By early June 1900, Lord Roberts’ forces had captured Pretoria and, for a brief moment, an end to the Boer War seemed likely. At the head of around 30,000 troops, Roberts had resumed his advance from Bloemfontein on the 2nd of May, capturing Kroonstad (the newly declared capital of the Free State) on the 12th. Mafeking was relieved on the 17th and Johannesburg was taken on the 31st. The pre-war Kruger government had spent millions on building a ring of forts to protect their capital, but on the 5th of June, it too fell with barely a whimper. Kruger, having plunged the sub-continent into a pointless war, had fled the scene and was living in a railway carriage near Middelburg on the line to Delagoa Bay – perhaps spending his days counting the £2 million he is thought to have ‘liberated’ from the treasury of the Transvaal.
The speed of the advance was impressive and is illustrated by the achievements of perhaps the most potent component of Roberts’ force, the Mounted Infantry Division under Lt. General Ian Hamilton. Hamilton’s Division (including a certain young Winston Churchill on a roving commission) had covered 400 miles in the previous 45 days, and fought 28 engagements in this time. Such was the rapidity of the advance, however, that Roberts’ position was not quite as secure as it should have been. Potchefstroom and Klerksdorp were yet to be captured while General Botha commanded the remnants of the Transvaal’s forces to the north and east of Pretoria, and was reckoned to have between 10000-15000 men all told. Further south, around 8000-10000 Free Staters remained at large in the north east of the OFS, and had began striking at Roberts’ somewhat tenuous supply lines. Indeed, on the 7th of June, a 2000 strong force under de Wet managed to cut both the railway and telegraph lines near Roodeval and for a few days the Imperial army in the Transvaal was isolated[i].
The other impact of the rapid advance was the dissipation and weakening of Roberts’ once impressive command. His mounted units were by then so ill-horsed that ‘brigades’ were actually no larger than regiments. Brigades had been left to garrison Johannesburg and Pretoria, while another, the 19th Infantry Brigade (Smith-Dorrien) with supporting MI units and guns, had been detached for duty upon the line of communications. With these deductions, together with the wastage caused by wounds and disease, the force was hardly an overwhelming one. Indeed, so hard pressed was Roberts, that three thousand recently released prisoners were hurriedly armed with Boer weapons and sent down the line to help guard the more vital points.
With around 7,000 – 8,000 men and some 25 guns[ii], Generals Botha and De la Rey held a position at Pienaar’s Poort some 15 miles to the east of Pretoria, athwart the railway line to Delagoa Bay and with the potential to strike at either Johannesburg or Pretoria, or the critical railway line south. Allegedly sending his wife as an envoy, Botha had previously reached out to Roberts to discuss surrender, but news of de Wet’s exploits in the OFS seems to have improved Boer morale and these feelers were suddenly withdrawn. De Wet’s successes against the railway line and isolated garrisons certainly fooled Kruger into thinking the Almighty was still on his side, and he insisted his generals fight on. Writing from the safety of this railway carriage (and before he fled South Africa entirely), Kruger, whose deluded under-estimation of British troops was a constant feature in the Boer War, endeavoured to convince one of his generals just how parlous a condition the imperial troops were in:
“Horses are lying dead in one row from Kroonstad. The troops are even riding mares with foals following” while he rather optimistically claimed the infantry were: “weary, done up, and without food… can scarcely keep up any longer, and are longing for the war to cease”[iii]
Though Kruger’s claims were his usual wishful-thinking – and there was never any chance of the highly disciplined, and fiercely bloody-minded, Tommies throwing in the towel – the British supply situation was indeed very poor. As he had done after the capture of Bloemfontein, Roberts would certainly have preferred to halt for a time, secure his logistics, let his troops rest and reorganise, and await the arrival of reinforcement and remounts. With Botha’s powerful force so close, however, he had little choice but to act.
The Boer position at Pienaar’s Poort was an extensive natural fortress, and General Botha:
‘had determined on this occasion not to be outflanked at any cost; and he followed every investigation to dispositions, the north by French’s patrols, and to the south by the scouts of Ian Hamilton, by a corresponding drawing out of his wings, until his men were entrenched over twenty-five miles of intricate and mountainous country. His line of defence, which faced nearly due west, was bisected by the Pretoria Delagoa Bay railway, which, at Pienaar’s Poort, penetrated the barrier by a deep ravine. North of the Poort a range of heights ran brokenly up to Krokodil Spruit, lofty everywhere, but especially formidable where, at the uppermost extremity, it was gathered into a triplet of peaks, Louwbaken-Kameelfontein Ridge – Krokodilspruit Hill.
Below the western foot of these ran the level and open Kameelfontein Valley, some seven miles long and two to three broad, entrance to which from the British side was by a drift immediately below Louwbaken. Thus ramparted on one margin, the valley was on its opposite edge walled in by the isolated Boekenhoutskloof Ridge, forming a defile as dangerous from its surroundings as it appeared tempting as an avenue around the Kameelfontein Ridges. The Boekenhoutskloof Ridge, projecting westward, formed a strong outwork in advance of the flank of the main position, of which it raked the narrow approaches as a caponiere rakes the ditch. Nevertheless, it was not at first held by the enemy, Snyman, who was posted on the extreme right, contenting himself with watching the exit of the valley from the hills above and eastward of Krokodilspruit Drift. There he joined hands with De la Rey, who occupied the Kameelfontein section, their combined forces amounting to some four thousand men with eleven to fifteen guns.
In the Boer centre, guarding either side of Pienaar’s Poort, rose two tall and elongated features, the southernmost standing also over the pass of Donker Poort. Southward of this again, ground equally high trended slightly eastward, parallel to the Pienaar’s river, by Donkerhoek and Diamond Hill to Mors Kop, throwing bushy spurs of such proportions down to the gorge about Mooiplaats, Kleinfontein and Tweedracht, that it was hard to say which formed the stronger holds, the underfeatures or the main kopjes behind. From Mors Kop the heights held by the enemy then curled south and west by Kameelzyn Kraal, encircling the head streams of the Pienaar’s river, and connecting the Diamond Hill range with another running parallel some seven miles to the westward. These westerly heights, which tumbled to the Pienaar as confusedly as their counterparts across the ravine, were cloven at two points, Zwavel Poort and Tyger Poort[iv]. Parties of Boers, lying out far in advance of their left flank, held the hills around the source of the Pienaar’s river almost up to Tyger Poort.’[v]
Patrols of French’s cavalry[vi] and Hamilton’s MI[vii] had been probing the Boer positions since the 7th, and there had been some exchanges of artillery fire, but it was not until the 11th that the battle proper commenced. Due to the need to protect his supply lines and provide garrisons, Roberts only had around 16,000 men at his disposal, comprising Pole-Carew’s XIth Infantry Division (made of the Guards Brigade and the 18th Infantry Brigade – in total, perhaps six thousand men with twenty guns) Ian Hamilton’s MI Division (which included one infantry brigade, two cavalry brigades, and a corps of mounted infantry: perhaps six thousand in all, with thirty guns), plus French’s Cavalry ‘Division’ (including Hutton’s force of MI) which together could only muster about 1500 sabres and rifles[viii]. The total force was, therefore, around sixteen thousand men, with about seventy guns – or, to put it another way, nowhere near the 3:1 odds military theory dictates to be required for a successful attack.[ix]
Roberts was well aware that he lacked the numbers to shatter this position with a frontal assault, and instead elected to manouvre Botha out of his defences, thus driving him away from Pretoria. His plan was to advance with French’s Cavalry Division in the north, the XIth Infantry in the centre, and Hamilton’s MI Division in the south. While the infantry held the centre, the two mounted divisions would find and turn the enemy flanks and then drive inwards to threaten their line of retreat and thus no doubt prompt them to abandon their positions.
11th June 1900
The mounted forces were the first to move. French’s woefully under-strength Cavalry ‘Division’ broke camp at Kameel Drift and were pushing north east into the Kameel Drift Valley before sun-up on the 11th. By then, the Cavalry Division comprised just the 1st Cavalry Brigade (Porter) and the 4th Cavalry Brigade (Dickson), together with Hutton’s two MI units (Alderson and Pilcher). Between them, the two cavalry brigades could only muster about 850 men, while the two MI units added just another 650. The force was supported by 12 field guns of the RHA (‘G’ and ‘O’ Batteries) and three Vickers-Maxim pom-poms.
French’s orders were to locate the Boer right (thought to be somewhere near the Krokodil Spruit) and get round behind it to turn the position. With the 7th Dragoon Guards scouting out in front, the Division pressed forwards, crossing Kameelfontein Drift below Louwbaken which, inexplicably, De la Rey (one of Pakenham’s ‘Great Generals’ of the war) had not thought to defend. It was a real school boy howler and the cavalry men could scarcely believe their luck – as one commentator remarked, the hill ‘commanded the drift as the gate tower of a castle commands the draw bridge’.
It was only after French was able to get his horsemen through the drift in broad daylight that the Boers tried to counter his move. In another inexplicable error, General Snyman (who not even Pakenham would try to describe as a ‘Great General’) hadn’t thought to occupy the high ground of Boekenhoutskloof Ridge, and tried to rush men there to block French’s advance. In so doing, however, the Boers cantered in full view in front of the Cavalry Brigade, and were soon scattered and sent scurrying northwards by the guns of ‘O’ Battery RHA[x] and a couple of pom-poms. With the Boer plan telegraphed so blatantly, French ordered Porter’s 1st Cavalry Brigade to seize the ridge first, which they duly did.
The 4th Cavalry Brigade (Dickson) were ordered to seize the commanding heights of Louwbaken (‘the gate tower of the castle’). The fighting for this feature raged all morning, with Alderson committing four companies of MI to support the cavalrymen, leaving Pilcher’s MI in reserve at the foot of the hill. The Boers bombarded the position from Krokodilspruit Hill and tried to push sharp shooters round to the east. ‘G’ Battery RHA was rushed into action and flayed Krokodilspruit Hill with such ferocity that the bombardment from there slackened greatly. Hutton’s 1st MI Battalion and the Canadian Mounted Rifles were then rushed to check the movement of the Boer snipers, and their move was halted.
The fighting on Boekenhoutskloof Ridge and around Louwbaken raged all day, with the republicans mounting numerous local counter-attacks but proving unable to dislodge the cavalrymen – this despite the advantage in numbers enjoyed by De la Rey over French. With ammunition supplies dwindling fast, it was all French’s horsemen could do to hold on until sundown and then sit out what must have been a pretty miserable night.
Lord Roberts and his staff had taken up position in the centre, and watched as the Guards and 18th Infantry Brigade of the XIth Division pushed forwards and took up positions in front of the Boer defences. The divisional artillery and attached RN guns set to work, exchanging fire with the republican guns. This portion of the battlefield remained essentially static throughout the day, so we shall move on.
To the south, Hamilton’s MI Division had set off before first light, leaving their camp at Garsfontein to try and find the Boer’s left flank. The MI Division was by far the more formidable of the two mounted divisions, by then comprising 2nd Cavalry Brigade (Broadwood), 3rd Cavalry Brigade (Gordon), 2nd MI Brigade (Ridley), ‘R’ and ‘Q’ Batteries RHA, 76th and 82nd Batteries RA, a section of Vickers-Maxim pom-poms, two 5” ‘cow guns’[xi], and the 21st Infantry Brigade[xii] (Bruce Hamilton[xiii]).
The country which faced the MI Division was formidable in the extreme, sinking first to the Pienaar’s River gorge, before rolling upward to the cliff-like Diamond Hill ridges behind. It was broken everywhere by under-features, criss-crossed with watercourses, and thicketed with scrub – essentially perfect ground from which to fight a defensive action. Hamilton’s first objective was to find a way into this confused stronghold: of the two at his disposal — Zwavel Poort and Tyger Poort — he selected the former and nearer, judging that Tyger Poort being probably being held by the enemy.
At daybreak the 2nd Cavalry Brigade, followed by the 3rd Cavalry Brigade, the MI and lastly the 21st Infantry Brigade, passed through the Zwavel Poort, and pushed South East to locate the enemy’s flank. Hamilton’s men were soon under rifle and artillery fire. Leading the way, Broadwood’s 2nd Cavalry Brigade was beset from all sides, and when a force of republican horsemen tried to cut him off, Broadwood ordered two guns of ‘Q’ Battery RHA forwards to drive them off. Churchill noted:
‘The Boers, however, fought with a stubbornness and dash which had long been absent from their tactics. They were in this part of the field largely composed of Germans and other foreigners, of colonial rebels, and of various types of irreconcilables’.[xiv]
Another strong force of Boers then tried to attack the guns, and Broadwood ordered the 12th Lancers to charge them. So dispersed were the Lancers, and so urgent was the requirement for their intervention, that their Commanding Officer, Lord Airlee, quickly gathered just 60 men together and charged forwards, the lancers cheering and roaring as they kicked their weakened steeds on. Faced with this, the Boers vanished as quickly as they had arrived, with perhaps 10 of their number being skewered or cut down[xv]. Their work done, the lancers calmly withdrew at a trot – though the gallant Lord Airlee, who had already had a horse shot from under him that day, was shot from the saddle and killed[xvi]. A gentleman to the very end, his last words were directed at an enthusiastically foul-mouthed sergeant: ‘Pray moderate your language!’
Rather giving a lie to the notion that the days of cold steel were totally at an end, another body of Boers were then scattered by a charge of the Household Cavalry:
‘This order was obeyed with zest. The Dutchmen, numerous as they were, took in at a glance all that was meant by the approaching whirlwind—a flashing, avalanche of naked blades—and turned tail. Away they fled over their grassy ridges, seized their horses and made off so quickly that none of the Lifeguardsmen and few of their chargers were sacrificed to the dashing exploit’.[xvii]
Or, as Churchill put it:
‘The troopers began immediately to dismount with their carbines, and the General had to send a second message to them, saying that it was no good firing now, and that they must charge with the sword. Whereon, delighted at this unlooked-for, unhoped-for opportunity, the Life Guardsmen scrambled back into their saddles, thrust their hated carbines into the buckets, and drawing their long swords, galloped straight at the enemy. The Boers, who in this part of the field considerably outnumbered the Cavalry, might very easily have inflicted severe loss on them. But so formidable was the aspect of these tall horsemen, cheering and flogging their gaunt horses with the flat of their swords, that they did not abide, and running to their mounts fled in cowardly haste, so that, though eighteen horses were shot, the Household Cavalry sustained no loss in men’.[xviii]
The movements of the Cavalry and the MI had in no way outflanked the extensive republican position, however. Indeed, on both flanks the Imperial horsemen were themselves outflanked and were only just about holding their own.
It was clear that the initial plan of turning the enemy flanks with mounted troops had failed. Ian Hamilton instead decided to break through the republican position with an infantry assault and Bruce Hamilton’s 21st Infantry Brigade advanced to the north of the rest of the MI Division (and to the south of the XIth Infantry Division) to do precisely that. The only Infantry Brigade in the MI Division, the 21st had already been greatly weakened by the detachment of the Derbyshires (which had been ordered to operate to near Tyger Poort Ridge) and the Cameron Highlanders (which were told off to defend Zwavel Poort). This left just the Royal Sussex Regiment[xix] and the City Imperial Volunteers[xx], together with the two RA Batteries[xxi] available to attempt a breakthrough at the centre of the Boer position:
‘the whole strength of that range of precipices stood arrayed against them. North of Donker Poort, the end of the long kopje, plunging to the gorge, presented a perpendicular face of rock, crowned by a mass of boulders. To the south of this, and nearer, towered the Donkerhoek Diamond Hill ridges, separated by a narrow valley from the confused terrain which concealed the Boer tirailleurs lurking east of the Pienaar’s river. There were thus, so to speak, three ascending decks of defence, increasing in weight of metal as they mounted. Gaining Boschkop and the right bank of the Pienaar’s without opposition for here the hostile skirmishers, overlapped by the cavalry, had fallen back.
Bruce Hamilton turned on Kleinfontein, where the enemy had disposed his first line along a low ridge covered with boulders and brushwood. It was admirably adapted for their purpose. A narrow valley, the bed of a tributary watercourse, bounded its southern foot, and would have to be crossed by the attack; another, running up to Donkerhoek behind, provided a well-covered way of retreat, whilst the very lowness of the kopjes allowed the guns of the lofty main position, about a mile in rear, to shoot over them and play upon the ground in front. Thus, for a delaying action the ridge was perfect, and the five or six hundred Boers upon it intended no more. Their tenure was, indeed, brief enough.
Deploying his troops (Royal Sussex regiment on the left, City Imperial Volunteers on the right, with the 76th and 82nd batteries between, and Legge’s mounted infantry on the right flank of all) Bruce Hamilton pushed them gradually but uninterruptedly towards the kopjes, covered by the 5-in. guns, which, from the ridge overlooking Boschkop three miles east of Zwavel Poort, bombarded the crest of the main ridges at ten thousand yards. A universal fire of guns and small arms from every part of the Boer positions within sight and range contested his advance; the Field artillery, which took post on the high right bank of the Pienaar’s, being especially belaboured by the hostile gunners. The batteries were so well hidden, however, that they suffered little loss, and so well served that the defenders of Kleinfontein wavered from the first.
About 2.30 p.m. the Royal Sussex, pressing back the Boer right, had won the western end of the ridge; the City Imperial Volunteers, whose object the enemy’s left lay more distant, being still too far back for close battle. The Royal Sussex, therefore, were ordered to wheel to their right and sweep the ridge from west to east. Whilst they did this, under heavy fire, the City Imperial Volunteers drew nearer, the Field batteries redoubled their practice, whilst the 5-in. gunners, shortening their fuses to four thousand yards, scoured the reverse of the kopjes. At 4 p.m. the Boers, loosing their hold, galloped to the rear. The Kleinfontein Ridge was then occupied from end to end, and Ian Hamilton immediately turned to examine the heights of Diamond Hill. Their menacing faces were still a mile distant.’
The 21st Infantry Brigade had seized the ridge line in front of Diamond Hill but were far too exhausted and understrength to accomplish much more that day. As night fell, the newly captured Kleinfontein ridge was secured and the Derbyshires rejoined the Brigade. Lord Roberts – realising the Boer defences were too extensive to be outflanked – reacted to the situation by ordering reinforcements to be sent to Ian Hamilton from Pole-Carew’s XIth Division so as to continue the battle at sun-up. Operating near the railway line between the two mounted forces, the men of the XIth Division had spent the day watching the RN 4.7” guns and RA 5” guns exchanging long range fire with the Boer artillery, so both of Pole-Carew’s Infantry Brigades[xxii] were still fresh and ready to be flung into the fray.
It had been a long, hard and not terribly successful day, which saw elements of the Cavalry Division and the MI Division end up more than 20 miles apart,[xxiii] but still with neither having turned the flank of this vast enemy position. It had taken the entire day merely to capture the foot hills which marked the first line of the republican defensive position, and – rather worryingly – French’s cavalry were in a most precarious position, outflanked and outnumbered as they were by De La Rey’s men.
However, Roberts was nevertheless grinding out a result and the fact that he and his staff were able to coordinate such a widely-spread, day-long action like this (before the days of field radios, GPS and the like) is testimony to their abilities and professionalism. In contrast, Botha and De la Rey (Pakenham’s ‘Great Generals’, let us never forget) had yet again failed to retain any sort of meaningful reserve and thus their defence was essentially passive; yes there were a few spontaneous, uncoordinated local counter attacks, and a few guns were moved about, but really they were doing nothing more than waiting for Roberts’ next move. With no meaningful reserve to deploy, Botha and De la Rey were wholly unable to take advantage of French’s predicament, turn the British left flank and push round behind Roberts.
12th June 1900
The imposing heights of Diamond Hill were identified as the key to the Boer position, and Ian Hamilton was ordered to seize it. Bruce Hamilton re-organised the 21st Infantry Brigade at first light on the 12th, getting his units to their start line on the Kleinfontein ridge line they’d captured the previous day. The Royal Sussex were on the left, the CIV in the centre, and half of the Derbyshires on the right – the balance of this battalion being held to the rear in reserve. The Cameron Highlanders were still defending the pass at Zwavel Poort, and thus would take no part in the assault.
The MI Division’s 5” guns were moved to support the attack, as were the 15-pdrs of 76th and 82nd Batteries. De Lisle’s MI (which was not part of the 21st Infantry Brigade) would operate on their right, facing a kopje called Rhenosterfontein.
A little to the north, Pole-Carew (commanding the XIth Division) had been ordered to detach the Guards Brigade to support the 21st Infantry. Commanded by the splendidly named Major General Inigo Jones, the Brigade comprised two battalions of the Coldstream Guards, one of the Grenadier Guards and one of the Scots Guards. Also detached from XIth Division was the 83rd Battery RA, two 5” guns and two long range 12-pdr Royal Navy guns.
The British artillery began flaying Diamond Hill as the infantry sorted themselves out and the Guards got into position. Indeed, it was not until 12:45 that the assault commenced – meaning the Boers had been hammered with shrapnel and Lyddite all morning. The republican gunners did their best to answer this fire, and, as Churchill related in his customary style, even Ian Hamilton was lightly wounded as he waited for the assault to commence:
‘General Ian Hamilton, who was sitting on the ground with his Staff near the 82nd Field Battery, was struck by a shrapnel bullet on the left shoulder. Fortunately, the missile did not penetrate, but only caused a severe bruise with numbness and pain, which did not, however, make it necessary for him to leave the field. The case of this shell, which struck close by, ran twirling along the ground like a rabbit–a very peculiar sight, the like of which I have never seen before’.[xxiv]
After weeks of defeats, and having been in action for the whole of the previous day, and under bombardment all morning, it is perhaps small wonder that – unlike the khakis – there was little fight left in the Boers. Diamond Hill was taken with relative ease, the Tommies of the 21st Brigade and the Guards moving forwards with fixed bayonets and driving the republicans before them. The hill was cleared by 1:30 PM but the fire fight continued with the Boers on neighbouring heights keeping the hilltop under a tremendous crossfire. Bruce Hamilton knew Diamond Hill had to be secured by nightfall, else it risked being retaken. He therefore brought up the 82nd Battery – a challenging enough task, given the steep slope – and had them come into action well within rifle range. The gunners stuck to their task, however, and the Mauser fire started to die down:
‘This thrusting forward of the guns undoubtedly settled the action. The result of their fire was immediately apparent. The bullets, which had hitherto been whistling through the air at the rate of perhaps fifteen or twenty to the minute, and which had compelled us all to lie close behind protecting stones, now greatly diminished, and it was possible to walk about with comparative immunity. But the battery which had reduced the fire, by keeping the enemy’s heads down, drew most of what was left on themselves. Ten horses were shot in the moment of unlimbering, and during the two hours they remained in action, in spite of the protection afforded by the guns and waggons, a quarter of the gunners were hit. Nevertheless, the remainder continued to serve their pieces with machine-like precision, and displayed a composure and devotion which won them the unstinted admiration of all who saw the action’.
Had the republicans shown even half the courage, resolution and discipline of those Royal Artillery gun crews, they would surely have held their positions. More British guns were soon brought up, with a pair of 15-pdrs of the 83rd Battery even operating in the firing line between the Coldstream Guards and the Royal Sussex – just 900 yards from the enemy. Undeterred, the gunners blasted the Boer trenches with shrapnel with immediate effect. As night fell, the Tommies retained a tenuous grip of the hill, but the Boers still held numerous other positions, both in depth and to the north and south of Diamond Hill.
On the flanks, neither French nor the MI made much progress throughout the day, and indeed French’s Division was barely able to cling on in the north. Still outnumbered, now facing two extra republican guns, and with his own artillery almost out of ammunition, it was all the (dismounted) cavalry men could do to hold their position. Fighting with great tenacity, however, they frustrated De la Rey’s efforts – had they collapsed, the whole British position would have been imperiled and the road to Pretoria would have lain wide open. Had Botha been able to send fresh reserve units to assist De la Rey, it could have made all the difference – but he had not kept any available.
The MI Division on the southern flank was under less pressure than French’s men throughout the 12th, but only De Lisle’s Corps (6th MI, NSW Mounted Rifles and 2 pom-poms) was able to make any progress, capturing Rhenosterfontein. This lay a little to the south east of Diamond Hill and can be seen in the map above, towards the bottom right.
Though no spectacular breakthrough had been attained, it had been a much more successful day, with the grit and endurance of the Tommies gradually beginning to tell against the less resolute republicans. Pole-Carew and Ian Hamilton spent that evening making their plans, plans which would take advantage of the capture of Rhenosterfontein by De Lisle’s MI to strike at the railway near Elandsfontein just 4 miles beyond – thus potentially cutting off the republican artillery. Under cover of darkness, 5” guns were moved forwards and the Guards Brigade took over positions from the 21st Infantry, the latter being tasked with the impending assault. The 18th Brigade (the only Brigade left of Pole-Carew’s XIth Division) was to support the 21st Brigade by advancing in the centre of the line, under covering fire from the Royal Navy 4.7” guns.
While the British Tommies had spent the night preparing to recommence the battle, the Boers had had more than enough. Despite the relatively strong position they still retained on the previous evening, day light revealed that the republicans were on the run:
‘the growing light revealed every road leading eastward to be filled with their retreating transport. The long campaign, then, if, as the Boers boasted, it had not vanquished their arms, had begun to wear down their endurance. Men who had once fought without pause for weeks against far greater odds in battalions and guns, now, after the strain of but two days, broke from positions as strong as any in South Africa—this, too, when in parts of the field they were still successful. Such troops were, indeed, ripe for the hopeless resort to guerrilla warfare’.[xxv]
Weeks of defeats at the hands of the khakis they had held in such contempt (and who plenty of modern-day True Believers bizarrely still hold in such contempt) seemed to have done for the already brittle republican morale, and they were not going to hang around to face more assaults, shrapnel and bayonets. Ian Hamilton immediately unleashed his MI and Cavalry in pursuit, with the 6th MI and West Australian MI pouncing on an unsuspecting rearguard near Bronkhorstspruit[xxvi], shattering and scattering it:
‘In an instant Dutchmen, waggons, guns, were scattering in all directions, while the Colonials, expending 20,000 rounds of ammunition, coolly plied their rifles in their coign of vantage till the numbers of the enemy were sensibly thinned by death, wounds, or flight’.
Though the beaten Boers were driven well away from Pretoria, their head start and the exhausted state of the imperial horses was such that it wasn’t possible to land a truly telling blow on them.
For a battle which involved three (admittedly rather understrength) Divisions and which was fought over two days, Imperial casualties were surprisingly light: just 28 officers and men killed, with total casualties of 176. As normal, Boer losses can only be guessed at, though were probably broadly similar. Certainly it is highly unlikely they were anywhere near as high as one member of the CIV reported to home in a letter:
“The C.I.V.’s were in the firing line both days, and our casualties were about sixty. One of our lieutenants had a very sad death just in front of my company. I have heard two names given to the action, but I don’t know which is correct; they are Diamond Hill and Donkerskoek. Our General said it was a second Spion Kop, the Boer position being so fine, and the firing from the trenches so heavy. Our regiment had got to within about 400 yards of the position, and had fixed bayonets, but had to give up the idea of charging, for if we had half the regiment would have been swept away. One of the Boer doctors was down at our hospital after the first day’s fight, and he told us that the Boers had lost about 600 that day. They must have lost another 600 the next day, as our artillery was much nearer, and simply poured shells into them all day.”[xxvii]
General Ian Hamilton stated in his memoires that “the battle, which ensured that the Boers could not recapture Pretoria, was the turning point of the war” – though this could be reasonably claimed about a dozen other events too. Nevertheless, and though the fighting was hard and the result hung in the balance for a time, it was ultimately a well-executed and highly successful engagement, clearing the enemy from the area of Pretoria and Johannesburg for surprisingly little loss. General Maurice, noting the incongruously light casualties incurred, perhaps describes it best:
‘The casualties in the British force during these operations were little indication of the closeness and continuity of the fighting. The very magnificence of the country about Diamond Hill was a safeguard from heavy losses. It is not rough boulders and precipitous hills which, if properly undertaken, are most costly to capture. The amount of cover against firearms which these afford is of as much advantage to patient and skillfully-led assailants as to the defenders. Far more deadly ground to approach under modern conditions is that which presents no features, and, therefore, gives neither a target for the attacker’s guns and rifles, nor protection from the undiscoverable weapons of the defence. Thus there had been many more dangerous actions than this of Diamond Hill, though few more hardly fought, and more nearly lost’.
The importance of the action was recognised and a clasp inscribed ‘Diamond Hill’ was granted to by worn on the QSM by all troops who, on June 11th or 12th, 1900, were east of a north and south line drawn through Silverton Siding and north of an east and west line through Vlakfontein.
[i] On the 5th of June, de Wet had captured a 50-wagon supply column
[ii] Churchill, Ian Hamilton’s March
[iii] Maurice, Vol III, p.205
[iv] This feature is spelt in various ways in different accounts
[v] Maurice, Vol III, p.208
[vi] Including a certain Sergeant Harry Harbord ‘Breaker’ Morant, who would later become (in)famous
[vii] On the 8th, Hamilton’s MI Division moved NE from Irene and established a new camp near Garsfontein
[viii] It is unclear quite why Roberts did not even up his mounted divisions a little, by detaching a brigade from Hamilton’s force and attaching it to French’s command.
[ix] The ‘3:1 rule’ should be considered a minimum requirement – against formidable defensive positions, this can be increased to 5:1 or higher
[x] Commanded by the spectacularly named Major Sir John H. Jervis-White-Jervis
[xi] So called, as these mighty field pieces were dragged about by oxen, rather than horses
[xii] The 21st Infantry Brigade was formed after the capture of Bloemfontein. At the start of the war, less than six months earlier, Bruce Hamilton had been a Major in the East Yorkshire Regiment – a good illustration of how ill-prepared the small, under-funded British army had been for a major war, and how quickly and successfully they adapted
[xiii] Later, General Sir Bruce Meade Hamilton, GCB, KCVO (1857 – 1936). Always referred to as ‘Bruce Hamilton’ to prevent undue confusion with Ian Hamilton. Bruce Hamilton was commissioned into the East Yorkshire Regiment in 1877 and had seen service in Afghanistan and the First Boer War
[xiv] Churchill, Ian Hamilton’s March
[xv] Churchill, Ian Hamilton’s March
[xvi] A Scottish nobleman, the Earl of Airlie was born in 1856 and educated at Eton, entering the army in 1874. He had seen service with the 10th Hussars in Afghanistan and again in the Sudan Expedition of 1884, being wounded at the Battle of Abu Klea. He was appointed Colonel of the 12th Lancers in 1897
[xvii] Creswicke, Vol VI, p.15
[xviii] Churchill, Ian Hamilton’s March
[xix] The Royal Sussex had been shipped in from Malta, arriving Capetown on the 20th March 1900
[xx] Raised by Royal Warrant on the 24th of December 1899, the City Imperial Volunteers was formed mainly by volunteers from various militia units in London and Middlesex. At 1400-strong, it comprised an infantry component, an MI unit and an artillery branch, with the gunners being drawn from the Honourable Artillery Company and the City of London Artillery. Erskine Childers, who would later write ‘The Riddle of the Sands’ saw action with the CIV. The regiment was disbanded on 1st December 1900, with all members of the CIV receiving the Freedom of the City of London
[xxi] Less two guns of the 76th Battery with had been detached with the Derbyshires
[xxii] 18th Infantry Brigade and Guards Brigade
[xxiii] Maurice, Vol III, p.208
[xxiv] Churchill, Ian Hamilton’s March
[xxv] Maurice, Vol III, p.223
[xxvi] Where, during the First Boer War, Colonel Anstruther’s column had been shot down thanks to the treacherous use of a white flag
[xxvii] Creswicke, Vol VI, p.18