Tuesday 25th of February 2003 08:41 PM 
 
 
General C.R. De Wet's Three Years War - Chapter 5

CHAPTER V
The Overwhelming Forces of Lord Roberts

I speedily discovered the object which the English had in view in taking such advanced positions and in bombarding Magersfontein. They wished to give us the impression that they were able to attack us at any moment and so to keep us tied to our positions. In the meantime they were making preparations in another direction, for the movement which was really intended-namely, the advance of Lord Roberts with his overwhelming force.

The Commander-in-Chief, Piet De Wet (and before him Commandant H. Schorman), had plenty of work given them by the English. But General De la Rey had been so successful that he had prevented Lord Roberts, notwithstanding the enormous numbers he commanded, from crossing the Orange River at Norvalspont, and had thus forced him to take the Modder River route.

Lord Roberts would have found it more convenient to have crossed the Orange River, for the railway runs through Norvalspont. Yet had he attempted it, he would have fared as badly as Sir Redvers Buller did in Natal. Our positions at Colesberg, and to the north of the river, were exceedingly strong. He was wise, therefore, ill his decision to march over the unbroken plains.

It was now, as I had foreseen, that the English renewed their flanking tactics.

On the 11th of February, 1900, a strong contingent of mounted troops, under General French, issued from the camps at Modder River and Koedoesberg. This latter was a Kop on the Riet River, about twelve miles to the east of their main camp.

At ten o'clock in the morning, General French started. Immediately I received orders from General Cronje to proceed with three hundred and fifty men to check the advancing troops. As I stood on the ridges of Magersfontein, I was able to look down upon the English camps, and I saw that it would be sheer madness to pit three hundred and fifty men against General French's large force. Accordingly I asked that one hundred and fifty more burghers and two guns might be placed at my disposal. This request, however, was refused, and so I had to proceed without them.

When we arrived at Koedoesberg that afternoon, we found that the English had already taken possession of the hill. They were stationed at its southern end, and had nearly completed a stone wall across the hill from east to west. Their camp was situated on the Riet River, which flows beside the southern slopes of the berg. The enemy also held strong positions on hillocks to the east of the mountain, whilst on the west they occupied a ravine, which descended from the mountain to the river.

Commandant Froneman and I determined to storm the berg without a moment's delay. We reached the foot of the mountain in safety, and here we were out of sight of the English. But it was impossible to remain in this situation, and I gave orders that my men should climb the mountain. We succeeded in reaching the summit, but were unable to get within seven hundred paces of the enemy, owing to the severity of their fire from behind the stone wall. And so we remained where we were until it became quite dark, and then very quietly went back to the spot where we had left our horses.

As General French was in possession of the river, we had to ride about four miles before we could obtain any water.

Early the following morning we again occupied the positions we had held on the previous evening. Although under a severe rifle fire, we then rushed from position to position, and at last were only three hundred paces from the enemy. And now I was forced to rest content with the ground we had gained, for with only three hundred and fifty men I dare not risk a further advance, owing to the strength of the enemy's position.

The previous day I had asked General Cronje to send me reinforcements, and I had to delay the advance until their arrival. In a very short time a small party of burghers made their appearance. They had two field-pieces with them, and were under the command of Major Albrecht. We placed the guns in position and trained them on the English.

With the second shot we had found our range, while the third found its mark in the wall, so that it was not long before the enemy had to abandon that shelter. To find safe cover they were forced to retreat some hundred paces. But we gained little by this, for the new positions of the English were quite as good as those from which we had driven them, and, moreover, were almost out of range of our guns. And we were unable to bring our field-pieces any nearer because our gunners would have been exposed to the enemy's rifle fire.

Our Krupps made good practice on the four English guns which had been stationed on the river bank to the south. Up till now these had kept up a terrific fire on our guns, but we soon drove them across the river, to seek protection behind the mountain. I despatched General Froneman to hold the river bank, and the sluit' which descended to the river from the north. While carrying out this order he was exposed to a heavy fire from the enemy's western wing, which was located in the above mentioned ravine, but he succeeded in reaching the river under cover of the guns. Once there, the enemy's artillery made it impossible for him to move.

And now a curious incident occurred! A falcon, hovering over the heads of our burghers in the sluit (A ravine or watercourse), was hit by a bullet from one of the shrapnel shells and fell dead to the ground in the midst of the men. It was already half-past four, and we began to ask ourselves how the affair would end. At this juncture I received a report from a burgher, whom I had placed on the eastern side of the mountain to watch the movements of the English at the Modder River. He told me that a mountain -corps, eight hundred to a thousand men strong, was approaching us with two guns, with the intention, as it appeared, of outflanking us. I also learnt that eighty of my men had retreated. I had stationed them that morning on a hillock three miles to the east of the mountain, my object being to prevent General French from surrounding us.

It now became necessary to check the advance of this mountain corps. But how ? There were only thirty-six men at my disposal. The other burghers were in positions closer to the enemy, and I could not withdraw them without exposing them too seriously to the bullets of the English. There was nothing for it, but that I with my thirty-six burghers should attack the force which threatened us.

We rushed down the mountain and lumping on our horses, galloped against the enemy. When we arrived at the precipice which falls sheer from the mountain, the English were already so near that our only course was to charge them.

In front of us there was a plain which extended for some twelve hundred paces to the foot of an abrupt rise in the ground. This we fortunately reached before the English, although we were exposed all the way to the fire of their guns. But even when we gained the rise we were little better off, as it was too low to give us cover. The English were scarcely more than four hundred paces from us. They dismounted and opened a heavy fire. For ten or fifteen minutes we successfully kept them back. Then the sun went down ! and to my great relief the enemy moved away in the direction of their comrades on the mountain. I ordered all my men from their positions, and withdrew to the spot where we had encamped the previous night. The burghers were exhausted by hunger and thirst, for they had had nothing to eat except the provisions which they had brought in their saddle-bags from the laager,

That evening Andreas Cronje-the General's brother joined us with two hundred and fifty men and a Maxim-Nordenfeldt.

When the sun rose on the following day, the veldt was clear of the enemy. General French had during the night retreated to headquarters. What losses he had suffered I am unable to say; ours amounted to seven wounded and two killed.

Our task here was now ended, and so we returned to Magersfontein.

The following morning a large force again left the English camp and took the direction of the Koffiefontein diamond mine. General Cronje immediately ordered me to take a force of four hundred and fifty men with a Krupp and a Maxim-Nordenfeldt, and to drive back the enemy. At my request, Commandants Andreas Cronje, Piet Fourie, Scholten and Lubbe joined me, and that evening we camped quite close to the spot where the English force was stationed!

Early the next day, before the enemy had made any movement, we started for Blauwbank (In the district of Jacobsdal), and, having arrived there, we took up our positions. Shortly afterwards the fight began ; it was confined entirely to the artillery.

We soon saw that we should have to deal with the whole of Lord Roberts' force, for there it was, advancing in the direction of Paardenberg's Drift. It was thus clear that Lord Roberts had not sent his troops to Koffiefontein with the intention of proceeding by that route to Bloemfontein, but that his object had been to divide our forces, so as to march via Paardenberg's Drift to the Capital.

I accordingly withdrew with three hundred and fifty of the burghers in the direction of Koffiefontein, and then hid my commando as best I could. The remainder of the men -about a hundred in number-- placed under Commandant Lubbe, giving him orders to proceed in a direction parallel to the advance of the English, who now were nearing Paardenberg's Drift, and to keep a keen eye on their movements. It was a large force that Lubbe had to watch. It consisted chiefly of mounted troops ; but there were also nine or ten batteries and a convoy of light mule waggons.

I thought that as General Cronje was opposing them in front, my duty was to keep myself in hiding and to reconnoitre.

I wished to communicate with General Cronje before the English troops came up to him, and with this object I sent out a despatch rider. The man I chose for the mission was Commandant G. J. Scheepers-whose name later in the war was on every man's lips for his exploits in Cape Colony, but who then was only the head of our heliograph corps. I informed General Cronje in my message that the English, who had been stationed at Blauwbank, had made a move in the direction of Paardenberg's Drift ; and I advised him to get out of their road as quickly as he could, for they numbered, according to my computation, forty or fifty thousand men.

I thought it wise to give Cronje this advice, on account of the women and children in our camps, who might easily prove the cause of disaster. When Scheepers returned he told me what reply General Cronje had made. It is from no lack of respect for the General, whom I hold in the highest honour as a hero incapable of fear, that I set down what he said. It is rather from a wish to give a proof of his undaunted courage that I quote his words.

"Are you afraid of things like that?" he asked, when Scheepers had given my message. "Just you go and shoot them down, and catch them when they run."

At Paardenberg's Drift there were some Free Staters' camps that stood apart from the others. In these camps there was a class of burghers who were not much use in actual fighting. These men, called by us " water draggers," correspond to the English " non- combatants." I ordered these burghers to withdraw to a spot two hours' trek from there, where there was more grass. But before all had obeyed this order, a small camp, consisting of twenty or thirty waggons, was surprised and taken.

In the meantime, keeping my little commando entirely concealed, I spied out the enemy's movements.

On the 16th of February, I thought I saw a chance of dealing an effective blow at Lord Roberts. Some provision waggons, escorted by a large convoy, were passing by, following in the wake of the British troops. I asked myself whether it was possible for me to capture it then and there, and came to the conclusion that it was out of the question. With so many of the enemy's troops in the neighbourhood, the risk would have been too great. I, therefore, still kept in hiding with my three hundred and fifty burghers.

I remained where I was throughout the next day; but in the evening I saw the convoy camping near Blauwbank, just to the west of the Riet River. I also observed that the greater part of the troops had gone forward with Lord Roberts.

On the 18th I still kept hidden, for the English army had not yet moved out of camp. The troops, as I learnt afterwards, were awaiting the arrival of columns from Belmont Station.

On the following day I attacked the convoy on the flank. The three or four hundred troops who were guarding it offered a stout resistance, although they were without any guns.

After fighting for two hours the English received a reinforcement of cavalry, with four Armstrong guns, and redoubled their efforts to drive us from the positions we had taken up under cover of the mule waggons. As I knew that it would be a serious blow to Lord Roberts to lose the provisions he was expecting, I was firmly resolved to capture them, unless the force of numbers rendered the task quite impossible. I accordingly resisted the enemy's attack with all the power I could.

The battle raged until it became dark; and I think we were justified in being satisfied with what we had achieved. We had captured sixteen hundred oxen and forty prisoners whilst General Fourie, whom I had ordered to attack the camp on the south, had taken several prisoners and a few water-carts.

We remained that night in our positions. The small number of burghers I had at my disposal made it impossible for me to surround the English camp.

To our great surprise, the following morning, we saw that the English had gone. About twenty soldiers had, however, remained behind; we found them hidden along the banks of the Riet River at a short distance from the convoy. We also discovered thirty-six Kaffirs on a ridge about three miles away. As to the enemy's camp, it was entirely deserted. Our booty was enormous, and consisted of two hundred heavily-laden waggons, and eleven or twelve water carts and trollies. On some of the waggons we found klinkers (Biscuits), jam, milk, sardines, salmon, cases of corned beef, and other such provisions in great variety. Other waggons were loaded with rum ; and still others contained oats and horse provender pressed into bales. In addition to these stores, we took one field-piece, which the English had left behind. It was, indeed, a gigantic capture ; the only question was what to do with it.

Our prisoners told us that columns from Belmont might be expected at any moment. Had these arrived we should have been unable to hold out against them.

By some means or other it was necessary to get the provisions away, not that we were then in any great need of them ourselves, but because we knew that Lord Roberts would be put in a grave difficulty if he lost all this food. I did not lose a moment's time, but at once ordered the burghers to load up the waggons as speedily as possible, and to inspan. It was necessary to reload the waggons, for the English troops had made use of the contents to build schanzes; and excellent ones the provisions had made.

The loading of the waggons was simple enough, but when it came to inspanning it was another matter. The Kaffir drivers alone knew where each span had to be placed, and there were only thirty-six Kaffirs left. But here the fact that every Boer is himself a handy conductor and driver of waggons told in our favour. Consequently we did not find it beyond our power to get the waggons on the move. It was, however, very tedious work, for how could any of us be sure that we were not placing the after-oxen in front and the fore-oxen behind ? There was nothing left for it but to turn out the best spans of sixteen oxen that we could, and then to arrange them in the way that struck us as being most suitable. It was all done in the most hurried manner, for our one idea was to be off as quickly as possible.

Even when we had started our troubles were not at an end. The waggons would have been a hard pull for sixteen oxen properly arranged; so that it is not surprising that our ill-sorted teams found the work almost beyond their strength. Thus it happened that we took a very long time to cover the first few miles, as we had constantly to be stopping to re-arrange the oxen. But under the supervision of Commandant Piet Fourie, whom I appointed Conductor-in-Chief, matters improved from hour to hour.

After a short time I issued orders that the convoy should proceed over Koffiefontein to Edenberg. I then divided my burghers into two parties ; the first, consisting of two hundred men with the Krupp gun, I ordered to proceed with the convoy ; the second, consisting of a hundred and fifty men with the Maxim-Nordenfeldt, I took under my own command, and set out with them in the direction of Paardenberg's Drift.

My spies had informed me that there were some fifty or sixty English troops posted about eight miles from the spot where we had captured the convoy. We made our way towards them, and when we were at a distance of about three thousand yards, I sent a little note to their officer, asking him to surrender. It was impossible for his troops to escape, for they found themselves threatened on three sides.

The sun had just gone down when my despatch-rider reached the English camp; and the officer in command was not long in sending him his reply, accompanied by an orderly.

"Are you General De Wet?" the orderly asked me.

"I am," replied I.

My officer in command," he said in a polite but determined voice, " wishes me to tell you that we are a good hundred men strong, that we are well provided with food and ammunition, and that we hold a strong position in some houses and kraals. Every moment we are expecting ten thousand men from Belmont, and we are waiting here with the sole purpose of conducting them to Lord Roberts."

I allowed him to speak without interrupting him ; but when he had finished, I answered him in quite as determined a voice as he had used to me.

"I will give you just enough time to get back and to tell your officer in command that, if he does not surrender at once, I shall shell him and storm his position. He will be allowed exactly ten minutes to make up his mind-then the white flag must appear."

"But where is your gun?" the orderly asked. In reply I pointed to the Maxim-Nordenfeldt, which stood a few hundred paces behind us, surrounded by some burghers.

"Will you give us your word of honour," lie asked me when he caught sight of the gun, "not to stir from your position till we have got ten miles away ? That is the only condition on which we will abandon our positions."

I again allowed him to finish, although his demand filled me with the utmost astonishment. I asked myself what sort of men this English officer imagined the Boer Generals to be.

"I demand unconditional surrender," I then said. "I give you ten minutes from the moment you dismount on arriving at your camp; when those ten minutes have passed I fire."

He slung round, and galloped back to his camp, the stones flying from his horse's hoofs.

He had hardly dismounted before the white flag appeared. It did not take us long to reach the camp, and there we found fifty-eight mounted men. These prisoners I despatched that evening to join the convoy.

I then advanced with my commando another six miles, with the object of watching Lord Roberts' movements, in case he should send a force back to retake the convoy he could so ill spare. But the following day we saw nothing except a single scouting party coming from the direction of Paardenberg's Drift. This proved to consist of the hundred burghers whom I had sent with Commandant Lubbe to General Cronje's assistance. I heard from Lubbe that General French had broken through, and had in all probability relieved Kimberley; and that General Cronje was retreating before Lord Roberts towards Paardeberg. I may say here that I was not at all pleased that Commandant Lubbe should have returned.

On account of Lubbe's information, I decided to advance at once in the direction of Paardenberg's Drift, and was on the point of doing so when I received a report from President Steyn. He informed me that I should find at a certain spot that evening, close to Koffiefontein, Mr. Philip Botha (Mr. Philip Botha had just been appointed Vice-Vechtgeneraal) with a reinforcement of one hundred and fifty men. This report convinced me that the convoy I had captured would reach Edenberg Station without mishap, and accordingly I went after it to fetch back the gun which would no longer be needed. I found the convoy encamped about six miles from Koffiefontein. Immediately after my arrival, General Jacobs, of Fauresmith, and Commandant Hertzog ( Brother to judge Hertzog), of Philippolis, brought the news to me that troops were marching on us from Belmont Station. I told Jacobs and Hertzog to return with their men, two or three hundred in number, to meet the approaching English.

We were so well supplied with forage that our horses got as much as they could eat. I had, therefore, no hesitation in ordering my men to up-saddle at midnight, and by half-past two we had joined Vice-Vechtgeneraal Philip Botha. I had sent him word to be ready to move, so that we were able to hasten at once to General Cronje's assistance. Our combined force amounted to three hundred men all told.

This site designed and maintained by Bowler Hat Design
All enquiries to info@bowlerhat.com.au
All rights reserved - 1996-2002, except content in the Public Domain.
No unauthorised copying or use of site material.

 

Links

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.