Diamond Fields N12 Battlefields Route 1899-1902

Northern Cape

The Anglo-Boer War 1899-1902

Kimberley & Diamond Fields

Battlefield Route guide

Everyone's War

Conventionally seen as a "White man's war" fought between Boers and the British, the three bloody, costly years of conflict not only involved all sectors of South Africa's population but attracted foreign volunteers from around the world.
It started conventionally, pitting the two small Boer Republics against Britain, backed by her colonies of Natal and the Cape. Both sides anticipated victory within weeks, but battle succeeded battle and casualty lists lengthened. Colonial troops from Canada, Australia and New Zealand (for their first combat experience outside their own countries) reinforced the British Divisions. Republican sympathy brought the Boers medical assistance and fighting volunteers from America, Ireland, Germany, Italy, France and the Scandinavian countries
. Serving with both forces were the South African blacks and coloureds, some 100 000 with the British Army and at least 10 000 with the Boers. Contrary to popular belief many fought armed, particularly by the British later in the war or as official Town Guards. The majority, however, served in a support capacity as essential transport drivers, guides, scouts, spies, labourers or servants.
When guerilla-style warfare replaced conventional battles the rural populations became inevitable victims. A scorched-earth policy, introduced by Britain to contain the mobility of the commandos, resulted in destruction of homes, animals and crops, compounding the hardships caused by loss of jobs, drought, closure of mines, or the absence of men.
Concentration camps. also known as Refugee Camps' and serving in addition as black labour camps were established, some 40 for whites (sometimes accompanied by black servants) and some 66 black camps. Badly planned, the initial conditions were often horrific, and while exact numbers remain uncertain it is believed that well over 14 000 blacks and some 27 000 Boers, mostly women and children, died within the camps. The aftermath of the war was bitter, with many returning Boer prisoners of war finding their homes destroyed or their families dead. Thousands of blacks were jobless. homeless and destitute, with minimum compensation available as priority was given to re-starting white agriculture. Labour-conditions on the gold mines worsened rather than improved, while British victory brought no hope for extension of black political rights.

The Battlefield Route

Greater wars than the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902 have pushed the conflict between Queen Victoria's Empire and the Transvaal and Orange Free State Boer Republics into minor chapters of military history. The battles are over. The battlefields, a legacy of a bygone age, remain. Besieged by Boers since 14 October 1899, Kimberley was the key to the war on the western front. Most of the major and many minor battles took place within an hour's drive of Kimberley (approximately 120 kilometres). Lt-General Lord Methuen, with a field force of 8 500 - it was to rise to 15 000 at Magersfontein - had to march 120 kilometres from Orange River Station to relieve Kimberley.

BELMONT (1), Methuen's first battle, took place on 23 November 1899. Thirty kilometres from the Orange Riven the British came on the Boers on a two-ridge stronghold. After a night march they attacked at dawn. Methuen's original plan fell apart and the conflict became a soldier's battle which, fortunately for Methuen, succeeded. The Boers melted into the veld. The Grenadier Guards lost 22 of the 54 killed. 115 were wounded. The Boers lost 26 men.

GRASPAN (2). on 25 November 1899, was similar to Belmont, albeit on a smaller scale. Graspan, also known as Enslin or Rooilaagte, 16 kilometres further along the road to Kimberley, lay on a line of kopjes straddling the railway. The key to the battle, a short, steep kopje, was on the Boers' left flank. Methuen attacked it with. among others, the Naval Brigade, who captured it at great cost. Official casualty figures put British losses at 16 killed with the Boers losing 23. Belmont and Graspan can be seen from the Kimberley - Cape Town road (N12). A Naval Brigade memorial rests on a small kopje west of the road. Memorials to fallen Boers are on both battlefields, the Belmont memorial a little beyond Belmont station, which extsted at the time.

The Battle of MODDER RIVER (3), (also known as Twee Riviere) on 28 November 1899. covered a wide front. the centre being the junction of the Riet River and the Modder River and the Railway Bridge. The British were pinned down for the day by Boer fire from across the river. General Koos de la Rey, after studying Boer tactics at Belmont and witnessing Graspan, suggested using the riverfront as a defence. It cost the British dearly. Crossing the Modder River bridge you will see the railway bridge blown up by the Boers in October 1899. (Next to the bridge is a 1901 blockhouse built to defend the reconstructed bridge.) The Boers were placed along six to seven kilometres of riverfront. The British walked straight into a withering fire. The British eventually broke through the Boers' right flank at Rosmead (now Ritchie). The Boers retreated to Spytfontein and then to Magersfontein. Lord Methuen stayed at Modder River for three months. Memorials to the Guards Brigade and to the Kings Own Yorkshire Light Infantry are a kilometre-and-a-half apart on either side of the bridge.

MAGERSFONTEIN (4), the main battle on 11 December 1899, is ten kilometres from Modder River and 35 kilometres from Kimberley along the airport road. A must for any visitor to Kimberley, the battlefield has an informative museum and lookout post, and a tearoom serves basic refreshments. Visit the trenches and Bissett's farnillouse - used as a Boer first aid post. Opposite the farmhouse is the imposing Boer memorial and cemetery. Driving around the battlefield with its many memorials and places of interest is allowed but, please, stay on the road. Two more notable memorials are those to the Black Watch, and to the Scandinavians who fought alongside the Boers. Of the Highland Brigade, the Black Watch (The Royal Highianders) suffered most when the Boers opened fire from hidden trenches. Their former Commanding Officer, Andy Wauchope, then General commanding the Highland Brigade, was killed. Kimberley was under siege at the time.

KOEDOESBERG DRIFT (5) on the Riet River is 30 kilometres along the Douglas road. Take the Ritchie turnoff and continue nine kilometres. The battle, between the Highland Brigade in their first engagement after Magersfontein (now under General Hector MacDonald) and the Boers (under General Christiaan de Wet), raged close to the Drift and on the summit of the mountain from 5-8 February 1900. Champion British golfer, Freddie Tait, wounded at Magersfontein, was killed here. A reconnaissance by the British under Lord Roberts feinted an attack on the Boer lines which drew the Boers' attention to their right flank and allowed General French to break through to their left and relieve Kimberley

The 10-day battle of PAARDEBERG (6), the largest and bloodiest single battle of the Anglo-Boer War. Paardeberg (Perdeberg on maps) is on the Modder Rivier 40 kilometres along the Petrusburg / Bloemfontein road. The battlefield is immense, but is superbly complemented by a field museum. The roofed museum with two dioramas is at the railway station at Cronje's laager and Oskoppies (Kitchener's Kop). De Wet breached the British lines at the latter, creating a breakout point for the surrounded Boers. The battle of Paardeberg lasted from 17-27 February.

Ten kilometres east of BOSHOF (7), a wild olive tree grows on the crest of the largest hill of a low ridge. Reputedly, it is the tree under which the famous French soldier Colonel Comte de Villebois-Mareuil, was killed while fighting for the Boers on 5 April 1900 against a force under Lord Methuen. Sergeant Patrick Campbell, estranged husband of Mrs Patrick Campbell, famous as an actress and as George Bernard Shaw's mistress, also died in battle.

Main Battles

24 October: fought around McFarlane's siding and Dronfield Ridge to the north of Kimberley. This was the first battle in which wounded soldiers were evacuated in railway coaches, and the first time since the American Civil War that reinforcements were taken by train to the battlefield.

25 November: a 'demonstration of strength' to the south-west of Kimberley and Carter's Ridge (between the Douglas and Schmidtsdrift roads). Boers must have been taken by surprise as their shooting was atrocious.

28 November: the toughest, and last serious, garrison fight was intended to divert Boer attention from the approaching relief column, who fought the Modder River Battle that day. A three-pronged attack was launched to the south and again to Carter's Ridge. Carter's farm and a Boer laager were captured, but there was general chaos and Lt Col Henry Scott-Turner, a Black Watch officer commanding Kimberley mounted troops was killed.

The Siege of Kimberley

Kimberley was besieged by Boer forces for four memorable months, from 14 October 1899 when the rail and telephone lines were cut, isolating the town, until General French's exhausted cavalry clattered in on 15 February 1900.
It was exciting initially, with alarms and khaki-uniformed troops, and civilian volunteers being hurriedly armed and organised; the mine dumps were topped with fortifications and martial law proclaimed. Even the bursting shells from the encircling Boer forces, after bringing initial chaos and one death, caused only minor damage and made excellent souvenirs.
A relief force was expected almost daily. while the local actions brought casualties but also Boer prisoners and captured loot and failed to dampen civilian enthusiasm. Then the mood changed abruptly. On 28 November a major fight, intended to distract Boer attention from the advancing relief column, resulted in 23 deaths and 31 wounded, mostly townspeople. Spirits plunged, and the tactics of the military were promptly attributed to a desire for glory. A fortnight later came news of the British disaster at Magersfontein and people discovered that the relief force's arrival (now indefinitely delayed) would be followed by the evacuation of Kimberley civilians, including women and children. "Banishment and bankruptcy" howled the local newspaper.
Price controls and food rationing tightened, with different ration scales for each section of the population. The mines were not working, money was short, and relief works (mainly improving roads) were started by De Beers to provide some employment. The death rate rose, summer heat, dust, wind, flies and locusts increased the feelings of boredom and isolation. The only real excitement was the successful manufacture and firing of 'Long Cecil', described by a military historian as "one of the most remarkable events in the history of a beleaguered garrison".
Named after Cecil John Rhodes, (diamond magnate, De Beers Director and ex-Premier of the Cape Colony), the gun was designed by De Beers' innovative Chief Engineer (an American, George Labram) using, among other sources, the Encyclopaedia Britannica. It, like its shells stamped "compliments CJ Rhodes", was manufactured in the De Beers workshops. Retaliation, however, came swiftly, and a new outburst of Boer shelling was followed by the arrival of a 'Long Tom' siege gun, whose huge shells crumpled the mudbrick and corrugated iron of houses, pubs, shops and even the local Stock Exchange. Terrified women and children were invited to take shelter down the mines, while ironic retribution sought out George Labram - killed by a 'Long Tom' shell in his hotel bedroom while dressing for dinner.
Civilian protests grew louder, stirred by Rhodes. Friction between civilian and military authorities was a feature of the Siege, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (creator of Sherlock Holmes) was to write that "Col Kekewich was as much plagued by intrigue within as the Boers without". Kimberley was virtually "Rhodes' Town", and most of the defences and defenders were supplied by the De Beers Company. Rhodes' autocratic temperament and continent-spanning energies found restraint by the military (whom he considered hidebound and incompetent) intolerable. His behaviour became increasingly abusive, and the messages between Kekewich and the relief force, now gathering new strength to the south, ever more urgent. Precipitated by Rhodes' tail-twisting the British cavalry started their move on 10 February. Five days, two river-crossings and one historic cavalry charge later Gen French enjoyed dinner in Kimberley. The town had changed. No street lamps burnt, few cab horses had escaped the cooking-pot. infant mortality amongst the non-white population was over 60%. The death rate had soared in four months to that of a normal year. Large areas of township had been flattened, while four hundred and eighty-three blacks had died of scurvy, caused by an inadequate mealie meal diet. Nine civilians had been killed and some forty-two officers and men.
The price of Kimberley's successful resistance had been paid by all her citizens.

The Opponents

The Kimberley defence force numbered approximately 5 664, according to the medal roll, of whom about 600 were British regular troops (principally the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment), protecting a population estimated variously between 48 000 and 57 000. The Commanding Officer was Lt Col Robert George Kekewich, then aged 45, while the dominant civilian was Cecil John Rhodes, aged 46. The Boer besiegers consisted at the outset of about 4 800 Free Staters, 2 200 Transvaalers and some 100 Griqualand West 'rebels', under the command of Chief Cmdt Cornelis Janse Wessels, later Chief Ignatius S Ferreira. Many of these men subsequenfly joined Cr6nje's force blocking the British relief column.

Personality Clash

"The only good thing about you soldiers is that you are so loyal to one another and think so much of the military sittuation: in fact I do believe that if the Almighty God himself were in a fix you would not rescue him if it interfered with your military situation"
(Cecil John Rhodes to Lt Col Kekewich, military commander in Kimberley).

"Rhodes during Siege done excellent work for welfare town and defenders also when his views on military questions have coincided with mine readily assisted me but he desires to control the military situation... I put up with his insults so as not to risk safety of defence "
(Kekewich to Lord Roberts).

Printed from a brochure on Kimberley produced for Tourism Kimberley,P.O.Box 1841,Kimberley,8300,South Africa

South African Military History Society / scribe@samilitaryhistory.org