South African Battle: 27 August 1900
The last set piece battle of the South African War (1899-1902)
The Battle of Bergendal is also known as the Battle of Belfast or the Battle of Dalmanutha. It was the last set piece battle of the South African War (1899-1902) and was the last time that the Boers had all four of their Long Tom guns in action simultaneously. For medal collectors, the bar BELFAST on the QSA (Queen South Africa) Medal was awarded to soldiers in the area on 26 and 27 August 1900. One can therefore assume that medals with the bar BELFAST were awarded to anyone who fought in this battle. The Boers had a defensive line covering about 80 km, and the British force were in action almost all the way along that line, with the central, main attack being on the Boer position at Bergendal. British Battles & Medals by E.G. Joslin, A.R. Litherland and B.T. Simpkin further defines the criteria for the bar BELFAST.
Before getting into the battle itself, the Boers had placed themselves strategically along an 80 km defence line with the Pretoria-Delagoa Bay railway line running through the most strategic position at the farm of Bergendal.
The Boer Commandos, which totalled 7 000 men, were positioned as follows:
- Commandant Christiaan Botha with the Wakkerstroom, Piet Retief and Swaziland Commados under Commandant Joubert took up a position near the Swaziland border; Commandant Tobias Smuts with the Carolina, Ermelo and Standerton Commandos retired to Rooihoogte, a range of hills east of Carolina. Christiaan Botha’s two remaining Commandos from Bethal and Heidelberg took up a position on the Komati River – on the left of General Louis Botha’s line of defence.
- On the northern flank Commandant Dirksen’s Boksburg Commando on the Bothasberg Mountains and the Lydenburg Commando on the Steenkampsberg Mountains commanded the two approaches to Lydenburg.
- Nearer Belfast the Middelburg and Johannesburg Commandos were in a position to enfilade any force starting out on the road to Dullstroom and to prevent any attempt at approaching the Dalmanutha plateau through the mountains leading up to it from Belfast.
- A small Commando was posted to the north of Lydenburg to watch for the possible approach of Lieutenant-General Carrington who was at Pietersburg (now Polokwane).
- In the centre to resist any approach along the railway line was a small force of German volunteers under Commandant Schultz, with the main defence being further east near the farm Bergendal. North of the line and to the left of the Johannesburg Commando was the Krugersdorp Commando under Commandant Kemp; and south, on the Bergendal farm, the remnants of the Johannesburg Police under Commandant Oosthuizen. To the left of the Police were Germans under Krieger, and Commandant Gravett’s Germiston Commando held the hills south-west of Dalmanutha.
- On the southern flank were Commandant Fourie’s two Commandos – Heidelberg on the Geluk ridge and Bethal at Frischgewaagd.
The four Long Tom Guns, for which the Boers still had 18 000 rounds of ammunition, were placed as follows:
- one under the Lydenburg Commando on the Steenkampsberg,
- one with the Middelburg Commando,
- the third on a railway truck and placed afterwards at Eland’s Kop south-east of Dalmanutha,
- the fourth a few miles further south near the Komati River.
On 15 August General Buller’s Natal Field Force made contact with Lord Roberts’ force at Twyfelaar, a farm west of Carolina. Major-General French’s Cavalry Division was on the nearby farm Strathrea, and together with Buller’s force they waited for supplies and orders. Lord Roberts, who was to command the attack on the Boers, left his headquarters at Pretoria for Belfast on 24 August and arrived at noon the following day where he met with Buller, French and Pole-Carew to plan and give his orders for the imminent attack on the Boers.
Tactical problems faced their plans, mainly to do with the terrain the Boers were holding a front of 30 km in country which was not suited for a frontal attack and which straddled the railway line. The Boer right flank was hidden in the labyrinth of the Lydenburg hills and the left was hampered by bogs and streams which made any attempt at assault from that direction impossible. Buller suggested moving north towards Waaikraal and Dalmanutha. Roberts agreed to this and decided to employ the cavalry on the opposite flank. French was then instructed to bring his division up to Belfast supported by the Guards’ brigade, to manoeuvre north-eastward against the Boers right while Buller attacked the Boers left. Pole-Carew would move with his force to a position north of Belfast. Between Roberts’ and Buller’s forces they had 18 700 officers and men of which 4 800 were mounted, 82 guns and 25 machine guns against Botha’s 7 000 men with 20 guns. While the British Generals conferred, the troops remained motionless but still came under shell and rifle fire from dawn to dusk from the Boers.
At dawn on 27 August the artillery were instructed to shell the north of Bergendal and the northern slopes of the ridge, thus attacking in reverse any of the enemy who might attempt to reinforce Bergendal and the ridge behind it. The infantry were planned to attack the farm from the south. Orders were carried out successfully. At 11 am, following the initial bombardment, the attack of the Bergendal Kopje and farm began from a distance of under 4 000 yards. It was the most intense bombardment of the war – 19 shells falling every minute and from Belfast a third 4.7-inch gun shelled the back of the position at Bergendal. 74 ZARPs (South African Police Corp) bore the brunt of the attack by 38 British guns.
After three hours, the ZARPs still held their positions on the kopje. Buller then ordered the infantry onslaught, General Kitchener directed the Rifle Brigade to take up a position across the main east and west ridges of the kopje from which his men were to attack from the west. The Inniskilling Fusiliers were to attack from the south. The 1st Devonshire Regiment was positioned to support the left centre, while the right attack was supported by the Gordon Highlanders. When the British infantry reached the foot of the kopje, bayonets were fixed and the final charge began, with 1 500 British attacking what was left of the ZARP contingent. The ZARPs maintained steady and accurate fire from the time the British infantry began their advance across the open terrain until they were upon them.
General Buller’s official report on the battle records – ‘’The enemy stood their ground with great gallantry, and only left their positions when the Rifles were among them and the Inniskilling Fusiliers on their flank, between 20 and 30 of them keeping up the fire until actually made prisoners.’
Eventually the surviving ZARPs realised they had to leave their positions. This started the retreat of the Boers.
It was not only the ZARPs who fought a brave battle. The day also belonged to the British artillery, who started the attack, and the infantry, who completed the victory. The British regiments had to advance on the kopje across open grassland without any cover. During the onslaught, the Rifle Brigade’s Colonel was wounded. However, the troops reformed and ‘swept on their own initiative up the plateau carrying all before them’. The Devons supported the Rifle Brigade on the left, while the Gordon Highlanders and the Inniskilling Fusiliers moved in from the south. (Acknowledgement – Military History Journal – December 2002)
Casualties were 12 ZARPs killed, 28 wounded or captured. British casualties were three officers and 20 men killed, five officers and 96 men wounded and 12 missing. Private Durrant of the 2nd Rifle Brigade was awarded the Victoria Cross.
After the battle General Botha retreated north east towards Lydenburg with about 2 000 men whilst Commandants Fourie and Smuts headed south of the railway line to defend the mountainous approaches to Barberton. President Kruger, with his ministers, who had been stationed at Waterval Onder, left by train for Nelspruit. General Viljoen was left with the Krugersdorp and Johannesburg Commandos to defend the railway line.
After a few days in Belfast, French was sent south then east to take Barberton. Pole-Carew was sent down the route of the railway line, whilst Buller proceeded north east to follow Botha. As the Boers retreated, 1 800 British prisoners were released from Nooitgedacht – today known as Airlie.