Sponsored by the Karoo Development Foundation, a non-profit NGO:

www.karoofoundation.co.za

  • Facebook Social Icon

Personalities

The heroic, quirky and memorable characters

who preserved the human spirit during the war ...

Mr William Gostling of Springfontein

Mr Gostling was, in turn, a hero, a benevolent administrator, and a snitch.

After the British occupation of Philippolis, Mr Gostling was appointed as Resident Magistrate. It was on his watch that he had to ward off a determined assault by Gideon Scheepers's commando. He was assisted by a small garrison, consisting of some Nesbitt's Horse and a few local men. But who was this courageous man?

Mr Gostling had had an enterprising career, in agriculture and “agency work” in England for many years, and had come to South Africa around 1897 to take charge of the Lydenburg Estates belonging to the British and Transvaal Financial Company, with offices in Johannesburg. He found the climate in Lydenburg too unhealthy, and entered the service of the Simmer and Jack mining company. In January 1900, he was appointed Remount Officer at Orange River Station, until he was appointed Resident Magistrate in Philippolis in May 1900.

 

The attack on Philippolis by Gideon Scheepers, in October 1900, was an important and decisive moment for Magistrate  Gostling. His determined stand, trapped on a hill outside Philippolis with with Boers roaming through the town, was a moment of glory in an otherwise rather mundane administrative career. His courage merited him a Mention in Lord Roberts’s despatches.

Gostling became the Superintendent of the Refugee Camp (or Concentration Camp) in Springfontein in March 1901. In his application for the post, Mr Gostling in maintained that he had “a good knowledge of administration generally, and especially as regards the Dutch, whose characteristics I am well acquainted with – I am conversant with everything connected with moral life in South Africa”.  His administrative skills were commendable, and as Superintendent, he made the best of a very trying situation.

Gostling’s position as Camp Superintendent could not have been an easy one. He was very worried about the measles epidemic and the high death rate it caused. He also had to contend with a dire shortage of water, drawn from a small stream and a few small dams in the vicinity – and that had to be shared with the Remount and Transport Depots for animal use.

 

Mr Gostling tried valiantly to improve the administrative system and quality of life at the camp by improving the quantity and distribution of rations. After her visit to Springfontein Camp, Emily Hobhouse described “Major Gostling” as “a kind man willing to help both the people and me as far as possible, but his limitations (and mine) through lack of material are woeful … I am quite content to leave my poor camp folk here in the care of Captain Gostling … To people, his manner is tactful and excellent.”

 

But Gostling’s political loyalties remained strongly with the British. A memorable record of an encounter with Gostling was written by Emily Hobhouse. During her visit to Springfontein camp on 15 May 1901, Gostling insisted on walking with her everywhere she went. He insisted on talking politics, hoping to draw her out: “It was a trying ordeal, this setting a snare for me, so exhausted as I was … The whole of that time he talked politics, returning to it again and again as I often changed the subject … He stuck like a leech, till at 4 o’clock, just before the train appeared, he drew from me some general remark as to there existing different opinions upon Milner’s policy. Then it was clear. He had got what he wanted, and greatly elated, he left me, not staying even though the train was in sight to hand in my bags … Under his cruel pressure, [my] sense of coming freedom broke out in one very innocent general remark. It found its way to Milner”. Hobhouse further reflected, ‘Mr Gostling … was better than some superintendents, having a sense of law and order, but he was narrow and hard and lent himself to the dirty work of agent-provocateur”.

When Emily tried to return to South Africa,  in 1902,  she was forcefully repatriated.

 

Gostling was very aware of local political dynamics. On 17 May, he wrote to the Administrator of the Refugee Camps, commenting on the danger of locating refugees in camps near their homes. With his “knowledge of the Boer character”, he was concerned that several families from Philippolis were “particularly ill conditioned, who, while being apparently loyal in the highest degree, are to my certain knowledge, absolutely disloyal, and are only waiting for an opportunity to communicate with their friends – our enemies, either directly or through the medium of the natives”.

Mr Gostling died of acute pneumonia on the night of 16 October 1901. The disease had become widespread in the camp. He was buried with military honours, at a funeral attended by about 800 refugees and about 50 infantry soldiers. Gerrit Sem commented: The local people had become so “used to the Supt Gostling, people seem to feel the loss intensely”.

 

Through the efforts of the Springfontein branch of the Guild of Loyal Women, a tombstone was erected on Gostling’s grave in May 1902.

 

Col Bruce Hamilton

Brevet Colonel B Hamilton, East Yorkshire Regiment, performed the duties of AAG (Assistant Adjudant-General) until appointed to the command of a brigade.

On 30 March 1900, General Buller noted that “Colonel B M Hamilton, East Yorkshire Regiment, was selected, in April 1900, for the command of a brigade, in which position he has done much hard work and proved himself a resolute and capable commander”.  Hamilton was a much celebrated officer, frequently noted in dispatches. Buller also maintained that “Major-General BM Hamilton is possessed of qualities of boldness, energy, and resolution in no common degree”. Lord Kitchener reported , in 1902, that Major General B M Hamilton is possessed of qualities of boldness, energy, and resolution in no common degree".

 

Major-General Hamilton commanded the 21st Infantry Brigade during Lord Roberts' march from Bloemfontein to Pretoria, and fought at the battle of Diamond Hill (Donkerhoek, east of Pretoria, 11-12 June 1900).

By late July 1900, General Hamilton was active in the Bethlehem and Brandwater Basin areas of the eastern Free State, near the contemporary town of Clarens and Golden Gate park. By August, he was active near Winburg and Ladybrand in various skirmishes against Boer commando's. In late July, Bruce Hamilton was a key figure in trapping General Marthinus Prinsloo in the Brandwater Basin, leading to the surrender of about 4 000 Boers.

 

By now, Lord Roberts was concerned about the "irregular and irresponsible guerillas". On 2 September, Roberts issued a proclamation that, henceforth, any farm near a guerilla action will be burnt, and all farms within a radius of 10 miles will be cleared of all their stock and supplies. General Louis Botha responded in a letter: "I sincerely regret to see that the determination of me and my burghers to persevere in the strike for our independence will be avenged by you on our wives and children ... it being against the principles of civilized warfare". On 27 September, Lord Roberts instructed several Generals, including Bruce Hamilton: "Clear the whole Free State of supplies and inform the burghers that if they choose to listen to De West and carry on a guerilla warfare against us, they and their families will be starved". Lord Roberts decided that the town of Ventersburg would serve as a good example of what the Boers could expect in future - and indeed Bruce Hamilton sacked and burnt the town on 1 November 1900, because of repeated Boer attacks on the railway line. No further supplies would be allowed to the residents of the town.

General Bruce Hamilton began applying the scorched earth policy in the Free State, from Lindley in the east to Bothaville in the west.  His column  started by burning down 26 farmsteads, collecting thousands of livestock.  According to Capt March Philips of Rimington's Horse, writing about the Frankfort area, "Our course through the country is marked as in prehistoric ages by pillars of smoke by day and fire by night ... we usually burn from six to a dozen farms a day". In the British Commons, Lloyd George referred to Hamilton as "a brute and a disgrace to the uniform he wears".

Hamilton, supported by the Driscoll's Scouts reached Philippolis during December 1900. This was just after the Second De Wet Hunt (in the south-eastern Free State).

 

On 25-26 January 1901, De Wet and key Free State commanders held a major conference at Doornberg, to the east of Venterstad. On 26 January, the Boers headed south, for another  at invading the Cape Colony. Lord Kitchener responded dispatched Major-Generals Charles Knox and Bruce Hamilton to corner De Wet at Doornberg, but by then, De Wet had already departed. This was the start of the third De Wet Hunt (in February 1901), which drew Hamilton into the Cape Colony in pursuit of De Wet. Hamilton re-united with General Charles Knox at Bethulie, where they discovered that the Boers had successfully moved westwards. They now knew that De Wet planned to cross the Orange River south of Sanddrift. Hamilton and Knox hastened to Philippolis.          

Generals Charles Knox and Bruce Hamilton came through Philippolis on 13 February 1901. De Wet had already crossed into the Cape Colony on 10 February. He had evaded his pursuers at every turn. When Knox and Hamilton arrived at the Orange River on 12 February, they were 15 hours behind the last of Fourie’s rear-guard. Because the river was in flood, they could only cross two days later, and lost valuable time.

From Philippolis, Knox and Hamilton were rapidly moved, by rail, to De Aar.  Bruce Hamilton,with 2 332 men and 10 cannon, remained at De Aar, in readiness for De Wet.

               

After the Third De Wet Hunt (which De Wet escaped, yet again), Hamilton was active in the Free State during 1901, in pursuit of General JBM Hertzog. In April 1901, General Bruce Hamilton commanded several units in the south-eastern Free State, raiding farms in the Dewetsdorp area.  He took over the command of all the British forces in the Free State on 13 April. In early June, he launched another “drive” in the south-western Free State. Four columns acted in concert: Colonel White set off from Tierpoort (35 km south of Bethlehem), Col. Henry departed from Trompsburg, Colonel Henry left Luckhoff, and Colonel Du Moulin set off from Koffiefontein. All four columns headed for Petrusburg district, where Hertzog tended to have a base.

These "drives" continued in the south-western Free State.  In July 1901,  Hamilton set off  from Norvalspont, moving westwards to Ramah, in the far south-western corner of the Free State, still in pursuit of Hertzog.

Hamilton's energetic operations continued unabated. In September 1901, Hamilton was re-deployed in Natal, to block General Louis Botha's invasion.   In November, Hamilton was in the south-eastern Transvaal, launching extensive operations. On 10 December, he launched a surprise attack on Commandant Piet Viljoen’s Bethal commando. Seven Boers were killed and 124 were captured, together with a great deal of livestock, vehicles and other supplies. On 12 December, his unit overran Commandant Piet Viljoen’s lager in Ermelo. Sixteen Boers were killed and 70 were captured. A few days later, he captured most of the Pretoria commando near Ermelo; on 10 January he launched a successful night attack against a Boer laager; and on 11 January, he captured three Boer artillery officers and 42 other Burghers. In yet another night attack, Hamilton captured 32 Boers near Witbank. On 24 January, Hamilton’s columns successfully carried out another night attack in the eastern Transvaal, and captured 12 Boers. On 14 March, Hamilton overran a Boer laager near Vryheid, killing two Boers and capturing twenty others. He continued harassing the Boers in the area, leading 15 000 British soldiers in a drive between Carolina and the Great Olifants River. His drive ended near Standerton, pursuing several commandos relentlessly, and capturing about 200 Boers. From there, he moved to Vereeniging, capturing about 200 Burghers on the way. He then moved southwards towards Kroonstad, in a flying column, capturing 120 burghers and killing twenty.

             

Genl Bruce Hamilton ended the war on a high note. He started the war in a staff position; by the end of the war, he had been promoted to the rank of General. He received two awards: The Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath (GCB), and Knight Commander of the Royal Victorian Order (KCVO). He was also invited to give evidence to the Royal Commission on the War in South Africa (1903).

  Accreditation:  Information drawn from Pieter Cloete, Die Anglo-Boere-oorlog: 'n Chronologie, 2012.

Major-General Bruce Hamilton
General Bruce Hamilton
Much decorated ...
Show More
Major-General Douglas Haig

Douglas Haig entered military service in 1885, after studying at Oxford and Sandhurst. He was promoted to the rank of Major in 1899, and saw service in Egypt in 1898. Haig was a well-known polo player before the war. He was also a very wealthy man, having inherited the Haig whiskey distillery works.

 

In the first few months of the war, Haig served with General French in the Colesberg area. They headed the cavalry unit, and Haig accompanied French in the long ride to relieve Kimberley on 15 February 1900. The Australian war correspondent, Banjo Patterson, observed: “French was like the cat who walked by himself … he had little to say to anybody. In temperament, he was like a fox-terrier, always ready to attack the nearest enemy. It was lucky for him he had the cool, clear-headed Haig at his elbow … Haig had the capacity to take infinite pains. His instructions were always clear and distinct, and he meant them to be obeyed. …  He gave the impression of being a very earnest man, who took things seriously”.

In February 1900, Lieut-General John French described Haig's contribution in the Colesberg district: "Major D Haig, 7th Hussars, Acting AAG and CSO, has shown throughout the same zeal, untiring energy, and consummate ability as have characterised his conduct and bearing since the very commencement of the campaign (in Natal), during the whole of which time he has acted in this capacity."

On 3 March 1901, Col Haig participated in the pursuit of De Wet (Third De Wet Hunt), when he passed through Philippolis, on the way north. He spent a few days in Philippolis and then pursued De Wet towards Thaba Nchu. A week later, he was participating in various "clearing operations" near Edenburg, rounding up small commandos of Boers.

 

On April 7 1901, Haig was deployed in the Cape Colony, and took over command of several columns. He arrived at Rosmead junction, near Middelburg in the Eastern Cape, on 12 April 1901.

 

In January 1902, Col Haig was in Lamberts Bay, working with General Stephenson to trap Smuts’s commandos against the Atlantic. The effort failed, and Smuts broke through the British lines to head for Sutherland.

At the end of the war, Lord Kitchener commented on Haig's abilities: "Lieutenant Colonel D Haig, CB, 17th Lancers, is, in my opinion, one of the most thoughtful and best educated of our cavalry officers in his own rank; he has also shown considerable skill in handling men in the field."

 

In the First World War, General Haig played a major role, succeeding French in 1915 as Commander-in-Chief of the British expeditionary force in France. Two years later, he was made a field marshall and led the British forces to victory in 1918.

 

Wikipedia provides a good overview of Haig's long and important military career.             .

Col. Douglas Haig
Excellent horseman, and during WWI, Field-Marshal of the British Forces in Europe
Show More
Col Hickman of the Worcestershires

Capt Thomas Edgecumbe Hickman was born in in 1859. He had extensive military experience, including the the Egyptian Camel Corps in 1884-85, and operations on the Egyptian Frontier, 1889; and in the Sudan, 1896-99. In the Anglo-Boer War, he commanded a column of mounted troops in the Transvaal, Orange River Colony and Cape Colony in 1900; and commanded columns under General French in the Southern District, Cape Colony, 1901-2. He became Colonel in 1903, and Brigadier General in 1914 (http://angloboerwar.com).

 

Col. Hickman’s Scouts were involved in clearing the southern Free State after De Wet’s return to the Free State. During the winter of 1901, Col Hickman was active in “clearing” the “already twice-cleared” districts of Rouxville and Smithfield (Doyle 1999:638).

During mid-1991, Hickman was in Philippolis.

Commandant Gideon Scheepers

This young man led the assault on Philippolis, for ten days, in October 1900.

After the British reinforcements arrived in Philippolis, the Boers set off to join General De Wet in his first attempt to invade the Cape Colony. De Wet did not succeed, but Gideon Scheepers' men managed to cross the swollen Orange River and penetrated the Colony, from where they conducted repeated raids and skirmishes throughout a wide area.

Scheepers fell ill in late 1901, and had to be left behind by his comrades. Soon after, he was captured by the British, and found guilty in a military court, on charges of murder. Scheepers could call no witnesses, since they were all still on commando. He was born in the Transvaal and was a Free State burgher since 1898, and was therefore entitled to be treated as a POW; however, he was charged as  a "Cape rebel". The charges included murder, arson, maltreatment of prisoners of war, and the maltreatment of black people.

On 21 December, the court received a telegram from Sir Arthur Grant, baronet of Moneymusk: "Can fact that Scheepers spared my son's life - Grant, 12th Lancers - in time of great exciement, September 23rd, be pleaded in mitigation of sentence?"

On 18 January, Scheepers was executed by a military squad, outside Graaff-Reinet. The execution only took place at 3 pm, because the officers wanted to finish their polo match first. His body was taken away in great secrecy, and buried somewhere in the Sundays River, to prevent his burial site becoming a "martyr's grave". His remains were never found.

During the following months, 36 Burghers of Scheepers's commando were tried in special military courts, and 9 were executed.

Sarah Raal, guerilla fighter

On 19 April 1901, three ladies (Ms B van Schalkwyk, Miss Raal and Miss Jacobs) were allowed to step out of the Springfontein Concentration Camp. They were allowed to fetch wood. But they never returned, and it subsequently reported that they had joined some of the Burgher commandos.

SARAH RAAL’s astonishing exploits with the Boer commandos in the southern Free State are documented in her book, Met die Boere in die Veld. Sarah’s family farmed at Olivenfontein, just south of Edenburg. Her four brothers joined the commando immediately after war was declared; three months later, her father also left for war. Sarah, her mother, and two young siblings remained on the farm to cope with the farming operations.

 

Soon after, her father was captured by the British, and their farm was raided by an English commando. All the crops were destroyed. Her mother and little siblings were captured by a British column while they were en route to Jagersfontein station (now called Trompsburg). For several months, Sarah was left behind on the farm, managing the livestock with two loyal farm workers. When the English became ever more suspicious about her presence on the farm, she loaded up her wagon with provisions, and set off with her farm workers, driving the sheep with them. She wandered from farm to farm, until she was captured by an English convoy and sent to Springfontein camp.

 

After she and two friends escaped from the camp, she joined her brothers on commando, fighting under Commandant Nieuwoudt. Also, in this commando, were her uncle, Veldcornet Lubbe, and his twelve-year-old son, Andries. Lubbe (snr) was killed in a skirmish with the enemy. Sarah became a proficient member of the commando, participating in skirmishes and manoeuvres. She always wore a dress and hid her remaining clothes in trunks in the hills. Sarah always carried a revolver.

 

She was eventually captured by the British forces, and sent to Uitenhage camp, where she was re-united with her family at the Uitenhage camp, arriving on 24 June 1902. She returned home two months later, on 22 August 1902. The fact that she had sown her family’s money into the hem of her dress, frequently saved her life.

 
 
 
 
 
 
Lieut John Alexander, South African Light Horse

Lieut Alexander was killed in action at Metz Farm, 30 km north of Philippolis, on May 15th, 1901.  

 

Alexander was the son of Mrs George Alexander, of Lidwells, Kent, in 1880.  In 1899, Alexander was in the Argentine Republic where he had saved three men from drowning, and nearly lost his life in doing so.  

 

So anxious was he to serve in South Africa, that he managed to get a passage by attending to some horses, and on arrival at Cape Town, joined the South African Light Horse as a trooper.  He saw vigorous action in Natal, including Spion Kop, Vaal Kranz, Hussar Hill, Monte Christo, Pieters Hill, and the Relief of Ladysmith.  Having contracted severe enteric he was ordered home, but he recovered, returned to his unit in November 1900, and in May 1901, was given his commission.  

 

On the day he was killed, he was one of a party sent to surround two farm houses.  He rushed into the farm at Metz, calling on the Boers to surrender, and was mortally wounded as he entered.  Lieutenant Colonel Byng, commanding the column reported that "had 2nd Lieutenant Alexander lived, I would have recommended him for the VC, he displayed the greatest coolness and valour in leading his men to the attack and on entering the building he offered the Boers a chance of surrendering before firing, it cost him his life".

 

Lieutenant Alexander is buried at Springfontein, near Philippolis.  A Yorkshire cross was erected over his grave.

 
General Julian Byng

Colonel (later General) Julian Byng was a member of a long established military family. He was the seventh son of George Byng, second earl of Strafford. Despite his aristocratic background, Byng had a relatively impoverished upbringing, entering the army through the 2nd Middlesex militia. His family connections were in the highest places – his father was a friend of the Prince of Wales, and in 1883 Byng joined the Prince’s own regiment, the 10th Royal Hussars, and served in India in March 1884. At the outbreak of the Second Boer War, Byng was sent to South Africa, where he was given command of the newly raised South African Light Horse (SALH).

 

Unlike many of his contemporaries, Byng was able to adapt to the nature of the war in South Africa, rising from command of his regiment to command of a group of columns in the sweeps of the later years of the war. He was mentioned in dispatches. According to General Buller’s dispatch of 30 March 1900, “Major (local Lieutenant Colonel) Honourable J Byng, 10th Hussars, has commanded with marked ability and success”.

 

The South African Light Horse (SALH) started the campaign with 600 men, and was an important component of the Cape Colonial Division.

 

During De Wet’s first attempt at invading the Cape Colony, Kitchener established several fortification lines, typically in an east-west direction. One of these was between Bloemfontein, Thaba Nchu and Ladybrand. On his way south, De Wet managed to cross the blockhouse line; but when he reached the southern Free State, he was engaged in several vigorous clashes with General Knox’s men. Blocked by the swollen Orange River, De Wet had to make his way northwards again. After 10 December 1900, Colonel Byng’s column was in position, to trap the slippery Boer commander. But as Colonel Byng moved out with his troops, he was headed off by Commandant Prinsloo’s Bethlehem commando.

 

During the massive drive against De Wet in the Cape Colony in February 1901, Byng was stationed at Victoria West. Once De Wet decided to return to the Orange Free State, Byng was stationed at Colesberg; other British columns, under Hickman, Haig, Williams, Thorneycroft and Plumer were ranged in a crescent shape around De Wet’s commando, steadily converging on their prey. But luck and skill saved De Wet. As they rushed through Petrusville, De Wet’s adjudant, Barry Richter, broke into the post office and stole all the telegrams – so De Wet knew exactly where the British columns were stationed. And furthermore, Colonel Hickman, who had taken over the command of the operation, had sent a heliogram to Colonel Byng at Colesberg, urging him to head off De Wet from an eastwards direction. But Byng never received the heliogram, and this left a wide gap for De Wet’s tired commando, as they fled eastwards along the Orange River.

 

During early January 1901, Colonel Byng clashed with Kritzinger and Scheepers near Richmond and Murraysburg. Three months later, he was back in the Free State, leading the Imperial Yeomanry in skirmishes near Smithfield. In November, Colonel Byng was part of a major British drive in the north-eastern Free State, and was attacked by General De Wet’s commando. On 8 December, Byng, together with several units, set off from Heilbron and Frankfort in an elaborate drive, to trap De Wet near Kroonstad. But De Wet evaded this force yet again.

 

Colonel Byng was then drawn into Lord Kitchener’s first “New Model Drive” in the north-eastern Free State, aimed at capturing De Wet. Byng’s unit of 1 500 men moved westwards, as part of a convoy of more than 10 000 men. In addition, they were assisted by 5 000 Seaforth Highlanders, as well as seven armoured trains. Lord Kitchener himself arrived to command the drive. But once again, De Wet’s commando, together with several others, managed to cross the Kroonstad/Lindley blockhouse line, racing southwards.

 

A week later, on 13 February 1902, De Wet broke through the east-west blockhouse line again, moving northwards. Kitchener, now commanding 30 000 men, geared up for his second New Model Drive, with Byng participating along the Vaal River. Ten days later, on 23 February, Colonel Byng’s column was attacked by Commandant Jan Meyer and the Harrismith commando, as part of a broader attempt by De Wet to escape from Kitchener’s narrowing noose. About 400 burghers were captured, but the British suffered heavy losses, and De Wet escaped again, accompanied by six hundred of his best men.

 

General Buller referred to the South African Light Horse: “Major Honourable J H C Byng: The regiment acted as an independent unit, and performed its duties exceedingly well throughout; Lieutenant Colonel Byng proved himself, as usual, a valuable commander”. Buller also wrote: “Major (local Lieutenant Colonel) Honourable J Byng, 10th Hussars, has commanded from its formation in November last; a cavalry officer of the highest qualifications, he has shown singular ability in the command of irregulars; his regiment has done splendid service, and I attribute this in a great measure to Col Byng's personal influence; I strongly recommend him for reward and advancement”.

 

 

After the First World War, Byng was showered with honours. In 1919 he was raised to the peerage as Baron Byng of Vilmy, and was promoted to full general.

 

Accreditation: Information substantially drawn from http://www.angloboerwar.com.    

Gostling's garrison ...
... on Tomkin Koppie, Philippolis
Gostling's grave
Springfontein cemetery
Show More
Colonel Julian Byng

Colonel (later General) Julian Byng was a member of a long established military family. He was the seventh son of George Byng, second earl of Strafford. His father was a friend of the Prince of Wales.  In 1883 Byng joined the Prince’s own regiment, the 10th Royal Hussars, and served in India in March 1884. At the outbreak of the Second Boer War, Byng was sent to South Africa, where he was given command of the newly raised South African Light Horse (SALH).

 

Unlike many of his contemporaries, Byng was able to adapt to the mobile, mounted, guerilla nature of the war in South Africa, and commanded a group of columns in the later years of the war.  He was mentioned in dispatches. General Buller wrote that “Major (local Lieutenant Colonel) Honourable J Byng, 10th Hussars, has commanded with marked ability and success”.

Byng participated in the Second De Wet Hunt (blocking De Wet’s first attempt at invading the Cape Colony). During the Third De Wet Hunt, in the Cape Colony in February 1901, Byng was stationed at Victoria West and Colesberg. Other British columns, under Hickman, Haig, Williams, Thorneycroft and Plumer were ranged in a crescent shape, steadily converging on  De Wet’s commando. But luck and skill saved De Wet yet again. As they rushed through Petrusville, De Wet’s adjudant, Barry Richter, broke into the post office and stole all the telegrams – so De Wet knew exactly where the British columns were stationed. Colonel Hickman, who had taken over the command of the operation, had sent a heliogram to Colonel Byng at Colesberg, urging him to head off De Wet from an eastwards direction. But Byng never received the heliogram, and this left a wide gap for De Wet’s tired commando, as they fled eastwards along the Orange River.

After De Wet returned to the Free State, Colonel Byng was active in "clearing" the province of Boer commandos and their civilian supporters. In April 1901, he led the Imperial Yeomanry in skirmishes near Smithfield. In November, Colonel Byng was part of a major British drive in the north-eastern Free State, and was attacked by General De Wet’s commando. On 8 December, Byng tried to trap De Wet near Kroonstad. But De Wet evaded this force yet again.

 

Colonel Byng was then drawn into Lord Kitchener’s first “New Model Drive” in the north-eastern Free State, aimed at capturing De Wet. Byng’s unit of 1 500 men moved westwards, as part of a convoy of more than 10 000 men. In addition, they were assisted by 5 000 Seaforth Highlanders, as well as seven armoured trains. Lord Kitchener himself arrived to command the drive. But once again, De Wet’s commando, together with several others, managed to cross the Kroonstad/Lindley blockhouse line, racing southwards.

 

A week later, on 13 February 1902, De Wet broke through the east-west blockhouse line again, moving northwards. Kitchener, now commanding 30 000 men, geared up for his second New Model Drive, with Byng participating along the Vaal River.

 

De Wet was never captured, but Byng earned high praise for his efforts. General Buller described him as "a cavalry officer of the highest qualifications, he has shown singular ability in the command of irregulars; his regiment has done splendid service, and I attribute this in a great measure to Col Byng's personal influence; I strongly recommend him for reward and advancement”.

 

After the First World War, Byng was showered with honours. Following distinguished service during the First World War—specifically, with the British Expeditionary Force in France, in the Battle of Gallipoli, as commander of the Canadian Corps at Vimy Ridge, and as commander of the British Third Army. In 1919, byng was raised to the peerage as Baron Byng of Vilmy, and became Governor-General of Canada.

So what was Byng doing in the Philippolis region? He was trying to trap Boer commandos, gather up livestock and horses,  destroying farm houses, and removing civilians to the refugee camps.  In April 1901, the SALH moved through the southern Free State during March and April 1901, dispatching women to the camps, destroying all wagons, and leaving only the very aged or sick on the farms. The women had to travel for a few days on wagons to some place on the railway line.

 

In early March 1901, Col Byng set up his camp near Philippolis. He spent some time in the district, and then  took command of Philippolis at the end of May the next day. His camp was just west of Rowelsfontein’s lower dam.  By early June,  Colonel Byng’s column came into town after pursuing Commdt Hertzog as far as the Riet River. They had many sheep and horses with them. On Sunday 30 June, about 200 men of Byng’s column, armed with a cannon, went off in the Waterkloof direction. At the end of August, Byng was living in Mr Bulterman's house (who had been removed to Springfontein camp).  His troops also camped on Mr Bulterman's farm Doorndam, where they destroyed his possessions. Columns under Colonel Byng took 150 sheep and goats and 25 cattle from Mr Snyman's farm Lynxfontein, in June 1901. His forces appropriated 1250 sheep, 14 cows with calves, 13 cows, 18 mares with foals, 6 mules, 9 horses, 1 secondhand buckwagon, 1 buggy with harness, 1 set of mule harness, and household furniture at the farm, on Mr van Rensburg's farm Jakhalsfontein. Mr Becker's home in Rowelsfontein (Philippolis) was repeatedly raided by Byng's column.

The column also raided and destroyed Strydfontein, the farm of Hendrik Strauss; Vissershoek, the farm of Jacobus Strauss; the farm Schuilhoek, of Mr Jansen van Rensburg; the farm Theefontein of Schalk Viljoen; and the farm Doornhoek of Gerrit Sem.

Mr Sem testified that "I was in Philippolis up till 3rd August 1901, and during that time I saw a great deal of damage was done by columns, especially by Col Byng’s which camped for a fortnight outside the town.  Most of the furniture of Mr Gertenbach’s house was destroyed during this town, being fetched in wagons to the camp for the purpose of being burnt.”

 

Anna Roux of Philippolis later testified: She left the farm Vlakfontein on 16 August 1901, and was taken by Col. Byng’s column to Bethulie Camp. General Knox took her husband’s cape cart and Col Byng took the buggy. Col Byng took all their furniture and burnt it at Boesmansfontein. They also destroyed the Freemason's Lodge in Philippolis.

One of Col Byng's most destructive columns was that of Col W Williams. But other officers hated this work: Captain Allsop, of the SA Light Horse (commanded by Col Byng), described the “cruel work moving the women from their homes”.

 

 
Col Julian Byng
A vigorous fighter in the Boer War, preparing for his WWI career
Burning farmhouse
A devastated economy
Show More

The Russians admired the Boers greatly, and treated them as heroes. The captain provided them with Russian uniforms and took them to the Russian harbour Feodosia.

From there, they travelled by train to St Petersburg, and then by train to Holland to meet with President Kruger. Here they received sufficient funds to return to South AFrica by ship. They collected supplies, clothes, saddles and even Mausers, and departed from Hamburg on 10 March 1901, using falsified passports. A month later, they arrived at Luderitz in Namibia. Walking alongside their transport wagons, they arrived in Keetmanshoop 23 days later - a distance of 220 km in the desert. From there, they travelled to Rietfontein (in the area called "Mier", in the Kalahari), and then walked south to the Orange River. On 11 June 1901, they crossed the Orange at Skuit Drift, about 75 km west of Kakamas.  They were now back in the Cape Colony, seven months after they left Greenpoint in Cape Town. They learnt that General Manie Maritz was nearby, and joined him At Nieuwoudtville, about 200 km to the south.  

 

The group set off to Petrusville (south of the contemporary Vanderkloof Dam), to cross the Orange River back into the Free State.   Suddenly they were surroundered, and attacked by coloured British troops. Piet was seriously injured, and was taken to the British military hospital at De Aar, where he died on 23 September 1901. He was 24 years old.

CJ Barnard (1988), Die Vyf Swemmers: Die ontsnapping van Willie Steyn en vier medekrygsgevangenes uit Ceylon 1901 (Tafelberg).  (This book is often available on the BidorBuy or Abebooks websites).

 
Piet Botha of Bethulie (1877-1901)

Piet was a remarkable young fellow. He was one of five Boer Prisoners of War who managed to escape from Ceylon, and even managed to find his way back to South Africa and re-join a commando!  He was only 23 when the war broke out.

 

Piet Botha lived in Bethulie as a boy (age 5-18). His father was  a magistrate's clerk in Bethulie, and served as magistrate in Philippolis just before the war. By 1899, Piet worked as a clerk in the National Bank in Heilbron, and therefore joined the Heilbron commando, who fought with De Wet. 

Piet and his comrades were captured by the English in June 1900. They were sent as POWs to Greenpoint, and then to Ceylon (now called Sri Lanka), on the ship Catalonia. The trip took almost two months, in horrendous conditions on board. Op 9 Januarie 1901, the Catalonia entered the busy harbour at Colombo. As they were waiting to be transported to the POW camp, five Boers escaped by sliding into the water along a rope, swimming 800 metres to the Russian boat, the Cherson.  This was a troop carrier which had just returned form China, where they had participated in the suppression of the Boxer Rebellion. There were 1 600 Russian soldiers on board.

Genl Georg Brand of Bethulie

Genl Georg Brand was the youngest son of erstwhile President Brand of the Free State Republic.  He was promoted rapidly during the war, and at the Vereeniging peace negotiations in 1902, he was the Vice-Commandant-in-Chief; for Bethulie, Rouxville, Caledon River, and Wepener.

Brand was involved in the action at Slikspruit.  Soon after, he crossed the Orange River with General JBM Hertzog on 16 December 1900. On their campaign in the Cape Colony, Brand attacked the Imperial Yeomanry at Hamelfontein, Colesberg district. The attack failed, and he rejoined Hertzog, who was besieging Philipstown. With Hertzog, Brand joined Commandant Nieuwoudt at Britstown on 23 December, and seized supplies. Several local rebels joined their commando. ThenHertzog and Brand moved on to Vosburg, then on to the Carnarvon district, and then Brand occupied Sutherland. Brand set off on 9 January, in a northwards direction, with 200 commandeered horses.

 

Brand remained alongside Hertzog, and in late January 1901, Hertzog decided to return to the Free State. They made their way back to the Upper Karoo, where Brand was sent to Britstown, on 16 February, while Hertzog continued to Strydenburg. While General Bruce Hamilton and Colonel Bethune sped to Britstown to head him off, Brand managed to reach Britstown first, and commandeered supplies, then head off northwards to catch up with Hertzog near Strydenburg. On 27 February, Brand was near Prieska, where he met up with Commandant Lategan of De Wet’s commando. He was instructed to find General Hertzog and arrange a rendezvous with De Wet, in preparation for a return to the Free State.

 

After Hertzog and De Wet joined forces south of the Orange River, Commandant Brand covered De Wet’s rear guard, as the main commando fled eastwards on the southern bank of the Orange River, looking for a suitable crossing. Then he joined their retreat northwards, to the Free State, through Philippolis and beyond.

 

But Brand remained very active in the Free State.  On 4 March 1901, General Piet Fourie and Georg Brand clashed with Brigadier-General Plumer at Zuurfontein, near Philippolis, and thereafter headed east. Brand remained with General Hertzog’s forces, based in the Petrusburg district, and had to head off a combined force of General Hamilton, and Colonels White, Du Moulin, and Williams on 7 June.

 

Georg Brand’s star rose under De Wet. In mid-1901, De Wet became aware that one of his strongest commandants, Piet Fourie, was beginning to lose heart and was contemplating a possible surrender to the British. There was evidence of correspondence in this regard. In response, De Wet demoted him and challenged him at a military court. But because of Fourie’s impressive contribution during the war, he was given another chance, and he served the rest of the war as an ordinary Burgher. In his place, George Brand became Assistant Chief Commandant.

 

In September 1901, Brand was active in the Zastron area, where he goined General Kritzinger – and was surrounded by General Knox. To evade Knox, the two leaders split up again, with Kritzinger going south and Brand going north, in the direction of the Bloemfontein-Thaba Nchu blockhouse line. Between Dewetsdorp and Wepener, Brand’s commando was involved in several skirmishes, and he was injured.

 

Brand crossed the blockhouse line, travelling through devastated countryside. South of Sannaspos, they encountered a unit of British s0ldiers pillaging and burning down farm houses. Brand’s men routed the British, killing seven men and capturing a large number of horses, cannon and ammunition. He continued his raids in the southern Free State.

 

On 27 November 1901, Brand and Kritzinger were attacked by Colonel Lowry Cole near Wepener, and they had to fall back in the direction of Philippolis.  A week later, on 3 December, Brand met several other southern Free State commandos at a military planning meeting at Bosmansberg, near Edenburg. Several of these units were attacked by Colonel Cole on the next day. A heavy fight ensued, and several Free Staters were captured.

 

A day later, Brand set off to join Hertzog, crossing the railway near Edenburg. Brand and his comrades joined General Hertzog, and launched a combined attack against their pursuers. Some of the Foresters took shelter in a stone kraal, and were captured by Hertzog and Brand.

 

A month later, on 24 December, General Brand (who had received a promotion in the meantime) and Commandant Coetzee left Dewetsdorp and joined De Wet at Groenkop, near Kestell. Brand participated in the daring attack on Groenkop, early on Christmas morning, when they overran a British unit. After the British were routed, the Boers plundered the British provisions, replacing their ragged clothes and indulging themselves in looted Christmas fare. At least 57 British soldiers died in the incident and 84 were wounded. De Wet took his prisoners to the Lesotho border, where they were released.

 

Brand was a bittereinder, fighting to the very end. He represented the south-eastern Free State at the Vereeniging negotiations. He reported upon the conditions in his district. There were some parts of his division, he said, which had been entirely laid waste. Everything had been carried off; there was not a sheep left; and the burghers had been without meat for days. But he was able to capture booty, and could still hold out for a year. But he accepted the peace.

After the war, Brand married Annie van der Merwe of the farm Weltevede, Smithfield.  She had been in Bethulie's camp, but managed to escape, and served as a nurse in the Boer commandos. A wonderful postscript to Annie's story can be found here - a letter from a British soldier, who must have been an admirer.

A useful source: Pieter Cloete (2010), Die Anglo-Boereoorlog: ‘n Chronologie, Arnold & Wessels, Klerksdorp. Privately published.