The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

Military History Journal
Vol 11 No 2 - December 1998


Dear Editor

I have the following comments on the prelude to the Bakenlaagte 'surprise' in the article 'Wire at War' by Maj J D Harris (Military History Journal, Vol 11, No 1, June 1998, p 29).

Some years ago I acquired the decorations and medals of Major P Jooste, who saw military service in the Swaziland Expedition (1898), the Anglo-Boer War and the First World War. While researching his Boer War service on the Staff of Gen Louis Botha, I traced an article 'Bakenlaagte Nogeens' by Evert Dommisse, that appeared in Die Huisgenoot of 12 May 1939, pp 30-33, 61. The following is a free translation of a part of this article, dealing with events immediately following Gen Louis Botha's return from his abortive invasion of Natal early in October 1901:

'The General established his headquarters on the farm Roodepoort, some four miles south of Ermelo. However, he could not remain inactive for long. In the second week of October, he sent Piet Jooste, currently Chairman of the Diamond Control Board, and Fred Siemssen, both members of his staff, with the curt instruction "Go and find out what the enemy is up to."

They rode some sixty miles in a westerly direction without seeing the enemy. Near Trichardtsfontein, they found a telegraph wire, origin unknown. Piet Jooste, who also was a field telegraphist, climbed up the pole and tapped the wire with his vibrator. Remarkably, the message intercepted was from Col Benson, informing Lord Kitchener at Standerton that he [intended] leaving Middelburg for the High Veld on 20 October with a large convoy and 2 200 men.

Piet Jooste and Fred Siemssen immediately turned back and when they reported back to Gen Botha he formed his plans in an instant. Together with Hendrik Watkins and Dirk Dirksen, he climbed a koppie, taking a heliograph to contact Gen Coen Brits in the Standerton district. After a few moments of flashing in the direction of Bloukop, Hendrik Watkins said: "I've got him, General." Gen Coen Brits immediately advanced in the direction of Bethal. The other commandos were ordered to do likewise. General Botha himself instructed the Ermelo Commando under Gen Hans Grobler and Comdt Willem Buhrman to "saddle up" and, after five forced night marches he reached the area where he intended to ambush Benson.

The above account confirms the excellent use made by the Boers of the heliograph.

Yours sincerely,
Henk Loots

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