General Sir Archibald Hunter; Inniskillen Dragoons; General Christiaan De Wet; Harrismith Commando assembling; General Marthinus Prinsloo; Surrender of Boer forces at Slaapkranz, 30 July 1900.
YOU ARE HERE: Boer or Brit ► Military actions involving the families
The war impacted all aspects of life, but there were two military campaigns that had a direct impact on the families. These were the Brandwater Basis campaign of June and July of 1900 that led to the occupation of Harrismith, and a sweep by Rundle through much the same area in April, May and June of 1901. I need to describe these actions in a bit more detail than would generally be justified for a family history story because some of the dates and places are important to individual stories. I need to describe the movements of British and Boer forces and it is much simpler to label the forces with their commander’s name, so there is also a bit of he went here and he went there.
Brandwater Basin campaign
General Roberts’s thrust up the centre of the country saw him occupy Pretoria on 5 June 1900, but this did not represent a capitulation of the country. His earlier capture of Bloemfontein in March 1900, and the annexation of the Free State in May also did not result in a subjugation of the country. On the contrary, attacks on British troops and infrastructure continued unabated. In the eastern Free State, General Christiaan de Wet and President Steyn, in particular, were causing a lot of problems and by June 1900 Steyn had moved down to Bethlehem.
Pom Poms became a feature of the war. They were 37mm Maxim machine guns. They were easy to move as support to mounted troops and could provide a steady fire with shrapnel shells against concealed marksmen. Their name came from their slow rate of fire; about 60 rounds per minute. Facebook
Roberts had anticipated some of these movements and had moved General Rundle (who went on to occupy Harrismith) up from the south west to occupy Ficksburg and to hold the line from Ficksburg to Senekal to the west of the Witteberge. At the end of June, a column under General Hunter of 12,000 men, 5,000 horses and 38 guns including 6 “Pom Poms” left Heidelberg in the Transvaal and moved on Bethlehem to deal with De Wet and Steyn and to occupy the remaining parts of the Free State.
Hunter occupied Bethlehem on 9 July. In response, the Boer forces, including Steyn and De Wet, moved inside the Brandwater Basin and Steyn established his capital at Fouriesburg. The Brandwater is a large basin surrounded on the west by the Witteberge (White Mountains) extending from Ficksburg in the south to Slabbert’s and Rietief’s Neks in the north and then by the Rooiberge (Red Mountains) via Naauwpoort to the Golden Gate and Witlsieshoek. The southern boundary is the Caledon River and the Maluti Mountains of Lesotho. The family and related farms at Clarens and Witsieshoek have pride of place as can be seen in this satellite image.
The basin provides a strong defensive position because it can only be entered via one of the passes namely those at Commando Nek outside Ficksburg, Slabbert’s and Retief’s Neks facing Bethlehem, Naauwpoort Nek at Clarens and, with difficulty, at the Golden Gate at the eastern end of the Little Caledon River valley. (The relevance of Surrender Hill and the farm Klerksvlei will be explained in due course.) There are other, smaller, access points, but they are not suitable for columns with wagons, guns etc. Unfortunately, these passes are also the only way out of the basin. The Boer leadership almost immediately became concerned about becoming trapped and determined that they had to leave. The first to leave was to be De Wet and Steyn with 2,600 men who would head north to Heilbron. The second group was to be led by Paul Roux with 2,000 men and would head for Bloemfontein. A third group, under Crowther with 500 men, would exit and connect with the Harrismith and Vrede Commandos who had been ordered back from the Drakensberg passes. The rest of the force would remain under the command of Prinsloo.
De Wet managed to get out via Slabbert’s Nek on the night of 15 July with a 5 km long wagon train despite British forces being in the area. Roux did not exit via Naauwpoort as planned on 16 July because the Harrismith and Vrede Commandos had not yet arrived to protect his exit. Steyn had summonsed them when he moved into the Brandwater Basin, but they had been loathe to leave their home areas undefended. These issues with the Harrismith Commando, which included some members of our families, are described by Lieutenant Gerrit Boldingh in his diaries published as Een Hollandsh Officier in Zuid-Afrika (A Dutch Officer in South Africa). Boldingh was a Dutch artillery officer who had volunteered on the Boer side and we will hear more from him. In this campaign, he was responsible for the ammunition wagons. He commented:
Lieutenant Gerrit Boldingh
In my opinion, the blame for the surrender of General Prinsloo lies, to a large extent, with the burgers of Harrismith and especially of Vrede. In this latter district in particular, almost all burgers, led by their officers, were reluctant to obey the orders sent to them by the Chief Commandant of the Drakensberg in those days. They wanted to defend their own district, otherwise they would go “handsuppen”, a number of them explained to a Dutchman who lay amongst them at Kliprivier [Ladysmith area] and who had access to all the telegrams exchanged. After a curt order from the President to buck up, the commander announced to his burgers that he would first write to the president regarding the position of the Vrede men and that a response could be expected within five days.
Finally, the orders of Chief Commandant Hatting were so threatening that the columns left for Bethlehem, but very slowly, because some of the burgers had ridden home from the mountains first, and the Chief Commandant hoped that more burgers would join. That is how I came to meet them at ± 40 K.M. from Harrismith [just north of Witsieshoek], when I rode to meet them to put things in order concerning the ammunition. At the urgent request of the about 50 Bethlehemmers, first-class fighters, who fought against the approaching English in front of Nauwpoort, the mounted men advanced with the guns in the late evening of 20 July, but too late. The enemy had already taken possession of Spitskop in the early morning of 21 July, a hill located about 10 km beyond Nauwpoort, and the Vrede commando could not drive him from there (the Harrismithers fought on the right flank at Liebenbergsvlei). [Liebenbergsvlei is located just to the east of Naauwpoort on the northern side of the mountains].
By placing cannons on the hill, the enemy had prevented us pulling out with our columns during daylight. (Boldingh 1903, 16)
Without Steyn and De Wet, with no formal command structure, and Roux and Prinsloo of equal rank, the command of the Boer forces in the basin was left in confusion. This led to dissension which was eventually settled by a vote on 27 July which saw Prinsloo elected Chief Commandant. But by then it was too late. The confusion meant that the other groups did not get out. The British had sealed off the passes.
|Moving guns and supplies in the Brandwater Basin
On 24 July Hunter broke through Slabbert’s Nek and moved on Fouriesburg. Rundle moved through Commando Nek and occupied Fouriesburg on 28 July where he found Mrs Steyn, the president’s wife. Hunter’s main force joined him the next day. Once Slabbert’s and Retief’s Neks had been secured, a force from there under MacDonald was sent to support Hamilton who was the one blocking Naauwpoort Nek. Their purpose was to secure Naauwpoort Nek and the Golden Gate.
These forces attacked on 26 July and forced the defenders outside in the hills to either move back into the Nek or to retreat eastwards towards Witsieshoek pursued by Hamilton. MacDonald spent the next day consolidating his position. He then spent some time on 28 July helping Hamilton in his pursuit of the retreating Boers, before returning to the Nek which he eventually took on 29 July. Unfortunately for the British, the Boers defending Naauwpoort Nek (400 men under Commandant Haasbroek) had left on the evening of 26 July and moved off down the Little Caledon valley leaving a small rearguard. Hamilton’s progress towards Witsieshoek was slowed by the terrain and the rear-guard actions of the Boers so that by 30 July, he was still short of the entrance to the Golden Gate. This delay in blocking the Golden Gate allowed the Naauwpoort Nek defenders and many others to escape down the Little Caledon valley to Witsieshoek.
British mounted troops in the Brandwater Basin
Prinsloo’s first act as commander was to seek an armistice from the British commander, Hunter, but this was refused. Given that there was then no possibility for escape, Prinsloo and Crowther agreed to surrender on 29 July. The formal surrender took place the next day, 30 July, at what is today called Surrender Hill. This is located very near to the south-western boundary of Verliesfontein (ironically as Verlies means Loss). The surrender was a significant event. The Scots Guards, the Munster Fusiliers and the Royal Irish formed a guard of honour to receive the Boers with the Royal Artillery positioned alongside. The bands of the Scots Guards and other regiments played while they waited. The scene was described by F.C. Moffett in his book With the Eighth Division:
The first prominent Boers to appear were Prinsloo, De Villiers and Crowther – fine looking men; they were preceded by Sir Godfrey and Lady Lagden, from Basutoland, who had come to witness the final scene. Then followed the commandos, who threw down their arms and ammunition with a certain effect of swagger in front of the guns. The whole scene was most romantic … In the background were huge mountain masses standing out in the clear morning air, and from these came the various commandos winding down the steep mountain paths to the valley below. They were a motley lot – old and young men – some mere boys; all had two horses each at least, but many had three, the spare ones being used for baggage, which consisted of pots, pans, bedding, blankets, etc. There were a considerable number of natives among them, all of whom were mounted, though scantily clad. A huge number of wagons and Cape-carts followed, in which were many women, the wives of the burgers. (Moffett 1903, 104)
This surrender went on for a few days. At Witsieshoek in the meantime, a large group of the Boers who had escaped via Golden Gate had gathered on Salomon Raath’s farm, Klerksvlei, with the remainder of that force continuing towards Harrismith. Salomon Raath was a local Commandant. Klerksvlei adjoined the southern boundaries of Bluegumbush and Bestersvallei along the line of the Qwa Qwa massif. On 31 July, Hamilton moved around to Klerksvlei to receive the surrender of about 1,500 Boers. The surrender was supervised by Major L.E. Du Moulin of the Sussex Regiment who, in his book, Two Years on Trek, Being some Account of the Royal Sussex Regiment in South Africa, described events as follows:
Just beyond the drift was a farm, a substantial, well-to-do farm of considerable area, with a large orchard and several outhouses. This was Klerksvlei, owned by Mr Solomon Raats [sic], and it was around this farm in all directions, as far as one could see in the fast fading light, that the Boers were encamped: the whole neighbourhood was covered with men horses, wagons and bullocks.
Old Mr Raats was very civil, providing a room and preparing supper for us and looking after our horses; there were quite a number of Boers staying at the farm also, among them being six or seven of the biggest men that I had ever seen; they were very tall, enormously broad shouldered and stout in proportion, and quite filled the dining room at the farm when they all came in at once. The Boer laager was not all composed of fighting men by any means; there were large numbers of non- combatants – women, children and Kaffirs [sic – derogatory, but common, term for the indigenous, black community], hangers-on who attended to the feeding of the commandos or drove sheep and cattle, and other nondescripts who did not belong to any commando but who accompanied the Boers, all the same. Then there were a number of what they called “Trek Boers”; these were Boers with their families, cattle, wagons, horses and all their belongings, who had quitted their farms and were moving or trekking with the commandos; these men had some splendid wagons and teams of magnificent oxen with them. There were many Boers who spoke perfect English.
Soon after daybreak the next morning [1 August] the collecting of rifles was proceeded with; numbers of Boers came crowding in from the hills around, eager to surrender their arms and ammunition, and in a few hours we had accumulated a large heap on the ground. The ammunition we filled into bags and loaded on wagons, but the rifles were placed in a great pile and burned, as we had no means of carrying such a large number; they were rendered quite useless, as the barrels were made soft by the heat, and all the foresights, backsights and other attachments were melted off. (Du Moulin 1907)
While these surrenders were being processed, which took a few days, MacDonald’s force moved on to Harrismith which they entered on 4 August 1900 with kilts swaying and pipes playing. Military actions continued in the Witsieshoek area to deal with small groups of resistance. (Times History 4, 297-343)
Following the occupation of Harrismith, there was one final surrender of Boer forces. This occurred on 8 August 1900 when some 200 odd members of the Harrismith Commando rode into Harrismith by horse and in carts to surrender. Some of those surrendering had expected to be allowed to return to their farms according to Roberts’s earlier proclamation, but they were handled on similar terms to the surrenders at Surrender Hill and Klerksvlei. They were allowed to keep their private property, but they were taken as prisoners to be held until peace was declared. The bulk were taken by train to Durban and sent by ship to Ceylon (Sri Lanka) along with their colleagues captured at Klerksvlei. (Strachan 2015, chapter 5)
As can be readily seen on the satellite image, many of the events of this campaign occurred on and near the family farms and impacted the towns in which family members lived. They were directly affected and involved. Bethlehem played a pivotal role in the movement of Boer and British forces at the beginning of the campaign. Harrismith was the ultimate destination for the British and the town became a centre for military operations and the location for a concentration camp.
The road from Fouriesburg to Naauwpoort Nek passes along the western boundaries of Verliesfontein, St Fort and Clifton. The road from Naauwpoort to the Golden Gate tracks across the middle of Bethel. These roads saw significant traffic which would have spilled onto the farms. Boldingh described the area and unfolding events as follows:
My 13 ammunition wagons advanced [from Fouriesburg] that day [25 July 1900] to within a few kilometres of Slaapkrans [Surrender Hill]. There is only one path here, which therefore had to be followed by all wagon trains. Only at about 5 K.M. past Slaapkrans (high ground across the valley up which the wagons must be pulled for half an hour) the path splits in two. One path goes to Nauwpoort, shortly before that pass it turns right into a road that goes through Little Caledon (a narrow valley, sometimes a rocky gorge, through which the Little Caledon flows) to the pass at Salomon Raats. [Golden Gate]
To get from Slaapkrans to Little Caledon, one can also take a second path to the south, which joins with the first about 5 K.M east of Nauwpoort. That second path, however, is surprisingly bad, although there is also a drift in the first, as a result of which my ammunition wagons could only be pulled with double spans of oxen (which takes a lot of time with in- and outspanning). (Boldingh 1903, 18)
The first route described is along the current road that turns at Clarens and then tracks across Bethel. The second, southerly, track no longer exists, but was marked on British military maps of the time. It branched off where the main road turns north just beyond Slaapkrans. It crossed Verliesfontein, touched the corner of St Fort, crossed the south-eastern corner of Bethel, and met the other road just beyond where it leaves Bethel. Boldingh continued:
The common road through Little Caledon to Salomon Raats is actually not a road that can be traversed with loaded ox wagons. As will be seen later, a few wagons had to be left there. I mention this because the whole surrender is connected with this.
That road had to be used not only by all the wagons and carts that belonged to the commandos of General Prinsloo, but also by those of the commandos of General Roux. Furthermore, by a very large number of wagons of civilians who had fled from the English with their wives and children and, moreover, had a great number of oxen and sheep with them.
All had to be squeezed through a narrow defile along a road so bad that there is not a second like it in the Free State. (Boldingh 1903, 19)
He also described matters on Saturday 28 July which included significant movements across the family farms:
Saturday, my wagons were standing behind Naauwpoort at the place where the road to Salomon Raats turned off. It had already been reported that we could no longer leave Nauwpoort, not even at night. The various commandos could not keep the pass open. Commandant Haasebroek had already sent his column to Salomon Raats and left only 50 people behind. These 50 also left Nauwpoort that Saturday morning and rode away. They did not want to be late at Donkerpoort [Golden Gate] and were afraid that they would not be able to get out otherwise, because the English had a better road outside the mountains than we had on the inside. …
That Saturday morning, I, while my wagons … headed for Salomon Raats, rode to get orders from General Prinsloo, in order to know whether we should move as quickly as possible or whether we should spare the oxen, to take it easy. …
That Saturday morning, there was more fighting at Slaapkrans [Surrender Hill] by the Senekallers, Ficksburgers and … burgers from ThabaNchu. … During the course of the morning the Senekallers were sent to Naauwpoort from where commandant Haasbroek’s 50 men had fled.
I continued along the Southern road, when, descending from a hill, I saw in front of me a valley in which there stood a few hundred ox wagons (many were still behind me) and hundreds of cattle and sheep.
The wagons were stopped at a very poor drift through a muddy stream, so that almost all needed double spans to move forward, which took amazingly long because the double spans had to pull the wagons up the hill once they had got through the drift. (Boldingh 1903, 20)
These various movements would all have been on and across the family farms. The men leaving Naauwpoort Nee and heading for Golden Gate would have gone across Bethel. The men, families, wagons, oxen and horses moving from Slaapkrans to the road to Golden Gate would have traversed Verliesfontein and Bethel and probably also St Fort and Clifton. The location of the traffic jam at the drift on the southern road is unclear, but it was likely at one of the locations marked with an “x”. These are the only places that the road crosses river courses with high ground beyond. One is on Bethel. The other not far away. Hundreds of wagons, and what would have been thousands of cattle, sheep and horses, not to mention the people, would have had quite an impact.
The military actions and the significant assembly and movement of British troops with their supply trains for the surrender at Surrender Hill would have spilled onto Verliesfontein and probably onto St Fort and Clifton too. The mountains out of which the Boers came to surrender with their wagons, families and helpers were those on the eastern edge of Verliesfontein and beyond so they would have crossed the farm to surrender. The image accompanying Moffett’s description is a view to the east from Surrender Hill and shows the bluff above the Caledon valley that lies at the southern end of the farm. The long line of Boers are coming down from the mountains that lie behind Verliesfontein and across the farm. The movements of the troops from the area as well as the return of the Boer families to their farms, would also have been over and near these farms. The Clarens families were impacted by all these movements, but they were also participants in the surrender being, as they were, Burghers, citizens of the Free State Republic.
Boldingh does not say much about the surrender at Witsieshoek, because he wasn’t there. He went with the Boer forces that kept fighting, but he doesn’t say where he and they went. Some of these forces did head for Harrismith after leaving Golden Gate and would have tracked across Bestersvallei and Bluegumbush. The description of the surrender at Klerksvlei makes it clear that there was a large group of Boers with their families, servants, wagons, horses, and livestock on the farm plus the British troops. This throng would, of necessity, have moved over and around the Bestersvallei, Bluegumbush and other farms both arriving and departing. Following the surrender, the British troops were also active in the Witsieshoek valley. We also know that the Witsieshoek families were directly involved in the surrender on Klerksvlei and also on Bestersvallei.
Interestingly, Du Moulin’s description of the surrender at Klerksvlei indicates that nine or ten wagon loads of ammunition were abandoned and were blown up by the British. These were the wagons that Boldingh had worked so hard to move along the road “so bad that there is not a second like it in the Free State.” (Du Moulin 1907)
1901 Sweep of Brandwater Basin by Rundle
General Sir Henry Macleod Rundle
The Boer surrenders in early August 1900 did not stop their activities. As soon as the British forces moved out of the Brandwater Basin, Boer Commandos moved back in. The British did not get control of the countryside and they only had control of the towns that had troops stationed in them. Harrismith was the main garrison town in the eastern Free State so it was firmly under British control. Bethlehem was also garrisoned as was Ficksburg, but in the areas in between, the Commandos could move around relatively freely to harass and disrupt. They were provisioned from the farms both voluntarily and through intimidation and coercion. They also put pressure on fellow Boers to join them or re-join them. Our families were not spared these actions which were what prompted the establishment of the camps and the policy of clearing and burning farms.
The situation can be gauged from an event that Edith Clark recounted. As mentioned, she was probably living on Patricksdale. At one point she and her young daughter accompanied a pregnant friend to Harrismith for the friend’s confinement. Edith recounts that in order to do this she needed a pass from the local Boer forces. When she neared the British lines, she tore this pass up and threw the pieces into the stream because she didn’t want to alert them to the fact that she had been dealing with the Boers. She also told her daughter to speak English and not Afrikaans. (Liz Finnie Pvt. Comm.)
Because of commitments elsewhere and calls on his troops, Rundle could not do much about this until April 1901. By then there were also reports reaching him from agents in Lesotho that De Wet was looking to return. These proved unfounded, but Rundle assembled a force of some 2,500 men, of whom 500 were mounted, 7 guns and an enormous wagon convoy and departed Bethlehem on 29 April. He entered the Brandwater Basin via Retiefs Nek the same day. His actions were to have an even bigger impact on the families than the campaign in 1900.
Rundle was acutely aware that he had a small force, and that the previous year a whole army corps had been needed to overcome the Boer resistance. This time the Boer forces were much smaller – a force of some 700. They were described as being low on ammunition, not keen to surrender, but also not keen to engage in any major action. He reached Fouriesburg on 2 May, left a garrison to defend the town, and went to deal with the Boer forces in the western passes of the Witteberg with support from British forces from Ficksburg. He had limited success because he did not have sufficient troops. During the whole of May he only managed to capture one Boer and to kill a small number. The Times History of the War describes the situation as:
Rundle had to confine himself to the seizure or destruction of supplies, stock, wagons, mills and horses. When he finally left the Basin, the Boers had taken heart and made his retreat through the Golden Gate a somewhat perilous operation. (Times History 5, 239)
Our Dutch officer, Gerrit Boldingh, was directly involved in the actions in the Basin as well as later actions at Witsieshoek. The dates and places he reports are relevant to what befell some of our family members so I will quote those references in some detail. Boldingh had accompanied De Wet in his invasion of the Cape Colony in early 1901 but had then returned to the Brandwater Basin region. He describes a number of actions around Ficksburg on the western side (outside) of the Witteberge. He describes living like a caveman under overhangs in the cliffs.
Activities hotted up from about 15 April when the British from Fickburg moved on Commando Nek, but were repulsed. Boldingh then describes the movement of Rundle’s forces into the Basin and their actions in carrying out the scorched earth policy. He also complains about the English farmers:
On 2 May we noticed that the English were advancing on us from the north. They had moved from Harrismith to Bethlehem and from there moved approximately 30km and occupied Retiefsnek. I don’t know what the guard of Bethlehemers, who were stationed between Retiefsnek and the town, did that day, but I suspect nothing.
The English first went to Snijmanshoek, a long gorge in the mountains between Retiefsnek and Naauwpoort, where they had not been before, but which they now entered, this time the kaffirs [sic] and tame English (English previously living in the Free State as citizens, but now on most farms our strongest enemy and who, amongst other things, had previously been present when houses were burnt) acted as guides and showed them the paths to allow them to get the cannons onto the mountains. Corporal H. Jerling with his 18 men could only offer token resistance. … As usually happened and did here, Khaki [slang term for the British, who wore khaki uniforms] burnt everything edible; at Jerling where there was grain and flour in the attic, the attic was, as a result, also burnt, this was not unusual as on almost every farm the storage place for the provisions was burnt down, including the stables. Only on one farm behind the Witteberg (Fick near Ramboesberg) was grain taken down from the attic and set alight outside in order to spare the house, otherwise the house would have also burnt even though only a bag or five of grain was stored there.
At the abovementioned farm of H. Jerling, amongst other things, the ‘good room’ with the furniture was set alight and the old man who had stayed behind, and whom the Khaki also let stay, could only save one chair to take to a dilapidated little barn nearby.
A group of women, those in Snijmanshoek who thought they were safe, were taken prisoner; then the English moved on to Fouriesburg where they arrived on 2 May. (Boldingh 1903, 143)
The British left Fouriesburg on 6 May and were met by a British force that had moved through Commando Nek from Ficksburg. Boldingh describes a number of skirmishes where the Boers attacked British forces that were involved in farm clearing. The British tactic was to withdraw in the face of any attack and to then respond with artillery and Pom Pom fire which they then followed up with mounted troops. Boldingh was hit in the shoulder by two shrapnel fragments that had passed through the brim of his hat. Nothing serious.
There were a number of skirmishes in the mountain gorges around the farms between Fouriesburg and Naauwpoort. It is clear from the descriptions that Rundle’s forces were severely harassed in their tasks. Boldingh recounts that in the south west of the basin near Commondo Nek:
Khaki had not destroyed too much. The stables and wagon sheds had been set alight everywhere, but the houses were all right on those farms where women had remained and also where Khaki had left the women because of a shortage of wagons to take them. On other farms there were windows broken, a single door or table burnt, portraits and mirrors stolen, but not much more damage done; in a word, the English had behaved almost civilised. (Boldingh 1903, 149)
Boldingh records that Rundle returned to Fouriesburg on 15 May and then engaged in activities between there and Naauwpoort aimed at destroying food and capturing women and children. His forces destroyed a mill and significant supplies of grain and flour. On 21 May Boldingh recorded that:
[There was] a short engagement with Khaki who were then in Inhoek [a farm in the mountains, 12 km northwest of St Fort.] and moving to Slaapkrans [Surrender Hill] where they caught a number of women who had been hiding in the mountains but had been dragged out by kaffirs [sic]. That the grain supply everywhere was set on fire goes without saying, including 1200 sacks at Inhoek. (Boldingh 1903, 152)
Boldingh had left the Ficksburg Commando on 20 May stating:
I would go to the Harrismith commando to help them with ripping up train lines and capturing trains. (Boldingh 1903, 151)
His route was via Naauwpoort so he was moving through this area at the same time as Rundle’s forces and took part in some of the harassing of those forces.
Rundle’s forces returned to Fouriesburg on 26 May and the bulk left two days later and went via Retiefs Nek to Bethlehem which they reached on 29 May. Boldingh used this opportunity to move through Naauwpoort to join the Boer forces north of the pass. The Boer positions were much as they had been the previous year.
The British forces attacked from Bethlehem on 31 May. They were briefly delayed by the Boers, but managed to move between the Boer positions and to occupy the pass at Naauwpoort Nek. They were joined by the rest of their force from Fouriesburg who had left that town the previous evening and moved on Naauwpoort from the south. The British then moved off towards Witsieshoek on both sides of the Rooiberge, but not immediately. They spent a few days destroying crops, provisions, equipment and buildings and rounding up stock. They also removed families from their farms for transport to Harrismith. Surrendered British sympathisers were not spared.
Boldingh, who this time was on the outside of the Rooiberg rather than on the inside, recorded:
The English made no moves the following day [1 June], so I decided to resume my journey to Witzieshoek. At the farms I rode past, everything was ready to flee at the first sign, the wagons were loaded, the household goods largely buried, including the books and music. As long as there was a chance to remain free, no woman wanted to go into captivity, ten months earlier they had seen enough of the English to now not desire any further acquaintance. (Boldingh 1903, 159)
He also recorded a more humane approach from a five strong British patrol:
They saw a child walking in a mountain gorge and descended to the farm where they found an old man, his wife and a few small children, who fled into the cliffs when they saw the English. These five Khakis told them that they needed to hide better because otherwise, the troops who were coming behind them would catch them! They then moved on. (Boldingh 1903, 160)
He then recorded a number of events in and around Witsieshoek that would have impacted on our families:
In the evening of 2 June, I arrived at the house of Cornelis Jacobs on Bestersvlei, near Witzieshoek. I wanted to stay there for a few days, but Khaki had other ideas. A message came through just the next afternoon that the English, as we had expected, were moving to the south and to the north of the Rooiberg. This prompted the family to prepare to flee to the north the following day. Just before sundown, however, we received another message that the English had left Harrismith that morning, had gone back briefly, but by the afternoon were moving along the road to Witzieshoek.
House on Bestersvallei below Qwa Qwa
Khaki apparently wanted to prevent many people fleeing so it was necessary for the families to move at least 35km that night in order to get behind the English. I was unable to assist with that so rode that same evening to the Harrismithers, who, having fought all day, were resting about ten kilometres from the English. [This was presumably between Witsieshoek and Harrismith.]
The following morning [4 June] we received an order from the Commandant that we should move against the English who were approaching along the north side of the Rooiberg. We therefore rode west to the designated rendezvous where we would receive further orders.
These further orders indicated that the English were already on a ridge across their path that would have offered us a good position. This ridge was occupied by the Bethlehemmers under Commandant Prinsloo, but they were apparently not strong enough to resist them [the English], anyway, we could see in the distance that there was already fighting on the ridge.
We were therefore too late and as there were no other positions where we could wait for the English, there was nothing else for us to do but to unsaddle, feed our horses and prepare ourselves. After this rest we moved northwards to be nearer the women’s convoy [The wagons escaping from Bestersvallei and other farms], in case Khaki wanted to move there in the afternoon, but he stayed on the road to Harrismith and just sent a couple of grenade [shrapnel] shells in our direction with the usual result that everyone galloped apart and no one was hurt.
That afternoon, from a few kilometres away, we saw the English pass by the house of Commandant Jacobs [Bestersvallei], but they did not search it.
Qwa Qwa massif from the north. Bluegumbush on far left. Bestersvallei behind the conical hill.
That night [4 June] we moved to the mountain behind the Commandant’s house [Qwa Qwa]. Khaki did not come, but moved on. We were too late noticing through the mist that Khaki had turned off to Witzieshoek , we could not intercept him, as we observed when we went over the mountain to Salomon Raats [Klerksvlei].
There we noticed that the second English column [the one that had moved along the Little Caledon river valley and through Golden Gate], which was moving along the mountain [Qwa Qwa], was already close by. We stopped behind some rocks and suddenly saw eight English horsemen at a distance of 40m diagonally below us. We shot five off their horses and three jumped behind the cliffs. [5 June]
We quickly came under fire. One of us, Korver, got a flesh wound under his shoulder blade. He rushed back and with him a group of kaffirs [sic] and some others who weren’t prepared to risk staying. At that point everyone went back. My horses had run away. I walked on foot. A couple of Khakis turned their attention on me. I firstly ducked sideways [out of the line of fire] and then fell down to catch my breath. A little later I went further, still under fire, until I disappeared behind a headland.
We went further back. The commandant went onto a mountain with a few men and fired on a troop of English who withdrew into a gully. We moved further down.
By evening we had withdrawn further to Rensburg and remained there the following day [6 June] in order to rest the horses.
The following day, 7 June, we were again on the mountain on the farm where we had been fighting. The English column was still some distance off. A couple of shrapnel shells were fired at us, but otherwise nothing exceptional happened.
The 8th June we wanted to occupy the same place again, but it was taken by the English, which allowed their column to pass in relative safety. Relative safety, because we fired on a troop of horsemen at 1200m who dispersed. One was left lying.
A couple of guns took up position and fired in our direction and the sky far behind us became dangerous with grenade shell bullets [shrapnel]. Rifle fire forced a gun at 2000m to retreat.
Khaki continued on, unhindered, through to Harrismith. (Boldingh 1903, 160)
We can see from these descriptions that the families would have been impacted for a second time in less than a year by a major British action even though it was not o the same scale as the previous year. Troop movements between Fouriesburg and Naauwpoort would have been along the road near to the farms. The encampment of forces inside Naauwpoort would have strayed onto Bethel. The movement of the southern column towards Golden Gate would have been across the property. But, much more importantly, the farms of St. Fort, Clifton and Bethel were not spared the destruction meted out by the British forces when they returned to Naauwpoort. Crops, forage, provisions, equipment and buildings were burnt and destroyed and animals confiscated. The families were also caught up and removed from their farms.
There was also a lot of action at Witsieshoek. Boldingh spent a night at Bestersvallei with the Liddell’s neighbour and Clark’s landlord, Cornelis Jacobsz. A few days later Boldingh and his comrades scaled Qwa Qwa from Bestersvallei and attacked the British force moving into Witsieshoek on the far side, from the heights of the massif. The British chased them off the mountain, but they were back two days later and attracted artillery fire. They tried again the following day, but by then the British had occupied the heights of Qwa Qwa. Once the British had taken control, they repeated their actions at Clarens – destroying crops, provisions, buildings and equipment and removing people and animals.
The British forces returned to Harrismith over the days from 10 June 1901 with a lot of family members in tow.
©Alun Stevens 2021