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 and took his legs off.  He bled to death.  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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