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  • Day26

    Spioenkop

    January 25, 2016 in South Africa

    (South) Umzinyathi DC, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa
    Monday, January 25, 2016

    I think it is fair to say the circumstances surrounding the Boer War were not our Nations finest hour. When war was finally declared, the might of the British Army were challenged by at most 20,000 Boers; farmers, who I think it is fair to say the British dismissed with a degree of arrogance. What they underestimated was that these men were tough, born to the saddle and hunting marksmen from a young age. This was not to be formal squared, fixed bayonet warfare. The Boers developed the first example of a commando style conflict which the professional British Army was ill equipped to counter.
    The drive to Spioenkop from the lodge takes about 45 mins and a dirt road winds it's way up to the summit. There are Zulu villages all around and it is usual to acknowledge anyone you pass, as they will you. Goats, cattle and people roam freely across the roads, so between avoiding all of them plus the potholes, driving requires more concentration than normal!
    Spioenkop rises dramatically from the surrounding countryside and is flanked by several lower hills that played a significant part in the battle and it's outcome. Iron rich, red sedimentary rock predominates the region with igneous extrusions, often basalt. This rock being much harder to erode, has resulted in hills like Spioenkop, with steep sides and a flat top. The British Empire had already been engaged in colonial South Africa some 20 years earlier against the Zulus and should have known some of the pitfalls that fighting in this country produced. Earlier on during the Anglo Boer War the British were heavily defeated at the battle of Majura trying to hold just such a hill. The lessons that should have been learnt from this encounter were seemingly ignored and General Redvers Buller and his command committed more men to an almost certain death by attempting a repeat performance, as part of the attempt to relieve the siege at nearby Ladysmith. In the early hours of January 24 1900, three Lancashire regiments scaled the mountain, which would have been no small task in the dark. They were burdened by a heavy uniform and greatcoat and had to carry all their supplies. Only one small bottle of water was allowed per man, which in the heat of summer on a South African exposed mountain top proved disastrous. There was a thick mist when the men staggered on to the summit and their commander Major-General Edward Woodgate and his officers attempted to arrange their battle lines with use of a compass, which proved inaccurate, because of the presence of so much iron in the rock. Consequently, when dawn broke and the mist lifted, there must have been a collective gasp, on the realisation that they were ill placed and surrounded by The Boer with their far superior weaponry, positioned on the surrounding lower hills. The battle that raged all day resulted in carnage for the young Lancashire soldiers crouching in their shallow trenches on the hill top. Simon Blackburn our guide, who owns Three Tree Hill, is a brilliant raconteur and held us spellbound as he walked us through the battle lines, pointing out the position of all the participants and my blood ran cold at what those boys had to endure. One can only imagine what the young Lancashire fusiliers (having come from the grey, damp, cramped conditions of Victorian industrial Lancashire) must have thought as they marched through this imposing majestic landscape. To die like animals outgunned and picked off by weapons sold by the British and Germans to the Boer, seems doubly galling. There are massed graves marking the trenches where they fell and individual memorial stones erected later by some families. The simple head stone that reduced me to tears and would any mother I suspect, was placed there by a mother who finally managed to visit the site of her son's death some 8 years later. She had carefully nurtured and brought from their garden a small cypress sapling and planted it in this foreign field that would be forever England, in memory of her beloved son. Against the odds it has thrived and now stands tall and proud, a fitting memorial for those 124 men who perished that day alongside her boy.
    This battle has always been portrayed as a desperate defeat for the British Army, but in truth it was a stalemate . At the end of the day both sides retreated having believed they had lost. It was only the next morning when the Boers suddenly realised that their enemy had withdrawn, that they ascended Spioenkop once more and unexpectedly claimed the victory. It was a fascinating and gruelling visit in some ways and just the beginning of our battlefield exploration.
    Incidentally, many of the young soldiers hailed from Liverpool and its environs. The Kop at Anfield was originally called Spioenkop in memory of their lost sons, before being nicknamed simply The Kop. A steep hillside that takes no prisoners .
    Later in the day we took a game walk in the reserve, with Simon, attempting to see the white Rhino. It is grassland and acacia trees predominantly, which really enhances that Out of Africa feel. This reserve is particularly well known for the Rhino and I had spotted several from our verandah through the binoculars. It was a special thrill, however, to walk to within 500 yds of three of them, including a mother and calf. They are huge and give a whole new meaning to the phrase 'does my bum look big in this!' I will never complain again.
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