“All our forces are here in the mountains now, and we can hold out for years. There are only two passes; they are strongly held, and the enemy will never get through them”[i]
Back in 2013 I helped organize an off-roading competition in the Ficksburg / Fouriesburg area of the eastern Free State. As part of it, I drew up a short quiz on local points of interest, and one of the questions was:
‘Forces from which army surrendered at Surrender Hill near Fouriesburg?’
Only one team got it right, another guessed it was the Basuto, while all the rest wrote:
The correct answer to the question is actually ‘the Boers’ or ‘The Orange Free State’, but the Boer War myth which was so carefully cultivated by Afrikaner nationalists and then the Apartheid regime, is so deeply ingrained in South African society that this massive republican defeat – a thumping which totally eclipsed any of the much trumpeted defeats suffered by the British during ‘Black Week’ – seems to have been airbrushed from history. It is a noteworthy testament to the power of unrelenting propaganda that virtually all those who were not sure automatically assumed the British must have been the ones to have surrendered.
But let us leave the propagandists to their fantasies, and return to historical reality.
By early July 1900, the Boer invasions of British territory had been thrown back in disarray, the capitals of both republics had been captured, and Lord Roberts had all but won the conventional war. In the north east of the OFS, Imperial troops drove the remnants of the Orange Free State commandos out of Bethlehem, prompting them to retreat southwards towards the border with Basutoland, and into an area known as the ‘Brandwater Basin’:
‘The country to which the Boers had now retired may be described as a huge horse-shoe formed by the Wittebergen range, which extends round from Commando Nek opposite Ficksburg, by Moolman’s Hoek, Nelspoort, and Witnek to Slabbert’s and Retief’s Neks on the north, and then by the Roodebergen range, which continues from Retief’s Nek in a south-easterly direction through Naauwpoort Nek and Golden Gate to Generaal’s Kop, a magnificent mountain mass which connects the main Drakensberg ridge with the Roodebergen; the circumference of the horse-shoe measured this way is roughly seventy-five miles. The base-line of the horse-shoe, about forty miles in length, is formed by the Caledon River, separating the Free State from Basutoland. The principal gates of this great citadel are four – Commando, Slabbert, Retief and Naauwpoort Neks; but there are also a few posterns, such as Witnek and Nelspoort, Bamboeshoek and the Golden Gate, by which at need scouts could steal out or an enemy could creep in. Inside this well-guarded enclosure the land is again cut up into deep chines and valleys by the fantastic cleavings of the plateau and by the three rivers – the Brandwater, the Little Caledon, and the Caledon – which generously water this favoured country, named after the river which runs through the central valley, the Brandwater Basin’.
‘The centre of the Basin is approximately the village of Fouriesburg, from which radiate most of the roads. One goes south-west to Commando Nek; another north to Kaffir Kop, where it branches into two roads finding their exits at Slabbert’s and Retief’s Neks. A third goes east across the Slaapkranz range, the watershed of the Caledon and Little Caledon Rivers, for about ten miles, when it also forms two branches ; the one turns north to Naauwpoort Nek, the other continues east to Golden Gate ; and a by-path from Naauwpoort Nek joins the latter road about seven miles from Golden Gate. The last part of this road is little more than a bad bridle track strewn with boulders and hanging over the edge of the Little Caledon, which goes rushing down the gorge below.’
‘… and here, except for a few stragglers or guerrilla bands, all the fighting force of the Free State came… Of the leaders [President] Steyn himself was there, Christiaan and Piet de Wet, with Philip Botha, Olivier, Froneman and Steenekamp, Parson Roux, Crowther, Haasbroek, and Marthinus Prinsloo, and, dragged about with the army, Vilonel, the former commandant of Senekal, now awaiting sentence as a traitor to the cause’.[ii]
It was a bewildering number of generals and commandants, and putting as many ill-tempered cats in a sack would have been less chaotic. General Christiaan de Wet was the newly declared Commander-in-Chief of the remnants of Orange Free State army, while Piet (his younger brother and also a General) would later switch sides, and fight for the British during the guerrilla war. Marthinus Prinsloo was in his sixties by then, having seen action back in the invasion of Basutoland in 1866[iii]. He and Piet de Wet had recently fallen out over which of them was in command at Lindley, and when President Steyn appointed Prinsloo ‘hoof-kommandant’[iv] while in the Basin, it confused matters even further.
The ‘Parson Roux’ mentioned was Paul Hendrik Roux, the 37-year old Minister of the Dutch Reformed Church at Senekal who, in the normal haphazard way of things in the republican armies, had recently been made a ‘Veg-General’ or ‘fighting General’ – which rather leaves one wondering what other sort they had. It was an appointment which put a few noses out of joint, and with the older, and more experienced, Prinsloo and Olivier both considered to hold equivalent rank, would soon see the situation in the Basin descend into farce.
Retreating into a mountain fastness perhaps had a certain romantic appeal, but any professional soldier would have realised that, far from taking up position in an impregnable natural fortress, the Free Staters were backing themselves into a trap. Pinned up against the border with Basutoland, Steyn and de Wet (according to Pakenham, one of the ‘Great Generals’ of the war) had brainlessly surrendered their advantage of mobility, as well as cutting themselves off from the Transvaal and their supplies. It was the first of several elementary mistakes: the very fact which (to their untrained eyes) made the position appear so strong – ie. that the Basin could only be accessed by a handful of passes (or ‘neks’) – made it possible for the imperial forces to block these, and then destroy the Free State army at their leisure.
And the British were steadily closing in. With General Ian Hamilton recovering from injury[v], Lt General Sir Archibald Hunter[vi] had taken over command of the MI Division at Heilbron. We met these hard riding fellows at Diamond Hill (see blog entry in June 2018), and in July of 1900 the division comprised the 2nd and 3rd Cavalry Brigades under Broadwood and Gordon, Ridley’s Mounted Infantry Brigade (made up of the 2nd, 5th, 6th and 7th Corps MI, and two squadrons of Scottish Yeomanry), Bruce Hamilton’s 21st Infantry Brigade, the 76th, 81st, and 82nd Batteries RA, ‘P’, ‘Q’ and ‘E’ Batteries Royal Horse Artillery, two 5-inch ‘cow guns’, and 6 pom-poms ; altogether 7,728 officers and men, 3,942 horses, and 32 guns. Hunter departed Heilbron with this formidable command, and moved to engage the battered remnants of the OFS army.
Hunter’s Division paused at Frankfort, where they rendezvoused with MacDonald’s Highland Brigade. MacDonald’s Brigade comprised three battalions (the Cameron Highlanders, Seaforth Highlanders and the Highland Light Infantry – the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders having been detached to garrison Heilbron), supported by the 5th Battery RA, and about 400 mounted men of the Eastern Province Horse, Lovat’s Scouts, the 42nd and 44th Companies Imperial Yeomanry and the New Zealand MI; altogether 4,008 officers and men, 1,801 horses, and six guns. MacDonald had also brought up 1000 fresh horses for Broadwood and Gordon. The combined force then marched south.
On July 7 Hunter was at Reitz, where he temporarily left Bruce Hamilton with three battalions of his brigade, the 7th Corps MI (Bainbridge), and ten guns of the 82nd and 76th Batteries to guard surplus stores. By the 8th, Hunter’s advance guard was in Bethlehem, where the 12th Brigade (Major-General Clements) and 20th Brigade (Major-General Paget) were already in occupation. Hunter arrived on the 9th and assumed command of all the Imperial forces in the north-east of the Orange Free State – including the two divisions under Lt. General Rundle in the area of Winburg – Ficksburg.
When Hunter arrived in Bethlehem he was informed that Steyn and Christiaan de Wet were holding Retief’s Nek, while Piet de Wet and Prinsloo held Naauwpoort Nek. Both Clements and Paget were of opinion that forces should immediately be sent to block Retief’s and Slabbert’s Neks. But unfortunately Clements, who had been chiefly responsible for the operations against the Boers, instead of waiting to acquaint Hunter with the circumstances and his own views, had left on the same morning to fetch supplies from Senekal. He was therefore unable to support the representations made by Paget. Hunter, after consideration, instead decided he would not rush into doing anything until Bruce Hamilton’s Brigade had come down with a convoy from Reitz. Hunter also needed to ascertain Lt. General Rundle’s dispositions – he was now under Hunter’s command too, though operating well to the south west.
Rundle two divisions, the VIIIth Infantry Division and the Colonial Division, were scattered far and wide. As well as holding a line from Winburg-Trommel-Ficksburg on the border with Basutoland, units were parcelled out in penny packets as garrisons to various towns and villages to the SW of Bethlehem.[vii]
Hunter’s hesitation has been roundly criticised by arm-chair generals ever since, but it was not without some justification. Operating so far from the railway line, Hunter’s supply situation was precarious and he was waiting for convoys to catch up to him – there was a dire shortage of artillery ammunition, in particular. Indeed, so concerned was Hunter about his logistics, that he even sent Gordon’s 3rd Cavalry Brigade, 400 MI and an RHA battery back to Heilbron so as to lighten the load[viii].
The other factor to be considered before lambasting Hunter for the delay is his imperfect knowledge of the country. The maps he had were very poor and he was heavily reliant on six Bethlehem locals who served as guides, and the work of the tireless Lovat Scouts, to build up a picture of what he faced.
By the 13th of July, Hunter believed (and was essentially correct) that General Prinsloo was holding Naauwpoort Nek (in the east) with the Bethlehem commando (perhaps 600 strong)[ix] and eight guns, while de Wet held Retief’s Nek and Slabbert’s Nek (both in the north) with around 4000 men and 20 guns. Smaller republican units held Commando Nek in the south and Nelspoort in the west. Based on this information, Hunter had given orders on the 14th of July for Clements’ Brigade to move to a position to attack Nelspoort – an assault Hunter felt would take place on the 18th.
On the 15th, however, Hunter received new (erroneous) information from sources inside Basutoland. This led him to believe the republicans were massing in the area of Commando Nek, with a view to breaking out towards Ficksburg in the south west. This inaccurate intelligence led to Hunter revising his plans, and ordering Rundle to keep all his forces to the south of Nelspoort to contain any such break-out attempt. Fearful that the Boers had realised the corner they’d backed themselves into, Hunter also (finally) ordered Paget’s Brigade to move south from Bethlehem to block Slabbert’s Nek.
While Hunter waited for supplies and juggled his forces outside the Basin, the ever fractious Boers were beginning to (rather belatedly) realise that their mighty fortress was actually a massive trap:
‘Dissensions which had been latent for some time broke out during the period of rest. Thus the feeling against the foreign auxiliaries sprang up afresh in regard to the position of some of the foreign artillery officers, whose title to command was not willingly recognised by the Boers. This quarrel was patched up by Steyn’s tact. A more serious trouble arose over the question of appointing officers, always a difficulty with the Boers. The field-cornets and commandants, being elected by the burghers, were often afraid of exercising their authority as they should have done, for fear of alienating their supporters, and the consequences for discipline were disastrous.
About this time, however, de Wet remedied this state of things by having a law passed whereby these officers were to be appointed by the Commander-in-Chief, subject to confirmation by the President. But no satisfactory solution was arrived at with regard to Marthinus Prinsloo’s position. The dispute with Piet de Wet had apparently been settled in his favour, but now a fresh uncertainty had arrived whether he or Paul Roux, like himself an Assistant Commandant-in-Chief, was senior.
Apart from these considerations, Steyn and de Wet were also beginning to feel grave doubts as to the advantage of remaining behind the mountains at all, in spite of the apparent strength. The dead ground and deep dongas giving approach to the precipitous hills were in favour of the attack, and were not nearly so well suited to the Boer tactics as the more open plains and low hills to which they were used. Secondly, the chief strength of the Boers, their mobility, was entirely lost in the present cramped position behind a rampart of mountains. Lastly, even if they could hold the Basin, what good would it do them? It led nowhere, and soon all its exits would be closed; and if only one or two exits were once closed, it might be very difficult for such a large force to utilize the others’.
And so, after less than a week in their supposed fastness, the vast gaggle of squabbling Free State generals held a secret council of war, presided over by President Steyn. The result of this exercise in command-by-committee was to decide that they should make their way out again. The Boer forces in the Basin were thus divided into three columns which would (rather incredibly) try to break out one day after the other: it was almost as though the cunning plan was to alert the imperial forces as blatantly as possible.
The first of these three groups comprised the Heilbron and Kroonstad commandos, plus half the Bethlehem commando, together with a few men from Boshof under Badenhorst, Van Zyl’s Colonials from Griqualand, a few men of the Potchefstroom commando, and Theron’s and Scheepers’ Scouts. Though they were the ones who got the Boers into their predicament, it should surprise no one that Christiaan de Wet and President Steyn (along with Generals P. Botha and P. de Wet) ensured they would be in the first group to try and escape – a dereliction of duty which would have seen de Wet face a court martial in the British army.
The second column comprised the Fauresmith, Bloemfontein, Wepener, Smithfield, Thaba ‘Nchu, and Jacobsdal commandos – around 2000 men under Assistant Commandant-in-Chief ‘Parson’ Paul Roux, with Generals P. J. Fourie and Froneman.
The third, under General Crowther, was only about 500 men of the Ficksburg, Ladybrand and Senekal commandos.
The remaining men, vaguely under the distinctly hazy command of General Prinsloo (AKA: the sacrificial lamb), would remain in place to hold the passes.
And so the attempted break out began:
‘Just after sunset on July 15 de Wet, whose laager had been at Kaffir Kop, between Retief’s and Slabbert’s Neks, broke out with Steyn and his column and a convoy of 400 wagons and carts from Slabbert’s Nek. There was no English force at the nek, and though English camp fires could be seen on the Senekal road farther north, this huge column, extending over 5,000 yards of road, passed within a mile of them so silently as not to attract attention. De Wet, indeed, had drilled those under his own immediate command to a most unwonted discipline on the march. The column was formed like a regular army, with an advance guard of the scouts and a few burghers followed by the President and his staff with their wagons, and de Wet’s and General Botha’s wagons; next followed the artillery—four guns and a Maxim —the convoy of wagons and Cape carts with the burghers riding on each side; and lastly a burgher rearguard.’
Paget’s Brigade – which had been ordered out of Bethlehem that day to block this very route – had only made it as far as the farm of Sebastopol, some 9 miles to the west of Bethlehem on the Senekal road (and thus still about 10 miles to the north of the pass) as de Wet’s column slipped past in the night. While moving an infantry brigade was no small feat, Paget was remiss not to at least recce the pass with his MI that day and to post piquets there; even just a single MI squadron with a well-placed Maxim gun could have wrought havoc on de Wet’s column. So while Hunter should certainly have ordered the Brigade out days earlier, Paget also deserves a large share of the blame for not getting at least some of his men near the pass on the 15th.
As it was, it wasn’t until the morning of the 16th that Paget and Broadwood were able to react but an attempt to cut off the fleeing column was held off by de Wet’s rearguard. Thereafter, de Wet’s fleeing column was chased for days by Imperial cavalry and MI. On the 19th, the cavalry caught him at Lindley, but de Wet escaped again. On the 22nd, when de Wet was near Vredefort, his pursuers caught up with him once more, capturing his stragglers and some of his wagons[x]. De Wet then fled to the hilly country to the south of the Vaal River and the trail went cold.
Accounts vary, but it would seem that de Wet got away with about 1500 men and five guns. General Hunter, who accepted he had failed to carry out his orders, took responsibility for the escape of de Wet and Steyn in a dispatch to Lord Roberts.
It was not the last time in the war that de Wet’s primary focus seems to have been on saving his own skin, and though his skill at extricating himself and his column:
‘… deserves all praise, the same admiration cannot be extended to his and Steyn’s forethought for the other Boers committed to their care. If ever it was the duty of men in such a position to stay behind and see personally that the whole programme of the retreat was carried out, it was in this case. Under any circumstances the retreat of 6,000 men from such a critical situation as that in which the Boer army then found itself, before the very eyes of a hostile army three times its size, was bound to be a matter of the greatest difficulty; the slightest hitch was likely to upset the most carefully laid plans. But here there were special causes which rendered a master’s eye indispensable. The Harrismith and Vrede commandos, on whose arrival part of the combination hinged, were tarrying by the way; still more important, it was well known that nobody was left with an unquestioned claim to take supreme command if any mischance occurred. The disaster which subsequently befell the army left inside the Basin has been attributed to Prinsloo’s incapacity or even to his treachery, but the chief cause undoubtedly was this sudden evasion by de Wet and Steyn, which cannot be qualified otherwise than as culpable neglect almost amounting to desertion of their post. It is certainly the only occasion on which such a charge could fairly be brought against Steyn, but the whole incident illustrates de Wet’s selfishness as a commander, which militated more than anything against his becoming a really great general’.[xi]
The flight of Steyn and de Wet had certainly left the rest of the Free Staters in a pickle. The second attempted break out was called off after the plan had been so blatantly telegraphed to the British by the departure of the first column. Worse still, thanks to the ‘make-it-up-as-we-go-along’ command structure favoured by the Boers, this meant that General Roux had not left the Brandwater Basin as planned, and so a tragi-comic power struggle between he and Prinsloo commenced. The resultant confusion meant that no one was exercising any sort of effective command over the widely spread, highly individualistic republicans, and chaos was beginning to reign inside the Brandwater Basin:
‘Excluding de Wet’s party and the Harrismith and Vrede commandos, who had not yet entered the mountains, the Boers now facing Hunter were distributed as follows. 1,500 of the Ficksburg, Ladybrand, and Thaba ‘Nchu commandos under Crowther were holding the western face of the Wittebergen opposite Rundle ; a commando of about 400 under Haasbroek was at Naauwpoort Nek with fifty men of the Bethlehem commando under Blignaut as an advanced post on Spitzkranz; about 2,500 of Roux’s and Prinsloo’s commandos held Retief’s and Slabbert’s Neks. Thus already the arrangement of the commandos made by de Wet had been altered’.
After the escape of de Wet and Steyn, Hunter spent a few days organising his forces to block the main passes out of the Basin. In the south west, Rundle’s Divisions, which were scattered in battalions, or even just groups of companies, were holding a vast array of blocking positions in Ficksburg, Willow Grange[xii], Hammonia, Rooikranz, Biddulph’s Berg, Senekal, Trommel, Rietspruit, Ladybrand and Thaba ‘Nchu. In the north, Clements’ 12th Brigade remained rather more concentrated at Biddulph’s Berg, while Paget’s 20th Brigade, MacDonald’s Highland Brigade, and the remaining brigades of the MI Division[xiii] were all around Bethlehem.
It was only on the 20th of July that Hunter made his first real moves against the remaining republican units in the Brandwater Basin. Bruce Hamilton had arrived from Reitz, though by then his 21st Infantry ‘Brigade’ consisted of just one infantry battalion (the Cameron Highlanders), about 550 MI[xiv] and supporting guns. This force set off from Bethlehem on the morning to the 20th, tasked with the capture of the high ground of Spitzkranz (or Spitz Kop), a hill about nine miles to the south east of Bethlehem which dominated the entrance to Naauwpoort Nek[xv] further to the south. Spitzkranz was held by around 400 Boers and the fighting raged throughout the day. Bruce Hamilton’s Highlanders secured the hill on the morning of the 21st.
With Spitzkranz secure, on the 22nd, Hunter issued orders for simultaneous attacks to be launched the following day against the entrances to the Basin at Retief’s Nek, Slabbert’s Nek, Witnek, and Commando Nek: a complex operation across a vast area which illustrates the professionalism and competency of the imperial staff. Their task was made all the harder as, that night, the weather closed in and a tremendous storm sprang up with wind and drenching rain, which on the higher positions turned to snow; the camping grounds became a sea of mud, the men were drenched, and in some cases the stampeding of horses delayed the morning start.
Hunter himself commanded the assault against Retief’s Nek, a position which was held by his opposite number, General Prinsloo. By means of a deception the day before, Hunter had convinced Prinsloo he was actually marching to reinforce Bruce Hamilton at Spitzkranz, meaning that the Boers had weakened their defences at Retief’s Nek. It nevertheless remained a formidable position:
‘The pass is only a few hundred yards across from cliff to cliff, flanked on the east by a hill of white rock, honeycombed with in- numerable caves and crevices ; from this hill the ground rises precipitously to a mountain very like Gibraltar in outline, then merges into a series of hills and high plateaux ; on the west the pass is commanded by a steep conical hill called Tuifelberg or Spitzkop, then come more precipices and ridges. The Boers here, under the command of Prinsloo himself, were partly protected by natural fissures in the ground, partly by the excellent trenches they had made across the pass itself, on Tuifelberg, on the crevassed cliff east of the pass, and on the ridges beyond’.[xvi]
Hunter’s force initially comprised two battalions of MacDonald’s Highland Brigade (the Black Watch and the HLI), plus Rimington’s Guides, Lovat’s Scouts, the 5th Battery RA, four guns of the 76th Battery RA, and two 5-inch ‘cow guns’. Hunter was reinforced during the fighting on the 23rd by the arrival of the Royal Sussex (which had previously been detached from Bruce Hamilton’s 21st Infantry Brigade) and the 81st Battery RA.
The fighting continued throughout the 23rd, and just before dusk the Black Watch secured the main ridge line on the east of the position (the Boer right). That night, a patrol from the Lovat Scouts discovered that the republican positions on the main, ‘Gibraltar-like’ hill – which lay between the ridge line captured by the Black Watch, and the Nek itself – had been abandoned by their defenders for the night: an incredible example of the lack of professionalism of the Boers. The Lovat Scouts guided a company of the HLI up the hill in the darkness and they established themselves in the deserted Boer positions – which must have come as quite a shock for the burghers when they tried to go back up to them at sun-up on the 24th.
With this stroke of good fortune, Hunter switched his axis of attack away from the Boer left, pulling the Royal Sussex back from in front of Tuifelberg and instead sending the newly arrived Seaforth Highlanders to capture the high ground to the east of the ridge held by the Black Watch. By midday, this was attained, and all three Highland battalions began moving forwards, clearing the Boers out and moving down the reverse slope towards their encampments. By 3 PM, the republicans had had enough, and were on the run towards Fouriesburg. No one would be escaping through Retief’s Nek.
A couple of miles to the south west, Clements and Paget were tasked with capturing and closing Slabbert’s Nek – the pass through which de Wet and Steyn had fled a week earlier.
Clements’ 20th Brigade comprised the 1st Royal Irish Regiment[xvii], the 2nd Bedfords and half of the 2nd Wiltshires. They were supported by two 15-pdrs from the 8th Battery RA, plus two 5-inch ‘cow guns’. The Royal Scots MI Company and 400 men of Brabant’s Horse provided the mounted element.
Paget’s 12th Brigade comprised the 1st Royal Munster Fusiliers[xviii], half a battalion of the 2nd Kings Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, six companies of the 4th Scottish Rifles, and about 200 MI. Artillery support was in the form of 4 guns of the 38th Battery RA, and two guns of the CIV’s artillery branch.
On the morning the 23rd July, the two Brigades met two miles north of Slabbert’s Nek and pushed on:
‘The road from the north takes a slight turn to the east as it passes through the nek, so that the actual entrance to the pass is concealed by what appears, until the last moment, to be a dead wall of rock. On the west the cliffs rise to a height of 2,000 feet from the road, buttressed by lower ledges; on the east, the ridge also rises up to a considerable height. The Boers had taken up positions on the crests of the ridges, but their main trenches were on the lower ledges immediately opposite the road; they had two guns and a pom-pom concealed by these trenches, and another pom-pom near some trenches on the eastern spur of the hills’.[xix]
Clements masked the centre of the Boer defences with Paget’s Munsters, and concentrated on turning their left flank. Efforts by the MI, the Royal Irish and the Wiltshires were unable to make much progress throughout the 23rd, but – just as at Retief’s Nek – that night a body of Imperial scouts discovered that the defences on the commanding high ground to the west were (rather inexplicably) unoccupied. Clements took advantage, sending some of Brabant’s Horse to seize it before dawn, while the Royal Irish and Wiltshires attacked a spur of the main ridge, and drove the defenders off in short order. By 11 o’clock on the 24th, the republicans were in full flight towards Fouriesburg.
The British troops were astounded by the incompetence of the burghers in leaving their positions for the night, with Captain Bromley-Davenport of the Staffordshire Yeomanry later stating: ‘The position was enormously strong and against any troops in the world except Boers we should hardly have had a chance of taking it’.[xx]
The superior abilities of the imperial scouts, and the school boy howlers which saw the republicans disappear from their defences for the night, will no doubt come as a shock to those raised on the diet of Boer martial brilliance so frantically peddled by their latter-day apologists.
During the 23rd and 24th, Rundle’s units hemmed in the republicans on the south and west of the Wittebergen. There was some skirmishing and exchanges of artillery fire, but no serious attempt made to storm the republican defences. On the 25th, with the Boers in disordered retreat, Rundle’s mounted troops were able to occupy Commando Nek without opposition. Other forces were pushed on through the pass into the Brandwater Basin towards Fouriesburg.
With the whole Boer position collapsing like a wet paper bag, Hunter’s troops also entered the Basin on the 25th. Fouriesburg – which had been grandly declared as the latest capital of the Orange Free State – was captured by Rundle’s men on the 26th. President Steyn’s wife had been left in the town (clearly he had no hesitation to turn her over to the ‘wicked’ Brits in his unseemly rush to save himself), and 115 British POWs were freed[xxi].
Two exits from the trap still remained unblocked at that stage – Naauwpoort Nek and the Golden Gate (now a very picturesque National Park) which were both in the east, though the route through the Golden Gate was very poor going, and considered unsuitable for wagons. On the 25th, Hunter had dispatched the Highland Brigade, a 15-pdr battery, a pair of 5-inch ‘cow guns’ and Lovat’s Scouts to secure these two passes. Working in conjunction with Bruce Hamilton’s Brigade and after some skirmishing with those elements of the Harrismith, Bethlehem and Vrede commandos who had been tasked to hold Naauwpoort Nek, the pass was secured on the 26th – leaving the Golden Gate as the only remaining exit from the Basin.
By then, the frailties and inadequacies of the Boer military system were clear for anyone but the most blinkered of their latter-day fan-boys to see. With de Wet and Steyn fleeing from the Basin a fortnight earlier and leaving the rest to their fate, there was no clear leader, and no coherent plan of action.
‘As long as the different commandos were holding the passes which had been assigned to them, the difficulties of a divided command had not been very serious. But the entry of Hunter’s and Rundle’s troops into the Basin and the closing of all exits except one made a consistent and levelheaded direction of the Boer retreat indispensable. On the 26th there was only one exit left [Golden Gate], and that a bad one, by which the Boer forces in the Basin could escape. It would have taxed all the powers of a de Wet to get his fellow burghers safely out by such a road; as it was there was absolute chaos’
But nothing now made any difference. De Villiers’s men, in their flight from Naauwpoort Nek to the Golden Gate, on the 27th, went more like a panic-stricken mob than an army. Each man went on his own way, with nobody to give him orders. The one crying need was for a man to lead this flock. Even Roux, who seems to have been wandering about aimlessly among these men, had nothing better to do than to complain of the number of wagons with the Boers, and to lament that there was nobody in chief command….
The panic in the Boer forces was now complete; the English seemed to them to be springing up on all sides; retreating carts, guns, and men were all sticking in the narrow defiles; escape appeared hopeless, as there was no longer any attempt at order or discipline. Mad schemes were proposed, the wildest rumours were afloat; some said that Roberts had been driven out of the Transvaal and that they had only to hold out a little longer as the tide had turned; others that de Wet was at hand to rescue them….
Others were in the depths of despair, and some of the bravest and sturdiest were to be seen shedding tears of rage. None knew what had happened or what to do. Prinsloo, at any rate, saw that it was hopeless once the Slaapkranz Pass [this led to both Naauwpoort Nek and the Golden Gate] was lost, and early on July 29 he sent a request for a four days’ armistice’.
Hunter refused this and continued to advance. That afternoon, Hunter received another message, in which Prinsloo agreed to surrender the following morning (ie. the 30th). The terms of the surrender, which were approved by Lord Roberts, were as follows:
- Private goods were not to be confiscated
- Horses, wagons, and carts, and all spans of oxen and mules were to be confiscated
- Commandos were to be prisoners of war till the peace
- All arms and ammunition were to be given up
- All Free State property to be confiscated
In addition, Hunter agreed that every burgher should surrender under his commandant’s eye, and that a horse with rations should be provided for each burgher to ride to the appointed place on the railway.
Alas, thanks to the ever-chaotic command structure of the republican forces, Prinsloo’s authority to surrender was not universally recognised. Indeed, even as the British troops were breaking through their positions and panic-stricken chaos reigned, the republicans had decided to hold an election to decide which of their plethora of Generals was actually in charge – a situation so ludicrous that it could have come straight out of Monty Python sketch:
‘Three candidates were present of equal rank, viz: Prinsloo, Roux and Olivier. On July 27th the election took place, and caused immediate confusion; certain commandos nominated Prinsloo, others stood by Roux, who had been De Wet’s own choice; but the chaos was increased by the fact that the votes of the more distant commandos had not been received at the time when Prinsloo, thinking himself elected, and abandoning hope at the same time, asked for an armistice’.
For reasons known only to himself, Commandant Haasbroek did not seem to think that the surrender should apply to him, and, gathering all the men and guns he could, set out for the last escape route from the Basin, at the Golden Gate. There he found Hattingh and Olivier who were trying to hold the pass with their increasingly disheartened men. Recognising that the burghers had no fight left in them, it was decided instead to flee towards Harrismith with whatever men they could:
‘The commandants who escaped from the Golden Gate on the 30th were Van Hattingh, Haasbroek, Olivier, Kolbe, Froneman, Visser, Van Tender, and Truter, besides P. Fourie and de Villiers, who were already outside the nek. The men who escaped with them numbered about 1,500, and they had seven Krupps, one English gun, two Maxims, and a pompom’.
Operating outside the Brandwater Basin, Bruce Hamilton received orders at 5 PM on the 29th to cease hostilities, and hold his position due to the unconditional surrender of Prinsloo[xxii]. Assuming the Free Staters would honour the surrender agreed by their commander, Bruce Hamilton contacted the Boers who had managed to slip through the Golden Gate:
‘Captain Whigham, one of General MacDonald’s staff officers, succeeded in passing through Olivier’s outposts, and found him some eight miles beyond the pass on the way to Harrismith. Although Olivier promised to stay where he was until he heard news from Prinsloo, he did not keep to his word, but moved on with all possible speed. Bruce Hamilton was then too far off to catch him up, so on the 31st he moved round to Solomon Raatze’s farm, and there received the surrender of Commandants Du Plooy, Joubert, and Potgieter and of 1,500 Boers who had refused to follow those who trekked away to Harrismith’.
Inside the Basin, the surrender was performed more formally and rather more honourably:
‘On the morning of July 30 General Hunter received the surrender of Generals Prinsloo and Crowther and of the Ficksburg and Ladybrand commandos on the appropriately named farm Verliesfontein (‘Loss Spring’). It was a notable scene in a magnificent setting. In the post of honour on the right were the 2nd Scots Guards, opposite them Paget’s Munsters; to the south, beyond the Caledon River, stretched the great Basuto mountains; to the north lay Naauwpoort Nek, flanked by the Roodebergen. The surrendering Boers came up between the lines, handing over their rifles and ammunition, in the case of the burghers to private soldiers, in the case of the principal officers to the General in command. There came men of all ages—even boys and old grandfathers—all well armed and well horsed. They had fought well, and now saw no other way of avoiding annihilation; their last remaining anxiety was that they should not be sent to St. Helena’.
Conan-Doyle described the event:
‘On 30 July the motley army which had held the British off so long emerged from among the mountains. But it soon became evident that in speaking for all Prinsloo had gone beyond his powers. Discipline was low and individualism high in the Boer army. Every man might repudiate the decision of his commandant, as every man might repudiate the white flag of his comrade. On the first day no more than eleven hundred men of the Ficksburg and Ladybrand commandos, with fifteen hundred horses and two guns, were surrendered. Next day seven hundred and fifty more men came in with eight hundred horses, and by August 6th the total of the prisoners had mounted to four thousand one hundred and fifty with three guns, two of which were our own. But Olivier[xxiii], with fifteen hundred men and several guns, broke away from the captured force and escaped through the hills. Of this incident General Hunter, an honourable soldier, remarks in his official report: ‘I regard it as a dishonourable breach of faith upon the part of General Olivier, for which I hold him personally responsible. He admitted that he knew that General Prinsloo had included him in the unconditional surrender.’ It is strange that, on Olivier’s capture shortly afterwards, he was not court-martialed for this breach of the rules of war, but that good-natured giant, the Empire, is quick—too quick, perhaps—to let bygones be bygones.’[xxiv]
Though General Olivier briefly got away by means fair or foul, he shamelessly offered to join the Imperial cause and use his commando to maintain peace in their home district when he was captured just a few weeks later. Perhaps due to this ‘dishonourable breach of faith’, however, Olivier’s proposal was rejected by the British[xxv] and the devious old liar was shipped off to a POW camp in Ceylon instead. As Conan-Doyle suggests, he was lucky he didn’t face a firing squad for his treachery.
The surrenders went on for some time, as burghers handed themselves in, or were rounded up, in dribs and drabs:
‘Altogether, as a result of the operations, by August 9th, 4,314 men had surrendered, three guns (two of them belonging to ‘U’ Battery ) were given in, and the English captured 2,800 cattle, 4,000 sheep, 5,000 or 6,000 good horses, and destroyed nearly 2,000,000 rounds of ammunition’.
In these stark terms, the action at the Brandwater Basin (or the Battle of ‘Wittebergen’ as the clasp for the QSA medal states) was the biggest victory of the war for either side. De Wet’s premature fleeing of the scene took some of the shine off, however, as did Olivier’s blatant act of dishonour, in refusing to accept the surrender included his force.
Hunter was criticized for dilly-dallying in Bethlehem and thus not blocking Slabbert’s Nek sooner – criticism which is certainly fair and which he himself acknowledged. In his defence, however, he had just arrived in the area, was at the end of very lengthy and tenuous supply lines, and was trying to coordinate about four division’s worth of men across seventy miles or so. It is, however, still reasonable to say that he should have ordered Paget and Clements to block the pass sooner than he did.
Equally, Bruce Hamilton is criticised for failing to block the pass at Golden Gate immediately after he secured Naauwpoort Nek. Again, this is probably fair, but one should also remember that Bruce Hamilton’s Brigade was woefully understrength, and that darting about in such rugged terrain was by no means a simple matter.
The surrender of most of the remaining Free State army in the Brandwater Basin was followed up a few days later by the capture of Harrismith – by then, the only settlement of any significance in the republic which was still in Boer hands. Taking Harrismith led in turn to the opening of Van Reenan’s Pass, and with it, the railway line to Natal. This eased Hunter’s logistical headache at a stroke – the base of supply was shifted within a day, and the forces in the north and east of the OFS were supplied from Durban rather than the Cape, thus shortening the supply lines by about two-thirds.
That the Action at the Brandwater Basin / Wittebergen is hardly known in South Africa – or certainly not as well-known as the likes of Magersfontein or Spion Kop – is hardly surprising. Not even the busy propaganda machine of the Apartheid-government could put a positive spin on a battle in which well over 4000 men were captured, and from which de Wet ran away before it even began. Retreating into the Brandwater Basin was an act of sheer folly in the first place and, thereafter, the Boers made elementary mistakes which refute their modern-day reinvention as an invincible army of Titans: no professional troops would simply abandon their trenches at night to sleep in their laagers, for example. The confused, indeed farcical, command structure of those left behind in the Brandwater Basin is almost mind-boggling. The notion of holding an election to decide who was actually in command, even as the Tommies were smashing their way through the various neks, was as ludicrous as anything in the war.
Of course, modern-day Defenders of the Myth prefer to trumpet de Wet’s escape, glossing over the fact that, in his trademark haste to flee, he left over 4000 of his men behind. Indeed, describing de Wet’s getaway as some sort of triumph is akin to boasting about the 30,000 Germans who managed to get out of Stalingrad before the noose tightened… while ignoring the army that was left to be captured: and at least the German C-in-C stayed behind with his men. The fact that de Wet was able to (as usual) save his own skin hardly makes up for the fact that he left thousands of others to their fate.
[i] Pienaar, ‘With Steyn and de Wet’
[ii] A wealthy lawyer in peace time, Vilonel had fallen out with de Wet over the matter of letting his commando retain their wagons. Realising that continuing the war was utterly futile, he deserted but was captured and tried as a traitor. Like Piet de Wet, he would later switch sides, and fight for the British
[iii] The reader will remember, however, that the established myth is that the Boers ‘only ever wanted to be left alone’, and never ‘gazed across their borders’. Alas, historical reality is at odds with this nonsense
[iv] there is no direct translation, but, roughly, C-in-C / senior officer of a given position
[v] Hamilton had fallen from his horse, and broken his collar bone
[vi] Later, General Sir Archibald Hunter, GCB, GCVO, DSO, TD (1856-1936). Hunter served in the Gordon Relief operation of 1885, commanding a Brigade at the Battle of Suakin. Hunter was trapped in Ladysmith during the Siege and distinguished himself by planning and leading a raid against Boer guns. After retiring from the army he served a term as a Conservative MP
[vii] Maurice, Vol III, p.286
[viii] Times History, Vol IV, p.319
[ix] Maurice, Vol III, p.293
[x] Conan-Doyle, chapter 27
[xi] Times History, Vol IV, p.318
[xii] Not to be confused with the Battle of Willow Grange which was fought in Natal a few months previously
[xiii] By then, the MI Division comprised the 2nd Cavalry Brigade (Broadwood), the 2nd MI Brigade (Ridley) and the 21st Infantry Brigade (Bruce Hamilton), which had arrived from Reitz
[xiv] Including, somewhat remarkably, a force known as ‘the Burma MI’ – this unit was raised in Rangoon and comprised three companies each of one hundred mounted infantry drawn from the 2nd Battalions of three regiments based in Burma at the time: the Essex Regiment, the Durham Light Infantry and the West Riding Regiment. As they left Rangoon on 24 January 1900 a Burmese lady presented each man with a pink rose, the Burmese emblem of good luck and success.
[xv] Maurice, Vol III, p.296
[xvi] Times History, Vol IV, p.319
[xvii] One of the oldest regiments in the British army, the RIR could trace their lineage back to 1684. It was disbanded in 1922 with the establishment of the Irish Free State. A new unit named the Royal Irish Regiment was formed in 1992 by an amalgamation of the Royal Irish Rangers and the Ulster Defence Regiment. It is not a direct descendant of the original regiment, however, but instead traces its lineage to (among others) the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers
[xviii] Formed by amalgamations of several much older regiments during the Childers Reforms of 1881, the Royal Munster Fusiliers recruited in the South West of Ireland (ie. in what is now the republic). They disbanded in 1922
[xix] Times History, Vol IV, p.330
[xx] Bennet, Absent Minded Beggars
[xxi] Times History, Vol IV, p.333
[xxii] Maurice, Vol III, p.304
[xxiii] General Jan Hendrik Olivier who had defeated Gatacre at Stormberg during Black Week
[xxiv] Conan-Doyle, p. 481
[xxv]Lee, p. 171