Many modern day writers on the Boer War endeavour to convince their readers that Christiaan de Wet was some sort of military genius. With tedious predictability, Pakenham, for example, lists him as one of the ‘great generals’ of the war – a list which is as entertaining as it is noteworthy, in that it only includes generals from the side which lost.
One of De Wet’s greatest follies – and, despite what the latter day propaganda machine claims, he had more than a few – was his abject failure at the Siege of Wepener, a battle which occurred as the conventional war gave way to the guerrilla campaign, but which is largely overlooked in many accounts of the conflict. While Pakenham devotes two entire chapters (35 pages) to Buller’s defeat at Colenso, the 16-day battle at Wepener gets just nine lines and he even manages to present De Wet’s defeat as some sort of victory. Nasson takes a similar line, paying little regard to the salient fact that De Wet’s repeated efforts to take the town were broken up, driven off and completely thwarted: that he was able to run away before being encircled by the relieving troops seems to qualify as a win in the bizarre view of Nasson.
The Siege of Wepener was actually an epic of the war. Situated in the Orange Free State, about 50 miles south east of Bloemfontein on the border with Basutoland, Wepener was an inconsequential settlement. Units of the newly-formed Colonial Division had first moved into the area in late March 1900, and busied themselves disarming surrendering Boers and rounding up local troublemakers. Though Wepener was a place of absolutely no strategic value, De Wet’s irrational desire to strike a blow against the loyalist colonial troops appears to have blinded him to more sensible and practical targets like the railway line or the bridges over the Orange River. De Wet would later write that the loyalist South Africans of the Cape Mounted Riflemen and Brabant’s Horse should have been ashamed to fight against the Boers, dismissing them as ‘sweepings’ who the British had hired to do their dirty work, and who he thus despised as a result.
Had De Wet not wasted his time and resources in attacking Wepener, there would have been little stopping his commandos from sweeping into the Cape Colony and causing merry hell with Roberts’ supply lines, thereby putting a halt to his advance and perhaps even threatening the British position at Bloemfontein.
Instead, and with the Boer defences collapsing to the north, De Wet mustered between 8,000 and 10,000 men (with ten or twelve guns) and struck against the strategically worthless target of Wepener, well away from Roberts’ lines of supply. Though De Wet would later claim his cunning plan was to tempt Roberts to divert men back from Bloemfontein to raise the siege, even the furious – and increasingly frantic – Kruger signaled that De Wet would achieve nothing, recognizing the action for what it was: a significant strategic blunder.
To be fair, though, it was not quite as big as big as blunder as Kruger’s decision to attack the British Empire in the first place.
Imperial units in the area consisted of elements of the 1st and 2nd Brabant’s Horse, the Cape Mounted Riflemen, Driscoll’s Scouts, the Kaffrarian Rifles, a company of the Royal Scots Mounted Infantry and a small party of Royal Engineers. The total force was somewhere between 1,700 and 1,850 men with seven guns (including a pair of obsolescent 7-pounders and a ‘Hotchkiss gun of French manufacture, which had been presented to the 2nd Brabant’s Horse by Mr A. Beit’) and six Maxims. The garrison was thus overwhelmingly comprised locally raised units of loyalist South Africans, with Colonel Edmund Dalgety[i] of the Cape Mounted Riflemen as the officer commanding. Realising his predicament, Dalgety took the decision not to hold Wepener itself, but to fortify positions in the hills just outside of town, the siting of these defences being supervised by Major Maxwell of the Royal Engineers.
On 4 April a party of Boers—under a German officer—entered Wepener under a flag of truce to demand the Imperial surrender. They were sent on their way, but not before Colonel Dalgety, with admirable showmanship, had offered to accept their surrender instead. Incredibly, the supposedly dashing De Wet then wasted another five days dithering before attempting an attack on the Imperial positions, five days which Dalgety used to further improve his position, and which relieving forces spent marching to the rescue; another inexplicable blunder by the allegedly ‘great general’.
The Boers finally commenced their bombardment on the 9th and it was not until the 10th that De Wet attempted to assault the Imperial positions; fierce fighting raged throughout that day and into the small hours of the 11th. All De Wet’s assaults were repulsed, reportedly with heavy loss, and no ground was gained. Though the onslaught had been intense, all the federal attacks were broken up and driven off by the Imperial troops, some with the bayonet. 36 hours of assaults against a heavily outnumbered foe had not gained De Wet a single inch of ground. One member of the garrison recalled the action:
‘Our men allowed them to get right in and then opened fire at fifty yards. Every man had his bayonet fixed and ready, and at the word they went for them. In less than an hour it was all over, and the Boers were beaten back, leaving 300 dead. It was pitiful to hear them crying. They have not the heart of a school-girl, and they cannot stand a beating.’
Though the figure of 300 dead should be taken with a large pinch of salt, there can be little doubt that the republicans suffered severely; and this carnage was the result of just one assault in one sector on one day of the battle. It is also worth pointing out, by way of comparison, that the British lost just 143 men killed at Colenso: a defeat considered so costly and so humiliating as to be worth multiple chapters in the so-called definitive histories.
Though the initial attacks were all beaten off, the fighting continued for many days thereafter. As well as the constant sniping and bombardment, and the nauseating stench of putrefying horse carcasses, four days of incessant rain added to the defenders’ misery, filling their trenches with water and transforming the battlefield into a quagmire. So small was the area defended that troops in some of the more exposed Imperial positions were unable to leave their trenches at any time during the siege. These men survived on cold food and fresh water brought to them by work parties that crawled forward under cover of darkness.
An officer of Brabant’s Horse remembered the siege:
‘We fought all day and all night. The big gun and rifle fire were almost deafening, and as we were entirely surrounded, it was pouring in on all sides, a continuous hail of shot and shell. Towards afternoon they directed all their gun fire to one spot, and blew to bits the schances of the CMR [Cape Mounted Riflemen], thus leaving them unprotected, and in the night they attempted to take the position by assault. Although the CMR were very considerably outnumbered, the Boers were unable to attain their object. They had not reckoned of the opposition of, undoubtedly, one of the finest regiments in the whole world, as the CMR are.’
In his self-serving and self-pitying memoires, De Wet himself would later write that he saw no reason why the Cape Mounted Riflemen were deserving of any renown at all. Perhaps he didn’t consider the fact that they defeated his force as remarkable[ii].
Another officer remembers the depths to which De Wet’s men sank to in their desperation:
‘Coming across from the CMR lines towards the Kaffrarian lines was a stretcher carried by four men with a wounded man on it. As soon as it came from under the shelter of the kopje on which we and the CMR live, about 1,200 yards from the ridge held by the enemy, opposite the open end of the horseshoe, it was received by a hail of bullets. On went the gallant bearers for about a hundred yards, when they came to a sudden stand, put the stretcher on the ground, and seemed to consult. First one ran about twenty yards, to fall, apparently shot dead; then another did the same, and the third; and the three corpses were lying on the ground. The fourth man fell to his knees between the stretcher and the enemy. The Boers, then satisfied that they had disposed of this lot, ceased firing at them for the space of some minutes, when suddenly the four dead men came to life, rushed to the stretcher, and went on with it at the double, though little columns of dust rose thicker than ever round the devoted bearers.’
De Wet appears to have had no coherent plan other than to drive his reluctant men directly onto the Imperial trenches. The bitter fighting:
‘…continued through the ensuing days and even at night, the Boers once storming right up to the British trenches at 2am to be beaten off at bayonet point. Nor did a four-day downpour of rain stop their persistent attacks under the lash of de Wet who did not hesitate to use his leather thong [sjambok] to enforce obedience to his will.’
It is difficult to find any tactical brilliance to admire in De Wet’s bull-headed approach, and despite his efforts, the republicans were unable to capture and hold any ground whatsoever. The gallantry shown by the garrison was remarkable, as was their resilience to the never-ending pressure. The defenders did not just grimly man their trenches, but maintained an impressive aggressive spirit and even sallied forth to capture one of the Boer guns. In the words of one Imperial officer who kept a diary during the siege:
‘In the Crimea, twenty-four hours on and twenty-four hours off was considered hard work. My men have been ten days in their trenches without leaving them, wet to the skin oftener than not, and day and night exposed to shrapnel, not able to raise their hand above without getting a bullet through them, and yet not a grumble is heard.’
While not as famous or lengthy as the sieges at Ladysmith or Mafeking, in many ways the defenders at Wepener had an even tougher time of it. The Boer attacks on the first two days were every bit as intense as anything in the more famous sieges, with many of the Imperial troops in place and under fire for the entirety of the action.
While Dalgety’s men were holding their own at Wepener, moves were under way to raise the siege. With more units arriving from all over the Empire, Roberts was ready for a general advance to clear the remaining Boer forces out of the south-eastern Free State, and one column was specifically tasked to relieve Wepener, fighting its way toward the beleaguered garrison from the south. This column was made up of the balance of the Colonial Division—about 1,200 men and two guns under Brabant[iii]—together with about half of Hart’s brigade: two and a half battalions and a Royal Artillery battery. The combined relief force was perhaps 4,000 men in total, with Hart[iv] in overall command.
De Wet had told off about 1,300 men and two guns under Froneman to oppose this advance, and the federals made their first attempt to stop Hart’s southern column at Rouxville. Froneman’s commandos were driven out of that town on 15 April. His forces then made another stand at Boesman’s Kop, some 20 miles south of Wepener. An over-enthusiastic sally by the Boers saw a group of about 60 leaving their positions to attack Hart’s scouts, thus exposing themselves to the rifle fire of the main body and being shot down in detail. Though never able to get to close quarters and destroy these blocking forces, Hart’s men persisted in driving the republicans before them, with Froneman’s units disappearing into the night on the 24th. The siege was lifted by Hart’s command the following day, with de Wet ‘who saw the net closing in on him, and lost not a moment in escaping from it’ fleeing north.
Lord Roberts were impressed by the pluck and fortitude demonstrated by the Colonials throughout the Siege, signalling his appreciation to Brabant, commander of the Colonial Division:
“I beg you will convey my hearty congratulations to Colonel Dalgety and all those serving under his orders for the gallant defence of Wepener, which has excited the admiration of their comrades in the force under my command. I look forward to having the pleasure of tendering to them my personal congratulations at no distant date.”
They certainly had reason to be proud. It was a battle which lasted 16 days, involved around 15,000 troops in all, and which was fought at a time when De Wet’s large force was urgently needed elsewhere. Despite a fivefold advantage de Wet completely failed to dislodge Colonel Dalgety’s small force, and then retreated in the face of a relatively small relief column. With the dishonesty which runs through his memoires, de Wet would later excuse his flight by claiming that the relieving forces out-numbered his ‘so enormously’ that he had no choice.
Imperial losses throughout the Siege were recorded as 33 killed and 133 wounded. Boer losses are impossible to guess at, but are likely to have been considerably higher than this, given their failed assaults. One report stated:
On the 9th, 10th, and 11th of April, Dalgety had a stiff fight and his losses up to that date were 20 killed and about 100 wounded. Four Boer guns were disabled and 100 Boers killed in these engagements. On the night of the 11th they were discovered slipping up a donga when the Maxims of the Cape Mounted Rifles fired into them at 200 yards, and five waggon loads of wounded and killed were the sacrifice for such indiscretion. A simultaneous attack in another quarter was repulsed with the bayonet. In their retreat on this occasion the Boers left their dead in the mill furrows un-buried.
With his trademark disregard for the truth, however, De Wet would later farcically claim that the 16 days of failed attacks only cost him 5 killed and 13 wounded… which rather begs the question why his 10,000 or so men proved utterly unable to dislodge Dalgety’s small force, resist the advance of Hart’s relief column – or even protect their artillery from imperial raiding parties. The sharp-eyed reader will notice that the Boer generals always claimed to have sustained miniscule casualties, but only rarely were able to actually achieve their objectives. Amazingly, however, this far-fetched figure which is often bandied about today – anything to preserve the myth.
When faced with the facts of Wepener, however, there is little to support the notion that de Wet displayed any signs of greatness: it was an action which should never have been fought and which he really should have been able to win easily. Worse still, his nonsensical decision to waste his time at Wepener instead of striking at British supply lines allowed trainloads of Imperial troops, ammunition, and supplies to flood unhindered into Bloemfontein, ready for the march on Pretoria.
For some reason, however, the Boer defeat Wepener is not regarded in the same light as the Imperial defeats at Colenso or Magersfontein, for example. And despite the heavy defeat he suffered and the utter lack of strategic understanding he displayed, De Wet is not trumpeted as a blundering incompetent as are Buller and Methuen. Endless pro-Boer propaganda has ensured that de Wet’s victory at Sanna’s Post is always granted enormous attention while his string of defeats—including that at Wepener—are simply brushed under the carpet.
[i] Lt Colonel Edmund Henry Dalgety (1847-1914). Dalgety was commissioned into the Royal Scots Fusiliers before leaving the British army and travelling to Africa to join the Cape Mounted Riflemen. Prior to the Boer War, he saw service in the Galeka-Gaka war, Basutoland and the Langberg Campaign.
[ii] To claim that De Wet wasn’t defeated at Wepener would be as ludicrous as claiming that Buller wasn’t defeated at Colenso, or Methuen wasn’t defeated at Magersfontein
[iii] Major-General Sir Edward Yewd Brabant, KCB, CMG. Brabant had seen service in the 9th Xhosa War and in Rhodesia prior to the Boer War, in which he raised an eponymous light horse regiment and commanded the Colonial Division. His son was killed at the Siege of Ladysmith while serving in the Imperial Light Horse
[iv] Major-General Arthur Fitzroy Hart, CB, CBE (1844-1910). Hart had previously commanded the 5th (Irish) Brigade at Colenso. In 1902, Hart was granted a Royal Licence by the King to use the name ‘Synnot’ (his wife’s maiden name) after ‘Hart’, and to add the arms of Synnot quarterly to his own family arms. Though he is invariably referred to as ‘Major-General Hart’ in books about the Boer War, he was actually thus Major-General Hart-Synnot by the time of his death. Though born in England, like so many senior officers of the period, Hart was of Anglo-Irish stock, his father (who was an Lt. General) having been born in County Wicklow.