karee siding

South African Battle: 29 March 1900

An important step for Roberts in his advance to the Transvaal

Karee Siding, was a railway siding, 30 km north of the Free State capital of Bloemfontein. British forces under General Roberts had occupied Bloemfontein on 13 March 1900. Boer General de Wet decided at a Boer Krygsraad (Council of War) on 17 March, at Kroonstad, to let the Free State forces return home, but to return on 25 March. General de la Rey and his commandos continued to occupy the hills through which the railway line passed from Bloemfontein to Brandfort.

Roberts in the meantime, having rested his troops after their taking Bloemfontein, had planned his move northwards and decided to use Karee Siding as a supply base. Roberts began concentrating troops at the Glen Siding, a point 11 km south of Karee Siding where the railway crossed the Modder River and where the Boers had recently destroyed the bridge. 

By 28 March, 9 000 British troops were at the Glen Siding, comprising the 7th Infantry Division of 6 000 men, two cavalry brigades totalling 2 000 horsemen and a 1 000-strong mounted infantry brigade. Supporting this force were 30 field-guns and two pom-pom quick-fire guns. Lieutenant-General French commanded the cavalry and Lieutenant-General Tucker the infantry, which included a brigade of mounted infantry led by Colonel Le Gallais. Amongst Le Gallais’ brigade was the New South Wales Mounted Rifles under Lieutenant-Colonel Knight, with the 1st Cavalry Brigade led by Colonel Porter. This brigade contained a squadron of the New South Wales Lancers commanded by Captain Cox and another of the 1st Australian Horse commanded by Captain Elworthy.

French and Tucker both arrived at the Glen Siding on the evening of 28 March. Although lacking reconnaissance information regarding enemy positions, the British were determined on making an infantry advance directly along the railway line accompanied by their traditional flanking movements on both flanks. The plan was for the cavalry to proceed on the west (left flank) and mounted infantry on the east. Unknown to the British there were 3 500 Boers led by General Tobias Smuts in the absence of de la Rey who had been ordered by President Kruger to proceed to Mafeking. The bulk of the Boer forces were deployed east of the railway, in three parallel ranges of hills running across the British line of advance. There were also Boer commandos deployed on a plateau called Houtenbeck on the other side (west) of the tracks.

On the morning of 29 March 1900 the British set off for Karee Siding. Initially the British advance met no resistance. The flanking movements encountered no opposition, and Tucker’s infantry set off to take the first of the ridges on the far east of the three. By 1.30 p.m. the second ridge was taken, with the leading troops attracting sporadic fire from the Boers. Approaching the hill closest the railway line the Boers commandos from Utrecht and Wakkerstroom disclosed their presence in strength, opening with heavy fire from positions concealed in the natural cover on the hillside. For about an hour a fire-fight took place on this front, with the British retreating to a nearby ditch for cover. On the left the British line also encountered the Boers on the Houtenbeck plateau. British artillery was brought up to deal with the Boers on both sides of the railway, and shortly after 4 p.m. a bayonet charge against the Houtenbeck trenches found the Boers already in flight.

On the eastern side of the railway line the Boers were holding a far superior force at bay. However, as the battle progressed, the Boers realised that there was a chance of their retreat being cut off by the British, and they retreated. In this operation the British sustained 189 casualties – 19 men killed and 170 injured. The Boer casualties in the battle were three killed and 18 wounded. The victory was important in opening the way for Roberts to resume his advance to the Transvaal.

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