(incorporating Museum Review)
by J D Harris
Much of the history of the final or guerrilla phase of the Second Anglo-Boer War lies in mystery. The number of troops involved were small and the actions were many and often of little overall significance. This article rediscovers one such action, which has remained largely unreported and has been confused with its namesake, Vlakfontein near Naawpoort (29 May 1901), which was a far more important action.(1) Further confusion has been caused by existence of two different regiments called the Scottish Horse, each being involved in only one of these actions. The interest in the action at Vlakfontein (Elandskloof) lies partly in the commander of the British column, Colonel G E Benson (late Royal Artillery), partly in the award of a Victoria Cross (VC) there and partly in the importance of the ground nearby, Mareskop, which overlooked from the north the town of Machadodorp on the railway line and roads from Johannesburg to Delagoa Bay. Thus, the engagement at Vlakfontein on 3 July 1901 deserves to be brought out of obscurity.
In the eastern Transvaal at the time, the Boer commandos under the overall command of Assistant- Commandant-General Ben Viljoen, had been established at Sabie, Pilgrim's Rest, Spitzkop and in the Steenkampsberg and Bothasberg Mountains. These commandos roamed much where they willed, but crossing the British blockhouse lines, especially along the railway, was becoming increasingly difficult.(2) They were well-horsed and knew what they were about, but they had little artillery and their ammunition and supplies were running short. By July 1901, General Viljoen's forces had taken a serious number of casualties from the operations of Lieutenant-General Sir Bindon Blood, an Irishman with considerable experience in India, and his six British columns operating from Lydenburg, Witklip, Belfast and Middleburg. He had set out to capture the Transvaal Government, an objective which he never quite achieved.(3)
On 9 June 1901, Sir Bindon Blood began an operation to clear the triangle of Machadodorp-Lydenburg- Nelspruit with four columns:(4)
Brigadier-General James Spens (late Somerset Light Infantry) and Colonel C W Park (who had commanded the Devons with great distinction) from Nelspruit and Colonel C E Benson and Lieutenant-Colonel W Douglas (Royal Scots) from Machadodorp.
General Viljoen suffered casualties on 26 June when he crossed the by then well fortified railway line between Balmoral and Brugspruit, but he successfully regrouped his men in the hills between Machadodorp and Lydenburg in the vicinity of Vlakfontein Farm.(5) Three British columns were then chasing him under the overall command of Brigadier-General Spens: Colonel Park in the Dullstroom-Lydenburg area, Colonel Benson at Machadodorp and Spens' own column bringing up supplies.
It was not by chance that General Viljoen made for Vlakfontein Farm. It was a healthy area for both man and beast, providing grazing, water and shelter. Militarily, its Mareskop heights commanded the vital east-west routes through Machadodorp and pickets could readily cover the Machadodorp-Lydenburg and Belfast-Lydenburg roads. Viljoen relates that the approach marches for some of the Boer attacks along the railway and roads, such as Machadodorp and Helvetia in December 1900 and January 1901, passed through Vlakfontein or Bakenkop on the Witrand.(6) Vlakfontein was also very difficult to approach without being observed and the nearby Mareskop also provided an ideal site for the heliograph, an essential means of communication now that the British had nearly all the telegraph lines in their hands.
The long views from Mareskop to the south of the railway, to the east towards Belfast and Bothasberg, to the north-west and the Steenkampsberg and to the north-east towards Lydenburg and so to Pilgrim's Rest, ensured that it had a Boer picket until the very end of the war. Schalk Burger's men were there until January 1902, followed by those of VCs Bass and Taute. Colonel Park raided it on Christmas Day l901(7) and Lieutenant-Colonel E B Urmston (Argyll and Sutherland Highianders) contemplated a raid, but decided it was probably too hard a nut to crack with the forces that he had available.(8) Thus it must be fair to conclude that the Vlakfontein site was the key to Boer communications for a large part of the eastern Transvaal.
By 2 July, Colonel Benson was at Machadodorp. Under his command, he had 18th Mounted Infantry (466-513 men under Major T T Macan, Scottish Rifles); l9th Mounted Infantry (362-430 men under Major F D Murray, Royal Scots); 1st Battalion, Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders (724 men under Lieutenant-Colonel E B Urmston), six guns and two pom-poms (one-pounders), 23 engineers and a handful of medical and supporting services.(9) Of the six columns mentioned, Benson's was the only one in which mounted men outnumbered the infantry. Benson himself was an experienced and dedicated soldier, much ahead of his time (as his Gold Medal Essay for the Royal United Services Institute of 1891, appropriately dealing with the effects of smokeless powder on tactics, clearly shows). Also, he was more than fortunate in his chief scout, Lieutenant-Colonel Wools Sampson, who knew the land and its people well and could track and navigate under any conditions, by night as well as by day.
The Boer forces of Schiez Joubert, Trichardt and General Viljoen himself were also present in the area. Watching Benson from Mareskop were two Boer commandos, or parts thereof; the Lydenburg Commando (60-70 men) and the Middleburg Commando (140 men), under the command of Captain du Toit, a newly-appointed officer for whom Viljoen had much regard.(10)
Colonel Benson's modus operandi was a night march followed by a dawn attack and this was to be his tactic for 3 July 1901. Led by the Argylls,(11) Benson moved his force out of Machadodorp sometime between 01:30 and 03:30, taking the track to the north and so on to Vlakfontein and Elandskloof.(12) The track, however, proved to be longer and the going much worse than had been anticipated (its route differing from today's road) and the force arrived on the Witrand at about 08:00, too late for a surprise attack.(13) Some Boers were seen taking off to the north towards Elandskloof and Roodekranz. A pursuit and search operations followed, but it was not until after noon that any action was seriously joined, as Sergeant R B Hodgson of E Squadron, the Scottish Horse, relates in his diary:(14)
'We had tents ever since we had been in Machadodorp, but we were ordered to pull them down that night and, worse still, reveille was at 01:00 and we were on the march half an hour later and, after going about twenty miles [32 km] halted for dinner. We had left the convoy with the Argyll [and Sutherland Highlanders] some distance in the rear and, with the aid of our glasses, could distinguish the place of our first fight, about three miles [4,8 km] away.
'It was 3 o'clock in the afternoon before the order was given for E Squadron to retire to camp. The other squadrons were already halfway there, with the exception of F, which had been divided into two detachments of roughly 38 men each and sent to search two valleys some distance apart. There appeared to be no danger in separating the squadron at the time for there were no Boers in sight. We had gone only two miles [3,2 km] when firing was heard and a messenger galloped up to say that part of F was surrounded by Boers. Captain Kelly [his squadron commander] shouted "Files about, gallop!" so off we went back to their assistance, over rocks, ditches, all sorts of obstacles.(15) Every so often a horse would "turn turtle" and send his rider a header. We galloped right round the flank of the burghers and dismounting started to advance. The chaps of F Squadron told us later that when they saw us they thought it was all up with them for they had mistaken us for another party of Boers. The enemy was so intent on the capture of the squadron that we held a good advantage before they saw us. Then they tried to keep us off, but the captain, firing and advancing in short, sharp rushes, showed that he meant business. We blazed away at each other for some time and then the pom pom came up and started to pump shells into them. That settled it, for the Boers broke and left us in sole possession together with six of their dead.
'Our losses were heavy, mostly F Squadron men, Clay, Whiting, and Wilkinson, all splendid young fellows.(16) Wilkinson, well-liked, was killed attempting to silence a Boer who was firing on the horse holders, having crept to within ten yards [9 m] of his prey his rifle jammed and he was shot through the brain. Eleven others were wounded, but recovered afterwards. It would have gone very hard for F had it not been for our timely arrival for they had expended nearly all their ammunition and, in some instances, the Boers were within fifteen to twenty yards [14-18 m] of them. After burying the dead, we returned to camp with the ambulance wagons taking our wounded into Machadodorp.
'For conspicuous gallantry in the fight Sergeant Firns was commissioned,(17) with Lieutenant English receiving a Victoria Cross for carrying water to the wounded.(18)
'Although the convoy did not move the next day, we went out early after our antagonists, although we saw nothing of them, evidently because we were in full force. However, next day, when some two hundred of us were patrolling within a short distance of base, we sighted about five hundred Boers, so quickly returned to camp.'(19)
No map of this action seems to have been drawn, but from other sources a pastiche may be made which perhaps clarifies the picture a little: Firstly, the Boers, on seeing the approach of the British, made off with the cattle, driving them as fast as they could up the old road to Roodekranz via Elandskloof and so to the area near Dullstroom, where they kept their cattle. Covering this movement were two commandos: the Lydenburg Commando on the high ground to the west of the old road and the Middleburg Commando to the east on a very bare slope, exposed especially to fire from the east and south. It was there that they were engaged by the British F Squadron [minus], the 2nd Scottish Horse, and were obliged to withdraw. Meanwhile, with the cattle streaming northwards, the Lydenburg Commando had fallen back to the rough defensive works which are marked on the map and survive to this day. Seeing that they outnumbered the British, they put in a counter-attack from the higher ground to the west, where essential cover was provided by rocks and bushes. (The ground to the east is lower and mainly exposed although some of it is 'dead'). There followed the desperate fighting described above.
Secondly, having been alerted by Colonel Benson's assistant staff officer, Captain T H E Lloyd (Coldstream Guards), and commanded by Captain O W Kelly (who was awarded a DSO a few days later),(20) E Squadron, the 2nd Scottish Horse, put in their dismounted attack again from the west, using its height and cover to good advantage and catching the Boers in a heavy crossfire, from which they had no option but to withdraw to Roodekranz.
The location of the battle can be identified exactly by the scars on the ground of the graves of Lance Corporal Wilkinson, Private Clay and Private Whiting.(21) They now rest together in a cemetery at Machadodorp. British casualties also included nine men wounded, which, considering that only perhaps thirty men were in the thick of the fighting, testifies to the intensity of the struggle. Boer casualties are more difficult to name, but the following are recorded as having been killed on 3 July 1901: A J Botha, P R Botha (Lydenburg Commando), J H Kruger (Lydenburg Commando), J C M Potgieter and, of possible interest, Vosloo, who was killed at Doornhoek nearby. Both P R Botha and J H Kruger are mentioned on the memorial at Dalmanutha, which also records A Basch, R Basch and J H Kruger, all from or at Elandskloof.(22)
According to the citation, Lieutenant English won his Victoria Cross for running between his men's positions under fire from point blank range, supplying them with more ammunition, not water, as Hodgson indicated, although probably including that too. It is interesting that, in the original citation, Major Murray wrote that English 'came over to me and got more' (ammunition). Major Murray also recommended his adjutant, Captain M H W Lindsay (Seaforth Highlanders), for an award, the paperwork for which seems to have been lost in some far-off headquarters, whilst his RSM, J Sharpe, DCM (Royal Horse Guards) received a Mention in Despatches.(23) From this, one can conclude that Regimental Headquarters (Tactical) was present, but because of the lack of communications and heavy fire, was unable to do much about reinforcements.
As for the remainder of Colonel Benson's column, the Argylls were probably too far away setting up camp and guarding the wagon convoy to hear what was going on and to intervene. Similarly, the 19th Mounted Infantry were by then also too far away to bring any fire to bear on the attackers of the Scottish Horse. In his diary, Captain T H E Lloyd was very critical of Major T T Macan, commander of the 18th Mounted Infantry, who was supposed to support the Scottish Horse, but had returned to camp after assuming that the firing he had heard was the Scottish Horse engaging only about ten Boers.(24) It must have been a nightmare for any commander attempting to control a very fluid battle with the uncertain means of communication then at his disposal.
Although Colonel Benson's column remained in the Vlakfontein area until 6 July, contact with the Boers was lost and the column moved on to Zwartkopjes and then to Dullstroom. Some of the Boers made off to the north, whilst others under General Viljoen were known to have ridden to the west. Cooperating with Colonel Park's column which watched his right flank, Colonel Benson pursued General Viljoen over Laatstedrift, where Captain Kelly won his DSO. Doubling north and crossing the Oliphant River at Kalkfontein, General Viljoen made for Roos Senekal as fast as he could - a place to which he was wont to gravitate. By then it was 21 July and, as Colonel Benson was short of supplies, he had to leave the pursuit of General Viljoen to collect more.
Captain Lloyd records Colonel Benson's bag for July as:(25)
Killed: 6 Prisoners: 15 Surrenders: 6 Rifles: 321 Ammunition: 1 700 Carts: 14 Horses: - Wagons: 54 Cattle: 911 Sheep: 1 340 Mules: 13 Women: 82 Children: 251
Although General Viljoen was very much in the field, his force had suffered casualties, including those caused by the other columns under Sir Bindon Blood, which he could ill-afford. His plan had been severely disrupted and being hounded by Benson's horsemen could have done morale no good at all. Nevertheless, even after his capture early in 1902, his successor, fighting General Muller, kept pressure on the British to the very end (May 1902) with raid and counter-raid, march and counter-march. The British were never quite able to clear the devastated and burnt eastern Transvaal of the Boer, then as 'shy and wild as grouse in December', as the Times History described him.
As a postscript, Benson, Lloyd, Murray and Lindsay were all killed at Bakenlaagte on the 30 October 1901 by a much stronger force under General Botha, where British losses amounted to 66 dead and 165 wounded. Arguably the most successful of the British columns, this reverse shook Lord Kitchener, the British commander-in-chief, and an operation was immediately launched to contain the masterful Botha.(26) To this day, there is a striking memorial to Colonel Benson near the abbey at Hexham, which was raised by public subscription from his neighbours: a rare honour for a field officer. In addition, the remains of fortifications may be seen at Vlakfontein, on Mareskop, as may the breastworks at Elandskloof, whilst nearby, there is the Boer Memorial at Dalmanutha. The Scottish Horse Memorial is in Johannesburg, not far the cemetery at Primrose, where Colonel Benson and Captain Lloyd and many others lie buried: all testimonials to the tragedy of war.
Footnotes1. The Vlakfontein of this article was numbered 465 then, and is now 323JT on official maps and lies about seven miles (11 km) north-west of Machadodorp in the eastern Transvaal. (Map South Africa sheet 2530 CA Belfast, 1:50 000).
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