Today we awoke to a spectacularly clear sky over the Garieps Dam. In the night, there had been an African thunderstorm, thunder, lightning and driving winds with little rain. It happened when we were all tucked-up in bed, only the light sleepers were aware of what happened.
An excellent breakfast, then onto our coach and back into Colesburg. First stop was the Boer War Cemetery where the first New South Welshman, South Australian and Tasmanian to die in battle are interred. We held a small service where Chris Stokes read a prayer over and laid a poppy on the grave of fellow South Australian Mounted Rifleman Lieutenant John Powell, the first South Australian to die in combat. John Howells laid a poppy at the foot of the monument recording the passing of Corporal Fred Kilpatrick, the young schoolteacher from Carlingford and Leichhardt Public Schools; the first New South Wales Lancer to pay the ultimate price. We all then stood to attention as Barry Vickery played Advance Australia Fair on the mouthorgan.
We then moved into the town where we were able to visit the Colesburg Museum where the story of the town and how the war ebbed and flowed around it during late 1899 and early 1900 is told in detail.
We were then able to visit the site of Sligersfontein camp and view the magnificent Coleskop. I was able to explain how General French approached the town with a force he constituted mainly of cavalry and mounted infantry. Initially there was only one infantry component, a battalion, the ‘Birkshires’ whilst he had a recently mounted regiment of Australians, E Sqn 1 NSWMR, 1 VMR, 1 SAMR, 1 WAMI, 1 TMI, NSW Lancer Squadron, the squadron of Australian Horse (NSW unit), the New Zealand Rough Riders, Inskilling Dragoons, Carbineers, and a composite Household Cavalry unit. A battery of the Royal Horse Artillery was also mobile.
Initially he deployed the infantry to guard his camp at Arundel, then used the mounted forces to range freely preventing the Boers under General de la Rey from outflanking the position and forcing a withdrawal. January saw the camp moved to Sligersfontein farm in the lee of a hill just south east of Colesburg. It was from here on 17 January a patrol containing members of the NSW Lancers and Australian Horse patrolled forward. They were ambushed by a larger group of Boers. They withdrew and got what cover they could, making sangers with rocks for protection, then fought ‘till their ammunition was exhausted. Troop Sergeant Major Griffin of the Australian Horse was the first to die, followed by Corporal Kilpatrick of the NSW Lancers who was wounded in the jaw, a wound he was to die from en transit to the dressing station.
The area was then dominated by soldiers of the Essex Regiment with the help of Royal Engineers dragging a battery of 18 pounder guns from 4 Field Regiment to the top of Coleskop using hawsers, a magnificent feat of engineering.
The Boers were continually probing. On 9 February an attempt to outflank Coleskop being valiantly deterred by the first Western Australians from a location henceforth known as ‘Western Australian Hill’. Three Western Australians gave their lives that day.
When General French and most of his cavalry were withdrawn to relieve Kimberley in February, the situation deteriorated. The Boers were able to get the upper hand and force the British back as far as Arundel. Lieutenant Roberts of the 1 VMR and other Australians gave their lives in these engagements.
After the Battle of Paardeberg, the Boers considered their gains at Colesburg isolated and untenable, so withdrew to Bloemfontein. The British follow-up involved the repair of the railway north, soon to be the major supply route during the guerrilla campaign.
Filled with this knowledge and the sight of the now stunning scenery of the battlefield, we withdrew to Colesberg and luncheon at an excellent restaurant. There followed a sleepy 250 kilometre bus drive to Bloemfontein, only slowed slightly by more road works, and our hotel.
Tomorrow we visit the Women’s Monument, Museum of the Boer Republics, the South African Tank Museum and nearby Boer War cemeteries.