I was recently sent a newsletter of a company called Battle Tours which, among other things, included events which had happened during the various months of April during the Boer War.
Two caught my eye immediately:
April 1900: Boer activity in the Orange Free State had become more ‘hit and run’ than planned battles, in order to delay the British progress to the Transvaal. The only major engagement was the Siege of Wepener or the Battle of Jammersberg Drift, which lasted for 16 days, with the British suffering 32 fatal casualties and 135 men wounded.
What a truly bizarre description of the Siege of Wepener. Why were only ‘British’ (in reality, the majority of the garrison were South African loyalists) casualties mentioned? Why give no indication that, despite their preponderance in numbers, De Wet’s Boers completely failed to take the town, and then fled in the face of a relief column?
It would be a bit like a summary of the Battle of Waterloo which read:
‘On 18 June 1815, Wellington’s Anglo-Allied army clashed with Napoleon’s French Forces at Waterloo. Wellington lost 3,500 men killed, and more than 10,000 wounded’.
Perhaps we should not be surprised by any of this as, probably because it doesn’t fit with the preferred myths, the Boer debacle at Wepener tends to be skirted over. While Pakenham devotes two entire chapters (35 pages) to Buller’s defeat at Colenso,[i] the 16-day battle at Wepener gets just nine lines and, even then, Pakenham shamelessly twists himself in knots, frantically attempting to present de Wet’s abject defeat as some sort of victory.[ii]
Nasson takes a similar line, paying little regard to the inconvenient fact that de Wet’s repeated efforts to take the town were broken up, driven off and completely thwarted; that he was able to flee before being encircled by the relieving troops,[iii] presumably counted as a victory in the eyes of Nasson.
Though you certainly wouldn’t guess it from this newsletter, the siege of Wepener was actually an epic of the war. Situated against the border with Basutoland, Wepener was an inconsequential settlement. Units of the Colonial Division had first moved into the area in late March 1900, and busied themselves disarming surrendering Boers and rounding up local troublemakers.[iv] Though Wepener was a place of absolutely no strategic value, de Wet’s irrational desire to strike a blow against loyalist colonials[v] appears to have blinded him to more sensible and practical targets like the railway or the bridges over the Orange River. Had he not wasted his time and resources in attacking Wepener, there would have been nothing stopping his commandos from sweeping into the Cape Colony and causing merry hell with Roberts’ supply lines, thereby putting a halt to his advance and perhaps even threatening the British position at Bloemfontein.[vi] Instead, and with the Boer lines collapsing to the north, de Wet mustered between 8,000 and 10,000 men[vii] with ten or twelve guns and struck against the strategically worthless target of Wepener.[viii] Even a furious Kruger signalled that this would achieve nothing,[ix] recognizing de Wet’s action for what it was: a significant strategic blunder.
With the approach of de Wet’s formidable force, the decision was taken not to hold Wepener itself, but to fortify positions in the hills just outside of town, the siting of these defences being supervised by Major Maxwell of the Royal Engineers. As well as Maxwell’s small party of sappers, the Imperial forces defending the position consisted of elements from the 1st and 2nd Brabant’s Horse, the Cape Mounted Rifles, Driscoll’s Scouts, the Kaffrarian Rifles, and a company of the Royal Scots Mounted Infantry. The total force was somewhere between 1,700 and 1,850 men with seven guns (including a pair of obsolescent 7-pounders and a ‘Hotchkiss gun of French manufacture, which had been presented to the 2nd Brabant’s Horse by Mr A. Beit’[x]) and six Maxims. The garrison was thus overwhelmingly made up of loyalist South Africans. Lt. Colonel Dalgety (who arrived with his unit, the Cape Mounted Rifles, just as the siege commenced and took over command from Major Maxwell on 5 April) commanded the Imperial forces during the action.
On 4 April a party of Boers—under a German officer—entered Wepener under a flag of truce to demand the Imperial surrender. They were sent on their way, but not before Major Maxwell, with admirable showmanship, had offered to accept their surrender instead.[xi] Incredibly, the supposedly dashing de Wet then wasted another five days dithering before attempting an attack on the Imperial positions,[xii] five days which Dalgety and Maxwell used to further improve their position, and which relieving forces spent marching to the rescue; another inexplicable blunder by Pakenham’s (ahem) ‘great general’.
The Boers finally commenced their bombardment on the 9th and it was not until the 10th that de Wet attempted to assault the British positions; fierce fighting raged throughout that day and into the small hours of the 11th. All de Wet’s assaults were repulsed with heavy loss and no ground was gained. Though the onslaught had been intense, all the federal attacks were broken up and driven off by the Imperial defenders, some with the bayonet. 36 hours of attacks against a heavily outnumbered foe had not gained de Wet a single inch of ground. A defender recalled one of the initial assaults:
‘Our men allowed them to get right in and then opened fire at fifty yards. Every man had his bayonet fixed and ready, and at the word they went for them. In less than an hour it was all over, and the Boers were beaten back, leaving 300 dead. It was pitiful to hear them crying. They have not the heart of a school-girl, and they cannot stand a beating.’[xiii]
Though the figure of 300 dead should be taken with a large pinch of salt, there can be little doubt that the republicans suffered severely; and this carnage was the result of just one assault in one sector on one day of the battle. It is also worth pointing out, by way of comparison, that the British lost just 143 men killed at Colenso, a defeat considered so costly and humiliating as to be worth multiple chapters in the so-called definitive histories.
As well as the constant sniping and bombardment, and the nauseating stench of putrefying horse carcasses, four days of incessant rain added to the defenders’ misery, filling their trenches with water and transforming the battlefield into a quagmire. So small was the area defended that troops in some of the more exposed Imperial positions were unable to leave their trenches at any time during the siege. These men survived on cold food and fresh water brought to them by work parties that crawled forward under cover of darkness.
An officer of Brabant’s Horse remembered the siege:
‘We fought all day and all night. The big gun and rifle fire were almost deafening, and as we were entirely surrounded, it was pouring in on all sides, a continuous hail of shot and shell. Towards afternoon they directed all their gun fire to one spot, and blew to bits the schances of the CMR [Cape Mounted Rifles], thus leaving them unprotected, and in the night they attempted to take the position by assault. Although the CMR were very considerably outnumbered, the Boers were unable to attain their object. They had not reckoned of the opposition of, undoubtedly, one of the finest regiments in the whole world, as the CMR are.’[xiv]
De Wet appears to have had no coherent plan other than to drive his reluctant men directly onto the Imperial trenches. The bitter fighting:
‘…continued through the ensuing days and even at night, the Boers once storming right up to the British trenches at 2am to be beaten off at bayonet point. Nor did a four-day downpour of rain stop their persistent attacks under the lash of de Wet who did not hesitate to use his leather thong [sjambok] to enforce obedience to his will.’[xv]
It is difficult to find any tactical brilliance to admire in de Wet’s bull-headed approach, and despite his efforts, the republicans were unable to capture and hold any ground whatsoever. The gallantry shown by the garrison was remarkable, as was their resilience to the never-ending pressure. The defenders did not just grimly man their trenches, but maintained an impressive aggressive spirit and even sallied forth to capture one of the Boer guns. In the words of one Imperial officer who kept a diary during the siege:
‘In the Crimea, twenty-four hours on and twenty-four hours off was considered hard work. My men have been ten days in their trenches without leaving them, wet to the skin oftener than not, and day and night exposed to shrapnel, not able to raise their hand above without getting a bullet through them, and yet not a grumble is heard.’[xvi]
While not as famous or lengthy as the sieges at Ladysmith or Mafeking, in many ways the defenders at Wepener had an even rougher time of it. The Boer attacks on the first two days were every bit as intense as anything in the more renowned sieges, with many of the Imperial troops in place and under fire for the entirety of the action.
With more units arriving from all over the Empire,[xvii] Roberts was ready for a general advance to clear the remaining Boer forces out of the south-eastern Free State, and one column was specifically tasked to relieve Wepener, fighting its way toward the beleaguered garrison from the south. This column was made up of the balance of the Colonial Division—about 1,200 men and two guns under Brabant—together with half of Hart’s brigade: two and a half battalions and a Royal Artillery battery. The combined relief force was perhaps 4,000 men in total, with Hart in overall command.
De Wet had told off about 1,300 men and two guns under Froneman to oppose this advance, and the federals made their first attempt to stop Hart’s southern column at Rouxville. Froneman’s commandos were driven out of that town on 15 April. His forces then made another stand at Boesman’s Kop, some 20 miles south of Wepener.[xviii] An over-enthusiastic sally by the Boers saw a group of about 60 leaving their positions to attack Hart’s scouts, thus exposing themselves to the rifle fire of the main body and being shot down in detail. Though never able to get to close quarters and destroy these blocking forces, Hart’s men persisted in driving the republicans before them, with Froneman’s units disappearing into the night on the 24th. The siege was lifted by Hart’s command the following day, with de Wet ‘who saw the net closing in on him, and lost not a moment in escaping from it’[xix] fleeing north.
So here was a battle which lasted 16 days, involved around 15,000 troops in all, and which was fought at a time when de Wet’s large force was urgently needed elsewhere. Despite a fivefold advantage[xx] de Wet completely failed to dislodge Lt. Colonel Dalgety’s small force, and then retreated in the face of a relatively small relief column.
Which rather begs the question: why was none of this even so much as alluded to in the newsletter? Of course, no newsletter can go into exhaustive detail, but surely the reader should at least come away with an understanding of who won or lost a given battle?
Having done nothing whatsoever to educate the reader on what actually happened at Wepener, the newsletter then moved on to say this:
And then, on 11 April , the last set piece battle of the war took place on the farm Rooiwal (more commonly referred to in British publications as Roodewal), where the British had 12 killed and 71 wounded in the battle.
Again, why no mention of Boer causalities? And why no mention of the fact that the Boers were absolutely shot to pieces, then fled in a helter-skelter panic-stricken rout, and were chased for miles, losing their guns? Why, indeed, do everything to gloss over the fact that Rooiwal / Roodewal was a hammering for the bittereinders?
In reality, and with de la Rey called away for the peace talks, his men were under the command of the dashing General Kemp, who—at the head of perhaps 1,700 bittereinders (some sources say as many as 2,600)— somewhat impetuously ordered a mounted charge against Imperial troops. ‘I never saw a more splendid attack. They kept a distinct line’, recalled one witness, with another describing it as an old-fashioned cavalry charge: ‘They came on in one long line four deep and knee to knee’.[xxi]
The galloping horsemen got well within 100 yards of the Imperial lines before the fire of the Yeomanry (some of whom were spooked by the sight, and shamefully broke) Scottish Horse, and South African Constabulary—plus two field guns and a Vickers-Maxim—broke them up and drove them off in disorder. Commandant Potgieter, leading the charge in a distinctive blue shirt, was shot from his saddle. With 50 Boers left dead on the field and another 30 badly wounded and abandoned by their comrades,[xxii] the retreat quickly descended into a rout. Kemp’s fleeing horsemen were chased for 20 miles and their two guns were captured.[xxiii]
So why not mention any of this in the newsletter, and instead, only report British casualties, and ignore the salient fact that the Boers lost?
Anyone would think there are people out there who are more interested in maintaining the myths, than in studying what actually happened during the Boer War.
[i] Pakenham, p. 207–241
[ii] Ibid, p. 395
[iii] Nasson. p. 189
[iv] Amery, Vol. 4, p. 57
[v] Pakenham, p. 395
[vi] Amery, Vol. 4, p. 56
[vii] Maurice & Grant, Vol. 2, p. 316. Pakenham curiously claims de Wet had just 1,500 men which is at odds with every other account – historical accuracy is certainly not Pakenham’s forte… building myths of Boer martial brilliance, and British military ineptitude, is more his style
[viii] Maurice & Grant, Vol. 2, p. 316
[ix] Ibid, p. 314
[x] Ibid, p. 315
[xi] Creswicke, Vol. 5, p. 54
[xii] Maurice & Grant, Vol. 2, p. 316
[xiii] Creswicke, Vol. 5, p. 54
[xiv] Ibid, p. 58
[xv] Kruger, Goodbye Dolly Gray, p. 281
[xvi] Creswicke, Vol. 5, p. 63
[xvii] As well as the 8th Division, newly arrived from Great Britain, Roberts received some mounted infantry from Malta and a unit of ‘Roughriders’ from New Zealand
[xviii] Amery, Vol. 4, p. 66
[xix] Maurice & Grant, Vol. 2, p. 324
[xx] Maurice & Grant, Vol. 2, p. 319
[xxi] Conan-Doyle, Chapter 38
[xxii] Childers, War and the Arme Blanche, p. 251
[xxiii] Conan-Doyle, Chapter 38