1899 - 1902



Anglo Boer War
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The Boers,  triumphant With their success at Koorn Spruit, scurried to Dewetsdorp, drove out the British detachment which had been posted there by General Gatacre, and on the 4th of April came in for another piece of luck, for which we had to  pay by the loss of three companies of Royal Irish Rifles and two companies of the Northumberland Fusiliers.

The unfortunate occurrence took place near Reddersburg, somewhat to the east of Bethanie Railway Station. A party of  infantry, consisting of three companies of Royal Irish Rifles and two companies of the Northumberland Fusiliers, who had been in occupation of Dewetsdorp, and engaged on a pacification mission on the east of the Free State, were  ordered on the 3rd to retire to Reddersburg, a place situated some thirty-seven miles from Bloemfontein and fifty miles from Springfontein, where General Gatacre had taken up his head-quarters. In their retirement the troops, it is  said, took a somewhat unusual detour, and thus, if they did not court, ran risk of di~aster. Anyway, they had travelled about four miles to the east of their destination when, at Mosterts Hok, they were surprised to discover a  strong force of some 2500 Boers. They were still more surprised to find that, while they themselves were unaccompanied by artillery, and were possessed of little reserve ammunition, the Dutchmen were provided with three or four  formidable guns. Thus, the situation from the first was alarming. Our men, comparatively defenceless, saw themselves hedged in by an overmastering horde. They quickly occupied a position on a peaked hill rising in the centre of  ground sliced and seamed with dry nullahs. These popular havens of refuge were at once seized by the Boers and deftly made use of. The Dutchmen, under cover of the dongas, crept cautiously up on all sides of the kopje, surrounding  it and pouring cascades of rifle-fire on the small exposed force. In no time the chance of retreat was barred on all sides, and there was no resource but to fight through. But unfortu~ately, as British ammunition was limited and  the Boers warily kept well out of range, all that could be done was to prolong hostilities in the hope that delay would enable reinforcements from Bethanie to come to the rescue. But these did not arrive. The Boers, grasping the  situation ,gathered courage and approached nearer and nearer. With the dusk coming on and some 2500 of the 'foe enfilading th~m from three sides, the British pesition, as may be imagined, was not a hopeful one. Nevertheless, the  Royal Irish Rifles displayed the national spirit of dare-devilry-" fought like bricks," some one said-never losing heart under the persistent attacks of shot and shell that continued till nightfall.

Hoping and waiting  and fighting; so passed the dreadful hours of dark. Then, with the dawn, the enemy, flushed with triumph, commenced to pound their prey with redoubled vigour, while our parched and almost ammunitionless troops, in a ghastly  quandary, alternately fought and prayed for relief!

Meanwhile the news of the affair having reached Lord Roberts, General Gatacre, on the afternoon of the 3rd, was ordered to proceed from Springfontein to the spot, while the  Cameron Highlanders were despatched from Bloemfontein to Bethanie.

General Gatacre, with his main body and an advance guard of mounted infantry under Colonel Sitwell, then marched via Edenburg to the succour of the detachment. On  the morning of the 4th, Colonel Sitwell having arrived at Bethanie, some fifteen miles from Mosterts Hok, heard sounds of artillery in the distance, and believing that the engagement was going on, prepared to rush to the rescue.  But with the small force at his disposal, he deemed it impossible to try a frontal attack, and decided to make an attempt to get round the enemy's right flank. The manoeuvre was unsuccessful, for a party of hidden Boers, from a  kopje north-west of Reddersburg, assailed him and forced him to retire and wait till the main column wiould come to his assistance. But by the time General Gatacre had reached the scene (io.3o A.M. on the 4th) the drama had been  enacted, the curtain had descended on the tragedy. The small and valorous party on Mosterts Hok, which for thirty hours had been fighting and were at last sans water, sans ammunition, sans everything in fact, had been forced to  surrender. No sign of them was to be seen. The unfortunate band-many of them the survivors of the fatal exploit at Stormberg~were now on their way to that aristocratical prison-house~the Model School at Pretoria.

General Gatacre,  finding further effort useless, then occupied the town of Reddersburg. There, the Boers had hoisted the Free State flag, and were making themselves generally objectionable. Quickly the Boer banner was torn down and the Union Jack  run up, though during the operations the General narrowly escaped assassination. He was fired at from a house, but fortunately escaped with only a scratch on the shoulder.

By evening acting on instructions from Bloemfontein, and  owing to the fact that the enemy was massed in all directions and surrounding the town, the force and its prisoners returned to Bethanie, and there encamped to mount guard over the rail. Details regarding the movements of the  troops on this grievous day Were. given by a correspondent, in the Daily Telegraph, whose version throws a somewhat depressing light on the sufficiently depressing affair. The writer declared that :-A large British force, with a  brigade division of artillery (eighteen guns), on the march to Bloemfontein, was at Bethanie, about eleven miles from Reddersburg, on the night of April 3, and got the news of the above mentioned infantry being surrounded about I I  P.M. The men immediately saddled up, got under arms, and remained all night ready to move off in relief, but did not receive orders to do so until 8 A.M. on April 4, and then were only permitted to proceed at a walk, constantly  halting to water the horses. The result of the delay was that the column arrived just too late, and was then not even allowed to pursue the enemy and release the prisoners, who were dead beat and could not possibly have been  hurried along. The relief column was manoeuvred outside the town of Reddersburg during most of the day, and then was ordered to return to Bethanie, but, when within a few miles of camp, with the horses and men tired out, a complete  change of instructions were issued, and the column was wheeled about and told to march back and take the town of Reddersburg. The Cameron Highlanders, who had just come off a troopship from Egypt, and were, consequently, quite  unfit, could hardly move, but all had to turn, for no apparent reason, and march to the ground they had left. The mounted infantry and artillery trotted back and occupied Reddersburg about dusk, with only one casualty, viz. an  officer of mounted infantry, and the force bivouacked, with very little food, just outside the town.

"About midnight, the order was given to return to Bethanie again, and the men, who could hardly crawl, were awakened, the  march resumed, and Bethanie was reached about 7 A.M. on April 5, after great and unnecessary distress both to men and animals, while no object was gained, the whole expedition being a miserable fiasco, disheartening and humiliating  to every one present.

"To whom blame is attributable it is difficult to say, as the officer in command seemed not to have a free hand, but to be directed by wires received at intervals, which must have taken five or six  hours to reach him. Either the relief ought never to have been attempted, or it ought to have been carried out expeditiously and with determination."

Mr. Purves, who, as a lance-corporal with one of the Ambulance Corps, was  in the thick of the fray, gave a graphic description of the unhappy affair :-

"Reaching Dewetsdorp on the morning of Sunday, April 1st, we first became aware that our progress was being watched by the Boers. Just as we were  about to camp outside the dorp, our scouts exchanged a few shots with those of the enemy. Beyond a temporary disarrangement of our plans, nothing happened, as the main body of the enemy did not show at all, and things quieted down  till nightfall, when another alarm was caused by the arrival of the Mounted Infantry (Royal Irish Rifles and Northumberland Fusiliers), who were mistaken by our people for Boers, as their arrival was unexpected, and our presence in  the position occupied by us was a surprise to them. The Mounted Infantry actually dismounted to prepare for business, when fortunately a mutual recognition took place, and a hearty greeting to the brave fellows who were to bear the  brunt of the coming action was extended by our force. Captain Casson (one of the first to fall at Mosterts Hock) commanded the new-comers. After a night's rest, we started again on the march, which continued without event till  Tuesday, 3rd, when our scouts at 11.30 came back with the news that the enemy were upon us, making for two kopjes in front of us. Both of these were Immediately crowned by our little force of 440-the above-mentioned Mounted  Infantry, with some of the Royal Irish Rifles taking the northern kopje, and the remainder of the Royal Irish Rifles that to the south. Rifle firing opened at once, and gradually grew hotter till about 2 P.M., when the Boers opened  with artillery, four guns being brought into play in positions that enabled them to sweep our two lines. Fortunately, the firing was most erratic, and - little or no damage was done by the shells. Volley fire from the Royal Irish  Rifles soon put one of the guns out of action. We had no artillery, and the wonder is that we held the position, extended as it was far beyond what seemed tenable to so small a force, for the long time we did. The bearers of C  Company, Cape Medical Staff Corps, had a particularly warm time of it. Sent as they were at the commencement of the action right on to the fighting line, they stuck to their posts till the very last without any cover, and only  retired with the last line of straggling defenders, who worked their way back through a deadly hail of bullets, explosive and otherwise,- to their own camp, after the Boers had won the day. The first day's fight la~ted till  darkness, when we tried to snatch some rest-a luxury that came to few. Next morning at 5.30 found us sniping at one another prior to the forenoon fire that soon kept every one busy at all points. At 8 the artillery commenced  firing, and the fight became fiercer till about 9, when our men on the north kopje, unable to contend against the fearful odds, hoisted the white flag, and the Boers on that side rushed the position, and were thus able to pour a  murderous fire into the unfortunate Royal Irish Rifles on the southern height, who, while their attention was riveted on the enemy on their front, were in ignorance of what was going on in their rear for a while. When they turned  to reply to the rear attack, their position was taken, and the poor fellows, accompanied by nine of the stretcher-bearers, had to run for the hospital, distant 6oo yards, under a fearful cross-fire. Several of the Rifles were  killed, but the bearers escaped marvellously. The hospital, which was pitched between the two kopjes, suffered from the shelling, and was in itself dangerous; while, to add to the risk, a trench thrown up to protect the Lsick was  mistaken by the Boers for a rifle-trench, and became a mark for their special attention. One shell burst near the operating-tent while the surgeons were at work on a wounded man, and riddled the tent, fortunately hitting no one.  Another banged into a buck waggon. A third cut a mule in halves. A slight bruise on the knee was the only hurt suffered by any pf the Hospital Corps. Our dead numbered ten, whom we buried on the battle-field, placing over the grave  a neatly dressed and lettered stone, executed by Private Buck-land, C Medical Staff Corps. Two of the wounded died afterwards in the temporary hospital at Reddersburg, and are buried in the cemetery there. The wounded, thirty two  in number, were sent down from Bethanie to one of the base hospitals, for treatment in the convalescent stage. Enough praise cannot be given to the warm-hearted people of the Dutch village of Reddersburg. It mattered not that we  were British. Their all was placed at our disposal, and to their generosity much of our success with the wounded is to be attributed."

The casualties were as follows

Killed-Ca ptain F. G. Casson, Northumberland Fusiliers;  2nd Lieut. C. R. Barclay, Northumberland Fusiliers. Dangerously ~Woundcd-Captain W.P. Dimsdale, Royal Irish Rifles. Slightly Wounded-Lieut. E. C. Bradford, Royal Irish Rifles. Captured-Captain Tennant, Royal Artillery; 2nd Lieut.  Butler, Durham Light Infantry, attached to Northumberland Fusiliers; Captain W.J. McWhinnie, Royal Irish Rifles; Captain A. C. D. Spencer, Royal Irish Rifles; Captain Kelly, Royal Irish Rifles; 2nd Lieut. E. H. Saunders, Royal  Irish Rifles; 2nd Lieut. Bowen-Colthurst, Royal Irish Rifles; 2nd Lieut. Soutry, Royal Irish Rifles, and all remaining rank and file.

Lieut. Stacpole (Northumberland Fusiliers) was also wounded on the 4th. He was riding for  reinforcements, and as he approached Reddersburg, unknowing the place was in the hands of the Boers, he was greeted with shots which killed his horse, wounded him, and placed him at the mercy of the enemy, by whom he was captured.  The Boers in their retreat, however, left their prisoners behind. The total of killed and wounded numbered between 50 and 150. The strength of the British was 167 mounted infantry, 424 infantry. The enemy were said to be 3200  strong.

The unlucky termination of the affair completed the eastern flanking movement of the Boers, who were now trickling over the country from Sanna's Post on the south to a point east of Jagersfontein road. They soon held the  Free State east of the railway beyond Bethulie, and considerable numbers went south towards Smithfield and Rouxville, their determination, after their recent successes, being to harass the British force as much as possible. It was  now becoming evident that all the present trouble was due to over-leniency, and it began to be urged that some measures must be adopted which would ensure for the conquerors of the enemy's country the respect that was due to them.  The humanitarian attitude of Lord Roberts had produced an unlooked-for result. The Commander-in-Chief had attempted to administer justice for a seventeenth-century people on the ethics of those of the nineteenth, and the experiment  had proved disastrous. The enemy, far from being impressed by the show of magnanimity, was laughing in his sleeve at his immunity from pains and penalties. Our troops were forced now to move in a country where nearly every man was  a foe or a spy, and one who, moreover, thought meanly of us for the concessions which had been made. As an instance of contrast between our own and the Dutchman's mode of dealing with those considered as rebels, an instructive  story was told. A Free State burgher at the outset of hostilities entered the Imperial service as a conductor of transport. It was a non-combatant's occupation, and one for which he was fitted, owing to his knowledge of the Kaffir  and Dutch languages. This man was captured by the Boers, who, declaring him to be a rebel, instantly shot him dead. We, on the other hand, accepted an obsolete rifle, a flintlock elephant gun belonging to the days of the Great Trek  perhaps, as a peace-offering and then told the rebel to go away and turn over a new leaf. His new leaf resolved itself into unearthing Mausers and Martinis, and popping at us from the first convenient kopje-if not from the windows  of his farm!

To this cause may be attributed the sudden return of so-called ill luck, which seemed epidemic. April had brought with it an alarming list of losses at Sanna's Post, which was followed by a grievous total of killed,  wounded, and missing-five companies lost to us at Reddersburg. We had, moreover, disquieting days around Thabanchu, Ladybrand, and Rouxville, and were being forced gradually, and not always gracefully, to retreat. For instance, in  the retirement from Rouxville, four companies of the Royal Irish, some Queenstown and Kaifrarian Rifles, had merely escaped by what in vulgar phrase we term "the skin of their teeth." It was merely owing to the smartness  of General Brabant, who sent two squadrons of Border Horse from Aliwal North to the rescue, that the small force escaped being cut off This oficer's little band garrisoning Wepener was meanwhile beginning to test the Boer force in  earnest.