The Boer invasion of the Cape Colony
Bethulie was an important concentration point for the Boers, just before they invaded the Cape Colony in October 1899. Bethulie’s commando, under Commandant Floris du Plooy, consisted of 337 men. On 2 November 1899, the Boers crossed the Orange River. They destroyed rail and telegraph links in the area.
The Battle of Bethulie Bridge
When the tide turned against the Boers, after the major defeat at Paardekraal (near Bloemfontein) on 27 February 1900, the Boer forces rapidly retreated from the Cape Colony. The Boers wanted to blow up the railway bridges and wagon bridges at Norvalspont and Bethulie. This was the task of the railway staff, who had spent time in Holland, and knew how to use dynamite. On 8 March 1900, Norvalspont’s railway bridge was blown up by J Lutger.
In Bethulie, the Boers transported explosives to the railway bridge on 9 March, and made the holes for the explosives. On 10 March, Smink and his men placed electrical fuse cables under the bridge – but after dark, they were surprised by a patrol under Major Neylan of the Cape Police. McNeill's Scouts were in the advance-guard of Gatacre’s force which moved on Bethulie’s bridges from Stormberg. The Boers repulsed the patrol, placed the dynamite, and blew up the railway bridge at 4pm.
The focus now became the road bridge. Major Neylan's Cape Police and Mc'Neill's Scouts seized a position commanding the road bridge and held on under very heavy shell and rifle fire, when more British troops came up. The little party had prevented the enemy setting off the mines. Lieut Popham of the Derbyshires and four men quietly moved onto the bridge and removed some of the dynamite to the British camp, under fire of the Boers. Later that night, Captain Grant of the Royal Engineers cut the wire and destroyed more dynamite that was placed on the piers. The bridge was saved from explosion.
The Boer demolition party returned early the next morning (11 March), but were suddenly subjected to British cannon fire. Three Boers were killed by a bomb on the bridge. During the night, Smink and his men tried, yet again, to blow up the bridge. However, a strong English patrol kept firing at the bridge in the moonlight. The Boers simply could not reach the holes where the dynamite had been placed. On 12 March, the Boers set up a cannon and tried to blow up the dynamite by shelling the bridge, but to no avail. Thereafter Smink and his men gave up and and returned to Johannesburg. The railway bridge was left open to the British.
The firing went on for a few more days, but on the evening of the 14th March, the Boers received news that Bloemfontein had fallen to Lord Roberts, and the Boers retreated. The British then laid rails across the wagon bridge, so that their men and materials could be moved rapidly into Bethulie.
On 15 March 1900, the British captured Bethulie, and the white flag was handed by Mayor HA Rampf to General WM Gatacre of the Third Division.
After the fall of Bethulie, about 4500 Free State burghers laid down their arms. Out of the Bethulie commando, about 600 of 700 Burghers laid down their arms. Only Commandandt du Plooy remained in the field, with 100 men.
The Boers' failure to blow up the wagon bridge greatly helped the British advance into the Free State, and the Boers' ability to mount an effective resistance at the river.. This may have shaped the outcome of the war itself.
The Battle of Slikspruit (14 Nov - 17 Dec 1900)
On 1 December, Colonel Barker united with General Knox at Bethulie, to take in supplies for the Second Great De Wet Hunt. On 2 December, De Wet attacked Col Herbert at the farm Goede Hoop, near the Slik Spruit, and 5 km north of the current Smithfield-Bethulie Road (R701). De Wet had been strongly reinforced with men from Fauresmith and Philippolis. His force was now 2500 strong, and excellently mounted, with horses collected from all the neighbouring farms.
This now turned into a full-scale battle (the Battle of Slikspruit). Genl Knox, Col Barker and Col Williams rushed off from Bethulie to support Herbert. These units included the Seaforth Highlanders, Strathcona’s Horse (a Canadian unit), the 17th Lancers, the Irish Yeomanry, 33rd Grenadier Guards, the Worcester Regiment, and some Suffolks. The battle continued in all earnest on 3 December, from Slikspruit River (which flows in a north-south direction), and included Goede Hoop Farm and Willoughby Farm. When Colonel Pilcher arrived in the late afternoon with reinforcements, it shook the Boers’ resistance, and they moved off as fast as they could to the banks of the Caledon River. The exhausted British simply bivouacked on the battlefield.
The Boers managed to cross the swollen Caledon River, still moving southwards. But the Orange River was now impassable, and De Wet faced the unpleasant prospect of being trapped between two swollen rivers. De Wet had to retreat northwards with utmost speed, to avoid the tenacious General Knox. This frantic journey northwards took its toll on man and beast.
He then marched north, leaving two young commandants, Pieter Kritzinger and Gideon Scheepers, with small units, to seek a crossing. They ambushed and defeated a party of 250 Brabant’s Horse at Koesberg – and then managed to cross into the Cape Colony. De Wet’s initiative was therefore at least partly successful.
In order to escape Charles Knox's tightening grip, De Wet fell back to the Caledon River. De Wet’s men and horses were utterly exhausted by this time. Their crossing of the Caledon was checked by a small unit of Highland Light Infantry under the young Lieut DA Blair. After a brief skirmish, De Wet trekked east along the Caledon River, looking for a crossing of the raging torrent. At last he managed to get through. His force then rested for two days on a farm. The British unit at Smithfield tried to alert Knox, but all messages were intercepted, and Knox failed to catch De Wet.
Knox continued his pursuit, snapping at D Wet's heels in several rearguard skirmishes. The Boer heliographer, Lombard, noted in his diary: “Every morning they fired upon us; even if we trekked until midnight, they were there near us when the sun came up”.
Knox never managed to catch De Wet, who pushed northwards and managed to escape through a narrow pass at Springkaan’s Nek, east of Thaba Nchu, on 14 December 1900. The second De Wet Hunt was called off in mid-December 1900, as the British High Command responded frantically to the two incursions into the Cape Colony, by Commandant Kritzinger and General JBM Hertzog. Knox’s column was so thinned out that he could not continue pursuing De Wet, and De Wet sent his men back to their home districts, to see their families.
But De Wet failed to invade the Cape Colony at this stage; he succeeded at Philippolis in February 1901 (the third De Wet Hunt).
The Second De Wet Hunt: November - December 1900
After August 1900, General De Wet gathered up Boers who had previously laid down their arms. General De Wet began with his plan to invade the Cape Colony across the Orange River, between Bethulie and Aliwal North. He was accompanied by President Steyn and his Government. More and more burghers joined his forces, until he had about 1 500 men. Chief Commandant Piet Fourie took over command in the Bethulie, Smithfield and Wepener Districts, and soon he had 750 burghers.
This was the start of the Second De Wet Hunt. Col Barker left Edenburg on 22 November and clashed with Genl de Wet at Platkop, 14 km west of Dewetsdorp. The two forces engaged for three three days. On 26 November, De Wet moved off southwards, to continue his quest to the Cape Colony. Roberts despatched Major-General Charles Knox to Edenburg in the southern Free State, to start a drive against De Wet and head him off from the Orange River. Knox lost contact with the De Wet, but spurred his troops in a rapid march southwards in pursuit. He now had three flying columns, headed by Col Barker, Col Edward Herbert (of the 17th "Duke of Cambridge's Own" Lancers), and Col Thomas Pilcher (of the Bedfordshires). By now, his force numbered about 1800 men.
In the meantime, the Grenadier Guards set up a post on the Orange River at Norvalspont, and the Coldstream Guards set up a post near Bethulie.
Once again, Knox caused De Wet to have a nasty surprise and a narrow escape. In the very early hours of 27 November, Knox and Colonel Pilcher discovered the Boer laager near Vaalbank (40 km east of Edenburg), and charged into their midst. Fortunately for De Wet, Knox’s reinforcements (Herbert and Barker) were delayed in coming to the scene of battle, and the Boers managed to disperse and flee, in three different directions. De Wet’s goal was still to cross the Orange River and invade the Cape Colony. He began a 27-hour march, in pouring rain, doubling east and then south to reach the Caledon River De Wet’s commando’s united at Treurkop, 20 km north of Bethulie – his whereabouts unknown to the British forces.