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Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging



Military History Journal
Vol 15 No 4 - December 2011

SKIRMISH AT VREDEFORT
A DISPUTE OVER FIVE WAGON-LOADS OF FLOUR 24 July 1900
PART TWO

by Dr Johannes J Retief

THE STORY SO FAR ...
The first part of this article was published in Military History Journal Vol 15 No 3, June 2011, pp 83-7, and describes the circumstances that led to a sharp confrontation between Boer General Christiaan de Wet's Orange Free State commandos and British Brigadier-General Robert Broadwood's 2nd Cavalry Brigade and 2nd Mounted Infantry Brigade in the vicinity of Vredefort on 24 July 1900. A convoy of five Boer wagons, laden with flour intended for baking bread for the hungry Boers, was intercepted soon after leaving the mill in Vredefort. After a chase, the convoy was captured by members of Kitchener's Horse under Maj G A Cookson. The wagons were forced to turn back towards Vredefort ...

PHASES OF THE SKIRMISH ON 24 JULY 1900

The Boer Pursuit

The Boer brandwachten informed General de Wet at Klein-Bloemfontein about the approaching wagons and their pursuers. De Wet, always the man of action, did not select the terrain for an engagement, but he certainly was not going to allow his wagons to be captured with impunity. He sent word to the burghers at Vlakkuil to follow him and immediately set out with the 400 men he could muster (Pretorius, 1977, p 22; De Wet, 1902, p 188). They advanced over the second ridge and the high ground in the direction of Palmietkuil.

Hendrik Ver Loren van Themaat, a Dutch volunteer with Theron's Verkenningskorps (the TVK), was making breakfast at Vlakkuil when the call came to 'Opzaal, opzaal!' (To arms, to arms!'). Due to the urgency of the call, some burghers responded immediately, while others arrived later at the scene of the action. Thus it is unclear which commandos participated in the skirmish, but see Table 2 below. Ver Loren van Themaat and his companions ascended a 'high ridge with large rocks and many trees' and saw the enemy in the distance, apparently withdrawing. They immediately proceeded to join De Wet and his men, 'every one riding as fast as his horse could go' (Ver Loren van Themaat, 1903, p 160).

Lt Piet Lombard, a heliographer originally from the Transvaal Staatsartillerie (State Artillery), accompanied by a comrade, went up a 'hill' during the afternoon of 23 July, and attempted to establish communication with the Transvaal commandos. The next morning, he climbed the same hill to observe the skirmish (Lombard, 1939, p 65).


Map 2: Part of the First De Wet Hunt (Source: Ver Loren van Themaat, 1903, facing p 144.
Note: Date of battle appears as 25 July).

The Acting State Lawyer for the Orange Free State Government, Jacob de Villiers, also describes how he went up a 'hill' during the afternoon of 23 July. In front of him lay a panorama, with Parys and Vredefort to the north-east, and Vredefort Road and Koppies to the south-east. He ascended the same hill the next day, just in time to observe the Boer charge (Van Schoor, 1990, p 18). These references to a 'high ridge' and 'hills' by different authors are, in reality, the hills on the farm Witrandjie (second ridge).

The foreign observers then witnessed something unusual, ie a Boer charge across an open plain. De Wet ordered his burghers to storm the mounted infantry, which he estimated to be between 500 and 600 men. Some of the Boers advanced to between 200 and 300 metres from the enemy, dismounted and fired (De Wet, 1902, p 188). Hintrager exclaimed that '[i]t was a great pleasure to observe how the burghers stormed today!' He was of the opinion that the threat of losing the flour-wagons gave extra impetus to the Boer charge (Oberholster, 1973, p 91).

De Wet was equally impressed, writing that '[t]he burghers charged magnificently, and some even got to within two hundred paces of the enemy. They then dismounted, and, lying flat upon the ground, opened a fierce fire' (De Wet, 1902, p 174).

Hintrager recorded how they had accompanied de Wet at a gallop. Muller and Strydom limbered their guns, moved them forward to a 'little hill' (the high ground), and joined the action from. a distance of 4,7 km. From there, Hintrager could watch the removal of the wagons (Oberholster, 1973, p 91).

At some stage during the with drawal of the mounted infantry, Legge's men found good cover in the homestead and kraal of a deserted farm. This was probably Palmietkuil (366) (Lombard, 1939, p 65; Howland, 1901, pp 134,6). Legge quickly gave orders for the wagons and prisoners to be taken back to Vredefort, while the rest of his men dismounted and returned the Boer fire. Here Legge used similar tactics to those employed by the Boers when fighting a rearguard action (Broadwood, 1900, p 100).

Some mounted infantry scattered as a result of a few well placed Boer artillery shells (Oberholster, 1973, p 91). This bombardment also caused the British to flee in great confusion from the farmhouse (Van Schoor, 1990, p 19; Lombard, 1939, p 65) and set the wagons on fire (Oberholster, 1973, p 91; Breytenbach, 1950, p 200).


The Boer mass grave in the Vredefort Municipal Cemetery (Photo: J J Retief)

The Fire-fight

A brisk exchange of small-arms fire ensued (De Wet, 1902, p 188). The Boer guns were repeatedly brought forward, but their use was limited, for fear of endangering their own men (Oberholster, 1973, p 91). The firefight lasted for about an hour and took place on relatively flat terrain, with no cover for either side. The Boers were fortunate to find a hollow for their horses (De Wet, 1902, p 188). Legge's MI discharged a total of about 23 000 cartridges (Howland, 1901, P 133), and was running low in ammunition (Oberholster, 1973, p 91). This means that every man must have fired an average of about 65 shots.

De Wet believed that the British were about to abandon the battlefield. Broadwood, however, had noticed Legge's predicament and sent orders for him to retire to a ridge a few kilometres to his rear. He then proceeded with his own brigade, as well as the remainder of Ridley's brigade, to cover Legge's retreat (Broadwood, 1900, pp 100-1; Howland, 1901, p 134). Broadwood records that 'Kitchener's Horse ... found themselves heavily attacked by the enemy who came down from the hills on both flanks ... [and] ... as [Legge's] position in the angle of two lots of hills was a very awkward one, I ordered him to retire' (Broadwood, 1900, p 100). This was the result of parties of Boers moving northwards on the high ground and further east onto the rolling plains south-west of Vredefort. Legge's MI were, therefore, under fire from the front as well as enfiladed from the right.

A bugle boy stood up in the midst of heavy fighting to sound the Retreat and was shot in the abdomen (Braga, 2008). Capt Neville Howes, a medical officer, attempted to save his life and was subsequently awarded the Victoria Cross.k It was during Legge's retreat that the bulk of the British casualties occurred (Howland, 1901, p 134).


k. Capt (Dr) N R Howse, New South Wales Medical Staff Corps, (later Maj-Gen Sir Neville Howse, VC, KCB, KCMG), witnessed a bugle boy being hit. Under heavy cross-fire he rushed to assist the wounded youth, but his horse was killed beneath him. He proceeded on foot, attended to the bugler and moved him to safety. For this act of gallantry he became the first Australian to be awarded the Victoria Cross (Uys, 2000, pp 61-2; Wilcox, 2002, p 116).



The Australian Memorial in the Vredefort Municipal Cemetery (Photo: J J Relief)

Stalemate

It became clear to Broadwood that the Boers were out in force on the hills, perhaps to such an extent that they might make a determined stand in the Orange Free State, rather than be forced into the Transvaal. In his dispatches he states: 'We advanced from Vredefort at 10.30, but were soon brought to a standstill. Enemy showed great dash and at one point commenced a vigorous counter-attack' (Broadwood, 1900, Telegrams pp 93-94).

In an unusual Boer manoeuvre, about 700 Boersl descended from the high ground in an attempt to outflank Legge's Mounted Infantry (Howland, 1901, p 134; Maurice and Grant, 1908, p 326). According to Broadwood, the Boers were holding the hills east of Reitzburg in force and in extended position. He decided against attacking what he considered to be a determined defence (Broadwood, 1900, Telegrams 92-94). The Boers failed in their objective and Legge's retirement was successfully achieved. (Brig-Gen Legge was later killed in action during the battle of Nooitgedacht on 13 December 1900 [Amery, 1907, p 100]). The mounted infantry, however, sustained heavy casualties during the running fight.

Broadwood had ordered the Royal Field Artillery (RFA) under Capt E H Stephenson to provide artillery support for the retreat of Legge, using their two 15-pounder guns (Howland, 1901, P 134). The arrival of Broadwood's force left De Wet with little option but to retire. Broadwood himself also returned to Vredefort (De Wet, 1902, P 188; Broadwood, 1900, Telegrams p 92). Thus two British retreats were ordered that day, first that of Legge's MI, followed by that of Broadwood's own force (Wilcox, 2002, p 116).

Little, with the 3rd Cavalry Brigade, arrived at Vredefort at about noon and came under Broadwood's command. He was ordered to assist on Broadwood's left flank, but did not become engaged as the combatants were leaving the battlefield, although his artillery fired a few shells from a long distance (Colvin and Gordon, 1904, p 133).

After the departure of the generals, elements of the opposing 'forces remained in the area southwest of Vredefort and east of the hills until late afternoon, in a wary standoff (Van Schoor, 1990, p 19; Oberholster, 1973, p 91; Lombard, 1939, p 65). The diary of the 9th Lancers records that 'Broadwood's right (flank) was heavily engaged all the afternoon' (Colvin and Gordon, 1904, p 133).

After the skirmish, Broadwood's entire force 'bivouacked in the face of the enemy's position, about four miles (6,4 km) away' (Howland, 1901, P 134). This was at Stinkhoutboomm (128), which had been a well-developed farm before the war. It is situated 5,5 km west-north-west of Vredefort. A 'terrific windstorm' occurred during the night (Van Schoor, 1990, p 19).

Many British sources refer to the above-mentioned incident as the 'Skirmish at Stinkhoutboom', but the diary of the 9th Lancers records how the 3rd Cavalry Brigade, upon arrival, found Broadwood 'engaged with the Boers at Wittekopjes, near Vredefort' (Colvin and Gordon, 1904, p 133). Dr J D Kriel, a history master at the Chris van Niekerk High School, Vredefort, in the 1950s (Maree, 1993, p 20), also refers to the 'Skirmish in the vicinity of Witkoppies' (Kriel, 1957, p 29). Considering the large area over which the hostilities extended, this writer believes that the title 'Skirmish at Vredefort' is more appropriate.


l The leader of this force of Boers is not known. General de Wet had some excellent, officers, among them General Philip Botha (who was killed in action at Doornberg on 6 March 1901) and Commandant 'Rooi Michiel' Prinsloo and Field-Cornet Christoffel Badenhorst (who both later became generals). Men of their calibre would have observed the fire-fight keenly, looking for ways in which to assist their general.

m. The Voter's Roll of 1899 gives an indi- cation of the extent of economic activity on various farms before the war. The number of male voters were: Stinkhoutboom (16), Rhenosterpoort (7), Wongerheuwel (6), Shepstone (5), Vlakspruit (5), Wittekopjes (4), Vleijspruit (4), Bloemfontein (1), Vlakkuil (1) and Palmietkuil (0). (Source: Oranje Vrijstaat: Lijst van Stemgeregtigde Burgers voor het District Kroonstad voor het jaar 1899 - Wijk Onder-Rhenosterrivier).


CASUALTIES

The Boer losses are given as four or five dead and twelve to fourteen wounded (Kriel, 1957, p 29; De Wet, 1902, p 188). The names of four deceased burghers are known, according to the registers of the South African National Monuments Council (see Table 2). The records further show that Adriaan de Lange and Johannes du Plessis died on the farm Vlakspruit. They were buried near the border with the farm Wittekopjes, but their mortal remains were exhumed in 1941 and re-interred in a mass grave in the Vredefort Municipal Cemetery (Ferreira, 1982, pp 142-3). (The site where the two burghers were originally buried [27.1043 S, 27.3022 E], was pointed out to the author on 20 July 2010, by Mrs Alida van der Lingen, present owner of the farm Wittekopjes).

According to British sources, the casualties among British troops were 39 killed and wounded (Amery, 1906, p 419). Of these, nine of the wounded were from Kitchener's Horse (Biggins, 2009). However, according to Steve Watt (2000, p 473), a total of only eleven British dead were buried in the Vredefort district during the entire war (seven killed in action, three died of wounds, and one died on service). The registers of the National Monuments Council, supplemented by Steve Watt's In Memoriam, indicate that the Australian Contingent bore the brunt of the skirmish at Vredefort, and that all five deaths were recorded to have occurred on the farm Stinkhoutboom (see Table 3).

Members of the Australian Contingent erected a small monument in the Vredefort Municipal Cemetery for their fallen comrades. (The municipal records at Vredefort indicate that six graves, numbered 142 to 147, had been allocated to British soldiers. Eight Boer dead from the Vredefort district were re-interred in 1941 in a mass grave, No 354). According to news published in African Armed Forces in April 2008 (p 38), a memorial in honour of all Australian soldiers who died during the Anglo-Boer War was being built in Canberra.

A granite stone at the foot of the Boer mass grave, near the Australian monument, bears the simple inscription: '1899-1902, vir Vryheid en Vaderland' ('for Freedom and Fatherland'). This is the memorial for those burghers who had answered the call of duty and paid the ultimate price in the vicinity of Vredefort. We, the Afrikaner people, will remember them.

Table 2: Boer deaths as a result of the Skirmish at Vredefort on 24 July 1900

SURNAME NAMES RANK UNIT DIED BURIED DATE CAUSE
De Lange Adriaan Burgher Bethlehem Commando Vlakspruit Vredefort 24 July 1900 KIA
Du Plessis Johannes J Burgher Cape Rebel, Colesberg Vlakspruit Vredefort 24 July 1900 KIA
Le Grange Jacobus A P Burgher Boshof Commando Near Vredefort Vredefort 24 July 1900 KIA
Van der Westhuizen Jan Nicolaas Burgher Bethlehem Commando Near Vredefort Vredefort 24 July 1900 KIA

Sources: The above table is based on information from the National Monuments Council registers and Kriel, 'Oorlogswolke', 1957, p 29.

Table 3: British deaths as a result of the Skirmish at Vredefort on 24 July 1900

SURNAME NAMES NUMBER RANK AGE UNIT DIED BURIED DATE CAUSE
Julier W 3817 Pte   17th Lancers Stinkhoutboom Vredefort 24 July 1900 KIA
Nicolas Alexander William 208 Tpr 20 4th South Australian Bushmen Stinkhoutboom Vredefort 24 July 1900 KIA
Moore John Hartley 179 Tpr 25 4th South Australian Bushmen Stinkhoutboom Vredefort 24 July 1900 KIA
Tothill Frederick Joseph 163 Tpr   4th South Australian Bushmen Stinkhoutboom Vredefort 24 July 1900 DOW
Kay J 119 Pte   4th West Australian Mounted Infantry Stinkhoutboom Vredefort 24 July 1900 DOW

Sources: The above table is based on information from the National Monuments Council registers and Steve Watt, In Memoriam, 2000.

EPILOGUE

General de Wet and his burghers set out on Wednesday, 25 July, for the farm Rhenosterpoort (108) near Schoeman's Drift (Oberholster, 1973, p 91; Lombard, 1939, p 66; Ver Loren van Themaat, 1903, p 164). There they enjoyed a brief respite in the hills of the Vredefort Dome before crossing the Vaal River at Schoeman's Drift on 6 August. In the Bergland (mountainous terrain) they were attacked from the west by Lt-Gen Lord Methuen's 1 st Division at Tygerfontein on 7 August. De Wet passed through Van Vuuren's Kloof and left the inner hills of the Vredefort Dome on 9 August, while being pursued from Leeuwfontein (Pretorius, 1976, 2001).

Following the skirmish at Vredefort, Lord Roberts strengthened the British forces in the north-western Orange Free State considerably, placing Maj-Gen Lord Kitchener in command of these men. Gen Broadwood's brigade was sent to Rhebokfontein as part of Roberts' new plan to encircle De Wet. Broadwood eventually left the Orange Free State with Kitchener at Lindeque's Drift on 10 August, once again to join in the pursuit of De Wet. The First De Wet Hunt was officially called off by Roberts on 27 August 1900, after De Wet had escaped over the Magaliesberg (Pretorius, 1976, 2001).

Lord Roberts was very keen to capture General de Wet. He was convinced, not without justification, that, once De Wet was out of the way, the Boer forces would capitulate easily. General Broadwood was equally keen to capture De Wet, to vindicate himself for his humiliation at his adversary's hands at Sanna's Post on 31 March 1900. However, this was not to be; the British forces would never capture the elusive commando leader.

The skirmish at Vredefort was insignificant in determining the course of the war or even the capture of De Wet. It is sad to think of all those young men who were killed on the grassy plains of the Orange Free State on that cold winter morning.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

The author wishes to thank Joan Abrahams, Hette Coetzee, Johan Loock, Janet Lubbe, the late Adele Retief, Louis Retief, Prof Fransjohan Pretorius, Koos Strauss, Prof Sybrand Strauss, Elria Wessels and the War Museum of the Boer Republics, as well as Hamish Paterson and the Ditsong National Museum of Military History for assistance with this article.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

The following sources were used in the compilation of Parts 1 and 2 of this article, published in Military History Journal Volume 15 Nos 3 and 4 respectively:
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