Battle of boshof
South African Battle: 5 April 1900
The Battle of Boshof, fought on 5 April 1900, was an ‘incident’, planned by the French General Villebois-Mareuil who was on route to the Modder River with the purpose of blowing up the railway link, south of Kimberley.
Villebois-Mareuil (V-M) had been in Hoopstad, 110 km north of Boshof, from the beginning of April, where he had put together a force of 75 foreign volunteers for his planned attack in the Northern Cape. Having received fresh horses, his small force set out for Boshof and about 25 km north of the settlement, V-M made contact with a Boer commando under the command of Field-Cornet Daniels. V-M shared his plans of the attack on Boshof, which were for the Boers to proceed to the south, cut off the communication links to Kimberley and capture the retreating British. V-M was going to attack the British garrison from the north. V-M believed the garrison strength to be 300 to 400 men. However, the day before the attack, he was informed that Lieutenant-General Methuen had arrived in the area with a force of about 7 000 men. V-M refused to believe this information.
On the afternoon of 4 April V-M decided to proceed towards Boshof in order to be encamped on the outskirts by nightfall. Boer leader Daniels informed V-M, that because of the size of the British force, he didn’t want to be part of the attack. Some of V-M’s men, on hearing this, voiced their feelings about the planned attack, but this didn’t move V-M, he was going ahead with the attack on the following day. V-M’s plan to advance towards Boshof that afternoon didn’t materialise due to the withdrawal of the Boers and the uncertainty of some of his men. That night they decided to make their way towards Boshof, but being a moonless night, they got lost.
At first light on 5 April V-M’s force spotted Boshof in the distance and decided to rest up, having been on the move for most of the night. The book ‘The French General’ by Roy Macnab (page 202) relates – “About 800 metres away they reached a group of small koppies, one of which was crowned by a shady wild olive tree. They were now on the farm Karreepan, whose owner, Hendrik Groenewald, was at that moment being held prisoner at Kimberley. Here they proposed to rest for the day. The horses were put to graze, and the men took a cold meal and slept. V-M and Breda posted their sentries. Beyond them stretched the dry, dusty veld, its flat monotony broken every now and again by eruptions of rocks and small koppies. No one would choose to spend a hot day there, but on 5 April 1900 V-M had little choice.”
The British garrison, now with a force of 7 000 men, was less than 8 km away and a little after 10 am that morning, Methuen knew exactly where V-M and his men were.
Macnab goes on with the story (page 204) – “It was about 1.30 p.m. when V-M became aware the Methuen’s force was marching out of Boshof towards him. His aide-de-camp, Pierre de Breda, described what happened – I was talking to V-M when he suddenly caught sight of a few horsemen. The English! I went off to wake the men quietly for we hoped to surprise this little reconnoitring party. There were so few of them we did not fetch our horses. They came nearer. All of a sudden, behind them in the distance, a long column of ‘khakies’ came in sight. It was no longer a question of surprising a patrol. We had to defend ourselves. V-M at once realised the gravity of the situation.”
And further – “Someone suggested that they should grab their horses and make a dash for it. One of the Hollanders did and got away, so did several of the Boers. For V-M, however, the idea of retreat was altogether out of the question. ’Anything but that’ he said, and, unhesitatingly decided to fight it out to the death, he took steps to make his position as strong as possible.”
The position that V-M decided on was the two nearby koppies, the higher of the two which had the wild fig tree on the summit. V-M occupied this koppie, the Hollanders the smaller koppie to the west, with the remaining Boers just to the north of this position. Methuen occupied a koppie approximately 1 km from V-M and commenced with an artillery bombardment from the 15 pounder guns they had. Whilst this was happening, British forces were outflanking V-M’s position on the left and right. As the afternoon wore on, a thunder storm threatened, and V-M was hoping that this would break to enable him to retreat. The threat never materialised.
Macnab goes on (page 205) – “Slowly the afternoon wore away and so, little by little, did their hopes: constant fire from the Maxims had shattered the tree; earth and rocks lay pitted about them and already they had lost some of their number killed and wounded. Over on the other koppie, some of the Hollanders and Boers, had had enough and wanted to surrender. At the request of his men Coleman (who commanded the Boers) sent a message to V-M that he thought they should give up. If that is what they wanted, V-M answered, then they should stay on their own koppie. ‘Here, we shall never surrender’ he declared. The battle went on and before it was over Coleman was severely wounded.”
The battle had gone on for four hours when Methuen ordered his troops, closest to where V-M was holding out, to fix bayonets. V-M responded with an order of his own to charge the British. The leading Frenchman was gunned down and V-M waited, revolver in hand, for the enemy to come into sight. He fired two shots before he was gunned down. Macnab describes the scene as follows (page 207) – “V-M dead, the battle no longer had any purpose, and his interpreter, van Maasteven, put up the white flag.”
It is ironical that minutes after V-M had been gunned down the heavens opened and the storm that he needed to help with the situation on hand, had eventually arrived.
Casualties were light. The British had three killed and 13 wounded, with V-M’s force suffering 12 killed and over 50 taken prisoner.
As a footnote, Villebois-Mareuil’s body was taken to Boshof, and given a full military burial by the British, which was paid for by Methuen out of his own pocket. In 1971 his body was exhumed and reburied in the Heroes Acre in Magersfontein. A Mass was held in Paris at the Notre Dame Cathedral, which was attended by thousands. Later in April 1900 the Boer Foreign Legion was disbanded and its members placed under General de la Rey. V-M’s horse was transported to Britain by Lord Chesham, where it lived until February 1911.