The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging



Military History Journal
Vol 18 No 3 - December 2018

The explosion of an ammunition wagon near Parys, Orange Free State
27 October 1900

By Johannes J Retief

'Fallen, fallen are the men of war; and their armour left on the field.' (2 Samuel 1 : 27 NEB)

Guerrilla War

The character of the conflict between Boer and Brit in South Africa changed from conventional into guerrilla warfare during the months of August to November 1900. General Louis Botha had fought his last conventional battle at Bergendal in the Eastern Transvaal (now Mpumalanga) from 21 to 27 August 1900. General Koos de la Rey had been conducting guerrilla operations in the Western Transvaal since mid-July. General Christiaan de Wet was engaged in reorganising the Free State commandos. This had become necessary after the disastrous surrender of General Marthinus Prinsloo, with half the Free State Forces in the Brandwater Basin, at the end of July 1900.

During this period, De Wet had also managed to get rid of the remaining cumbersome wagon laagers. The enemy was regularly capturing guns of the Boer artillery, but he did not consider this to be a serious matter, as they were running out of ammunition for them (De Wet, 1902, p216). Both factors considerably increased the Boer mobility, a sine qua non for successful guerrilla operations (Scholtz, 2003, pp168176).

Maj-Gen Geoffrey Barton's column of 2 000 men occupied the railway station at Frederikstad (24 km north of Potchefstroom) on 17 October 1900. On 20 October a combined Boer force of 1 500 burghers under generals De Wet and Liebenberg attacked and laid a siege around Frederikstad. This 'miserable affair', 'as De Wet referred to it in his memoirs (De Wet, 1902, p212), lasted for five days and gave Lord Roberts ample opportunity to redirect reserve columns in support of Barton. On 25 October the Boer forces attacked the positions of the Scots and the Welsh Fusiliers. However, reinforcements in the form of Lt-Col H T Hicks's column of 1 100 men unexpectedly arrived from Welverdiend station in the north, thus terminating the investment. De Wet and Liebenberg parted, the former and his 800 burghers attempting in the late afternoon to retreat to his favourite hideout in the hills and valleys of the Vredefort Dome. He was not immediately pursued and managed to make a hurried departure (Scholtz, 2003, pp179-182).

Lord Roberts had ordered Maj-Gen Charles Knox on 22 October to advance from Heilbron and to cross the Vaal River in order to render assistance to Barton. He was instructed to merge the columns of Lt-Cols Henry de Lisle (700 Australians) and Philip Ie Gallais (Mounted Infantry) with his own Colonial Division of 600 men, all mounted. His column included four guns of 'U' Battery Royal Horse Artillery (Smith, 2015). De Lisle joined him on 23 October at Wittekopjes, south of Vredefort, and, on 25 October, Le Gallais arrived from Bothaville to join Knox at Reitzburg. Knox's force was therefore highly mobile in comparison to a considerable portion of the British Army, which experienced a serious lack of mounted men at the time (Amery, 1907, p5). The next day Knox ordered Le Gallais to hold Tygerfontein and proceeded himself to Potchefstroom with the rest of his column (Amery, 1907, p13).

Pursuit

On 26 October De Wet and his commando trekked east in the direction of Buffelshoek, with the idea of crossing the Vaal River at Schoeman's Drift. Informed by his scouts that both Tygerfontein and Schoeman's Drift were occupied, De Wet continued towards Van Vuuren's Kloof, intending to cross at Van Rensburg's Drift. Knox learned about De Wet's movements the next day at Potchefstroom and was ordered by Roberts to pursue him immediately. His column departed at 04:00 on 27 October. Meanwhile, Le Gallais received instructions to cross the Vaal River at Venterskroon and to proceed in an easterly direction (Amery, 1907, p14).

At Van Rensburg's Drift, the Vaal River ran shallow and wide for a considerable distance, and could be crossed at a number of places, especially during the dry season. It was late in the afternoon, at 17:15 on 27 October, that Knox's column arrived through a high narrow valley, at Van Rensburg's Drift. The Boers were surprised while crossing, probably east of Kommandonek. Some West Australians and New South Wales Mounted Riflemen of De Lisle's column, who led the advance, ascended the hills immediately to the north of the river and began firing at De Wet's burghers (Chamberlain and Drooglever, 2003, p346). Others crossed the river and charged and, in the process, cut off the Boer rear guard (Amery, 1907, p14). The guns were brought forward and some burghers, who were bathing or having a meal, had to saddle and retire in a hurry, as there was little or no cover for them or their horses (De Wet, 1902, p216).

Pursuit of the ammunition wagon from Van Rensburg's Drift to Groot-Eilandkop.

The Boers were fleeing south, in the direction of Vredefort, in a rather chaotic manner, hoping to reach the Rhenosterpoort valleys from the northeast. Unexpectedly, they observed Le Gallais' column, blocking their way. The latter had crossed the Vaal River and advanced eastwards as instructed. Le Gallais' gunners immediately started firing on the Boers with their 37 mm Vickers-Maxim QF 1-pounder machine gun, better known as a 'pom-pom'. De Wet's commando rapidly changed course, now moving eastwards in the direction of the town of Parys. At that time the sun was going down.

Explosion

About 6 km south of Parys is a prominent hill on the farm Groot Eiland. This hill was used for observation by both Boer and Brit during the war (Pretorius, 2001, p112). Some of De Wet's burghers passed to the south of the hill. Their ammunition wagon, pulled by draught-oxen, was lagging behind the rest of the commando. At this stage of the war, the Boers had only a few wagons and the enemy correctly assumed that this particular wagon contained either ammunition or supplies. Le Gallais' pom-pom therefore concentrated its fire upon it.

Two brothers, Frans and Hans Jooste, of the Bethlehem Commando, were in charge of the ammunition wagon. According to local oral tradition, recorded by Ben Nel in 1974, the brothers became alarmed, halted the wagon, dismounted and uncoupled the team of oxen. When the:y were about 50 m from the wagon, Frans remembered that he had not brought his coat along. He went back to fetch it, and had actually taken hold of it, when an explosive pom-pom shell pen'etrated the wagon. There were, amongst small-arms ammunition, four cases of dynamite on the wagon (De Wet, 1902, p213), which detonated immediately. The blast was heard at Liebenbergskoppie, 5 km north of Parys.

The result

The explosion left a large crater, which may be seen to this day (S 26.94746, E 27.42610): All that could be found of Frans Jooste was a hand and part of a foot. A local resident, Jeff van der Schyff, buried the remains of Frans Jooste inside the crater. The two agterosse (rear oxen) were also killed, but the rest of the team ran off. They were outspanned on a neighbouring farm by a Mrs Delport. Hans Jooste was captured the next day and banished to St Helena as a prisoner-of-war. He returned to Bethlehem after the war (Retief and Nel, 2007). [The particulars of Boer POWs taken by the British Army during the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902), are kept by the War Museum of the Boer Republics in Bloemfontein. According to these records, POW No 15271 Burgher Johannes Ignatius Lodewikus Jooste (18), of the farm Rusfontein, ward (Midden)-Liebenbergsvlei, district of Bethlehem, was captured on 28 October 1900 near the Vaal River and banished to St Helena].

Le Gallais' gunners, members of the 1st New South Wales Mounted Rifles, were delighted with their success (Chamberlain and Drooglever, 2003, pp 346,7). It was dark by then, at 18:30, with the rain coming down in torrents. These factors enabled De Wet to escape, the rain partially obliterating his tracks. He continued moving eastwards and, under cover of darkness, he and his men turned south-west, reaching the Wittekopjes on 28 October and Winkel's Drift on the Rhenoster River the next day.

From Winkel's Drift, De Wet proceeded to meet President Steyn on 31 October at Ventersdorp in the Transvaal, while his commando went on in the direction of Bothaville.

Memorial to Frans Jooste.
Groot-Eilandkop is visible in the background.
(Photo: By courtesy, J Retief).

Here, De Wet was engaged with Gen Knox in the Battle of Doornkraal on 6 November 1900 (Smith, 2015), suffering possibly the worst tactical defeat he experienced during the entire war (Scholtz, 2003, p188). Unperturbed, however, he was soon on his way to open up a new front in the Cape Colony, as agreed with President Steyn at Ventersdorp.

In 1974 a monument in honour of Frans Jooste was built inside the crater by Ben Nel and the Arende-span (Eagle team) of the Parys Voortrekker Commando (an Afrikaner Youth Movement). Frans Jooste is also remembered on a monument at the Dutch Reformed Church in Lindley, Free State. His name occurs in a list of the fallen of the Bethlehem Commando as well (Grobler, 1937, p152).

Acknowledgement

The author wishes to thank Ben Nel for assistance with this article.

References


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