Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Battle of Biddulphsberg

After the skirmish on Sandkop, Rundle's headquarters was stationed in Senekal with Brabant's Colonial Division (made up of 3,000 volunteers enlisted in the Cape Colony) on Hammonia near Wonderkop.

 In the meantime the British Lieutenant-Colonel Spragge, was in trouble with the company of General Piet de Wet in the region of Lindley. Spragge asked Rundle for help. Rundle however, was not prepared to march 50 km to Lindley and by so doing put his own position in danger. He telegraphed his decision to Brabant at Hammonia. He did however say that he was prepared to stage a show of power north of Bismuths and in so doing draw and divide the attention of the Boers at Lindley. This telegram was intercepted by the Boers and therefore they were fully cognisant of Rundle's decision.

The Boers in front against Rundle was under the chief order of General Andries I. de Villiers and consisted of the following Commandos:
  • Ladybrand commando under command of Commandant Jan Crowther;
  • Senekal Commando under command of General AI de Villiers;
  • Ficksburg Commando under command of Commandant Paul de Villiers;
  • Wepener Commando under command of Commandant Paul Roux;
  • Smithfield Commando under command of Commandant J. Potgieter;
  • Thaba'Nchu Commando under command of Commandant Robert Crowther.
There was also a company of Senekallers under Commandant I Jacobsz and a group of scouts under Field-Cornet PA Froneman and Captain H Pretorius.

This Boer company had three Krupp cannons of the Free State Artillery under Captain JJ Smith, as well as a Maxim Nordenfeld Quickfire cannon from the Transvaal under Field-Cornet Karl Blom. There was also another cannon under Lieutenant Willie Hefer.

On Monday, the 28th of May 1900, Rundle with about 4,000 men left Senekal and went in an easterly direction to between Sandspruit and Quarriekop. He spent the night on the western side of Quarriekop. The Boers did an evaluation of the situation and were certain that Rundle would take the northern rout around Biddulphsberg to Bethlehem:
  1. Bearing in mind the telegram they had intercepted, made them decide the British would take this route.
  2. Rundle would avoid the direct route to Bethlehem because this road that stretched between Biddulphsberg and Platkop, had two deep ditches on both sides as well as two hills and the troops would easily be led into an ambush. However they could not overlook this possibility and Boers were also stationed there.
General Al de Villiers and his martial court stationed the main power as follows:

The Headquarters was on the north eastern side of Biddulphsberg. There were also soldiers right around the northern point of the mountain and right to the north western foot of the mountain. Field cornet Meyer from Ladybrand Commando together with his men, was on the road to Bethlehem on the southern side of Biddulphsberg. Field cornet Ferreira and his 31 men with two Corporals, namely Petrus Rautenbach and Gert Delport, were hidden approximately 1,000 yards north of the mountain in a dry dam. Commandant I. Jacobsz and 60 men were at the foot of Platkop directly opposite Biddulphsberg on the southern side. Field cornet Van Rooyen and his men were also south of the mountain but on the northern side of the way to Bethlehem. Finally field cornet P.A. Froneman was near Tafelkop to ensure safety on that side.
The Boer cannons were stationed thus:
  1. One Krupp cannon of 75m was behind a pen wall at the Headquarters of the Boers under the order of Captain JJ Smith.
  2. The Maxim Nordenfeld cannon must have been nearby as JN Brink writes in his book "Oorlog en Ballingskap" (p.62): "another cannon was placed slightly left" - approximately 40 yards and hidden behind a rock.
  3. According to an old Bantu that worked on the farm there was also a cannon on "Oupos" at the foot of Dwarsberg and about 4 kilometres east of Biddulphsberg. This is affirmed by a number of shells picked up there.
  4. There was also a cannon given to Commandant I Jacobsz who was stationed at the foot of Platkop with his 60 men.
And so Tuesday the 29th of May arrived...
On the Boerside everyone was in position very early in the morning with the order that no one should shoot until the cannon opened fire. The English were very disturbed about the positions of the Boers because "many were the speculations as to whether the enemy had withdrawn during the night " a favourite Boer dodge - or "whether they were keeping out of sight with the object of laying a trap". The English columns that started moving on 7 am. was under command of Rundle and existed of: the 2nd Grenadier Guards; the 2nd Scots Guards; the 2nd East Yorks as well as the 2nd Royal West Kents. The horse troops were under command of Colonel Blair. The 2nd and 79th Battery of Royal Field Artillery was with these and under the command of Colonel Pratt. Rundle was aware of the Boers on the south side of the mountain and therefore he sent 2 companies Yeomanry, followed by 3 companies East Yorks with the straight route. This group had 2 cannons for help and they took their position on the south side of Quarriekop just next to the present tarred road to Bethlehem. Four companies of the East Yorks stayed behind to protect the machinery behind Quarriekop. Rundle placed a heliograph on top of Quarriekop for the necessary communication with his troops. Three companies Yeomanry were sent northwards past Biddulphsberg to prevent reinforcements from the east. The rest of the English soldiers eventually arrived on the ridge at the north western side of the mountain.

The first shot in the fight was fired by the heavy ordnance of the 2nd Field Artillery. A part of the slopes of the mountain, where there were no Boers, was under fire. The Grenadiers under the command of Colonel Lloyd, moved in formation while they were supported by the 2nd Scots Guard and the West Kents.
At the same time the 2nd Battery opened fire on a farmhouse north east of the mountain. Up till now the Boer's cannons had not been fired and the English were unaware of their presence. The Krupp cannon of Smith now entered the fray and was supported by the fast- fire cannon. To offer resistance to this new threat, the 79th Battery with its 4 cannons, was called in. They rushed by on the northern side of the English foot soldiers and took position directly in front of Smith's cannon. According to Smith this Battery was about 2,200 yards from his position. A fierce bombardment was let loose on Smith's cannon and they had to take cover with the cannon behind the mountain. Smith did not shoot much better than the English but he did at least put one of their cannons out of action during the day. The fight between the cannons started at about 9 am. and went on the whole day. According to an English report 500 bombs were shot at Smith's Krupp. The trees behind the pen wall were shredded.

In the meantime the fight on the northern side of Biddulphsberg went on continuously. The Boer's position higher in the mountain was planned well. The English was subjected to fierce crossfire: out of the dry dam, out of a donga and from behind high grass the English foot soldiers were hit as at distance of 200 yards from the front and from the back! Some of the Boers in the mountain let loose with the Guedes and Martini Henry rifles and these gave off a white smoke and showed their positions. They were however too well hidden behind rocks and in dongas. The Boers at the foot of the mountain shot with Mausers and smokeless gunpowder, so their positions were not given away. The English went until about 100 yards from them and fired over the Boer's heads in the direction of the white smoke. They were under the impression that all the Boer's were higher in the mountain and could not understand why so many of their men were killed!
According to old reports, not much is said abut the fight on the west and south side of Biddulphsberg. Field cornet Meyer who took part in the fight in this area, only said that they shot from a long distance without doing much damage. The cannon east of Biddulphsberg at "Oupos", was also well under fire because lead shells were picked up in later years. This cannon was also well placed because it shot straight in front of their own people and past them and had also a very good lookout on the movements of the enemy. The cannon itself was hidden behind a rock mass.

To make things worse for the English, the dry grass which was their cover, caught fire behind the foremost British divisions! A north western wind blew the flames in the direction of the fighters. No one knows how the fire started. The Boers said the English set fire to the grass to form a smoke screen. The English again blamed the Boers. Neither of these guesses were acceptable because the English were not even sure where the Boers were and the Boers knew that fire could mean danger to themselves. The opinion of the English writer, Amery, seems to be the most acceptable: "a chance match set it all alight behind them, and the fire, fanned by the wind, surged forward and enveloped them in flames."

The fire was fatal for the British soldiers. The front soldiers were literally between two fires: the gunfire from the front and the fire from behind. To try and draw the gunfire of the Boers away from the Grenadiers, the Scottish were sent in on the right side. The Grenadiers tried to retreat through the flames with their wounded. There was great consternation on the English side! The Boers used this situation to their good and increased their attack until Rundle eventually at 3 pm gave the order to fall back. Smith had a few more chances to fire on the fleeing enemy. The English cannon horses came from behind the hill and hooked the cannons. Smoke, mist and dust made it difficult and in those circumstances General de Villiers, with a small group of men stormed forward. In the confusion a stray bullet hit him in the jaw.

Before sundown the Boers tried their best to remove their mates as well as the wounded English, from the battlefield. Especially J van Rensburg, land-surveyor of Winburg, did a lot to rescue some of the wounded British soldiers from a certain death by fire. JN Brink, adjutant of the Ladybrand commando, used his ammunition wagon to move the wounded to the home of Mr Erasmus. Esias Meyer, brother of field cornet Meyer, acted as Red Cross official to help transport the wounded.

On the Boer side, General de Villiers was badly wounded and later died. A few other received light wounds. English sources say that 40 Boers were wounded or died, but this statement is untrue. No Senekal citizen's name appear on the Burger Monument at the Senekal Mother Church under the date 29 May 1900. Only the names of Senekal citizens that belonged to the Senekal congrigation, appear on the monument. Because general de Villiers was not a resident of Senekal, his name does not appear there.

The day after the battle, 30 May 1900, cease fire agreement was reached between the fighting parties. It was a phenomenon that happened a lot in the Anglo Boer War, and this war was often referred to as "A Gentleman's War".

The wounded general de Villiers was taken to Senekal to the home of parson Paul Roux by Vilonel, where he was attended to by Mrs Roux. But firstly he was attended to by the English medical personnel on request of commandant Crowther. Later he died of his wounds as was buried elsewhere.

Except for general de Villiers and a certain Nel that was hit in the face by a dumdum bullet, the casualties on the Boer side were slight.

On the other hand the English casualties were as follow:

  Officers wounded Men wounded Men dead Prisoners Total
2nd Grenadier Guards
2nd Scots Guards
2nd Royal West Kents
79th Royal Field Artillery
4th Battery Yeomanry
  6 123 38 11 178
* a lot of these men died later of burn wounds and bullet wounds and not all of them were buried at Senekal

Rundle's headquarters moved back to Senekal and the wounded were attended to at the Dutch Reformed Mother Church. churchThere were also wounded in the school and other buildings. A group of English soldiers were left behind to bury their dead. The bodies were all taken to a central place in the field where most of the incidents took place and were buried in two mass graves. 

According to English historic sources there was a thorn tree nearby and the commanding officer tore a page out of his notebook and pinned it to the tree. He wrote the following words on the page:"This tree is not to be cut down for it marks the resting place of those who fell on May 29th 1900. Signed Major B Campbell. Commanding 16th Brigade." The bodies were later dug out and reburied at Senekal. On the original place of the graves even today a slight disturbance is noticeable. The position is approximately 150 metres northwest of the ground dam where field cornet Ferreira and his men were stationed.

History summary written by Cilliers Human

A British soldier's rendition of the Battle of Biddulphsberg
Copy of a letter written by Harry Ernest Maile, Grenadier Guards, to his friend - (later married to the writer's sister), William Fisher, Sutton Surrey, England on 4 June 1900. The letter was kindly donated for publication by his son, Mr JBR Maile, currently living in Bergvliet
Dear Will,
Thanks for your kind letter which I received on Monday, last, the day before the fight. I was pleased to hear some news from home, as I had had none until I got some from you. I have received the papers all right, thanks. I will now tell you about the fight.
We left Senekal on Monday about one pm Marched towards a big kopje about eight miles away. We halted for the night about four miles from the scene of action. I was on outpost duty all night watching the road. We were on the move again about six in the morning. We were extended to three paces interval, No. 5 Company to the front, No. 6 next, then came 7, 8, l, 2, 3 and 4. So we advanced to the kopje in this order:
.................5th Co.
.................6th Co.
.................7th Co.
.................8th Co.
The remainder of the Companies followed as I have stated above.

When we got within 3000 yards their big guns (2) opened on our Artillery on the left. We were still getting neared and advanced going down a slope towards the guns.
We were soon met with a hail of bullets from the Boers' Mausers. We still went on. Then came the order to "lie down". We did not know or could not see where they were firing from. We were ordered to fire on the big guns at 2000 yards. We then rushed on another 60 yards, the enemy keeping on us a terrible rifle fire. We now lay on out stomachs firing on the kopje at 1800 to 2200 yards. Our fire was directed near the guns. We could not see a soul. I emptied my pouches. I got a smack in the head. I turned on my back and lay still. About an hour afterwards another went in the left side of my head and out at the neck. Just after two more crashed through, one in the shoulder and out of my back and the other through both my thighs.
I had my wits for the whole of the time. I took of my equipment and rolled coat. Put them at my head for shelter. That saved my life. The coat got riddled and mess-tin shattered. I lay altogether 5 hours under tremendous fire. I heard the order to retire and saw what few was left slowly fall back in good order. As soon as they were gone I heard a cracking and a roaring. "My God" I said 'We have now got to be burned to death". The veldt had got afire. I was soon on the long line of wounded and dying. An awful sight. I rose to my feet and dragged myself through it somehow. Just got trough and dropped down. My face was much burned. The Boers came out of their trenches and helped us. They acted like Christians. One got me water, unrolled my coat and a dead man's next to me and wrapped me up with both. The Boer to the wounded is a true hearted being. Though he smashed a lot of us with explosive and soft nose bullets. Altogether I have got 10 wounds and severely burned. I am in Hospital at Senekal. The church is made into a hospital. I could tell a much longer tale if my sight and strength would let me. My eyesight is dim and my strength gone. I'm afraid I shall never set foot in the Transvaal - I shall get invalided home soon. We were going on to join Roberts. I shall miss Pretoria. I had some curios for you but now everything is lost. The Boers took all my equipment from me but my coat. One I had for you was a Boer's pocket book. It was in my haversack. I must conclude. I have had a struggle to write. I could not rest till I let you know how I was getting on. Kindly keep the papers with reports on our fight for me until I get home. If you destroyed them you can get back copies ant any of the bookstalls. Tell them at home I will write soon when a bit stronger. I put your letter in the pocket book; it is now in the hands of the Boers.
I remain Your affectionate friend
(signed) Harry
Commanders of Senekal Civilians during the Anglo Boer War
General Paul Roux
General AP Cronje
Commandant/lieutenant-colonel LP Steenekamp
Commandant/lieutenant-colonel SG Viljoen
Commandant/lieutenant-colonel G van der Merwe
Commandant/lieutenant-colonel I Jacobs
Commandant/lieutenant-colonel SF Haasbroek
Commandant/lieutenant-colonel JHT Schutte
Commandant/lieutenant-colonel L Rautenbach
Commandant/lieutenant-colonel JJ Koen
Interesting facts about individuals:
Approximately 286 Senekal citizens were taken prisoner from 25 November 1899 to 27 May 1902.
Paardeberg 24; Driefontein 7 ;
Brandwaterkom 150; Senekal district 40;
Other regions 65
Salomon Lodewyk van Niekerk (captured on 25/11/1899) was the first Senekal prisoner of war and Patrick Martin Spratt (captured on 27/5/1902) was the last Senekal prisoner of war.
Famous leaders from Senekal district as prisoners of war:
General Paul Roux, General Andries Petrus Cronjé,
Adjutant (staff officer) Johannes Stephanus van der Heever,
Commandant Gerrit Stephanus van der Merwe,
Commandant Johannes Hermanus Thomas Schutte.
Other well-known surnames as prisoners of war whose descendants are residents of Senekal and district:
Human, Joubert, van Niekerk, Prinsloo, Sevenster, Erasmus, Drotské, du Preez, Lamprecht, Heyns, Brits, de Beer, Schutte, Nel and lots more.
The youngest boy of Senekal as prisoner of war:
Philip Charles du Preez (11 years of age).
The oldest members of Senekal as prisoners of war:
DJ Fourie (75 years), JS Erasmus (71 years) en JP Human (70 years).
If one studies the list of prisoners of war, it is clear that father and son(s) were often captured together.

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