When the Second Boer War opened in October 1899, 17-year-old Deneys Reitz rode into battle with a new Mauser carbine, a bandolier of ammunition, and dreams of grandeur.
“I looked on the prospect of war and adventure with the eyes of youth, seeing only the glamour, but knowing nothing of the horror,” Reitz wrote later in Commando, his memoir of the conflict written soon after the war.
The war pitted the mighty and meddling British Empire against the farmers, ranchers, and common people of two Boer republics in southern Africa—the Orange Free State, once headed by Reitz’s father, Francis William Reitz, and its northern neighbor, the South African Republic, led by President Paul Kruger. Three years of fighting ended in disaster for the Boers, who lost their independence and saw their land ravaged. But in the war’s first days the Boers sent their foe reeling with an invasion of British-held territory.
In the excerpt below from Commando, Reitz describes the first action of his commando (which at the time simply meant a unit of Boers) under General Daniel Jacobus Elardus “Maroola” Erasmus. Having marched for several days in the rain from Pretoria, the Boers make a nighttime ascent of Impati Mountain, which overlooked British forces at Talana Hill, in the province of Natal.
We climbed up in silence, expecting to be fired on at any moment, but when we reached the wide plateau above we found it deserted. This was so unlooked for that no one seemed to know what to do next, and, as it was still pitch dark, and the rain was coming down in torrents, we waited shivering in the cold for the coming of daybreak.
These were the first men I had seen killed in anger; and their ashen faces and staring eyeballs came as a great shock
When it grew light the rain ceased, but a mist enshrouded the mountaintop through which everything looked so ghostly and uncertain that we felt more at a loss than ever, and when Maroola was asked for orders he merely stood glowering into the fog without reply. We could not see 50 yards in any direction, but we knew that the English lines were immediately below us, for we could hear muffled shouts and the rumble of wagons, and we expected to be led down the face of the mountain to the attack. But General Maroola and his brother made no sign, and when President Kruger’s son Caspar, who was serving with us as a private, and who for once in his life showed a little spirit, went up and implored them to march us to the enemy, Maroola curtly ordered him off.
He must have known what he was about though, for suddenly there came a violent cannonade, bringing us all to our feet as we listened to our first sound of battle. We could see nothing, but heavy fighting had started close by, for the roar of the guns increased and at times we heard the rattle of small arms and Maxims. None of the fire, however, was directed at us, and so far as we were concerned nothing happened, and we fretted at the thought of standing passively by when others were striking the first blow of the war. After perhaps an hour the sound died down….
Toward midday the weather cleared somewhat, and while it still continued misty, patches of sunshine began to splash the plain behind us, across which we had approached the mountain overflight. And then, far down, into one of these sunlit spaces rode a troop of English horsemen about 300 strong. This was our first sight of the enemy, and we followed their course with close attention.
How this handful of men came to be right in the rear of the whole Boer Army I never heard, but they were on a desperate errand, for between them and their main body lay nearly 15,000 horsemen, and, now that the fog was lifting, their chance of regaining their base unobserved was gone. Already scattered Boer marksmen were appearing out of the mist, firing from the saddle as they came, and shepherding the soldiers still farther from their own people. Our men were by this time mostly crowding the forward edge of the mountain, hoping to catch sight of the English camp below, so that there were only a few of us who saw the troopers on the plain behind.
Among these [were] our corporal, Isaac Malherbe, my brother and I, and five or six other Pretoria men, and, after watching the squadron below for a few seconds, we mounted our horses and rode down the mountainside as fast as we could go. Arrived at the foot, we raced across the veldt in the wake of the English troops, guided by the sound of dropping rifle shots ahead of us, for we could no longer see our quarry, as they had disappeared for the time being among some low foothills. Following on, we soon came to the scene of action.
The English had gone to earth at a small homestead, and we were just in time to see the soldiers jumping from their horses and running for cover to the walls of a stone cattle kraal and among the rocks behind the farmhouse….
Soon the troops were completely surrounded. Across their front ran the dry bed of a spruit [small stream], and Isaac led us thither at once. This meant riding toward the enemy over the open, and now, for the first time in my life, I heard the sharp hiss of rifle bullets about my ears, and for the first time I experienced the thrill of riding into action.
My previous ideas of a battle had been different, for there was almost nothing to see here. The soldiers were hidden, and, except for an occasional helmet and the spurts of dust flicked up around us, there was nothing. We reached the spruit we were making for with one man wounded, and leaving him and our horses in the bed below, we climbed the bank and were soon blazing away our first shots in war.
The [English] replied vigorously, but they were able to devote comparatively little attention to us, for by now the countryside was buzzing like an angry hive, with men arriving from every direction, and the end was but a question of time. After a few minutes a Creusot gun of the Transvaal Staats Artillery unlimbered and opened fire. The very first shell stampeded all the troop horses. The poor maddened brutes came tearing past us, and we leaped on our horses to head them off, but had to retreat to avoid being trampled down as they thundered by. I managed to hang on to the skirt of the mob, and, by seizing its flying reins, brought a fine black Waler to a standstill. As I was looking over my prize I saw a white flag go up at the kraal and another from the farmhouse, so I hastened to be present at the surrender.
By the time I got there the soldiers had thrown down their arms and were falling in under their officers. Their leader, [Lieutenant Colonel Bernhard] Möller, stood on the [stoop] looking pretty crestfallen, but the private soldiers seemed to take the turn of events more cheerfully. Officers and men were dressed in drab khaki uniforms, instead of the scarlet I had seen in England, and this somewhat disappointed me as it seemed to detract from the glamour of war; but worse still was the sight of the dead soldiers. These were the first men I had seen killed in anger; and their ashen faces and staring eyeballs came as a great shock, for I had pictured the dignity of death in battle, but I now saw that it was horrible to look upon. I was too elated, however, at having taken part in our first success to be downcast for long, and I enjoyed the novelty of looking at the captured men and talking to such of them as were willing.
After a final look round, those of us from Pretoria rode back towards the berg, where we had left the rest of our commando, leaving the wounded to make their way as best they could to the nearest medical assistance.
After the war ended in 1902, Reitz left the Orange Free State rather than live under British rule, settling in Madagascar, where he wrote Commando. He eventually returned to his homeland, became a lawyer, and distinguished himself as a soldier in World War I and in a long career as a politician.