The subject of the curtain raiser for the evening, given by Louis Wildenboer, was the Lady Roberts Gun. At the outbreak of the Anglo-Boer War the British artillery was inferior to that of the Boers. The British had nothing to match the Boers' four "Long Toms", the French-built cannons that fired a 45kg shell to a range of 10 000 metres. General White, besieged in Ladysmith, asked for naval guns to counter the Long Toms, and Captain Percy Scott, newly arrived in Simonstown aboard HMS Terrible, took up the request.
He cannibalised the 4.7-inch guns (120 mm) mounted on British ships in Simonstown, put them on carriages, and sent them to the front. These could fire a 20 kg shell to a range of 8 000 metres for percussion, and 6 000 metres for shrapnel. The guns were given names, one being dubbed Lady Roberts in honour of the wife of the British C-in-C, Lord Roberts.
In December 1900 the Lady Roberts Gun was located on a prominent hill commanding the road and rail links between Pretoria and Komatipoort. A garrison of 500 men under one Major Cotton was established behind stone fortifications. Boer General Ben Viljoen, operating in the Eastern Transvaal, decided to attack the camp and take the gun. He combined his commando with that of General Muller to create a force of 500 burghers, including the Boksburg and Johannesburg Commandos, the Transvaal State Artillery, and the Transvaal Police Force, the ZARPS. The plan contained all the classical elements for success - surprise; use of cover; concentration of strength; knowledge of enemy positions and strength, and speed of action.
The assault was planned for 28 December, when it was considered the Tommies would be in a festive mood. With 150 men, and in total darkness, General Muller approached Helvetia from the west, with Viljoen himself covering the approaches from Machadodorp with 100 men. The remaining 200 men were positioned to prevent reinforcement from Swartkoppies. The attack achieved complete surprise, and after 20 minutes of hard fighting the garrison surrendered.
The loss of a gun bearing such an important name, and the biggest in its armoury, was a terrible humiliation for the British Army, and to the pride of Lord Kitchener, who had already declared the war over. After destroying the camp the Boers towed the gun away, but it proved useless when its ammunition was lost in a ditch. It was subsequently destroyed by dynamite and its skeleton left in the veldt, from where it was later removed to the National Cultural History Museum in Pretoria.
The main lecture of the evening was given by Rod Hooper-Box on the Cape Mounted Rifles, a regiment raised at the behest of Lord Bathurst in 1827 to protect the property of the colonial settlers on the East Cape frontier. The smaller and more mobile CMR was to replace the established, and more costly, Colonel Graham's Cape Regiment, which was only partly mounted. At the start it consisted of only 240 men. The officers were British, but the troopers and NCOs, who comprised 90 per cent of the compliment, were Hottentots. The corps differed from every other in Her Majesty's service in that, although a cavalry regiment, it drew only infantry pay.
At first the preponderance of Hottentots in its ranks was regarded as a major advantage given the kind of warfare for which the unit was formed. In 1835, during the 6th Frontier War, the first in which the unit became involved, Sir Harry Smith wrote of the Hottentots: "No nation in the world has such a natural turn to become soldiers." But in 1836 two provincial companies were provoked to mutiny, and in 1842 recruitment to the ranks was opened to Europeans. By 1846, when the regiment had grown to 640 men, there were 20 Europeans to each troop of 70 - "to stiffen the Hottentots".
The 7th Frontier War, the War of the Axe (1846-47), saw the CMR at its peak in terms of performance and numbers. It fielded 960 men, of which Hottentots made up 72 per cent. Its weapons comprised the 1829 light-cavalry pattern sword, and a unique carbine specially designed for Cape Frontier warfare. When first issued in 1822 these guns were flintlocks, but these were superseded by a percussion version in 1840, and a rifled one in 1850. Other firearms used by the corps were the India-pattern flintlock, in the early days; the Brunswick; and from 1856 the .577 inch Enfield, Calisher & Terry. Finally, in 1869, the unit received the Snider carbine. The main weapon, however, was the Cape double gun, which epitomised the CMR.
At the Battle of Boomplaats in 1848 against the Boers there is the first mention of a company made up entirely of Europeans, and after the 8th Frontier War (1850-1853) the proportion of Hottentots in the ranks declined sharply. This war raised numerous conflicts of loyalty among the Hottentots, and coupled with resentment at the harsh measures on the part of the Cape authorities, broken promises, and a threat to legal rights, the result was that serious doubts began to be felt about the reliability of the Hottentots for further military service. By 1856 their proportion to total complement had fallen to 25 per cent. The last Hottentot (Coloured) recruitment was in 1859. By 1870, when the Frontier had become more settled and the CMR was finally disbanded, only 10 Coloureds were left - 2 per cent.
George Barrell (Scribe) (011) 791-2581
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