The tree of happiness flowers and fruits most abundantly for the creative man
Resting awkwardly near a dry stone wall at Fort Amiel is a square block of sandstone atop a similar foundation stone, both inscribed with the names of British soldiers who perished at the Battle of Ingogo (also known as the Battle of Schuinshoogte/ Schuins Hoogte) after the farm where the conflict happened, just north of the Northern Natal town of Newcastle). The memorial, in its very incongruous position, is not positioned on the level; and quite peculiarly, is flanked by two differing piles of white-washed bricks and a line of the same before the monument. An artist would call this assembly an eyesore and a historian would think this inappropriate. Being the former, my aesthetic sensibilities were painfully tweaked, however I did see it as an attempt to draw attention and in a sense respect to the memorial. Let’s say I shall not hire the assembler of these painted bricks to decorate my home.
My sensibilities aside – a far deeper and more crippling emotion was stirred up by this tablet, for I knew it well. It once stood centrally at the Fort Amiel Graveyard, a plot that lies approximately 500 metres away from the fort on the farm ‘Tweefontein’. The British War Department had purchased a triangular section of the farm and consecrated the land for the burial of soldiers who died in the 1st Anglo-Boer War. The rectangular graveyard is surrounded by a well-built dry stone wall with an entry gate at its north eastern side. As children and teenagers my brothers and me would visit the site regularly. Around and in the graveyard in the 1970’s were several large blue gum trees, and as the yard was positioned on the edge of the hill overlooking the Incandu River plain and in the distance the Small Drakensberg Mountains, the area was often fanned by cool mountain breezes and at times buffeting by strong winds. The wind through the leaves of the trees made a lovely sighing sound and the melancholia of the plot was amplified by the powder-soft cooing of laughing and red-eyed turtle doves in the branches above. After a long day swimming and playing ‘Kleilaat’ at the Inguduma Spruit below the hill, the long, hot and tiring trudge up the hill necessitated a cool and shaded interlude at the graveyard. Here, resting in the shade, our minds turned to the young soldiers who lay buried beneath our feet, in rows, their plots surrounded by white-washed stones collected from the surrounding countryside, their individual positions marked by silver painted wrought-iron crosses. Here and there were larger sandstone headstones for officers (and as mentioned earlier) in a central position, a commemorative obelisk to the men of the 60th Foot who died at the Battle of Ingogo, or who had drowned crossing the flooding Ingogo River, or who survived the battle and were returned to the hospital of Fort Amiel and subsequently died of their wounds.
A drawing of the 60th Foot (King’s Royal Rifles Corps) 3rd Battalion Memorial at Fort Amiel Military Graveyard that I did from my recollection. I last visited the graveyard over 25 years ago, so I remind viewers that this image might not necessarily be 100% faithful. Unfortunately was unable to visit the plot on my visit to Fort Amiel in June 2014.
In the 1990’s, a group of local youths from the Afrikaans Community, entered the graveyard, and criminally vandalised several memorials, smashing the obelisk into pieces and tragically chipping the inscribed foundation stone. There is an English term for this action – ‘desecration‘. It describes the violent act of defiling a sacred and consecrated place or thing, and is therefore a spiritual violation. It is this surviving foundation stone that was removed and is now positioned at Fort Amiel.
On the lower section of the memorial I noticed a badly damaged inscription to a soldier. The first of the three initials to his name were chipped-away, but fortunately his surname was extent, as well as his rank. It read … A(..) (….) of Lieut. and Adj (.) O. H. Wilkinson – dro(.)ned crossing the In(….). The vandalised description of his demise could be partly deduced – that he had drowned while crossing the Ingogo River. Although his first initial was obliterated, I thought that on my return to Durban I might be able to find out who this officer was, and perhaps, in some fashion, restore his memory. I cannot restore the monument that is true, however I do believe the authorities that be, could re-erect this monument appropriately.
What lies below is my restoration.
Edward Obert Hindley Wilkinson
Edward was born on the 16th of October 1853 at Chesfield Manor, near Stevenage, Herfordshire, England. He was the first born to Barrister and Colonel Robert Hindley Wilkinson and his wife Catherine Anne Caroline Wilkinson nee’ Obert. The Wilkinson’s – a wealthy and landed family were members of the respectable British upper set, residing at Chesfield Park. A follow-up child was born, namely Caroline Elizabeth Wilkinson.
(above) Chesfield Manor House.
At the required time, the young Edward was shipped-off to Eton College where he received his initial education. Edward must have been an athletic chap for the Eton archives record his sporting abilities at Cricket, Racket and Boating. In 1873 he was Captain of the Cricket Team.
Edwards father was a Colonel in the military and there is no doubt that all things military would have captured Edwards imagination. His adventurous nature was to lead him into the military and being commissioned as an Officer in the British Army and a life of being posted to far-flung possessions and outposts of the British Empire. But first he attended Cambridge University. I have not been able to find out what he studied, however he most likely followed his father’s footsteps into Law. He could not have completed his degree for in 1874 Edward is Commissioned as a First Lieutenant in the 3rd Battalion King’s Royal Rifle Corps (60th Foot) nicknamed the Green Jackets. In 1875 Edward was made the Adjutant for his Battalion. During this time the battalion was stationed at Aldershot in England while its fellow battalion the 2nd was serving in India and Afghanistan. In January 1879 the Battalion was in Colchester when it received immediate orders to embark for the Colony of Natal where hostilities with the Zulus had resulted in the defeat at Isandwana. Edward, now a 2nd Lieutenant, landed with his Battalion at Durban under the Command of Lieutenant-Colonel Leigh-Pemberton and marched directly to the Tugela River, where under the command of Lord Chelmsford the 3rd Battalion joined the column to relieve Fort Pierson.
The following month on the 2nd of April 1879, the battalion distinguished itself at the Battle of Gingindlovu. In this battle the brave Zulu impi charged the British lines right up to their muzzles, testing the bravery and stamina of the soldiers made-up mostly of young and inexperienced young men. Edward (now 26 years old) wrote a descriptive account of this battle in a letter back to his Housemaster at Eton. In June the Battalion participated in the advance on Ulundi under Sir Garnet Wolseley and the subsequent pursuit and capture of the Zulu King Cetswayo. After falling ill, Edward was repatriated back to England to recover, rejoining his battalion at Pietermaritzburg where this contingent was stationed until the Transvaal Boers under the leadership of General Petrus Johannes Joubert invaded Northern Natal in 1881.
Under the command of Lieutenant-General Sir George Pomeroy Colley, the 6th Foot marched (suitably on foot) to Newcastle where the 3rd Battalion was stationed at Fort Amiel, a military installation just to the north and across the Incandu River to the small frontier settlement. Here Colley prepared his small Field Force made up of several disparate units, including the 3rd Battalion, to advance on the north to open up communication lines with the British troops besieged in several towns across the Transvaal. On the 24th of January 1881 Colley marched his small force out of Fort Amiel to the north, over the Ingogo and Harte Rivers, established a forward base on the farm ‘Mount Prospect’ that lies to the east of Inkwelo Mountain. From here, on the 28th of January, the battalion after the long and arduous march up the steep slope that leads to to Laing’s Pass, participated in the Battle of Laing’s Nek. Serving as a guard to the left flank and as a reserve to the main assault, they covered the British retreat after the column was repulsed by the Boers. Fortunately in this engagement the battalion did not receive many casualties.
Fort Amiel, 1881.
(above) A photograph of Mount Prospect Camp, adjacent to Inkwelo Mountain.
The emboldened Boers now attempted to cut lines of communication between Fort Amiel and Mount Prospect Camp. They ranged far and wide, even beyond Newcastle, but especially to the west towards the Orange Free State border, endangering the supply wagons along the rough track that led from Newcastle, and even obstructing the ambulances carrying the wounded back from Laing’s Nek.
On the 8th of February 1881, Colley marched his assembled troops (including the 3rd Battalion King’s Royal Rifles Corps) out of camp to the south along the wagon track to Newcastle and Fort Amiel to clear the countryside to the south and west and project. Accompanying the force were 4 field guns – two 9 pounders and two 7 pounders. When he arrived at the Harte River drift, he left the two 7 pounder guns on the high rise just above the drift, and instructed one company of Riflemen to secure his return or possible retreat. Crossing first the Harte River, a tributary to the Ingogo River (just above their confluence) and again fording the Ingogo River several hundred metres away to the south east. This area was known as the ‘Double Drift’. It is worth noting that the Ingogo River is a tributary to the larger Buffalo River to the east, and the Ingogo River itself is fed by several streams like the Seepwater Spruit and the Harte River (already mentioned) that have their sources up in the Small Drakensberg Mountains several kilometres to the west.
A drawing I did looking down towards the Seepwater Spruit in 1987.
(above) A photograph of the Drift across the Ingogo River. In earlier days a Post Stable was positioned at the drift to provide fresh horses for the Post Chaise that in times of peace traveled this route to Pretoria. The buildings in the image are the Store and Hotel called Fermistones (Valley Inn today) which were situated at Double Drift. In the late 1880’s a bridge was built several hundred metres to the east of Double Drift across the Ingogo River. This bridge was destroyed by retreating Boers in 1900 and the follow-up bridges were built at the old drifts across the Ingogo and Harte Rivers.
The force of 273 men of all ranks were accompanied by two 9 pounder field guns, pulled by teams of horses. The road south traversed the farm ‘Schuinshoogte’ (translated best from the Dutch as ‘Slanting Heights’). As the British troops advanced along the road, at noon their way was blocked when they were fired upon by a concealed Boer Force from the defiles that lie adjacent to road. Colley had his force fan-out into a semi-circular defensive position. The Boers made of approximately 350 to 400 burghers rained a deadly fusillade on the soldiers, pinning the soldiers down on the exposed slope behind rocks and anthills. From this position they attempted to bring fire upon the well concealed Boers whose more accurate fire was taking effect. The Boers targeted the horses which in their pain and terror, ran wildly across the battle field trampling the soldiers underfoot. An attempt was made by Major Brownlow with several mounted troops to charge the Boer positions, but they and their horses were rapidly cut down by volleys of rifle fire. Colley then tasked Captain MacGregor to take a company from the right flank and cross the road to shore-up his left flank that was been threatened by advancing Boers. However while executing this movement, the Captain and his men were shot down almost to a man. Some time after 5 pm a tremendous thunderstorm broke, with torrential rain and flashes of lightning. The day had been very hot and at first the rain brought relief to those thirsty and blistered from lying 5 hours in the hot African sun, however as darkness descended the temperature dropped making conditions miserable for the men but especially for the wounded. Anyone who has lived in this geographical area will know that sudden thunderstorms can turn a bright summer’s day into a deluge, a trickling stream into a raging flood.
Colley was in a predicament, for should he stay, his prospects on first light were a continuation of the battle and eventual surrender, or to attempt a withdrawal of his force in the dark of night and across the now rising Ingogo River. He chose the latter. Assembling the wounded, he had all the greatcoats, blankets and waterproof sheets collected to shelter the wounded, and left them in the care of the Chaplain, a doctor and several non-combatants. Unfortunately many of the wounded in the advanced firing line could not be withdrawn and were left unsheltered and in miserable conditions. The ambulance that had accompanied the column had been left at the base of the hill with its teams of mules, however, the Boers had riddled the wagon with bullets and killed all the mules. After the previous engagement, a train of ambulances that was withdrawing the wounded from the battle was also stopped by Boers, the mules driven off and its progress halted, even though the ambulances were flying the Red Cross.
Then under the cover of darkness and heavy rain, he silently and slowly moved his troops back in perfect order and in the formation of a hollow square with the guns in the centre and the riflemen on the four sides. Several surviving horses were gathered to help draw the guns, and with the help of the now exhausted, hungry and demoralised troops, they pulled and pushed the heavy gun carriages back along the route they had come. Lieutenant Edward Obert Hindley Wilkinson had survived the battle, and being an officer, would have played an important task in directing the withdrawal and keeping flagging spirits high. Before reaching the Drift, scouts were sent out to ascertain whether the Boers were covering the Ingogo drift, and on finding it clear, the column moved down to the river where the rushing water had already reached chest height and rising. Fearing that his force would still be attacked at the established drifts, he instead decided to ford the river some distance away. The crossing was made by the men in file, linking their arms together to prevent themselves from being swept away. The slippery conditions along the river’s banks were treacherous and with the rain falling in dense sheets in the impenetrable darkness, several of the first men to brave the crossing were swept away in the flood, some were able to clamour out onto a projecting mudbank, but tragically 8 men were swept away in the flood and drowned. The horses had a terrible time, floundered under their heavy loads, slipping and falling, but with supreme effort, the guns were pulled through. The return route necessitated that the Ingogo River be crossed twice along its sweeping bends. Anyone acquainted with South African rivers in flood and their attendant dangers can attest to this accomplishment. At 4 am the column had to ascend the long and slippery rise back to camp at Mount Prospect, however the horses were too exhausted to pull the guns further and so the men of the 60th Rifles hauled them laboriously along the muddy road, only reached their camp at 8.30 in the morning.
During the withdrawal, Lieutenant Wilkinson volunteered to return to the battle scene with supplies and medicines for the wounded. When he reached the Ingogo on his horse, the level of the water was now even higher, but with the aid of his horse he was able to ford the river four times with supplies for the wounded. On his final return, as he and is horse were fording the torrent, both were swept away in the raging waters. Wilkinson’s horse managed to clamour up the bank and made its way back to Fort Amiel. Tragically, Wilkinson was dashed onto the rocks and drowned. His body was only recovered on the 18th, 10 days later and 5 kilometres downstream at the drift. He was 28 years old. His body was brought back to the Mount Prospect Camp and buried on the 20th in the Mount Prospect Graveyard alongside his fellow officers who had perished at Ingogo and Laing’s Nek. His grave is numbered 36.
62 men and 4 officers were killed on the British side, and 63 men and 4 officers were wounded. Including the 9 men who drowned, the total casualties were 142. On the Boer side there were 8 burghers killed and 6 wounded, two of whom died later of their wounds.
The following morning the Boers were amazed to discover that the British had been able to withdraw, thinking it was impossible to ford the flooded river. They had anticipated continuing the fight in the morning.
The site of the Battle of Ingogo, photographed in 1895, 13 years after the battle showing the memorial and the the graveyard were the soldiers were buried.
In the London Gazette published the following eulogy on the 29th of March… “But the battalion has suffered a still heavier loss in the death of its Adjutant, Lieutenant Wilkinson. having distinguished himself through the engagement by his coolness and gallantry, volunteering for every difficult or dangerous task, he was drowned crossing the Ingogo after returning to the battle-field with assistance for the wounded. Of singularly winning disposition and manners, distinguished in all manly games, an excellent adjutant, and most promising officer, few men of his standing could boast so many and such warm friends, or be so widely missed and deeply mourned“.
The news must have devastated the Wilkinson family. Edward’s father, Robert Hindley Wilkinson, had lost his heir. He died in 1888. His wife held the manor until her death in 1894. The inheritance then passed to Edward’s sister whose husband Charles Poyntz-Steward became Lord of the Manor.
A photograph of the battle field taken in 1881 shortly after the conflict, showing the skeletons of the horses killed in the action.
The Author, Lady Florence Dixie writes poignantly of Wilkinson in her book ‘In the Land of Misfortune’ … “Will the memory of this heroic act be allowed to grow dim, and forgetfulness overshadow the hearts of those for whom he died? Many lie beneath the ground on the Ingogo battlefield, but of those who remain let it not be said thay have forgotten him; or that the country in whose service he died ceases to remember that gallant act”.
The horseshoe bend of the rail line that crosses the Ingogo River, photographed during the 2nd Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902). Note the British military bell tents.