7 — An Affair At Surprise Hill
Commando by

Two other corporalships went on duty at the same time. One, under Corporal Tossel, a former police detective, was posted at the foot of Surprise Hill and the other a long way to our left. My brother and myself and Samuel van Zijl were the only members of our tent who were present, the other four being absent with the carrying party. As we walked along in the dark behind Isaac Malherbe we discussed the previous night's attack on the Lombaardskop gun, and I remember poor Samuel saying he hoped our turn would not come next. But our turn did come next. When we reached the usual halting-place two men were sent forward according to custom, and the rest of us turned in. My time to go on duty was 1 a.m. At about half-past twelve I woke, and not thinking it worth while to fall asleep again, I lay on my blanket watching the stars.

After a while I distinctly heard the muffled sound of many footsteps in the direction of Surprise Hill, so I got up and walked forward to the two sentries to consult them. I found that they had also heard the noise, and the three of us listened for a few seconds to what were certainly men climbing the hill. We thought Corporal Tossel's men had taken fright at something, and were withdrawing up the slope towards the howitzer emplacement. This belief was rudely dispelled, for suddenly there broke from the summit of Surprise Hill a crash of musketry followed by wild bursts of cheering, and we realized that English troops were at the gun. As we stood undecidedly watching the hundreds of rifle flashes lighting up the hill-top, a vivid sheet of flame stabbed the darkness, followed by a tremendous roar, and we knew that our howitzer had been blown into the air. The two sentries and I rushed back to where our party were already on their feet. Isaac Malherbe now showed the stuff he was made of. Without a moment's hesitation he went straight for the danger-point, the continued cheering of the English soldiery and the volley-firing serving as a guide. His intention was to join hands with Tossel's corporalship if he could find them, and then to prevent or delay the troops from returning to Ladysmith, until the whole of the Pretoria commando could come from camp and so destroy or capture the intruders.

As it turned out, Tossel's corporalship had bolted when they heard the English coming. They had not only given them a clear field but had fired no warning shot to alarm the unfortunate gunners up above, who were taken unawares and all bayoneted. And as for the remainder of our commando in camp, they stood to arms all night, but Field-Cornet Zeederberg refused to risk the confusion that he perhaps justly thought would ensue, if he tried to march his men in the dark to an unknown situation. So the twelve of us were left to our own devices.

As we approached we could hear by the firing and shouting that the main body of the attackers were still on the hill, but they had Posted a string of pickets at the foot to secure their line of withdrawal back to the town, and before we had gone very far we ran into one of these. Isaac and I were a few yards in advance when a 'Halt! Who goes there?' was shouted at us from a few paces away. We simultaneously fired a shot apiece and ran forward. We came on a dead soldier, a sergeant, as I saw next morning from his badge, but the rest of the picket had run into the night.

We went forward cautiously and soon we collided once more with another and stronger rearguard party. We were again challenged from dose quarters, and, a heavy fire being aimed at us, we took shelter in a dry spruit bed that runs along the base of Surprise Hill. From here we returned the fire, until this outpost too gave us right of way, and we now began to file along the bed in order to seek out a convenient point from which to make a stand against the troops on the hill when they descended.

As we were going, a soldier, lying concealed in the grassy on the bank above us, thrust over the muzzle of his rifle and fired point-blank into us. My tent-mate, Samuel van Zijl, was walking immediately in front of me and I had my hand on his shoulder to steady myself on the uneven path. The bullet struck him full in the throat, and so near was the range that the discharge scorched his face, and set fire to his beard, which flared up for a moment like a fusee. He staggered, and then dropped. He was still alive, but I could hear from his laboured breathing that he was badly wounded, so I made him as comfortable as I could by placing his blanket under his head, before hurrying up the spruit to rejoin the others. By now the troops were descending Surprise Hill, and we could hear them clattering down the slope towards us. Their officers were blowing whistles, and calling out: 'A Company here! This way B Company!' and so on, to collect their men. They seemed unaware that the road was to be disputed, for they made no attempt to conceal their progress, and there was laughter and repeated cries of 'Good old Rifle Brigade', and here and there we caught the gleam of matches being struck and the glow of cigarettes, to show how little they expected opposition.

In the meanwhile Isaac had selected a suitable spot on the bank, our faces towards Surprise Hill, our backs towards Ladysmith, and here we crouched, silently waiting for the oncoming troops.

From the sounds that reached us we judged them to be about three hundred strong and, with no sign of Tossers men or of help from the commando, it dawned on us that we were in a pretty tight corner.

While the soldiers were still some distance away I ran down to see how Samuel van Zijl was faring. He was only just alive, and he asked me in a faint voice to turn him on his side to ease the pain, but as I did so I felt his body stiffen, and then go limp in my arms, and when I laid him down he was dead. I hurried back, for the laughter and talking were drawing very near. As I made up the course, a huge soldier, or he looked so in the dark, loomed up suddenly on the bank above. He lounged at me with his bayonet, but his insecure footing deflected the thrust and brought him stumbling against me. The man was at my mercy now, for I had my carbine against his side, but there came over me an aversion to shooting him down like a dog, so I ordered him to put up his hands instead, which he did at once, dropping his bayoneted rifle at my feet. I told him to sit down until I called him, a command which he so implicitly obeyed that I found him patiently waiting there next morning with a bullet through his leg from the cross-firing during the subsequent proceedings. This soldier must have come on ahead, for when I reached my companions, the main force was just reaching the foot of the hill and approaching us in a body.

Isaac whispered to us to hold our fire and each man peered into the darkness until, about fifteen yards away, we saw a black mass dimly outlined and then, at his word of command, we poured volley after volley into their closely packed ranks, shooting as fast as we could work the bolts of our rifles. When the l last struck them they thought they were being fired at by their own rearguard pickets, for there were cries of 'Rifle Brigade! Rifle Brigade, don't fire!' but discovering their error a commanding voice called out 'Bayonets, bayonets', and they came at us like a wall. In spite of our small number we delivered such a volume of fire that the head of the column swerved to the left and slanted across our front to make the spruit lower down, and, although we continued our volleys, we could not prevent their going by.

Several times, however, parties of soldiers who had lost their way in the dark walked in among us, and of these we shot some and took others prisoners.

A Captain named Geo. Paley came up to where my brother and I knelt, firing over the edge of the bank, and as he failed to halt when called out, we both loosed a round and brought him toppling between us. Another time one of our men, Jan Luttig, was seized by some soldiers within a few yards of us, and there was a hand-to-hand scuffle in which he was stabbed with a bayonet and clubbed on the head with a rifle-butt. In the dark we could not make out what was happening, but when we heard his cry for help and ran up, his assailants were gone. A moment later I made out three soldiers in the bed of the spruit behind me and slipped down towards them. One nearly spitted me with a vicious jab of his bayonet, which passed between my arm and body, but before he could repeat the thrust I had him covered and they surrendered. One was an army doctor with a bullet-wound in his foot, and the other two said they were helping him along. I ordered them to remain in the bed of the spruit, where I found them in the morning.

About this time we heard four or five shots in rapid succession, followed by groans, from the direction where the troops were still crossing the spruit twenty or thirty yards of. We did not know the meaning of this, and only at daybreak did we find that we had listened to the death-cry of some of our men who had come from the camp to our assistance.

It was now towards three in the morning, and we had nearly exhausted our ammunition, so we sat quietly watching the tail of the column vanish into the darkness beyond, on its way to Ladysmith.

When daylight came at last, a grim scene met our eyes. Before us, within a radius of less than twenty-five yards, lay over sixty dead and wounded English soldiers, and as we walked forward among them we came on the bodies of three of our men who had not been with us originally. Two were dead and dreadfully hacked with bayonets and the third was at his last gasp.

These had been away to the railway depot with the fatigue party, and on their return had gallantly attempted to make their way to us when they heard the firing. They nearly reached us, but ran into the withdrawing soldiers, and were bayoneted before they could fire more than a few shots. Behind us in the spruit bed lay poor Samuel van Zijl, and close by sat our prisoners, some twenty in number.

Dead, wounded, and prisoners, eleven of us had accounted for more than eighty opponents, an average of seven apiece.

Our work was now done, and shortly after sunrise Mr Zeederberg and a large escort of men came scouting through the bush to see what was left of us, and they were surprised to find so many of us still alive.

We stood among the dead and wounded soldiers, the centre of an admiring crowd, and from now onwards Isaac Malherbe's corporalship was spoken of as the best in the commando ( See Conan Doyle's 'History of The Great Boer War', where he refers to me by name in connection with this affair. The Times "Story of The War" gives the following account:

The soldiers scrambled down Surprise Hill.... Suddenly a ring of flame blazed forth at their very feet. A party of some twenty Pretorians, mostly young lawyers and business men, had boldly come round the side of the hill and, regardless of the heavy fire, had lain down in a line across the slope to intercept the storming party of whose numbers they probably had no idea.
Disregarding the misleading orders shouted by the Boers, the men charged in grim silence. The gallant Pretorians emptied their magazines in a vain endeavour to stem the rush, and then the riflemen surged over them, killing or wounding several as they passed. The British casualties were fourteen killed and fifty wounded, not an excessive price to pay for so successful a feat.