Friday 21st of February 2003 10:28 AM 
 
 
General C.R. De Wet's Three Years War - Chapter 2

CHAPTER II
Nicholson's Nek

Until the 29th of October we retained our positions at Rietfontein. On that date General Joubert joined us with a portion of the Transvaal commandos. On his arrival it was settled that the Transvaalers should proceed to the north of Ladysmith and occupy positions on the east of Nicholson's Nek, whilst the Free Staters were to go to the west and north-west of that town.

A party of burghers, under Commandant Nel, of Kroonstad, were ordered to station themselves on a kop with a flat top, called Swartbooiskop (About nine miles: distance reckoned by average pace of ridden horse-six miles an hour), an hour and a half to the south of Nicholson's Nek. After the battle which was fought on the 30th of November this kop was christened by us Little Majuba.

Just after sunrise on the 30th of November the roaring of cannon came to our ears. The sound came from the extreme end of our position, where the Transvaalers were stationed. No sooner did we hear it than the order to off-saddle was given. I myself asked Commandant Steenekamp, who had arrived the previous day from Bezuidenhoutspas, to go to General Croup's laager, about two miles distant, and to request him to advance to where the firing was taking place. To this request General Croup acceded, and Commandant Steenekamp went there with three hundred men, of whom I was one. Our way led past the kop to the south of Nicholson's Nek. What a sight met our gaze on our arrival there!

The kop was occupied by the English.

This must be ascribed to the negligence of Commandant Nel, who had orders to guard the kop. He excused himself by assuring us that he had been under the impression that one of his Veldtcornets and a number of burghers were occupying the hill.

What could we do now?

Commandant Steenekamp and I decided that we must storm the hill with the three hundred men whom we had at our disposal. And this we did, and were sufficiently fortunate to capture the northern point of the kop.

On reaching the summit we discovered that the British troops occupied positions extending from the southern point to the middle of the mountain.

The enemy, the moment we appeared on the ridge, opened a heavy rifle fire upon us. We answered with as severe a fusillade as theirs. Whilst we were shooting, twenty of Commandant Nel's men joined us and helped us to hold our ground. When we had been engaged in this way for some time we saw that the only possible course was to fight our way from position to position towards the English lines.

I now observed that the mountain top was of an oblong shape, extending from north to south for about a thousand paces. At the northern end, where we were, the surface was smooth, but somewhat further south it became rough and stony, affording very good cover. In our present situation we were thus almost completely exposed to the enemy's fire. The English, on the other hand, had excellent positions. There were a number of ruined Kaffir kraals scattered about from the middle of the mountain to its southern end, and these the enemy had occupied, thus securing a great advantage.

Our bullets hailed on the English, and very shortly they retreated to the southernmost point of the mountain. This gave us the chance for which we had been waiting, for now we could take the splendid positions they had left....

In the positions from which the English had retired we found several dead and wounded men, and succeeded in capturing some prisoners.

The enemy were now very strongly posted at the south end of the mountain, for there were in their neighbourhood many Kaffir kraals and huge boulders to protect them from our marksmen. Their fire on us became still more severe and unceasing, and. their bullets whistled and sang above our heads, or flattened themselves against the stones. We gave at least as good as we got, and this was so little to their liking that very soon a few white flags appeared in the kraals on their left wing, and from that quarter the firing stopped suddenly.

I immediately gave the order to cease fire and to advance towards the enemy. All at once the English blazed away at us again. On our part, we replied with vigour. But that did not continue long. In a very short time white flags fluttered above every kraal-the victory was ours.

I have no wish to say that a misuse of the white flag had taken place. I was told when the battle was over that the firing had continued, because the men on our eastern wing had not observed what their comrades on their left had done. And this explanation I willingly accept.

Our force in this engagement consisted only of three hundred men from Heilbron, twenty from Kroonstad, and forty or fifty from the Johannesburg Police, these latter under Captain Van Dam. The Police had arrived on the battlefield during the fighting, and had behaved in a most praiseworthy manner.

But I overestimate our numbers, for it was not the whole of the Heilbron contingent that reached the firing line. We had to leave some of them behind with the horses at the foot of the kop, and there were others who remained at the first safe position they reached-a frequent occurrence at that period.

I took careful note of our numbers when the battle was over, and I can state with certainty that there were not more than two hundred burghers actually engaged.

Our losses amounted to four killed and five wounded. As to the losses of the English, I myself counted two hundred and three dead and wounded, and there may have been many whom I did not see. In regard to our prisoners, as they marched past me four deep I counted eight hundred and seventeen.

In addition to the prisoners we also captured two Maxim and two mountain guns. They, however, were out of order, and had not been used by the English. The prisoners told us that parts of their big guns had been lost in the night, owing to a stampede of the mules which carried them, and consequently that the guns were incomplete when they reached the mountain. Shortly afterwards we found the mules with the missing parts of the guns.

It was very lucky for us that the English were deprived of the use of their guns, for it placed them on the same footing as ourselves, as it compelled them to rely entirely on their rifles. Still they had the advantage of position, not to mention the fact that they outnumbered us by four to one.

The guns did not comprise the whole of our capture: we also seized a thousand Lee-Metford rifles, twenty cases of cartridges, and some baggage mules and horses.

The fighting had continued without intermission from nine o'clock in the morning until two in the afternoon. The day was exceedingly hot, and as there was no water to be obtained nearer than a mile from the berg (hill), we suffered greatly from thirst. The condition of the wounded touched my heart deeply. It was pitiable to hear them cry, "Water! water!"

I ordered my burghers to carry these unfortunate creatures to some thorn-bushes, which afforded shelter from the scorching rays of the sun, and where their doctors could attend to them. Other burghers I told off to fetch water from our prisoners' canteens, to supply our own wounded.

As soon as the wounded were safe under the shelter of the trees I despatched a message to Sir George White asking him to send his ambulance to fetch them, and also to make arrangements for the burial of his dead. For some unexplained reason, the English ambulance did not arrive till the following morning.

We stayed on the mountain until sunset, and then went down to the laager. I ordered my brother, Piet De Wet, with fifty men of the Bethlehem commando, to remain behind and guard the kop.

We reached camp at eight o'clock, and as the men had been without food during the whole day it can be imagined with what delight each watched his bout span frizzling on the spit. This, with a couple of stormjagers and a tin of coffee, made up the meal, and speedily restored them. They were exempted from sentry duty that night, and greatly enjoyed their well earned rest.

To complete my narrative of the day's work, I have only to add that the Transvaal burghers were engaged at various points some eight miles from Nicholson's Nek, and succeeded in taking four hundred prisoners.

We placed our sentries that evening with the greatest care. They were stationed not only at a distance from the camp, as Brandwachten (Literally, watch-fire men. They were the furthest outposts, whose duty it was to signal by means of their fires), but also close round the laager itself. We were especially careful, as it was rumoured that the English had armed the Zulus of Natal. Had this been true, it would have been necessary to exercise the utmost vigilance to guard against these barbarians.

Since the very beginning of our existence as a nation in 1836-our people had been acquainted with black races, and bitter had been their experience. All that our voortrekkers (Pioneers) had suffered was indelibly stamped on our memory. We well knew what the Zulus could do under cover of darkness-their sanguinary night attacks were not easily forgotten. Their name of "night-wolves" had been well earned. Also we Free Staters had endured much from the Basutos, in the wars of 1865 and 1867.

History had thus taught us to place Brandwachten round our laagers at night, and to reconnoitre during the hours of darkness as well as in the day-time.

Perhaps I shall be able to give later on a fuller account in these pages-or, it may be, in another book-of the way we were accustomed to reconnoitre, and of the reasons why the scouting of the British so frequently ended in disaster. But I cannot resist saying here that the English only learnt the art of scouting during the latter part of the war, when they made use of the Boer deserters-the "Hands-uppers."

These deserters were our undoing. I shall have a good deal more to say about them before I finally lay down my pen, and I shall not hesitate to call them by their true name, the name with which they will be for ever branded before all the nations of the world.

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Further Reading

Howland, Frederick H. The Chase of De Wet. Providence; Preston & Rounds, 1901.

Intelligence Officer. On the Heels of De Wet. Edinburgh: Blackwood, 1902.

Murray, Colin. Black Mountain: Land, Class and Power in the Eastern Orange Free State, 1880s to 1980s. Washington, D.C: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992.
[See pp 53-4, p. 65, p. 247, pp. 53-4, 54-7, p. 265, Ch. 2.]

Reitz, Deneys. Commando: An Afrikaner Journal of the Boer War. NY: Sarpedon, 1993; orig pub 1929.