Wandering Through South Africa – Part 5

Day 7 started in blazing sunshine and I have to say the weather we have had has been great, 90% sunshine, the odd cloudy period, a couple of five minute showers and the temperatures settled at about 27C.  Often there is a wind which you have to watch, it can burn you quicker than the sun.  However you never feel uncomfortable, it is a dry heat and you do not tend to sweat.

Once more a great breakfast and then off to the early start to the conference.  Unfortunately we were all shown into a little hut, too small for such a crowd and it became weary after a while, this combined with the fact that they could not sort out the PA system and the fact that the Afrikaan’s accent was new to us, made listening a chore especially as the academics had bagged all the front seats.  The speakers were a mixed bag, they were only given 40 minutes to explain their subject and no over-runs they were strictly managed by the chair.  To stand out you had to deliver and it struck me that a lot of them, although university professors, did not succeed.  A few lectures stood out, Meurig Jones from London on Boer War Memorials, Professor Philip Everitt from KwaZulu Natal University on Buller’s Deputy, Lt Gen Sir Charles Warren whose talk rescued Warren in my mind, were the best of a bad day, although Charles Leach’s talk on Constable Charles William Eagle, a Canadian indiginent who came over and joined the Natal Police and was eaten by a lion was interesting when audible.

We went back to Lennox early, prepared ourselves for the evening had another marvellous meal and seven of us settled down with Dirk for an evenings conversation and refreshment.  Now Dirk along with our guide Des does not partake so we did not have long of their company but what we had was intense and mind troubling.  I had not been happy from the start with social conditions as I saw them, I thought that the Blacks were hardly tolerated by the Whites, they were looked down on, patronised and not in their presence, almost spit upon.  They were a lazy, indolent, undisciplined lot who did not deserve anything, not that they got much anyway, the minimum wage was about five euros a day.  In fact all the subservient jobs went to any Black who would take it.  The terms and conditions of employment seemed tenuous to say the least.  Although all children went to school, the conditions looked drab and the hours short, lots and lots only spoke Zulu or variations of same.  Any Black man or woman who had risen out of the ghetto existence was despised.

I cannot say what the Blacks think of the Whites because I was never introduced to one but it struck me that this racist feeling was mutual.  In a way I think both sides realise that apartheid still exists.  I put this view to a few Whites I met socially and not one denied it.  Because of the imbalance in opportunity in the country, the government had to bring in laws and charters to help the rising Blacks to ensure that they were given preference in certain situations in sport and in the professions, the Whites abhorred this bias and said it is now no place for young Whites.  The fact is that the Blacks have all the political power, while the Whites in the shape of the multinational companies that abound, have all the economic power.  Neither side seems able to back down from their imagined moral high ground and embrace the other.  The whites can only scorn the tribalism that affects the choice of leaders and grasp for morsels when talking about the present leader, Jacob Zuma, who incidentally has just spent €18 million of state funds on upgrading his KwaZulu Natal home.  They await their hoped for redeemer, Cyril Rhamaphosa, to put matters, in their eyes right.  They might be clutching at straws but I cannot see a Black man giving a white man an advantage.  The problem was for too long on the other foot.  So with this intransigence on both sides the country is slowly going backwards and the average age of the white population is probably getting older.  To me it seems like a first world country with massive third world propensities which is a bloody shame for all those people taking part in this charade they call life here in South Africa.

Now I know I had only been seven days in the country but to a newcomer it is like a permanent elephant in the room, you cannot move without being aware of the problems.  Whites in big houses surrounded by 6 metre high electrified fences and Security signs blocking out the sunshine and 100 metres away hundreds of blacks living in hovels with little in the way of public services, its bound to lead to contention and my thoughts certainly led to lively debate.  It is just a pity that one or two of the farm hands could not have been introduced to the conversation but they only spoke Zulu any way.  Our two abstainers had faded out of the company and we had been joined by a fellow conference delegate, an ex-army man from Durban, who made his living buying and selling military memorabilia.

Well more drink was put on the table and as soldiers do, the drinks were moved off the table and down respective gullets and the previous high brow conversation reverted to the barrack room, Durban turned to Mad Mullingar and said he was dressed like a fuckin’ Christmas tree, Mullingar said to Durban that he would knock his fucking head off his shoulders if he did not take back his words, Durban would not retreat, Boyling Scouse was wondering which side to take, the Colonel was saying an Hail Mary in a language that the clergy did not know, Flash Harry was poised for some action shots and I was quickly weighing up the scene, whether to take flight or grab the Zulu assegai hung on the wall, because Mullingar at whatever age he is, is a sight to be feared by the best of men when aroused.  We quivered between deadly intent and WW3, when a young unassuming accountant from Pretoria staying at Lennox broke the ice by asking how the conference had gone.  By god we were close!

Day 8 was slightly cloudy and as with all aftermaths the sparring partners shook hands, shared an egg and Durban gave me a wonderful news sheet, the type you see outside newsagents telling the passer-by what is the headlines in the paper.  The one he gave to me was from the Natal Witness First Edition timed at 1.20 pm on 28th April 1916 telling of the Irish Revolt and that rebels were still holding various public buildings in Dublin and that General Maxwell was preparing to go over to take charge. It was a present for our museum and what a marvelous present, which set my mind wondering how to start another row that evening if the harvest was that good.

So off to the conference in happy mood, I did not bother with the first three hours and chose to walk round the museum’s grounds with Flash and Boyling but was very interested in not missing the late morning session.  First up was a gem from Ulsterman Professor Donal McCracken from the University of KwaZulu Natal.  The place was still overcrowded and hot and still the PA system had problems but McCracken disavowed the microphone and in a voice that Ian Paisley would have been proud of started his monologue which made me think that he had been so long out of Ulster he probably could not point it out on a map.  He gave a sharp witty, disparaging talk on the ageing Michael Davitt’s visit to South Africa in 1900. Disparaging in that he described Davitt’s whole life as being a continuous  diatribe against Britain and its aims, without explaining how at the age of four in 1850 Davitt and his family were evicted from their rented property by a zealous landlord, how he had his right arm cut off in machinary at a Baxendale mill at the age of 14, a constant reminder that Britain’s policies were a massive thorn in Irish life, how he was a pivotal figure in the restoration of ownership of agricultural land back to the Irish tenant farmer with his activities  in the Irish National Land League and how he became an international socialist revered throughout the world and offered by Gandhi as being his biggest influence.  Mr McCracken’s words echoed his Protestant heritage and despised his ancestor, Henry Joy McCracken, for his good work with the United Irishmen of 1798 for which he was hanged by the authorities.  However let us just put Donal’s words down to ill conceived mischief as he said from the floor that he would not take questions from Connaught Rangers.

There was more good lectures from Arnold Van Dyk, a very interesting and likeable fellow but more about this man later, he was aided by a great photographic display, he spoke of the activities of the Isaac Malherbe Corporalship from Pretoria which included the young Reitz brothers in the early part of the war before most of them were killed.  This talk was followed by Sarie Mehl speaking about her historic roots in Boer history but again her very interesting talk was slightly nullified by the stupid PA system.  Why when they went to the trouble of inviting speakers from all over the world did they herd us into a hut and to an extent make a mockery of what people had to say.  Third world or first world?

At this juncture I have to mention the works of Denys Reitz, Boer and writer extraordinaire.  His book Commando sustained me during the many long hours travel and I recommend it to all.  It tells the tale of a 16 year old burgher who rode out with his friends in September 1899 to face the growing force of the British Army, the tremendous hardships they suffered and the bravery of them all and the privations they were put through when politically exiled from South Africa after the treaty was signed: a compelling and literate piece of work.

Enough was enough for me, I skipped the afternoon lectures went back to Lennox and had a very peaceful afternoon on the farm.  We had lunch and Dirk took us for a drive round his estate as well as cattle, he has a wild life reserve which he farms.  It seems there is money in farming these beasts and he has a herd of zebra, antelope of all sorts like springbok and eland and bigger animal like hartbeeste, he also has a family of giraffe.  While we were there a zebra was accidentally killed and he went out and skinned the beast, the hide it seems is very valuable and then hung the beast up in one of his sheds.  It would feed his workforce for weeks, they were making some biltong out of parts of it when I looked in (marinated and dried strips of meat the indigenous chew during their day).  Like dillisk the Irish seaweed variant, it is very moreish.

A quiet evening followed, everybody on edge following the antics of last night, subdued in body and spirit.  Mullingar contented himself with some sort of Zulu liquer that is supposed to be mind-bending, the colonel brought some Lourdes holy water from his bag and poured a thimble of this juice into hit, drank it, did two somersaults and went to bed without praying.  Flash and his mate Boyling settled for a crate of Castle, I contented myself with a couple of glasses of Pinotage, a native South African vine but tasty none the less.

Day 8 was waiting to grab us

Wandering Through South Africa – Part 4

Well Day 6 started with one mighty fine breakfast.  Lennox Farm is run by an ex-Springbok, Dirk Thonemann and his wife, Salome.  Dirk is the farmer whilst Salome is what you could call front of house.  However she is away in Ullapool in the far north west of Scotland, attending the birth of her only daughter’s first child.  Now Ullapool is as far away from South Africa as you need to get, she is married to a fisherman up there.  I just wondered during the week was she perhaps trying to give her parents a message, that South Africa is not for the young, but I am stepping out of line, the Scottish fisherman could hardly catch fish in KwaZulu Natal.  Dirk reckons nobody should be made to live that far north.  However Dirk’s wife has taught the Zulu women who work on the farm how to cook in a Cordon Bleu way and they are sending us up some great food.

The boys themselves are settling down to a routine, no squabbles so far but plenty of chiding and everybody trying to get in the favoured back seat of the bus.  I have decided not to get involved and usually sit in the cramped middle seat alongside Mullingar or if we have no accompanying guide, act as co-pilot or shotgun in front left.  Flash Harry as now perfected his style and his acting like a David Bailey in taking photo shots of the young women of the various towns, Boyling Scouse has chosen to be reasonably friendly and has started talking to Flash.  The Mad Mullingar has started to involve himself in a paperchase by leaving items of toiletry and clothing and the odd camera where ever we spend the night.  We have a fleet of couriers chasing us round KwaZulu Natal with all things Mullingar.  The Colonel now he can spot his moment of fame is practising saying the Lords Prayer, the Hail Mary and the Glory Be in Donegal Irish, Galway Irish and Belfast Irish.  He is like a Trappist monk of an evening repeating his mantras.

On the alchohol front Boyling and Flash settle down to 12 0r 15 bottles of Castle lager with a bottle or two of wine with their food, the colonel busy in his devotions, slurps a bottle of wine with his meal and sometimes takes one to bed with him, I tend to tentatively sip a glass of wine and I have taken a liking to a dry Cape cider.  Mad Mullingar, in living up to his Army nickname of the Dry Fucker, is busy making sure he has enough.  A few sips of strong liquer for breakfast, a bucket of beer for lunch and whatever is going in the evening as long as it is plenty.  Snores and farts accompany his progress and there is not normally a word out of him on the bus as he gently cuddles his half gallon hip flask.  All seems well with the world but I know it cannot last.

Day 6 is our big day we have been selected to lead the big procession through the town of Dundee behind the pipe band of the South African Irish Regiment.  They have travelled overnight in the back of an enormous wagon from Johannesburg, a six or seven hour journey, so they are not too well pleased when they meet us at the rendezvous in a secluded part of town.  Behind us are an assorted few hundred British soldiers, camp followers and a Boer contingent that seem very heavily armed as though expecting trouble on the way.  Mullingar calms the pipers by producing his hip flask, and giving each and every one their tot.  Once a soldier always a soldier I say and then were off down the town with Mullingar’s tot putting a swing into the pipers step.

Flash Harry was like a dervish dancing in, out and around the crowded footpaths to get the right shot, The Colonel was on the left flank giving the orders and keeping us in step, Boyling Scouse was in and around our centre while I was posted to our right flank, in the vanguard was trusty Mad Mullingar carrying our colours and daring any man to relieve them off him.  He was like a Churchill tank as he swept all before him, even the parade marshals looked a little scared.  On the dais taking the salute was a little black man who seemed to have borrowed his uniform off Mullingar.  He was Colonel of the South African Irish and probably originated from Mayo.  I heard he was third in command in Zuma’s government.  A quick eyes left from the Colonel and four Connaught heads swivelled as though swivelling was going out of fashion.  I have to say the march could have seemed a little in your face to the overwhelming black population of Dundee but everybody and there were lots of bodies in the spectators seem to enjoy the occasion and the local police force came down hard on one or two impatient motorists.  I have to say I enjoyed the spectacle, I enjoyed the pageantry, I can well understand how a soldier would swing his shoulders and march off like a hero.

In the afternoon and evening we were at the Talana Museum for drinks, eats, military re-enactments and general interaction.  The Museum covers 120 acres of land at the foot of Talana Hill where the first battle of the Boer War took place on 20th October 1899.  The result you could say was a draw but the Brits got a bloody nose and leaderless they marched, ran or limped the 80 kilometres back to Ladysmith over the following three days.

The museum is a wonderful example of dedication, management and closeness to history, all done with very, very little state involvement or input.  Gandhi figured highly in the museum because Dundee figured highly in his early life.  It was here in 1913 Gandhi was arrested and sentenced to three months imprisonment for deliberately breaking immigration laws.  Well done to the board of trustees who have turned the place into a masterpiece.

On our way home at the dead of night we were just crossing the cattle grid into Lennox when our headlights picked out a leopard chasing two zebra about 10 metres away, whether it was our presence or the flailing back legs of the Zebra, I do not know, but the leopard took a big leap into a stunted thorn tree and remained still, the Zebras galloped off and the leopard jumped down and slunk off, he was so near to a feast.  So we had to have a drink to calm our nerves, tomorrow was the start of the three day military conference.  I for one was looking forward to it but a bit feared about walking across the lawn afterwards with no bride to offer to the cat.

 

Wandering Through South Africa – Part 3

Well Day 5 started early as most days seemed to do.  The world here shuts down at dusk because everybody seems scared of the night.  They might have good reason for it.  Our first words of advice after getting the South African welcome was do not go out at night.  A quizzical why was mooted.  Because you have to be aware was the answer.  Which makes me think that unless you are toting an AK47 and are team handed, you are a virtual prisoner for half the year, but more of my queries on the country later.

Breakfast at 6.30am, bags once more packed and meet with Liz Spiret for 8.00am, again she is our guide today, Ladysmith is definitely her patch.  She took us off to the Ladysmith museum, an excellent piece of work in an historical building.  It was the grain store during the siege and the townsfolk queued every day for their rations.  It told the story of the siege very well with some great models explaining what was happening whilst the Boers were in the supremacy.  With lots of people dying of disease because of the filthy water in the town, the Boers let them move their hospital out to fresher cleaner pastures some miles out of town, it saved a lot of lives and ensured the good name of the Boers lived on in history.

We were shunted outside for press photographs and interviews, a look round the artillery parked in the forecourt of the museum and then away to the Soldiers Church, All Saints, the Anglican Church on Murchison Street.  A splendid little church reminiscent of the small Anglican Cathedral, St Georges, in Ypres.  Around the walls of the side altars on marble slabs set into the walls are the names of every soldier who had lost his life in the Relief of Ladysmith, under the Connaught Rangers there were the names of 66 soldiers.  With no piper this time Mullingar carried the flag up the main aisle, Des read a few words from a book, Mullingar lowered the flag, I laid a wreath by the names of the soldiers, the colonel said his Irish prayers, a minutes silence and another moving ceremony was over.  If we carried out this ceremony ten times a day , seven days a week, I would still get tearful.  Everybody plays out their part so magnificently and Flash Harry gets a chance of some emotional pictorials.

It was time for lunch and a date had been fixed at our Piper, Dougie McMaster’s house, a few miles out of town.  Dougie’s house was a splendid example of a 120 year old working farmhouse house, it reminded me somewhat of my grandfather’s farmhouse in Denton.  Dougie’s wonderful wife had put on a superb spread of South African food and she made sure Mullingar was topped with whisky after all his efforts with our standard.  We ate and talked, the atmosphere was so relaxed, I could have stayed there all day but things had to be done.  However before we left we spent an hour in Dougie’s private museum.  He told us that a lot of the artefacts on show had been gathered by a local historian, Edmund Llewellyn (Wally) Hyde, immediately after the battles of Colenso, Vaalkrans and Hart’s Hill.  In fact Wally had helped bury the dead in the loop at Colenso.  As an old man he had befriended Dougie and asked him to look after his legacy and Dougie has done this magnificently.  Previously when looking at my old friend Peter Dunne’s life I had presumptiously thought he had died of enteric and Dougie had the original Medical Officers Report Book which listed the death of every British army soldier who died in chronological order during the Relief of Ladysmith, an unbelievably important historical document and there was Peter’s death recorded on the morning of April 10th 1900 of enteric and signed by the doctor officiating.

Dougie told us a story about Wally Hyde after the battle in the loop at Colenso as he was burying the dead.  He was right at the end of the loop as far as any soldier had got, on the banks of the Tugela River he found this dead Connaught Rangers.  The body was in the first stages of decomposition, the man still had his pith helmet on, so he took it off and the soldier’s ginger hair came away with the helmet.  The soldier’s dog tag showed him to be 1190 Cpl W Doherty, they buried him and put up a simple cross but he kept the helmet with the hair attached.  When he got home for whatever reason, he scraped off the hair and put it in a jar and there it remained for over 20 years sitting on his shelf.  He then got wind of a party of Irish relatives in Ladysmith wanting to know about the conditions at the loop.  Wally the historian was contacted and he showed them the battlefield and its tragedy and then he learnt these travellers were the relations of Corporal Doherty.  He took them home and presented them with a relic of their relation.  In history every little thing is important.

We left Dougie and drove up onto the Platrand, this is a long hill overlooking Ladysmith and ownership was of high strategic importance, the besieged garrison owned it from the beginning but on the night of the 3rd January the Boers tried to take it and force the town to submit.  The hill was flat topped and about four kilometres long and about 120 metres above the town.  It had three defined zones, Caesar’s Camp at the eastern end occupied by the 1st Manchesters throughout the seige, Wagon Hill in the middle and Wagon Point at the east end.  The area was under the command of Col Ian Hamilton, who was later to be famed for his lack of success in Gallipoli in 1915.  About a 1000 Boer undercover of darkness attacked and quickly put paid to two companies of Manchester’s but a bayonet charge by the Gordons drove them off the hill.  Meanwhile after rallying again the Boers attacked Wagon point the following evening in force and were slowly gaining the edge when a critical bayonet charge by the Devonshire regiment finally threw the Boers off the hill.  Casualties were high with 18 British officers and 150 men killed and 18 officers and 224 men wounded with the Boers losing 68 men killed and 135 men wounded.The action was awarded with five VCs, Lt Digby-Jones of the Royal Engineers, Lt Masterson of the 1st Devonshires, Trooper Albrecht of the Imperial Light Horse and Pte J Pitts and Pte R Scott of the 1st Manchesters.  The day was saved in some brutal hand to hand fighting and Ladysmith lived on.

Up on the hill that afternoon we could see how important it was , we were looking out over Ladysmith and any force with artillery could have brought the town to its knees in a matter of hours.  Everything seemed as it was 114 years ago, gun emplacements almost as good as new, trenches and especially graves scattered about the hill.  Cattle and antelope grazed at will untroubled by history.

Our last stop before we left Ladysmith was to visit the Town Cemetery.  This spot was most important to me I was visiting Peter Dunne’s grave.  There are only two Connaught Rangers buried here both dying of enteric while in hospital at Hyde’s Farm, 1005 Pte T Heal;ey who died on 6th April 1900 and 3058 Pte Peter Dunne who died on 10th April.  I could not help thinking of Peter’s great granddaughter, Vivian Roche, now in Saudi Arabia, who had found Peter’s campaign medals only a few days before we set off and who donated them to our museum in Boyle.  She would have been so proud to see us five stood at Peter’s grave.  It is a funny moment when you stand at the grave of a soldier you have researched, you are one of the family, I had spoken to Peter often and shared a cup of tea with his wife Jane and played with his two daughters, Molly and Annie.  I thought I knew them well and I looked at his gravestone and realised he had died 114 years and six months ago.  If I shed one tear on this trip I must have shed a hundred.

We left Ladysmith, it was a town I liked and journeyed on to Dundee, town born on coal and named after the town in Scotland when a past resident and then a farmer by the name of Smith found the stuff by the thousand ton in his back garden.  Day 5 ended for us at Lennox Farm just outside Dundee where we were going to put our feet up for a few days.  We had a great meal and washed it down with some cheap wine we found.  I was staying in the honeymoon suite but unfortunately without the honey.

Wandering Through South Africa – Part 2

After our late night in the Champagne Castle Hotel high in the Drakensberg Mountains are bodies were unwilling for the early start that was programmed.  Mad Mullingar had secreted his private stock and so was longer packing than us unburdened lot, however we dragged our sore heads to breakfast with the thought that he would not be carrying his burden for long.  Not knowing of future vittals we packed our complaining stomachs until it hurt, dragged our cases to the van and bade the wonderful hotel adieu.

Our first stop on Day 4 was Spioenkop, that great lump of rock that rises 1400 feet out of the valley floor.  The Connaught Rangers had only one company involved in this useless fracas and then only on supply duties but they still lost a man, 678 L/Cpl M Staunton.  The regiments taking a hit in this unthought out mess were two south Lancashire regiments, one from Manchester and the other from the Liverpool area and as such was of interest to 60% of the group.  Now you can drive to the top, records tell us that on 23rd January 1900  four hundred men met their deaths here, most of them on a flat area at the north end of the rock which is now called the Acre of Massacre.  The area is scattered with graves where men fell and most bodies were thrown into a trench originally dug by the Boers.  It was more of a shallow scrape than a trench but with parados and parapet built up with stone it formed a raised catafalque in which to dispose of the dead.  It is still there snaking across the field, the built up stones now painted white.

Walking the field that morning, we shook our heads and wondered why.  Why did Warren not just keep marching along the Valley, we could see the outskirts of Ladysmith, he could have saved the four hundred dead here, the 500 dead at Vaalkrans and the five hundred dead on Tugela Heights never mind the thousands of wounded but I suppose he was being brow beaten by Buller who always wanted more than I’s dotted and T’s crossed. Old Redvers was living up to his nickname of Reverse.  We drove back down the haul road saddened by the sight we had seen relying on titbits to soften the blow. Gandhi was up here for three days after the battle with his large party of Indian stretcher bearers he had recruited, carrying the wounded down to ambulances and burying the dead.  Winston Churchill was up and down the hill at least twice while the battle raged trying to inform Warren of the calamity that was unfolding.

We passed by Vaalkrans where again the Rangers had limited engagement and moved on t0 Chievely, now the site of a military graveyard and a small Zulu township but then the site of No 4 Hospital up the railway line from Frere Camp where the British had their base camp.  This hospital took the wounded from Colenso, iNthabamnyama, Spioenkop and Vaalkrans and as a result men died there and a cemetery was formed.  Probably the most famous of them being Lt Fred Roberts, the only son of General Roberts, who won a posthumous VC in trying to save the guns at Colenso.  In the graveyard three Connaught Rangers were buried, 1668 Pte J Brennan who was wounded at Hart’s Hill on 23rd February 1900 and died here in hospital, 5021 Sgt E Nash who died on 10th March of enteric after Ladysmith had been relieved and 4673 Sgt G Worrod who had been wounded at Hart’s Hill on 23rd February and who died of his wounds here six weeks later on 10th April 1900.

We moved up the road a little to Clouston and realised our efforts at the breakfast table had been in vain.  Des’s wife Ulla had driven up from Howick  70 miles away with her son, Robert and provided us with a splendid picnic lunch, she had set it out under a tree where Buller had set up his headquarters at the Battle of Colenso in December 1899.  But first a lecture from Des as he spoke of the build up to the war, its characters and its incidents.  It was here that we met our piper, Dougie McMaster, who is a farmer and engineer from Ladysmith.  We left Clouston and headed for Ambleside Cemetery in the infamous loop at Colenso.

The Connaught Rangers were part of the 5th Brigade under General Hart on the extreme left flank of Buller’s attack.  He had been told by a native scout that there was a drift (ie. a place where the river is shallow enough to cross) at the end of the loop in the Tugela River, it had already been reported to him by a troop of cavalry that the drift was to the left of the loop but he chose to believe the native scout who disappeared into fresh air once the battle started.  Hart poured his troops, about 2500 men, into this bottleneck, surrounded by water on three sides.  The Boers thought they were on a turkey shoot picking off Rangers and Dublin Fusiliers at will.  It was late afternoon before Buller realised his mistake and told Hart to pull his men back, easier said than done but has dark came they managed to extricate themselves.  The British had about 1200 casualties to the Boers 38.  The Rangers themselves had 28 men killed, 114 men wounded and 13 men taken prisoner.  Two days after the battle the local people helped to bury the dead where they lay but in 1972 their remains were exhumed and re-interred in a mass grave at Ambleside within the loop.

Which is now where we find ourselves all kitted out for a little ceremony.  We gathered outside the gate and Dougie playing a lament, followed by Mad Mullingar with the regimental flag led us into the cemetery.  If there is one thing soldiers and ex-soldiers do with sincerity and pride it is in the remembrance of their dead.  Mullingar acted out the lowering and draping of the flag with absolute majesty, I laid the wreath at the memorial giving the names of the 28 Rangers dead, few minutes silence, a tear shed and the Colonel said the Our Father, the Hail Mary and the Glory Be in Irish and we slowly looked round the other monuments and retreated silently.  A lovely simple ceremony carried out at the side of a farmers field in the middle of nowhere by a respectful band of men and one lady, Liz Spiret, our guide for the day.

We quickly moved on to Tugela Heights and Hart’s Hill.  This is where after five attempts Buller and his army of 50,000 men eventually broke through the cordon that the Boers had placed round Ladysmith.  After preliminary skirmishes Buller tried to take Wynne’s Hill with the 11th Brigade and got pinned down, He then tried to outflank them by taking Hart’s Hill to the east with the 5th Brigade and although successful they were stymied on the far side by resolute Boer defence, another outflanking movement east again on Pieter’s Heights proved successful and Ladysmith was relieved on 28th February 1900.  Buller had finally won the day with sheer weight of numbers

We are here halfway up Hart’s Hill at a similar memorial to the Connaught and Inniskilling dead.  The Inniskillings had the worst of the day losing over 100 men killed, the Connaught Rangers lost 23 killed and had 114 wounded.  Another sad and emotional ceremony with our two ex-soldiers playing their parts well and again I laid the wreath and again Dougie played a lament, followed up with the Colonel and what was to become his party piece Irish prayers.  To see where these Irishmen dashed up this hill makes you stare in amazement.  It is a steep 30 degree gradient covered in small boulders and sharp rocks, even goats would approach it with care.

Enough was enough for us that day as we headed into Ladysmith but one last stop on the side of the road at Red Hill where Louis Botha had his HQ and guns at Colenso.  We stood there 50 metres above the loop and about a mile off it and pitied the poor soldiers of the 5th Brigade who had suffered on that day 15th December 1899.  The first time the Connaught Rangers had fired a shot in anger since the 1st Boer War of 1880, 19 years of peace and then disaster.

We spent the night in that famous hotel in Ladysmith, The Royal Hotel.  During the siege it was used to getting a Boer shell through its roof.  A brass marker on the footpath outside marks the spot where the local doctor was killed when a shell landed in the entrance way just as he was leaving.  The seige lasted four four months and Ladysmith was in a very poor state towards the end with enteric striking hundreds.  The Connaught Rangers were posted to Modder Spruit a few miles north of the town and waited for the Boer to return, they didn’t because they realised their resources were now stretched and for the next 27 months carried out a guerilla campaign against the British.  At Modder Spruit as the Rangers waited, my old friend Peter Dunne died in hospital at Hyde’s Farm from enteric.  A Carlow man married with one child in Dublin, I wrote about him in the magazine a couple of years ago, Peter had served his seven years in the Rangers and was in the last of his five years in Reserve when he was called up on mobilisation in October 1899.  He left his pregnant wife and daughter and offered himself up at Athlone.  The rest is history.

After our celebrations of the night before and the prospect of another early start on Day 5, we scoffed our dinner had a couple of beers and we were all in bed for 9.oopm.

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