In the quiet of the cemetery in the little town of Ficksburg on the banks of the Caledon River and nestling peacefully at the foot of the Imperani Mountain, is the grave of George Bennett Mousley, murdered in cold blood by the Boers on 17 November 1901. Alongside lie the graves of Captain Sir Thomas Fowler, Bart., and certain other officers, NCOs and men who were killed or died of wounds received in action at Moolman's Spruit on 20 April 1902.
Lieutenant Sir Thomas Fowler, Bart., joined his regiment, the Royal Wiltshire Yeomanry (afterwards the 1st Wiltshire Yeomanry) in the autumn of 1899, and subsequently sailed for South Africa in March 1900 with the Wiltshire Yeomanry, which became the 1st Battalion Imperial Yeomanry as part of the XVlth Brigade of the Eighth Division under the command of Gen Sir Leslie Rundle, KCB, CMC, DSO. He served with distinction throughout the greater part of the Anglo-Boer War, including mainly in the Brandwater Basin and the Hammonia, Wittebergen, Witnek and Thaba 'Nchu areas, and was promoted to the rank of captain in January 1901. In September 1901, the Brigade had its headquarters established at Brindisi in the Brandwater Basin near Fouriesburg from which the Yeomanry operated for some time. In October 1901, Tom Fowler wrote in one of his letters that the men were in a most deplorable condition, half of them being dismounted and in rags, and that rations were getting short again consisting only of the bare necessities. The Wiltshire Yeomanry were having difficulty in obtaining remounts, and the Arab mare that Fowler had bought early in the War was the only fit horse he had, although he fancied that she was getting stale.
Early in 1902 Major EM Perceval, RA, became the new commanding officer of the 1st Wiltshire Yeomanry, and in March of that year the Yeomanry took part in a drive eastwards from the Orange Free State towards the Natal Border.
The whole battalion then returned to Brindisi by 18 April and, on the following day, information was received that a party of about fifty Boers were living at Moolman's Spruit, the farm of Andries Olivier Accordingly, a party of about 160 men under the command of Lieut-Col Perceval, made up of Imperial Yeomanry and mounted infantry, started from Brindisi at 20.00 The place where the horses were left was reached at 13.00, and the farm was reached at 02.00. It was bright moonlight and the Boers were alert and more numerous than had been supposed. It seems that the expedition was undertaken somewhat rashly in that there was insufficient information about the locality of the farm and the situation there. Reliance had been placed on a Native guide, and it seems that there was either a mistake or some treachery on the part of the guide as the Boers were ready for the party when it attacked the farm. The British advanced over open swampy ground in front of the farmhouse and, at about 200 yards (183 metres) ran into very heavy fire from the Boers, with the loss of two officers and six men killed, three officers and twelve men wounded and 28 taken prisoner. Captain Fowler succeeded in closing in to about 20 yards of the farmhouse when he was hit in the thigh, and the doctor with the party stated that he must have bled to death in a very few minutes. Captain A T Blackwood was mortally wounded and died before reaching camp. The doctor stayed with the wounded and reported that the dead, as well as the wounded, were stripped by the Boers. In view of the very heavy fire from the Boers, some of whom appeared to be in the surrounding hills, a retirement was ordered at about 03.30 to 04.00 as the moon went down.
Olivier's Farm, Moolman's Spruit, Orange River Colony, from a sketch by Sir Alfred Pease.
The above account has been gleaned
from the privately printed memoir of Sir
Thomas Fowler, and the following two
paragraphs reporting on the action, which
do not differ from the above account, are
taken from Col W L Vale, The History of
the South Staffordshire Regiment:
'The Battalion M I Company, under Captain Blackwood with Savage-Armstrong as his subaltern, took part in one of the last actions of the war on 20th April, 1902. It was attached to a Yeomanry regiment and the task was to surprise a farm at Moolman's Spruit, where many Boers were reported to sleep, about twelve miles north-west of Ficksburg and near the village of Brindisi. Obviously if surprise was to be obtained, only a limited reconnaissance was possible, but even a night raid across almost unknown country with woods and swamps required more planning than was considered necessary by the Yeomanry C[ommanding] O[fficerj. He might well have heeded the warning of his Major, who strongly urged him to give up the project. As is apparent from Savage-Armstrong's report, everything went wrong until the withdrawal. To start with, as a surprise the affair was a dismal failure; the Boers knew it was coming and cunningly sent out a native guide in their pay and although the real one was waiting at the named rendezvous, his services were not used and the false guide was readily accepted by the CO.'
'Consequently the column rode into an ambush and early in the fight Blackwood was mortally wounded. Under intense fire he was gallantly rescued by Savage-Armstrong and Colour-Sergeant Hazlewood, the latter also being seriously wounded. The Sergeant, Hayes, was killed by a huge bullet probably from an elephant rifle. The company was in a thin wood with no cover and the dying Blackwood urged those close to leave him, attend to the other wounded and reorganise. To add to the confusion the Boers were calling individual regiments and even certain officers by name. Realizing the farm could not be taken the Yeomanry C O ordered a retirement which, thanks to the South Staffords who shot many of the enemy's horses, was almost unmolested. One of the M I taken prisoner pushed his escort over a precipice and rejoined at Brindisi. Savage-Armstrong said his men retreated with the utmost good order and lack of haste, a tribute to their courage and discipline; he himself was to display outstanding courage in another war, in which, alas, he was killed. The raid, badly led from the start, should not have been entrusted to an inexperienced officer, whatever his rank, Blackwood or his subaltern would have been far better choices.'
Olivier's Farm, back view, showing the outbuildings and stables (on the right) which were cleared during the attack (From a sketch by Sir Alfred Pease).
A copy of the report by Lieutenant Savage-Armstrong
referred to above is attached hereto. A photocopy
of this report was given to the writer by Mr Steven
J Hopkins some years ago together with the
following extract from James P Jones, A History of the
South Staffordshire Regiment:
'On April, 20th, 1902, the Mounted Infantry Company of the Regiment took part in what was practically the last action of any importance before peace was signed. "H" Company (Mounted) was attached to Colonel Percival's [sic] 1st Battalion Imperial Yeomanry, and it was decided to attack a farm at Moolman's Spruit, near Brindisi, Brandwater Basin, where a number of Boers were reported to be sleeping. The Boers were warned of the attack, and purposely sent out a native to guide the Column over difficult ground so as to gain time and prepare an ambush. When the attack began the Boers were quite prepared, and poured a heavy fire on the British. "H" Company was in a small wood where there was absolutely no cover, and Captain Blackwood, who commanded it, was mortally wounded at an early stage of the fight. On hearing of this, Lieutenant Savage-Armstrong and Col-Sergt Hazlewood immediately dashed out to where he was lying in front of the Company and carried him under cover. In doing this Col-Sergt Hazlewood was severely wounded. Pte Partridge, who went to the yeomanry to fetch the doctor, was shot dead. On finding that the farm could not be taken, Colonel Percival ordered the Force to retire. This was successfully accomplished, and the Column ultimately camped at Ficksburg. By a strange coincidence Captain Blackwood was killed quite close to the place where, twelve months before (April 24th, 1901), he was shot through the arm.'
All the officers and men who were killed or who died of wounds were buried in the Ficksburg cemetery. The roll of these is as follows:
|Captain Sir Thomas Fowler||1st Bn Imperial Yeomanry (1st Wiltshire Squadron)|
|Captain A T Blackwood||South Stafford Mtd Infantry|
|Sgt C Hayes||South Stafford Mtd Infantry|
|Pte F Partridge||South Stafford Mtd Infantry|
|No 24089 Tpr C Davies||1st Wiltshire Squadron|
|No 21330 Tpr C O Thomas||1st Wiltshire Squadron|
|No 22775 Tpr D McCarthy||1st Wiltshire Squadron|
|No 21549 Tpr N Lloyd||1st Wiltshire Squadron|
The fight at Moolman's Spruit was remarkable for being not only the last severe engagement by men of the Eighth Division, but also the final action of any importance in the campaign. Both Captain Fowler and Captain Blackwood were subsequently Mentioned in Despatches for gallantry in action at Moolman's Spruit on 20 April 1902.
In letters sent by Major W P I Davies of the 1st Battalion Mounted Infantry and Lieut-Colonel E M Perceval, to Mr A E Pease, MP (later Sir Alfred Pease), brother-in-law, and to the sister of Captain Fowler, respectively, there were notifications of his death, expressions of sincere sympathy and regret, and references to his gallantry and the very high esteem in which he was held by both officers and men. Particular reference was made to his being one of the bravest officers in the field, and the way in which he looked after his men and horses.
In April 1905, Sir Alfred E Pease and his wife Nellie (Tom Fowler's sister) visited the farm at Moolman's Spruit and were received by Mr and Mrs Andries Olivier who gave them firsthand information about the action and the death of Captain Fowler. Andries Olivier was 75 years of age and had been a prisoner-of-war in Madras, India, at the time of the action on his farm. One of his sons had also been a prisoner and had died in Ceylon during the war. Mrs Olivier had been in a refugee camp, and one or two of their daughters and two of their boys aged about twelve years, had been at the farm when it was attacked. One daughter had lost her right hand when a gun which she was loading for the men blew up in her hands. Unfortunately, Sir Alfred had temporarily lost his Kodak camera so he was not able to take any photographs of the farm. However, he completed two sketches and drew a plan of the action (see illustrations on pages 12 and 13). Andries Olivier was able to describe all the details of the fight and all that had happened, and knew where the men had fallen.
Blackwood said to me as we started pointing between the two partables of treks (?) lead across them and swing round to your left. It appeared the Yeomanry told off to attack the Boer piquet in the cattle kraal had reached it under Fowler (who was at once shot through the groin and died in two minutes). The bullets from this direction came fairly heavy from this direction amongst us as we were swinging round. The ground we had to cross was very bad, two or three barbed wire fences had to be got over, often up to our waists in sluits and mire. Almost simultaneously with the first shots from the stone kraal the Boers in the farm opened fire. Coming to a stone wall and not quite knowing where the farm itself was a few of our men naturally took cover for a second or two but we soon got them out again and charged on. The men behaved splendidly and never flinched. Directly the farmhouse (hidden from us by a grove of trees) opened fire we had some shots fired at us from the right still we rushed on and plunged into the ___ All except a few of us on the right who ran along ___. Just as we reached the border of the grove facing the farm we were met with a terrific fire and all lay down and returned it as best we could. The noise was awful, showers of branches, cut from the trees (which were too young and thin to be of least use as cover) fell round us. Splintered stones were flying in all directions, not only as we were being fired at from the farm, but from many other than unsuspected places besides, from the hill beyond, from a long range on the right, from our left front, shots fired by the Yeomanry (at Boers who seemed to run towards the grove) fell among us, how every one of us was not hit is a miracle. Suddenly a whistle was blown to signal cease fire and word was passed to prepare to charge again. Then it was we stood up calling the men to get ready, the firing broke out from all sides and a shout was raised that Blackwood was hit. He was not many yards from me at the time so we rushed to his assistance and tried to get him to a place of safety, then just as we laid him down in a little damp hollow to the right (the only place we could find) Col-Sergeant Hazelwood who had helped me to carry him and who had behaved with the greatest pluck and coolness throughout was hit too. We did what we could for poor Blackwood whose bravery was wonderful, though he must have been in terrible pain, but said the wound was a dreadful one (passing through from behind upwards and out about four inches above his left groin) he kept calling to the men not to mind him that he was alright and attend to the others who were wounded first though he must have known how bad he was at the time, you know Sir what a man poor Blackwood was, he fought like a lion to the last and was always thinking of others; a man of ours named Partridge whilst going for the Doctor who was with the Yeomanry was shot dead. A moment after Sergt Hayes received a terrible wound in the right arm seemingly from a bullet from an elephant gun from which he has since died. Blackmore, a man from the last draft, received a nasty wound in the thigh.
The Boers soon got to know our names and Regiments and soon began to call for the South Staffords to come here or there amongst the trees and rocks whence they fired on us. I fancy one answered. Blackwood persuaded me to leave him, so making him as comfortable as possible under the circumstances and hearing voices passing the word "retire" I left three men with the wounded and tried to find the Doctor and called the men.The Boers seemed to be all amongst the Yeomanry with men calling out and firing. Soon even our men when called to would fire at one, suspecting treachery. At length I heard someone calling me by name and with what men could get we charged towards the sound, having previously sent a man called Mannion to inform Brindisi of what had occurred and got ambulances sent out. Everyone was mixed up in the wood. On reaching the Farm I found things were in the following state: The Yeomanry who had without doubt behaved with extreme pluck were actually in possession of some of the outbuildings and were pouring a heavy fire at the windows and doors of the Farm, which were however barricaded with bags of some kind. The distance of firing varied from 15 to 20 yards, but in the first charge I believe they had actually been able to put their rifles into the loopholes. They had also taken Boer prisoners outside.
Col Perceval who was close up to the house himself ordered a retirement to be made two at a time which was done with the utmost good order and absence of hurry. Col Perceval covering the movement on a hill en the right, our men were the last to leave as many who had become scattered were thought to have retired on the first order. On reaching a point not far from our horses asked if I might go back to see if there were any mere of our men there as some firing was going on, but I was told that I better not, as it might be useless. However, I left 12 horses with a guard to pick up stragglers.We went at a walk and were not fired on, the reason of this being that a small party of our men had got at and shot a large number of Boer horses in order to prevent them from following up. A few of them did follow up at dawn and captured two men who had lost their way, one of these named Porter who did not come in till the next day; he was taken after a futile resistance and being in charge of one Boer was being led along a precipitous hill to be handed ever to another party of Boers, when suddenly ___ jumped forward and hurled the Boer ever a cliff and without waiting to see the result made his way over the mountains to Brindisi. It is nothing short of a miracle that there were not many mere casualties as there were some marvellous escapes, clothing and helmets shot through, and had the Boers harassed us after the fight few would have get back to camp through such unfavourable country. The Boers' losses is reported to be 53 very badly wounded and some dead (number net known) and prisoners.
The Doctor of the Yeomanry says he saw about 200 Boers at the Farm in the morning and they said that they knew we were coming before we arrived. The native we met appears not to have been the one employed by us (who waited for us at Bambeesberg all night and reported at Schloter (?) the day after) but a Boer scout we by chance ran into who probably sent a comrade to warn the Farm guiding us over dongas to gain time.'
Note: The above report has been transcribed from an old photocopy of pages of the original Regimental record/diary kept by Lt Savage-Armstrong, which photocopy came into the writer's possession some years age. The writer has copied it almost exactly as it is written, and the blank spaces indicate words or phrases which he has been unable to decipher However, this does not detract in any way from the essence of this vivid and remarkable account.
A Private Memoir of Sir Thomas Fowler, Bart. (Privately printed, London: n.d).
Col W L Vale, History of the South Staffordshire Regiment (Aldershot, 1969).
Extracts from the original Regimental Record/Diary kept by Lt Savage-Armstrong.
James P Jones, A History of the South Staffordshire Regiment (1705-1923) (Wolverhampton, 1923).
Private E C Moffet, (late Scots Guards), With the Eighth Division: A Souvenir of the South African Campaign (London, 1903).
Mildred G Dooner, The Last Post : Roll of Officers who fell in South Africa, 1899-1902 (London, 1909).
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