I have finally completed my holiday project: my Christmas holiday project.
It may be recalled that I developed something of a curiosity about battlefields around Johannesburg, with specific reference to Doornkop, now on the edge of Dobsonville, Soweto.
The site is associated with the collapse of the Jameson Raid of New Year 1895/6 and the battle for Johannesburg in May 1900.
My curiosity came about for a variety of reasons: I`ve had a keen interest in military history for some decades now and have found that one must visit a battlefield to truly understand a battle.
About a decade ago I was privileged to tour Normandy with African Armed Forces Journal Publisher Peter McIntosh. Both of us were bemused by the false picture we had developed of the battle and the landscape based on the histories and maps. Many accounts made a huge fuss of a mountain, Mont Pinçon. It turned out to be a low ridge, no more significant than the Melville Koppies or Brixton Ridge, albeit with a similar impressive view. Another lesson learned was just how small Europe was and how close French towns were to each other: in Normandy villages are by rule-of-thumb about 2km apart with small towns of 5000 every 5km. The vast stretches of open country in between towns in (South) Africa can be utterly misleading, the more so as anyone not familiar with European scales will likely apply those he or she is familiar with.
US General George Patton made a similar observation in his War, as I knew it. Visiting Palestine in late 1943, he was flown over what is now the Gaza Strip and the Wadi el Arish where British General Edmund Allenby had attacked the Turks in 1918. “It is a much less formidable obstacle than I had gathered from the books,” he observed.
Last year I had the pleasure of visiting Brussels in Belgium and was delighted to find my hotel in the vicinity of Waterloo. It turned out to be a 12km hike on a hot June day, but I walked it. To my delight the day happened to be the 193rd anniversary of the seminal clash between Wellington and Napoleon and I was able to attach myself to various tour groups that had popped over from England for the day. I was also assisted by Richard Holmes` Fatal Avenue – A Travellers History of the Battlefields of Northern France and Flanders 1346-1945 that provided history, an explanation of the topography and hints to the best vantage points.
It struck me that someone that would walk 12km to Waterloo should be willing to drive to some local battlefields. As is the case with charity, these visits could start at “home”.
Trouble is the South African War of 1899-1902 has always seemed remote and its battles, in comparison with those of the World Wars and since, somewhat primitive. A reading of Thomas Pakenham`s well-written – if flawed – The Boer War corrected that foolishness as did Tim Couzens` Battles of South Africa.
The next spot of bother was finding material on Johannesburg`s battlefields. Nearly every account and history mentions “Doornkop” but that`s about it. A mention. No detail. No great description of the battlefield or its location beyond a general reference that the British fought a battle at Doornkop where Jameson had surrendered. Annoyingly, Tony Westby-Nunn`s otherwise good Tourist Guide to the Anglo Boer War 1899-1902 ignored both Jameson and the events of 1900.
A visit to the library of the SA National Museum of Military History (SANMMH) in Saxonwold, Johannesburg, resulted in a wealth of information and combined with several site visits the battlefield started making sense. As previously recounted, maps were not much help in this process. The first map I found was that posted online by the Canadian War Museum. This caused a great deal of confusion as it did not match the topography of the area. A comparison with other maps – obtained at the SANMMH showed this map was mis-orientated by 90 degrees: not that some of the other maps are necessarily more accurate.
If there is a single account of the battle, providing insight on the dispositions and thinking on both sides, I have yet to find it. Closest is probably Professor JH Breytenbach`s Geskiedenis van die Tweede Vryheidsoorlog in Suid Afrika which suffers two flaws: a certain bias against the Imperial Forces and the fact that being written in Afrikaans it is inaccessible to anyone who cannot read my mother tongue. Furthermore neither Breytenbach nor the other accounts I could consult are online. Most are long out of print and therefore unavailable to the interested reader except at specialist libraries – or at some considerable cost at specialised bookshops as pricey “first editions”. This is not good enough in the 21st Century.
I`m not going to allege this is a definitive version of events. Most of us who have read one or more accounts of the same event or who have lived an event and seen a later account – if only in the newspapers – can attest that there is more than two sides to any story. I hope it will provide at least a good base for further research as well as something of a guide to anyone who wants to visit the various sites associated with “Doornkop” 1896 and 1900.
It took a bit longer to write than I expected: four months versus my Christmas-New Year break. It is also a bit longer than originally contemplated: 109 pages with over 200 illustrations and maps. I regret this amounts to a whole 20MB, and I`ve therefore had to break up the document into seven PDF files. I`m happy to report all are less than 5MB in size. (Click here to go to the repository)
To me the Jameson Raid remains interesting because it was the “wonga coup” of its day. As much as Simon Mann and Mark Thatcher allegedly planned to seize Equatorial Guinea for personal profit, so Jameson and his associates planned to grab the Transvaal for its gold. The military aspects of the Raid are equally interesting and in many ways were a harbinger of modern-day commando operations. The scale of action was also not that small: Jameson`s force was equivalent to a battalion and by one account the Transvaal mobilised 8000 burghers to oppose the adventurers. The clash at Remhoogte (Queen`s Battery) west of Krugersdorp on New Year`s Day 1896 was at least on par with most of South Africa`s cross-border raids during the Border War.
The battles before Johannesburg over the period 27 to 29 May were even more extensive. Most accounts concentrate on the fight near Doornkop on the 29th. Some also include the action at Vanwyksrust the day before. Most ignore the seizure of Gatsrand Pass on the 27th. The fight for access to the Klip River valley took an afternoon and a night, the exertion at Vanwyksrust occupied Lt Gen John French`s cavalry and Gen Ben Viljoen`s burghers a day and a night (and the next day) while the clash on the 29th had the full attention of several thousand burghers under command of Viljoen and Gen “Koos” de la Rey as well as French`s cavalry division and Lt Gen Ian Hamilton`s infantry. The latter deployed seven infantry battalions and at least 24 76.2mm field guns in addition to two long-range 127mm garrison guns to attack a ridge line in what is now suburbs of Soweto. (The defenders had one 155mm fortress gun and six 75mm guns.) This too was an all-day affair, rather than a short little shoot-out.
Instructive also is that both sides employed automatic grenade launchers – the 37mm “pom-pom” – as well as rifle-calibre Maxim machine guns and that the British used both diversionary attack and manoeuvre to gain advantage over the defenders. The result was, me thinks, a most modern battle, well worth studying.
I trust you will agree.