Newsletter No. 470
The Chairman, Charles Whiteing began the meeting with a word of welcome to one of the Society’s earliest members and the doyen of the Battlefields of the Northern Cape, Miss Fiona Barbour. He then requested those present to stand for a moment’s silence in memory of one of our Family members, Mrs Dot Hewitt, wife of Gerry Hewitt, and also in memory of the highly respected WO1 P N (“Nunky”) Alexander of the Natal Mounted Rifles. It is with deep regret that we have since heard that Gerry Hewitt passed away this week.
Our first speaker was a member of long standing, Steve Watt. Steve’s ‘then and now’ articles in the Military History Journal have become legendary and he travelled from Pietermaritzburg to deliver the talk.
With the Boer commandos gathered in the southern Orange Free State, a force of 2 500 men was detailed for the invasion of the Northern Cape. A contingent under Chief Commandant ER Grobler crossed the Orange River at Norval’s Pont, advanced southward and occupied Colesberg. By this time a British a force under Lt Gen Sir John French had gathered at Noupoort. His mission was to ensure the safety of Noupoort, to cover the communications between De Aar and Port Elizabeth then to proceed northward and occupy Colesberg.
Boer patrols, realising the absence of any British patrols in the area, then threatened Arundel. This move prompted the British to occupy Arundel as standing camp from where patrols were despatched to ascertain the Boer strength. Skirmishes took place before the British secured a foothold at Rensburg siding north of Arundel. During a reconnaissance led French to decide the occupation of the hills to the west and north of Colesberg and secure lodgement on Grassy Hill (later called Suffolk Hill) as the key to the position. On 1 January 1900 a British force the occupied the hills to the west of the town encountering Boer resistance which necessitated the occupation of Kloof camp to the north. These moves cost the British 7 men killed against to the Boers’ loss of 3 men. Meanwhile on the British right an advance from Slingersfontein to the north encountered some Boers coming within 4 km of the railway to Norval’s Pont. Two days later saw the gathering a Boer force and threatened Kloof Camp after which the British Mounted Infantry replied with an enveloping movement capturing 25 men who were made POW but not before the MI losing 10 men killed. The Boers’ loss was 5 men killed. French now felt confident for the attack to delivered on Grassy Hill.
In the early hours of 6 January a force of 300 men of the Suffolk Regiment marched to their objective in stockinged feet. The men were informed for the first time that Grassy Hill was to be attacked with the bayonet. Before halfway to the summit was reached the men were greeted with a single shot followed by intense Boer rifle fire. In ensuing confusion that followed two companies dashed forward but fell back with most of their officers having been killed. Their commander Lt Col AJ Watson ordered a company to advance on the left while another dashed for the crest. Their efforts proved futile and finally the fighting died away just before dawn. The British and Boers’ losses were 38 and 9 men killed respectively.
Further developments by the British saw the emplacement of 2 guns on the summit of Coleskop which stands 300 metres above the plain. From this high vantage point the Boer positions near Kloof Camp and Colesberg came under bombardment. On the left flank French did not press home any further infantry advances. Instead he advanced to the east of Colesberg and on 9 January 1900 saw the occupation of Slingersfontein farm with his force distributed over a wide area: Maddocks Hill, New Zealand Hill, Rensburg Station, Kleinfontein, Potfontein, Australian Hill, Platberg and Stubbs Hill. Skirmishes were frequent and during the next four week resulted with a loss of 19 men killed. On the Boer right (facing the British left) the Boers pressed home their attacks at Basters Nek on 10 February and two days later at Pink Hill resulting in 15 men killed. On 12 February the Boers switched their offensive to the British right flank and attacked Worcester Hills. They quickly occupied Signal Hill and Burnt Hill but after pressing home their attack they failed in the capture of Pinnacle hill. This marked the limit to their success. Artillery fire from the British rear failed to dislodge the Boers but it set the brushwood ablaze and they abandoned their attack at 18:00. The British loss was 24 men killed, 16 became POW of which two died later. The Boers’ loss was 8 men killed.
On 3 February 1900 French was ordered to join Lord Roberts advance on Bloemfontein and three days later he was succeeded by General RAP Clements who took command of 5 275 men.
With both flanks having been attacked Clements decided to withdraw his force (over a front of 51 km) to Rensburg. The Boers hastily occupied koppies between Rensburg and Arundel and with another near the railway, Clements felt vulnerable and accordingly decided to occupy Arundel. By some oversight two companies of the Wiltshire regiment at Rensburg were not informed of the departure of the main force until 5 hours later. By now a groups of Boers arrived at the deserted camp and attacked the infantrymen during their withdrawal. Other parties galloped around their flanks and their commander Maj FR MacMullen succeeded in bringing some of his men to a defensive position but soon lost cohesion and were forced to surrender A small force from Arundel covered the retreat and enabled the remnant to arrive safely at Arundel. The British loss was 15 men killed including MacMullen.
During the latter part of February 1900 saw the Boers threaten the British camp at Arundel and fighting in varying degrees of intensity was continuous with both sides exchanging rifle and artillery fire. In the third week of February Clements went on to the offensive which saw attacks at Kuilfontien farm, Maeder’s farm and as well as the occupation of several koppies. With the receipt of the news of the Boer withdrawal from Colesberg, Clements now advanced with confidence and was able to occupy Colesberg on 28 February. After three days’ rest Clements resumed to offensive; the Boers having escaped to the north destroying the bridge at Norval’s Pont. For the next few days the Royal Engineers were hard at work to construct a deviation bride and pontoon bridge. Meanwhile Clements had crossed the river downstream and began his advance on Bloemfontein.
The main speaker for the evening was Mr Chris Ash, author of a recently published book entitled “Kruger, Kommandos and Kak”, which has elicited a great deal of discussion and debate in military history circles.
The title of Mr Ash’s talk was “The Myths of the Anglo-Boer War” and he began by quoting Winston Churchill: “If you take a stand a little out of the ordinary, you are going to make some enemies…”
He then went on to describe his reasons for writing the book, posing the question: “Were the Boers really such super human warriors? Were the ‘Tommies’ really so hopeless?” adding that he covered these and many other subjects in the book but using the Battle of Modder River (28th November 1899) as a case study. He felt that many people see the British ‘Tommies’ of the Anglo-Boer-War as “...heartless, professional, trained soldiers… but utterly useless”, suitable for “mowing down spear-wielding savages with machine guns, but completely outfought by the clever old Boers”, and if the other ranks have a bad reputation, British officers enjoy an even worse one – in fact “Over-confident, arrogant, upper-class twits who were more interested in getting ice for their brandy and sodas than they were about modern warfare – men so utterly stuck in the past and hidebound by tradition that they were led a merry dance by the wily Boer generals” and quoted from Thomas Pakenham to prove his point.
Chris’s case study compared Lt Gen Lord Methuen (who had never commanded more than a battalion in action) versus General Koos de la Rey at Modder River. This was in effect “Management by committee”; Cronje was perhaps nominally in command, but de la Rey was highly influential and essentially ran the battle which was fought early in the War. There was no vast disparity in numbers – bearing in mind the traditional ‘3 to 1’ maxim and the Boers held very strong positions. Should the result therefore never have been in doubt?
The Boers launched their invasions in October 1899, against Natal, Griqualand West and British Bechuanaland. Six weeks later, the Boer invasions had been checked, and Lord Methuen’s 1st Infantry Division was ready to fight their way up railway to relieve Kimberley. Methuen’s orders were to do just that – relieve Kimberley – and not to invade any foreign territory. Mounted troops constituted only about 10% of his force, whereas military theorists at the time considered a balanced command should have up to 25% of their numbers mounted. This, he felt, was not Imperial arrogance. Methuen requested more horsemen from Buller, but was told none were available. The reality is that the British were completely unprepared to fight the war. Without this cavalry, reconnaissance was severely limited and it would also prove difficult to ride down and destroy retreating Boer forces, and deal a really telling defeat.
He felt that there was little truth to the myth that the British were hopelessly out-of-touch soldiers, hide-bound by tradition and utterly unprepared to fight a modern war, marching forwards in close-order as though they were still fighting the Crimean War.
Despite being tied to the railway line, Methuen’s division retained their mobility – men carried nothing but essentials in their back packs – no tents were carried and the soldiers slept in their greatcoats. There were no special rules for the officers – and Methuen himself set the standard by sleeping in a Mexican poncho.
Indeed, such was their speed of movement that Methuen’s men arrived at the first Boer blocking force three or four days sooner than the Federal forces had thought possible, and quickly earned themselves rather catchy nicknames such as Mud Crushers and Mobile Marvels. Similarly, from the very start Methuen (with Buller’s approval – i.e. this was endorsed by the most senior officer in South Africa) ordered his officers to carry nothing to make themselves stand out from the normal soldiers. All buttons, belts, badges of rank etc were dulled or painted brown. Officers carried rifles, not swords, and both officers and men abandoned shaving (both to save water and to be indistinguishable). In terms of tactics, from the very first action of the campaign, Methuen’s men attacked in extended order to minimise casualties.
Also, many will claim that the British infantry could only employ volley fire – this is untrue. Individual fire up to about 500 yards was taught to all recruits and Buller even telegrammed Methuen on the 14th of November to tell him volley fire was a waste of time, and only to use slow, aimed, individual fire.
Many claim that the British army were ‘taught’ these lessons by the Boers, but the fact they were doing this from the start of the war prove otherwise – indeed, Methuen’s own letter home (before the Division had moved off) proves this.
Methuen’s first action was at Belmont where he launched a frontal attack to prevent the Boers under General Marthinus Prinsloo from blocking his advance. Lack of cavalry enabled the burghers to escape but after the Battle, Methuen addressed the men: ‘Comrades, I congratulate you on the complete success achieved by you this morning. The ground over which we have to fight presents exceptional difficulties and we had as an enemy a master in the tactics of mounted infantry. With troops such as you are, a commander can have no fear as to the result’.
The next battle was fought at Graspan/Enslin, where de la Rey first appeared, trying to convince the Free Staters to join him in holding up the British advance. The British force was supplemented by the arrival of the Naval Brigade who received their baptism of fire in this battle. Mr Ash’s point was that at “...a time when we are told the British blundered from disaster to disaster… the reality is that Methuen had won two Brigade-sized actions within 48 hours – one of which was against De la Rey.”
The scene was set for the Battle of Modder River, where both Federal generals de la Rey and Cronje opted for a defensive line along the Modder and Riet Rivers. On the night of the 27th November 1899, the Division was only about 50 km from Kimberley; Methuen’s maps showed that the rivers were fordable at all points – which was completely untrue. With the railway bridge blown the only crossings were Rosmead Drift (to the west) and Bosman’s Drift (to the east) – and he was initially planning to cross at Jacobsdal.
However, reconnaisance reports of large numbers of Boers in the vicinity of the (destroyed) Modder River railway bridge prompted him to change his plan, for fear of leaving these forces behind him to menace his supply lines. The biggest challenge facing Methuen was the fact that the Boers were entrenching on both sides of the river which was itself a formidable obstacle, and the lack of cover due to the flat ground.
The two forces were initially evenly matched at about 8000 men each. Chris emphasised that in his opinion, one of the enduring myths of the war is that the British only won because they vastly outnumbered the Boers. It is often forgotten in the early stages of the war, the Boers outnumbered the imperial forces by about 2 or 3 to one. The British rushed troops to the theatre after the Boers invaded, but by the time of Modder River, still did not have any sort of significant majority. On the other hand, and despite their modern-day image, Boer morale / discipline was a constant factor throughout the war. After their defeats at Belmont and Graspan, many had had enough, and refused to fight at Modder River – meaning only about 4000 took the field. On a recruit’s first day at Sandhurst or any other military academy in the world, one is taught that the odds needed for an infantry attack are 3:1. Against well dug-in troops or troops defending a town, this can go up to 5 or 6 to 1. Methuen had nothing like this advantage and he stated that this is an absolute fundamental of military reality which he have never seen mentioned by modern military historians.
Before first light on the 28th November 1899, Imperial mounted forces pushed forwards to locate the Boers, coming under fire at about 0530 hours and pulling back. These recces had three main effects:
It was eerily quiet, and the infantry trudged forwards in their extended lines. At that point, however, the hidden Boers opened fire at about 1000 yards and for a moment all hell broke loose.
The ambush quickly drove the advancing infantry to ground. The Scots Guards bore the brunt of this fusillade, with their machine gun section ‘swept away’ in a hail of bullets and pom-pom fire but it had been sprung far too early to be really effective. Meanwhile the Guards went firm on the right.
The reserve battalion of the Guards tried to get round on the right, but found the Riet to be unfordable. Although unable to turn the Boer flank or get over the river the Guards managed to pin a large number of Boers in place. Also on the right, but a little to the south, the Mounted Infantry captured a fortified farm and the 9th Lancers tried to force their way over Bosman’s Drift. They were not able to get across the river, but – like the guards – they pinned a significant portion of the Boers in place on the right (the Boer left). This is important because de la Rey had failed to keep a reserve.
Leaving the British right for the time being in somewhat of a stalemate, Chris then dealt with the British left flank, which was where the battle would be won or lost. The premature ambush had affected the 9th infantry Brigade even less than it had the Guards. As well as being sprung at long range, the 9th had also been partially shielded from the ambush by a fold in the ground. Remember, they were facing Prinsloo’s Freestaters who they had defeated twice in a week - Pole-Carew started pushing his battalions to their left (i.e. West) while keeping in touch with the guards… they began slowly, but steadily working their way to the Boer right.
The KOYLI came under heavy fire from a fortified farmhouse / kraal about 300 yards south of the river. Pole-Carew recognized that these covered a weir (i.e. a potential crossing point) and ordered them taken. Initially, no progress could be made.
Methuen arrived on the scene at the same time as a party of Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders had managed to work their way round the position using a donga. Methuen ordered the farm complex to be rushed and it was taken by the Highlanders and Yorkshiremen. Lord Methuen personally led one of the rushes up the donga, and seemed to be everywhere at once on the battlefield. The defending Boers fled across the river.
Two guns of the 18th battery were firing in support, and had already succeeded in driving some of the Boers defending the nearby village of Rosmead. By 11h30, with the Free Staters cleared from the southern bank, and the KOYLI pushing over the Weir, Pole-Carew was in the thick of the action, personally leading the first 150 men through Rosmead Drift rather than waiting for reinforcements and securing a bridgehead on the north bank. These mixed-up elements of 9th Infantry Brigade cleared the Free Staters from Rosmead (today Ritchie) with Pole-Carew (their brigadier) leading from the front. They went firm in Rosmead but were not yet strong enough to push forwards but they were firmly in command of the village. A small local counter-attack lead personal by de la Rey was driven off.
There were no Boer reserves to mount a more serious counter attack or to reinforce Prinsloo. Prinsloo’s Free Staters began to give up the fight and fled from the battlefield. This then put the whole Boer line in a vulnerable position and other units began to spontaneously retreat.
Things were slowly turning in favour of the British. At about 1445hrs, four guns of the British 62nd Battery suddenly appeared on the battlefield, having travelled 62 miles in 28 hours. They came into action immediately, ordered to support the 9th Infantry on the far side of the river. Prior to the arrival of the 62nd battery, only 2 guns of the 18th Battery were firing in direct support of the 9th, so these four guns really made a huge difference, breaking up any lingering pockets of resistance. It was also difficult to coordinate this with the artillery on the southern bank and there was also confusion when reports were received that the Guards had forced a crossing – so the 9th were initially ordered to go firm to prevent friendly fire from taking its toll.By mid afternoon the battle had been raging for about 8 hours. The British infantry were firmly in place on the northern bank and holding Rosmead, meaning that one flank of the Boer line had been turned. Large numbers of Free Staters had already retreating by then and were fleeing the field – which was having an effect on neighbouring positions. Though left by their kinsmen, the gunners of the OFS artillery stood to their guns with great courage even they were later abandoned though, and the guns (and some Boer wounded who had also been abandoned) were only recovered under cover of darkness.
The disorderly retreat by the Free Staters caused a diplomatic rift between the Federal Forces. Although Cronje and the others accepted their hand had been forced by the withdrawal of the Free Staters and had ordered the retreat, de la Rey had bitterly opposed it. Undoubtedly Cronje made the right call; the British were across the river and enfiladed the Boer trenches, and, when the Guards crossed, could have rolled them up from end to end at first light, dealing a really devastating victory. However, Chris stated that in modern history, this is how such an action is portrayed: The Free Staters most certainly were panicked into flight, retreating from prepared ‘impregnable positions’ when your flank has been turned and a large chunk of your army has run away is generally considered as a loss.
Dealing with the myths, Chris posed the question: “Which side’s troops fought the better on the day?” It was fair to say that the British soldier had showed great skill, courage and determination, and the work of the junior officers and NCOs was magnificent. Methuen took no credit for the victory, in his telegram to the Queen he stated: ‘The victory was entirely due to the gallant conduct of the troops’.
In his opinion, he believed it fair to say that Cronjé and de la Rey would have failed a junior officers’ training course principally because they had failed to keep a reserve. Both de la Rey and Methuen had displayed considerable courage and both officers had been in the thick of the fighting. Indeed, Methuen had been wounded in the battle and command passed to General Colvile.
He bemoaned the fact, however, that most accounts tended to focus on Boer victories and in fact Pakenham devotes far less attention to British victories. His intention in writing the book was to give credit where it was due.
After several lively questions were posed by the attentive audience, Lt Col Dr Graeme Fuller conveyed the appreciation of the audience to both speakers.
NEXT MEETING (Venue – Murray Lecture Theatre, Department of Civil Engineering, University of KwaZulu-Natal Howard College Campus, Durban. Time: 19h00 for 19h30):
Thursday 9th April 2015
Introduction: “Maj Edwin Swales VC – the centenary of his birth” by Paul Kilmartin.
Annual General Meeting: Election of Chairman and Committee. The incoming Committee will elect the Vice Chairman in terms of the Society’s Constitution.
Darrell Hall Memorial Lecture: Another in the WW1 100 Commemorative lecture programme: “WW1 Comes to the Northern Cape”, by Ken Gillings
Main Talk: “Normandy Massacres”, by Charles Whiteing
Thursday 14th May 2015:
Darrell Hall Memorial Lecture: “Leon Schauder – South African War Correspondent, 1945” by Donald Davies.
Main Talk: “Aspects of Atomic Warfare”, by Major Dr John Buchan.
Thursday 11th June 2015:
Darrell Hall Memorial Lecture: “Operation Vimbezela”, by Major General Chris le Roux.
Main Talk: “August 1914: The escape of Goeben and Breslau”, by Robin Smith.
Thursday 9th July 2015:
Darrell Hall Memorial Lecture: “Operation Drosdy – a seaborne raid in 1984 on Namibe, Angola”, by Lt Col Douw Steyn HC
Main Talk: Another in the WW1 100 commemorative lecture programme. “WW1 in 1915 – an overview”, by Capt (SAN) Brian Hoffmann
POSSIBLE CENTENARY PILGRIMAGE TO DELVILLE WOOD. Colonel Mike Bradley (who was the Specialist Guide during the SAMHS tour to the Battlefields of Egypt and Libya in May 2009) has offered to put together a Centenary Pilgrimage of about 10 days to Delville Wood (and other battlefields of the Somme) in July 2016. Members will be kept informed of developments, but in order for us to determine the viability of such a tour, please advise Ken Gillings (031 703 4828 / 083 654 5880 / email@example.com ) if you are interested in participating. A day’s visit to Normandy will also be included in the itinerary.
ANNUAL GENERAL MEETING. April is AGM month for all four Branches of the South African Military History Society. Our current Chairman, Charles Whiteing, has completed his two year term of office. Please forward your nominations for the position of Chairman and Committee Members to the Scribe, Ken Gillings on 031 702 4828 / 083 654 5880 / firstname.lastname@example.org
ADVANCE NOTICE; 2015 BATTLEFIELD TOUR, 15TH – 16TH AUGUST 2015:
The Branch’s 2015 Battlefield tour will focus on the Transvaal War of Independence (1880-1881. It will include visits to Fort Amiel, Lang’s Nek, Mt Prospect Military Cemetery, Schuinshoogte / Ingogo, Majuba and O’Neil’s Cottage. The following special rate has been arranged with Majuba Lodge in Newcastle:
Accommodation single @ R600.00 per day (1 person) bed only
Accommodation double @ R375.00 p/p per day (2 persons) bed only
Accommodation treble @ R300.00 p/p per day (3 persons) bed only
Accommodation quad @ R262.50 p/p per day (4 persons) bed only
Breakfast (Full English) @ R65.00 p/p per day
2 Course Buffet Dinner @ R130-00 p/p per day
There are of course other forms of accommodation available and for those wishing to camp, there are campsites in Newcastle, at Chelmsford Dam and of course at Majuba itself.
The provisional programme is as follows:
Participants will be required to make their own travelling and accommodation arrangements. Full details will be given at the next meeting and in future newsletters.