intent of surprising the Boer commandos on the peak of the mountain. It was led by Ken Gillings, who commands high respect from local history buffs, based on his extensive knowledge of most aspects of not only this battle, but others in the area also. He is able to vividly illustrate the battle in a unique manner which transports the visitor back in time. Ken is also the co-author of 10 Decisive Battles of Kwa-Zulu Natal which includes reference to Spioenkop. Despite his background as a former Regimental Sergeant-Major in the Natal Field Artillery, he did not insist that visitors dress in khaki uniform and carry a wide assortment of rifle, ammunition, entrenching tools and other supplies to make the climb representative of the original.

The 'walk' was designed to follow the original route and timing of the battle, setting off at about 9:00 on the evening of the 23rd January. It was timed to arrive at about 2:00 in the morning. My personal arrangements were made to meet the party of twenty participants on the summit. Travelling from my home in Durban, I arrived to find the car park, tents and total silence. Regular visitors to this site will be aware of the unique nature of the area. It is rare to find persons who have not related the sense of 'presence' which they find difficult to explain.

Unlike the original evening, the weather on this occasion was clear, windless, and slightly cloudy, with an almost full moon. This had the effect of providing an ethereal lighting to the area. The white shapes of the grave markers and crosses appeared to have indistinct borders, whilst the shadowed areas seemed to add depth to the uneven rock-strewn terrain. Those readers with some knowledge of the subject will recall the striking photographs taken after the conflict of the trench piled with grotesque bodies. These are now marked with a shallow grave about 3 metres wide where the original trenches were located.

Being early, I had the chance to walk quietly around these sites, totally alone at a moment almost exactly at the same time of the original battle. I felt it a unique privilege to spend some time and private thought with these brave warriors. This battle has always had a special, unexplained significance to me, now made stronger by this opportunity. I was absorbed in these thoughts only to have them broken by the unclear sounds of people as the intrepid climbers reached the summit to join me. Even as they moved towards me their indistinct silhouettes and movement reminded me of the original event. In many respects my presence must have surprised them. Strangely the lighting was insufficient to be able to make out the climbers' facial features clearly, adding a further eerie feeling that you were not talking to a 'real' person. Ken continued to describe the events and characters of the battle, more of which would become clearer in the daylight. Exhausted, my colleagues retired at 2:00am to their tents and cars to continue the tour in the morning.

The next element was heralded by an imposing and dramatic African sunrise. No photographs and descriptions can do justice to the scope and colours we were able to witness. The day's activities were timed to resume at 5:00 in the morning where the group would return to the base of the mountain to view the battle from the Boer point of view. The easy ascent by car contrasted strongly to a steep descent on foot, giving me the chance to talk to the owner of the farm where General Botha set up his headquarters. This gentleman was just one of the characters whom I met during this trip whose stories could easily provide the basis of further articles.

The timing was again designed to bring an important aspect of the battle to our attention: when it became apparent to the Boers that the British had occupied the summit, Botha had difficulty in motivating his troops to remain and fight. He pointed out the example of the German volunteers who remained. His strength of personality persuaded the Carolina Commando to move across the dead ground under the cover of the mist. The objective of our trip was to be in the same position at 6:00 in the morning to view the terrain as the mist rolled off the summit to reveal the hastily-prepared British trenches as they realised the precariousness of their original position. We positioned ourselves almost at the summit of Aloe Knoll to watch the mist unfold as it had on that fateful morning. From this vantage point we could clearly see the trenches and look almost down their length from a position of cover. Whilst the trip to this point was exhausting, it was easy to relate that these similarly brave men made this journey in fear and trepidation of what the day held for them. We were able to see the location where the Boer shellfire was directed with devastating effect on the clearly defined location of troops unable to entrench themselves in rocky ground. They were clearly at the mercy of shellfire from three directions and accurate rifle fire from this and later positions. You can read these details in many books, but nothing can substitute for this very personal and vivid aspect. Together with Ken's explanation, we were left with little doubt of the nature of this chilling action.

The day ended with a wreath-laying ceremony at each of the monuments erected at the summit. As a student of human nature, I enjoyed watching the participants from representatives of the communities, regiments and organisers. It was very moving. Perhaps the most poignant was that laid by a great-grandson of the President of the Free State; wearing with immense pride, clothing of the period. He and his lieutenant carried Mauser rifles and the flag of the former Republic. In contrast, a representative of the 2nd Royal Lancashire Regiment was dressed as if he were at the Cenotaph in London. He laid a simple bouquet in honour of his regiment, which probably suffered the highest casualties. These were just some of the estimated 500 people from a wide spectrum of backgrounds. Those with knowledge of medals and decorations would have been impressed by the variety from United Kingdom, the former Rhodesia, and South Africa. The sequence was repeated at the Boer monument.

This provided an opportunity for all those who attended to review and reflect on this incredible battle which no one side 'won' in the conventional sense. At the end of the conflict, both sides left the scene with their wounded and the dead buried mostly where they lay. Indeed, this was the 'theme' of the ceremony. Speakers briefly related the reasons why brave men chose to destroy each other for principles and the defence of 'ways of life and standards'. We gathered not to celebrate war, but to contribute to Peace and Reconciliation. This is perhaps most appropriate to us in this country's stage of development and change. It is important for us all to realise the other point of view based on our collective history.

In the end, we gathered to honour the memory of the 380 warriors who paid the ultimate price and the 703 injured in this infamous "acre of death". I am left with the impression that we did indeed remember them in the dignified manner that they rightly deserve. They might perhaps be amazed that, through the medium of the Internet that you, dear reader, have similarly honoured them by your attention to this report.

© Keith Dixon
Republic of South Africa
24th January 2000



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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.