The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

Military History Journal
Vol 6 No 3 - June 1984

Elands River: A Siege Which Possibly Changed the Course of History in South Africa

by Lionel Wulfsohn

After the relief of Mafeking a small post was established on the Elands River (near the present day town of Swartruggens), to act as a half-way house for convoys proceeding between Rustenburg and Zeerust and vice versa. In August 1900 the troops manning the post consisted of 198 Rhodesians and 307 Australians mainly Queenslanders with smaller contingents of Victorians and men from New South Wales, under command of Col H.O. Hore who had previously been involved in the siege of Mafeking.

On August 3, 1900 a convoy of eighty wagons had arrived from Zeerust and was awaiting an escort to protect it on the balance of the journey to Rustenburg. On that night a great camp-fire concert was held with much singing and recitations. While the concert was in progress Gen J.H. De La Rey and his commando were surrounding the post. At first light on August 4, De La Rey opened fire with seven guns. Severe casualties were sustained by the troops and a tremendous carnage was wrought amongst the oxen of the convoy. To add to the chaos shells fell amongst the horses, most of which were regrettably either killed or badly injured.

At nightfall the Boers ceased fire and the defenders did not have to be asked twice to improve their positions. Throughout the night they dug shell-proof shelters in the rocky koppie on which their camp was sited.

A major problem was the lack of water and a sortie probably via the position of Capt A. Butters (of the Southern Rhodesia Volunteers) was made during the night to procure water from the nearby Elands River.

At daybreak on 5 August the Boer bombardment started in earnest and within a few hours 600 shells had fallen on the camp. The defenders had so improved their positions during the night, however, that casualties were minimal.

The garrison was aware that Gen F. Carrington with a force of approximately 1 000 men was on his way from Mafeking to the Elands River to escort the eighty-wagon convoy to Rustenburg.

The defenders hoped that this force might raise the siege but to their dismay learned that not only had this force been beaten back from the besieged post, but had had to retreat in disorder, destroying stores at Groot Marico, Zeerust and Ottoshoop on the way. They were now entirely on their own and Gen De La Rey sent a messenger into the camp demanding their surrender.

It would appear that Gen De La Rey was impressed with his opponents, and told them they were the finest troops he had yet encountered in the war. The Colonials, however, rejected the surrender terms. Gen De La Rey then ordered his guns to open fire which was continued into the night.

The siege continued for days, with the besieged being constantly shelled, and always having to be on guard against a sudden Boer attack. A major problem was the nightly skirmish to collect water from the river.

The British commanders in Pretoria and Mafeking appear to have been under the impression that the Colonials had surrendered. It was only by accident that a message from Gen De La Rey to Gen C.R. De Wet was intercepted which stated that he had besieged a force of 500 Colonials at the Elands River who would not surrender, and asked for De Wet's help. Lord Kitchener immediately despatched a strong force under Brig Gen Broadwood which relieved the post on the 17 August, 1900.

Conan Doyle in his book The Great Boer War states that this stand on the Elands River appears to have been one of the very finest deeds of arms of the War. H W Wilson in After Pretoria - The Guerilla War states that the sights and smells were as terrible as those in Cronje's laager at Paardeberg, and certainly this defence must stand amongst the most honourable achievements of the war.

The consequences of this siege, and in particular the abortive attempt by Gen Carrington to relieve the post, were far reaching. Carrington's failure resulted in the prolongation of the siege and the destruction of valuable British stores at Groot Marico, Zeerust and Ottoshoop. It must also have greatly encouraged De La Rey's and De Wet's burghers to continue the struggle against the British. It undoubtedly led those Boers who had laid down arms to doubt the invincibility of the British Army. But it had a far more serious consequence in that it indirectly affected the great encircling movement against Gen De Wet and his commando which was being driven towards the Magaliesberg. (Incidentally, President Steyn of the Orange Free State was travelling with De Wet.)

Following Carrington's reversal, Gen R. Baden-Powell, in command at Rustenburg, was instructed to take all available men and proceed to the assistance of the beleaguered Colonials. In order to do this he had to withdraw all the men from the defensive positions which had been established at Olifants Nek and Magatos Nek. Leaving behind a small garrison in Rustenburg, he marched with a force of about 15 000 men to the Elands River. When he was about halfway, he received a message from Lord Roberts that the Elands River garrison had surrendered (this was probably based on reports from Gen Carrington) and that he should return to Rustenburg and, under command of Gen Ian Hamilton, proceed to Commando Nek (near the present day Hartebeestpoort dam).

Why it was that Baden-Powell was not instructed to re-occupy the defensive positions at Olifants Nek and Magatos Nek remains a mystery to this day, particularly in view of the fact that the British High Command was very well aware that De Wet was looking for gaps in the Magaliesberg. It has been said that supplies in Rustenburg were exhausted and that there was no alternative but to vacate the town. It is thought, however, that there were two other reasons why Roberts instructed Baden-Powell to leave Rustenburg. Firstly, Roberts was of the opinion that De Wet and his Free Staters were planning an attack on Pretoria and therefore took every precaution to protect the city. Secondly, Baden-Powell had a siege psychosis and was apparently contemplating a siege at Rustenburg with himself as chief defender. Roberts had had enough of the sieges at Kimberley, Ladysmith and Mafeking and promptly pulled Baden-Powell out of the town.

Hamilton, after depositing Baden-Powell and his men at Commando Nek, was instructed to proceed immediately to Olifants Nek and there prevent De Wet from crossing the Magaliesberg. Using his own discretion Hamilton disobeyed this instruction and moved in the direction of Seekoeihoek, from where he sent a telegram to Lord Roberts stating that he was proceeding to the highveld in order to intercept De Wet before he reached the Magaliesberg. In the circumstances Hamilton's breach of Lord Roberts' instructions was excusable. How was he to know that De Wet intended crossing the Magaliesberg at Olifants Nek? De Wet had several options open to him. He could have proceeded down the Moot; he could even have joined De La Rey in the siege at the Elands River; he could have crossed the Magaliesberg at Breedt's Nek, Magatosnek or Boschhoek Nek. So, if Hamilton could intercept De Wet on the highveld, he would eliminate most of these options. That he failed in his objective is attributable to the slowness with which he moved, only thirty miles in two days compared with the forty-five miles which De Wet was able to cover. Therefore, by the time he arrived at a position where De Wet might be stopped, De Wet was already behind him and approaching Olifants Nek. To make matters worse Lord Methuen, who was also chasing De Wet, proceeded to occupy Magatos Nek being under the mistaken impression that Ian Hamilton was in possession of Olifants Nek.

When Gen De Wet's scouts reported to him that Olifants Nek was undefended he must have been overjoyed. Some historians claim that De Wet wished to bypass Pretoria and join Gen Louis Botha's Commando in the Eastern Transvaal. Others state that he intended taking Pretoria from the rear. In actual fact he did neither and instead, fulfilled the main purpose of his mission which was to relieve his commando of the heavy wagons, women, children and old men, which he sent off to the Northern Transvaal via the Bushveld. Whilst De Wet was encamped on the Crocodile River, President Steyn expressed a wish to pay a visit to President Kruger who was then at Machadodorp, and using his spider wagon with a small escort, President Steyn set off Machadodorp by way of Zoutpan.

As all the main passes were occupied by the British, De Wet decided to re-cross the Magaliesberg by taking a little-known bridle path near Wolhuterskop, and, in a few days, was back on the warpath in the Free State. Once again De Wet had succeeded in outsmarting the British.

The information about President Steyn's movements was given to the writer by the late Senator Johannes Conradie, to whom it was given by one of his colleagues in the Senate, Senator Gert Maritz Botha of Vryheid who was one of the President's escorts. Senator Conradie told the writer that De Wet and President Steyn had had coffee with his family on the afternoon of 14 August 1900 at the farm Modderfontein, a few kilometres to the east of Olifants Nek. The bridle path which De Wet used to re-cross the Magaliesberg was shown to him by Tant Nella Verryne, a sister of Senator Conradie's grandmother. De Wet's force, according to Senator Conradie, was actually led over the Magaliesberg near Wolhuterskop by an old black servant of Tant Nella Verryne.

It is obvious that Lord Roberts miscalculated the strength and potential movements of De Wet's commando which numbered no more than 300 men, had no artillery and a limited supply of ammunition.

Notwithstanding Lord Roberts' miscalculation and the ineptitude of Generals Carrington and Hamilton, it is interesting to speculate on whether or not De Wet would have been able to fight his way through Olifants Nek or Magatos Nek had Baden-Powell kept the two passes defended or, had he failed, whether or not he would have been able to turn and fight his way through the encircling forces of Lords Kitchener and Methuen. Furthermore, had De Wet, President Steyn and their commando of Free Staters been captured, would the war have been brought to an early conclusion? Had it been, the implications are enormous. In August 1900 the Refugee (Concentration Camp) programme had not yet been fully implemented. The scorched earth policy with its wholesale destruction of farmhouses, crops and livestock was yet to come and the Cape Dutch rebellion was still in its infancy. Accordingly, it is the writer's contention that had the war ended in August or September 1900, much of which was to cause so much bitterness in South Africa might have been avoided.

Thus it is possible to say that the siege of the small garrison at the Elands River and the attempt to relieve it might have had a close bearing on the subsequent development of South African History.

De Wet, C.R. Three Years War (Westminster-Constable. 1902)
Doyle, A.C. The Great Boer War (London. Smith, Elder. 1902)
Meintjes, J. De la Rey - Lion of the West Johannesburg. Hugh Keartland. 1966)
Pakenham, T. The Boer War Johannesburg. Jonathan Ball. c1979)
Wilson, H.W. After Pretoria: The Guerilla War (London. Amalgamated Press. 1902)

Return to Journal Index OR Society's Home page

South African Military History Society /