by Don D Diespecker, PhD
Diespecker's name first appeared in the Army List in July 1901 when he was commissioned lieutenant, South African Mounted Irregular Forces; his service record shows that he was a member of the Field Intelligence Department (FID) and that he held the local rank of captain in May 1901. He had previously served in the British Intelligence and had been posted from the Cape to Durban and Lourenco Marques prior to the outbreak of the Anglo-Boer War in 1899.
As a member of a small intelligence team operating within the British Consulate at Lourenco Marques, one of his roles was the surveillance of cargoes of armaments and other supplies, principally from France and Germany, which were landed there and then transported by rail into the Zuid-Afrjkaansche Republiek (ZAR). His duties also included the collection of tactical intelligence describing the numbers and the movements of boer fores in the border areas between Mozanbique and the ZAR.
Some time after the fall of Pretoria on 5 June 1900 and the re-annexation of the Transvaal on 25 October 1900, Diespecker was sent to Willowmore, where, before the war, he had worked as an engineer and contractor on the the construction on a branch line of the railway.
Intelligence reports made in the Eastern Cape in the second half of 1900 describe widespread 'disloyalty' within the Dutch Reformed Church, the parliament, the civil service and the government schools. Martial law had gradually been withdrawn from most of the districts of the Cape Colony, but was re-imposed after the invasion of forces under the commands of Generals Herzog and Kritzinger on 16 December 1900. By the end of December, fourteen Cape Colony districts had again been placed under martial law. The remainder were proclaimed by mid January 1901, with the exception of the Transkei, Tembuland, Griqualand East, Pondoland, and the ports of the Cape Colony.
Thus, the first attack on Willowmore, led by Cmdt Gideon Scheepers, occurred at a time of unrest, newly-imposed martial law and widespread commando and troop movement. While it is well-known that Willowmore was defended by two local units, the Willowmore Town Guard and the Willowmore District Mounted Troops, other colonial (local and overseas) and British units were also active in the area.
Four days after the second attack on 1 June 1901,
Diespecker sent a hand-written report to the General
officer Commanding (GOC), Midland District. A supplementary
report, also hand-written, followed on 6
June. The discoverv of these reports indicates that the
town was defended hy more than the two units mentioned above.
It also resolves a minor mystery raised by Wilson in his 1902 history, After Pretoria: The Guerilla War. The complete report is transcribed here:
Report on the attack on Willowmore made on June 1st 1901.
The weather was greatly in their favour; a strong wind was blowing from the west with frequent showers of rain and sleet.
The enemy advanced from the direction of Aberdeen and the first attack was made about 4.0 am.
The enemy was divided so as to attack from three sides, viz east, north and south west keeping a reserve on the flat between the town and Aasvogelberg Mountain.
The attacking party from the west came into contact with our No 7 post where they were held in check for some time, but our picket had eventually to evacuate their position owing to their ammunition being expended and they retired to No 1 post which had by then been reinforced. It was in this attack that the Boers lost one man.(1)
The attacking party from the north advanced on the posts Nos 2 and 2a simultaneously and captured both; the NCO of No 2 was shot and the remainder retired; No 2a held their position as long as their ammunition lasted and then retired to on [sic] No 1 leaving both posts in the hands of the enemy.
The attacking enemy from the east approached No 4 post and got close up before being discovered; heavy firing between the enemy and the picket ensued with the result that the NCO was shot, also the sentry and one of the picket, the other man escaped. After capturing the post the enemy directed a heavy fire on No 4b and after two of the picket had been shot, the remaining two abandoned the post; the enemy then sent a small party to join that attacking from the east and held the ridge on the left side of the road, which leads east from the east end of the town.
By 5.45 am reinforcements had reached the following
posts: Nos 1, 1a, 5a, 6 and 6a and a party under Captain
Currey of the Railway Contingent was sent out and successfully
checked the attack from the east, the remainder of the Town Guard,
District Mounted Troops,
Native Contingent, and armed civilians were assembled
in the market square and were detailed as an inner line
of defence, and hastily constructed barricades were
thrown up in the streets.
The enemy kept up a continuous fire on the town and outposts from the position which they had captured, which was well replied to both by our other posts and from the inner line of defence on the river bed; about 7.30 am a small party of the Native Contingent under Lieut van de Hoven moved down the river bed and secured a position east of the Aberdeen road from which they could flank the two posts Nos 2 and 4, and afterwards as the enemy commenced to retire, pushed their way to a ridge crossing the Aberdeen road at right angles, which they held.
The attack from the west was successfully checked by posts Nos 1 and la under the respected command of Sgt Pugh of the 1st Welsh and L Cpl Slanton of the Town Guard and these two posts were assisted by the Contingent in the sand bag redoubt (marked s)(2) under Lieut Rennie of the Town Guard.
At 10 am the enemy commenced to retire and by 11.0 am all firing had ceased and they had cleared off to the north on Aberdeen Road, resting at Swaab [?] farm 3 miles out.
The enemy succeeded in driving off [illegible] discarded horses from a camp on Baker's farm, but these have been recovered and we captured 3 Boer horses with equipment.
The Railway Contingent consisting of 56 men under Lieut Heberden arrived here from Klipplaat at 3.30 pm on the same day.
|Willowmore||District Mounted Troops||55|
I regret to report that our casualties [were] as follows:
|Pte||Mees Scholtze||Native Contingent|
|Pte||Casualties to the enemy||1 Killed|
Continuing my report dated June 5th
on attack on Willowmore.
Continuing my report of the 5th of June, I have the honour to report that 3 of the cyclist corps were captured by the enemy, viz Sergeant Cormock was captured
at Hartebeestekuil at 4.0 am on Friday May 31st. Private Smith who left later with dispatches for the scouts of the District Mounted Troops informed them that the enemy was travelling south was captured at 11 pm of the same date at Paardepoort and Private Mostert who left here with the census papers on May 29th was captured at the farm of Andries Laas six miles north of Hartebeestekuil on the same night thus preventing any chance of news being brought into town.
These men were subsequently released at Hartebeestekuil and made their way across to Swanepoels Poort in order to get into telephone communication with the town and warn us, but it was too late to be of any service.(4)
The three scouts of the District Mounted Troops whose headquarters are at Swanepoels Poort also obtained information of the advance guard of the enemy having already passed south from 6 miles north of Hartebeestekuil and two of them made for Swanepoels Poort which they reached on Saturday morning too late to be of service and this is being enquired into.
I may also mention that the inner line of defence of
the town on June 1st bore the heaviest part of the fighting
and it was most able [sic] handled by Lieut Schuman of
the Town Guard who is also Chief Constable for the
town of Willowmore
'On June 1 Scheepers suddenly appeared at Willowmore, which place he had menaced during his former inroad into the extreme south of the Colony. Willowmore is on a branch line of railway some seventy-five miles from the Camdeboo Mountains. Here, in drizzling rain, under an overcast sky, which veiled his approach, he delivered a surprise attack, getting close to the British pickets before he was discovered. But the defences of the town were too strong to be rushed, and after nine hours' fighting he was repulsed. He fell back some miles to the north. No mention whatever of this affair was made in any of the official reports, or in Lord Kitchener's despatches, which gave little idea of the incessant fighting in the Colony about this period. Yet the casualty lists show that ten of the Town Guard fell valiantly in action.'
Wilson's criticism was presumably made without him having seen Diespecker's official report, ie, it was missing for an unknown period of time. Wilson had surely made the appropriate searches and enquiries for 'official' documents describing the attack and had failed to find any. The part of his history quoted above must therefore have been based on unofficial reports and casualty lists.
The implication is that others were aware of Wilson's enquiries and that nothing 'official' existed that was readily available to historians - or anyone else - to describe the Willowmore action. Why Wilson described the raid as 'this affair' is also interesting, as Scheepers' attack was typical of commando actions at the time and in the area. Was he implying that there was something suspicious or that there had been some kind of a coverup? He asks '. . . whether steps were taken to watch [Scheepers and his men],(6) and refers to Scheepers being 'unwatched.'(7)
In his History of the War in South Africa, 1899-1902 (1910), Grant also refers to 'watching' the enemy when he wrote:(8)
'As for Scheepers, throughout the month of June (1901), as in May, he continued to rove the Graaff Reinet district from his haunt in the Koudeveld Bergen, watched only by the weak column of Lieut-Colonel B Doran. His most noteworthy feat during this time was a partially successful attack on the outposts at Willowmore on June 1st.'
Wilson's criticisms appear to be aimed at failure of surveillance by the British intelligence. He also states clearly in his history that British censorship in the Cape was such that reports of British feats of arms or of the defence of towns were exaggerated for English consumption and that the range and intensity of fighting was attenuated for newspaper reportage. We should note here that both military and domestic censorship was the responsibility of intelligence officers and of commandants - it was certainly one of Capt Diespecker's duties.
Wilson was also aware that in the weeks following the attack on 1 June, Scheepers had cut the railway to Willowmore '... though this was not officially reported ...' and that, on 6 August, he was near Steytlerville, ie, in or adjacent to Diespecker's area of responsibility. If there was again no official report, this would be a further indication that either the British Commandant officially responsible for reporting the situation had not done so, or the recipients of the reports had not released this information. Histories, such as Wilson's and Grant's, comprehensively describe the day to day movements of both the British and the Boer forces in the region, including details of the names of the units and their commanders.
It is possible, therefore, that Diespecker's report may have 'disappeared' for a time, or that, for reasons unknown, it was suppressed or blocked by censorship. One explanation is that it may have been misdirected and then erroneously filed with the SAFF Casualty List documents. Whatever the reason, it is certain that the report was not available to Wilson before he published his history.
The document was unmistakenly written in Rudolph Diespecker's hand at a time when it was usual for most such reports to be typewritten. There may have been a coversheet with identifying or filing codes, but no such sheet was found. The historian who discovered the report referred to it as SAFFCL p 118 (SA Field Force Casualty List). No 'Date Received' stamps, marginal notes, or remarks by any recipient were noted on the document.
The report of 5 June was signed by Diespecker as Captain, SAMIF, Acting Commandant, whereas he signed the continuation on 6 June as Captain SAMIF, Commandant. The report did not indicate whether a prior message had been sent to the GOC Midland Command. As both telephone and telegraph lines were certainly available, and despatches could have been carried by either a horseman or a member of the Cyclist Corps, the commandant had the means to communicate directly with the headquarters. Why then did he not immediately report the attack to the commanding general? The report was not written until almost a week later and there must have been a reason for this delay.
Wilson also referred to 'casualty lists' and a discrepancy exists between his figures and those of the commandant. There were six British casualties, not ten, and one Boer killed. Ml the British casualties were suffered by the Native Contingent, which had the largest complement, and not by the Town Guard. The implication is therefore that either the 'casualty lists' seen by Wilson were 'unofficial' and exaggerated, or the commandant's 'bodycount' was distorted.
Gordon's British BattLes and Medais states that there were two units based in Willowmore which would have operated in the area at the time. They were the Willowmore Town Guard and the Willowmore District Mounted Troops. We are now aware that there were also other units, as well as civilians, which participated in the action at Willowmore on 1 June 1901.
It is also clear that Cmdt Scheepers was kept well-informed regarding the placement of the Willowmore pickets and the success of his attack is reflected in the casualty figures. It is curious, however; that Diespecker estimated the strength of the attacking Boer forces at 'about 100'. If Cmdt Scheepers did possess good information concerning the strength of the Willowmore defences and if he was after supplies, why then did he not attack in greater strength to ensure success? According to Wilson, he was thought to have had a force of about 700 men.
While Scheepers would certainly have attacked with the intention of inflicting as much damage and as many casualties as possible, his first priority in such an attack and raid would have been to obtain supplies. During the guerrilla phase of the war, commandos were compelled to live off the land and obtained assistance and support from pro-Boer locals. If an attack on a town were successful, any stores, provisions and general supplies would have been taken. It seems most unlikely, therefore, that Scheepers' only objective would have been to attack the outposts.
There is also an interesting and rather obscure hint of a duel between Scheepers and Diespecker. Like Diespecker, Scheepers also had a background as an intelligence officer. Pakenham writes:(9)
'The secret lay in de Wet's professional scouts. Significantly, de Wet had not, like the British, left this vital part of field intelligence work to ordinary mounted troops. He had trained up two special corps - under Captains Danie Theron and Gideon Scheepers (and, oddly enough, foreigners, too, were recruited into these elites).'
Diespecker's report seems to raise more questions than it answers, although it does provide a greater insight into the second attack on Willowmore.
The accompanying photograph (by courtesy of the Deirdre Kieser Collection) bears no caption or description. The central figure, wearing the black mourning band, is Rudolph Diespecker. The others in uniform appear to be officers and the man in civilian clothes is possibly the Resident Magistrate (at that time believed to be F S AIlman). The photograph was probably taken at Willowmore after the initial attack by Cmdt Scheepers on 19 January 1901. The fact that Queen Victoria passed away on 22 January 1901 may explain the mourning band. At that time, Diespecker was Special Intelligence Officer, rather than Commandant. In the photograph, however; he appears to be wearing a subaltern's single 'pip' on each shoulder.
Photograph, believed to have been taken at Willowmore, Cape, c January 1901. The central figure, with a black mourning band on his sleeve, is Diespecker. The civilian may be the Resident Magistrate, Mr F S Allman
1. Carl P Marais of Cradock. Note added by T Shearing.
2. The report is written on pages with printed numbers - probably from a carbon copy book - and these are numbered 95, 96, 98, 99, 100; the 'sand bag redoubt' may be part of a sketch on the missing p 97.
3 Note added by T Shearing: 'I found the graves in a mess on the hill around Willowmore.
4. A photograph reproduced in Wilson (1902) is captioned 'Willowmore's Defensive Preparations: The Telephone Section of the Town Guard With Their Field Apparatus.' (p 702) There are at least two officers in the group, one of whom is Rudolph Diespecker; who wears a black mourning band on the left sleeve of his tunic.
5. Wilson, After Pretoria: The Guerilla War (Supplement to With the Flag to Pretoria) (1902), pp 702-3.
6. Wilson, After Pretoria, p 702.
7. Wilson, After Pretoria, p 703.
8. Grant, History of the War in South Afica, 1899-1902 (1910), Vol IV, p 227.
9. Pakenham, The Boer War, p 447.
My special thanks to Mrs T Shearing, historian, Beaufort West, who found the original report in the Cape Archives; the Chief and his staff, State Archives Service, Cape Town; Miss C M Blight, assistant Cory Librarian, Rhodes University; Mrs Z Fletcher; Librarian, and Mrs M J Eldridge, Archivist, The Campbell Collections and Centre for Oral Studies, University of Natal; Mrs L Green, private researcher, London; Miss J Blanckenburg, private researcher; Wynberg; Mr Peter Greeff, historian, George; and my sister, Mrs Deirdre Kieser, Pretoria.
Wilson, After Pretoria: The Guerilla War (the Supplement to With the
Flag to Pretoria) (1902).
Army List, July 1901.
Pakenham, The Boer War.
Colonial Defence Force Orders DD 6/104 No 22.4c; DD 6/104 No 28.9b,e, State Archives Service, Cape Town.
Dictionary of South African Biography, Vol III.
Diespecker; R S 'Report on the attack on Willowmore' made on 1 June 1901.
Greeff, P: Personal communication, September 1993.
George and Knysna Herald, 1901.
Grant, M H, History of the War in South Africa, 1899-1902 (1910).
WO 11/276, Roll of Individuals entitled to the Queen's South Africa Medal and Clasps, South African Mounted Irregular Forces (1905).
'South African Field Forces Casualty List.' Section January and June 1901, p 118. State Archives Service, Cape Town.
Amery, L S, The Times History of the War in South Africa, 1899-1902 7Vols (1900-1909).
'The Marwick Papers (1900 and 1901).' University of Natal. The Campbell Collections of Manuscripts. File 4, KCM 2760.
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