The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

Military History Journal
Vol 10 No 6 - December 1997

(incorporating Museum Review)

A forgotten campaign by the men of the Diamond Fields

by Col Sir David Harris, KCMG, VD, MLA (1928)

This article, dealing with the little-known relief of Griquatown, was originally written for the Diamond Fields Advertiser Annual of 1928, fifty years after the event. The author, Col Harris, provides us with an interesting first-hand account of the campaign based entirely on his memory of events. In 1928, when the article was written, Col Harris believed that he was the sole surviving member of the relief force. No medals were awarded for the campaign, which extended to the Langeberg, and the men were only too pleased to return to their homes with the satisfaction of having rescued the lives of some 150 men, women and children - a noble and gallant mission which brought its own rewards.

The Gaika-Galeka War had just been brought to a successful conclusion and the Diamond Fields Horse were preparing to march back to Griqualand West, which was then a Crown Colony, when news reached Kimberley that the Griquas were in revolt and that they intended to capture Griquatown. At this time, Mr Jacob Dirk Barry (who afterwards became Judge President of the Cape Colony) was the Recorder and Acting Administrator in the absence of Colonel Lanyon, who had gone to Koeghuis with a small force of the Frontier Armed Mounted Police (FAMP) to enquire into a native disturbance. I did not march back with the Diamond Fields Horse, but returned by post cart, which meant a saving of three weeks. I had only been home a few days when I received, late at night, an urgent message from the Acting Administrator to call on him. I went immediately to Kimberley, where he told me of the serious state of affairs that existed, and his fear for the safety of the 150 white residents of Griquatown, as a large body of Griquas under their leader, Moses Moos, had looted several stores within a few miles of the town, had murdered some whites and had threatened to capture Griquatown if it were not surrendered on 22 May 1878. Mr HB Roper, who was then Civil Commissioner of the District, had warned the rebels that he would defend the town, and that so long as the British Flag was flying from the mast he would not surrender. Mr Roper had displayed great courage, for there were only 28 able-bodied men with rifles with about 500 rounds of ammunition between them, as the rebels had broken into the adjacent magazines and seized all the ammunition and explosives. The number of men mentioned formed themselves into a small commando and appointed Mr Orpen as their commandant. This small force could only patrol the outskirts of the town, but it was far too weak to hold it against the large force of Griquas if the latter made a determined attack. The white inhabitants were in dire straits, their lives being in great jeopardy. The gaol was hastily improvised into a laager, everything available, including bales of wool, was utilised to fortify the building in which the whites and 400 supposed loyal Griquas, including Waterboer, were huddled together at night, it being considered unsafe for them to remain in their homes after sunset.

The residents were in an awful predicament, and their eyes anxiously turned towards Kimberley for relief, as the small garrison with scarcely twenty rounds of ammunition per man could only offer a weak resistance to 800 of the enemy with Winchester repeating rifles and breech-loaders, amply supplied with ammunition.

The Acting Administrator asked me if it were possible to quickly organise a force to proceed to Griquatown to relieve the place and save the lives of the beleaguered inhabitants. I replied that I thought it could be done. The next morning a notice appeared calling for volunteers. The response was excellent, as I fully expected it would be from the men of the Diamond Fields, whose military spirit has never waned from that day to the present time. I selected 120 from the numerous applicants, choosing those who had some military experience, and who could ride and manage a horse. Mr Alexander, Mr Edwin Doveton (who was killed at Wagon Hill during the South African War), his brother Charles and myself were the officers appointed to this force. There was one other whose name I have forgotten. The late Colonel Wolleston was the sergeant-major, Dr Otto was the medical officer and Mr Charles Blackbeard (who subsequently became Mayor of Beaconsfield) was also with the force. The men were organised into three troops, mounted drilled and equipped within 48 hours of the news of the rising reaching the authorities, and the force left Kimberley with mule wagons, carrying supplies and ammunition on Saturday night, 18 May 1878.

Rain fell on the first march, making things very uncomfortable and we reached Schmidt’s Drift early on Sunday morning, where there was a delay of several hours in transporting men, horses and wagon across the Vaal River on the one pont. Mr Bailey, a government land surveyor who had a knowledge of [Zulu and] had organised a force of 150 Zulus, had left Kimberley on Friday afternoon. We passed this force on the way, and Mr Bailey’s force reached Griquatown just after the fight at Driefontein, having marched 110 miles [177 km] in four days - a very creditable performance.

On Monday night, the mounted relief force bivouacked about 35 miles [56 km] from Griquatown, men and horses being very tired. At about midnight, I was aroused by the sergeant of the guard who informed me that there was a messenger carrying a dispatch. It was a bastard boy riding a bare-backed horse, the saddled animal having been shot by the rebels outside Griquatown. The boy made a slit in his coat and handed me a piece of paper on which was written the following message:
‘To any officer commanding a relief force. Situation perilous. Lose no time. - H.B. Roper, C.C.’

We intended resuming our advance at 06.00, but the reveille was sounded at 02.30. The force formed up, and when the foregoing message was read and the men were asked when they would be prepared to march there was an unanimous response: ‘At once, Sir’. Just what was expected from such gallant fellows when the lives of women and children were at stake.

We reached Griquatown on Tuesday just as the sun was setting behind the hills. On interviewing the Civil Commissioner, we were informed that the Griquas had demanded the surrender of the town that afternoon and, after receiving a refusal, had left an hour before our arrival, after stating that they were returning the following morning to capture the town. We made a hurried plan of defence, posted pickets and sentries, and all ranks had a well-deserved rest. One may easily imagine the feelings of the people when we arrived. Despair was depicted on their faces, but this soon gave way to confidence.

Soon after our arrival, Dr Otto amputated the arm of a Mr van Druten, who had been wounded while making a heroic effort to save the life of his storeman, whose body we recovered later.

At about 03.00 on Wednesday morning, the distant sound of a bugle was heard. Some thought it was a ruse by the rebels, but to the experienced campaigners it sounded like the call of a trained bugler. Our bugler responded by sounding the advance, and within an hour Colonel Lanyon, who had received tidings of the serious situation, and unaware that the Kimberley force had arrived, came from Koegas by forced marches with forty men of the old Frontier Armed Mounted Police, a pluck thing for even so brave a colonel to do. He was as cool as the proverbial cucumber. He took in the whole situation and made the necessary dispositions to meet the enemy, should they put in an appearance that morning as they had threatened. Colonel Lanyon appointed me as his staff officer.

The rebels were as good as their word and advanced in strength and confidence to capture the town, not knowing that a force of 160 strong had arrived since the rebels had left the previous day. We waited until they got within a few hundred yards when we opened a heavy and accurate fire which took them quite by surprise. The Griqua leaders tried to rally their men, but without success, and when Colonel Lanyon saw the enemy was wavering, he sallied forth with a troop of mounted men with the intention of cutting off the main body retiring through a kloof that was their line of retreat to their headquarters at Witwater. However, they had too good a start, but the Griquas on foot and some of the jaded horses were rallied by some of their chiefs and took up a strong position at Driefontein. They got into four stone sheep kraals which they loopholed. Our force then surrounded the enemy within 200 yards [183 metres] of their defences, taking what cover was available and piling up stones and earth for protection from the fire of the rebels. The farm was in a slight hollow, so that we occupied the best position. At about 15.00, Colonel Lanyon said to me ‘If I had three or four companies of regulars I would charge the enemy at once, but, as the men from Kiinberley are mostly married with families, I must prevent casualties as much as possible, so will wait until sundown before charging, when the enemy will be almost tired out.’ Orders were then given to each troop under its officers to charge the sheep kraals on a given signal. Three Gs would be sounded on the bugle, and on the last sound, the kraals were to be rushed, each troop being given a particular kraal to attack. As the sun was setting, Colonel Lanyon ordered Bugler Hill of the FAMP to sound the three Gs and at the sound of the second one, the colonel dashed off, determined to lead the charge. As the last note was sounded, Bugler Hill was wounded in the abdomen and fell from his horse. The wound, fortunately, was not fatal; he recovered and was pensioned later.

It took less than a minute for the troops to rush the four sheep kraals. They were subjected to a heavy fire during the charge, but the young men jumped over the walls, the older men scrambled over, and the fight ended in a few minutes. All the rebels were killed or captured and we counted 43 dead. Our casualties numbered nine and the enemy about 100. The enemy, nonplussed, retired to the Langberg [sic] mountains and it took a large force under Colonel Warren several months to drive them out and finally stamp out the revolt.


There is a sequel to the foregoing narrative. In 1904 there was a general election in the Cape Colony. Mr Abe Bailey and I stood for the Barkly West constituency, which then included Griquatown and was entitled to have two members. We were opposed by Messrs Donovan and Ricketts, both local men, so we felt that we would have to tour the country and hold many meetings if we hoped to win the seats. We were scheduled to attend a meeting of the electors of Griquatown. I do not remember what day it was, but on approaching the town we espied in the distance several Cape carts and wagons. Drawing nearer, we saw a party of men and women. Mr Bailey asked me what I thought of this and I replied that it was a good sign - some of the inhabitants had come to greet us. We halted and there was much shaking of hands all round, while for their kind welcome we expressed our thanks in the superlative degree, as is the custom with candidates seeking the suffrages of the electors. Just before the conclusion of the interview, a sweet little girl of about three years of age, beautifully dressed, came forward and presented me with a magnificent bouquet. Naturally I accepted it and kissed the child, whereupon a lady approached me and remarked that I had looked very surprised when I had accepted the bouquet. I replied ‘Well, to tell you the truth, I was. We politicians are not in the habit of being presented with flowers during an electoral campaign. This certainly is my first experience.’ The lady feelingly replied that 26 years before, when Griquatown had been besieged, she had been a baby in her mother’s arms and that I (Colonel Harris), had been one of those who had come to their assistance, so she had brought her child to present me with a few flowers to show me that they had not forgotten. The lady in question was a daughter of the Mr van Druten referred to above as having been wounded. I looked at Bailey and he at me. I saw his eyes were a little watery and wonder if he discerned a few tears trickling down my own cheeks.

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