South African Battle: 6 November 1900
Battle of Doornkraal (Bothaville)
There were a number of significant battles fought during the November months of the South African War (1899-1902), such as the battles of Belmont, Graspan, Modder River and others. However, the battle of Doornkraal, also referred to as Bothaville, where I believe the prize for the British was far greater than all the others put together, although being sympathetic to the greater loss of lives in some of the other battles, is my battle of the month.
Boer General Christiaan de Wet, one of the most successful Boer commanders in the war, who was creating havoc with the British supply lines, and the Free State President, Marthinus Steyn were both in camp when the British attacked on 6 November 1900.
The town of Bothaville had been attacked in the latter part of October 1900 and cleared of Boer troops. Doornkraal was a farm 10 km south of Bothaville with the Valsch River running between the two. Boer commandos had encamped on Doornkraal during the day of 5 November, with the British under the command of Major-General Knox, who had been in pursuit of the Boers during the course of the day, making for the District of Bothaville, together with troops in his column under the command of Colonels de Lille and le Gallais. During the day sporadic engagements had taken place between the two forces with no real result being achieved.
Colonel le Gallais had spent the night at Bothaville and at 4 am on the morning of 6 November he and his force left the town with Major Lean and the Mounted Infantry in the lead. They crossed the River and soon thereafter came on a Boer picket who were ‘fast asleep’. Having captured the picket, they made their way to the top of the adjacent hill. In the book, Three Years War, which are the reminiscences of Christiaan de Wet and the South African War, he states the following about the incident (pages 214, 215) – “I placed an outpost that night close to the river and told them to stay there until the following day. The burghers of this watch returned in the morning and reported that they had seen nothing but wreaths of smoke ascending from the north bank of the river. They believed these came from the English camp. We were still safe then – so at least we all believed.
But the corporal who had brought this report had but just left me, and was scarcely one hundred paces off when I heard the reports of rifles. The English were within three hundred paces of us, on a little hill, and close to the spot from whence my outpost had just returned.”
One has to believe one of these stories, however the surprise engagement was well under way. To return to de Wet’s book, he goes on to say (page 215) – “The scene which ensued was unlike anything I had ever witnessed before. I had heard a good deal about panic – I was now to see one with my own eyes.”
Major Lean now spread his force and started with concentrated fire on the Boers who had now been forced into action. It was 5.30 am and the sun had risen. Many Boers were trying to escape, amongst those were de Wet and Steyn. In the centre of the camp was a garden, surrounded by a brick wall behind which many of the Boers sought shelter. The British had occupied the nearby farm house and kraal. Colonel le Gallais was mortally wounded in the skirmish. The Boers were not going to give up their guns, although they were unable to bring them into action, without a fight. The battle had lasted for over four hours when the re-enforcements of Colonels de Lisle and Knox arrived, strengthening both flanks of the British force.
The remaining Boers were forced into the brick enclosure which enabled the British to concentrate Pom-Pom fire on the enclosure. After a concentrated rifle attack, and just before a bayonet charge, the Boers raised the white flag: to quote from ‘After Pretoria the Guerrilla War’, supplement to ‘With the Flag to Pretoria’ – “At once the Boers climbed over the walls and sulkily made their surrender. In all six guns and 100 prisoners were taken by the British. The guns were one 15-pounder of the weapons lost at Colenso, one 12-pounder lost by Q Battery at Koorn Spruit, three Krupp 15-pounders and one ‘Pom-pom’. In addition a maxim and thirteen wagon loads of ammunition and supplies were among the British trophies. The enemy left 25 dead and wounded on the field.” The same publication gives the British casualties as follows – “Three officers, including le Gallais, and eight men were killed; thirty three officers and men were wounded.”
The British decided to pursue the fleeing Boers, but because the Boers were in small groups, fleeing in all directions, the chase was called off. A comment from ‘The Times History’ (vol. V, page 21), with credit to Robin Smith and the South African Military History Society, states – “It was yet to be learnt that the capture of guns and supplies was of very ‘secondary importance’ in the guerrilla war which was now gathering momentum. Had they succeeded in capturing de Wet and President Marthinus Steyn during the ambush at Doornkraal, this would surely have had a significant effect on the progress of the war. But the two men had escaped, and what is truly remarkable is that little more than a fortnight later, de Wet had assembled another force. With 1 500 men and a Krupp gun, he remained a thorn in the side of the British, overcoming an entrenched British garrison, 450 strong, and capturing the town of Dewetsdorp in the Southern Free State as he made his way to invade the Cape Colony.”