South African Battle: 11 July 1900
A ‘mini Colenso’ – Saving of the Guns
After the fall of Pretoria on 5 June 1900 the Boer General de la Rey was sent back to reorganise and revitalise the Western Transvaal burghers. They had begun to think that the war was over and had surrendered the town of Rustenburg to Lieutenant Colonel Baden-Powell. Many Boers decided to sign an oath of allegiance to the British – and to down arms.
On 11 July 1900, the Gordon Highlanders and Shropshire Regiment under the command of Major-General Smith-Dorrien left Krugersdorp for Hekpoort in order to join the Scots Greys from Pretoria and link up with Major General Lord Baden-Powell at Olifantsnek, south of Rustenburg. The force consisted of about 1 335 men, 597 Gordon Highlanders, 680 Shropshires, 34 Imperial Yeomanry with a Colt gun, two guns of Royal Field Artilleries 78th Battery, three ambulances and forty wagons. Unbeknown to Smith-Dorrien, the Scots Greys were being attacked by the Boers at the same time at Silkaatsnek. The Boers were in fact involved in four battles on this day – Witpoort, east of Pretoria; Onderstepoort to the north; and Zilikat’s Nek (Silkaatsnek) and Dwarsvlei in the west. The results of the actions at the last three sites were disastrous to the British.
De la Rey had seemingly reversed the tide and many Boers, who had previously thought the war would end soon, re-joined their local commandos. There are stories that when the Boers handed in their arms after the fall of Pretoria, it was their old ‘muzzle loaders’ that they sacrificed, keeping their latest rifles in their possession, supposedly for hunting purposes.
From the book “With the Gordon Highlanders”, which is written around the diary kept by a Gordon Highlander who experienced the battle, Lachlan Gordon-Duff writes:
“After about 9 miles, when we were getting rather tired, firing was heard, and the guns ordered up. Of course we went with them, passing the advanced guards and everyone else. We had to climb a low grass hill. There was a valley and the Boers position was on 2 koppies overlooking ours. The guns went too fast for us making for a gap 80 yards wide between 2 rocky heads on our koppie. The two guns were unlimbered and had fired about 2 shots when a very heavy rifle fire was opened on them and us.”
The Boers, mainly from the Krugersdorp Commando under General Sarel Oosthuizen, opened fire on them from the high ground. The Gordon’s took up positions on the koppies. As at Colenso, the horse-drawn artillery in their eagerness to come into action, had left the infantry behind and found themselves in an exposed position. Having stationed the guns they sent the limbers 500 meters to the rear, instead of taking advantage of the perfect cover provided by koppies and the troops that had just occupied them.
The deadly Boer fire, 750 metres away, soon took its toll and within half an hour, fourteen of the seventeen gunners had been hit and the guns had been silenced. The section commander, Lieutenant Turner, although wounded three times, continued for some time to fire one of the guns himself. Another quote from the above book:
“Firing was next heard in the rear, where the Shropshires were attacked, but luckily they kept them off or we should have been taken in the rear as well and pretty well wiped out. Next they attacked our baggage pretty hotly, killing a mule or two before firing into the wagons.”
One of the limber teams, in endeavouring to remove a gun, had four horses shot and gave up the attempt, while the horses of the other had taken fright and bolted.
“The whole thing began at 12 a.m. and about 1 p.m. a very fine account was made to save the guns. I did not know anything of it till I happened to look around. I saw about a dozen of our fellows trying to haul out the guns lead by Gordon and Younger. However it was absolutely impossible under such a fire and lots of them were hit, poor Younger first in the head, which apparently was not very serious, then in the thigh, and badly in the stomach.”
Captain W E Gordon with some Gordon Highlanders then made a gallant but ultimately unsuccessful attempt to manhandle the guns. Captain D R Younger was severely wounded, seventeen others wounded, and three men were killed in the attempt.
For his efforts, Captain Gordon was awarded the Victoria Cross, while Captain Younger’s award was given posthumously, he having succumbed to his wounds later that day. Corporal J F Mackay had been recommended for the Victoria Cross at Doornkop on 29 May 1900 as well as Dwarsvlei, where he had dashed out from the safety of the right koppie, hoisted Captain Younger on his back, and carried him behind the left koppie under the concentrated fire.
On being made aware of what was happening Lord Roberts signalled from Pretoria just after midday that the operation was to be cancelled and that the force must retire to Krugersdorp. Orders were issued for the withdrawal, but Lieutenant Turner, upon hearing of them from where he lay wounded, refused to leave without the guns. On the assurance from Colonel Macbean that this was possible and that the Gordon’s could hold on all day, General Smith-Dorrien cancelled the order.
Skirmishes continued for the rest of the day. From the book again:
“Then began the most exciting period of the whole day. The moon was rising behind us and the sun was setting behind the Boers, and when it was fairly dark we could see the outline of the hill and of the movement of the Boers.”
The Boers made advances on the Gordon’s position and on the guns for the next few hours. Rifle fire at times was fairly hectic with most firing blindly and recklessly at flashes.
“I noticed they fired towards the guns to prevent our going towards them as they advanced. When a team of six horses was brought up and hooked on without a shot being fired from the enemy, we knew they must have sneaked off. To our intense relief, both guns and a limber were taken away without a shot being fired …………We got an order from the General to retire at 8, which we did.”
The Boers retreated under cover of nightfall. This engagement was described by Major-General Smith-Dorrien as their ‘most trying fight of the whole war’.