Today, a 110 years ago,cannons boomed within what is now the city limits of Johannesburg. Soon, machine guns and grenade launchers would join in as battle commenced.
South African Republic (“ZAR”) troops under Commandant General Louis Botha were seeking to repel an advance-to-contact by British Colonel TC Porter’s 1st Cavalry Brigade in the Gatsrand.
The Inniskilling Dragoons proved too weak to force the ZAR position that, as far as can be determined, lay east-west on some hills across what is now the Golden Highway, N1 highway and Zakkariya Park, just south of the Klip River. The 4th Cavalry Brigade came up and its 7th Dragoon Guard renewed the attack. In the hills was teenaged Deneys Reitz – who later founded the lawfirm that still bears his name. He writes: “At four o’clock the advance was on us again. Armstrong guns were unlimbered and we were severely treated. The position we held was a strong one, however, and despite casualties we stood our ground until dark, by which time word came through that we must fall back to the Klip River.”
AB “Banjo” Patterson, author of the “Man from Snowy River” was there too. He described the assault as “one of the most dashing things of the whole war”. The ZAR defence, was however a holding action to allow Botha to muster more commandos and better prepare the Klip River valley for defence. Reitz, a member of the Afrikaner Cavalry Corps, deployed into the hills north of the river and west of the Klipriviersberg massif, broadly today’s Naturena, Nancefield and Eldorado Park.
It was fortunate for the British that the ZAR made haste slowly on preparing their defences along the Klip River, work only starting on May 22. Public works labourers were meant to dig trenches and put in place wire obstacles. Some 2000 mining posts and a considerable amount of barbed wire was ordered for the purpose. Little had been done by the time battle came, but the stage was set for the Western Front in France and Belgium some 14 years later. For reasons not recorded, the Vanwyksrust fort and prison – built on the south bank of the river by 1898 – was not defended.
During the night Vecht (Combat) General “Koos” de la Rey arrived from Potchefstroom with about 1000 men. They were deployed on the ridge north of the Klip River and west of the Klip Spruit, now the heart of Soweto, bringing Botha’s force strength up to about 3500.
Come morning, Lieutenant General John French, commanding the 1st Cavalry Division, pushed the 4th Cavalry into the valley, securing the fort and the nearby concrete bridge across the Klip. Next he pushes the 1st Cavalry Brigade and the 1st Mounted Infantry battalion across. But the commandos are waiting. The ridges and hills provide excellent fields of fire and observation. It also provided cover and concealment for them and their horses. In the largely treeless and grassy valley before them they could clearly observe the British moving down the Gatsrand. The extensive vlei country channelled the invader and once across the attacker still had to cross the glacis to close with the defenders.
May is early winter in these parts and the grass would have been dry and the reeds drying. To further deny the British cover from observation, the Boers had burned the grassy slopes. The black stubble that remained would show up the khaki soldiers well.
The stage was set. “At dawn next day [the 28th] from the hilltops we looked down on the fertile green valleys and beyond it rose a long line of hills running across our front” on which “for miles an d miles there ran a vista of huge mine buildings – great chimneys towering in the air, hoists for lifting ore, enormous sheds for stores, and so on. We were actually looking on the famous Rand goldfields of Johannesburg,” Paterson enthused in his dispatch to his Australian readers. “We were now practically backed right up against the city, so close that sightseers and even women came out in cabs and on foot to the view the proceedings, and soon after dawn [on the 28th] the English came pouring over the ground to the south of the Klip River with horse, foot and guns,” Reitz adds.
In addition to the position’s natural strength, and the riflemen taking position on it, Captain P von Dalwig of the Staatsartillerie, lately from Mafikeng, distributed his seven guns along a front about seven or eight miles east of Doornkop.
Reitz later wrote “the British troops were by now crossing the Klip River in large numbers, deploying on the open ground [before] us and before long shelling had commenced. No doubt they knew by now Johannesburg was theirs for the taking, and they ran no risks with their infantry, confining themselves to most unpleasant gunfire. For the first time for many days we too had guns in action, and there were several batteries … blazing away from close by. The gunners,” continues Reitz, “suffered terribly and I counted seven artillerists killed in less than fifteen minutes during one particularly violent burst. We of the ACC were snugly tucked away in a kopje where the shelter was so good we did not lose a man or a horse and we passed most of the day idly watching the scene.”
So was Paterson: “… we went streaming down the hill to the Klip River and across it without opposition. There was a huge hill called the Klipriviersberg, detached from the main line of the Rand, and when we crossed the river this hill was between us and the Rand. We all decided it would be a fine position to hold, but the Boers wouldn’t try to hold it. “They’re thoroughly demoralised; all just on the run,’ was the universal comment. But just then from the foot of a hill came the roar of a big gun and a 40-pound shell came bumping into some loose ground just near by, so then we knew that the Boers were going to make one last fight for the Rand, and we were all excitement to see how French would handle it.”
The burghers waited for the British to close with their position in the hills and then opened an enfilade rifle and artillery fire. The troops – appropriately – attacked into the fire to clear the hills, supported by horse artillery and “pom-pom” AGLs and Maxim rifle-calibre machine guns. This fire was reportedly ineffective and could silence neither the Staatsartillerie nor the burghers.
Colonel EAH Alderson’s 1st MI, with the Canadian Mounted Rifles in support, seized a low ridge just north of the bridge, now in Nancefield. Here the men spent a long, unpleasant, day and night under fire, in temperatures that fell below freezing after dark. Around the same time, Lt General Ian Hamilton, whose main force, the Mounted Infantry Division, was still south of the Gatsrand pass, sent the 5th and 7th corps (battalions) of MI under Lt Col Henry Pilkington forward to Jackson’s Drift – where the R82 crosses the Klip – to guard that crossing and protect French’s immediate right flank from attack.
Captain Stratford St Leger of the 1st MI writes in Mounted Infantry at War that the commandos “opened a well directed shell fire as our troops swept over the plain. We, keeping to the right of the Johannesburg road opened out, and rode directly to the ridge already held by the Canadians. “The cavalry monopolised most of the Boer fire. It was only when our ammunition carts followed us that a few well-aimed shells, whistling over our heads, plunged into the ground a few yards from them – they being mistaken for guns, I imagine, by the Boer gunners. These carts were invariably a sure draw for the enemy’s fire and we always preferred them to keep a safe distance in the rear of us.
“After reinforcing the Canadians, we spent the remainder of the morning watching the Boers on a ridge facing us about a mile in front. While the cavalry, now out of sight, were pushing on, there was a lull in the firing and during this time, no doubt, every available Boer gun was being silently got into position, awaiting an opportunity to unmask them. To us everything appeared to be proceeding successfully and at about three in the afternoon the transport crossed the Klip River and followed the track of the cavalry. But if the latter were succeeding in their purpose, why were the Boers holding the ridge in front of us so amazingly confident? There they coolly sat dangling their legs over the crest, only disappearing behind their scantzes when our pom-pom fired on them. Their flippant behaviour did not show the least anxiety as to their position.
“In reality both of us were performing identically the same role; but whereas we were holding the enemy so as to permit a successful turning movement, we took it that they were a portion of a rear-guard whose object was to delay any advance on our part and enable them to get their heavy guns away. This idea, however, could not be reconciled with their present demeanour. With our horses sheltered close under the steep slope of the ridge, half of them being off-saddled, most of us were lazily lying about waiting for the next move. This suddenly came from a quite unexpected quarter. I had just taken out my note-book and was pencilling a little sketch of the tongas [Indian field ambulances] halted on our left, when suddenly, unheralded by the usual warning crescendo hissing screech, with a whizzing crash a shell from one of the high-velocity Krupp guns fell within a few feet of the group I had just left, bursting into fragments on impact with the hard rock.
“Right under the kopje as we were, the sound of its approach was masked, and came upon us as quite a surprise. This gun must have opened fire at a very long range, and it was a revelation to us how shell fire can search the reverse slope of a steep hill. Our pom-pom was immediately above us; and without doubt it was this little gun, which had been making itself objectionable to them, that the Boers were endeavouring to silence. The correct range must have been estimated to within a few yards.”
French next sent the 4th Cavalry Brigade further to the left, but they only found “more guns and more rifle fire,” Paterson wrote. The Boer position was “far more extended than was at first surmised,” said St Leger. “…in the long run we all had to withdraw from the hills and cross the river to get to a safe camp for the night”, adds Paterson. It was time to withdraw. “First came the transport wagons and led ponies hastily beating a retreat,” wrote St Leger. “A disconcerting picture now presented itself as shell after shell fell among the wagons. Close on their heels came the rearmost squadrons of the cavalry, followed by the remainder with their guns hidden at times by the clouds of earth and sand thrown up by the plunging shells from the Boer long-rangers. Every ridge belched forth its missiles, from the spiteful little pom-pom one pounders to the heavy projectiles of the high-velocity Krupp guns. … It was preparatory to this outburst that we on the right had been comparatively left in peace. This also accounted for the assured confidence of the Boers on the ridge facing us.”
The withdrawal was supported by the “rapid drumming of the Vickers-Maxims,” Winston Churchill,who was with Hamilton, added in his book on the battle. St Leger’s company stays in place until about midnight, when they are relieved by cavalry.
Botha now has the time to send a report on the battle to ZAR President Paul Kruger: “After a hot day it is my pleasure to report to Your Excellency that our burghers, by the grace of the Almighty, held their positions and remain in place tonight. The enemy was pushed back at a number of places.”
It was 29 May and time for “Plan B”. In the morning French set out with the 1st and 4th Cavalry Brigades from Vanwyksrust along the southern bank of the Klip River through today’s Lenasia – to the Potchefstroom Road drift taken the previous day by Lt Col TD Pilcher’s battalion-sized 3rd MI Corps. (The drift is still to be seen where the N12 crosses the Klip River. His intent is to make a further attempt to pierce the Boer position in front of the Witwatersrand, this time by an attack on the ridge between he Klip River and Klipspruit, now home to the Soweto suburbs of Chiawelo and Senaoane.
Paterson, riding with the 1st Cavalry wrote “the cavalry went more to the west than before, right away round about seven miles (11km) west of Johannesburg – so far west in fact that they were nearing the place Jameson came in, and he had advanced from the northwest,” this a reference to Leander Star Jameson, the confidant of Cecil John Rhodes and the Simon Mann of his day, bent on overthrowing Kruger’s government. He came to grief at Doornkop, now just outside Dobsonville on Adcock Road. Three monuments mark the spot. Continued Paterson: “We didn’t know whether it was a good or bad omen that we were being forced to follow in Jameson’s footsteps. We knew the Boers were quite as numerous as we were and it looked as if a disaster might be in store.”
West they went, seizing one of the outlying hills, “but the Boers put a big gun to work on that hill and made it fly in the air in lumps, and it had to be vacated.”
Two Canadian units and the 1st MI remained temporarily behind at Vanwyksrust to draw burgher fire and deflect the enemy’s attention from the flanking manoeuvre taking place south of the river. After being withdrawn just before midnight, St Leger’s company was recommitted after “a hasty breakfast and under cover of the mist.” He records pushing forward “through the smouldering veldt, set alight by the shelling of the day before.”
Churchill added that the day started early for the MI, the Boers attacking them around 7am. “The MI, who were very weak, were gradually compelled to fall back, being at one time enfiladed by two Maxim-Vickers and heavily pressed in front.” It was a “particularly uncomfortable position – at the end of a wedge, as it were shoved in between the re-entrant angle of the Boer position. The kopje we were holding could be raked by shell fire from commanding heights on right, left and centre,” St Leger later wrote.
In the afternoon Col Alderson began to extricate his men, “this being the signal for the Boers to unmask their guns, in much the same manner as they had done the afternoon before on the cavalry. Bringing tow guns into action from the kopje on our right, they subjected us to galling crossfire,” continued St Leger.
“As each successive line retired from one position to the next, all the available Boer guns were turned on to it. Personally I retired my company, which was the last to leave, a section at a time, the men extended to between 30 and 40 paces. After the first two sections had left, seeing that the Boer gunners on our right had the exact range of the ground over which they had just retired, and as these guns had enfiladed us and were most to be feared, I ordered the next section to retire by a different line.
“I had just pointed out the direction I wished them to take, and given the order to mount, when, as if the enemy were divining my thoughts, a shell plunged into the ground not ten yards off (we were holding a small isolated kopje at the time) on the identical line I had selected for the left of my retirement to rest. The ground was torn up in every direction by the falling shells as, extending from behind our cover, we debouched into the open. It was a marvel to see the men, almost completely hidden in clouds of dust from falling projectiles, emerging unharmed. Shell after shell burst over each extended line. The Boers’ marksmanship was excellent. Had we not had room to open out it must have wrought tremendous havoc.
“We re-crossed the Klip … and formed up on the slopes of the Gatsrand. Men and horses were now thoroughly done up. The former simply fell asleep from sheer exhaustion. Our ponies had been saddled up for practically 60 hours. We had done three days’ and two nights’ hard work with at the most six hours’ regular sleep.”
Hamilton’s main force entered the Klip River valley during the morning. Around 1pm he was at the Potchefstroom Road drift and met French, who had earlier sent the 1st and 4th Cavalry across to seize two kopjes between the Potchefstroom Road and the main ridge. “Both succeeded, Porter (1st Cavalry) without difficulty and Dickson (4th Cavalry) after a fight in which the 7th Dragoons and 14th Hussars distinguished themselves,” recorded The Times history,edited by Leo Amery. But neither of them was able to advance further against Von Dalwig’s superior artillery fire.
At the meeting the two decided Hamilton would attack the Boer position frontally while French would flank around Doornkop proper to appear in the Boer rear. Amery notes French wanted to avoid Doornkop proper as well as the Senaoane-Chiawelo ridge feature and flank round to appear in the Boer rear. The decision would prove controversial, with writer Thomas Pakenham being especially critical. But, if French was to succeed with his envelopment, someone had to hold the burghers in place. That would be the task of Hamilton’s infantry.
Hamilton later gave three reasons for risking a frontal attack, Pakenham tells his readers: “first, he had thought that the enemy’s line was weak because it was so extended; second, that the men, short of rations for days, must march by the direct road to Florida; third that he was afraid of dividing, by too wide a gap, his main force from the men guarding the hills [the Gatsrand] behind him”. Amery adds that the thought of turning the tables on the Boers at the same spot as Jameson’s surrender appealed to him as an additional reason.
Young Churchill now shares his lunch with Hamilton and his ADC, Churchill’s cousin, the Duke of Marlborough. He notes: “I watched the General closely. He knew better than the sanguine people who declared the Boers had run away already. No one understood better than he what a terrible foe is the rock-sheltered Mauser-armed Dutchman. In spite of its cavalry turning movement and other embellishments, the impending attack must be practically frontal.” As far as can be determined they picnicked on a small koppie the N12 today cuts through on the edge of Avalon cemetery.
While they lunched his two infantry brigades were occupying the kopjes vacated by Porter and Dickson, Major General Bruce Hamilton’s 21st Brigade on the left with the 76th battery with its 76mm 15-pounder guns and the 19th, under Colonel Spens, on the right with the 74th. Major General Horrace Smith-Dorrien, GOC of the 19th, was appointed infantry division commander, handling both the 19th and 21st. As column reserve, Ian Hamilton had the Sussex, Marshall’s Horse and the 82nd battery. The 81st battery and two 5-inch (127mm) guns were behind the 19th Brigade, and to their right the 5th battalion MI were close to the Klipspruit as a flank guard.
Before Hamilton lay a valley some 2.5km wide and beyond that, behind the black ground, waited the burghers with their Mausers and guns. The valley is now crowded with urban sprawl: a shopping centre, fuel station, some industry and housing. The left (west) ridges, facing the 21st Brigade is today crested by an open field still containing, believe it or not, large boulders. The field, between Senaoane and Mapetla suburbs can be reached along Usutu and Bereng Streets, that branch off Chris Hani Street,as Old Potch Road is now known. The 19th Brigade’s objective is now Johannesburg Water’s Chiawelo depot.
At 2.30pm (Churchill says 3pm), the brigades advanced to contact. The 21st, with the furthest to go, started first, the City Imperial Volunteers (CIV) leading, the Derbyshires covering their left and rear and the Camerons in support. Its frontage was about 3000 yards, the 19th Brigade, advancing two-up with the Gordon Highlanders left and 2nd Battalion, Royal Canadian Regiment right, somewhat more. The Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry followed in their wake. The Gordon’s regimental history, “The Life of a Regiment” footnotes that the battalion strength this afternoon “was below 600” that day and “that of the seven units engaged was under 4000.”
The attack should be preceded by an artillery preparation, but by all accounts – except that of the Royal Artillery – the gunners were slow coming into action. The British an Canadians nevertheless close with the ridge. At first the extension between ranks is twenty or thirty paces; subsequently the men close to intervals of ten paces”. The gap between the two brigades, separated by the Potchefstroom Road, soon becomes widened, “partly because the battalions tended to close in away from each other, partly because Bruce Hamilton, being troubled on his left flank, kept edging rather too far west in order to master fire from Doornkop [proper],” Amery adds.
Smith-Dorrien accordingly ordered him to bear more to his front. The change of direction was very skilfully effected by the main body of CIV, three of their companies having been left to hold a kopje on the left flank near the Derbys. Meanwhile, the Gordons and Canadians were in their turn edging too much to the right. To remedy this Smith-Dorrien ordered a company of the Gordons from the rear to the left of their line, and Ian Hamilton sent the whole of his reserve, consisting of the Sussex, Marshall’s Horse and the 82nd Battery, into the firing line, to fill up the gap between the two brigades.
“A few minutes after three, French’s guns were heard on the extreme left and at about the same time the firing on the right swelled up again [this being fire on Alderson], so that by the half-hour the action was general along the whole front of battle-an extent of little over six miles (10km),” Churchill recorded. “Along the whole front the attack was pushed home in a magnificent spirit, adds Amery, “but the brunt of the fighting fell to the CIV and to the six companies of the Gordons who were facing the projecting spur on the left. The CIV had some cover, of which they had been trained to make full use, and the line of Boers in front of them was thinner, so that though equally well carried out, their advance was not so difficult or so costly as that of the Gordons.
Churchill commends the 21st for pressing the attack “with vigour” adding it was “directed with skill” by Bruce Hamilton and “was designed to be a kind of inside turning movement to assist the right in conformity with the cavalry action now in full swing”. The CIV moved forward with “great dash and speed” and “drove the Boers from position after position”.
“While there is no doubt that French’s pressure beyond them materially assisted their advance, the rapid progress of this 21st Brigade entitled them and their leader to the highest credit,” Churchill wrote. “The Cameron Highlanders and the Sherwood Foresters supported the attack.” The official South African historian, Professor JH Breytenbach adds in his “Geskiedenis van die Tweede Vryheidsoorlog in Suid Afrika” that the 19th Brigade benefitted from the dust kicked up by busting shells and the rain of rifle fire, adding it interfered considerably with the burghers’ ability to see and engage their attackers.
With the Gordons
“From the start, the Gordons, commanded by Colonel Forbes Macbean, had not had a vestige of cover,” continues Amery, “but for the first mile and a half (2.4km) their casualties had not been great. When they were at 800 yard’s distance (about 800m) from the ridge the Boers began to pour out their heaviest fire. The Gordons then changed their slow swaggering pace for the double, being exposed every step of the way to the well-aimed fire of the Boers who were safely hidden behind their rocks.”
Paterson continues: “The foot soldiers advanced into the hills, starting in long lines, each man about 10 yards from his neighbour. As they got under fire they dropped in the grass and disappeared, rising altogether now and again, running forward a few yards and dropping again. They went doggedly on, some men dropping never to get up again, and we pushed at a hard trot for … Doornkop.”
Describing the terrain Smith-Dorrien later noted several lines “of formidable looking rocky kopjes of no great height or steepness, but with long, smooth, glacis-like slopes, without cover, leading up to them; and, what was worse, with all the grass burnt for 1000 to 1500 yards in front of the position, thus rendering the khaki clothes of our advancing troops more conspicuous. … In the centre, a kopje, [now crested by the Chiawelo waterworks], was prominent, and here was the greatest Boer strength; behind it was a long, narrow hollow which formed a perfect covered way for movement in reinforcement or in retreat”.
The Gordons’ regimental history records orders “were to advance to within one thousand yards, and if then a very heavy fire was encountered, a pause was to be made for further instructions.” This equally applied to the Canadians. “Ranges were taken by the gunners and given to the company commanders so that they might know how far to go.” The advance was to start in four lines of two companies each, the ninth company in the rear of the last line. Each company was in two waves. The order of companies was: right to left, “H”, “G”, “K”, “M”; then “B’, “A”; lastly “D”, “C”, “F”.
“Before the front line had reached the floor of the valley, Hamilton and the watchers could hear the dull, vicious ‘crick-crack’ of the Mausers,” Pakenham continues. “Soon there were puffs of dust among the lines of the men. Farther on, where the hill sloped up to the stony kopjes held by the Boers, the grass was burnt black and bare, and the bullets cut through the cinders, throwing up dust, white against black. Still, the lines advanced. Here and there, visible through the binoculars, men staggered and fell; but no-one knew if they were hit or had thrown themselves down to take aim. The shooting became fast and furious. The British guns thundered; smoke from the burning grass drifted across the view.
The front two companies reached the thousand-yard zone without realising it. One captain [St John Meyrick] had already fallen, the other was here badly wounded. It seems that the marked ranges were ignored – forgotten; the enemy fire was so severe. Orders had been to ask for instructions in such a case. But no pause was made for that purpose; the first waves rolled on.
“A” and “B”, now the next two companies, were pretty close up. “Their leaders, by arrangement, were on the inner flanks of their commands. Knowing the orders, were they to follow and definitely commit the battalion to assault?”, asks the regimental history. “Or should they ask for instructions, thus involving the first companies in the heavy set-back inevitable if they were not supported at once. A minute’s conference decided them to carry on and the business was embarked on beyond recall.
“Forward went the waves, now at a ‘steady jogtrot. As the advance rolled on, it wheeled to a flank instinctively to meet a blast of enfilade fire, wheeled to a flank again as the key ground became plain and all instinctively faced it. … Four companies were now mingled in the first line, on their flanks ‘M’ and ‘K’ were joining up.”
“Then there was a gasp and murmur among the watchers. Against the backdrop of burnt veld, sparkling in the sun, the ripple of steel. Fixed bayonets! The figures gained the skyline, a few at first, then more. There was a sharp, rapid exchange of shots, then the firing flickered and died away.” Amery notes that the Gordons fixed bayonets just before the top of the ridge and then rushed the position. “By that time the Boers had already fled, but only to some other rocks two hundred yards further back.” The Highlanders put the distance at 250 yards.
“The Gordons waited for nearly half an hour in the first position to regain breath and gather together the ranks thrown in some confusion by the charge. “So they carried the false crest of the first position… A full half-hour halt was compelled at the first crest; a very heavy fire being sustained by both sides – ‘the crack and report of bullet and rifle among the rocks were deafening.’ The last supports began to come in; ‘M’ with all its officers down, was now in line.
“Now too, the neighbouring battalions were drawing level; with better cover and fewer opponents, they had suffered less; the hostile fire seemed to slacken and Captain Tytler, senior in the front line, called for a rush upon the opposite rocks. … Here they suffered most of their losses, for the cover from the north was not good, and they were exposed to gun fire as well as to furious volleys of musketry at two hundred yards’ distance. Besides, they had no assistance from the British guns, which had ceased fire. But when the Boers saw them coming out again with fixed bayonets to drive them from their last lair, they fled at once,” Amery wrote. “Only six companies of the Gordons were engaged in this charge, as two companies had become separated from the rest and were with the Canadians, who had less opposition.”
“…without a pause a final charge overwhelmed the last outcrop… nearly four thousand yards had been covered in an hour and a half,” the regimental history adds.
Breytenbach gives the moment a different turn. He records the Gordons were disappointed to find the first position vacant as they were looking forward to working over with their bayonets the burghers that had fired at them in such volume (“…met hul bajonette te bewerk.”) When they dared (“waag”) to go forward, the same burghers stopped them with heavy losses (“…met baie swaar verliese gestuit”). Among those seriously injured was Burney.
Interestingly, Amery in his focus on the Gordons and CIV says nothing further of the other units. Breytenbach does. He avers that after being stopped the Gordons remained in opposition, the commanders of the 19th Brigade not up for another charge (“…nie kans gesien nie.”) They were, however, in position to bring flanking fire on the burghers opposing the Canadian attack, and supported from the rear by the 82nd Field Battery, set out to do so. The Sussex men came under fire when two companies tackled the west flank of the ridge the Gordons had stormed from the south. The British “Official History” notes that in the fire a “mule and more than half the crew of the maxim gun which had accompanied them, were laid low before a round was discharged.”
The attackers resorted to short rushes: fire-and-movement; and reached the crest line around dusk. Here they were confronted with the sight of mounted men hastily riding east from Doornkop, well within rifle range, Breytenbach adds. Thinking this was French’s cavalry cutting off the Boer retreat, they made no effort to engage. In fact, this was the burghers abandoning Doornkop and the Senaoane-Mapetla ridge.
The Gordons also witnessed this sight, their regimental historian noting that when they carried the last position, the reverse slope “fell steeply to a glen.” This is now a series of parks in the vicinity of Regina Mundi Catholic church. “Plain in view in this glen and full in range was a great crowd of mounted men, galloping across the front towards where could be seen the burghers fleeing from the 21st Brigade. “Rapid fire was started on the crowd, to be stopped after a minute – “immediately”, says on journal – on a cry, “they’re French’s cavalry’, and Smith-Dorrien admits he took them for such. When, presently, their desperate haste revealed the truth that they were Boers fleeing from Doornkop, fire was reopened in gathering gloom, but at too great ranges for much damage to be apparent.
“It was now dusk”, about 5pm, writes Amery, “and after a few enfilading shots from the Gordons on some 400 Boers who were facing towards Bruce Hamilton’s brigade, the last Boers fled and the ridge was won”. “The Gordons had the hill,” Lt March Phillips, a Rimington’s Tiger and observer of the chage adds, “They had lost a hundred men in ten minutes, but they had done the trick.”
Counting the cost
In the six assault companies the loss was considerable. Lt Col Burney was severely wounded, seven other officers wounded, one – Meyrick – killed; 20 men killed and 77 wounded1, a fair number being non-commissioned officers. The regimental historian notes “their strength could not have exceeded 450, so that the loss was about 20%.” The casualties of the infantry division were 141; those of all the mounted troops were 21.
“The action did not cease with the daylight,” Churchill continued. The long lines of burning grass cast a strange, baleful glare on the field, and by this light the stubborn adversaries maintained their debate for nearly an hour,” taking the clock to about 6pm. “At length, however, the cannonade slackened and ceased, and the rifles soon imitated the merciful example of the guns. The chill and silence of the night succeeded the hot tumult of the day.”
“Ian Hamilton galloped forward and, in the glare of the grass fires, addressed the victors: ‘Men of the Gordons, officers of the Gordons, I want to tell you how proud I am of you; of my fathers old regiment, and of the regiment I was born in. You have done splendidly,” Churchill wrote.
“Regiments assembled and reformed their ranks, ambulances and baggage wagons crowded forward from the rear, the burning veldt was beaten out, and hundreds of cooking fires gleamed with more kindly meaning through the darkness. “Then we rode back to our bivouac, while the lanterns of searching parties moved hither and thither among the rocks, and voices cried ‘Bearer party this way!’ ‘Are there any more wounded here?’ with occasional feeble responses.”
It was extremely cold that night, with frost. And the men were hungry – “no supplies and nothing to eat,” the Gordons’ historian notes. Reveille was at 4am, but there was no tea and no breakfast. On empty stomachs the battalion formed three sides of a square – generals, staffs and other dignitaries forming the fourth – to see off fallen comrades. The Reverend WS Jaffray conducted the battlefield service.
Amery notes that eversince “this fine advance of the Gordons, critics have suggested that it was an unnecessary loss of life, and that the position could have been turned at less sacrifice,” a theme taken up by Pakenham: “The CIV was on the left. Attacking the western end of the Boer-held ridge, the CIV “employed less spectacular but more up-to-date tactics. The CIV, being an amateur battalion, had little of the Balaclava mentality to unlearn. They made their charge in short rushes (one group giving covering fire to another), and they took care to offer as little of a target as possible. They too, took the hill. But they suffered few casualties compare to the Gordon’s 17 killed and 80 wounded”.
“The charge … – the CIV and the Gordon Highlanders charging up a hillside, without cover from fire or proper support from artillery – was to provide one of the last set-piece battles of the war. It was, in a way, magnificent,” adds Pakenham.
But Amery says “it is rather doubtful if this criticism has any grounds. The whole ridge had to be captures, and if the Boers opposite the Gordons had not been kept so busy, they would have had more leisure to enfilade the CIV and the Canadians.”
Although the Klip River line had fallen, Scout Corps commander Captain Daniel “Danie” Theron still had some fight left. At 11pm he telegraphed Botha to send a thousand men to take up positions on the main reef at Roodepoort. He believed there was no better position than that offered by the mines of Randfontein, Lancaster, Champ d’Or Roodepoort, Florida and Langlaagte. Here a determined stand could be made and Johannesburg be denied to the British. But there was not a thousand men spare. And Field Marshal the Earl Frederick Roberts VC, with the 7th and 11th infantry divisions,were by now camped at Germiston.
The news that the southern front – the Klip River line – had caved in was a major blow for Kruger, who had received such upbeat news the day before. He had just sent Botha a letter of encouragement to be read to the commandos, in which he praised them for their brave fight for a just cause (“…manmoedig strijden voor ons rechtvaardige zaak.”) Burgher morale now totally collapsed, despite the heavy punishments that could be inflicted on deserters: confiscation of property and even the death penalty. Most burghers considered further resistance futile and the number available to defend Pretoria – less than 3000 – was so small no proper defence could be contemplated. Many of the men were now also of dubious quality. On the night of the 29th Kruger left Pretoria – and his wife – for the last time, taking his capital to Machadodorp on the Delagoa Bay line.
On the 30th, British troops moved in on Johannesburg – while State Attorney Jan Smuts collects the mines’ gold. The next day Roberts entered the city, Paterson recording: “He is a great man for display, and formed his staff, his officers, and his attaches up in an ordered procession, and rode at the head of it on his beautiful bay horse… and about 10 000 men followed after. There was great speech making and handing over of keys, but there was nothing of the frenzied enthusiasm of Kimberley or even the Bloemfontein march.” Having taken the surrender, Roberts “established his headquarters at Orange Grove, a few miles out of Johannesburg” on the then-main road to Pretoria.
The Gordons were absent,however. They spent the 31st washing and cleaning in Florida and on the 1st marched to Braamfontein “just outside Johannesburg” where they were at last placed on full rations. Passes were given into the city “where tea and jam could be had for the paying.”
Pic: The vandalised and dilapidated grave of Capt St John Meyrick and other British soldiers killed in the Battle of Johannesburg, Maraisburg Cemetery.