THE GREAT FLAG INCIDENT

A tale of one of the most courageous moments of the Anglo-Boer War

By H Labuschagne

It had been like one gigantic game of chess. The stakes were the highest yet. For Great Britain, the prize was the besieged town of Ladysmith, the gold of the Transvaal the open spaces of the Free State, and her priceless national honour. For the Transvaal, it was simple. It was the Tugela line and independence. It was now roughly a month after the tremendous battle of Colenso had taken place, and everybody’s nerves were raw to the point of bleeding...t had been like one gigantic game of chess. The stakes were the highest yet. For Great Britain, the prize was the besieged town of Ladysmith, the gold of the Transvaal the open spaces of the Free State, and her priceless national honour. For the Transvaal, it was simple. It was the Tugela line and independence. It was now roughly a month after the tremendous battle of Colenso had taken place, and everybody’s nerves were raw to the point of bleeding...

The British commanders had scanned the hills beyond the shiny Tugela river countless times, looking for a weak point. They had been searching the dreamy hills of the Tugela for somewhere where they could strike unexpectedly and burst through the Boer defences in order to relieve the besieged town of Ladysmith that lay so close, yet so far beyond. They had been reinforced considerably, but the Battle of Colenso had taught the British that it would mean tremendously costly exercise if they were going to break through the Boer line at all. They all knew that the War Office was watching them. Promotions and military careers were at stake. They could simply not afford a repeat of the disaster at Colenso!

In the Boer camps, the situation was dreadfully serious. With the tactical genius of Louis Botha, and the help of God and the Mauser, they had succeeded in driving the British attack at Colenso off, but they all knew that they had been tremendously lucky nevertheless. The Boers were faced with the nearly impossible task of having to guard a front of over twenty miles, with only 3,000 largely demoralized men, against an expected attack by 30,000 soldiers, which could happen at any time and any place. They were totally outnumbered, ridiculously out-gunned, poorly supplied, led by some very incompetent leaders, and beginning to feel extremely despondent. Louis Botha had so far managed to save his line of defence, and the independence of his country, only by having been able to accurately predict where the next British attack would come. He had far too few men and far too few artillery guns to be able to guard the entire line. This meant that the Boer defence line was full of huge gaps where the enemy could punch though at any time. Now, he was ill, tremendously overworked, and balanced precariously on the verge of nervous breakdown. His men were beginning to leave their positions without permission, and he was having to fight against the amateurish whims and ideas of his own commanders too. Would he be able to outguess Sir Redvers Buller and Sir Charles Warren again, or would he make a mistake or snap under the pressure? It was everybody’s guess.

The Attack – At Last!

Then came the long-expected news: Lieutenant-General Sir Charles Warren had left his base and was heading for the Upper-Tugela region! General Louis Botha immediately directed as much of his small force as possible, to start digging trenches. Luckily for the Boers, it took Sir Charles Warren two days to reach his intended point of attack with his enormous force of 10,600 infantrymen, 2,200 mounted troops and 36 artillery guns. Behind him came Sir Redvers Buller with another 7,200 infantry and 400 mounted troops, plus another 22 artillery guns. It was clear that there would be a hell of a fight. The Boers moved fast. A day or two’s notice was what they had been praying for, and desperately the burghers started digging trenches with picks, spoons, pocketknifes and their bare hands.

The long-awaited attack came on the 20th of January 1900. It was to be a two-pronged attack, the eastern attack of which would be a faint attack, while the western attack would be the actual punch. The British commanders had selected the smooth, open hillside of the heights of Tabanyama for their attack. On any map, and through the telescope, it had appeared to be nearly perfect terrain for the classic British attack. Smooth and open. In actual fact, it was deceiving terrain with many hidden folds, ridges and rises, where an enemy could effectively conceal himself and provide the odd death-trap for his attackers. The task of clearing the western parts of Tabanyama was given to two of General Woodgate’s battalions, and to General Hart, the almost recklessly brave Irishman whose force had been so utterly decimated at Colenso. The British artillery would blast the trenches away on the hills, and then the troops would storm and capture the crest at bayonet point. That was the plan at least. To start off with, all went smoothly enough. The southern positions were almost undefended, and were taken easily. South of the Tugela, the massive British guns had opened up early that morning, and for four hours the first four artillery batteries bombed the Boer trenches and blew the mountainsides apart until great red dust clouds rose to the sky. It appeared as if no life on the entire mountain could have survived the tremendous ferocity. The Boer guns had remained mostly silent, conserving their ammunition, but the fire-blackened muzzled stood ready as they just barely poked their barrels across the crest of Tabanyama. Then the troops were ordered to advance, and not long afterwards, all hell broke loose.

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This rather over-exposed photograph must have been taken shortly after the battle at Tabanyama -- often considered to be part of the world-famous Battle of Spioenkop. The long series of trenches can be seen cutting across the landscape. Much of it had to be dug with very inferior tools -- sometimes with pocket knives, plates or mugs!

The Boers, who had had to scoop the trenches open with bare hands and small metal objects, and who had been terribly bombed, asphyxiated by the clouds of lyddite gas, and literally fried alive in the trenches by the unbearably hot summer sun, had had a really rough time of it. Now it was payback time. Shoulder-to-shoulder the British troops advances, but to the British troops’ utter amazement, they were confronted with line upon line of hastily dug trenches, which should have been filled only with corpses. Instead, the Burghers suddenly rose seemingly out of the ground, and moments later, they found that they had walked solidly into a hellish wall of Mauser steel and lead. The Boer guns opened up as well, sending screaming splinters of lethally sharp rocks flying among the troops. The troops immediately fell flat, and from then on, the battle turned into a confused affair. In waves, the soldiers attacked, with glistening bayonets and sweating red faces. Again and again, they were driven back. More and more reinforcements were poured in until the hill crawled with khaki figures, and eventually, things began to look very bad for the Boers. In various places, small groups of men began to lose heart and began to retreat. The front trenches crumbled, but just as the British soldiers thought that they were set to capture the entire hillside, the Boers jumped into another series of trenches, and the fighting began again. Hour after terrible hour, the battle raged under the blazing hot sun, as the massive lyddite shells screamed and shook the earth, and the cries of wounded and dying men carved at the nerves of the frightened men on both sides. It was turning into a bloody hell for Boer and Brit. The British offense wasn’t going as planned. Regiments had become entangled, the gunners couldn’t locate the Boer guns, they couldn’t see the camouflaged Boer trenches properly, and everywhere, the attack lost its crucial momentum and surprise effect. At 800 to 1,000 metres, the two opposing sides lay and shot at each other while both sides poured in as much reinforcements as possible. The death toll was rising all the while. On the Boer side, the commanders were becoming panicky. They knew that it would only be a matter of time before their defence-line would be flattened by the overwhelming force, and desperately they sent for reinforcements – that didn’t exist. Every available fighting man had been pushed into battle at crucial points, and there were none to spare! Desperately, even old President Kruger, far away in Pretoria, telegraphed to his commanders to remind them of how Moses, the man of God, had begun to lose the battle when at the point when he himself began to lose faith. It was a message of "hang in there!" but no other help could be sent. The Boers were on their own.

Attack on the Western Flank

In the meantime, General Hart, the brave Irishman, had realized that he had to try and attack the Boer western flank, in order to get the British attack out of trouble. Instead of encountering flat table-land, as it had looked through the telescope, he found that he had to charge up a series of funnel-shaped spurs which led up to the ridge. This compressed his ranks greatly. To top all of this, he also had to find that he had walked right into the Boer line, instead of the Boer flank. In desperation, Hart sent in reinforcements, but they could advance no further. Hell of a fight broke out as the British gunners pounded the Boer trenches 600 metres in front of hart, sending screaming shrapnel howling through the air. The entire battlefield became covered with dust, and on both sides, bullets flew as thick and fast as could be imagined. It was a stalemate, and the Boers too, were in very serious trouble. Under the circumstances, however, general Hart believed in one thing above all: a surprise bayonet attack, pressed to the utter limit, regardless of the casualties and price! If he could punch through the Boer line at this point, he would almost certainly be able to rout the entire Boer line, and he would be able to march right into the town of Ladysmith, and open the door widely for the conquest of the Boer Republics. It was a dramatic moment in history, and Hart knew that he had both the numbers, and the guts to drive through his attack, regardless of the cost.

The Key to the Defence Line is Found!

At the same time, the Boers began to realize what was happening. Their positions had been turned into a blazing inferno of screaming death, and they were not prepared to be exterminated without reinforcements. At this point, there happened to be three very brave young Boer scouts who realized that there was only one little knoll that prevented the British from smashing through the Boer line. They had the object of warning the Boer commando that was facing Hart’s brave Irishmen, that there was trouble coming and that they would have to stand firm. Henri Slegtkamp, was actually not even a true Boer. He was a Dutchman, and his friend, the later famous captain Jack Hindon, was a Scot. Together with another friend named De Roos, they were going to try and save the Boer line by warning the key defenders of the coming attack, and inspiring them to stand firm. When they arrived at the knoll, however, they were too late. The entire commando was retreating at their highest speed, and even their field-cornet had given up hope of halting his men to make a stand.

"Field-cornet, the English are coming to storm this hill!" they shouted.

"I can’t hold it any longer!" came the reply ."I won’t be able to get the burghers to form a line again!"

The three scouts sighed. The small commando was determined to get out while they could still escape alive, and had given their position up as completely hopeless!

Then, anticipating Hart’s tremendous attack, the British guns, open up and concentrated all their fire on that one position until the air reverberated and a twilight of dust and smoke blotted out the sunlight and the features of the landscape. Undaunted, however, the three scouts called for volunteers .Only twenty men turned to join them. The rest fled away unchecked. And so, into this blazing inferno, Henri Slegtkamp, De Roos, Jack Hindon and twenty volunteers charged in order to try and save the key to the British breakthrough! Inside the choking cloud, the air was alive with death and flying steel. It was a desperate race against the odds. Each spot was as good as the next, and it was each man for himself. When they reached the knoll, amazingly, and against all odds, the three scouts found that they had actually reached their planned positions totally unhurt. Of the twenty volunteers, however, none were to be seen. The three scouts looked at each other. It was going to be only three young men against the furious Irish general and his force of 5,500 men!

Order to Capture the Key

On the British side, General Hart had seen the evacuation of the Boer position, and he had just given the order to attack. Hart was a brave man beyond the description of words, and a leader who believed in leading by example. This time, he was going to lead the actual charge personally! At the very moment that the charge was to take place, however, Hart and his men suddenly looked up. What they saw before them, was a picture which none of them would ever forget for as long as they live. There, before them, where the entire knoll had been almost blasted off the face of the earth, and where everybody had been certain that not a living creature cold have remained alive, something stirred. As they watched with open mouths, there suddenly appeared something colourful. It was a flag! It was actually a flag that was being held up, tied to the barrel of a discarded rifle! For a few moments the battle subsided as if holding its breath. Even the artillery guns quietened down for a few moments. Hart stared at the knoll in utter amazement. It was a Five-colour! There, where none could have survived, someone was actually flying a Five-colour – the combined flag of the Orange Free State and the Transvaal Republic! It was a flag that had been given to Jack Hindon by his sweetheart, and its purpose was to show the British that the road to Ladysmith was still occupied! This rare moment of quiet, such must seldom have been experienced in the history of warfare lasted only for a few precious moments though. Suddenly, the three scouts started firing into the densely packed British ranks before them, and the spell was broken. Immediately, the battle resumed with a ferocity and viciousness which had probably hitherto been unsurpassed. The three scouts fired like machines until their barrels grew scorching hot. They helped themselves to discarded ammunition and fired and fired until the steel of their barrels could raise blisters on the skin. The salvation of the entire Boer front depended on their being able to make it seem as if the gap in the Boer line was still occupied, and for that, they had to maintain the most rapid fire that is humanly possible! They could hardly have been able to see much, for the bombs came thick and fast, sending huge boulders flying, and shattering the rocks amongst which they were crouching. Their lives didn’t matter anymore. It was only the freedom and the independence of the Transvaal that mattered!

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Jack Hindon and De Roos re-enacting the Flag incident. The Flag can be seen in the background.

The gunfire increased five-fold in intensity. At first, the three scouts could still move their positions and fire across the rocks, only ducking when they could hear the heavy lyddite bombs coming, but as the British gunners turned the combined might of an amazing thirty-six guns on to their one small little position, the earth was churned into powdered dust and steel, and the scouts were forced to try and bury themselves in the ground among the rocks. The time for firing was over. There was nothing that they could do any longer! It grew dark inside the dust-storm around them. Although lying barely five metres apart, the three scouts were totally invisible to each other as the bombs exploded all around them, hammering at their sculls and sucking the air from their lungs. It must have felt as if heaven and earth was passing away. This fantastic bombardment continued for a full half an hour, and then it subsided.

As the dust settled and the rays of the sun began to filter through once more, Slegtkamp, De Roos and Hindon, raised themselves, scarcely able to believe that they were still alive. Even more amazing, though, was what they saw before them. It was almost too good to be true, but General Hart and his entire force had actually retreated back again! At the very last moment, the appearance of the three scouts, had led Hart to believe that the key to the Boer defence line was still occupied by a large force. Not knowing exactly how great the defence was, he had decided to postpone the attack first in order to make sure. The British commanders only found out later how terribly close they had come to relieving Ladysmith, to saving thousands of lives, to shortening the disastrous Tugela campaign, and to winning the war, thereby cutting out nearly two more years of toil and trouble for the British army. The attack was later called off completely by General Clery, and the three scouts could return to their laager again. The Boers never had any medals for its soldiers. No certificates and no special tokens of honour. At the main camp, there was only one thing that could be given to the three immensely brave young men who had saved the Boer line that day. The commander of the Boer forces at the Tugela, Louis Botha, came to thank them personally.

A warm handshake and the words: "Well done, fellows! Thank you sincerely!" were their reward.

The incident was widely reported in the world-wide media. For a while, the three scouts became world-famous as their story reached the international newspapers and people’s imaginations were captured by the tremendous bravery of three young men who had managed to fool the British army under such awe-inspiring circumstances.

The Five-coloured flag was folded and carried away by Hindon. The Boer War has passed, and already the winds of time are scattering its memories like dead leaves. Hopefully, though, the memory of Hindon, Slegtamp and De Roos will remain as a monument of courage and as a testimony the noble character trait of personal bravery. Hopefully history will remember and learn for a long time from the example of the three young men who had been prepared to sacrifice their lives for a cause that was bigger than they themselves...

Biographical notes:

Hendrik Frederik (Henri) Slegtkamp was born in Beverwijk, Netherlands, in 1873. He had come to the Transvaal in search of adventure. He had seen action in various of the "kaffir wars," and had been a member of the Edwards Scouts during the Anglo-Boer War. He later joined the famous Theron Scouting Korps and was wounded in the Free State. He became skilled at blowing up trains, and eventually took over from Hindon as leader of the Korps. He returned to the Netherlands after the war, but returned to South Africa in 1903. He died peacefully in Middelburg, Transvaal and is buried in the town cemetery.

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The grave of Henri Slegtkamp in the Old Cemetery in Middelburg, Transvaal. The inscription reads: "'Kaptein' Henri Slegtkamp D.T.D. Gebore te Ymuiden, Nederland as offisier van Theron Verkennerskorps en later as Bittereinder het hy geveg dwars deur die Driejarige Oorlog. Die Kern van sy Wese was: 'Getrouheid.'"

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Top view of the sarcophagus, showing an inscription which reads: "Slegtkamp van Spioenkop."

Oliver John (Jack) Hindon was born in Stirling, Scotland in 1874. He first joined the British army as a drummer, and was subsequently sent out to Zululand in 1888. Due to unreasonable commands from an officer, Hindon left the army and went to work in the Transvaal. He fought against Jameson in 1896, and later joined the South African Police (ZARP). He also joined Edwards’ Korps, and later the Korps of Danie Theron. Later, he headed his own Hindon’s Fighting and Scouting Korps, and became known as a famous train wrecker. After the war, he went to the USA, but eventually returned to the Transvaal, where he died an invalid in 1919. He is buried in the Middelburg cemetary.

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Jack Hindon's grave in the old cemetery of Middelburg, Transvaal. It reads: "Ter nagedagtenis aan my man Kaptein Jack Hindin. Tot die laaste druppel bloed onverskrokke, dapper, getrou, en goed. Oliver Johan Hindon. 1874--1919.

De Roos: No biographical information is available at this time.

 Bibliography:

Boere Offisiere. 1899-1902., Malan, J., J.P. Van der Walt Uitgewers, Pretoria, 1990 Eerste uitgawe.

Geskiedenis Van Die Tweede Vryheidsoorlog in Suid Afrika, 1899-1902. Deel III Die stryd in Natal Jan-Feb 1900., J.H. Breytenbach, Die Staatsdrukker, Pretoria, 1973.

Slegtkamp van Spioenkop. Oorlogsherinneringe van Kapt. Slegtkamp., Mostert, D., 3de Druk., Nasionale Pers., Kaapstad., 1945.

The Boer War., Pakenham, T., Abacus., London., 1995.