The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

Military History Journal
Vol 2 No 5 - June 1973

Studies in the Generalship of the Boer Commanders

C.J. Barnard

This article is the text of a talk to the S. A. Military History Society by Professor Barnard of the Department of History, University of South Africa. The maps are by R.H. Wishart, S.A. National War Museum.

In the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902 Great Britain and the British Empire had to fight for almost three years to subjugate the two Boer Republics, the South African Republic (the Transvaal) and the Orange Free State. To achieve this end the Empire had to put into the field approximately 450 000 men against two states whose white population, as Lloyd George expressed it, did not exceed that of Flintshire and Denbighshire.(1) The tenacitv with which the Republics defended their independence was due to the love of liberty, self-sacrifice and faith in God of the best part of the Boer people, the perseverance and courage of the burghers on commando and the resolution and outstanding generalship of their leading officers.

In this talk the military skill of a few well-known Boer generals will be illustrated by their conduct in two actions in which they excelled themselves. The first is General Christiaan de Wet's attack on 7th June 1900 on a British ammunition and supply dump at the railway station Rooiwal near the Northern Free State town of Koppies. At the age of 45 De Wet was by this time commander-in-chief of the greater part of the Free State commandos. After his stirring successes at Nicholson's Nek in Natal, Bloubank and Paardebergdrif south-east of Kimberley, Sannaspos, and Mostertshoek near Reddersburg his fame had become legendary. He was the first Boer general who thoroughly understood the tactics of mobile warfare. It was his constant aim to avoid the superior forces of the enemy and then to strike quickly the moment his adversaries relaxed their vigilance.(2)

By the end of the first week of June 1900, when De Wet attacked at Rooiwal, the endurance and morale of the Republics, and especially of the Transvaal, had reached a very low ebb indeed. During the previous weeks Lord Roberts's armv of more than 100 000 men had rumbled forward irresistibly along a front which had stretched from Griqualand West to Natal. Johannesburg and Pretoria had fallen. President Kruger and his government had retired to Machadodorp, and the Transvaal commandos under the young Commandant-General Louis Botha - men who had stood like a stone wall on the Tugela and the Modder River were in a state of demoralisation and despair.

A few days previously (on 28th May 1900) the Orange Free State had been proclaimed a British colony and 40 000 troops were left behind to keep this new addition to the British Empire in subjection. The resistance of the Free Staters was confined to the North-Eastern Free State, where De Wet had 8 000 burghers under his command. A strong cordon had already been thrown around them; in the south it stretched from Winburg via Senekal to Ficksburg, and in the west there were British garrisons at Kroonstad, Lindley and Heilbron (see map 1). Behind these garrisons, however, the railway, Lord Roberts's main supply line, was relatively unprotected. The railway, which had been severely damaged by the retreating Transvaal commandos, was now repaired as far as Vredefort Road (the present-day Greenlands) and huge quantities of food, clothing and ammunition were accumulating at Rooiwal in anticipation of the opening of the line northwards to the Transvaal.(3) This gave De Wet an opportunity which he seized with alacrity.

His scouts under the resourceful Captain Gideon Scheepers (who was executed by a British firing squad later in the war) kept him informed of what was happening along the railway. In the evening of 1st June De Wet with about 700 men left his laager at President Koppie, 12 miles north-east of Heilbron, for Rooiwal and its valuable booty. While his force was concealed at Smitsdrif on the Renoster River during the afternoon of 3rd June, he received a report that an enemy convoy was on its way to Heilbron from Renoster River bridge (see map 2). It consisted of 56 wagons laden with supplies for the British 9th Division at that town and was escorted by 160 infantrymen without artillery - Scottish Highlanders or Bergskotte (Mountain Scots) as the burghers called them.

Eagerly watched by the scouts the Highlanders laagered for the night about 500 yards from the north bank of the Renoster River on the farm Swawelkrans which belonged to one of De Wet's officers, Commandant Lucas Steenkamp of Heilbron. The convoy commander, Captain James Corballis, who had observed some Boers blocking the road 3 000 yards ahead, sent a messenger to Vredefort Road to ask for reinforcements. A force of 600 men thereupon marched through the night to within four miles of the laager, but neither seeing nor hearing any sign of it, returned after sunrise the next morning - Monday, 4th June 1900.

For the British, however, the silence was ominous. By this time on that cold winter's morning De Wet had the Highlanders and their convoy in the hollow of his hand. During the night he had moved silently down the Renoster River with a party of burghers and at daybreak the camp was encircled. Shortly after 9.15 a.m. a burgher with a flag of truce presented himself to Corballis. He delivered a message from De Wet in which the general told the convoy commander that he was hopelessly surrounded and had better surrender. Not long afterwards the white flag was in the air and the Highlanders, with the 9th Division's ammunition and provisions, in Boer hands; and all this was accomplished in De Wet's characteristic style without a shot being fired to warn the troops at Heilbron or along the railway.(4)

De Wet now began to prepare for the assault on Rooiwal. His plan was to attack the British at three points along the railway: at Rooiwal station, at Renoster River bridge, two miles further north, and at Vredefort Road, 14 miles north of the bridge. On Wednesday evening, 6th June De Wet set off from Smitsdrif with his officers and burghers. At Walfontein he divided his force. He was to lead the attack on Rooiwal station personally. Since, according to his information, the enormous stocks of goods at the station were guarded by less than 100 troops, he selected 80 men for this attempt. They were to be supported by a Krupp field gun.

At Renoster River bridge there was a considerably larger force. De Wet assigned the attack here to General Stoffel Froneman, with 300 men, two Krupps and a quick-firing gun. Vredefort Road was to be attacked by Commandant Lucas Steenkamp with 300 men and a Krupp. The troops at Vredefort Road were negligible, but Commandant Steenkamp also had to protect the right flank of the attackers at Renoster River bridge and Rooiwal against a larger British force along the railway further to the north.

The assault parties separated quietly in the darkness and rode off to their objectives (see map 2). Before dawn on Thursday morning, 7th June 1900 De Wet and his 80 men approached across the open plain to within 800 yards of Rooiwal station. Here the Krupp gun was unlimbered and placed in position. Suddenly three bursts of rifle-fire rang out in the distance; Froneman had made contact with the troops at Renoster River bridge. Then all was quiet once more. At daybreak De Wet again sent a burgher with a flag of truce to the British commander. His message read that the station was surrounded by 1 000 men with four guns and he called upon the post to surrender within ten minutes. The messenger returned with a reply from Captain A. G. W. Grant that he would certainly not do so. De Wet then opened fire on the station, to which the defenders responded briskly.

Grant's force consisted of approximately 170 men - considerably more than De Wet had supposed. They were entrenched, on the eastern side of the station facing the attack, behind a row of trucks and the platform of a goods shed, and on all other sides by barricades of mail bags and bales of clothing and blankets (see sketch). De Wet's burghers fired while lying flat on the ground. The Krupp, however, was without cover and the General ordered the gun to be withdrawn to a distance of 3 000 yards from Rooiwal. The move was carried out under a sharp covering fire by De Wet's riflemen without a man or horse being hit. From their new position the gunners resumed their bombardment and gave De Wet a clear advantage over his opponents, who had no artillery. The station's corrugated iron buildings were shot to pieces and the defenders were pinned down in their entrenchments by shrapnel and a hail of bullets.

Meanwhile there had also been severe fighting at Renoster River bridge. The British here consisted mainly of the 4th Derbyshire Regiment and a detachment of Imperial Yeomanry, altogether approximately 700 men. They had pitched their camp at the foot of the ridge a mile north of the bridge. Two companies guarded the bridge, while two more companies were in position on the hills above the camp. During the night Commandant C. Nel of Kroonstad suddenly overpowered the troops at the bridge. At the same time Froneman reached the hills to the north. At daybreak he had gained complete command of the camp and proceeded to fire into it and to mop up the companies on the hills. The bewildered troops held out for some hours but the relentless artillery- and rifle-fire of the Free Staters gradually cut them down, and at about 10 a.m. white flags were waving everywhere. According to a dispatch by De Wet approximately 200 soldiers were killed or wounded here and 500 taken prisoner as against one burgher mortally wounded. Froneman and his men had carried out their mission splendidly.

By this time Commandant Steenkamp, too, had surprised the garrison at Vredefort Road, capturing the stores and taking 38 prisoners without firing a shot. Later he became engaged in a prolonged skirmish with troops who had arrived by train from the north. The soldiers eventually withdrew again by train after five burghers had been slightly wounded.

As soon as De Wet was informed of the surrender of the troops at Renoster River bridge, he ordered that Froneman's guns be brought to Rooiwal immediately. Against the cross-fire which he brought to bear upon the station after the arrival of the guns, the defenders had no answer and at noon the white flag was hoisted. The British losses, as De Wet reported that evening, were seven killed, 23 wounded and the rest (about 140), prisoners. His own casualties were two burghers wounded.(5)

The booty which now fell into De Wet's hands was the largest captured by the Boers throughout the war. The sight of it astonished the General and his burghers; bales of clothing and cases of ammunition and other supplies piled up in enormous quantities in the barricades, the railway trucks and elsewhere on the station. There were thousands of cases of small-arms and artillery-ammunition of various calibres, including the huge lyddite shells for Lord Roberts's two 9-inch siege guns. There were thousands of winter uniforms (or suits of warm clothes, as De Wet described them), great-coats, warm underwear, socks, boots, gloves and blankets - enough to fit out lavishly all the Free State commandos. The cases of food contained, among other things, tinned meat, canned fruit, coffee and sugar. It was a source of heartfelt regret to De Wet that only a relatively small number of burghers could share in this enormous loot, for to carry away everything was out of the question. With strong British forces in the vicinity, by far the greater part of his capture would have to be destroyed as soon as possible.

There were incredible scenes after De Wet had allowed his burghers to take what they wanted. The first target was the large consignment of champagne. A toast was proposed to Lord Roberts who had so generously provided for all their needs. Then three boisterous cheers went up for 'Oom Christiaan'. In the looting which followed, the burghers were soon smartly dressed in brand-new winter outfits, many of them smoking fat cigars. The parcels from the two big mail consignments of approximately 2 000 bags for Lord Roberts's army yielded a breath-taking treasure: watches, binoculars, clothing, drinking flasks, tobacco, cakes, chocolates. 'You could have found there practically anything from an anchor to a needle', Commandant C. A. van Niekerk (later for many years President of the South African Senate) recalled. With De Wet's permission, the British prisoners-of-war, too, threw themselves upon the loot, plundering their own mail with enthusiasm while chatting amiably with the burghers.

In these circumstances De Wet later had the greatest difficulty in getting a sufficient number of burghers away from the loot for more important duties. He succeeded nevertheless in having some 600 cases of artillery and Lee-Metford ammunition carried away 300 yards from the station. Furthermore the railway was broken up over a 10-mile stretch and all the bridges destroyed, including Renoster River bridge which had previously been blown up by the retreating commandos and had just been repaired by British engineers.

Late in the afternoon preparations were made to burn the goods and explode the ammunition which had to be abandoned. Towards sunset De Wet ordered his burghers and their prisoners to proceed to his camp at Doringdraai. The burghers' horses were so laden with booty that for many of them there was no room in the saddle and they had to lead their animals by the bridle. The prisoners likewise tried to carry away heavy loads. The strain soon proved too much for most of them; they lightened their burdens as they trudged along, leaving a trail of articles which they could carry no further. De Wet then chose 15 men to set light to the supplies they had to leave behind. Soon the dump was ablaze and the General and his burghers galloped off hastily. When they had covered about 1 500 yards the ammunition exploded with tremendous detonations and a huge sheet of flame shot into the air.(6)

De Wet had thus brought his raid to a spectacular conclusion. The operation had been carried out with the flair and tactical skill which always characterised his conduct as a commander. He had slipped past the British troops with ease and had unexpectedly hit the enemy at his most vulnerable point. With a loss of one killed and seven wounded, he had put out of action more than 1 100 soldiers,(7) including, according to his own returns, about 230 killed and wounded. Lord Roberts's line of communication had been badly damaged and the supplies of his army reduced to charred wreckage and a big hole in the ground. This was the sort of coup that made De Wet's name a legend in the Republics, in the British Army, and across the world.

The following night the ammunition which had been removed from Rooiwal, was buried secretly by De Wet's orders on his farm Rooipoort, three miles west of Renoster River bridge. Early in 1901 he had it transferred, again secretly at night, to a cave on the farm of General Wessel Wessels of Harrismith; and in the later stages of the war, when virtually all the burghers were armed with British Lee-Metford rifles, their ammunition was often replenished from this magazine.(8)

But the most important result of Rooiwal was that it helped to rekindle the flame of resistance in the Republics, not only in the Free State, but also in the Transvaal, where it had flickered so uncertainly after the occupation Johannesburg and Pretoria a few days previously. De Wet's report of his success at Rooiwal reached Commandant General Louis Botha on 10th June 1900 on the eve of the battle of Diamond Hill east of Pretoria. After all the set backs of the previous weeks this news was undoubtedly an added incentive to Botha and his commandos to face the future 'with clenched teeth', as De Wet expressed it, and continue the war.(9)

The second action which will be reviewed, is the attack on 13th December 1900 by Generals Koos de la Rey and Christiaan Beyers on a British force on the farm Nooitgedacht, about 40 miles west of Pretoria. By this time the South African Republic, like the Free State at the time of Rooiwal, had also been formally annexed to the British Empire. President Kruger was an exile in Europe. The overwhelming British Army had penetrated the southern half of the Transvaal and in the main cities and towns as well as at strategic points along the roads and railways there were British garrisons. Between these bases mobile columns were attempting to clear the area of further resistance.

For the British, however, the task was becoming more and more difficult. Already during his long retreat along the railway line to Lourenco Marques General Louis Botha had begun to reorganise the armed forces of the Transvaal. Thc plan was that the commandos would gradually disappear before the British Army and disperse over the wide spaces of the Republic, each to its own region. By December 1900 Botha's reorganisation was complete. The Transvaal was divided into five large areas of operations: the Eastern Transvaal highveld south of the railway to Lourenco Marques where Botha himself was in command - in addition to his supreme command as Commandant-General, - the South-Eastern Transvaal under his brother General Chris Botha, the Eastern Transvaal north of the railway under General Ben Viljoen, the Northern Transvaal under General Christiaan Beyers and the Western Transvaal under General Koos de la Rey(10) (see map 3).

After the occupation of Pretoria the Western Transvalers had surrendered practically en masse. But since July 1900 the 53-year-old De la Rey had succeeded remarkably in bringing the commandos back into action in the vast region under his command; and by the beginning of December he was looking anxiously for an opportunity of giving the enemy a real thrashing. Apart from other considerations, the burghers' clothes were wearing out and his Mauser ammunition was getting so exhausted that it was becoming necessary to change over to Lee-Metford rifles.(11) For all these requirements De la Rey was, of course, dependent upon the seemingly inexhaustible resources of the British Army. His chance came on Monday, 3rd December 1900. Assisted by State Attorney Jan Smuts, now one of his generals at the age of 30, he suddenly overran part of an enemy convoy at Buffelspoort on the road from Pretoria to Rustenburg north of the Magaliesberg - a route which the British, with fatal assurance, had considered to be 'as safe as Piccadilly'.(12) Approximately 120 soldiers were put out of action and 126 fully loaded wagons were captured, containing, in addition to supplies such as boots and clothes, a variety of delicacies and Christmas presents for the garrison at Rustenburg.(13)

De la Rey had no sooner seized the Christmas convoy, as he called it, than a bigger prey appeared upon the scene. With a force of more than 1 500 men, nine guns and a Maxim, Major-General R. A. P. Clements began to advance westwards up the Moot, the lovely valley between the Witwatersrant and the Magaliesberg. As had happened during his previous visits to the Moot, Clements's progress could be followed by the smoke and flames rising from the farmsteads which he was plundering mercilessly in this fertile agricultural region. In the afternoon of 8th December he pitched his camp on the farm Nooitgedacht, where the Magaliesberg rises precipitously 1 000 feet above the valley. The camp stood at the foot of the mountain at the entrance to a wooded gorge in which a footpath climbed up between the towering cliffs and a little stream of water flowed down on to the plain (see map 4).

The gorge was indeed the reason for Clements's choice of a camping site. It had water for his troops and animals and gave access to the crest, from where he could communicate by heliograph with Brigadier-General R. G. Broadwood's 2nd Cavalry Brigade at Kromrivier north of the Magaliesberg, some eight miles to the north-west. The plan was that he and Broadwood would co-operate in driving the commandos from this vicinity.

De la Rey watched the erection of the camp with great satisfaction. For a tactician of his calibre the disadvantages of the site which Clements had chosen, were all too obvious. The position was completely dominated by the rugged crests on either side of the gorge. In addition, the four companies of Northumberland Fusiliers which Clements had ordered to take up position on the mountain - two companies (approximately 150 men) on each crest - were, for practical purposes, isolated from the camp. In case of an attack on the mountain they could neither be reinforced nor withdrawn along the steep footpath in the gorge.

On 10th December 1900 De la Rey with Smuts and a few other officers carefully reconnoitred the camp. It was his intention to attack Clements the following night, but on 11th December he received a report that General Beyers, commander of the Northern Transvaal commandos, had arrived with 1 500 men and two guns at Bethany in the territory of Chief Koos Mamagalie, 15 miles north of the Magaliesberg, and that he was on his way to join De la Rey. Consequently De la Rey decided to defer his projected attack until Beyers had arrived. Altogether they would then have about 2 500 men under their command.(14)

Beyers was at that time aged 31, a Boksburg attorney and former Transvaal rugby forward. In the great battles in Natal early in the war he had fought in the trenches as a common burgher and when in September 1900 General Botha had appointed him Assistant Commandant-General for the Northern Transvaal, he was only an assistant field-cornet.(15) Although a stranger in these parts, he had, after initial opposition, reorganised and strengthened his commandos with great efficiency and was now ready to lead them in the field. His 65-mile journey during the past few days from Warmbaths to Bethany with a huge baggage train of approximately 100 wagons was already a fine achievement. He now intended to trek during the night of 11th-12th December 1900 through Kromrivierkloof and Breedtsnek across the Magaliesberg to the Moot, a distance of 24 miles over rugged, almost impassable terrain.

Along this route Broadwood's cavalry brigade was camped directly in his way at Elandskraal, where it had arrived that morning - 11th December - from Kromrivier. Beyers was determined, if necessary, to attack this force and drive it away, although he would have preferred to slip through to De la Rey without being observed. As things turned out, however, he got rid of Broadwood by other means. The unusually cordial reception which he and his burghers had been accorded by Chief Mamagalie, had aroused Beyers's suspicion. He thereupon quietly left the impression that he intended to attack Rustenburg. Of this intention the British were soon informed and Broadwood's cavalry, to the astonishment of Beyers's scouts who were watching them, hurredly broke up camp that afternoon and rode off towards Rustenburg for all they were worth.(16)

The road was now clear for Beyers. His commandos trekked throughout the night, but at dawn the next morning - Wednesday 12th December - a long procession of his wagons and horsemen was still struggling up the weather-beaten track on the rocky northern slopes of the Magaliesberg. Beyers ordered his burghers to take a short rest and then to resume their journey across the mountain through Breedtsnek - a trek which they completed only in the afternoon.

Meanwhile De la Rey had met Beyers in the nek that morning. Accompanied by a few of Beyers's officers, including Commandant Jan Kemp, the future fiery combat general, and Commandant Lodi Krause, who, like Smuts, was a former student of Stellenbosch and Cambridge, the two generals rode eastwards along the Moot to a hill approximately three miles south-west of Nooitgedacht, from where they had a view of Clements's camp. Here they agreed to attack the British at first light the next morning - Thursday, 13th December 1900.

The plan, briefly, was that Beyers with the largest portion of his force would storm the British entrenchments on the Magaliesberg. A detachment of his burghers would be placed in Breedtsnek to keep an eye on Broadwood and cover Beyers's attack in the rear. In the Moot De la Rey would lead the assault on Clements's camp. He himself with the Rustenburg Commando would attack the ridges west and south of Nooitgedacht. On his left one of Beyers's commandos, that of the Pretoria district under Commandant C.P.S. Badenhorst, would advance with two guns along the southern slope of the Magaliesberg. Smuts with a commando of Krugersdorpers and De la Rey's scouts under Commandant Koos Boshoff would attack the ridges south-east of the camp and especially the key position of Vaalkop (or Yeomanry Hill, as the British called it). It was clear that, if Clements were driven from his camp, he would have to retreat to Vaalkop. If, therefore, Smuts could capture and hold this hill, the British escape route would be closed and they would be trapped, camp and all.(17)

The projected operations demanded a particularly strenuous effort from Beyers's burghers. They had had no sleep the previous night and their trek across the Magaliesberg to the farm Boschfontein in the Moot continued until that afternoon. At dusk Beyers called his men together. Below the rugged cliffs hundreds of burghers thereupon knelt down with bare heads while their indomitable chaplain the Reverend A. P. Kriel led them in prayer. About midnight Beyers rode up Breedtsnek in the darkness with a strong mounted force. On top of the mountain he turned right with the Waterbergers under Commandant M. P. van Staden and his scouts under Lodi Krause and proceeded along the boulder-strewn summit to the western crest above Nooitgedacht. Kemp with the Krugersdorpers and Commandant Ernst Marais with the Soutpansbergers crossed the mountain and rode along its northern base to approach the crest on the eastern side of the gorge at Nooitgedacht from a northerly direction. The whole assault force consisted of approximately 750 men.

When Beyers's detachment had covered three and a half miles on the summit, he ordered the burghers to leave their horses. They were still about a mile from the foremost British position and walked on stealthily in extended order. On the right were Krause's scouts, their right flank on the southern crest line of the Magaliesberg, above the precipitous cliffs. Left of them were the Waterbergers with Beyer in the lead, his revolver in one hand and riding-whip in the other.

At this stage heavy and continuous firing broke loose in the Moot. It was Badenhorst's burghers who had advanced more quickly in the darkness than had been intended and had become involved in furious fighting with Clements' mounted infantry on the ridge west of the camp. The shoot ing was already beginning to die down again when the scout on the summit collided with the enemy. As they moved forward carefully in the dawn, a volley of rifle-fire suddenly crashed into them from behind some rocks 80 yards ahead. Six burghers bit the dust. Krause shouted to his men to lie down and fire. They obeyed and their bullets whined amongst the rocks. When the volleys of the defenders began to grow fainter Krause jumped up. 'Voorwaarts! Voorwaarts!' he yelled, and under a sharp covering fire from a section of his burghers he charged with the rest over the entrenchments into the British position. Ten Tommies lay dead or wounded and 15 were taken prisoner. It was now 4.30 a.m. and the sun was rising.

The other British positions were then attacked in succession. Krause continued with his tactics; half his men stormed while the other half kept the defenders crouching behind the rocks with their fire. By 6 a.m. the scouts had taken six positions and from the lofty cliffs were looking down upon the mounted infantry camp. The whole western crest in fact was in Beyers's possession, for the Waterbergers, too, had overrun the positions in front of them. Beyers himself had led his men unflinchingly - and sometimes, where necessary had driven them on with the mighty blows of his lash.

From the western crest Beyers's burghers could fire upon the troops on the eastern crest from the flank and diagonally from the rear. Some of them rushed across the nek to co-operate with Kemp and Marais's men, and after a short, fierce engagement the remaining defenders gave themselves up. Meanwhile other burghers, perched upon the cliffs overlooking the gorge, caused severe casualties among a British detachment climbing up the footpath in a long straggling queue to reinforce their comrades on the summit. For a time, according to Boer eye-witnesses, the brook running down the gorge was red with blood of dead soldiers lying in the water.(18)

Despite his preponderance in men, Beyers's attack was a fine feat - as General Smuts later recounted in his memoirs: 'Only those who have been in it know what spirit and nerve are required to storm in broad daylight, albeit in superior numbers, an entrenched enemy who is waiting for you. It is the moment when the stoutest quail and the instinct to seek shelter often proves stronger than the most determined courage. And even in Beyers's army there were men whom this terrible ordeal unnerved. It is told of Kemp, who was then one of Beyers's most dashing commandants, that, retiring some little way down the mighty precipices to look for some missing burghers, he came on a small party who were holding a prayer-meeting in comfortable shelter at the hottest stage of the fight. To his indignant question what they were doing there, these wily folk replied that, like Aaron and Hur, they were holding up the arms of Moses in prayer so that victory might be secured to the Lord's people! I am afraid that their comfortable praying was rudely disturbed by the swing of the sjambok. What else could you do to such canting cowards? On the whole the religious character of Beyers made his commando a unique combination of praying and fighting even for the Boers - but each at the right time and not to the detriment of the other'.(19)

By 7 a.m. the bloody battle on the Magaliesberg had ended and from the crests Beyers's burghers began to fire upon the camp as fast as they could load their rifles.(20)

With the mountain in Boer hands, approximately a third of his troops killed, wounded or taken prisoner and his camp under a hail of bullets, Clements had to act promptly if anything were still to be saved. The ridges west and south of his camp were held by his mounted infantry, who before daybreak had met and repulsed Badenhorst's attack. There had been grievous losses on both sides and the British commander in this sector, Colonel N. Legge, had been killed. But De la Rey had not resumed the fight here at dawn. He explained later that he first wanted to be sure that Beyers's attack had succeeded (21) - an unexpectedly timid attitude for such a sturdy old fighter.

South-east of the camp Smuts, too, had failed to capture Vaalkop. He had been unable in the darkness to make out where Vaalkop was and had had to wait for daybreak. By this time the enemy had been alerted by Badenhorst's attack and had reinforced his pickets on Vaalkop. Despite repeated efforts with his best men Smuts, therefore, could not secure a firm foothold on the hill.

Clements now ordered that the troops he still had at his disposal should rally upon Vaalkop. His guns covered the retreat and their shells, especially the big lyddite shells of a 4.7 inch naval gun, exploded spectacularly on the crests of the Magaliesberg. Finally the guns, too, were withdrawn - with great difficulty and under constant rifle-fire - and at 10.30 a.m. the remnants of Clements's force were assembled at Vaalkop. His camp, however, with most of his wagons, horses, stores and ammunition, had to be abandoned.

For the burghers the camp immediately became an irresistible attraction. Beyers's men hurried towards it down the gorge, De la Rey's burghers and most of those of Smuts rushed at it across the plain, and a lusty looting was soon in full swing. Neither the efforts of De la Rey and Beyers, nor sporadic shell-fire from Vaalkop could induce them to continue the attack, and at 3.15 p.m. Clements began to withdraw his troops eastwards in the Moot virtually without interference.(22)

Smuts and a small party of burghers followed them at a respectful distance, but after a while returned to the camp which they reached about sunset. In his memoirs of the war Smuts gives a graphic description of the scene he encountered on his arrival:

'What a sight met my eyes! An indescribable pandemonium in which psalm-singing, looting and general hilarity mingled with explosions of bullets and bombs to give a tragicomic character to the whole. Kemp had unwisely set most of the wagons on fire, and as many of them contained ammunition cases, the camp resembled more the rattling fire of an action than a quiet possession forever. All round the camp groups of our horses were tethered together having a good time from Clements's ample commissariat. Here parties were wandering about the tents looking for rare objects in the officers' kits; there another group were discussing over a bottle of rum, with tears of enjoyment in their eyes, the incidents of the day; here some zealous young fellows were poring over the papers of General Clements for valuable information, and close to them a burning wagon resembled a blockhouse in action. On the other side of this wagon the veteran Rev. A. P. Kriel was eloquently expressing the feelings of joy and thanks of his large audience, into which a broadside or volley would from time to time be poured from the fateful ammunition wagon. My neighbour's devotions were rudely interrupted by a bullet in his leg, and in other parts of the field the devil was playing the same uncanny pranks with the devotional temper of the burghers. And there - sitting on some officer's low stool and taking in the whole scene with a smile lighting up his weary, noble face - was our veteran old leader De la Rey, whose hard work had at last met its reward and whose heart was stirred by a sense of gratitude which went deeper than the eloquent words of the Rev. Kriel could express, and was satisfied with a silent wistful contemplation of the whole scene.'(23)

As had happened during the attack on the Christmas convoy, General Broadwood and his cavalry had not come to Clements's assistance. He was near Rustenburg, 15 miles to the north-west, when the fighting on the Magaliesberg began. When he heard the noise of the battle, he did indeed, according to Lodi Krause, inquire by heliograph whether Clements needed help. A quick-witted heliographer with Beyers's force in Breedtsnek intercepted the message and reassured Broadwood. 'All right. No assistance needed', he flashed back. True to his centrifugal tendencies (as Smuts expressed it), this erratic British general thereupon spent the day peacefully and, although unintentionally, left Clements to his fate.(24)

Nooitgedacht was not one of De la Rey's best fights. His attack had not been well co-ordinated with that of Beyers. His burghers, too, did not yet possess the discipline with which he was later to infuse them. In General Clements, moreover, he had faced a formidable opponent who had resolutely extricated himself from his predicament and had escaped with half his troops and all his guns.

De la Rey and Beyers had nevertheless shown themselves to be, like De Wet, masters of the mobile operations which were at this stage of the war an indispensable requirement of Boer strategy. By reconnoitring carefully and manoeuvring nimbly they had quietly concentrated their commandos against an isolated British force on terrain which was tactically unfavourable to it and they had inflicted upon the British Army its heaviest defeat since it had marched into the Transvaal five months before. In killed, wounded, missing and prisoners, it had sustained a loss of 638 men.(25) The camp furthermore had yielded a big booty: horses and mules, saddles and bridles, artillery and small arms ammunition, Lee-Metford rifles and large stocks of provisions. The Boer losses, according to De la Rey, were 17 killed and 61 wounded.(26)

For the British Nooitgedacht was a particularly unwelcome and disconcerting comment on Lord Roberts's statement a few days previously that, but for the depredations of small roving bands, the war was over.(27)

Rooiwal and Nooitgedacht - both engagements in the early stages of the guerilla war - were examples of the blows which the Boers repeatedly inflicted upon their opponents during the last 18 months of the war, usually after defeat and disorderly flight or intervals of deceptive calm. De Wet, De la Rey and Beyers admirably applied the tactical principles of mobility, security, flexibility and surprise. In addition their conduct was characterised by an unshakable resolution and a resourcefulness which made their successes echo across the world.

In the great defensive battles at the beginning of the war the Boers, by their baffling skill and originality, had already foiled the British aim of crushing the Republics in a brief campaign. But it was especially in the protracted guerilla operations that Generals Botha and De Wet, the Republican commanders-in-chief, and their fellow generals, steadily raised the price for their independence until at the end of the war the total was as follows: a tally of British losses (including invalids sent home) of 97 500, of whom at least 22 000 were killed in action or died of wounds and other causes(28); a war cost for Britain of 250 million UK Pounds and an incalculable loss of British prestige. The imperial idea had lost its moral pretensions and Britain's self-confident and glowing urge for expansion was quenched for good.(29)

The remorseless violence with which Britain waged the war by the time of Nooitgedacht ensured that she would not attain one of her major objectives, namely the destruction of national spirit of the Republican Boers. It had the opposite effect and stimulated their nationalism. In this process the dramatic victories which the Boer generals and their burghers achieved until the last months of the war, made a great contribution. They made the Boer people retain their pride and self-respect. After almost three years of stubborn resistance and sacrifice the Republics eventually lost their independence, but a deeply felt yearning for it survived. This to a large extent determined the course of South African history in the Twentieth Century.


See G. H. L. le May, British Supremacy in South Africa 1899-1907 (Oxford, 1965), p.36; L. S. Amery (ed.), The Times History of the War in South Africa 1899-1902 (seven vols., London, 1900-1909), VI, p. 278. (Hereafter Times History.)
See C. R. de Wet, Three Years War (October 1899-June 1902) (London, 1902), pp.99, 264; W. K. Hancock and J. van der Poel (eds.), Selections from the Smuts Papers (four vols., Cambridge, 1966), I (June 1886-May 1902), pp.658-660; Times History, IV, pp. 260-261.
See Selections from the Smuts Papers, I, pp.540-549; Times History, IV, ch. III, IV, VII; History of the War in South Africa compiled by the direction of His Majesty's Government, III (London, 1908), ch. III, IV, V. (Hereafter Official History.)
De Wet, Three Years War, pp. 129-130; Times History, IV, pp.262- 263; Official History, III, pp. 126-128; War Office (W.O.) 32/7905, proceedings of Court of Inquiry into capture of convoy near Heilbron (4 June 1900), assembled at Pretoria, 10 July 1900. Public Record Office, London: Dr. W. J. Leyds Archive 726(e), Tel. 1 of 5 June 1900. Transvaal Archives. The dates given by De Wet in his Three Years War in connection with his capture of this convoy are incorrect.
De Wet, pp.130-137; Times History, IV, pp. 264-265; Official History, III, pp. 129-131; W.O. 105/8, Reports by Capt. W. P. Anderson, Q.M.S. J. H. Mills, Col. N. L. Pearse and Capt. E. B. Bailey (June-July 1900) and W.O. 105/11, Report by Capt. A. G. W. Grant (21 Sept.1900); Leyds Archive 726(f), Tel. 28 of 8 June 1900 and 726(g), Tel. 20 of 10 June 1900 (dispatches by De Wet).
C. R. de Wet, De Strijd tusschen Boer en Brit (18th ed., Amsterdam, 1903), pp. 90-93, and Three Years War, pp.133-137; H. C. Hopkins, Maar Een soos Hy, die Lewe van Kommandant C. A. van Niekerk (Cape Town, 1963), pp. 79-84; Detailed History of the Railways in the South African War 1899-1902 (two vols., Royal Engineers' Institute, Chatham, 1904), I, pp. 84-85; The Bloemfontein Post, 22 June 1900; De Nieuwe Rotterdamsche Courant, 5 Oct. 1900; Leyds Archive 726(f), Tel. 28 of 8 June 1900 and 726(g), Tel. 20 of 10 June 1900.
This total includes the escort of the convoy captured at Swawelkrans.
De Wet, Three Years War, pp. 138, 241-244; J. D. Kestell, Christiaan de Wet, 'n Lewensbeskrywing (Cape Town, 1920), p.75.
De Wet, p. 124; Leyds Archive 726(f), Tel. 28 of 8 June 1900 and 726(g), Tel. 20 of 10 June 1900.
Order of battle of the Transvaal forces, 1900-1901, in private Anglo-Boer War papers of Advocate N. J. de Wet, military secretary to General Botha, 1900-1902, in my possession. See also Selections from the Smuts Papers, I, pp. 561-574; Times History, IV, p. 458 and V, ch. II.
See Selections from the Smuts Papers, I, pp. 565-637.
Description of a British officer quoted in the Official History, IV, p.3.
Selections from the Smuts Papers, I, pp. 637-640; Official History, IV, pp 2-6; Gen. J. H. de la Rey Collection 17, Reminiscences of Gen. de la Rey 1899-1901, pp. 80-83. Transvaal Archives
See Selections from the Smuts Papers, I, pp. 641-642, also 602-613; De la Rey Collection 17, Reminiscences, pp. 80-85; Dr. G. S. Preller Collection 80, Comdt. L. E. Krause, Anglo-Boer War, pp. 182-190. Transvaal Archives; C. J. S. Strydom, Ruitervuur (Cape Town, 1970), p. 141; Times History, V, pp. 96-101, Official History, IV, pp. 2-13.
G. D. Scholtz, Generaal Christiaan Frederik Beyers, 1869-1914 (Johannesburg, 1941), pp.11-19, 29-34.
Preller Collection 80, Krause, Anglo-Boer War, pp. 162-173,179-186; J. F. Naudé, Vechten en Vluchten (Rotterdam, 1903), pp. 178-187; see Times History, V, pp. 97-99, 105-106.
Selections from the Smuts Papers, I, pp. 642-643; De la Rey Collection 17, Reminiscences, pp. 35-86; Krause, pp.187-190; Naudé, pp.187-189; D. S. van Warmelo, Mijn Commando en Guerilla Commando-Leven (Amsterdam, 1901), pp.123-124; see Times History, V, p. 98.
See Krause, pp. 190-192; Naudé, pp. 189-193; Selections from the Smuts Papers, I, pp.643-644; D. Reitz, Commando (13th ed., London, 1968), pp.132-137; Van Warmelo, pp. 125-133; Strydom, pp.142-146; Times History, V, pp. 100-103.
Selections from the Smuts Papers, I, pp. 644-645.
Krause, p.192; Official History, IV, p. 16; Times History, V, pp.102-103.
De la Rey Collection 17, Reminiscences, p. 86.
Times History, V, pp.103-105; Official History, IV, pp.16-20; Selections from the Smuts Papers, I, pp. 643-646; Krause, p. 192; Reitz, p. 137; Van Warmelo, pp. 134-137.
Selections from the Smuts Papers, I, pp. 645-646.
Krause, pp. 194-196; Selections from the Smuts Papers, I, p. 647; see Times History, V, pp. 105-106.
Official History, IV, p.20
De la Rey Collection 17, Reminiscences, p. 87; Krause, p. 193; Naudé, p. 192.
See Selections from the Smuts Papers, I, p. 658; Times History, IV, pp. 484-489.
See Times History, VII, pp. 24-25.
See A. P. Thornton, The Imperial Idea and its Enemies, A Study in British Power (New York, 1966), pp.106-110; L. C. B. Seaman, Post-Victorian Britain, 1902-1951 (London, 1966), pp.9-10.

Map 1

Map 1

Map 2

Map 2

Map 3

This sketch by Robert H Wishart of General de Wet's attack on Rooiwal (Roodewal) Station was redrawn from a pencil sketch by Captain A G W Grant, 2nd Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry who commanded the British garrison at the station. It should be noted that De Wet had no Armstrong gun with him as Grant indicated in the sketch. According to De Wet's account of the fight in his 'Three Years War', his artillery at Rooiwal consisited of a Krupp field gun reinforced later by two more Krupp field guns from Renoster River bridge.

Map 4

Map 4

Map 5

Map 5

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