On this day in 1900…

One of the most popular myths of the Boer War is that the clever old Boers didn’t waste their time defending their towns and cities, as they didn’t place any value on them. Like so many things which most people ‘know’ about the Boer War, this is, of course, rubbish. It was a post-facto justification, made-up to explain away the reality that the Boers were completely incapable of defending their towns, or re-taking them. Of course, admitting this would fly in the face of the much-cherished ‘Super Human Boer Myth’, so something had to be created to explain away this inconvenient reality.

In the years prior to plunging southern Africa into a pointless and unwinnable war, President Kruger’s regime had spent millions building a network of forts to defend Pretoria. Needless to say, this would be a very odd thing to do if the Boers didn’t value their capital city… but then again, the cosily reassuring modern-day perceptions of the Boer War rarely have much to do with historical reality.

The Boers had desperately tried to defend Johannesburg, but Lord Roberts’ troops had won the Battle of Doornkop on 29 May 1900, an action which opened the way for ‘the Gold Reef City’ to be captured on 31 May. Just a few days later, on 4 June 1900, the battered remnants of Kruger’s forces once again attempted to stop Roberts’ advance; this time General Botha’s men held a string of hills to the south of Pretoria, in a last-ditch defence of their capital. A panic-stricken President Kruger, however, had shamelessly fled Pretoria on 29 May – leaving his wife behind. He initially made for Machadodorp, and would ultimately flee to Europe. Kruger clearly hadn’t heard of a captain going down with his ship, and was, indeed, the first rat to leave the ship he had caused to sink.

As Kruger ran away, Botha’s men dug in on a ridge line to the south of Pretoria, which stretched east from Fort Schanz Kop. A couple of miles further south, other republicans held forward positions on a much lower ridge line, anchored on the hill of Zwart Kop, on the northern bank of the Six Mile Spruit. The Boers manning the advance positions fled as soon as ‘J’ Battery RHA opened up on them, however, and by 1030 hours Colonel Henry’s Mounted Infantry had secured Zwart Kop. Henry’s men then came under heavy fire from the main republican positions and went firm to await the arrival of the VII and XI Infantry Divisions. These units, which had already marched 13 miles that morning, arrived at the Six Mile Spruit at midday.

With the infantry taking over the positions held by Henry’s MI, and thus pinning the Boers in place, Henry was then able to push his mounted men (and supporting RHA guns) round to the west to find the Boer flank. Upon arriving on the scene, Ian Hamilton instantly saw the weak point in the Boer line. Though Broadwood’s Cavalry Brigade was by then too far to the west to exploit it, Hamilton ordered a Corps of MI under Colonel De Lisle to turn the republican flank. The route was so steep that De Lisle’s MI had to dismount and lead their horses (which is probably why it had not been defended), but once over the ridge and behind the republican positions, they remounted and galloped on, quickly capturing a Maxim and some wagons.

Realising that De Lisle’s Corps of MI was now behind their defence line, the Boers abandoned the ridge and fled. Pretoria was captured the following day. The action, which would become known as The Battle of Six Mile Spruit has, like most other republican defeats, been largely airbrushed from history and is thus barely known today.

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