The Boer strategy
The Boers were fighting a primarily defensive war, occupying territory in Natal and the Cape Colony, and besieging British-held towns, to prevent the British from bringing the war to Republican soil. Colesberg was an important town – the last settlement in the Northern Cape before the railway crossed into the Free State.
Initially, only a small commando under Chief Commandant Esaias Grobler, who hailed from Phlippolis in the Free State, held the northern frontier at the Orange River, north of Colesberg. Grobler commanded the southern Free State or central front – an area which included the towns of Philippolis, Fauresmith and Jagersfontein. He was later joined by General Hendrik Schoeman of the Transvaal, General Piet de Wet and General Koos de la Rey.
The defence of the Free State’s southern border was initially conducted by 2 500 Free State burghers, divided into three units to defend the three main bridges into the Free State – Aliwal North, Bethulie and Norvalspont. There was also a unit at “Colesberg bridge”, on the road between Philippolis and Colesberg, but this was not seen as a major risk, possibly because it was located 30 km north of Colesberg itself. The other bridges were much more vulnerable. Donkerpoort station, just west of the present-day Gariep Dam town, was an important collection point for the Boer commandos.
The Boers’ next step was a major strategic one – the invasion of the Cape Colony itself, in order to stem the British advance far away from the Free State border. Another justification for the invasion was that the Cape Colony had betrayed its neutrality by hosting British troops. But neither Grobler nor Schoeman were keen to act aggressively - they just wanted to do a holding operation, to prevent British encroachment.
General Clements’s retreat
Clements realised that he could not hold the line around Colesberg, and withdrew to Arundel, leaving a great deal of booty at Slingersfontein camp for the Boers. In the last two days, 63 men under Clements had lost their lives or were seriously injured, and many had been captured by the Boers.
Disaster befell the Wiltshire Regiment, because they did not receive clear instructions on the retreat. By the time they arrived at Rensburg Station, it was already taken by the Boers, and the Wiltshires came under heavy fire. After a three-mile running battle, 57 Wiltshires were killed, including Major Macmullen; and 103 were captured.
De la Rey was now clearly on the offensive, and on 19 February, he attacked a British unit Rietfontein, near Arundel. He then moved southwards to threaten Clements’ base at Noupoort. But De la Rey’s offensive was doomed. Roberts’ strategy of attacking the Free State from the far south-west (the “Great Flank March”), was working. Bloemfontein was now under threat from the south-west. The Free State government recalled General Piet de Wet and numerous Free State units, in order to assist General Cronje at Paardeberg. In fact, the Boers started withdrawing from Colesberg itself.
In retrospect, this was a great strategic blunder on the part of the Boer High Command. De la Rey was very effective on the Southern Front, inspiring his men and inflicting losses on the British. Arundel, Noupoort and De Aar, as the lifeblood of the British war supplies, should have been a key target, striking Roberts in his rear. But the sudden helter-skelter recall of so many men to ward off Roberts’s march to Bloemfontein, meant that the Boers effectively lost two fronts – the western as well as the southern fronts. In effect, this decision sealed the fate of the two Republics, as Lord Roberts’s advance on Bloemfontein and Pretoria became unstoppable.
General Clements now started pushing northwards. On 24 February, he attacked the Boer positions at Kuilfontein Farm. The Boers made a determined stand, and in particular, the German commando distinguished itself. Each side had about 30 casualties. The British then reoccupied Vaalkop Hill (southwest of Colesberg), Rensburg siding (south of Colesberg) and Taaiboschlaagte (south-east of Colesberg).
On 26 February, General Grobler and General Lemmer retreated to Colesberg.
On 28 February, Clements’s forces marched into Colesberg unopposed. Clements moved northwards from Colesberg, reaching the Orange River bridge at Norvalspont (en route to Springfontein) on 3 March 1900.
General Hermanus Lemmer withdrew all his forces to the Free State side of the Orange River by 6 March, and blew up the Norvalspont bridge. The bridge was soon repaired by the approaching Inniskillings and Australian Regiment. On 7 March, General Lemmer’s rear guard crossed the Colesberg bridge (30 km from Philippolis), and blew up the bridge to slow down the British advance.
On 8 March 1899, General Clements occupied Norvalspont, just south-west of the present-day Gariep Dam, and Colonel Brabant, head of the Cape Colonial forces, occupied Jamestown. On 11 March, General Gatacre reached the Bethulie road bridge and managed to seize it before the Boers could blow it up. By now, the Boer retreat had become a headlong flight. Many Cape rebels laid down their arms and took an oath of allegiance to the Queen, before returning to their farms.
Clements crossed the Orange River at Norvalspont on 15 March. General Gatacre’s route was further east, and he reached Bethulie on 13 March. The two generals then met up at Springfontein.
These British units started their march to Bloemfontein. The southern Free State towns were captured effortlessly by the British, and a period of British control ensued.
“With Roberts at Bloemfontein, Gatacre at Springfontein, Clements in the south-west, and Brabant at Aliwal, the pacification of the southern portion of the Free State appeared to be complete” (Arthur Conan Doyle).
Genl Freek Grobler’s offensive in the west
On the same day, 12 February, General “Groot Freek” Grobler attacked a force of almost 300 Victorians, South Australians, Inniskillings and Wiltshires, at Windmill Camp and Pink Hill in the west. The Boer force consisted mainly of men from Waterberg and Zoutpansberg in the Transvaal, and were based at Bastard’s Nek, on the Petrusville road.
Pink Hill was strenuously defended by the Australians, and they kept the Boers as bay until the infrantry could withdraw. Major Eddy and two other officers were killed, and two others wounded. “As an exhibition of resolute courage on the part of comparatively untrained troops, this performance of the Australians is well worthy of mention” (Amery Vol. 3, p. 466). The Boers secured the hill in late afternoon, but were too exhausted to follow up their success.
The stand made by the Worcesters and Australians played a major role in maintaining the front.
General Clements in Colesberg
Tasmanians, Westralians, and the death of Mr Lambie
By early February, Lord Roberts was preparing for his “Great Flank March” from Hopetown to Bloemfontein. For this, he needed substantial men from the Colesberg front, so General French and several units joined him on the Western Front. French was replaced by General Clements, who had to maintain the Colesberg front with drastically reduced numbers of men – and at the same time convincing the Boers that Colesberg/Norvalspont would be the main point of attack. And in fact, the Boers concentrated more burghers at Colesberg, because they were duped by Roberts’ plan.
Due to the Boer activity near the Oorlogspoort River in the east, Major Stubbs and the Worcestershires occupied a hill (henceforth called “Stubbs Hill”, 18 km south-east of Colesberg), on 6 February. The Boers under General Celliers continued their reconnaissance along the river, with the aim of outflanking the British in the east. The Boers drove out some Tasmanians from some hills around Vergelegen Farm. This was the Tasmanians’ first experience of being under fire, and they had to retire by galloping back under heavy fire, back to Jasfontein. The same happened to an Australian detachment of Victoria Mounted Rifles.
On the same day (6 February), the West Australians were under fire for the first time. A group of 80 Westralians under Major Moor formed part of a force sent out towards Potfontein (25 km south-east of Colesberg). These men came under very heavy fire. Moor narrowly escaped capture, after he gave his horse to another man; he was saved by his subaltern on another horse.
During this frenetic episode, the only causalty was a non-combatant, Mr Lambie, an Australian correspondent, who had accompanied the troops. Mr Hales of the Daily News stayed with his friend, and was taken prisoner. He was subsequently released. (Lambie’s grave is now in Colesberg cemetery).
The Colesberg stalemate
The entire Colesberg front now (early February 1899) stretched across about 50 km. From west to east were the following British units:
Between Windmill Camp and Maeder’s Farm, with posts at Hobkirk’s Farm and Bastard’s Nek, 9 km west of Colesberg: Wiltshires, Inniskillings, South Australians and Victorians
Coleskop, 4 km west of Colesberg: The Bedfordshires and two guns
Kloof Camp, 3 km north-west of Colesberg: Wiltshires and New South Wales Military Infantry
McCracken’s Hill, 2 km west of Colesberg: The “immovable” Berkshires
Porter's Hill, 2 km south of Colesberg: The Bedfordshires, led by Col Carter of the Wiltshires
Rensburg Siding, 15 km south of Colesberg (British HQ): General Clements, with some Bedfordshires, Australians and Royal Engineers
Slingersfontein, 15 km south-east of Colesberg: The Worcestershires, the Royal Irish, some Inniskillings, the West Australians
Jasfontein, 18 km south-east of Coelsberg: A few Rimington Guards
General Clements himself, with some Bedfordshires, Australians, and Royal Engineers, at his HQ at Rensburg Station.
The Boer Commandos were placed, from west to east:
The Boers in the west: From Colesberg to Plessis Poort, and covering the road to Philippolis, with 1500-2000 men; they were led by General “Groot Freek” Grobler, a Transvaler
The Boers in the centre (within Colesberg): General Piet de Wet (Free State) and General Schoeman (Transvaal)
The Boers in the east: Genl de la Rey (Transvaal), with Genl Lemmer and Genl Cilliers, and Commandant van Dam of the Johannesburg Police.
New Zealand Hill
The British attack on the eastern side of Colesberg: New Zealand hill
After the disaster in the west, French now decided to attempt an attack on Colesberg from the east. Colonel Porter and his 6th Dragoon Guards occupied Slingersfontein Farm on 9 January. He was accompanied by the New South Wales Lancers, New Zealanders, and some Yorkshires. Slingersfontein became an important British base.
Now General de la Rey arrived in Colesberg, having fought successfully at Magersfontein. He blocked French’s ambitions to get across the railway east of Colesberg, and this raised Boer morale.
The Yorkshires held a high, steep hill (afterwards known as “New Zealand Hll”). At daybreak on 15 January, the Boers subjected the Yorkshires to a heavy fire. Under cover of the fire, a party of 50 Boers had climbed the steep north-western end of the hill and overran the Yorkshires. It was at this crucial stage that Captain WN Madocks of the New Zealand unit took command of the wavering Yorkshires, and giving the words, “Fix bayonets – Charge!” rushed forward, and re-captured one of the sangars. Then the New Zealanders rushed in, and the Boers retreated. This was a highly impressive performance by a junior officer.
The next day, on 16 January, the New South Wales Lancers under Lieutenant WV Dowling faced disaster to the east of Slingersfontein, when they were cut off by a party of 35 burghers (Pretoria Police), under Lieut PC de Hart. The Australians were blocked by a wire fence, and then made for a small hill nearby. A rapid firing duel ensued (The Friend 23 February), and four Australians were killed. Lieut Dowling and several other Australians were wounded, and 18 Australians were forced to surrender. After being captured, Dowling was treated in Dr Towart's Field Hospital (Blackie de Swardt, 963 Days at the Junction, p. 37.
The British defeat at Suffolk Hill
By now, French was ready for another assault on Colesberg, mainly from the West. He wanted to capture “Grassy Hill”, north-east of Colesberg (this hill was known, since then, as Suffolk Hill).
On the 5th January, Colonel Watson of the Suffolks requested permission from General French to launch a night attack, instead of the early morning attack that French had contemplated. French rather reluctantly agreed. That night, the Suffolks set off, with bayonets fixed (and rifles unloaded), up the gentle western slope, and not expecting any opposition. But the Heilbron commando and the newly-arrived Transvalers were close by, and began a withering fire.
Faced by this unexpected resistance, Colonel Watson wanted his men to go down the slope to regroup, and so he gave the order “Retire”; but that caused most men to rush blindly down the hill. Those who tried gallantly to carry out bayonet charges were generally mowed down. Even worse – in the confusion, the Suffolks came under fire from their own artillery. By 5.30 am, the surviving Suffolks surrendered to the Boers. Watson was killed, and most of his officers and men were killed, wounded or captured.
LS Amery (vol 3, p 138) described the next day: “The victors treated their wounded prisoners well, and were most sympathetic and courteous to the British burial party … They readily gave their help, and a pathetic scene took place at the open graveside. A grey-headed burgher asked leave to make an address. In a rough, simple way he deprecated war and the sacrifice of human life, and prayed for the time when all men should live at peace with each other. Then the assembled burghers sang a psalm”.
“Suffolk Hill” was a huge setback for the British. After that defeat, French concentrated on consolidating his forces.
The British decoy operations in the west
While General French tried to outflank the Boers east of Colesberg, he launched two decoy operations, to keep the Boers busy elsewhere - south and east of Colesberg.
In the first decoy, Colonel Porter of the 6th Dragoon Guards took over a small hill south of Colesberg, which was then used as an observation post. This hill was henceforth known (by the British) as “Porter’s Hill”. Porter and the New Zealanders then launched a blistering attack on Skietberg Hill, the mountain just south of Colesberg, where the Boers were ensconced.. The British also controlled Coles Kop (Towerberg), from where they shelled Colesberg. This turned out to be an artellery duel, with the Boers using the 15-pounder which they had captured recently at Stormberg.
In the second decoy, Major Rimington and his Rimington Guards moved from Jasfontein farm, south-west of Colesberg, in the early morning of 1 January. They went around the east of Colesberg, to attack Achtertang Siding. Commandant du Toit of the Philippolis Commando tried to head them off, but the Boers were repulsed. It became a stalemate, with the Boers refusing to give ground.
A thrilling sideshow was the fight to secure a derailed British train, on 2 January.
Coleskop, Kloof Ridge, Porter's Hill, and Gibraltar Hill
Genl French continued the pressure on the Boers from the western side of Colesberg. On 4 January, he occupied several strategic points, including the very high hilltop, Coleskop (Towerberg),
In the meantime, General Piet de Wet, Commandant du Toit (of Philippolis) and their Free Staters valiantly counter-attacked on the western side of the front. Their force included about 700 men (largely Transvalers), and 4 guns. They attacked the Inniskillings and Suffolks at Kloof Ridge. The Inniskilling Dragoons, led by Captain Edmund Arthur Herbert, saw some action here, dashing from Porter’s Hill on the south side of Colesberg, past Coleskop to the west, and on to Gibraltar Hill, which was occupied by the Boers. Although they came under heavy fire from the Boers, they managed to drive the Boers from Gibraltar Hill. The Australians lost several men in this engagement.
But General Schoeman failed to provide support to De Wet, and the Boers on Gibraltar Hill became trapped under artillery fire from the Suffolks as well as the 10th Hussars who came from Maeder’s Farm. Capt HB de Lisle’s 2nd Mounted Infantry stormed the outcrop; after a heavy fight, and losses on both sides, many Boers retreated, and some had to surrender. De Lisle’s talented leadership and the excellent shooting by his men contributed to this victory. The Boers became very demoralised.
The British attack on the western side of Colesberg: MacCracken’s Hill and Gibraltar Hill
On 30 December, French concentrated his forces at Rensburg siding, about 10 km south of Colesberg. This little station was occupied by the Berkshire Regiment.
On 1 January 1900, General French began a multi-pronged attack on the western side. This was led by Colonel Fisher of the 10th Hussars (also known as the Prince of Wales’s Own Regiment) and Col. McCracken of the Berkshire Regiment. Their main opponents were the Heilbron Commando and the Bethlehem Commando. Col Fisher moved his unit to Maeder’s Farm, west of Colesberg, on the early morning of 1 January. At the same time, Major McCracken and the Berkshires captured “McCracken Hill”. They scattered the Heilbron commando, who withdrew to Gibraltar Koppie. But Fisher failed to carry the flank movement. The Berkshires sat tight on McCracken Hill, but could not make any progress northwards.
Driving west from the Engen Garage - Coleskop is on the right, and McCracken Hill is on the right.
General French’s offensive:
1 January 1900
General French was now ready for a major offensive in the Colesberg area. He planned to use a highly mobile force to harrass the Boer positions, convoys and communication lines in order to work round their flanks. This would force them to retreat into Colesberg and eventually to withdraw across the Orange River, and the British would then occupy Colesberg.
French based his force at Noupoort, to protect the railway. His force consisted of the Second Berkshires, the 6th Dragoon Guards, as well as 75 New South Wales Lancers and the First New Zealand Contingent. Gradually, he grew his forces to about 2000, with the addition of the 1st Suffolks in early December. Soon after, the force was joined by the Inniskilling Dragoons and the 10th Hussars.
From Noupoort, French moved his forces northwards to Arundel, which became an important British base for the next six weeks. (today, Arundel is a deserted little siding, 20 km south of Colesberg, on the N9).
Genl Piet de Wet’s offensive
On 13 December 1899, General Piet de Wet was sent to Colesberg to stiffen Schoeman’s resolve. His headquarters were on the farm Kuilfontein (owned by Thomas Plewman, but abandoned in early November 1899.
Piet De Wet attacked Col. Porter at Arundel Station, with two cannons. Porter quickly reinforced his unit with artillery and mounted troops, and forced De Wet to retire. At Rensburg, General French also beat back a Boer attack. A few days later, Piet de Wet attacked French’s outpost at Vaalkop (a hill south-east of Kuilfontein) with field artillery, forcing the British (the 10th Hussars) to retire to Arundel.
The terrain around Colesberg is extremely rugged – apparently Lord Kitchener described it as “the most infernal country he ever saw”. Neither side would be able to defeat each other in those rocky outcrops. So each side tried to outflank the other. This meant that The Colesberg front now began to expand in eastward and westward directions – a wide front which would eventually span almost 50 km, from Jasfontein in the east to Bastard’s Neck in the west.
The British strategy
At the very earliest stage in the war, the British anticipated that they would launch their main attack against the Boer republics along the central railway, via Colesberg, into the Free State, as well as from Natal, the Queenstown direction, and from Kimberley. In mid-December 1899, the British were defeated in three important battles (Colenso in Natal, Stormberg, and Magersfontein near Kimberley). This was the infamous “Black Week”, which caused consternation in Britain. Some of its best regiments had been defeated by bands of fighting farmers!he Boers’ mobility on horseback made “one Boer worth three or four English”.
These defeats left the Colesberg front as the main British thrust northwards.
But not for long.
When Lord Roberts was appointed as supreme commander of the British forces, in December 1899, he decided to abandon all these proposed directions of advance. Instead, he would move to the Orange River (near Hopetown), and then strike directly across the Southern Free State towards Bloemfontein – the first thrust that would depart from the main railway lines.
This “Great Flank March” was extremely difficult (with no railway to rely on for supplies); it was also spectacularly successful. On 13 March 1900, Bloemfontein fell to Lord Roberts.
While Roberts was planning for his Great Flank March, the Colesberg “theatre of war” remained a tough test of wills between the British and the Boers. But increasingly, it became an elaborate decoy, to keep the Boer commandos busy, while Roberts gathered his forces and supplies further west, near Hopetown.
It certainly kept the Boers busy. The British were led by two very resourceful officers: Initially, General John French, and subsequently, General Ralph Clements.General Schoeman was completely outclassed by General French. While French was strengthening his force, and occupying strategic hills, Schoeman with his 4000 Boers remained passively at Colesberg.
It took two very good commandants, Piet de Wet and Koos de la Rey, and up to 7000 burghers to to block the British advance.
Initially, the main British units in the area were the Yorkshire Light Infantry and the Scottish Black Watch. On the 1st December 1899 the first English reinforcements, made up of 400 men of the New Zealand Mounted Rifles under the command of Major Robin, arrived at Naauwpoort.
By 5th December 1899, Colonel TC Porter arrived with a battalion of Suffolks, the second half of the battalion of the Black Watch, three squadrons of the Carabiniers, R & O Batteries of Horse Artillery and two breech loading 15-pounders.
The initial Boer advance southwards
The British forces in the Central Front were quite unprepared for the rapid Boer incursions. On 4 November, the Yorkshire Light infantry abandoned Noupoort station, and retired to Middelburg. The Boers were unstoppable. The Cape Colony declared military law in the northern parts of the Cape Colony.
The Boers occupied Aliwal North (13 November) and Colesberg (14 November). Everywhere, the Boers were greeted enthusiastically by local Afrikaners, but resentfully by English-speakers. In Colesberg, 160 men joined the Boer force. In Colesberg, the Boers arrested prominent English-speakers and kept them in the local jail – for a total of 96 days.
Then the Boers occupied Burgersdorp, Jamestown, Venterstad, Lady Grey and Barkley East. The Boers made their most southerly base at Arundel siding (20 km south of Colesberg). But the Boers, under the over-cautious General Schoeman, failed to occupy the important railway junction town of Noupoort! This was a major mistake, as the British built up Noupoort as their main base.
Schoeman had major disagreements with other Boer commanders (such as Piet de Wet) who wanted to pursue a more aggressive approach. Convinced that a large force under General French was bearing down on them from the south, Schoeman abandoned Rensburg station and fell back to Colesberg, leaving Rensburg siding available for the British as their northern base camp.
The Boer invasion of the Cape Colony
In October 1899, a total of 2 500 burghers (Boer fighters) massed on the Orange River. They were fighting a defensive war, to prevent the British from bringing the war to Republican soil.
Colesberg was an important town – the most northern town in the central front of the Cape Colony. The Boers expected a major British advance along the railway line. Initially, the Colesberg part of the front would be held by about 5 000 men under Lieut-General John French – a British commander who would have a brilliant career in this war, as well as World War I.
On 1 November 1899, the Free Staters, under General Esias Renier Grobler, occupied the Norvalspont railway bridge and Colesberg road bridge (on the road between Colesberg and Philippolis). The advance guard invaded the Cape Colony. On 4 November, two Free State commandos and some ZAR burghers invaded the Colony near Norvalspont, and destroyed railway bridges and telegraph lines.
President Steyn's proclamation, 20 October 1899: "As Great Britain is at present at war with the people of the Orange Free State, and the territory of the Cape Colony is used as a basis of war operations against this State, without the wish of the peaceable inhabitants of the Colony being known, I have therefore commanded by officers to cross over into the territory of the Cape Colony with no other object than for the defence of my land and my people and for the preservation our independence".
Australia Hill and Worcester Hill
On 9 February, De la Rey went on the offensive. He attacked on a wide front, reaching west and east of Colesberg. The West Australian Mounted Infantry (“Westralians”) and the Inniskilling Dragoons – who later occupied Philippolis – were trapped on Stubbs Hill.
The Australians were forced back to Australian Hill (20 km south-east of Colesberg), and managed to stay put until sunset, when they managed to fall back in small groups. In effect, the Boer advance was stopped by the determination of this handful of Westralians, supported by four guns. Several British soldiers surrendered to the Boers, and Sergeant Hensman and Private Conway were killed. General Clements was highly complimentary, referring to the courage and determination shown by a party of 20 men of the West Australians under Captain Moor: “By their determined stand against 300 or 400 men, they entirely frustrated the enemy’s attempt to turn the flank of the position”.
On 11 February, Commandant Celliers shelled the large British camp at Slingersfontein.
On the very early morning of 12 February, the Worcester hills (or “Keeromskop”) were attacked by Transvalers and Bethlehem burghers; the rest of the Boer force kept up a heavy fire against the hill. This hill was held by Worcestershires, under Captain Hovell and Brevet-Major Stubbs. As a result of the heavy fighting, the British had to retreat from the crests of the hills. But as day broke, the Worcesters’ fine musketry drove the Boers off the hill. The Boers withdrew in late afternoon. Major Stubbs and Lieut-Col Coningham were killed. At the same time, other Boer units were threatening Slingersfontein Camp, Jasfontein and New Zealand Hill.