by Fransjohan Pretorius (Department of History, University of South Africa)
The name of Gen Christiaan de Wet is generally associated with surprise attacks on British convoys and railway lines during the second phase of the Anglo-Boer War. There were, however, a few incidents when the opposite took place, that is, when the element of surprise was on the British side. This did not favour the Boers, as their success depended upon swiftness and surprise in their attacks.
On 15th July 1900, De Wet, with 2000 men, broke out of the Brandwater Basin through the British cordon south of Bethlehem and started off in a north-westerly direction. Several British columns soon took up the chase, among others the 2nd Cavalry Brigade under command of Brig-Gen R.G. Broadwood and the 3rd Cavalry Brigade temporarily under Lt-Col M.O. Little, and this resulted in the so-called 'First De Wet Hunt'. On 19th July part of De Wet's force was overtaken and surprised by Broadwood near Lindley. Simultaneously the Boer Commander-in-Chief was engaged in a surprise attack on Little a few kilometres away. A couple of nights later De Wet crossed the Bloemfontein-Pretoria railway line unscathed and headed for the hills along the Vaal River to the north-west of Vredefort.
Gen C.R. de Wet
(War Museum of the Boer Republics)
De Wet's force spent the evening of 23rd July scattered over the farms Klein Bloemfontein and Vlakkuil, to the south-west of Vredefort. Broadwood's 2nd Cavalry Brigade bivouacked on the farm Shepstone, to the south-east of the town.
Towards daybreak the next morning (Tuesday, 24th July) Broadwood continued his advance in a north-westerly direction.(1) At 09h00, as the vanguard was entering Vredefort, five wagons came into view, moving at top speed towards the west.(2) The wagon drivers were part of the company of Boers instructed by De Wet the previous day to grind wheat at Mackenzie's mills at Vredefort. Although the identity of the drivers was unknown to the British at that stage, Brig-Gen C.P. Ridley, accompanying Broadwood with the 2nd Mounted Infantry, immediately ordered Col N. Legge's Mounted Infantry (between three and four hundred men) on the left flank to cut off the wagons. Meanwhile Broadwood led the rest of the force into Vredefort.(3)
Beyond Vredefort Legge apparently soon identified the enemy, and a gruelling race ensued between the company of Boers with their wagons containing flour and the Mounted Infantry. The region ahead, bordering the Vaal River, was hilly and the possibility arose that the Boers would reach the hills before the British were able to cut them off, and the former most probably could also depend on help from the Boer force to the south-west. War correspondent F.H. Howland, who was accompanying the British forces, gives a lively account of the event: 'The chase grew most exciting as the horsemen, taking snap shots now, drew nearer to the wagons, which in their turn were rapidly approaching their own goal.'(4)
For a moment it looked as if the Boers would get away, but after a fierce chase of about 7 kilometres Maj Cookson, who, with his Kitchener's Horse, formed part of the pursuing force, overtook them and captured eighteen Boers.(5) This incident probably took place on the farm Wonderfontein (contemporary number of farm 369), south of Stinkhoutboom on the Vredefort-Bothaville road.(6)
On receiving the report regarding the wagons, De Wet ordered the burghers at Klein Bloemfontein to saddle their horses. Soon they were galloping away towards the scene under his personal leadership, while the artillery under Capt W.H. Muller and Lt PJ. Strydom was being stationed on a hilltop.(7) At the same time the burghers and the T.V.K. (Comdt Danie Theron's Scouts) at the Boer laager further south-west were informed of the situation. Ver Loren van Themaat, who was present, states that he and his companions were preparing their meal at the time when they received the news. Immediately the order 'Opzaal, opzaal' ('Mount, mount') resounded through the laager. The men jumped onto their horses and galloped away to the hills. From here they noticed that the British were far away, apparently in the process of withdrawing. Thereupon they left the hills, each one rushing 'naar de kracht van zijn paard' (as hard as his horse could go) to the aid of their companions at the front.(8)
Meanwhile the burghers at the front, consisting of approximately 400 men(9) under the leadership of De Wet, had taken up their positions behind the hills (apparently to the north and south of the Vredefort-Bothaville road) and were firing at the British, who had just succeeded in capturing the wagons.(10)
Legge thereupon applied tactics that corresponded to the manoeuvres of the Boers in previous skirmishes: hurriedly he took action to remove the captured wagons and the eighteen prisoners from the scene, and while the wagons were being driven back to Vredefort, he took up a rearguard position with his mounted infantry in order to check the Boer force.(11)
De Wet, who was under the impression that the enemy numbered between five and six hundred men, had no intention of allowing the wagons to be captured without a shot being fired, and he ordered his burghers to charge.(12) From the hills on both sides of the road the burghers launched flank attacks on Legge's troops.(13) The difference between the typical positioning of a Boer rearguard and the positions taken up by Legge's Mounted Infantry lay in the fact that the latter had not deployed sufficiently, with the result that they were being attacked on both flanks. Of the assault, De Wet himself says: 'It was an open plain; there was no possible cover either for us or for the English. But we could not consider matters of that sort. The burghers charged magnificently, and some even got to within two hundred paces of the enemy. They then dismounted, and, lying flat upon the ground, opened a fierce fire. One of the hottest fights one can imagine followed. Fortunately a few paces behind the burghers there was a hollow, and here the horses were placed.'(14)
Drawn by Mrs M. Lubbe ( Dept of Geogr4aphy, University of South Africa)
In view of preceding events in the hunt the Boer attack across the open plain was an unusual manoeuvre. After the fight Broadwood stated: '(The) enemy showed great dash and at one moment commenced a vigorous counter attack.'(15) Howland also expressed his amazement at the action by the Boers.(16) Hintrager, who accompanied the Boer artillery, relates: 'Es war eine Herzensfreude, zu sehen, wie heute die Burghers sturmten!'(17) (It was a joy to behold the Boer attack today).
In the midst of the attack Muller and Strydom's artillery started to make its presence felt from the right flank at a range of 4650 metres.(18) In his report Broadwood mentions that Legge 'speedily found himself under an extremely heavy shell and rifle fire, which soon began to tell.'(19) During the fight it was not clear to Broadwood whether the Boers were making a determined stand or whether they were entering into a rearguard action in order to ensure a safe passage for the rest of the Boer force through the Vaal River.(20)
It is difficult to determine exactly which Boer commandos joined in the attack as the force had beer scattered over Vlakkuil and Klein Bloemfontein on the morning of 24th July, and the burghers did not arrive at the scene of the fight simultaneously. The men in the rear, amongst others, members of the T.V.K., were not in the van of the attack owing to their position.(21)
When the fight had raged for about an hour, Broadwood noticed Legge's untenable position and gave the order for a general retirement to a ridge a few kilometres to his rear.(22) It must have been about 10h30 that Broadwood advanced at the same time with his 2nd Cavalry Brigade and Ridley's Mounted Infantry to cover Legge's retreat.(23)
With the appearance of Broadwood the fight took a new turn, as prior to that De Wet was of the opinion 'that at any moment the enemy might be put to rout.'(24) However, Broadwood was checked about 4 kilometres south-west of Vredefort by a violent Boer attack, whereupon two of his guns were placed in position to cover Legge's retreat.(25) According to Howland it was during this retreat that practically the whole day's casualties on the British side occurred, when approximately 30 men were killed or wounded.(26) De Wet now felt obliged to retreat.(27) By 12h40 Broadwood also decided to retreat, which he did in the direction of Vredefort.(28) Immediately before this (at approximately 12h00) Little and the 3rd Cavalry Brigade arrived on the scene from Rhenoster Post and came under Broadwood's command. The latter ordered Little to assist him on the left flank, but the 3rd Cavalry Brigade did not have much to do, and their guns merely fired occasional shots at long range.(29)
The skirmish on 24th July ended with numerous casualties on both sides - 39 on the British side,(30) whereas De Wet reported 5 dead and 12 or 14 wounded on the Boer side.(31)
The operations on this day stressed one fact: as a result of the counter-attack by the Boers, their losses, in relation to the fighting resources of both sides during the course of the war, were far greater than those of the British. It can be ascribed largely to the fact that De Wet was not in a position to determine the course of events. The initiative came from the British. Although his appetite for fighting had been whetted and he had decided not to allow the wagons to be captured without a shot being fired, the choice of time and terrain had not been left to him. When Legge, as a result of De Wet's temperament and the conditions at that specific moment created a situation for confrontation, it turned out to be a setback for De Wet similar to the one five days previously at Karroospruit. In this increasingly mobile warfare he proved himself a formidable opponent when the element of surprise was on his side and when he was in a position to determine the time and place of combat. When the British took the initiative he could still mete out far more than he received, but it was coupled with relatively high losses on the Boer side, and that the Boers could not afford.
On the day after the skirmish the Boers trekked a short distance further, beyond the hills along the Vaal River north of Reitzburg, and outspanned at Rhenosterpoort (504), the farm of Mr Jan Botha, a former member of the Volksraad.(32) For the next fortnight the Boer force remained in the hills, while Lord Kitchener was carefully drawing a cordon around them. De Wet, however, seeing a gap to the north, escaped through the cordon on 6th August and entered the Transvaal. Although the chase was resumed from all corners, De Wet succeeded on 14th August in trekking with his entire force over Olifantsnek in the Magaliesberg (south of Rustenburg) and the 'First De Wet Hunt' was over.
References:1 F.H. Howland, The Chase of De Wet, p.131.
12 C.R. De Wet, Three Years War, p.174.
13 T.A., L.R.P. 10: Report Broadwood, 'Chase of De Wet', 24.7.1900, p.100; cf. P.R.O., W.O. 105, L.R.P. 10 for the same source.
14 C.R. De Wet, Three Years War, p.174.
15 TA., L.R.P. 38: Telegram, Broadwood-Officer Commanding (O.C.), Rhenoster Post, 15h00, 24.7.1900, p.94; cf P.R.O., W.O. 105, L.R.P. 15 for the same source.
16 F.H. Rowland, The Chase of De Wet, p.134.
17 (O. Hintrager), Steijn, De Wet ... p.62.
18 F.H. Howland, The Chase of De Wet, p.133; (O. Hintrager), Steijn, De Wet ...p.61.
19 T.A., L.R.P. 10: Report Broadwood, 'Chase of De Wet', 24.7.1900, p.100; cf P.R.O., W.O. 105, L.R.P. 10 for the same source. F.H. Rowland, The Chase of De Wet, p.133 states that Legge's corps fired 23 000 rounds in this hour.
20 T.A., L.R.P. 38: Telegram, Broadwood - O.C., Rhenoster Post, 11h00, 24.7.1900, pp.93-34; cf P.R.O., W.O. 105, L.R.P. 15 for the same source.
21 H. Ver Loren van Themaat, Twee Jaren ..., pp.160-162.
22 C.R. De Wet, Three Years War, p.174; T.A., L.R.P. 10: Report Broadwood, 'Chase of De Wet', 24.7.1900, pp. 100-101; cf P.R.O., W.O. 105, L.R.P. for the same source; F.H. Rowland, The Chase of De Wet, p.133.
23 T.A., L.R.P. 38: Telegram, Broadwood - O.C., Rhenoster Post, 11h00, 24.7.1900, p.94; cf P.R.O., W.O. 105, L.R.P. 15 for the same source.
24 C.R. De Wet, Three Years War, p.174.
25 T.A., L.R.P. 38: Telegram, Broadwood - O.C., Rhenoster Post, 11h00, 24.7.1900, p.94; cf P.R.O., W.O. 105, L.R.P. 15 for the same source; T.A., L.R.P. 10: Renort Broadwood. 'Chase of De Wet', 24.7.1900, p.l0l; cf. P.R.O., W.O. 105, L.R.P. 10 for the same source; F.H. Howland, The Chase of De Wet, p.134; C.R. De Wet, Three Years War, p.174; H. Ver Loren van Themaat, Twee Jaren ... p.161.
26 F.H. Howland, The Chase of De Wet, p.l34.
27 C.R. De Wet, Three Years War, p.174.
28 T.A., L.R.P. 38: Telegram, Broadwood - O.C., Rhenoster Post, 12h40, 24.7.1900, p.92; cf. P.R.O., W.O. 105, L.R.P. 15 for the same source.
29 F.F. Colvin & E.R. Gordon, Diary of the Ninth Lancers during the South African Campaign, 1899-1902, p.133.
30 Times History of the War in South Africa IV, p. 419n; Official History III, p.326. P.S. Lombard, Uit die Dagboek van 'n Wildeboer, p.65 claims most probably incorrectly that there were 50 casualties at one place alone.
31 C.R. De Wet, Three Years War, p.174; P.S. Lombard, Wildeboer ..., p.
65; (O. Hintrager), Steijn, De Wet..., p.62; M.J. Grobler, Met die Vrystaters
onder die Wapen, pp. 153-154; Times History... IV, p. 419n.Jacob de Villiers
is obviously incorrect in his statement that the Boer losses were two dead
and seven (mostly seriously) wounded (Private Collection, 25.7.1900).
32 Private Collection, Diary of Jacob de Villiers, 25 and 26.7.1900; P.S. Lombard, Wildeboer ..., p.66; (O. Hintrager), Steijn, De Wet ..., p.62; H. Ver Loren van Themaat, Twee Jaren ..., p.164; C.R. De Wet, Three Years War, p.l74. De Wet claims incorrectly that the Boer force took shelter in the hills on the same day of the skirmish.
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