South African Battle: 30 September 1901

Battle of Moedwil, huge initial losses for the British

In his book ‘De la Rey – Lion of the West’, Johannes Meintjies writes “One British Commander after the other was sent to round up de la Rey, in vain and with great losses, as Methuen, Babington, Dixon, Clements, Cunningham and others knew to their cost.”

 Boer General de la Rey had been active in the Zeerust area for the better part of September 1901, but with two British columns under Colonels Kekewich and Fetherstonhaugh close on his trail, de la Rey moved closer to Rustenburg.

 On 22 September 1901, Colonel Kekewich marched his column through the Megato’s Nek scouting for Boers along the Elands River. On the afternoon of 29 September he arrived at Moedwil Farm which was situated on the Selons River, about 25 km west of Rustenburg.

 Kekewich had on the previous day sent his supply column with an escort, to Megato’s Nek to replenish his depleted supplies. Having chosen this site, the 800 men under his command bivouacked for the night. Together with the men he had three guns from the 28th Royal Field Artillery and a Vickers machine gun.

Kekewich’s week of scouting had not made contact with any Boers and they therefore believed that there were no Boers in the vicinity. The camp site chosen, according to one source, was not ideally suited as it was clearly visible on the skyline. Together with this was the fact that there was a steep dry river embankment to the west of the camp-site. However, in the already referred to book by Meintjies, he (Meintjies) states – “in spite of a good position and far-flung pickets”, so Kekewich’s choice of camp-site might not have been questionable.

Boer General de la Rey had made contact with General Kemp and together they planned an attack on Kekewich’s camp. The Boers were fully aware of the column’s position and size. Just before 5 am on the morning of 30 September Kemp progressed with his attack on the camp. The Yeomanry pickets alerted the British troops about a party of burghers advancing towards their camp. Kemp sent out two outflanking wings to surround the British camp, while the main thrust, which was from the centre, advanced from Selons River. Despite the warning from the pickets, the attack was a complete surprise and many of the horses stampeded leaving the camp-site in turmoil.

Dawn was just breaking and it was almost impossible to pick out the Boers. However, the now armed British moved towards the river to confront their attackers. Reports then came through that the Boers were mounting an attack on the rear of the camp.

With huge initial losses the British had to rally every man they could to counter this new attack and a group of orderlies, cooks and batmen were pressed into service. Meintjies goes on to describe the action as follows – “Kekewich at once tried to beat de la Rey’s men back from their position which by this stage had given them command of the camp, for it was impossible to retreat without a disastrous abandonment of stores. Kekewich got his men to close in upon the river bank in order to get to close quarters to drive the Boers out from their commanding position.” Meintjies goes on to say, “More than half the British horses and a large number of their Officers and men had been mown down by the pelting bullets. The British advance was slow, then quickened to a magnificent rush, with the guns coming into action and by 6 am de la Rey’s commando retreated.”

Lionel Wulfsohn in his book ‘Rustenburg at War’ describes the end of the encounter as follows – “At about 6 am the Boers, realising that they were up against extremely tough, brave opponents, heavily outnumbered, and running out of ammunition, began to withdraw in two and threes. As the Times History says, with these seasoned veterans there was no panic or disorder, but the repulse was final.”

 The British losses were 61 killed or mortally wounded and 158 wounded, including Kekewich. However over 300 horses and draught animals were lost in the short engagement. The Boer losses were 11 killed and 35 wounded.

Private Bees of the Derbyshire Regiment was awarded the VC for gallantry in this action. He fetched water for the wounded soldiers from the nearby river under short-range enemy fire.

As a side-line, Kekewich in a telegram to Lord Kitchener stated – “we fired 67 050 rounds of small arms ammunition”. Wulfsohn in his book summarises – “Taking into consideration that this action only lasted for about 75 minutes, this means that the British rate of fire was approximately 900 rounds a minute.”