South African Battle: 11 & 12 June 1900
Battle of Diamond Hill
On 4 June 1900, after a number of skirmishes to the south, east and west of Pretoria, General Louis Botha, through a message (ultimatum) sent by the British that evening, was informed that unless the Boers surrendered, the bombardment of Pretoria would commence mid-morning on the following day. Having received the ultimatum, Botha, together with his senior Officers, decided to evacuate Pretoria. A decision at the subsequent Council of War was to make a stand north east of the City.
Jan Smuts, who was still the State Attorney at the time that the ultimatum was delivered, managed to load all state capital, and whatever he could find at the mint, on a train bound for Machadadorp, where President Kruger and his government were housed. At 10 am on 5 June 1900 General Roberts entered Pretoria unopposed.
After the fall of Pretoria without a shot being fired, General Botha, called a meeting of all his senior officers on 7 June. In addition to getting buy-in from all to carry on with the war, it was to plan a line of defence to prevent the British advance to the east. This defensive line was to extend 40 km, with the Pretoria/Delagoa Bay railway line running through the centre of the position. The defensive position chosen was in the hills, 30 km to the east of Pretoria.
The railway line ran through Pienaar’s Poort in the centre, with the Boer right flank occupying Boekenhout’s Kloof Ridge under General de la Rey and Commandant Snyman with 350 Boers, and their left flank in the south east occupying Kleinzonderhout Ridge under General Botha’s command.
Early on the morning of 11 June the British mounted their three pronged attack on the Boers. Lieutenant-Colonel French advanced on the Boers right flank and Lieutenant-General Hamilton advanced on the Boers left flank, with Lieutenant-Colonel Pole-Carew concentrating on the centre.
In the centre, General Roberts mounted a heavy artillery attack on the well-fortified Boer positions where the Boer Long Tom was mounted on a rail-truck. In total the British had about 4 700 cavalry and just over 8 000 infantry. Due to the nature of the terrain, the cavalry found the going tough and were almost ineffective.
During the course of the day little ground was gained by the British attack, other than minor positions taken on the Boer flanks. At nightfall, Roberts decided to call off the attack and to consider his options for the following day.
At first light on 12 June the British mounted their attack on the central position, just to the south of Pienaar’s Poort with the objective being to take the commanding positions of Diamond Hill and Donkerhoek. French and Hamilton, who were both still on the Boer flanks saw little action during the course of the day, but kept the Boers occupied through their presence. In fact General French, by the end of the day was being outmanoeuvred by de la Rey. By early afternoon, through consistent heavy gunfire, the crest of Diamond Hill was occupied by the British. Late in the afternoon, General de la Rey asked General Botha for re-enforcements as he believed that he had the upper hand against French. This request was denied as the Boers were busy trying to delay the British at Diamond Hill and Donkerhoek. With the British now in command of both Diamond Hill and Donderhoek, Botha realised that the Boers could be cut off from their way to the East. Elandsriver Station, to the east of Pienaar’s Poort, could easily be taken thus cutting off the retreat of supplies and the rail mounted Long Tom.
As with the previous day, when night fall came, silence prevailed and both forces were given the opportunity to plan their next moves.
During the night, after consulting with his senior officers, General Botha decided to withdraw his whole force eastwards towards Bronkhorstspruit. All Boer forces had now vacated Pretoria and its surrounds.
On 14 June General Roberts wired the War Office the following:
“As I telegraphed yesterday, from our outposts 15 miles east of Pretoria, the Boers evacuated their position during the night of 12 June. They had paid so much attention to strengthening their flanks that the centre was weakly held, and as soon as this became evident, I directed Ian Hamilton to attack. He moved against Diamond Hill with the Sussex, Derby and City Imperial Yeomanry, supported on his left by the Guard’s Brigade under Inigo Jones”.
Hamilton, in his book ‘Listening for the Drums’, has the following to say about an incident in the battle:
“Our troops laid below a high mound, the crest of which was held by the Boers. The key to the battlefield, lay on the summit, but nobody knew it until Winston Churchill, who had been attached to my column by the High Command, somehow managed to give me the slip and climb this mountain, most of it being dead ground to the Boers lining the crest-line, as they had to keep their heads down owing to our heavy gun fire. He climbed this mountain as our scouts were trained to climb on the Indian Frontier, and he ensconced himself in a niche not more than a pistol shot directly below the Boer Commando – no mean feat of arms in broad daylight. It was also a feat which showed ‘a fine trust’ on Churchill’s part in the accuracy of the British artillery which was firing at the crest. Had even half a dozen of the Boers run 20 yards over the brow, they could have knocked him off his perch with a volley of stones. Thus it was that from his lofty perch, Winston had the nerve to signal me with his handkerchief on a stick, that if I could only manage to gallop up at the head of my mounted infantry, we ought to be able to rush this summit. Hamilton did just that, and the Boers were driven back.”
Hamilton’s full account refers to Churchill’s ‘conspicuous gallantry’, a phrase which is often used in recommendations for the VC – and goes on to say that Churchill had never received full credit for his actions.
British casualties were under 30 killed and around 100 wounded. One of their casualties was the commander of the Lancers, Lieutenant-Colonel Ogilvy, the Earl of Airlie.