Newsletter No. 455
KwaZulu-Natal January 2014
As is customary for the last meeting of the year, the December 2013 meeting had only one speaker, followed by a social get-together of members.
Fellow member Ken Gillings spoke to a power point presentation appropriately entitled “Groenkop; General Christiaan de Wet’s Christmas Day Surprise”.
By the end of 1901, de Wet was operating as a highly efficient guerrilla fighter throughout the Orange Free State (then renamed the Orange River Colony, following the fall of Bloemfontein and the Annexation of both Boer Republics). His tactics forced the British to deploy thousands of soldiers along the railway lines and to cease operating trains at night. A series of sweeps was conducted on a wide front, supplemented by the construction of a line of blockhouses linked with barbed wire to prevent the commandos that remained in the veld from moving between them.
The last great de Wet Hunt began in November 1901. By then, de Wet’s brother General Piet de Wet had not only surrendered to the British but also joined the National Scouts, completely estranging the two men.
From early December 1901, de Wet would appear unexpectedly on various occasions, despite being pursued by no fewer than six columns, resulting in an increasing number of burghers joining him. By this stage, the British had begun constructing a line of blockhouses in an attempt to contain the Boer movements and at the end of 1901, the blockhouse line had reached Tradouw farm at Tweefontein, 15 km from the bridge across the Elands River between Harrismith and Afrikaskop. The force operating in the area included men from the Imperial Yeomanry, the Imperial Light Horse, the South Staffordshire Regiment MI and the Grenadier Guards, some artillery, under the overall command of Major General Sir Leslie Rundle, whose main encampment was at Mooimeisiesrust. The force encamped on the slopes of Tweefontein (or as it was more commonly known, Groenkop) was under the command of Major FA Williams. It comprised four companies of the Imperial Yeomanry as well as a 15-pr gun and a Vickers Maxim, both guns being positioned on the summit of Groenkop (approximately 400 men).
de Wet (who was based in the Langberg range of hills to the west of Groenkop) became aware of Williams’s base and together with General Michael Prinsloo he had undertaken a reconnaissance on the 23rd and the 24th December 1901. The Boer leaders then debated which angle was best to attack from and opinions differed considerably. They then observed the camp from a higher point and de Wet pointed out that the positioning of the sangars on the summit indicated that the British were inclined to expect an attack from the east (ie, the side with a gentle slope), so it was logical to attack from the more precipitous western slope.
The Boers approached Groenkop under cover of darkness on the 24th December 1901 and reached the base of the north-western side of the kop at 02h00 on the 25th December 1901.They numbered approximately 1000. Removing their boots, they began to climb in their stockings. Half way up, they were challenged by a British sentry; the guards on this occasion were from the 35th Company IY. De Wet called out “Stormt, burghers; stormt!” Led by Commandants Mears and Brand, they continued their ascent with de Wet shouting “Stormt! Stormt! Stormt!”, a call that was taken up by many others. The summit was breached and overrun. The remaining soldiers were asleep in the camp along the slopes below and within 20 minutes over 1/3 were heading half dressed and unarmed towards Mooimeisiesrust. The Gunners rushed to take up a position while the 34th Company IY headed for their position on the western slope, the 36th Company to the northern slope and the 53rd Company to the southern side. Most of the 35th Company fled. The Boers then stormed the two guns.
Despite a desperate defence, the defenders began to suffer heavy casualties. Williams rushed up the slope, joined by one of the IY companies half way up. Suddenly 300 Boers who had been sheltering behind rocks leapt from their positions in a semi-circle and charged over the summit yelling “Stormt” and firing as they ran. Captain Crawley’s 53rd Company IY observed then silhouetted against the skyline and opened fire, scattering the burghers and wounding many. The Boers counter-attacked and Crawley fell mortally wounded. The guns were overrun and members of their detachments captured. Williams was killed. The British regrouped briefly but then turned and fled and the Boers’ continued their charge down the slope, through the horse-lines, the transport park, then the hospital and into the British encampment at the foot of Groenkop. The civilian doctor, Dr Reid was killed but the senior medical officer, Maj Caldwell, continued to patch up casualties brought into the hospital tent. He found de Wet and asked him to spare the hospital, which he did. De Wet reportedly used his sjambok on at least one Boer who was seen robbing a body.
53rd Company IY remained in position – apparently overlooked by the Boers – and as they attempted to escape towards Tradouw, they were discovered by the Boers who recommenced firing, killing Squadron Sergeant Major Reed. Twenty managed to escape but the remainder was either shot of captured. The battle was over by 03h15.
Rundle had been alerted by the sounds of the battle and ordered Colonel Tudway to investigate with 60 mounted infantrymen. De Wet had been tempted to attack this camp as well, but changed his mind. As Tudway approached the scene of devastation, he almost rode into the Boers who called on him to surrender. Tudway wheeled about and managed to escape. Rundle ordered the ILH to proceed to the scene of the action, but due to a communication problem, they were notified far too late to have been of any use.
The British lost 9 officers and 49 ORs killed or died of wounds, while 6 officers and 78 ORs were wounded. 3 officers and 203 ORs were captured. Boer losses were 14 killed and 30 wounded. De Wet’s booty included the 15-pr gun, the Maxim-Nordenfelt pom-pom, 20 wagons, rifle and artillery ammunition, tents, 500 mules & horses and to quote de Wet: “…one wagon loaded with spirits so that the burghers who were not averse to this, could satisfy their thirst”.
Maj Gen Chris le Roux thanked the speaker on behalf of the audience and those in attendance then enjoyed some fellowship in the adjacent room.
Conference to coincide with the 115th anniversary of the Anglo-Boer War, Dundee October 2014.
The SAMHS has combined forces with the Talana Museum, Dundee to arrange a conference that will coincide with the 115th anniversary of the beginning of the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902. It will coincide with the Museum’s “Talana Live” weekend of the 17th to the 19th October 2014, and take place from the 20th to the 22nd October 2014. The theme will be “From the Anglo-Boer War to the Great War” and there will be an local and international array of speakers. Please diarise this significant and historical event.
Next Meeting: 16th January 2014.
19h00 for 19h30. Please note that as usual, the first meeting of the year will be held on the THIRD THURSDAY (instead of the customary second Thursday) of January 2014. The speakers will be:
Darrell Hall Memorial Lecture (“DDH”): Tin Tin and Military History” by Dr Mark Coghlan
Main Talk: “Update on Syria” by Major Peter Williams.
Venue as usual will be the Murray Theatre, Department of Civil Engineering, University of KwaZulu-Natal Howard College Campus, Durban.
Thursday 13th February 2014 (NB – back to the 2nd Thursday):
Darrell Hall Memorial Lecture: “The Eclipse of the Luftwaffe” by Bill Brady
Main Talk (this will be the first of the WW1 100 series): “Gallipoli” by Robin Smith
Thursday 13th March 2014:
Darrell Hall Memorial Lecture: “Guadal Canal – The Naval Battles” by Roy Bowman
Main Talk: WW1 100: “The German Invasion and Occupation of Belgium and North-East France, from August 1914” by Paul Kilmartin.
Note that Paul will be travelling to South Africa from the UK on holiday to present this talk.
Thursday 10th April 2014:
Darrell Hall Memorial Lecture: “RN Gunboats & Motor Launches - I was on them” by Prof Ken Knight
Main Talk (as part of our WW1 100 series): “Prelude to the First World War” by Capt (SAN) (Retd) Brian Hoffmann.
Note that Capt Hoffmann will be travelling from Cape Town to deliver his lecture.