Thursday 19th of December 2002 10:23 PM 
 
 
South African Constabulary in the Anglo-Boer War

This work was kindly contributed by Mr Keith Dixon, without whom, this site would be considerably diminished.

Mr Dixon has also completed the mammoth task of transcribing the Review of the South African Constabulary: 1901 to 1908, conducted by Colonel R.S. Curtis, Inspector-General.

 

Formation of the S.A.C.
This force was formed in October 1900 at the direction of Lord Roberts when it was wrongly considered that the South African War was virtually concluded and that a Constabulary would be required to police the defeated colonies. Roberts was to make it very plain that the British intended to administer the annexed states of the Transvaal and Orange River Colony.

Major-General R. S. Baden-Powell, C.B, was selected to command the Corps and was despatched to England to raise recruits. Other officers were seconded from the regular Army. At the time heavy recruitment of Mounted Infantry and Yeomanry was also taking place. As was to be the case in future World Wars, the Colonies came forward to fill the gaps. Canada was at that time embroiled in a political controversy and did not contribute to the former units. They were however to play a leading part in their contribution to the forming of the South African Constabulary. The role of this force was considered as being similar to that performed by the North West Mounted Police. Indeed, one of the Commanding Officers of one S.A.C. unit, Colonel Sam Steele was a member of this famous police force more commonly known as the "Mounties". It is probable many of them intended to settle in South Africa at the cessation of hostilities.

Men were recruited from Natal, Cape Colony, and the United Kingdom. Some members were also recruited from Australia and New Zealand. It was generally considered that they found a "very good stamp of men". Their original role was to serve in the field until the close of hostilities when the Corps would take on the task of policing the Orange River Colony (now the Orange Free State), the Transvaal and Swaziland.

In the Bloemfontein area, the military at the end of November established some level of stability. Thirteen District Commissioners had been appointed to cover the whole colony. Provided they were left undisturbed by the Boers, they were able to administer justice, re-establish schools, open Post Offices and banks, and collect a small amount of revenue.

The Corps started at a level of 6 000. This was later to rise to over 10 000 by the end of January 1902. They were organised in 9 sub-divisions and included Mobile troops with light artillery.

Command of the Corps was given to General Baden-Powell, his Chief Staff Officer being Colonel Nicholson, assisted by Lieutenant-Colonel Curtis. The Headquarters were established at the Modderfontein dynamite factory, some 8 miles from Johannesburg. There is some disagreement as to the command structure, although it is generally accepted to be: -

Division
Area
Commanding Officer
Western (A) Johannesburg HQ Lt Col Edwards
Northern (B) Northern Transvaal Col Sam Steele
Eastern (C) Eastern Transvaal Heidelberg Lt-Col Pilkington
D (Never formed)    
O.R.C. (E) Orange River Colony, Bloemfontein Col Ridley

Their record during the hostilities is a little vague. Despite the size of such a force it is surprising that so little has been written about them. Those records that do exist show that 9 Officers and 85 men were killed in action, 213 men of all ranks were wounded, and 274 died of sickness. A memorial to the Corps is situated at Saint Alban's Cathedral in Pretoria. Their Medal Roll proudly records the 2 Victoria Crosses awarded to Sergeant J. Rogers on 15th June 1901, and to Surgeon-Captain Martin-Leake on 8th February 1902.
After the Peace Treaty was signed, the force was relieved of normal military duties and functioned as both a police force and an army of occupation. This paramilitary force was to include 5 Mobile Troops with a Medical Branch and Nursing Staff. In the course of time their numbers were to be drastically reduced. In the Orange River Colony the numbers decreased to 1 200 men. They were spread out in 100 Police Stations with only 75 men in the city of Bloemfontein.

Since the force was made up of almost exclusively English speakers not familiar with the country or its people, it is understandable that they were not popular. They were in many respects considered ineffective and placed a heavy burden of £250 000 on an already impoverished budget. Immediately after the introduction of self-government in 1907, a commission was formed to investigate the policing and to rearrange the force. It is hardly surprising that it was to be disbanded.

By April 1908 they had merged with the Transvaal and Free State Police. The last serving member, Colonel Long retired in January of 1946.

 

S.A.C. - Action at Vlakfontein and Slangfontein
Background to the Action:
During the spring of 1901, Boer activities within the Free State were at low ebb. In most districts the burghers took advantage of this too gain a short, but welcome rest whilst General Botha continued his activities in Natal. In the South-East of the Free State, however, two small but very significant reverses were to occur within 5 days of each other. This was to have a major impact on the ownership of a .303" rifle I now own.

Prior to these events, in the early part of September, General Smuts broke into the Cape Colony. The two Commanding Officers, Kritzinger and Brand, the head of the local district, were left at Zastrom to wreck havoc, where they were able, on the British columns under the command of General Knox. With the assistance of two Commandants, Ackermann and Coetzee, they were able to roam around with comparative ease. It would appear that there was a distinct lack of skill in scouting and co-operation on the British side. In addition they were described as being "wretchedly mounted".

SAC  District Staff at Edenburg, O.R.C

Between the 15th and 17th of September, Brand and Kritzinger each made a partial concentration of their forces and broke away in opposite directions. Kritzinger made south to the Orange River, whilst Brand rode north towards the line of blockhouses which were strung in an Easterly direction between Bloemfontein and Thaba'Nchu.

This area of the Colony was to see many instances of action between the Boers and the S.A.C. In June of the same year the first of the unit's Victoria Crosses was awarded to Sergeant J Rogers. The gazette referring to the award states: -

"On June 15th during a skirmish near Thaba'Nchu a party of the rearguard of Captain Sitwell's column, consisting of Lieutenant F Dickinson, Sergeant James Rogers, and six men of the SAC was suddenly attacked by about 60 Boers. Lt Dickinson's horse having been shot, that officer was compelled to follow his men on foot. Sgt Rogers, seeing this, rode back, firing as he did so, took Lt Dickinson up behind him, and carried him for half a mile on his horse. The sergeant then returned within 400 yards of the enemy, and carried away, one after the other, two men who had lost their horses, after which he caught the horses of two other men, and helped the men to mount. All this was done under a very heavy rifle fire. The Boers were near enough to Sgt Rogers to call upon him to surrender; his only answer was to continue firing".

Between these two points, on the road to Saanaspos, stands a prominent hill known as "Boesman's Kop". Here a post had been established to contain and limit the activities of the Boers. From here a detachment consisting of the following units was organised:

Unit No of Men  
South African Constabulary 21  
Royal Horse Artillery 19  
Royal Warwickshire Regiment 15 10th Mounted Infantry
Essex Regiment 38  
Bedfordshire Regiment 50  
Norfolk Regiment 11  
Total 154  

This was not the first time that the South African Constabulary & the Royal Horse Artillery units had operated in the Vlakfontein area. Reference to the Despatches of 1901 indicates activities in February, May & July. In February of the following year yet another action was to take place at Vlakfontein where the unit was to receive its second Victoria Cross.

The gazette reads: -

"Surgeon Captain Martin-Leake - during the action of Vlakfontein on February 8th, Surgeon Captain Martin-Leake went up to a wounded man, and attended to him under a heavy fire from about 40 Boers at 100 yards range. He then went to the assistance of a wounded officer, and whilst trying to place him in a comfortable position, was shot three times, but would not give in till he rolled over thoroughly exhausted. All the 8 men at this point were wounded, and while they were lying on the veldt, Surgeon Captain Martin-Leake refused water till everyone else had been served".
His gallantry was not destined to end there as in the early stages of the Great War he was again decorated with this most coveted distinction

The only public record available to us is the Times History of the War in South Africa. It reports that this detachment was under the command of an "unknown Militia Officer". This is thought to refer to Lieutenant Waller who commanded the S.A.C. unit, although it is unlikely that he would assume command as Captain Tufnell, of the 3rd Battalion, Essex Regiment was the senior officer present.

SAC  District Staff at Edenburg, O.R.C

Accompanying the detachment was 2 guns of "U" battery of the Royal Horse Artillery. These consisted of 12 Pounders capable of fast deployment in the veldt. The detachment's reported objective was to raid the farm "Vlakfontein", situated some 16 miles (26 kms) directly to the south. This expedition was made without the knowledge of General Tucker, the local Commanding Officer, who may well have been able to inform him of the presence of Brand's commando in the area. The scene was set for the opposing forces to collide with disastrous results for the British forces.


The Action at Slangfontein
The detachment left the blockhouse at midnight on the 18th of September and by daybreak on the morning of the 19th, they had successfully surrounded the farm at Vlakfontein. The prey had however flown. It was decided to turn their attentions to a neighbouring farm called "Slangfontein". They were still unaware of Brand's presence.

The artillery unit attached to the force involved in the battle was "U" Battery of the Royal Horse Artillery, under the command of Lieutenant F.M. Otter-Barry. They took with them 2 of the standard 12 Pounder, 6 cwt breech-loading field pieces. These weapons were similar to the 15 Pounder guns that had been lost under the command of Colonel Long at Colenso. Minor differences were to be found in the barrel and ammunition which was designed to provide artillery support on the open veldt.

Each of the guns consisted of a section of 4 horses, drawn in teams of 2, controlled by drivers mounted on the left of each team. These were known as "Lead and Wheel Drivers." Behind them, on limber seats, would sit 2 other members of the section whilst they were on the move. Each gun was under the control of a Sergeant, in this case Sergeants Talbot and Goody.

A limber towed behind each gun supplied ammunition. This would provide a supply of 52 rounds. In addition an ammunition wagon was used to supply the guns. These appeared as two limbers in tandem and had a capacity of 104 rounds. The Times report using the expression of a "single" wagon was to become exhausted. This can be verified by the mention of only one Corporal, Orchard, in the casualty list. This method is known as "Wagon Supply" where the wagon was positioned between & behind the two guns, which were normally, deployed some 20 feet apart. This was to have a major impact on the outcome of the day's activities & the fate of the combatants.

Part of the detachment of troops and the 2 guns occupied a semi-circle of three kopjies overlooking Slangfontein to the south and Vlakfontein to the north. The remainder of the troops searched the Vlakfontein farm. Finding the British so deployed, Ackermann on his arrival carefully surrounded this position with his force of 200 men, using the soft folds in the landscape to his advantage in classic Boer fashion. Catching the British totally by surprise, he quickly drove into the search party and enveloped the two flanking kopjies.

By 8 o'clock he had attacked the central kopjies on which the guns, with their escort of some 40 Mounted Infantry, were posted. By occupying two dongas and a nearby dam wall, the Boers were able to pour in a destructive fire. Being stranded on top of the kopjies without adequate cover, it is not surprising that no effective reply could be made. Owing to the nervous handling of the mounted troops, it was now left to the young subaltern, Lieutenant Otter-Barry to protect his guns as best he could.

Despite the confusion he was able to get the Mounted Infantry to cover the rear and right flanks. He was also able to provide rifles and ammunition for his gunners and drivers. They bravely served their guns until the limber supply was exhausted. These gallant efforts were fruitless as a zone swept by accurate Boer fire barred access to the single supply wagon. A Gunner Yerrel was wounded in a brave attempt to bring up ammunition.

By 9 o'clock the young subaltern had been killed. The NCO's, Sergeants Talbot & Goody took over his command. Sergeant Talbot was also killed, Corporal Orchard replacing him, also to be wounded in the desperate fight for survival.

The despatches issued later reflect their ordeal in the clinical and detached tones typical of the period: -

"Royal Horse Artillery (U Battery)
Lieutenant F M Otter-Barry (killed); for conspicuous good service
Sergeant JG Goodey
Corporal C Orchard (promoted Sergeant); behaved most gallantly throughout in serving their guns under a close rifle fire
Driver WG Frost; assisted to work the guns and brought up ammunition.
Gunner E Hill; served his gun most gallantly, and when ammunition was expended, buried the breech screw

Bedford Regiment (2nd Battalion)(Voluntary Company)
Sergeant G Sells; for the tenacity with which he held a position though wounded
Corporal J Sims (promoted Sergeant); for coolness and courage

Essex Regiment
Sergeant T Miller; closely followed by the enemy, dismounted and gave his horse to a dismounted comrade".

By 9.30 the Boers, having driven of the escort party, had advanced to within 30 yards of the guns. The Times History... claims that "the Militia Officer" raised the white flag at this point. It can be assumed that by this time Captain Tufnell had been captured, as he does not appear in the Casualty List as wounded. It was therefore left to Lieutenant Waller to make the decision. The Times is very critical, although not accurate in the numbers involved when it said: -

"Seeing that the casualties were only 15, none of whom were officers, and the surrenderers were 90, while Ackermann's strength was only just equal to that of the British Force, the whole affair, apart from the behaviour of the gunners, must be regarded as highly discreditable."

This is inaccurate, the number killed being 8, including the artillery officer. 23 had been wounded yielding a casualty rate of 20%. The comments seem somewhat misplaced and unusually critical of the S.A.C.

The captured guns were abandoned by the Boers and recovered a few days later. Of the men involved in this action, little further is known. At the battle site there is little evidence of the action. The farm at Vlakfontein is levelled to the ground. The empty 12 Pounder shells, which once bore witness to the gunners' tragedy, - later to be used to line the pathway to the house - have similarly been consumed by time. The farm at Slangfontein is still worked by members of the original Ritter family. There are no war graves in the area. It is assumed that the dead and wounded were taken back to the blockhouse.


©1997 Keith Dixon.
©2000 All Changes Robert Wotton

 

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Review of the South African Constabulary: 1901 to 1908, conducted by Colonel R.S. Curtis, Inspector-General.

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