South African Battle: 12 October 1899

Battle of Kraaipan

The Battle of Kraaipan was the first engagement of the South African War (1899-1902) and is recorded to having been fought on 12 October 1899.

In the book ‘De la Rey – Lion of the West’ by Johannes Meintjies it records (page 105) – “It was about one o’clock on the morning of the 13 October. For an hour desperate attempts were made to bring the train back on the line, de la Rey keeping his men quiet, while he waited for the artillery under Captain van der Merwe whom he had sent for the moment the locomotive was derailed. From some distance away de la Rey heard shots being fired and knew his artillery was on its way. It was then that the dreaded armoured train gave the first show of its capabilities by firing two cannon and a Maxim. The men firing them were in such a state of fright that they kept on through the night. De la Rey’s men began to fire back, but he waved their rifles aside, telling them that they were merely wasting ammunition.”.

De la Rey, once war had been declared, had made his way to the Bechuanaland border with men of the Potchefstroom and Lichtenburg commandos to attack and capture the British garrison and railway siding at Kraaipan, which was 45 km south west of Mafeking. On 11 October, Baden-Powell who was at Mafeking, ordered the British troops and police, who were manning the garrison, to proceed to Mafeking. On reaching the siding de la Rey found that only the station-master was present, and de la Rey proceeded to cut the telegraph lines and damage a portion of the railway line in order to prevent supplies from the south getting through to Mafeking. The station-master informed de la Rey that there was an armoured train on its way from Mafeking. Once the objective of damaging communication infrastructure had been accomplished, de la Rey sent his scouts out and soon established that an armoured train was approaching the railway siding.

Quoting from Meintjies (page 103) – “The wrecking of railway lines was an important feature of the war. In the beginning the Boers broke up the lines over a distance, but as the enemy only used the line during the day, they were usually able to repair it before damage was done.”  

Later on in the war more sophisticated ways of destroying railway infrastructure were developed where lines were blown up using dynamite. The Boers used a modified rifle, where the weight of a train passing over the rifle would trigger off a shot, igniting the dynamite. Both the rifle and dynamite had to be cleverly disguised and hidden to be effective and not discovered.

The armoured train, named ‘Mosquito’, and referred to as a mobile fort, consisted of an engine and two trucks and was lined with bullet-proof armour sheeting. It was armed with a Maxim and two 7-pounder cannons. As the ‘fort’ approached the station at Kraaipan it reached the point where the railway line had been removed and came to a grinding halt. Efforts were then made to try and replace the train on the rails, but these efforts were hampered by sporadic Boer rifle fire. During the night the British used their cannons and the Maxim in an effort to keep the Boers at a distance.

At first light Captain van der Merwe of the Staats Artillery, with men and two Krupp guns arrived and de la Rey positioned them strategically to fire on the stranded locomotive. Again, quoting from Meintjies (page 105) – “Firing from the armoured train continued as it had done for hours without effecting anything. De la Rey told van der Merwe and his men to bombard the train. The third shot hit the boiler, sending up a frightful cloud of steam, and de la Rey raised his hand to say that was enough. As if to prove it, a white flag went up, and de la Rey and his men surrounded the train.” Meintjies carries on – “Captain Nesbitt, who was in command of the train, was wounded, as well as some of the thirty men under him. They were rounded up and conducted as prisoners of war to the laager of General Cronje.”

The Boers were successful in seizing a number of field guns and ammunition, and suffered no casualties. Most accounts of the battle record that there were nine of the British force who were wounded. Arthur Conan Doyle in his book ‘The Great Boer War’ (page 406) records – “On October 12, the day after the declaration of war, an armoured train conveying two 7-pounders from the Mafeking defences was derailed and captured by a Boer raiding party at Kraaipan, a place 40 miles south of their destination. The enemy shelled the shattered train until after 5 hours Captain Nesbitt, who was in command, and his men, some twenty in number, surrendered. It was a small affair, but it derived importance from being the first bloodshed and the first tactical success of the war.”

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