Saturday, 14 May 2016

On Battlefields: 1. Visiting the Anglo-Boer Battlefields

What do you do when you visit a battlefield?

You walk and wander and try to imagine.

Try to envisage young men fighting each other to the death. Defending their positions. Marching across the land. Waiting for orders to wage war on each other. This land is my land! For Queen and Country! To the death! Each finding the conviction that for this, or for that, they are prepared to kill, and to die.

Usually you learn something, some lost history. Your mind tries to attune itself to competing histories and conflicting memories.

You remember. Or at least you try to remember for those who could have but are now gone. For always at the battlefields, it's not a life gone or a burning memory that was forever yours to suffer. It is the story of your ancestors. Their memories and their suffering. It's not your battle.

Trying to gaze back in time and pity the dead and their in/glorious deaths on some forgotten hilltop. That's mostly what you are doing.

The Siege of Ladysmith

In late January my husband's uncle came out from Scotland to visit us in Johannesburg. A retired history teacher with a passion for battlefields, an avid golfer and a massive cricket fan, this visit had all the elements of a great holiday. Perfect golfing weather, England playing a test match at the Wanderers and the many battlefields of KwaZulu Natal just a few hours drive away.

The first port of call was Ladysmith, the site of the worst siege of the Anglo-Boer Wars, about a four hour drive from Joburg. Here in the middle of a wide verdant valley the British held out for four months ducking fire from the Long Tom guns of Boer guerrillas gathered in the surrounding hills. Trying to find some normality they wrote letters, played cards, gathered round for a dram of whisky now and then and spent their day trudging goods to the market hoping to avoid the shells of an unexpected blast along the way. This was a modern siege held with canons and guns as they are today. 

Our first night in the Battlefields was spent at Bullers Rest, a lovely guesthouse set up like a small fortress with terraces and lookout points spread across a ridge watching over the city just across from where the British once held their line of defense back in the summer of 1899-1900. Dinner was a fabulous meal of hearty stew held at a communal table in the main house followed by drinks and a brief history lesson by Uncle (General) Robertson in the bar. Scraps of gun metal and old bottles, a deerstalker, a pipe and a pith helmet found decorating the bar made the perfect props.

The next morning the Ladysmith museum awaited (go there – it is excellent!) and the mind's eye had found some semblance of the positioning of defenses, the lives of the people of the town, the men who wore the uniforms and the battlefields they fought on.

The View from Bullers Rest (we stayed in the room to the right)

The bar at Bullers Rest

Two Johns, One Long Tom

Photo of a Boer Commando (as seen at Ladysmith Siege Museum)

The Battle of Spioenkop

With these brief lessons and our enthusiastic Anglo-Boer War buff General Robertson at our side we headed off to the Spioenkop – 'the hill of spies', about 40km west of Ladysmith. This was the site of one of the worst British defeats of the Anglo-Boer war.

On the night of January 24, 1900 a wily band of Boer spies and guerrillas were camped atop a steep rocky hill within a day's ride of Ladysmith. A small army of several hundred British soldiers approached from the further steepest side of the Spioenkop, convinced of their ability to climb the almost sheer rock face in the dead of night, in full regalia, and catch their enemy unawares. 

As darkness descended and the climb up the koppie began, so too came the mist. By the time the first outlying Boer watchman was caught the scene was set for chaos. The British thought they had taken the hill, having mistaken the true summit and began to haphazardly dig trenches. Unbeknownst to them Boer spies had already run off to send news of the British attack.

As dawn rose the British realised their mistaken position all too late and soon the bands of Boers who were camped in the surrounding hills, had already begun their attack. Men fumbled, fought and fell, trying to find a formation, a cover or failing that, a plan. The trenches were useless and gun fire reigned in from the Boer Long Tom canons parked on nearby hills. By the time the battle was done, the causalities were catastrophic. Hundreds of men lay injured or dead, while the rest of the British army retreated and by the time the next morning came, two lone burghers reputedly stood alone amid a field of fallen British soldiers.

Now the mountain was empty save for us three tourists and a wide scattering of graves, monuments and bright white stone cairns. Some new, some old. The forgotten heroes, the strange names from unusual small towns, the first Boer scout, the young men from Lancashire villages and Liverpudlian slums, the wily Boer spies and guerrillas, the Generals and captains, the Burghers and the farmers. The Indian field nurses and doctors and the black scouts from the competing armies, are also now remembered by more recent memorials.

Many of the British who lost their lives on that hill hailed from Liverpool and the Anfield Kop stand is named in honour of this hopeless defeat. The lonely entrance office at the bottom of the steep winding road leading to the Spioenkop battlefield is in its turn decorated in honour of Anfield, festooned with red LFC flags and scarves.

The British climbed this side of the hill in the dead of night

The grave of the Boer watchman, first to be killed during the battle

Monuments, crosses, cairns and stones

(Note to readers: My sincerest apologies if I've repeated any historical inaccuracies – I lost the original guide booklet from the Spioenkop battlefield and had to rely on other sources to back-up my memory of the visit! You can collect the excellent and essential Spioenkop battlefield guide from the small office at the entrance)

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