Centenary of the First War of Independence 1880-1881
Visit to the Bronkhorstspruit Battlefield
by H.W. Kinsey
As a prelude to the commemoration of the Centenary of the First War of Independence 1880-1881 (Die Eerste Vryheidsoorlog) members of the SA Military History Society were treated to two very fine lectures delivered by Col G.R. Duxbury, Director of the SA National Museum of Military History, at meetings of the Society on 15 January and 12 February 1981, entitled The Origin and Causes of the Transvaal War of 1880-1881 — Bronkhorstspruit, and Laingsnek, Schuinshoogte and Majuba. Battles of the Transvaal War of 1880-1881, respectively.
The Society then enjoyed two field trips, the first of which was to the site of the Bronkhorstspruit incident on Sunday, 25 January 1981.* Those members of the Society who had elected to join the Bronkhorstspruit trip looked very apprehensively at the sky on Sunday morning, 25 January, and in fact arrived at the Museum in the rain. However, the Gods were good to us, and by the time the bus had left at 08h45, instead of the scheduled time of 08h30, and after the Deputy Tour Director, the inimitable Tony Speir, had managed in his usual efficient manner to get everything and everybody under control, the rain had stopped and we all had a most enjoyable and instructive day.
The bus party was met at the site by a large number of members and friends who had travelled out by car. Uylet Duxbury and Joan Speir, assisted by Dudley Aitken, Roger Sykes and Adam Dube, served everyone with morning tea, which was much appreciated.
Col Duxbury gave us a talk on the incident at Bronkhorstspruit, which had taken place just over 100 years earlier on 20 December 1880, and which was made more interesting by the fact that we were virtually almost on the spot where Col Anstruther and two companies of the 94th Regiment were first fired upon by the Boers. After a brief visit to the grave of the only Boer (A. Kieser) who was killed on the field and the graves of Col Anstruther and other officers and men of the 94th Regiment, the entire party proceeded to the resort of Bronkhorstbaai, where we partook of an excellent cold lunch.
[*Editor's note. The second trip was to the battlefield of Majuba, which is the subject of the succeeding article by M. C. (‘Midge’) Carter.]
Editor’s note. The following article deals with the actual re-construction of Gen Colley’s climb up Majuba by members of the SA Military History Society on the night of 26 February 1981. The climb formed part of the trip (which took place between 26 February and 1 March) to the battlefield of Majuba and other Newcastle battlefields.
The lights from the Holiday Inn filtered into the bus illuminating their faces with mixed expressions - placid, apprehensive, excited. Quiet words were spoken - a little banter, the chatter of a few children - last minute instructions, humorous and otherwise, from friends through the windows.The motor started and we were on our way, a little behind schedule. Knowing what was to come some dozed or tried to. This would be the last chance to relax for many hard slogging hours that lay ahead.
All too soon the bus was bouncing down a veld track, its lights sweeping the anthill studded grass right up to the trees which surround the British Mount Prospect cemetery.
Once off the bus Col Duxbury briefed us. He gave us a last opportunity to return to the bus because from here on there would be no going back. We would have to climb right over Majuba and down the other side before we would see our transport again. We waited briefly but no one budged. Each person was committed, men, women, and a few youngsters, varying in age from 9 years to well over 60, 41 in all.
We numbered off twice so that everyone would remember his number, for in the dark only our voices would indicate whether we were still in position in the column. The bus turned and started back. We picked up our packs and with Dr Briscoe and Col Duxbury in the van set off on our historic climb. Majuba summit was 9 km away.
The damp grass muffled our footsteps. Occasional flashes of lightning showed for a fleeting second the outline of Majuba and the long steep climb ahead. The pathway glowed from the phosphorescence of numerous glow-worms marking our passage through the night. The faint reflection from the low cloud made visibility possible. Soon a gate. The word passed down - ‘Close the gate!’, ‘Confirm gate closed!’ We stopped and started again. ‘Confirmation gate closed!’ On we went again. Next a barbed wire fence, then another - soon a main road, and its traffic even at that hour (23h00). Here we started ever upward. We were heading straight up ‘Nkwelo by the same circuitous route General Colley had taken 100 years ago to the hour. We stopped for a brief rest. The distant lights of Newcastle aided by cloud cover gave the night an eerie light, a benefit lost to Colley. On again and upward. Pack straps were straining on shoulders. Few words now. The night strangely quiet except for the distant sound of traffic and the upward tramp of many feet. Two men with packs of 58lb (26,3kg) each, simulating the British soldiers’ load, were doing well. At one brief rest a welcome bottle of Old Brown sherry appeared from Ken Gillings’s pack. The march was definitely getting better. At this point a soft rain fell briefly; but despite the thunder and lightning, thankfully the storm kept away. After an age of ascent, we reached the remains of a redoubt set up that night 100 years ago by a detachment dropped off by Colley to protect his rear.
From here on we swung north. The going was level, easy and fast. A whistler took up the strains of Colonel Bogey; soon others joined in. Some breathless Souza and numerous others barely recognizable finally gave way to heavy breathing as we now tangled with the slow and very difficult struggle through the forest. We left the pathway and started the ascent of Majuba proper. The darkness was absolute, the pathway - littered with fallen branches, stumps and all - constantly bore upward. Our rests became more frequent. Occasionally we would reach a clearing and progress would speed up. After one such rest somebody realized he had dropped his spectacles. The column halted, torches appeared, and a systematic search commenced. Under the circumstances this was an almost impossible task in view of the long grass, inexact location and darkness; but in less than 5 minutes they were found. A cheer went up and we were off again. Soon the summit of ‘Sailors’ Knoll’ loomed in the darkness, the grassy slopes growing ever rockier; gullies, brambles, and sheer exhaustion started breaking up the column. Often two steps up resulted in one slipped backwards. The hours slid by. The rifle I carried weighed a ton then. No longer gently carried it became a dependable walking stick. The last few hundred yards disappeared upward. Our party scattered up the mountain. Then the mist closed in. It was damp and cold; but there was not much wind. At this juncture the need for a hot cup of coffee became paramount.
It was past 04h00 so with my young son helping I got my faithful petrol stove under way boiling up a cheering brew. We gathered a couple of other stalwarts around us out of the mist, and in no time we had a billy of hot reviving coffee to cheer us on. Those last few hundred yards were no problem flow and we reached the summit as the mist lifted away to reveal the first light of the new day.
Exhausted bodies lay scattered about. Some had been on top for nearly an hour huddling anywhere for shelter, but time to rest was not then and we had to get started for the northern base area.
Down in the shelter of the bowl, where the cemetery now stands, we grouped briefly while Col Duxbury recounted the events of 100 years earlier. While a bottle of wine was passed round we took a roll call. Six people were missing. A quick search accounted for some. A second roll revealed two still unaccounted for. Ken Gillings recalled seeing two bodies earlier below the southern lip of Majuba, so with tireless energy he hounded off. Sure enough he found them fast asleep. Pictures were taken and then the rapid descent commenced.
But the drama had not finished yet. As I was bringing up the tail a young soldier looking decidedly seedy asked me for help. Slowly we made our way down and he was handed over to Dr Felix Machanjk at the bus. Somehow in the rush of the previous day he had neglected to eat and this had caught up with him, Fortunately a rest and a hearty breakfast had him A1 in no time.
The bus ride back was unusually quiet as 41 tired but contented bodies slumbered all the way back to Newcastle. With great satisfaction they rested in the knowledge that their centenary feat would not he repeated in their lifetime.
The names of the climbers:
|Amoils, Ari||.||Dalgleish, Bruce||.||Kallos, Achilles||.||Simpkins, Bert|
|Amoils, Hymie||.||Dann, Leonard||.||Kretzman, Allan||.||Stephenson, Barry|
|Barbour, Fiona||.||Dey, Richard||.||Leggat, Peter||.||Stephenson, Val|
|Barker, Paul||.||Donaldson, Martin||.||Little, Ivor||.||Terry, Glen|
|Bester, Jack||.||Duxbury, George||.||Malan, Andy||.||Terry, Sheila|
|Bniscoe, Richard||.||Findlay, James||.||Marsh, Mike||.||Thomson, Barrie|
|Carter, Anne||.||Garr, Bill||.||Meyerowitz, Malcolm||.||Tomlinson, Richard|
|Carter, MC. ('Midge’)||.||Gillings, Ken||.||Neall, Barbara||.||Uys, Ian|
|Carter, Peter||.||Hickman, V.J.M.||.||Pretonius, Barbara||.||Walker, Andrew|
|Carter, Stephen||.||Jordan, Rob||.||Pretorius, Phil||.||Watt, Steve||.||Van Vuuren Hercules|
10.07.80 Mr Peter Tunstall — The Road to Colditz.
14.08.80 Maj D.P. Tidy — The Museum’s Aircraft.
04.09.80 Cmdt CM. Bakkes — Die Stryd aan die Grens deur die oë van die Gewone Manskap.
16.10.80 Mrs Sheila Henderson — Alexander Biggar.
13.11.80 Maj Darrell D. Hall — The Story of the Long Toms in the South African War of 1899-1902
11.12.80 Film — Patton.
15.01.81 Col G.R. Duxbury — The Origin and causes of the Transvaal War of 1880-1881 — Bronkhorstspruit.
12.02.81 Col G.R. Duxbury — Laingsnek, Schuinshoogte and Majuba Battles of the Transvaal War of 1880-1881.
12.03.81 Maj A.B. Theunissen — Why did I Wake the General?; Reminiscences of a General Staff Officer.
09.04.81 Annual General Meeting and Slide Show by Maj Darrell D. Hall on Majuba Trip
14.05.81 Mr Peter Tunstall — Colditz.