- THE EASTERN CAPE AND THE ANGLO-BOER WAR 1899 TO 1902
The British were defeated in the Battle of Stormberg on 10 December 1899, the first of the Black Week defeats. Central to the plans of the Boer republics was the hope that Dutch colonists in the Cape Colony would join their cause. To this end and because expanding the field of operation increased the difficulties of the British and relieved pressure on the Boers in the former Republics., the Boers invaded the Eastern Cape in December 1900. Guerrilla warfare was waged by Boer commandos in the Eastern Cape for the rest of the War.
THE FIRST BOER INVASION OF THE CAPE OCTOBER TO DECEMBER 1899
Boer successes in the opening weeks of the war leading to the sieges of Mafeking, Kimberley and Ladysmith and the invasion of the Eastern Cape, prompted the British Commander in South Africa, General Sir Redvers Buller to split his Army corps into three unequal parts. The largest, under his own command, would relieve Ladysmith. Lieutenant General Lord Methuen would relieve Kimberley, while General John French and Lieutenant General Sir William Gatacre would contain the Eastern Cape invasion at Naauwpoort and Stormberg respectively.
General Sir Henry Redvers Buller
(photo Cape Archives)
Lieut-Gen Sir John French
General Sir William Forbes Gatacre
(photo Cape Archives)
Central to the plans of the Boer republics was the idea that Cape Dutch colonists would join their cause. For this to have happened, the Boers would have had to invade the Cape. Key to this were the bridges over the Orange River at Norval's Point and Bethulie. These bridges had been left intact by the British for use in their planned attack on Bloemfontein. Both bridges were captured by the Boers on 1 November. This left the garrisons of Naauwpoort and Stormberg vulnerable and they were evacuated on 3 November.
THE BATTLE OF STORMBERG 10 DECEMBER 1899
Stormberg was an important junction on the railway from Bloemfontein to East London and Port Elizabeth. The Stormberg garrison withdrew to Queenstown. The Boers, however, took until 26 November to occupy Stormberg.
The new commander on this front, Sir William Gatacre, had landed at East London on 16 November. Two days later he reached Queenstown. Stormberg was still unoccupied and Gatacre probably had sufficient troops to move north, but he waited for reinforcements. On 27 November Gatacre moved to 50 kilometres south of Stormberg. Gatacre was well aware of the danger of rebellion in the area and the need for a rapid offensive. He planned a surprise attack on Stormberg on 10 December using 2,600 men of the Northumberland Fusiliers, the Irish Rifles, mounted infantry companies, 2 batteries of field artillery, a company of Royal Engineers and a detachment of Cape Police. On the night before the attack, his men would move by rail to Molteno, 12 kilometres from Stormberg. From there they would make a night march and attack at dawn. This was a physically demanding plan, but Gatacre was a fitness fanatic (nick-named Back Acher by the troops) and tended to assume that everyone was as fit as he was. He made a late change to his plan. He had intended to advance along a road next to the railway. On 9 December, hearing (incorrectly) that the Boers had put barbed wire across this road, he decided to use a different road which did not follow the railway.
The change led to disaster. Gatacre's guides were policemen, who no doubt knew the area, but not at night. Having been awake since 0400 on 9 December, Gatacre's men began their march at 2115. Three hours later the column ran into a railway line known to be 3 kilometres beyond a crucial turning point. Gatacre was lost, but did not know it. His guides convinced him that they knew exactly where they were and that they were only 2 kilometres from Stormberg Junction. Gatacre ordered an hourâ€™s rest in preparation for an approach march he believed would bring them to Stormberg from the north west. In fact, they were 5 kilometres south west of the junction. At 0345 Gatacre's column passed right by the hills he wanted to occupy, thinking it still had some distance to go.
A Boer sentry raised the alarm and a small Boer force to the right of the line of march opened fire on the column. Their fire alerted a larger Boer force which joined in. The British were stuck in low ground, tired, lost and under fire from the ridge line. Gatacre attempted to retrieve the situation by ordering the Irish Rifles to seize a hill on the right of the Boer line. Three companies did just that, but the rest of Gatacre's force, confused by the march, the new route and lack of clear orders, attacked the front of the hills. Half way up they reached a line of cliffs and could go no further. A small party got close to the top, but was forced to withdraw by shrapnel from British guns. An hour after fighting started, it became obvious that the battle was lost. The infantry began to retire, but 634 men were left behind on the hill, with no option but to surrender. In one and a half hours of fighting, British casualties were 28 killed and 61wounded. Boer losses were 8 killed and 26 wounded.
An incident in the Battle of Stormberg
(picture Cape Archives)
Neither side came out of the battle well. The Boers had been badly surprised and might have suffered a serious defeat. The British, however, had done worse. The change to a new route had increased the chances that something would go wrong during the night march. When the first Boers appeared, Gatacre lost control of the battle. By the time the battle began, the men were exhausted, having been awake for 24 hours. Regimental officers failed to account for their men, leading to the loss of the prisoners.
The defeat at Stormberg heralded what became known as Black Week. The next day Lord Methuen was defeated at Magersfontein and on 15 December Buller was defeated at Colenso.
THE SECOND BOER INVASION OF THE CAPE DECEMBER 1900 TO APRIL 1901
Throughout the war, the great majority of the Dutch in the Cape openly sympathised with the Boers. Farm burning by the British raised a storm of indignation. The annexation of the Republics was a bitterly resented humiliation. Agitation in the Colony suggested to Boer leaders that small invading forces might gather recruits from rebel colonists and become formidable. Expanding the field of operations would increase the difficulties of the British and relieve pressure on the Boers in the former Republics.
Two commandos invaded the Cape in December 1900. That under Hertzog moved to the west, reaching the coast in the Clanwilliam district and approaching within 100 kms of Cape Town. Kritzinger's commando penetrated the Eastern Cape.
A Free State commando entering the Cape over the Orange River at Aliwal North
(photo Illustrated London News)
The British formed columns to destroy the invaders, but they were so mobile, distances so vast and the country so broken that contact was seldom made. Martial law was proclaimed, loyalists formed town guards, existing Colonial regiments were brought to strength and new regiments formed. Between 20 000 and 30 000 Cape colonists were under arms, many untrained, but they freed regular troops for other duties.
Kritzinger's area of operations had strong Dutch sympathies. Crossing the border on 16 December 1900, his force of 800 advanced on Burghersdorp, but was headed off by a British column. Passing through Venterstad, they made for Steynsburg, fighting indecisive skirmishes en route. Kritzinger crossed the railway north of Rosmead on 30 December and captured a train containing Colonial troops. Part of his force remained in the Middelburg and Graaff-Reinet districts, while part moved south. On 11 January 1901 there was a skirmish near Murraysburg with British 20 casualties. On 16 January the Boers were at Aberdeen and on the 18th at Willowmore. On 6 February a detachment of of the 1st King's Dragoon Guards and West Australians was overwhelmed at Klipplaat. On 12 February a Yeomanry patrol was captured near Willowmore.
In the second week of February Kritzinger began to withdraw, as had Hertzog in the west, closely followed by British columns. On 18 February Kritzinger was at Bethesda Road. On the 23rd, he attacked an important railway bridge at Fish River, north of Cradock. On 6 March, Boers occupied Pearston and there was a skirmish north of Aberdeen. On 7 April a British patrol was attacked near Aberdeen and 75 captured.
The importance of the invasion by Hertzog and Kritzinger is that they were forerunners of a planned incursion by de Wet, which never materialised. The appearance of as popular a leader as de Wet with a strong force in their country might have led to the general rising of Dutch colonists for which the Boer leaders hoped.
GUERRILLA OPERATIONS IN THE EASTERN CAPE MAY 1901 TO MAY 1902
Kritzinger remained in the Cape after Hertzog withdrew. His force raided railway lines, small towns, British patrols and any other target within its reach and strength. A number of rebels joined, but there was no general revolt in the Colony. Operating over a vast and difficult area, with horses, information and supplies readily available from Dutch farmers, it was impossible for the slow-moving British columns with guns and wagons to overtake them. The Boers were always ready to attack any force which exposed itself. Only when a commando was precisely located so that British columns could converge on it, was there a chance of success.
Kritzinger's commando of about two thousand, reinforced partly by Cape rebels and partly from the Free State, split into smaller groups of 50 to 300 men. Separate commandos were led by Kritzinger, Scheepers, Malan, Myburgh, Fouche, Lotter, Van Reenen and Lategan in a theatre of operations from north of Steynsburg to south of Middelburg, including the Cradock, Murraysburg and Graaff-Reinet districts.
On 13 May Malan's commando overwhelmed a patrol of the Midland Mounted Rifles south of Maraisburg (now Hofmeyer). On May 21 Crabbe's column was in contact with Lotter and Lategan. At the end of June, Fouche moved from Barkly East into the Transkei to obtain horses and supplies and on 14 July attacked a column of Connaught Rangers escorting a convoy near Jamestown. On 10 July General French ordered the convergence of 4 columns on a valley 50 kms west of Graaff-Reinet where he knew Scheepers' commando to be. This operation showed a new mobility in the British columns, which shed their guns and baggage in order to travel faster. On 21 July, Crabbe and Kritzinger skirmished in the mountains near Cradock. On the same date, Lukin made contact with Lategan's commando near Murraysburg, capturing 10 men and 100 horses.
The main body of Boers, excluding Scheepers, who had broken away to the south, was pursued from 7 to 10 August from Graaff-Reinet to Teebus and forced over the Stormberg-Naauwport railway line with some loss of men and horses. It was hoped that the blockhouses on the railway line would hold the Boers, but they slipped across by night into the Steynsburg district, where the pursuit continued to Venterstad. On 15 August the Boer main force crossed the Orange River near Bethulie.
Lotter's Commando entering Graaff-Reinet shortly before it was captured
(photo Cape Archives)
Scheepers, Lotter and Lateganâ€™s commandos were now the only Boers left in the Colony. To these the British columns now turned their attention, with the result that Lategan was also driven over the river. Of the remaining commandos, Scheepers' was the most important, now consisting of 300 well mounted and supplied men. Small successes from time to time, such as the taking of 60 of French's Scouts near Bethesda Road on 10 August, served to boost Boer morale.
Smut's commando crossing the Orange River
On 3 September, Smuts' commando entered the Eastern Cape near Herschell. They were immediately beset by British columns and had difficulty in escaping across the Stormberg Mountains. The escape route via Elands River Poort near Tarkastad was guarded by a squadron of the 17th Lancers, which the Boers attacked on 17 September, causing heavy British casualties, their approach being facilitated by mist and their wearing British uniforms. Under constant pressure from the British, the commando moved south via Aberdeen and the Zuurberg to almost within sight of Port Elizabeth, before making its way to the Western Cape via Willowmore by the end of November.
17th Lancers in action against Smut's commando
On 4 September, Lotter's commando was destroyed and Lotter captured by Scobell's column near Petersburg, east of Graaff-Reinet. Lotter and his lieutenants were later executed in Middelburg. Early in October, illness led to Scheepers' capture. On his recovery, he was tried and executed in Graaff-Reinet in December. Kritzinger was wounded and captured near Hanover Road on December 15. He was put on trial and acquitted.
Commandant Johannes Cornelius Lotter
(photo W. Beevor)
Commandant Gideon Scheepers
(photo Cape Archives)
General Pieter Hendrik Kritzinger
(photo Cape Archives)
Attrition, caused by continual pursuit and hardship, so reduced the effectiveness of the remaining commandos in the Eastern Cape that no further incidents of note took place until the end of the war in May 1902.