South African Battle: 29 & 30 May 1900

Battle of Doornkop

The Battle of Doornkop was the final battle in the occupation of Johannesburg. Over the course of 29 and 30 May the British troops under the command of General Roberts executed their well-planned attack on the city of gold.  Once across the Vaal River they had been involved in various actions on the outskirts of Johannesburg.  They were also aware of a considerable presence of Boer Commandos defending the city.

Doornkop is a ridge on the western boundary of Johannesburg, and much of the area covered by the British advance is now the suburban expanses of Roodepoort and Soweto.  However, it played a significant part in the history of Johannesburg in that it was here in January 1896 that the Jameson Raid was halted, and some four years later the last battle in the surrender of Johannesburg was fought.

Roberts’s advance on Johannesburg was two pronged.  The columns under Lieutenant-General French and Lieutenant-General Hamilton were to advance to the west of Johannesburg, with the main force under the command of Major-General Tucker and Major-General Pole-Carew making its way along the railway line, to the east of Johannesburg.  On 28 May, having just crossed the Klip River, French’s column met unexpected resistance from a heavy bombardment from the Boers.  His advance was temporarily halted and he withdrew to re-group.  Hamilton by this stage, with his column, was close behind French, and he moved further west to commence a flanking movement.  Together with the force of over 20 000, the British had over 30 guns bombarding the Boers defensive position.  In addition to their heavy artillery, the Boers had the Long Tom Gun which had been in action at Mafeking.

    On the morning of 29 May, French made no progress with his cavalry and mounted infantry under the continued barrage of Boer gunfire. Boer General, Ben Viljoen writes in his memoirs that “the British now marched on Doornkop, their real object of attack being our extreme right wing. Our line of defence was very extended and weakened by the removal of a body of men who had been sent to stop the other body of enemy from forcing its way along the railway line and cutting off our retreat to Pretoria.”

    When Hamilton was positioned, French withdrew and Hamilton commenced with his full frontal attack on Doornkop with two infantry brigades. The Gordon Highlanders were right in front. With the advance of the British, the Boers set fire to the veld.
    To quote from the regimental history – “The leading battalion of the 19th Brigade were the Gordon’s, there was no chance for selection. Their extension and advance were conducted with machine like regularity. The grass in front of them was burnt and burning, and against this dark background the kakhi figures showed distinctly. The Boers held their fire until the attack was within 800 yards, and then, louder than the cannonade, the ominous rattle of concentrated rifle-fire burst forth.”

    Lachlan Gordon-Duff in his memoirs writes, “… within 400 yards, the Boers were behind a lot of rocks and had burnt away all the grass. The fire was now very heavy and men were falling and the only thing to do was charge.” He goes on with much more about the battle, but ends with, “as soon as we noticed they were giving up we rushed at them, this time not being fired on. We got a few prisoners and some dead and wounded, by which time it was getting dark and it was all over.”

    The Gordon’s weren’t the only regiment in the attack on Doornkop. They were joined by men from the C.I.V. (City Imperial Volunteers – from London) and the Royal Canadian Regiment who covered both flanks of the Gordon’s. The attack commenced just after midday and lasted until sunset when the Boers retreated. In the Regimental records of the C.I.V. and the Canadians, both report that the casualties to the Gordon’s were heavy with the C.I.V. reporting that 12 of their men were wounded and the Canadians had seven wounded. Thomas Packenham records that the Gordon’s lost 100 men in 10 minutes. The regimental history records that “Captain Meyrick and 19 men were killed with 78 men wounded”. Gordon-Duff, who was there, records in his memoirs that ” … our dead and wounded numbered 97. Later 15 or 16 died of wounds and another four or five died of wounds in hospital.”
    Reports in the Morning Post in the UK relating to the battle, and more specifically to the Gordon Highlanders (attributed to Winston Churchill) were, amongst others – “I think, the finest performance I have seen in the whole campaign”, and “There is no doubt they are the finest regiment in the world.” One Victoria Cross was awarded – to Corporal F. Mackay, for conspicuous bravery in dressing the wounds of comrades and carrying one man some distance under heavy fire.

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