South African Battle: 23 to 25 January 1901
Battle of Middelfontein
Early in 1901 the Boers were becoming a nuisance to the British in the Western Transvaal (now North West Province).
December 1900 had seen the Battles of Buffelspoort, Nooitgedacht and Hekpoort along with other skirmishes and the British were intent on trying to capture the Boer Commandos in the area – mainly General de la Rey.
On 22 January 1901 Lieutenant-General French ordered General Cunningham, who was based at the garrison in Rustenburg, to take a column of troops and make for Vlakfontein so as to prevent de la Rey from moving eastwards towards Krugersdorp.
Early on the morning of 23 January General Cunningham left Rustenburg, making his way on the road to Ventersdorp. Initially the British advanced unhindered, but as the day progressed, Boer activity in the form of sniping increased. Commandant Potgieter with the Wolmaranstad Commando had become aware of the British movement and had informed de la Rey, who was some 25km away, of their presence. With the Boer opposition increasing as the column moved further south, Cunningham decided to pitch camp on the farm Middelfontein.
Once the decision had been made to pitch camp, the advance guard came under heavy fire from the Boers. The British artillery was brought into action and the hills that were occupied by the Boers were alive with rifle fire.
The 2nd Worcester Regiment were deployed to attack the ridge where the Boers were concentrated and after a period of sustained rifle fire from both sides, the Boers retreated. This all took place early in the afternoon and whilst this was happening the transport was being moved to a place of relative safety. Cunningham was able to heliograph the British position at Olifant’s Nek and whilst doing this he was informed of the passing of Queen Victoria.
That night pickets were posted but the camp site selected was not ideal as it was surrounded by hills. During the night, unbeknown to the British, de la Rey and the Rustenburg commando arrived, and together with Potgieter’s men, the Boers surrounded the British camp.
Just before dawn on 24 January the Boers overwhelmed one of the outlying pickets and heavy rifle fire from both sides followed. The British realised that they were surrounded and orders were given to reinforce the pickets.
Heavy fighting continued throughout the day with the British using their artillery to good effect to keep the Boers at a ‘comfortable’ distance from the camp. Fortunately Cunningham was still, by both heliograph and lamp, in contact with Olifant’s Nek and therefore also with Pretoria. He had consequently reported his situation and had been informed that General Babbington from Ventersdorp, some 65km away, was moving to his assistance. Unfortunately, he was only expected to arrive by night fall the following day. Cunningham’s fear was that other Boers in the area, such as General Beyers, would arrive before the British reinforcements.
During the day the Border Regiment were lucky enough to find some unoccupied Native kraals which formed an excellent defensive position looking over a break in the hills through which a Boer advance was expected.
British casualties for the day were heavy with six men killed and 36 wounded. Major Vandeleur of the Irish Guards was severely wounded and eventually died in August 1901 of the wounds he received. Lieutenant Lees of the Border Regiment was also injured. The day ended with a heavy bombardment of the hills from the British Artillery.
When dawn broke on 25 January the British thought the Boers had withdrawn as there was no action at all. The Boer scouts had reported that there was a relieving force approaching from Ventersdorp, so had regrouped to avoid being attacked from the rear. The odd rifle fire was heard from the Boers but the morning passed with little action from either side.
Around midday Cunningham was made aware of Babbington’s approach and decided to move camp. Once on the move the rear guard of the column came under attack from the Boers with two men being killed and four injured.
Total casualties on the British side were 12 killed, 47 wounded and three reported missing. The missing were obviously taken prisoner, but later released by the Boers.
Peet Coetzee, an authority on the battles in the Magaliesberg, records the Boer losses as being six killed and 19 wounded.