Spioenkop 100 Years Later – to The Day

An Account of the Centenary Commemoration Activities of the Battle of Spioenkop
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by H Labuschagne

The 24th of January 2000 had long been marked on the calendars of many people as "Spioenkop Day." On this same day, a century ago, the climatic battle of Spioenkop was fought. The bloodiest of the entire Anglo-Boer War. 

And on the same day, the descendants of the old lion-hearted fighters that had bled and died, and passed into the heroes’ section of the world’s history, came together to pay their respects to their ancestors.

How moving it was to have experienced the gathering together of descendants of old foes after 100 years, not as enemies, but finally as friends! Even more so as we explored the site of one of the bloodiest battles of the war in peace, enjoying the spectacular scenery where our ancestors had battled to kill each other barely three generations ago. 

How odd, that Boer and British descendants, were walking shoulder-to-shoulder, laying wreaths and flowers at the graves of their own ancestors and those of their enemies. No animosity between them anymore. No covetousness for each other’s land. No fear. No hatred. But for language, it would not even be possible to say who were Afrikaner/Boer or British of ancestry. It made me wonder just why the war had had to be fought in the first place!

Over the three days that the event was commemorated, it seemed that at least 1000 people showed up at the battlefield. They seemed to have come from all over. A number of smooth British accents showed that some had come all the way from England for the occasion, and the Afrikaans voices showed that the Afrikaners – the modern-day descendants of the Boers – were also present. 

Authentic Weather Conditions

Aptly so, the weather was more-or-less the same as it must have been 100 years ago, except for that famous misty morning. I was camping in the valley below in the Spioenkop Nature Reserve, which was about as close as I could get to spending the night where the British army would have been on that fateful night. 

The morning opened up with Spioenkop being veiled in a haze, but not quite the same kind of fog. The next day I was to hear two battlefields guides telling each other of what a spine-chilling, eerie feeling it is to be on Spioenkop at dawn on really misty mornings. 

They said that the sense of complete disorientation combined with the strangest aura, in a manner that raised goose bumps on living flesh... On this day, the foggy morning might have been absent, but the rest of the day turned out to be pretty authentic. Bright, sunny and warm, while the lofty Drakensberg range lay silently brooding in the west.

Two young Afrikaner/Boer flagmen on Spioenkop mountain, following along the footsteps of their forefathers

Ceremony of the Carolina Commando

I had been on Spioenkop the previous day already, in time to witness a ceremony that had been held by the modern-day Carolina commando, which consists of a lot of the descendants of the Boer heroes from the same commando, who had suffered so heavily and became such valiant heroes the next day. 

In a way, it was more moving than I had expected. A few women were dressed up in authentic Boer style dress, with white bonnets or kappies, and all. Some of the men were also armed with Boer War era rifles, and several large Vierkleur flags fluttered cheerfully in the wind. One descendant read out the letter that his grandfather had written to his wife on the same day, a century ago – the day before the battle. 

A Tragic Letter Read, and Personal Memories

It was just the usual letter of a husband on the front, longing for his family, but in the letter, he told his wife that he hadn’t been involved in very heavy fighting up to that point. Ironically, it would be the last letter he ever wrote. The next day, this grandfather died on Spioenkop, together with his friends enemies, and his wife probably received that letter before she knew that she was a widow. 

And older man, who might very well have been a farmer, judging by his looks, led his small grandchildren a short distance away from the Burgher monument and pointed at two rocks.

"This is where your great-grandfather was shot and killed," he explained.

"And there," he continued, "is where Uncle so-and-so was killed."

His little girls listened with wide-eyed wonder. The rocks were scarcely more than three metres apart. I too, listened with fascination as he explained how a relative that had survived the battle, had pointed out the two spots to him many years later. 

Death During the White Flag Incident

On the north-eastern approach to Spioenkop, a Carolina farmer who had brought his son along with him, told me how his grandfather had been among those killed during the famous white-flag incident in the north-eastern trenches. 

One section of the British trenches had put up a white flag, and when his grandfather and his comrades rushed forward to go an lead the captives away, another section of the trench rose and opened a murderous volley of fire on them. I watched for signs of bitterness, but strangely there seemed to be none. Old hatchets were buried beneath the sands of time.

Back at the Burgher monument, it was heart-warming to have heard the Carolina commando sing first the old South African anthem – Die Stem – followed by the anthems of the Transvaal and Free State anthems. It was tragic though, to hear the voices falter away as fewer and fewer people still remembered the rest of the words. 

Still, I had never heard these two old anthems being sung with such feeling before. It was somehow stirring. Haunting in its character. Beautiful in its setting. Something to be remembered. Those deep men’s voices, together with the smooth notes of women, sung on the green summit of a hill that had once flowed with blood, and with the purple Drakensberg listening with dignified sympathy.

The British memorial at the very summit of Spioenkop

24th -- Actual Commemoration day

On the 24th – the day on which the actual battle was fought, a large crowd gathered. Several tour busses had arrived, and I found the parking area on top so thoroughly crowded, that I had to turn around and park on the steep and winding road leading to the summit. The car registrations showed that people had come from all corners of South Africa for the occasion. 

A lot of wreaths were laid – again, mainly by descendants of the men who had fought and died on that infamous hill. On the Boer side, descendants of both president Steyn and president Kruger were present. In fact, Colin Steyn, son of judge Steyn and grandson of the president, probably made the most impressive picture, dressed in his Bitter-ender leather coat, top boots, authentic brass binoculars, felt hat and bandolier! 

But there were also descendants or representatives of some of the famous old names who took part in the battle: those of Tottie Krige, Deneys Reitz and several others. Strange, to see the living descendants of the famous people that Deneys Reitz had mentioned in his account of the battle in his book, Commando. One person even told of how the name of the German officer whose death Reitz described in his book, is still known in the German army today. Von Brusewitz, was his name. 

Reitz told of how the man had insisted on standing erect, despite several warnings to take cover. He showed his courage and contempt for the British bullets by calmly smoking his cigarette quite openly. Two or three shots narrowly missed him, but the last one struck him solidly in the head. To this day, according to the speaker, the German army describes such foolhardy behaviour as doing a "Von Brusewitz."

Eventually wreaths were laid by most of the commandos that had partaken in the battle, except for one or two exceptions. Wakkerstroom, for instance – my own ancestors commando – is one whose absence I detected with a touch of disappointment. (For those that don’t know: The commandos still exist in South Africa as a kind of military civil defence organisation.)

Unrecorded Stories of Personal Drama

Walking around on the hill, it was striking to hear how many tales of personal drama was being related. Stories which have, sadly, probably never been properly recorded for posterity. But there were touches of humour too: Especially when one man told of how his ancestor had his trigger-finger shot off, and subsequently had to get a young boy to pull the trigger for him! 

It was also here on Spioenkop, that the Boers pulled an old trick out of their hats. Something which had last been used during the first Anglo-Boer War at the Battle of Schuinshoogte. Finding that their foes had taken cover behind small rocks, the Boers teamed up. One would shoot the protruding foot, leg or elbow of a soldier behind a rock, and as soon as the solder jumped, moved or showed himself in any way, the second Boer would be ready to reward him with a fatal shot – often only a fraction of a second after the first shot!

The north-eastern trench on Spioenkop. The small metal cross in the foregroudn marks the spot where general Woodgate was fatally wounded. In the distant background lies the hills behind the Battlefield of Vaalkrans

At the British Memorial

From the British side, representatives of the old regiments involved, had come all the way from England to show their respects. A wreath was also laid by a representative of the British government, and by the modern-day South African army. It was moving to see shiny-headed old MOTHS, heavily decorated with old WWII medals, place their wreaths on the British memorial. 

An authentic touch was added by Dough McMaster who played the pipes in full Scottish military regalia. What is it about the pipes that never fails to evoke such a feeling of delicious melancholy in people?

All the way from England, a representative of one of the British Regiments that had taken part in the battle, pauses to pay his respects after having laid his wreath at the British memorial.

Heavenly Sign (?) at the Boer Memorial

And then, at the Boer memorial, something remarkable happened which caused quite a stir. As the pipes were playing the well-known "Sarie Marais" in honour of the fallen Boers, people suddenly stopped and began to gape at the sky, jaws dropping with wonder. The sight that we beheld amazed quite a number of people, for there, just a few degrees off the top of the rectangular Boer memorial, a large, shiny circle had formed around the sun! 

Dough McMaster playing the pipes at Spioenkop. He operates a private guesthouse in Ladysmith, and also has a really nice private museum in a reconstructed British blockhouse

A large, white ring around the sun – something which most of us had probably never seen before in our lives! A lot of people could be heard asking: "What is it? Is this a sign? What could it mean?" – And then... After a few moments of awe, a lady turned around and firmly declared: "It is PEACE!"

And heads nodded in hopeful agreement: – May it indeed be so!

Strange though, for there were no clouds, only a slight haze in the blue sky. I was the only one who tried to take a picture of the ring. I tried using a polarizing filter to shield some of the fierce rays, but the picture came out with the sky completely black, and only the sun nicely visible. Sadly, the ring was not visible, so I suppose it will live on only in the minds and memories of the people that had been present that day.

The ceremony was gradually completed, hymns were sung, and shortly after the spine-chilling notes of the "Last Post" had drifted away across the open veld, I noticed that the sun-circle was now exactly above the Burger Memorial. Whether a sign or no sign, it was something very special which made this day something to remember a long time. 

The function at the Burgher monument ended with the singing of hymns. But there was something ironic about this too. The manner in which the voices faded away after the first few bars, as most of those present forgot the words. I found this particularly ironic, and illustrative of how the Boers, who used to be some of the most sincerely moral and religious people in the world at that time, had forgotten not only much of the words of their hymns, but also much of the faith which had given them the courage to stand up before a much superior enemy.

A group of Boers in front of the Burgher Monument. On the left is Colin Steyn, grandson of president Steyn. He is is wearing an authentic Bitter-ender leather coat, and matching attire. The man fourth from the left is the grandson of field-cornet Sarel Oosthuizen, and also the man who still hunts kudus with his Boer War Mauser (seen in the picture). The man kneeling second from the left is his grandson. The two figures on the right, are commandant Grobelaar and his son, from Tzaneen. In this picture can be seen the authentic Transvaal flag, the Free State flag (centre), and the "combined" Transvaal-Free State flag (right).

Children, Lectures and Authentic Dress

Something else which was very heart-warming, was to see so many children present. A handful of schools had even sent their youthful ambassadors from as far as Pretoria! Over the three days, numerous guided battlefield tours were conducted by professional battlefield guides. There seemed to be a solid representation of overseas visitors too, and in the nearby village of Winterton, daily lectures were given by some of the most distinguished Boer War authors and experts. All of it, very well attended and informative. 

During this time, a few Afrikaners were dressed in authentic-looking Boer dress, which seemed to add to the spirit of the occasion. And there was no shortage of colourful Transvaal "Vierkleur" and Free State flags. Yet strangely enough – one could almost say ‘sadly’ – I noticed only one Union Jack! 

A number of Afrikaners had with them some of the scarce authentic Boer War Mausers which had actually seen service in the war. One had the name of its original owner, "Van der Merwe" carved in scrolling letters, in shiny lead inlay. I asked its owner about the rifle, and he told me that it was still in perfect condition, proudly adding that he still hunted kudu with it every year!

In Conclusion

To sum up, one can only say that the Spioenkop commemoration has been a moving and truly worthwhile experience, well attended, quite well-organized, and something which undoubtedly must have made a lasting impression on the minds of all who had been fortunate enough to have attended. 

There has always been something haunting about Spioenkop. Perhaps its charm lies in the natural beauty of the area, or perhaps it lay in the imagination of people. I have been there many times and certainly hope to return as often as possible. But it is on quiet days when your only companion is the wind and the whispering silence, that it is very easy to imagine that one can still hear the desperate cries of the wounded, the thunder of bursting shells and the murderous crackle of rifle fire. 

At this occasion, however, one of the most ironic points that stuck me, was the sudden realization that where perhaps the bloodiest large battle of the entire war had been fought over the possession of a country, we, the descendants of those same enemies of old, had barely managed to hang on to it long enough to justify the oceans of blood that had been spilt for it. 

It was a tragic battle, fought for nothing and today, barely 100 years later, South Africa belongs neither to the Boers or the British anymore. Another one of those sad and bitterly ironic facts that seasons the pages of this world’s history...

Spioenkop mountain, as seen from the British main forces' position in the south. The Tugela river lies at the bottom of the valley. What looked like an easy mountain to capture, turned out to be hell in every sense of the word...