The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

Military History Journal
Vol 12 No 4 - December 2002


The Battle of Bergendal

The Last Pitched Battle of the Anglo-Boer War

By Cecilia P Jooste
History Lecturer at Vista University
Distance Learning Campus, Pretoria

Just over a century ago, the pleasant countryside between Belfast and Machadodorp was 'swept by hails of shrapnel, while the rocks ... were torn and rent by the explosion of the lyddite shells. Smoke and sulphurous gases and rocks shooting up into the air made the place look like a Vesuvius eruption.'

This is how the battle of Bergendal, the last of the pitched battles of the Anglo-Boer War, is described in The Times History of the War in South Africa 1899-1902 (Amery [ed], Vol IV, p 452). The battle lasted from 21 to 27 August 1900. Its climax came on the last day, when 70 men of the Johannesburg Zuid-Afrikaansche Rijdende Politie (ZARP), a special mounted police corps of the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek (ZAR) or the Transvaal Republic, faced a full attack by General Sir Redvers Buller's Natal Field Army (also referred to as the Natal Field Force).

The Anglo-Boer War, or South African War, was waged between Great Britain and the two Boer Republics, the ZAR and the Oranje Vrystaat, from l899 to 1902. As well as being the last pitched battle of the war, the battle of Bergendal was one of the most severe. The outcome, however, did not bring the war to an end. The Peace of Vereeniging was only concluded in May 1902.

By the end of May 1900, most of the major and better known battles of the war had been fought. The British forces had captured Bloemfontein on l3 March 1900. On 24 May, the Orange Free State was annexed. The British then crossed the Vaal River and began their advance on Pretoria. On 30 May, British troops encircled Johannesburg, and on 31 May, Lord Roberts, the commander-in-Chief of the British forces in South Africa, occupied the city. Next would be Pretoria, which was captured on 5 June 1900.

Buller was the British Commander-in-Chief before being superceded by Lord Roberts. He had arrived in Cape Town two days before Ladysmith was besieged by the Boers on 2 November l899. Shortly afterwards, he sailed for Durban to take control of the British forces in Natal. Early in January 1900, British divisional troops, infantry, naval and cavalry brigades were combined. Buller's Natal Field Army came into being, and relieved Ladysmith on 28 February 1900 (Knox, 1902, p 230).

General Sir Redvers Buller, commander of the Natal Field Force.
(Photo: By courtesy, SANMMH).

Buller then advanced through Natal, and on 12 June occupied Volksrust. The town was situated just across the Natal-Transvaal border, in the then south-eastern Transvaal. His command consisted of various divisions under Generals Lyttelton, Brocklehurst and Lord Dundonald (Knox, 1902, p 281). Eventually, Buller's army would link up with the forces of Generals French, Hamilton and Pole-Carew advancing eastward from Pretoria. It was the brigades from Buller's Natal Field Army that would engage the ZARPs at the battle of Bergendal.

Pretoria - Hoisting the Union Jack at the Government Buildings,
5 June 1900. (Photo: By courtesy, SANMMH).

As early as 7 May 1900, the ZAR Government decided that Pretoria would not he defended (LA 988, pp 312-3). On the eve of 29 May 1900, President Kruger and his entourage left for Machadodorp, a small town situated on the ridge of the eastern Transvaal Highveld, along the Delagoa Bay Railway. This town became the seat of the ZAR Government until the defeat of the Boers at Bergendal (LA 988, p 313; Kruger, 1986, pp 194-5).

The capture of Pretoria by the British on 7 June did not bring the war to an end as they had anticipated. Having lost the opportunity to end the war, Roberts then opted for another strategy. He would defeat General Louis Botha and his Boer forces in regular warfare. Various British units advanced towards the ridge on the eastern Highveld where the battle of Bergendal would eventually take place.

General Buller's great northern advance on Machadodorp started when the Natal Field Army, marched 'practically unopposed' from Volksrust to Standerton and occupied the town on 2 June 1900 (BB 7, Report, 24 July 1900, p 9; Letter, GOC Natal Field Army to Secretary of State for War, 27 July 1900). The army then advanced to Amersfoort. Despite Boer resistance, the 1st Brigade, King's Royal Rifle Gorps, occupied the town on 7 August. Ermelo was occupied without any opposition on 11 August.

Advancing from Ermelo, Buller made contact with Boer commandos, and a brief skirmish occurred. On 14 August a squadron of Strathcona's Horse entered Carolina (Knox, 1902, p 283), and on the same day General Brocklehurst's 2nd Cavalry Brigade made contact with scouts from General French's forces exploring the area. On 15 August the Natal Field Army, 11 000 strong, reached the farm Twyfelaar just south of Carolina and about 36km south of Wonderfontein Station.

Buller was then instructed to halt his advance in order for other British troops and Roberts to reach Belfast (Knox, 1902, pp 282-3). However, Buller was impatient with the slow advance of his troops and, in a private letter to his wife on 18 August, he grumbled as follows about the missed chances of capturing the ZAR Government (Buller [Crediton] S J 14-25 August 1900):

Only on 21 August could Buller order his troops to march to the farm, Van Wyksvlei, 24km south-east of Belfast. The offensive against the Boers could then start in earnest.

After the British captured Pretoria, the headquarters of Pole-Carew's 11th Division was based at Eerste Fabrieken, just east of Pretoria, along the Delagoa Bay Railway. French's force was stationed near Witpoort and Rietvlei, about 48km south-east of Pretoria. Ian Hamilton moved to Bronkhorstspruit where he was joined by Mahone on 21 July 1900.

As the British forces advanced, the Boers retreated along the Delagoa Bay Railway in the direction of Machadodorp. On 26 July, French and Hamilton occupied Middelburg, and a line of outposts was established to prevent any communication between Botha and the Boer commandos to the west and south of Pretoria.

At this stage, Roberts believed that 'a considerably larger force than was then at the disposal of the British would be needed to operate against the Boers gathering to the west of Machadodorp. By 26 July, the 11th Division was spread out along the line from Balmoral to Middelburg, while French's Cavalry brigades and Hutton's Mounted infantry were in possession of Middelburg (BB 8, Roberts to Secretary of State for War, 10 October 1900).

On 15 August, when Buller's Natal Field Army reached the farm Twyfelaar, French's Cavalry was deployed between Wonderfontein and Twyfelaar. The Natal Field Army resumed its advance and, on 21 August, it marched to the farm Van Wyksvlei. On 23 August, Buller's and French's forces were positioned on the farm Geluk. On the same day, the 11th Division under Pole-Carew assembled at Wonderfontein, and the next day they occupied Belfast.

On 25 August, Lord Roberts arrived in Belfast from Pretoria to take overall command of the British forces. Roberts, Buller, French and Pole-Carew held a war council and drafted their strategy. Initially, Roberts wanted Buller to move in an easterly direction towards the Carolina-Machadodorp road to cut off the Boer retreat. However, Buller did not agree. In a telegram to Roberts (Schultz, 1974, p 851, he indicated why this offensive could not be carried out:

Buller wanted to move northward, and in the end the plan that Buller should advance towards the east was abandoned. French and Pole-Carew would concentrate the attack north of the railway, and Buller's army would advance directly on Machadodorp. The line of attack led right across the farm Bergendal where the ZARPs were positioned. Pole-Carew's 11th Division and French's Cavalry on Buller's left flank would have to attack the Boer right flank (Goldman, 1902, p 341). The combined British forces of about 20 000 were brought into position along a 20km front to stage the offensive against Botha's 5 000 Boer commandos spread over a much longer line of defence.

By the beginning of August 1900, General Botha had established a defence line that stretched for more than 80km from Bothasberg, north-west of Belfast, to the farm Frischgewaagd in the Komati River valley. The main purpose of this line was to secure the railway. It was their last line of communication with the outside world.

At a military council meeting held early in August it was decided that the burghers should maintain their defence positions to the bitter end in order to prevent the British from occupying the railway (Schultz, 1974, p 36). This decision the ZARPs would eventually carry out with the utmost courage. Machadodorp, the then seat of the ZAR Government, had to be preserved, and the routes of retreat to Lydenburg and Barberton safeguarded. Various commandos were stationed along the defence line, but because numbers were so few, nowhere along this front was there a large concentration of Boer forces. The result was that none of these commandos remained static. They deployed along the defence line according to circumstances.

At Bothasberg, the Boksburg Commando under Commandant Dercksen took up position to protect the road from Middelburg to Lydenburg and to oppose a possible British advance to Lydenburg. This town was very important to the Boers, being one of their major zones of retreat. The Lydenburg Commando occupied the foothills of the Steenkampsberg, guarding the road from Belfast and Dullstroom to Lydenburg. The Middelburg and Johannesburg Commandos were positioned to the north-east of Belfast. Their main tasks were to control the Belfast-Lydenburg road.

Men of the Krugersdorp Commando
(Photo: By courtesy, SA National Museum of Military History).

Having arranged the defence of the route to Lydenburg, Botha then positioned commandos to defend the Delagoa Bay Railway. This line was vital to the Boers. Just to the north of the railway, and to the left of the Johannesburg Commando, the Krugersdorp Commando under Commandant Jan Kemp took position. A small contingent of Germans, under Field Cornet J Schultz, was placed close to Belfast Station in case of a British advance along the railway.

To the west of the Krugersdorp Commando, just north of the railway, about forty Austrians under Baron von Goldegg took up position. Just south of the railway, on a stony kopje, or hillock, 70 men of the ZARPs dug themselves in. The defence of the railway was entrusted to them. A German detachment under Commandant Krieger was positioned immediately to the east of the ZARPs. The Germiston Commando took up position a bit further south.

The third object of defence in the Boer line was the Carolina-Machadodorp road and the route of retreat to Barberton. Positioned further to the south were the Heidelberg, Carolina and Bethal Commandos. Their main task was to oppose Buller if he advanced from the south. General J Smuts and 800 burghers had to defend the route of retreat towards Barberton (Schultz, 1974, pp 23-6).

The ZARPs established their position on the kopje and in some of the buildings on the farm Bergendal at the junction of the Carolina and Dalmanutha roads. Dalmanutha is a railway station just to the east of the kopje, which is almost the highest point of the ridge and rises suddenly from the surrounding grassy slopes. It consists of a mass of immense stones and rocky crevices, and forms a kind of natural fortress. The surrounding grassland afforded no shelter to any advancing troops. The ZARPs were supported by about 1 000 burghers on either side, but they were not directly connected to any of the other commandos (Farwell, 1999, p 308). This virtual isolation would eventually have decisive consequences for them in the final battle.

The Creusot 'Long Tom'. (Photo: By courtesy, SANMMH).

Botha commanded the entire Boer defence and, for the first time in the war, the four State Artillery Creusot guns, the Long Toms, were under his command. There were also a number of other artillery pieces at the disposal of the Boers, but it is difficult to determine the exact strength of the Boer artillery owing to the varying numbers given by different sources.

The four Long Toms were initially placed so as to repel any British advance on Machadodorp and to secure the routes of retreat. One was placed on Groot Suikerkop, north-east of Belfast, to defend the roads leading to Dullstroom. Another was sited at Driekop about 2,5km from Dalmanutha Station, and was still in full operation on 25 August. Precisely where the other two guns were initially placed is not clear. Presumably, one was intended to defend the road leading from Carolina to Machadodorp, while the fourth was positioned further south to safeguard the Carolina Machadodorp road as well as the bridge over the Komati River. However, when it became evident that there was not going to be a British advance along this road, instructions were given that one gun should be moved to a position on the ridge overlooking the railway to Elandskop while the other was moved closer to the position of the Middelburg Commando.

In 26 August, three of the Long Toms were placed on Elandskop, Driekop and Suikerboschkop and one in the vicinity of Elandsfontein (Schultz, 1974, pp 26-9). Botha's military strength, in soldiers as well as artillery, was far less than that of the British. In general, the Boer forces also experienced shortages of ammunition. On the day of the main battle, the ZARPs in particular faced this problem.

When Buller resumed his advance on 21 August 1900, the mounted brigades secured the hilly terrain across which the Natal Field Army had to move. On the first day, the army reached the farm Van Wyksvlei and occupied it without any opposition. On 23 August, the farm, Geluk, was reached and although Boer commandos were present in the vicinity, it too was occupied without any serious resistance.

Judging from the events of that day, Buller believed he was within reach of the Boers' main position. On the same day, French occupied the north-west edge of the ridge above the farm. Both forces encountered Boer commandos, and skirmishes occurred. On 24 August Pole-Carew occupied Belfast. The British also occupied Monument Hill, an eminence to the north.

Early on the morning of 26 August, French's Cavalry left the farm, Geluk, and advanced towards Belfast. The Cavalry had to occupy the mountainous terrain north of Belfast and Machadodorp. That evening, it reached the farm Lakenvlei. In his support of French's army, Pole-Carew's 11th Division attempted to advance along the Lydenburg road, but owing to heavy shelling and rifle fire from the Boer commandos, little progress was made.

On 26 August, Buller marched his troops from Geluk to the farm Vogelstruispoort. His initial intention was to advance on the farm Waaikraal. The same day, however, valuable information was acquired which would have a bearing on the movements of Buller's army, and the eventual advance on the Boers the next day. According to the information obtained by Captain F W Chetwode of 19th Hussars, the extreme left of Botha's line was positioned on Bergendal farm. After receiving the information, Buller changed direction and advanced directly north across Bergendal. In his report to Roberts (LPR 10, Buller to Roberts, 10 September 1900; Breytenbach, 1996, p 329), he explains:

Chetwode made the correct assumption that the Boers' centre south of the railway was on the farm Bergendal, but he did not observe the Boer positions behind the Belfast-Dalmanutha plateau. These would only become apparent the following day.

Map: The Battle of Bergendal, 21-27 August 1900,
showing the positions of all four Long Toms. (Adapted from Map 21,
L Changuion, Silence of the gods: The history of the Long Toms
of the Anglo-Boer War [Protea Book House, Menlo Park, 2001], p 111).

Skirmishes between the Boer forces and various British units occurred throughout, and were quite severe. Buller's baggage convoy was delayed, and Howard's Brigade and Dundonald's regiments were attacked. However, the British did succeed in advancing close to the Boer positions. In telegrams sent to President Kruger, Botha reported that fighting had occurred along the whole Boer defence line, resulting in the ammunition being exhausted (LA 731[d] Telegrams, 71, 67, 31 and 12, 26 August 1900). The Boers still succeeded in tormenting Buller's advance, however, and apart from getting closer to the Boer defence line, no other successes were achieved, and it does seem that by the end of the day many burghers had abandoned their positions. The main battle would only take place on the following day.

Early on the morning of 27 August, the 2nd Brigade under Colonel J F Brocklehurst, the 'A' Battery under Major L G F Gordon, and the 4th Division Mounted Infantry under Captain H K Steward, were to cover the advance of the Natal Field Army's regiments. Colonel Brocklehurst successfully placed the artillery in such a way that the British troops would be able to attack from the northern side and at the same time prevent any Boer attack. Colonel Kitchener's 7th Brigade moved along the ridge from Vogelstruispoort towards Bergendal. The 1st Battalion Manchester Regiment was detached to the right and entrenched itself on the eastern crest of the ridge.

On the kopje, Commandant Oosthuizen, the commander of the ZARPs, and Lieutenant S van Lier inspected the Boer positions (Schultz, 1974, p 136). At this stage, it seemed that their ammunition was low. Then a mule wagon carrying supplies arrived. Then the British Bombardment started (Breytenbach, 1996, p 334).

At 11.00, the three-hour, uninterrupted bombardment of the kopje began. This attack was a combination of a Bombardment from the howitzers and salvos of shrapnel from a field Battery, assisted by the 4,7 inch naval gun placed at Belfast. The shells ploughed up the land and filled the air with yellow smoke, shrapnel and fragments of rock. The heavy projectiles from the naval guns blew to pieces some heavy blocks of rock on the kopje behind which the ZARPs had taken up their positions. The rock fragments were just as dangerous as the shrapnel. The British artillery had the upper hand, as the Boer guns were too far away to have any impact on Buller's men.

The ZARPs were well concealed behind and among the boulders, and despite the heavy bombardment and the sure knowledge that an infantry attack would follow, none of them attempted to leave his position. The only movement was when one took shelter behind a different boulder. Throughout the bombardment, Lieutenant W F Pohlman kept enquiring whether anybody was wounded, and encouraging the defenders not to fear the gunfire. Early on in the attack, Commandant P R Oosthuizen was wounded by a piece of flying stone and had to withdraw (Breytenbach, 1996, p 334).

After three hours, the ZARPs still held their positions on the kopje. Buller then ordered the infantry onslaught, General Kitchener directed Lieutenant-Colonel Metcalfe to take up a position across the main east and west ridges of the kopje under cover of gunfire. His men were to attack from the west. Lieutenant-Colonel Payne was instructed to march the Inniskilling Fusiliers down the face of the gun ridge. Their assault would be from the south. The 1st Devonshire Regiment was positioned to support the left centre, while the right attack was supported by the Gordon Highlanders (BB 7, Buller to Roberts, 13 September 1900 p102).

As the British infantry reached the foot of the kopje, bayonets were fixed and the final charge began, with 1 500 British attacking what was left of the ZARP contingent. Roberts and Buller watched the final phase of the attack through their field glasses.

The ZARPs maintained steady and accurate fire from the time the British infantry began their advance across the open terrain until they were upon them. In his report to Roberts (BB 7,13 September 1900, p 102), Buller describes the final stages of the battle as follows:

The historian, Conan Doyle, said of the ZARPs that no finer defence was made in the war. Knox, the medical doctor, who was present at the battle, and afterwards attended to the wounded, gives his impressions of the battle as it draws to a close (Knox, 1902, p 289):
Eventually the surviving ZARPs realised they had to leave their positions. As some of them rushed to their horses, one destroyed their artillery piece. (Breytenbach, 1996, pp 340-1). Lieutenant Pohlman and nineteen others were killed, while Commandant Oosthuizen was taken prisoner together with eighteen others. The rest of the ZARPs who had initially occupied the kopje escaped and joined the other retreating commandos.

It was not only the ZARPs who fought a brave battle. The day also belonged to the British artillery, who started the attack, and the infantry, who completed the victory. The British regiments had to advance on the kopje across open grassland without any cover. During the onslaught, the Rifle Brigade's colonel was wounded. However, the troops reformed and 'swept on their own initiative up the plateau carrying all before them' (BB 7, Buller to Roberts, 13 September 1900, p 102). The Devons supported the Rifle Brigade on the left, while the Gordon Highlanders and the Inniskilling Fusiliers moved in from the south. According to Buller's report to Roberts on 13 September 1900, the honours of the assault belonged to the men of Rifle Brigade, because they attacked the part of the kopje which was best protected from the British artillery fire.

The Boer defence was breached. The following day, 28 August, Buller's troops marched into Machadodorp, and on 1 September Roberts issued the proclamation declaring the entire Transvaal British territory (BB 2, No 15 of 1900, p 16).

The Long Tom. (Photo: By courtesy, SA National
Museum of Military History).

On 27 August at Waterval Onder, the first railway station in the Transvaal Lowveld beyond Machadodorp, Presidents Kruger and Steyn, together with other members of their governments, awaited news. Throughout the day, they listened to the rumble of the battle being fought on the mountain ridge above them. The next day, 28 August, President Kruger and the rest left for Nelspruit, which was declared the new seat of governmont. Kruger was granted permission to leave for Europe. The aged president would never return. He died in exile on 14 July 1904 in Switzerland. His body was transported back to South Africa and buried in Pretoria on 16 December 1904.

Although the ZARPs were defeated and the British won the battle, Botha's main force remained intact. The commandos dispersed to Lydenburg and Barberton, and guerilla warfare began. This second phase of the war lasted even longer than the first. Peace would only be declared at the end of May 1902.

The battle of Bergendal should be memorialised not because of its outcome, but to highlight the skill demonstrated by that wonderful soldier and strategist, General Sir Redvers Buller, and to honour the courage displayed by the soldiers on both sides. The ZARPs, however, deserve special mention because in performing their duty they earned the admiration of friend and foe alike. Stuart wrote of them in the Morning Post (Schultz, 1974, p 187): 'They were massive in their repose those dead Vulcans... Peace, unbroken peace to their souls, for they were brave men.'

Sources and further reading:

Amery, L S (Ed), The Times History of the War in South Africa 1899-1902, IV (Low, Marston & Co, London, 1906).
Breytenbach, J H, Die Geskiedenis van die Tweede Vryheidsoorlog in Suid-Afrika, 1899-1902, VI (Government Printer, Pretoria, 1996).
Doyle, A C, The Great Boer War (Scripta Africana Series, Melville, 1987).
Farwell, B, The Great Boer War (Wordsworth, Herfordshire, 1999 reprint).
Goldman, C S, With General French and the Cavalry in South Africa (Macmillan & Co, London, 1902).
Knox, E B, Buller's Campaign with the Natal Field Force of 1900 ( R Brimley Johnston, London, 1902).
Kruger, S J P, The memoirs of Paul Kruger: Two volumes published in one as told by himself to H C Bredel and Piet Grobler (Scripta Africana Series, Melville, 1986).
Nasson, B, The South African War 1899-1902 (Arnold, London, 1999).
Picard, J, Op Kommando met Steyn en de Wet: Oorlogsherinneringe van Lt Kol F F Pienaar (Protea Boekhuis, Pretoria, 2000).
Shultz, B G, 'Die Slag van Bergendal (Dalmanutha)', Unpublished MA thesis, University of Pretoria, 1974.
The Transvaal Archives (TAB).
British Blue Books (BB).
Leyds Archives (LA).
Political Secretary Correspondence to the Military (PSY).
Roberts Papers (LPR).

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