The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

Military History Journal
Vol 11 No 5 - June 2000

The war experiences of Mike du Toit:
Eleven days in the Anglo-Boer War

by Pierre du Toit


Mechiel (Mike) Siewert Wiid du Toit was born in Hopetown, Cape Colony, in 1868, the only son of the DRC churchwarden. His father, a stern, uncompromising man, ran a school in the mission grounds where Mike and his five sisters were raised in the strict Calvinistic style of the time. They were sent to the Huguenot Seminary in Wellington for further education and Mike seems to have attended SACS as well. After his father's death, he emigrated to the Transvaal where he worked in the Surveyor-General's office. Citizenship was bestowed upon him in l892. He was called up during the jameson Raid (1895/6) and seems to have enjoyed the military. In 1897 he married Kate Ferguson, daughter of an American missionary teacher at the Huguenot Seminary and joined the Staatsartillerie of the Zuid Afrikaansche Republiek (ZAR)

This is the story of the part that Mike du Toit played in the armed forces of the ZAR doting the AngloBoer War, pieced together by his grandson, Pierre, following many years of research. It was a very short war for Mike, whose service lasted precisely eleven days. The author had long suspected that his grandfather had kept a diary and fruitlessly scoured archives and military museums for it. After the closure in 1994 of the Fort Klapperkop Museum outside Pretoria, a Disposal Board was convened and the diasy, which had been in the museum's possession all along (despite enquiries by the author), ended up with the Rand Light Infantry in Johannesburg. Thanks to Sergeant-Major Peter Wells, the author was able to obtain a copy of the diary which forms the basis of this article. The author assumes that the diary was written in English for the benefit of his grandmother who, although fluent in Dutch, spoke English at home.

The war experiences of Mike du Toit

Following the Jameson Raid in 1895/6, the ZAR Government began to take seriously the threat of British imperialism and the personnel of the Staatsartillerie was increased from 154 officers and men to 416 within months after the capture of Jameson. This figure continued to rise until the outbreak of war. State spending on defence, which had been a mere 87 000 in 1895, leapt to 614 000 in 1897 and large quantities of weapons were imported from Germany and France.

First photo

Mechiel (Mike) du Toit, ZAR Staatsartillerie
(Photo: National Cultural History Museum, NFI)

Second photo

Katie du Toit (neé Ferguson, daughter of an American
missionary teacher at the Huguenot Seminary

(Photo: P du Toit)

Mike du Toit was accepted as a second lieutenant in the ZAR Staatsartillerie after responding to an advertisement in the Staatscourant and passing the examination. Subjects required were Dutch, South African History, Geography, Algebra, Geometry, Accounting, Nature Study and Artillery Science. With his new bride, Katie, he moved into a house in what is today known as Artillery Way, alongside the headquarters building. He was assigned to the 'Franse' (French) Battery, the third of the three batteries of the Staatsartillerie and so called because it was equipped with six 75 mm breech-loading guns from the Schneider works in Le Creusot, France. This weapon was very effective and extremely difficult for the enemy to locate, as the low profile and the use of smokeless powder made it almost invisible. The main problem experienced with the gun was its brake, which was insufficient and could not control the kick. The other batteries were armed with 75 mm Krupp quick-firing field gulls, the 55 mm siege guns known as 'Long Toms', 37 mm Maxim Nordenfeldt 'pom-poms' and various other assorted weapons. Discipline in the Staatsartillerie was similar to that of the Prussian Army, where a number of the Boer officers had attended courses, and European instructors had been seconded to mould the force into an efficient fighting unit. Daily drill and inspection parades were carried out and the garrisoning of the recently completed Fort Schanskop formed part of their duties. In 1897, Mike was promoted to full lieutenant with a salary of 275 per annum. During the same year the battery appears to have participated in manoeuvres near Rustenburg. Wives and girlfriends were allowed to visit and during this time a happy picnic was held in the area.

Third photo

The 3rd Battery, ZAR Staatsartillerie, at Artillery Headquarters, Pretoria
(Photo: National Cultural History Museum, NFI)

In July 1898, the 3rd Battery of the Staatsartillerie was sent to Swaziland to support thc police who were attempting to arrest the Swazi king, Bunu. This followed the murder of a senior induna in the royal kraal in April. The special commissioner, Krogh, had received instructions that Bunu must face trial and a summons had been duly issued but ignored. A week later, Bunu had arrived at the courthouse with his impis in full battle regalia, whistling, rattling their spears and singing war songs. When information reached Pretoria that the whole of Swaziland, with the support of Dinizulu, was mobilising, Piet Joubert was dispatched with 1 300 commandos and artillery to Bremersdorp to restore order. Bunu still refused to hand himself over and a further 700 men were sent to reinforce the garrison. The Staatsartillerie constructed a fort on an exposed rise across the Mzimnene River to the east of the town. The guns were positioned on platforms 2,4 metres high, providing a 360 degree field of fire, and surrounded by a 1,5 metre high earth and sandbag breastwork enclosed by a trench which was 1,2 metres deep and 1,8 metres wide.

Fourth photo

The fort at Bremersdorp (Manzini) during the 1898 Swaziland Expedition
(Photo: National Cultural History Museum, NFI)

In a letter to Katie, Mike wrote:
The letter also contains a sketch of the fort and shows the lack of security that prevailed.

As with most military operations, boredom was the main enemy during the campaign and Mike described it as one of his biggest problems. Bunu fled to Natal and, after much negotiating between the British and Boer governments, stood trial in September. He was found not guilty of murder but guilty of inciting public violence and fined 500 with expenses of 1 000 to be paid to the Transvaal and 146 to Natal.

Back in Pretoria, the Staatsartillerie began publication of their own monthly paper Voorwaarts!, Maandblad van het Corps Staatsartillerie, with Mike as the editor and Katie, an accomplished artist, providing the artwork. A banner for the paper, depicting a cherub, with sword in hand, riding a shell propelled by another cherub, is dated March 1899. All eight pages are hand-written. Articles range from the battle of Laings Nek, a facsimile of Dingaan's land grant to Retief (in English) and even a correspondence section where a gunner seeks advice on whether life insurance is Biblically acceptable. The language used in the paper is generally Dutch, but occasionally this changes into Afrikaans and it is interesting to note the development of the language. Another of Katie's sketches of the time survives. With the title 'Alarm', it illustrates the falling in of the gunners on parade. Written across the bottom of this sketch in an extremely crude hand are the words 'Staats Artillerie Kamp'. How this scrawl got onto the picture remains a mystery. The names of various officers appears on the back. Voorwaarts did not survive long and was soon swallowed up by other activities as the Corps prepared for the coming struggle.

In September Mike wrote a letter, in English, to his sister:

His wife also wrote to the same sister:
Quite what the spying trip entailed is unknown but it is interesting to note the following undated entry in his diary:

A fairly accurate assessment of the British force at Dundee!
In early September, it was reported that the British cabinet had decided to send a further 8 000 troops to reinforce Natal. President Kruger of the ZAR became convinced that war was imminent. He needed the Free State burghers as allies, but President Steyn remained uncertain, feeling that a peacefnl solution was still possible. Smuts was instructed to draw up plans for a military offensive and his plan was for a Blitzkrieg-type thrust deep into Natal and the occupation of Durban before the arrival of reinforcements from Britain. On 28 September 1899, President Kruger decided that he could wait no longer and ordered mobilisation and the drafting of an ultimatum for presentation to the British government. President Steyn continued to hold back, asking for the ultimatum to be redrafted. Kruger would not be moved on this and on 2 October the Free State mobilised. The ultimatum was finally presented to the British agent at 17.00 on 9 October, the same day that British troops began disembarking in Durban. Smuts's planned blitzkrieg had lost its advantage.

At the artillery camp, action was feverish on 28 September 1899. Captain Pretorius, in charge of the 3rd Battery, had his men up before dawn. They paraded and then marched past the President's house and up Market Street to the station. Here the scene was festive, the artillery band under Lieutenant Maggs played stirring music, women wore their best clothes and hundreds of guests and well wishers came to see the departure of the contingent. Loading commenced and sixty men, six guns, eight ammunition wagons and 105 horses were entrained. Mike kissed his by then pregnant wife goodbye and then, to the strains of the Volkslied and the applause of the bystanders, the train pulled out. After a journey of three monotonous days, interspersed with interminable halts, the train finally pulled up at Sandspruit, a siding about 15 km from the Natal border. As far as the eye could see, the veld was speckled with tents and wagon laagers as new burghers arrived in a continuous stream. The horses and equipment were off-loaded and a camp was pitched. The 3rd Battery had a very capable veterinary officer (paardenarts) in the person of Arnold Theiler, who would later gain world renown as the founder of Onderstepoort. The republican flag and a large marquee on the left of the tracks announced the presence of the commandant-general, Piet Joubert, and councils of war were already in progress.

For the next few days a holiday atmosphere prevailed, hunting parties went out and braaivleis and Boeremusiek were the order of the day.

An entry in Mike du Toit's diary for 10 October describes the scene:

The war council was already experiencing the disagreement that was to plague the Boer forces throughout the war. Every general wanted his own artillery detachment and the Staatsartillerie ceased to exist as a cohesive unit as guns and men were allotted piecemeal to the various commanders. Mike and others of the 1st and 3rd batteries were attached to the 2 000-strong commando of General Lukas Meyer.

General Joubert addressed the men from the saddle. Pointing at Majuba, which was clearly visible from the camp, and to Natal beyond, he reminded them how that country had been stolen from their forefathers by the English and of the victory they had achieved on the mountain in 1881. He urged them to take it back.

The Boers' plan of attack was to isolate the British garrisons in central Natal and then to press on to Durban. The Transvaal forces were divided into three columns: The left and centre were to attack General Penn Symons at Dundee whilst the right was to link up with the Freestaters and attack General White at Ladysmith.

An entry in Mike du Toit's diary for 11 October reads:

General White, the British commander in Natal, who had arrived from India on 7 October, was never in favour of the positions adopted by General Penn Symons, dividing his force between the two towns. He wished to consolidate his force behind the Thukela and await the arrival of Bullet, the commander-in-chief, and his reinforcements then on the high seas. The Natal Governor, much influenced by the debunked Randlords who had sought refuge in Pietermaritzburg, placed White under immense pressure to save the coal fields and advised that any withdrawal would be construed by the still rumbling Zulu impis as a sign of weakness. White decided to leave the troops where they were.

On the morning of 12 October 1899, the great advance began. The right hand column, under the command of the 64 year old General Kock had special orders to cut the railway line between Dundee and Ladysmith and occupy the Biggarsberg Pass. The centre, comprising the Heidelberg, Pretoria and Boksburg commandos under General 'Maroela' Erasmus, were to take Newcastle and then to attack the garrison at Dundee from the north-west. The left column under General Lukas Meyer was to follow the Natal border to De Jagersdrift and then to cross into Natal and attack the garrison at Dundee from the north-east. Strategically, the plan was excellent and should isolate the two garrisons.

On 12 October, Mike wrote in his diary:

The entry for 15 October reads:
Fred F L Rothmann was an old family friend, who seems to have 'attached' himself to the artillery unit in order to be with his colleague. The bad weather bogged everything down. The guns were pulled through, but with insufficient ammunition, and the horses, mules and cattle were so knocked up that they could not go on. The expected reinforcements were the commandos from Pier Retief and Ermelo, as well as Schalk Burger's Eastern Transvaal commandos and the Swaziland Police.

On 17 October, Mike du Toit wrote:

The war was already seven days old and still not a shot had been fired in anger. The column had advanced some 90 kilometres and the Boers, especially the younger ones, were growing increasingly disenchanted at the lack of action. Commandant-General Piet Joubert, with the railway at his disposal, had only advanced 45 kilometres as far as Newcastle.

Mike's diary entry for 18 October reads:

The diary continues:
On the evening of 19 October, Meyer's force of about 4 000 men assembled at De Jagersdrift and, following a stirring sermon by Dominee Anderssen of Vryheid, crossed the Buffalo River into Natal. Guided by a friendly Natalian, they made their way in the pouring rain across the veld and, after a brief engagement with a British picket, arrived at the back of Talana at 03.30 in the morning. Two Krupp guns and Mike's Creusot 75 mm gun were labouriously hauled to the summit. Permission to build breastworks was denied by Meyer. As dawn broke and a gentle breeze cleared the mist, the enemy camp became clearly visible in the valley below.

During the night and with great difficulty, General Erasmus had managed to get his men to the top of the 1 600 metre high Impati Mountain to the north-west of the town, but the crown was buried in the clouds. In the British camp, the troops had paraded as usual at 05.00 and were told to prepare for infantry training. Movement on Talana caused an uneasy stir and confusion. Human figures were easily visible, silhouetted against the dawn sky, but were they members of the town guard, their own picket, or the Boers? Meyer viewed the unease in the British camp and kept glancing at Impati from whence the order to attack should come. After much prompting from the burghers he eventually gave the order for the artillery to open fire. As the first shells crashed amongst the British tents, men were seen scurrying in all directions and Penn Symons is reported as having said: 'Damned impudence to start shelling before breakfast!' On top of the hill, the Boer gunners gave it everything they had. Much of the ammunition was poor and the percussion fuses failed to explode in the wet ground. The British artillery was quick to organise and, after finding that they were out of range, they galloped through the town and deployed at a range of 2 000 yards [1 828 metres]. The hilltop was raked by shrapnel and, without the protection of breastworks and silhouetted against the eastern skyline, the Boers were forced to pull back their guns.

At about this time, Mike du Toit was struck below the left knee by a piece of shrapnel and the bone was broken in two places. He fell next to his gun, where his friend, Fred Rothmann, found him trying to crawl to safety from the hail of shrapnel.

After the war, Mike described the event:

Fred Rothmann carried him for a few hundred metres over the stony ground to safety behind some large boulders, An ambulance arrived shortly thereafter and the injured man was taken in a stretcher to a farmhouse at the back of the hill that had been converted into a field hospital. Here he was placed in the care of a Dr van der Metwe, whose initial reaction was to amputate, but decided to defer his decision. Dr C O Moorhead, a general practitioner from Middelburg, Transvaal, the son of a British military surgeon and born in India, described the scene at this field hospital, today known as Thornley Farm, where he was serving with the Boers:
After a fierce struggle, the British had driven the Boers off Talana and the burghers were streaming back across the veld to De Jagersdrift. It was at best a Pyrrhic victory for the British troops. Totally exhausted, they had been on their feet without food for ten hours and were in no condition to pursue the Boers. Their casualty figures were horrendous: 51 dead and dying (including General Penn Symons), 203 wounded and 220 missing. General Yule, who had assumed command after Symons was mortally wounded, received reports of large bodies of Boers advancing on the town from the opposite direction and ordered his men back to camp.

Throughout the battle, General Erasmus, on top of Impati, had stood impassively, sucking on his pipe, glowering into the mist. The sound of the battle below reverberated off the surrounding hills and despite the pleadings of his men to lead them into battle, he still took no action. No satisfactory explanation has ever been given for Erasmus' inactivity and the failure of General Kock to attack along the railway from Glencoe junction, but it may well have been the personality clashes that existed. There is no doubt that, had the three pronged co-ordinated attack taken place as planned, the British force would have been annihilated.

On the morning of 21 October the Boers positioned a 155 mm Long Tom siege gun on the slopes of Mount Impati and began shelling the British camp at a range of 10 000 yards [9 140 metres]. British intelligence had reported these guns, originally used for the defence of Pretoria, as immovable and their appearance on the hill came as a nasty shock to the new British commanding officer, General Yule. He spent the day moving his men out of the range of the 80-pound shells, before abandoning his hospitals and the wounded, and slipping away during the night. The same day, the Boers from Mount Impati occupied Dundee.

Fifth photo

A Boer field ambulance
(Photo: By courtesy, War Museum of the Boer republics, Bloemfontein)

In the Boer hospital behind the hill, Fred Rothmann sat with Mike throughout the night. The next morning, the Boer doctors loaded the wounded onto wagons and sent them to the field ambulance at De Jagersdrift. Fred, accompanying Mike, described the scene in a letter to his sister, written in English. These are extracts:
Mike composed a telegram to the State Secretary, Reitz, asking for his sister Leonora, a trained nurse, to be sent to look after him. He also wired Katie and the telegram was sent by the ever faithful Fred Rothmann:
The British doctor referred to in the extract above was Surgeon-Major F A B Daly, an Australian serving in the British hospital which had been abandoned by the retreating General Yule. Daly published his memoirs many years after the war and recounted the incident. After consultation with the Boer doctors, Mike was assured that his leg could be saved, provided he was moved to the hospital that had been set up in the Scandinavian mission in Dundee. He did not seem to think that he could survive the journey and the final entry in his diary was a letter addressed to Katie in a different handwriting:
Mike du Toit stood the journey well and was housed in the home of the local minister, together with a number of wounded British officers. He was of great assistance to Dr Daly in procuring supplies from the local commandant and even managed to organise 297 sheep for the hospital. Upon his return to Pretoria, Mike spoke so highly of Dr Daly that Louis Botha presented a set of trophy kudu horns to the doctor.

On 10 November, Mike's condition was so improved that he was fit to travel and a special train with an ambulance carriage conveyed him, Katie and Leonora to Elandslaagte, where they remained for about ten days and could clearly hear the booming of the artillery as Ladysmith was besieged. No more wounded were received and the train was required to move up to Modderspruit, closer to the front. The doctor thought that Mike should be sent to hospital in Pretoria and so they were placed in a van and attached to an ordinary train.

Sixth photo

In later years, Mike du Toit (above) revisited the exact site
where he was injured during the Anglo-Boer War.

(Photo: By courtesy of P du Toit)

Seventh photo

The author recently visited the site where his grandfather was
injured in battle during the Anglo-Boer War.

(Photo: By courtesy of P du Toit)

On 17 November, Izaac von Alphen used his newly acquired x-ray apparatus to assist doctors von der Horst and von Gernet in removing a piece of shrapnel and two bullets from Mike's leg. When the British occupied Pretoria on 6 June 1900, Mike, back in uniform and only able to walk with difficulty, was taken prisoner. On 26 July, he was granted parole and, with Katie and their recently born son Louis, was given permission to proceed to Hopetown to stay with his brother-in-law, Pieter du Toit. From there, they moved to Gordons' Bay, where they appear to have been when the war ended. Mike had to report to the Military Governor at the Castle twice a month, which entailed a four-day horse-cart journey across the Cape flats.

The years after the war were difficult until Mike du Toit met his wartime colleague, J B M Hertzog, and obtained the post of Police Commissioner in the Orange River Colony. He remained in police service until 1928 when he contested and won the Pretoria West seat for the National Party. He continued in politics until shortly before his death in 1939.


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