by Ian Copley

On the day after the first battle of Silkaatsnek the Royal Scots ‘Greys’ doctor returned from Pretoria with a wagon for the wounded. The Boers assisted in bringing down the dead and wounded from the nek although all the dead were not brought down for several days. In collecting information about the battle it became apparent that an officer, said to have been killed at Silkaatsnek, was missing. The official records state that Lt. T D Pilkington was killed in action at Kaalboschfontein  (a farm 80 km away near Benoni) the day before the battle, yet the parent regiment records his death at Silkaatsnek. There is no evidence of his existence anywhere in South Africa, neither in the list compiled by the Guild of Loyal Women in 1904.

Lt. T D Pilkington, a cavalry officer and well-known cricketer of 1St Royal Dragoon Guards, had been a POW until the fall of Pretoria. At his own request he was attached to the ‘Greys’ (2nd Royal Dragoon Guards) pending re-joining his parent unit. Of the officers killed at the battle it was thought his body might have been misidentified since absolute confirmation of his death came from Dietlof von Warmelo of Swiss origin, a sympathiser with the Boers and later POW, who arrived rather late at the battle, about nine o’clock. In his published diary (1902) he gives a very precise description of his part in the battle; he heard a wounded man 50 paces away groaning and begging for water. When they reached him they found the poor man lying in a pool of blood on a rock under some shrubs. He had been shot through the leg’. He was made comfortable, but Von Warmelo had to continue in the advance. When he returned, ‘while they were standing talking, he died from loss of blood…The poor man was not dead five minutes when they sat smoking his cigarettes’.

From Von Wannelo’s excellent description with the distances, it is possible to find the gully deep enough to stand up in (without being shot at) where Pilkington died and where they stood smoking his cigarettes. He had, presumably, been amongst the Greys sent out to reinforce the left picket of the Lincolns. One Sunday morning I went out and identified the place following exactly the directions given by Von Warmelo. Suddenly I found I had blundered into a nudist camp; I did not know whether it would be wiser to drop my camera or my trousers!

So what had happened to Pilkington’s body? Misidentification could well have occurred since his commanding officer had escaped; of his two brother officers one was killed and the other severely wounded. An extract of a letter in a Lincolnshire newspaper states that ‘A burying party …was dispatched to the sad scene on Sunday 15th. (four days after the battle), but the Boers refused to allow them to go to the position and brought them five dead bodies for burial. I cannot describe their appearance…’. There are ten unknown soldiers buried at Rietfontein Garden of Remembrance. The Greys and Royal Horse Artillery were buried under a cairn separate from that of the Lincolns at the foot of the Nek. Metal crosses exist for the Lincolns, but not for the cavalry. To confuse matters the National Monuments Council removed the remains from Silkaatsnek to the consolidated cemetery at Rietfontein in 1972 due to clay mining and road widening operations at the bottom of the nek.

A pathologist living in Malvern, England, happened to read my article in the SA Military History Journal about the battle of Silkaatsnek. He wrote to tell me that he knew where Pilkington was buried since, amongst his large collection of Boer War memorabilia (which I was later privileged to see), he owned the album kept by Pilkington’s mother. In it are two photographs; the first is that of a tombstone in the Brampton Cemetery, London. ‘…Thomas Douglas Pilkington of Sandside-Caithness. Lieutenant lSt Royal Dragoons. Killed in action at Uitvals Nek, Nr Pretoria. (“Uitval’ or remnant is the ground in the upper half of the nek. After the battle a telegraphic error rendered it into ‘Nitral’s Nek’, a name used even by Queen Victoria in her telegram. There are 23 different renderings of the name of the Nek).

Pilkington senior came out a month or two after the battle and brought the body home. It was buried on 22nd. December. A silver teapot is in existence recording the family’s appreciation for help given in South Africa. The only other officer to be so repatriated was the Duke of Westminster. The other photograph is of a Celtic cross in a bleak background, thought to have been in South Africa. I have confirmed with the family that the memorial is on their estate at Sandside, Caithness the furthest point in Scotland.