General Hunter’s crushing victory at the Brandwater Basin (see blog posting in July 2018 for details) had a knock-on effect further afield. By destroying the Boer forces in the NE of the Orange Free State, Hunter removed any lingering concerns that they might strike back down into Natal. Though De Wet was still at large, his battered forces were in no position to threaten the colony at that stage, and thus General Buller, GOC Natal, was ordered to push northwards into the Transvaal, ultimately with the view of linking up with French’s cavalry by the middle of August.
Buller was ordered to bring up an Infantry Division and a Cavalry Brigade, and re-organised his widely scattered command accordingly. Leaving the 2nd and 5th Divisions to protect his lines of supply and defend Natal from further incursions, Buller pressed forwards with the 4th Division (Major-General Lyttleton), comprising the 7th Brigade[i] (Walter Kitchener) and 8th Brigade[ii] (Howard), together with the 3rd Mounted Brigade (Dundonald) and the 2nd Cavalry Brigade (Brocklehurst), plus supporting heavy guns.[iii]
Buller’s force pushed into the Transvaal, driving the Boers before them and capturing Ermelo on the 11th of August. On the 14th, Buller’s mounted units joined hands with French’s cavalry and Carolina was captured the same day. There was little more than the occasional skirmish with the Boers, as they instead kept their distance from Buller’s powerful force and bided their time.
On the 21st of August, Dundonald’s cavalry – operating out on the right flank – came into contact with a strong Boer position in the Komati Valley to the south of Belfast. This was determined to be part of a new defensive line established by General Botha – Buller’s adversary at the Battle of the Tugela Heights earlier in the year. A sharp engagement was fought, with the 2nd Gordon Highlanders and 1st Leicesters sent to reinforce Dundonald. The action ended at sun-down, with Botha’s men still holding their positions. The following day, Walter Kitchener led a detachment from his Brigade and maneuvered the Boers out of these defences by 2:30 pm for very little loss – just two killed and five wounded. Buller surmised that the positions in the Komati valley marked General Botha’s extreme left, and more fighting on the 23rd (at Geluk, just to the south of Belfast) confirmed this. Furthermore, it was also clear that Botha now intended to make a fight of it, rather than staying out of reach of the British. Buller therefore ordered French’s Cavalry Division and the nearby XIth Division (Pole-Carew) to operate in concert with this own force.
Buller fortified the ridgeline at Geluk on the night of the 23rd, and emplacements were dug for his heavy guns: two 5” pieces, two 4.7” and four 12-pdrs plus the howitzers of 61st Battery and the 15-pdrs of two field batteries. These exchanged fire with around six Boer guns (including a Long Tom) throughout the 24th while French’s cavalry tried to determine the extent of the Boer defensive line. Pole-Carew’s XIth Division, approaching from Wonderfontein, also came under heavy artillery fire, and entrenched themselves in the hills to the south and north-east of Belfast.
Lord Roberts arrived in Belfast on the 25th to issue orders to Buller, French and Pole-Carew. The Boers held a position not dissimilar to the one they had occupied at Diamond Hill: again, they were athwart the railway, and this time holding a defensive line around 20 miles long, dug in on high ground, with their right flank anchored in the Lydenburg Hills, and their left ‘so encumbered with bogs and impassable spruits’ that it could not be turned by French’s cavalry. Buller therefore proposed using his infantry to break through the left of the Boer line at Dalmanutha and Roberts agreed to this, ordering French (acting in concert with the Guards Brigade of Pole-Carew’s XIth Division) to move to the north with his Cavalry Division to screen the Boer’s right flank. The other brigade of Pole-Carew’s Division (the 18th Infantry Brigade) would remain in their entrenchments in front of Belfast to fix the enemy’s centre in place.
The total force available to Lord Roberts was around 18,700 men, of whom 4,800 were mounted, together with 82 artillery pieces.[iv] General Botha was reckoned to have around 7000 with 20 guns – including all four of the Transvaal’s famous ‘Long Toms’. At first glance, these numbers tend to support the tired old chestnut of ‘the British outnumbered us 100:1, so that’s the only reason we lost’. However, anyone who has been anywhere near the military (ie. not Pakenham) knows that a 3:1 advantage is the ‘rule of thumb’ required for a successful attack – a ratio which can be increased to 5:1 when assaulting well prepared positions – and Roberts had much less than that.
Despite his latter-day reinvention as some sort of military genius by the likes of Pakenham and various South African academics of the Apartheid-era, Botha was certainly not a professional soldier, and the lay out of his defences left a lot to be desired. While the entrenchments themselves were well-sited and expertly dug, each Commando had been assigned an area to defend and consequently had dug-in with little or no thought of being able to support their neighbours. As one astute observer commented:
‘Each commando was allotted a special tract of country to defend. This they intrenched (sic) admirably, but, owing either to their own indolence or to Botha’s insufficient control, the intrenchments were dug as if by independent armies, having no connexion at all with one another’.[v]
Any General worth his salt would have lightly held a line with picket posts, and retained reserves which could be rushed to where they were required to prevent a breakthrough. Instead, Botha strung out all his men in the front line – thus running the risk of having them pinned in place by spoiling attacks and not able to move to assist on other areas of the defences when a breakthrough was threatened. It was yet another example of their failings as an army, and of the way their much-lauded Generals constantly underestimated the importance of maintaining a reserve. Botha’s defensive plan was not the work of a ‘Great General’: it was nothing less than a school boy howler.
The two forces remained essentially static throughout the 25th, exchanging artillery fire with little effect, though one of Pole-Carew’s 5” guns was credited with (temporarily) silencing a Boer Long Tom. French’s Cavalry Division moved out from Geluk at first light on the 26th, and French was given a final briefing by Lord Roberts in Belfast at 0800 that morning. The task assigned to French’s horsemen was by no means straightforward: operating in country wholly unsuitable for cavalry work, they were ordered to clear the enemy’s right flank from the country north of Belfast and Machadodorp, so that Pole-Carew’s Guards could come forward with a clear left flank. It was an area of precipitous hills, and ones which grew increasingly rugged as the Cavalry Division pressed north. Around 400 Boers with four guns opposed them, but French’s men were veterans of a dozen encounters and pushed the federals ahead of them with little difficulty. By 1400, French sent word to Pole-Carew that the area was secure and went firm slightly to the west of Lakenvlei.[vi] The Guards, together with the 4th MI, the Royal Navy 12-pdrs, the 5” ‘cow guns’ and 85th Battery RFA, moved off northwards towards to fix the Boer flank in place. This was determined to be in the region of Swartkopjies on the Lydenburg road, and the Guards were under fire throughout. By the end of the day, however, they had cleared the federals off Lang Kloof.
While the Cavalry and Guards operated in the north against the Boer right, Buller moved off to break through on their left. The going was very boggy and arduous and Buller’s Tommies were under artillery fire throughout as they skirmished their way forwards in very open order. The 1st Devonshires, leading the 7th Brigade forwards, were veterans of the NW Frontier and had been doing such work for years. Moving forward by companies over a front of about two-and-a-half-miles, the Devons brushed aside several Boer positions as the advance continued relentlessly. Operating respectively on the left and right of the Devons, the 1st Manchesters and 2nd Gordon Highlanders kept the Boers from the flanks, while the howitzers of 61st Battery and the 15-pdrs of 53rd Battery worked in very close support of the infantry. The horsemen of 3rd Mounted Brigade brought up the rear, and fended off any attempted Boer counter moves from the direction of the Komati valley. The 7th Brigade advanced continuously under fire throughout the day, stopping to bivouac at Waaikraal that night. Total casualties were 86. It was a remarkable, irresistible, and wholly successful, example of all-arms cooperation, totally belying the ridiculous (though commonly-held and oft spouted) notions of the British army marching about shoulder-to-shoulder and being mown down by the clever old Boers. The reality is that Botha’s men simply had no answer to these hard-nosed veterans of the Frontier.
Not only had Buller been able to push forwards several miles, he had also thrown a massive spanner into the works of General Botha’s defensive plan. With Pole-Carew and French fixing the Boer forces in the north, Botha had had to adjust his line to try and counter Buller’s move in the south: he had thus pulled his left flank backwards, so that it now faced more south than south-east. The apex of these new dispositions – ie. the point at which the line now bent back on itself – was at Bergendal Farm, five miles to the west of Dalmanutha. Buller recognised that this was now the key to the Boer defence line and, not only that, but he had managed to get his infantry well within striking distance of it.
As the farm was at the apex of a salient, it was highly vulnerable – it could not readily be supported by fire from the federal forces on either flank, or, indeed, from their rear due to the nature of the topography which hid the ground in front of it from riflemen or artillery offering support from behind. To make matters worse for Botha, Bergendal Farm was pretty much the centre of his line, meaning its loss would break his army in two and expose the line of retreat of both halves. That Botha allowed himself to get in such a precarious position once again rather calls into doubt the modern-day claims that he was a ‘Great General’.
For all that, properly garrisoned, it should still have been a very tough nut to crack:
‘the actual ground was strong enough to defy assault to all but determined troops unafraid of close quarters. South of the railway, and parallel to it, ran a ridge, the lip of the high veld, and the watershed of the Crocodile and Komati rivers. From its eastern end protruded a long, and from the western a short spur, both frontleted with parapets of boulder. That to the east fell southward by easy gradients, across which schanzes had been thrown up, facing nearly westward, by the burghers of Germiston, Bethel and Heidelberg. The western spur, some 1,500 yards distant from the other, and not well seen from it by reason of the formation of the ground and clumps of intervening trees, was of very different nature. At the summit of a smooth and gentle glacis, five hundred yards in length, arose suddenly a tumbled heap of boulders, of immense size and piled in fantastic shapes, a fortress as strongly built and as adroitly placed by Nature as ever by the most careful science of the military engineer. Three hundred yards to the east of it, and between it and the eastern spur, stood Bergendal Farm, backed by a coppice of fir trees, of which a few also dotted the slopes in front. Such was the joint in the harness of the Boer army, its topographical strength well calculated to disguise its tactical defects. Fully aware of both, General Botha had posted his best troops on and behind the kopje. The remnant of the Johannesburg Police [the infamous ‘ZARP’ bully boys] remaining after many destructive engagements held the rocks on the crest, one Vickers-Maxim gun in their midst, another on their left rear near the farm. They were commanded by Commandant Philip Oosthuizen, and still numbered amongst their officers that Lieutenant Pohlmann whose skill and courage had contributed so largely to the triumph at Nicholson’s Nek nearly a year before. On a knoll in rear, separated from the Police by a depression, the Krugersdorp men, also famous in battle, were placed in support.
Another account suggests, however, that Botha was not really ‘fully aware’ and had not appreciated the importance of this critical point in his line:
Across an undulating valley, about two miles to the north of where [Buller] stood, and just south of the railway lay Bergendal Farm, well defined by a sparse line of trees on the bare Dalmanutha plateau. Immediately in front of the trees the plateau rose slightly to a natural platform two hundred yards from east to west, and a hundred from north to south, then fell abruptly into the valley. This platform, well defined on its western extremity by a stony outcrop and further strengthened by artificial means, was the outpost occupied by seventy-four of the Johannesburg mounted police under Oosthuizen. Behind them in the farm buildings and cattle kraals were a hundred more of the foot police. To their left rear was a small band of foreigners of Krieger’s corps and Gravett’s Germiston commando, numbering 400 all told. North of the railway line, but out of sight of Buller and of their own comrades in the police, the Krugersdorp men were in a position favourable for retreat but commanding hardly any field of fire. Kemp, however, had placed a party of forty foreigners attached to his commando under Baron Goldegg on a more westerly spur of the plateau, which had an effective range and even overlapped Oosthuizen’s position. The police had a pom-pom and a maxim, the others had a few guns among them, and the two Long Toms south of the railway had the range of Buller’s ridge. The Bethal and Heidelberg commandos had retired towards Dalmanutha the night before, leaving only a few men to trouble Buller’s flank and rear, while the other commandos north of the line were busily employed by French and Pole-Carew. Thus the adversaries left in front of Buller numbered under a thousand.
Again, one would be forgiven for thinking that a ‘Great General’ would have retained a significant reserve to rush to Bergendal Farm when its critical importance became obvious: instead, we see that the Bethal and Heidelberg Commandos were even retiring away from the area at the precise moment they were needed. With no reserve up his sleeve, his right flank pinned in place by French and Pole-Carew, and his left flank retiring as they saw fit, Botha had completely surrendered the initiative to Buller and there was actually little he could now do to influence the battle – except perhaps turn to the Almighty one last time.
Buller launched his assault against Bergendal Farm on 27 August. Brocklehurst’s Cavalry Brigade and the MI were ordered to demonstrate to the west of the enemy, and to establish positions for their attached horse artillery to bombard any attempts to reinforce Bergendal. The rest of Buller’s artillery deployed onto ‘Gun Ridge’, ready to open up on the Boer positions. The hard-fighting 7th Brigade was concentrated behind the ridge in readiness[vii], with the 2nd Rifle Brigade[viii] tasked to lead the assault.
‘Now, about II a.m., swelled a bombardment such as had not been heard since the days of Vaal Krantz and Pieters Hill. Only some forty guns formed the broadside, but many were of heavy metal, and all were turned upon the rocky fort which held the Johannesburg Police, a target not to be missed, so plainly did it stand out upon the crest-line, nor to be struck without effect, so restricted the area within its walls. From Belfast a third 4.7-in. gun, placed by the Field-Marshal’s order, threw shell into the back of the position. The Police were well covered; but the great boulders which shut them in, cracking under the blows of projectiles designed for the bursting of the armour of battleships, were as often a danger as a shield, and every splinter whirled like the fragment of an exploding shell. But the Police, firmer than their parapets, lay immovable. In three hours, during which the earth beneath them quaked, and the air above was full of flying rock and iron, none turned, though the hollow behind momentarily invited retreat. True, the way of escape was perilous enough; the hollow itself was so beaten by shrapnel that not a man of the supporting Krugersdorpers ventured to cross it to join his comrades on the powdering ridge. The Police therefore crouched alone, their handful dwindling rapidly.
Their artillery gave them little help. Their own Vickers-Maxim was early overwhelmed by a deluge of shrapnel; the rest of the pieces, badly placed on the surrounding heights, had but to fire to be instantly crushed. Only a 6-in. Creusot, from the direction of Dalmanutha, and two smaller pieces east of Bergendal made spasmodic efforts to intervene.
The British gunners, masters of the situation, practiced fatal experiments upon their helpless prey. When the Howitzers fired a salvo against the kopje, the gunners of the Field batteries, their pieces already loaded and trained, watched for the bursting of the six great shells amongst the rocks, and on the instant launched in their turn flights of shrapnel upon the identical spot, so that those of the enemy who were stirred by the first cataclysm, were beaten down by the second. If ever troops are to be moved or destroyed by artillery, the small band upon Bergendal might well have vanished. For three hours without respite they endured the storm, and then Sir R. Buller set his attack in motion’.
Buller was in no hurry, and it was not until around 1430 hours that he unleashed his infantry. The 2nd Rifle Brigade led the way, moving northwards, initially following essentially the same path the Brocklehurst’s cavalry had taken that morning, so as to assault the Boer position from the west. Brocklehurst had gone firm on a small kopje about 2500 yards to the west of the farm, and his horse artillery (by then reinforced by the 15-pdrs of 53rd Battery, RFA) were flaying Bergendal. The Rifles advanced with ten paces between men, with the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, Gordons and Devons all moving up to support their assault.
The Rifles began taking effective defensive fire when they were around 800 yards from Bergendal Farm, and a Maxim attached to the Rifles from the Gordon Highlanders was swiftly brought into action to provide close support, pouring a stream of .303 into the kopje and farm.
The Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, on the right of the Rifles, came under fire from the very start of their advance – with a pom-pom opening up on them as soon as they crossed Gun Ridge. Contrary to the widely believed modern-day myths of Napoleonic-style tactics being employed, the Inniskillings advanced in echelon of half companies from the left, four companies in firing line, four in support, the interval between men extended to eight paces.
A company of the Devons pushed forward to fill the gap between the two battalions while the men caught their breath and readied themselves for the final assault. And then they surged forwards:
‘whilst the artillery hurled a last annihilating downpour upon Bergendal, both regiments advanced upon the scarcely visible kopje. The onset of the Rifle Brigade was swift and irresistible. Sweeping across the open glacis they dashed upon the rocks in the face of a roaring wind and of a still louder blast of bullets. Many were struck down, their Colonel amongst the foremost, three officers and eighty men falling around him upon the naked slope, whilst many who were wounded kept on, hoping to reach the enemy before they sank. Still the Police stood firm, crushed though they were up to the very last moment by the falling canisters of lyddite and the all-searching shrapnel. The final shell from Gun Ridge burst but ten yards in front of the leading infantry of the battalions of the attack. The burghers had lost fifty per cent, of their numbers; of the remnant many were too dazed to run when flight would have been but another service to their cause. But had the devoted band been a hundredfold stronger, they would have been unable to withstand the onslaught which converged upon their little fort. The Rifle Brigade were upon them on one flank, the Inniskilling Fusiliers, charging up in the nick of time, enclosed them on the other; and in another moment both battalions poured over them, obliterating them rather than forcing them to yield. Less than twenty men, of whom eight were wounded, were captured alive; about thirty made off, pursued by the shrapnel of Brocklehurst’s and the 21st battery’s gunners, who had long been watching for a break-away. The remainder lay amongst the rocks where they had fought; and of those who died, none was mourned more deeply than the brave young Lieutenant Pohlmann. The commander, Oosthuizen, who was wounded, stayed with his men to the last, and yielded up his arms only with his charge’.
On an operational level, with his army pinned in place along the line, and with no reserve to deploy, Botha simply had no answer to Buller’s attack. On a tactical level, the close cooperation between the British infantry and their supporting guns, together with the tactics the Tommies had been using on the NW Frontier for years, proved irresistible.
Though a small action by most standards, the Battle of Bergendal shattered Botha’s 20-miles of defenses for the loss of just 120 British casualties. Striking at exactly the right place in Botha’s line, Buller rendered the rest of his extensive positions completely untenable – indeed, even before the ZARPs were defeated that afternoon, defeatist rumours were doing the rounds up-and-down the Boer trenchlines, and French’s cavalry were pressing East with little opposition as the various Commandos melted away yet again. The whole line was formally abandoned that night, with Botha’s men falling back through Machadodorp to try and establish another position near Helvetia. As French, Pole-Carew and Buller followed up, this was abandoned without a fight. After exhorting his kinsmen to fight on, Kruger shamelessly fled to Lorenço Marques and thence, courtesy of a Dutch Cruiser, to Europe.
Bergendal is generally regarded as the last battle of the conventional phase of the Boer War, and marked the point where the war Kruger had started would descend into a pointless, bitter and completely unsuccessful guerrilla campaign. Not that any of this bothered him at all – leaving his wife behind, Kruger would live out the rest of his days in the safety of Europe, feted as something of a B-list celebrity.
[i] 1st Devons, 1st Manchesters, 2nd Gordons, 2nd Rifle Brigade
[ii] 1st Liverpools, 1st Leicesters, 1st Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, 1st Kings Royal Rifles
[iii] Maurice, Volume III, p. 381/382
[iv] Maurice, Volume III, p. 392
[v] Amery, Volume IV, p.443
[vi] Amery, Volume IV, p.449
[vii] The 1st Manchesters had been detached from the Brigade to protect the artillery. The Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers were temporarily attached in their place
[viii] In typically complex British army fashion, the 2nd Rifle Brigade was a battalion, not a Brigade – it was the 2nd Battalion of the Rifle Brigade (The Prince Consort’s Own) – the old ‘95th Rifles’ of Sean Bean / Richard Sharpe fame. After endless unnecessary cuts and amalgamations, the unit exists today as a battalion of The Rifles