Historic site in H’burg now open to tourists

High on the hills of Haenertsburg is the site where the last of the heavy and unwieldy long Toms from the Anglo Boer War were destroyed.

HAENERTSBURG –  Three kilometres off the Cheerio road, past Wegraakbosch, is the Rondebult site that locals call Top Camp. There local historian, Professor Louis Changuion, erected two small stone memorials. The wide but not very deep crater, caused by the explosion, is also still there.

On the Cheerio road, turn right to the site where the last long Tom was destroyed.

Recently farmers in the area, in conjunction with Haenertsburg Rotary, created a picnic spot with concrete seating and concrete benches for tourists to enjoy. Acacias and azaleas have been planted and an area has been levelled for parking. Professor Changuion said that he is still working on putting up an historic sign regarding the day Gustav Thiel destroyed the long Tom. The site overlooks the village with the imposing Iron Crown Mountain in the background.

One of two memorials at the site depicting the history, with the crater clearly visible in the background.

In his book Silence of the Guns, Changuion explains the antiquity of the long Toms and their importance in the Boer War. In May 1897, four guns transported by train were delivered in Pretoria. In October 1899, war between two Boer republics and England broke out. During October 1900, the Transvaal Volksraad, with their weapons reached Haenertsburg, a stopover before their journey to Pietersburg (now Polokwane).

A coloured pencil work depicting the long Tom memorial at the arboretum in the village. The view through the barrel is directed toward Rondebult.

The British seized Pietersburg on 8 April 1901. General Beyers decided not to defend and withdrew to Houtboschberg with the last remaining long Tom. The other long Toms were destroyed, once the ammunition had been expended, to prevent them from falling into British hands. Just before the British took over Haenertsburg the Boers destroyed the last long Tom at Rondebult on 30 April 1901.

Changuion erected the long Tom memorial in the village arboretum and spent countless hours searching for long Tom pieces at Rondebult and in the storeroom of a British museum. The long Tom was painstakingly recreated at the arboretum as pieces became available. The long Tom was placed in a strategic position in the arboretum. Looking down the barrel of the long Tom the view is directly towards Rondebult where the new tourist site has been created.

Spioenkop battle

Spioenkop battle

At the beginning of the South Africa War Boer forces entered Natal and attacked the British forces at Dundee. As the British retreated to Ladysmith the Boers took up positions along the Thukela River in the Colenso area.

The British, under Sir Redvers Buller, tried to break through the Boer lines but on 15 December 1900 suffered a humiliating defeat at Colenso.

Spioenkop was the highest point on the Boer line, offered good views in all directions, and would allow command of the road to Ladysmith, so it seemed the best place to break the Boer line.

On the night of 23 January 1900 the British attempt to capture Spioenkop began. A series of blunders and misunderstandings resulted in another defeat for the British. Under the cover of dark and obscured by mist 1700 British soldiers moved towards the summit of the mountain. After little resistance they were able to flush the 100 or so Boers from the top of the mountain where the British dug in.

This seemed like a good position, but as the mist lifted at dawn the British found themselves exposed to fire from the surrounding hills each occupied by the Boers.

In particular the Carolina Commando, under Cmdt. Hendrik Prinsloo who occupied Aloe Knoll to the right of the British position, were responsible for many of the British casualties.

British reinforcements arrived during the day but it made little difference to the battle that ended the following night when the British began a retreat. On the day 343 British were killed and 563 wounded. The Boers lost 68 men and 134 were wounded.

Today the battlefield is marked by a number of monuments, graves and interpretative displays.

Bloukrans battle

Bloukrans battle

THE BLOUKRANS MASSACRE – 1838 After killing Retief and his party, Dingane’s impis (army) moved into the valleys to the west under the Drakensberg mountains where the Voortrekkers were encamped in family groups. They were stretched over a distance of 45 miles by 25 miles and were expecting good news from Retief’s meeting with Dingane. Three Zulu regiments (10,000 men) moved silently up the Bushman’s River towards the unsuspecting trekker camps that were unaware of Retief’s fate. They then attacked the dispersed laagers in these areas. At several points along the Bushman’s River where there was no warning, many Voortrekkers died and whole encampments were wiped out. One or two trekkers managed to escape and rode on horseback to warn the others. The Zulu impi, attacking from the east had however miscalculated the number of Voortrekkers – now more than one thousand wagons – and was distracted by claiming their cattle. This, and the fact that the Tugela River was in full flood, meant that the Zulu attack was not pressed home. Gert Maritz was encamped at Saailaager, some way behind the the other laagers, heard the gunfire and had time to make some hasty defences. Later, on the 17th, the Zulus attacked him but were on the South bank of the flooded Bushman’s River. By forming a human chain, they attempted to cross but the chain was broken repeatedly by musket fire from the laager. That same night the Zulu impi attacked the van Rensburg laager and forced the ten families there to flee to a nearby hill. Because of the haste of the retreat the men were short of ammunition. Only through the bravery of another trekker who dashed through the Zulu warriors with fresh ammunition were the trekkers saved. The area was subsequently called Weenen (‘weeping’), also to the Zulu it was called kwaNobamba – ‘the place where we caught them’. A Voortrekker commando sent from Durban to avenge Retief’s death was ambushed at Italeni with the cost of many lives. On the 57th anniversary of Blood River, the remains of the 370 who had lost their lives at Bloukrans were exhumed and buried together. There is a memorial on the spot.

Monument hill

Monument Hill