The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

Military History Journal - Vol 10 No 3

(incorporating Museum Review)

The skirmish at Vet River,1846

by David Y Saks

1996 is the 100th anniversary of the battle of Doornkop, at which Dr L S Jameson's ill-fated raid into the Transvaal came conclusively to grief. It also happens to he the 150th anniversary of the founding of Bloemfontein by Captain (later Major) H D Warden, then British Resident in Transorangia. Warden would have been somewhat comforted, no doubt, had he known that the little settlement he founded would grow into one of South Africa's most important cities. All in all, his career as Resident was not a happy one and yielded few lasting successes. Today, Warden is remembered primarily as an unsuccessful administrator to whom the gods of fortune were, on the whole, excessively unkind. Less attention has been paid to his military career, which was an unusually busy one. Apart from taking part in the 6th Frontier War (1834-5) and taking charge of a disastrous invasion of Basutholand in 1851, he was also involved in no fewer than four campaigns against the Boers, the third of which he led himself. This last affair, which was essentially a sequel to the previous year's skirmish at Zwartkoppies, revolved around a half-hearted and short-lived rebellion by the Winburg Boers against Anglo-Griqua authority in the area. Its high-point was a brief, indecisive clash between a mixed force, led by Warden, and a Boer commando under Commandant Jan Kock on the north bank of the Vet River. This article will look more closely at that little engagement, which also celebrates its 150th anniversary this year.

Henry Douglas Warden was born in London in 1800 and settled in South Africa in 1819. His military career began a year later, when he was commissioned into the Cape Corps as an ensign. By the time the Cape Corps was disbanded in 1827, he had been promoted to lieutenant, a rank he retained when transferring to the newly-formed Cape Mounted Rifles. Warden's first real taste of action came in the bitterly-fought 6th Frontier War. Then Captain, he was put in charge of Governor D'Urban's 4th Detachment, consisting mainly of eastern Cape burghers. In the difficult months of guerrilla war that followed, his reliability and ability to act on his own initiative when the situation required it was very much in evidence and he emerged from the war with an enhanced reputation. Warden was in charge of the Cape Mounted Rifles detachment that accompanied Captain T C Smith when the latter set out to occupy Port Natal in 1842. The details of Smith's overland march, his defeat at the hands of the Boers at Congella, and the siege and relief of the British fort at Port Natal are well known and need not be repeated here. What is worth mentioning is that Warden, contrary to what his biographer, B J Barnard, and subsequent reference works have claimed, did not take part in the battle of Congella. Smith's despatch makes it clear that, with the exception of two CMR orderlies who escorted him, the British attack was carried out entirely by the men of the 27th Regiment, the Royal Artillery and the Sappers. Moreover, Smith named all the officers who accompanied him and Warden was not among them. In fact, Warden and his CMR were left behind to guard the camp during the attack and only came into the picture later that night when the Boers, fresh from their success on the beach, began firing on the camp from surrounding thickets.

In 1845, a rebellion against the Griqua chief, Adam Kok, by the Transorangia Boers broke out.(4) Unable to bring the rebels to heel by himself, Kok appealed to the British authorities, who had guaranteed his sovereignty in the area, to come to his aid and reinforcements were duly sent. Warden was one of those called up to assist the Griqua. He played no part in the subsequent clash at Zwartkoppies, where the rebel Boers were decisively defeated, but afterwards remained behind with a detachment of CMR to patrol the area and maintain law and order. It was the beginning of his long association with Transorangia, one which, with hindsight, he perhaps could have done without. Warden's tenure as British Resident began in January 1846. One of his first acts was to set up his administrative headquarters and official residence on the farm, Bloemfontein. It soon became evident that trouble was brewing anew between Adam Kok and many of the Transorangia Boers who had fled northwards across the Modder River into the Winburg Republic in the aftermath of the Zwartkoppies defeat.(5)
What triggered off the next round of hostilities was a letter written by the Boer leader, Jan Kock, a ringleader in the previous rebellion, to Adam Kok, demanding the return of cattle stolen by his people. Kok neither complied nor even replied, instead forwarding the letter to Warden and gathering his followers at his capital, Phillipolis in anticipation of an attack. The letter eventually reached Cape Governor Sir Peregrine Maitland, who jumped to the rather hasty conclusion that a revolt was imminent and high-handedly instructed Warden to arrest Jan Kock and bring him for trial to Colesberg.

It was one thing to issue the instruction. However, it was quite another to carry it out, since Warden had virtually no troops at his disposal. There could be no question of bringing in British regulars from the Cape as the 7th Frontier War had just broken out and no troops could be spared to settle yet another local dispute across the Orange River. Warden's solution in the end was to call on the various chieftains in Transorangia, including Moshoeshoe of the Sotho, Moroka of the Rolong, Carolus Baadjie, Gert Taaibosch and Adam Kok each to send a commando to assist him in keeping the peace. It was subsequently learned that the Boer response had been to elect Jan Kock Commandant-General on 4 June and authorize him to set about raising a commando of his own. Warden viewed this development with concern, evidently believing that those disturbers of the peace' were intent on crossing the Modder River and invading Kok's territory.(6) He waited until 18 June before setting out for the Modder River from Bloemfontein, taking with him 30 Cape Mounted Riflemen and one six-pounder gun. This was hardly enough to put down an uprising, but fortunately his members were augmented as the journey progressed. A hundred Barolong joined up at the Modder River and 105 Griqua did likewise further north. Near the Vet River, were added groups of Bastards and Koranna, bringing his total fighting strength to around 200 men.

Jan Kock, meanwhile, had not had much success in raising a commando. He had hoped for 300 men, but barely a third of that number had come forward by 16 June. Kock set up his laager on the farm of one F van Biljoen on the north bank of the Vet River. Upon learning of this on 24 June, Warden decided to bring up his force close to the river that very night, with the intention of taking the Boer camp by surprise early the next morning. Lieutenant Barrow was sent ahead with the Cape Mounted Rifles and 130 Griqua and Koranna to take up a position on the south bank of the Vet River. Warden himself brought up the remainder of the force later that night, once he had sent out strong patrols to other areas. At first light, the Transorangians crossed over and approached the Boer laager, only to find that their opponents were already saddled up and waiting for them. Kock then spread out his small force along a series of low ridges overlooking the river. At the same time, he sent Warden a strongly-worded letter, demanding to know why he had brought an armed force into Boer territory and who had sent him. Warden completed his own deployments before replying. Barrow was sent ahead with the Griqua and CMR with instructions to close on the Boer positions while the rest of the force was spread out along the river bed on either side to protect the flanks. Warden then joined Barrow at a distance of about 250 metres from the Boer lines and a brief exchange of messages followed. First Kock and his followers were ordered to surrender, but Kock replied that he wanted an answer to his previous letter. Warden made it clear that he could hold no correspondence with him before he and his men had taken the Oath of Allegiance, to which Kock replied that this they had decided not to do. Fighting was inevitable. Warden sounded the advance and ordered his men to fire, which was instantly returned.(8) For the next half hour, the early morning stillness reverberated the crackle of musketry and the occasional boom of the six-pounder. Warden tried in vain to get his men to charge, riding this way and that and shouting himself hoarse in his efforts to encourage them. However, the Rolong (most of whom were armed only with assegais), the Griqua and the Bastards refused point blank to leave the relative safety of their positions, those with firearms lying prone in the grass and returning the Boer fire as best they could. Eventually, Warden gave it all up as a bad job and broke off the engagement. Both sides had lost two men killed or mortally wounded.

Although Warden could hardly claim a victory, the skirmish at Vet River achieved its purpose. The Boers, half-hearted to begin with, were further demoralised at having to fight coloured troops. Warden afterwards acknowledged 'the ready support' he received from the local chiefs. Their presence, he wrote, 'had a most salutory effect, proving to the Boers that the British Government could in a few days bring a large native force into the field.'(10) The next day, a letter was received from Kock, asking for pardon from himself and his followers. Many Boers surrendered in the next few days and a number of others were taken prisoner or disarmed by means of patrols. In the end, the expedition lasted twenty days and cost only Uk Pnds 140. Warden could justly feel that he had handled his first crisis as British Resident successfully. Unfortunately, many more crises were in the offing for him, and resolving them would not always prove to be so easy.

References quoted listed in printed version

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