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The Battle of Maroela Kop-a short story from the Boer War
It was an unequal war, the British Army against the Boer soldiers
The Battle of Maroela Kop.
As young Abraham Cilliers lies among the rocks of Maroela Koppie, he watches a dust devil making its way up the side of the hill, carrying dust and loose debris along in its spiralling vortex. His beloved Mauser Rifle lies in the grass next to him.
The smell from the kitchen in the English camp below follows the wind up the hill. Down below, on the grassy plain, the cooks are preparing lunch on their open fires. He cannot see what they are cooking but the smell tells him it is some kind of stew. Hunger flirts with his senses and he tries to remember when last he had a cooked meal. For the last few weeks he only seemed to have had some biltong and rusks to eat, with an occasional cup of black coffee to wash them down.
Quickly he counts the men in the camp below. Some of the men were in their tents and so he knew it would be a somewhat educated guess, but Commandant Pieter van Jaarsveld would know that. Abraham needed to be quick, however, as his trusty horse Vaalman was waiting impatiently behind the hill and one never knew when he would neigh and possibly be heard by the guards who were on duty near the perimeter of the English camp. He had walked the horse the last few hundred yards to the Acacia tree where he tied him down. He was surprised, amazed and yet proud when Commander van Jaarsveld had sent him to count the British army forces. Yes he was the only person in the commando who knew this area but at the same time at sixteen he wondered if some of the older Boer soldiers felt he was too young for such an important job. When van Jaarsveld had looked at his Father he was thrilled when his Father said, ”send the boy, he knows the area well”.
As he completed the count he could not help but smile at the peaceful scene that he knew would soon be spoilt when the Boer Commando, camped some eight miles away, made their attack. Although heavily outnumbered they would, with their superior marksmanship and commanding position, set these soldiers running in disarray. The Boer soldiers did not follow the normal conventions of war that the English were used to. They used their hunting and veldt skills to good effect, launching surprise attacks on the English.
It was now about six weeks since the young boy/man Abraham had joined the commando led by Pieter van Jaarsveld. His mother had reluctantly allowed him to go, knowing that with his strong will, nothing could really hold him back. At 16 he was an excellent horseman and with his front loading Mauser, he was also a deadly shot. With the English Army growing in numbers daily as new troops arrived from England, every person was needed in the war between the Boer Republic and the English invaders. Other young men had left their farms and joined the commandoes and became valuable members of the fighting force that was in an amazing way, able to hold off the might of the British troops.
Van Jaarsveld had soon recognized that this “penkop” from the Heidelberg area, who had now come to join his father and older brothers, would be a valuable addition to his commando. He was not only a good shot but showed good skill in reading the veldt and knowing the area where he had hunted in the past, sometimes with his dad, but often also alone.
Content that he had made a good enough count of the soldiers in the British camp, the young boy crawled back through the rocks and grass, carefully carrying his rifle, before scrambling carefully down the slope. He was careful not to dislodge any rocks that could start a landslide and give away his presence. Untying Vaalman, he walked at first and then rode back to the Boer camp, taking the news to his commander who seemed pleased as he ruffled the young man’s hair while he stood in front of him, his hat tucked under his arm. “You did well,” the older man gruffly acknowledged to the youngster.
Van Jaarsveld turned to his second in command Jan Prinsloo and ordered him to call a meeting of the commando leaders, “We need to discuss our strategy,” he added. As the six senior members of the Boer commando sat on the ground in the shade of a flat topped Acacia tree, they spoke seriously about numbers, ammunition and strategy. The rest of the Boer soldiers busied themselves with cleaning their guns and seeing to their horses and saddles. Here and there one smoked a pipe or chewed on some biltong. Coffee brewed in the tin pots on the small camp fire. The fire being big enough to boil water on but not big enough to make their presence known to the English troops some 8 miles away. The men on guard duty sat silently in their positions looking and listening for anyone approaching. In contrast to the relaxed, almost over confidant atmosphere in the English camp, young Abraham could not help but feel that here a much more determined and serious atmosphere prevailed. At the same time he could feel the excitement in his body as he knew with certainty that his first battle loomed ahead in the near future.
With the English troops receiving equipment, food and even reinforcements on a regular basis from England, the Boers had to depend on taking food and ammunition and even weapons from the British. Here, in van Jaarsveld’s, opinion seemed to be a great opportunity, even if they were greatly outnumbered, to win an important victory for the Boers.
Abraham searched his mind for answers to the many questions that rested uneasily there. What would his contribution be? Would he and his family come through the battle safely? How were his mother, sisters and younger brother doing on the farm near Heidelburg? It was worrying to hear that the British were burning farms and taking women and children captive, placing them in concentration camps in order to cut off food supplies for the Boer commandos. Many serious questions rested heavily on his heart but his thoughts were cut short when the meeting ended and the men were all called together for a briefing.
“We will attack at first light when the English are still battling to open their eyes. Gert du Toit will lead an attack on horseback from the East, catching the sentries by surprise. As they rush to get organised we will open fire from the koppie where young Abraham did his count. Can you believe that these soldiers have camped near high ground and have not even placed sentries up there during the day? We will send a couple of men up after dark just in case they have someone up there during the night. Soon after this our third group will approach along the dry river bed in the south forcing the soldiers to flee across the open veld to the north.”
The briefing continued with each man in the 120 strong commando knowing exactly what to do. The idea was to cause such disarray in the English camp that the soldiers would have to flee, allowing the Boers to take control of the supplies and ammunition. With these guerrilla tactics Van Jaarsveld hoped to win a great victory and gain valuable supplies. Abraham could already feel the adrenalin surging through his veins. This would be his first taste of battle and his task would be to show the chosen skilled marksmen the way up the hill where he had then been before when he did his count. Then he would join them in firing down on the soldiers below. How would he possibly be able to sleep to-night and would he be able to shoot well tomorrow?
To his surprise Van Jaarsveld sent for him as he was still sitting, deep in thought. “Young man, we need to be certain that the English have no sentries on Maroela Koppie so I want you to take Van Rensburg, Pieterse and Vosloo up onto the Koppie that you know so well and check it out after midnight. If they have one or two up on the Koppie we will need to remove them quietly so that our men can follow you up later in the night. Do you think you can do it?” His heart skipped a beat. Could this be happening to him? Last week he was helping on the farm and now he was sent to help, possibly “remove”, some British soldiers! When he had volunteered for commando duty he had never anticipated this.
To his own surprise he heard himself say “yes commandant”, with a conviction that belied the feeling in his heart. So now sleep was no longer the problem! As he sat around the fire with van Rensburg, Pieterse and Vosloo, he sharpened his hunting knife –something that had never even been considered as a weapon to use against humans. Vosloo, who was the senior member of their small party, explained that Abraham would simply guide them and only if there were more than three sentries would he be needed to also actually remove one. This gave him little comfort, but at the same time he knew that probably there would only be a couple of soldiers on the hill and perhaps none.
It was nearly midnight when they left their camp to ride first by horseback and then walk the last mile to the Koppie. In contrast to their camp that was dark and quiet, the English camp was lit with lanterns and the soldiers were noisily sharing some songs and laughter. “What a surprise lies in wait for them”, he thought as the four Boers quietly made their way to the foot of the Koppie. Now they had to find out if anyone was on it. Softly and slowly they made their way up the side in the dark towards the top. Stopping every few steps to listen for any sign of sentries they were relieved that they heard no sound. Hardly breathing they could feel their hearts hammering in their chests. They knew that for the plans to work in the morning, they would have to be able to surprise any sentries the enemy may have placed on the koppie. If there were sentries and they gave a warning the carefully laid plans would not be possible.
Suddenly they froze! A boot scraped on a rock and someone muttered in a Cockney English accent, “This seems like a long night.” Another voice replied, “And it is so dark and there are so many animal noises in the bush, it gives me the creeps. I will be glad when first light comes and we can go back to camp!” Vosloo indicated to van Rensburg and Pieterse with two of his fingers, but then held up his hands to indicate that they should just wait a while to be certain, a prearranged signal. Now the quiet night air seemed to hammer in Abraham’s ears and the sounds down below seemed far away. An Eagle Owl called from a nearby tree causing the soldiers to start. Somewhere nearby a small animal moved through the grass. The night is full of noises and these helped to mask their movements.
The waiting seemed to go on for ever as they stood silently in their places. Then he saw Vosloo wave to van Rensburg and Pieterse and the three moved slowly forward towards the unsuspecting soldiers. It seemed like forever but then Abraham heard a scuffle and bodies being lowered to the ground. A rifle clanged as it hit a rock and it seemed certain the sound would be heard in the camp below that now was silent as most of the troops had gone to sleep. No reaction came, and Vosloo signaled for Abraham to join them.
“They were not really wide awake”, Vosloo spoke quietly to the others, “now we can return down and wait for the others to arrive. It should not be very long.” The young penkop was shaking as they followed him down Maroela Koppie and it was only after a while that his heart seemed to start beating somewhat normally. Vosloo placed his hand on the boys shoulder and said “well done youngster”, in quiet reassurance. The older man knew that for all of them life would never be quite the same again. In war people do things that often seem far removed from reality. He hoped this young man would cope with the emotion of what had taken place and what was going to happen in the morning. It seemed unfair that someone so young had to experience such an event. What if there had been more than three sentries? The horror of war is not a respecter of age or sex.
The Battle of Maroela Koppie is documented elsewhere and the victory won by the Boer Commando was told around many a fire as the war continued. Strangely enough Abraham never spoke about it, even when prompted to do so. War does that to those involved. Seldom do they recount the horrors and even the victories from the battle field. One thing is certain, Abraham returned home after the peace treaty had been signed at Vereeniging on the 21st of May 1902, much more experienced in many ways. Many left their farms to join the commandoes later to return with memories that they tried perhaps to erase or bury in the deep recesses of their mind.
It was not too long afterwards that Abraham joined the police force in Cape Town to begin his distinguished career as one of South Africa’s most famous detectives. How had this famous battle shaped his thinking? Even he did not really know.