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Scottish ghosts of Boer War roam SA plain

Published Jul 2, 2010


Springboks bound amongst the thorn bushes of Magersfontein during a sun-filled South African day.

But local people say that the night belongs to the ghosts of Scottish soldiers who were cut down by Boer bullets in a battle here more than 100 years ago.

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A Celtic Cross memorial dedicated to the dead of the Highland Brigade sits atop Magersfontein Koppie.

The view across the veld from the rocky hill looks just as it might have done that December day in 1899 - a vast, flat expanse of beige grass, boulders and small trees.

The Boer trenches from where withering gunfire tore into the marching, kilted Highlanders still lie at the foot of the hill.

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"Scotland is poorer in men but richer in heroes," the inscription on the memorial reads.

The Anglo-Boer War battle took place during the Boer siege of Kimberley, a strategic diamond mining town. A British relief column advanced along the Cape railway line and in three earlier clashes, forced the Boer commandos to pull back.

The Boers planned to make a stand at Magersfontein, an outcrop about 30km south of Kimberley. But instead of defending from the heights of the koppie, as the British assumed they would, they dug camouflaged trenches around its base.

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For two days, the British poured artillery fire on the hill. At dawn on December 11, the Black Watch advanced in massed ranks. Unaware of the Boer trenchline, they were 400 metres from the hill when their foes opened up. They were cut down in scores while the bagpipers played on.

The Highland Brigade commander, Major General A.G. Wauchope, was among the first to die.

The Gordon Highlanders were sent in as a second wave only to suffer a similar fate. All day the wounded lay under the beating sun, crying for water while Boer snipers picked them off.

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After a Boer counter-attack, confused orders led to the troops retreating. Casualties lay on the battlefield all night although stretcher bearers ventured out with lanterns to rescue those they could. A truce was called the next day.

The British withdrew to the Modder River and it was not until February that the siege of Kimberley was broken.

The Highland Brigade suffered 202 dead at Magersfontein, and 37 soldiers from the Guards and other units who also fought in the action were killed. More than 660 British troops were wounded.

The Boer forces lost 87 men, including 23 Scandinavian volunteers. All have their own memorials at different sites of the battlefield.

Marta Van Schalkwyk has run the Bagpipe Lodge and cafe on the hill for the past 30 years.

Asked about legends that the place is haunted and pipes can sometimes be heard at night, she said: "I cannot see ghosts but my son, he can. Many times he has. Men with rifles, marching forward. He says Mama', I don't like it here'."

Many visitors from Scotland, England and Scandinavia have come over the years, she said.

"People say 'I want to see where my grandfather died.' All the names are in the museum."

As well as plaques with the names of the dead, the little museum has guns and equipment from the battle and photographs from both sides. An audiovisual re-creation gives a chilling account of the dawn advance and subsequent carnage.

One photo shows an unnamed adolescent drummer boy. The Black Watch memorial lists a Drummer W. Milne among the dead.

As a conflict where modern and old-fashioned tactics and strategy collided, the Boer War has long held interest for military historians.

The troops of the mighty British Empire were left blundering after fast-moving, irregular troops defending their homes.

US expert Peter Singer of the Brookings Institute, speaking at a security conference in the United States in June, drew a parallel between Britain's experience in the Boer War and the current American involvement in Afghanistan.

"My worry is that Afghanistan becomes America's Boer War," Singer was quoted as saying by the Washington Post. "Great Britain got engaged in a grinding war where by the end of it, it's definition of success was just to get out."

British troops are also fighting in Afghanistan, including the Black Watch and the Scots and Coldstream Guards.

Van Schalkwyk, asked if a long-ago battle between Europeans meant anything to black South Africans who had to wait nearly another 100 years for their freedom, paused then said:

"It's not very nice what happened here. I just ask myself - why? - Reuters

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