by D Y Saks
Of all the innumerable ambushes, skirmishes and running fights that characterised the latter stages of the South African War, few perhaps are as obscure as Methuen's raid at Wonderfontein in the Western Transvaal on 9 November 1900. The guerilla war, of course, was largely a cat-and-mouse affair, with the mouse in this particular case - General H R Lemmer - managing to escape, albeit somewhat mauled.
In truth, the Wonderfontein clash, being merely one of many similar such actions to have taken place during this phase of the struggle, was of relatively limited significance. Even the comprehensive South African War histories of Amery(1) and Maurice(2) devote only two or three lines to it while no modern account mentions it at all. There are, however at least two fairly lengthy accounts of the Wonderfontein raid based on recollections of some of those who took part. One was written at second hand by K B Spurgin, part of whose regiment (the Northumberland and Durham Yeomanry) were involved in the fighting. It appears in his war memoirs, published in 1902.(3) The other is in the form of a letter; the original of which is housed in the Africana Museum, written by Trooper F R Thompson of the Imperial (Shropshire) Yeomanry. Thompson actually took part in the engagement and devotes part of his letter to a description of it.(4) It is a brief but vivid account, although not an entirely accurate one, as will be shown.
Lieutenant-General Paul Sanford, Lord Methuen, had been placed in charge of operations in the Zeerust-Lichtenburg areas of the Western Transvaal, in the extreme western theatre of the war. His main adversary (and, indeed, Nemesis) in this theatre would later be General Jacobus de la Rey, whom he had faced twice before at Graspan (Enslin) and Modder River in the lead-up to the relief of Kimberley the previous year. In the early months of the Western Transvaal campaign, however, his main opponent was General Hermanus Richard (Manie) Lemmer, a tough old fighter who had been prominent in the Colenso sector of the campaign in Northern Natal during the siege of Ladysmith.(5) Lemmer's commando, drawn mainly from the Lichtenburg area, numbered about 700 and he had one 12-pounder gun and a Vickers-Maxim.(6)
On 22 September, Methuen was instructed by Lord Roberts to proceed to Rustenburg. His main objective, if possible, was to intercept President Steyn of the Free State, who was believed to be making a dash for the south after leaving the main Boer army. While attempting to carry out these orders, Methuen had his first confrontation with Lemmer near Bronkhorstfontein on 28 September At the start of the skirmish, some of the Boers were mistaken for friends by the British as they were dressed in khaki, wearing helmets and marching in regular formation. As a result, they were able to get within close range before the error was discovered.(7)
Lemmer lost twenty-one men killed or captured on this occasion, but was otherwise able to evade his pursuers. The two sides clashed again on 24 October, this time on a low range of hills near the Kruis River. Before this engagement, Methuen had split his column into two, giving command of the mounted troops to Brigadier-General the Earl of Erroll. The outnumbered Boers quickly found themselves outflanked by the horsemen and beat a hasty retreat, losing another 35 men and 21 wagons in the process.
Thus far, therefore, the campaign had gone rather well, despite an earlier failure to track down de la Rey in his Zwartruggens stronghold. On 1 November, however, Methuen's force was significanfly weakened by the withdrawal of 2 270 troops to join up with General French's force. In the opinion of the Times History at least, the operations in the west never completely recovered from this.(8) Nevertheless, Methuen was not particularly put out at the time and began gearing up for his third bout with the elusive Lemmer In the third week of November, he remained at Jacobsdal (where the first part of Trooper Thompson's letter was written), destroying all the crops in the vicinity. Then, learning that the commando was near Wonderfontein, he made careful plans for a dawn attack, to take place on 9 November
On the night before the scheduled raid, at 22:00, the commanding officer of 5th Battalion, Imperial Yeomanry, at Ottoshoop, Colonel Meyrick, received instructions to move out at midnight with a hundred men and work in conjunction with Methuen's force at daybreak.(9) He was to take up a position some sixteen kilometres south-east of Ottoshoop along a low ridge overlooking the Boers' line of retreat. The intention was for Methuen's artillery and Erroll's mounted division to drive the commando into his men's arms. Methuen's force had, meanwhile, marched from Jacobsdal at 16:00 and arrived four hours later at Kaffirskraal, halfway between Jacobsdal and Wonderfontein. At 01:00 on 9 November; they set off again. Methuen was on foot almost the whole way since, according to Thompson, he hated riding.(10) No smoking was allowed and the troops walked or trotted 'in ominous silence' in the hope of catching the Boers napping.
It had just begun to get light around 05:00 when Thompson, who was some way in the rear, heard firing ahead. He and everyone with him immediately 'galloped for all they were worth' to join in the action. As they came into a dip, they saw Lemmer's commando, hotly pursued by the vanguard of the Yeomanry, in full retreat towards the opposite end. That the Boers had indeed been taken completely by surprise was indicated by the fact that they had left behind a large part of their stores as well as a dozen or so big saucepans filled with boiling water all ready for the morning coffee.(11) Nevertheless, they had had a good start on Erroll's division and most of them managed to escape. However, during the pursuit approximately sixty members of the commando were driven straight into the hands of Meyrick's 5th Imperial Yeomanry waiting on the ridge. It was here that Spurgin's account comes more fully into the picture. The Yeomanry came galloping down the ridge with Meyrick in the van and 'a real sporting scrimmage' ensued.(12) It was a brief, thoroughly confused fight in which the two sides became hopelessly intermingled. The trapped Boers rushed hither and thither, some haring off on foot into the bush, others riding up close to their opponents before they realized their mistake and bolted again. For their part, the British speedily broke up into small parties and chased about the veld entirely on their own initiative, blazing away whenever the opportunity arose. So great was the confusion that the British Maxim guns could not be brought to bear for fear of hitting their own men. Four Boers were killed, seven wounded and twenty-four captured before the remainder managed to break out, while only two were wounded on the British side. In addition, the British captured six Cape carts and a mule wagon. Lemmer was chased all morning by Erroll's men, but there was never really a prospect that he would be captured. His burghers even 'had the cheek'(13) at one point to turn their gun and Maxim on their pursuers and around midday the latter, understandably exhausted by this stage, gave up the chase. The game old Boer general was not destined to be at large for much longer, however; on 14 December he was shot dead in a skirmish with Methuen's troops near Ottoshoop.
For the record, the following factual errors in Thompson's letter should be identified. Firstly, he was incorrect in writing that de la Rey and his commando, in addition to Lemmer's, were present at the action. He also believed that neither the Boer 12-pounder nor their Maxim could be captured when, in fact, the Maxim had to be abandoned during the retreat. Finally, as is common practice with men at war, he greatly overestimated his opponent's casualties, putting them neatly at twenty killed, forty wounded and sixty captured.
Thompson's letter was recently donated to the Africana Museum by his niece, Mrs D Levey of Kingston-upon-Thames, Surrey. It was written on a single rectangular sheet of paper nearly a metre long, which Thompson, evidently a high-spirited young man (who, in fact, turned twenty-one on the day of the raid), remarks with ill-disguised glee was filched by him from the military stores.
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