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Home arrow VOG Argonauts arrow VOG Argonauts arrow The Unsung Hero - A tribute
The Unsung Hero - A tribute Print E-mail
Monday, 01 August 2016

A report by Andre Badenhorst (VO124)


"I always say: Any excuse will do for a good bike ride......others buy a loaf of bread at the other end of town, I do things a little differently"  ....  

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I had just gotten my Italian (classic) bike back after a 6 month wait; now I needed an excuse to embark on a good ride! As an armchair student of history, why not embark on a journey “in tribute” to an Italian soldier (Italian classic-get it?), who fought in the Boer War?

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The bike for this tribute started life in 1980 as a Moto Guzzi Le Mans MK2,  with an 850cc VEE transverse-mounted engine.  Subsequent changes included an Agostini 980cc kit, a MK3 tank, 900SS fairing & tailpiece and fabricated exhausts, rear sets and instrument panel. The engine was expertly sorted by Guzzi mechanic- extraordinaire Helmut Schaffner: spanner-man for the 1976-78 Ducati racing team and retired aircraft technician.

                                   
Enter Giuseppe Ricchiardi: professional soldier and fighter of just causes, specializing as saboteur and reconnoitre as well as being fluent in 6 languages no less!

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He led the Italian Legion in amongst others, battles fought in the Eastern Transvaal, Ladysmith and Colenso regions. It was not only the bravery of the Italian Legion that made Ricchiardi famous, but also his chivalric attitude toward the enemy: he often sent the personal belongings of British casualties to their families along with a letter of condolences.

Ricchiardi always tried to maintain stern discipline. At one time, he chained one of his misbehaving scouts to the railway line near Bronkhorstspruit for ransacking a Boer farmhouse –but released him before the train arrived!

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So: Not unlike a scene from Squad Cars (Springbok Radio of yesteryear)...... Carletonville - 6am - 2 degrees C and all luggage (including tripod and camera) loaded on my typically circa 1980 “Italian Bagger”- one bag on the tank bag, one bag on my back.  You’ll appreciate- no room for “niceties”. I hit Vereeniging at around 7am - peak hour. Not good planning. About 30 minutes later I pass the turn-off to Nino’s track (regular track day haunt of HMG nowadays) - then out to Villiers.

At the toll road, I do my usual deviation to the R103; pretty good road conditions ahead (gotta watch for the odd pothole but then, I guess that’s where your eyes should be anyway), and not a truck in sight! 10 k’s into the route a cop stands forlornly, pointing his speed gun in the direction of the sparse on-coming traffic – poor chap. Soon I pass the turn off to Vrede and old memories kicked in, overriding the sweet sounds of "Born to be Wild" belting into the brain box via my iPod earphones....

Years ago, riding a Kawa Z650 to Durbs, I had planned to fill up at the garage situated at this R34 turn off, only to find they had run out! A few desperate prayers offered heavenward got me to Warden (I swear I was running on fumes for 40 k’s).

Along the route I notice some of the wooden telephone poles catching a lie-down, their bases burnt off at ground level – a scene begging for a snide remark about “work ethic at Telkom” - but that would be an unkind generalisation.There are numerous one-lane traffic deviations due to on-going road works on the N3, with a perfectly good alternative lane being coned-off as “out of bounds” – Guzzi and I barrel along nicely (T-Rex, Grand Funk Railroad, etc. resounding in ears), on the demarcated lane which I now have all to myself.

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After checking into the B & B in Ladysmith, my first “tribute stop” is the well-presented Siege Museum. The replica grey gun in photo is of the “Long Tom” canon: a howitzer used extensively by the Boer’s in the war. Ricchiardi manned one which was mounted on a railway carriage and used as “rear-guard fire” during the Boer force’s retreat from the Tugela to Komatiepoort on the Mocambiquean border – gives new meaning to the words, “riding shotgun!”  

The English improvised a travelling carriage for 4.7 inch guns removed from their usual static coastal or ship mountings in Cape Town, to provide the army with a heavy field gun. (In photo, suitably adorned with VOG colours).

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The next morning I’m off to Colenso via the R103. Warning: when the KZN “Zero Tolerance” boys stipulate 60kph as THE speed limit- take note! They put speed bumps on this route in the “Roosboom” region; scientifically designed to eject teeth fillings at 61kph! I think I popped an oil seal on a Marzocchi shock over one of these “speed enforces”. Trains and railway bridges were prime targets for saboteurs like Ricchiardi and Scotsman, “Dynamite Jack Hindon”.

Below is an example of their handiwork!

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The ‘Bulver bridge’ , pictured above, straddles the Tugela river and was built in 1878. Not being a railway bridge, it was spared the ignominious fate of being blown up.

While in Colenso, I visited these rather nondescript stone memorials.

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They mark the spots where British guns were positioned during the battle for the town. They also stand as a stark reminder of the dire consequences suffered when an over-zealous and overly ambitious career officer * (Col. Charles Long in this instance), wants to make a name for himself – how often don’t we see that in wars- from the highest level in the command structure to the lowest ? His ill-conceived, bull-headed actions led to the deaths of many young soldiers in this field (four Victoria Cross medals for valour were awarded to those trying unsuccessfully to rectify his blunder).

Notwithstanding their brave efforts, the Boers captured the 10 howitzers.

It was a moment of reflection for me personally, having lost mates while serving as a gunner in Operation Savannah - Angola 1975. Ironically, the memorial in picture is to “the officers and men of 14th Field Battery, Royal Artillery”. My unit (as shown on the cap) was 14th Field Artillery Regiment. 

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(Also see the FOOTNOTE at the end of the article).

My final “tribute site” was a spot next to the railway line near Frere. Here the Boer’s had derailed a British train and captured some troops. Amongst those caught, was a journalist named Winston Churchill - pictured below as a young soldier!

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It is recorded that Ricchiardi spared his life by deciding not to report the fact that Churchill was seen dumping his pistol and dum-dum ammo which had been declared unlawful on pain of death. (Churchill said at the time that he “found them lying in the veld”).

One can only speculate on the ramifications there might have been on the course of the Second World War had Ricchiardi not indulged in this act of mercy!

I rode back to the B & B and while repacking, apparently dumped my wallet/ petrolcard/ licence - this was only discovered at the next petrol stop. Fortunately I keep back-up cash  (lessons learnt from the bikers-school-of-mishaps) and headed out to my overnight stop at the famous Green Lantern Hotel in Van Reenen. Built on the Van Reenen’s pass trail 124 years ago, their green lantern would be switched on if the pass was open, and left off if closed.

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Amongst the numerous peculiarities found here is a “barman” donkey who wanders into the bar on the odd occasion to delight passing travellers with his tales of burden and abuse.

My timing for the trip (10th July), was ideal as I missed the “mother of all cold fronts” by one week- win some/ lose some.

The homeward bound journey in the chilly winter air was exhilarating, with the staccato beat of the VEE keeping me company. Soon my thoughts were indulging in a new and equally implausible excuse for the next ride - maybe with an Italian VEE “rod” this time?

PS If you ever find yourself in this region, don’t pass up an opportunity to visit the battle site of Spioenkop - but not by bike. Visitors are given a leaflet and map detailing the entire battle; a personal guide is thus not required.  My photos were taken while visiting the site some time back, but it seems very well maintained.

FOOTNOTE:

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The text below gives tribute to the great loss by the British at Colenso of 1127 men and 18 cannons!  4 Victoria Cross medals, Britain’s highest award for gallantry, were awarded! (See my photo of the white stones above).

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Can we conjure anything worthier of admiration than the following incident told by Conan Doyle : COLENSO AND RIVER TUGELA FROM HLANGWANR HILL "One gun on the right was still served by four men who refused to leave it. They seemed to bear charmed lives, these four, as they strained and wrestled with their beloved 15-pounder, amid the spurting sand and the blue wreaths of the bursting shells. Then one gasped and fell against the trail, and his comrade sank beside the wheel with his chin upon his breast. The third threw up his hands and pitched forward upon his face; while the survivor, a grim powder-stained figure, stood at attention looking death in the eyes until he too was struck down. A useless sacrifice you may say ; but while the men who saw them die can tell such a story round the camp fire the example of such deaths as these does more than the clang of bugle or roll of drum to stir the warrior spirit of our race."

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References:

  • The South African Military Society,
  • *Hillegas: Chapter 9.  Wikipedia.
  • The Anglo-Boer War: J Meintjies.
  • Battlefields Route
 
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