South African Battle: 7 June 1900
Battle of Roodewal Station
Three days before General de Wet attacked Roodewal Station, his commandos captured a British convoy which was on its way to Roodewal. The convoy comprised 56 wagons and 200 men, and not a shot was fired in the capture which was in the Boers favour as the British troops at Roodewal could have been alerted. General de Wet’s memoirs, ‘The Three Years War’ records the following (page 98) – “Fortunately, all this occurred out of sight of Roodewal Station and Heilbron, and, as not a single shot had been fired, I had no reason so far to fear that there was any obstacle in the way of my main project – the capture of the valuable booty at Roodewal.”
De Wet goes on to describe the preparation for the battle (page 98) – “On the evening of the 6th June I started on my road to Roodewal. At Walfontein I divided my troops into three parties. The first party, consisting of three hundred men with one Krupp, I despatched under Commandant Steenkamp to Vredefort Road Station, with orders to attack it the following day at sunrise. General Froneman, with Commandants Nel and du Plooij, were in command of the second party, which consisted of three hundred burghers, with two Krupps and one quick-firing gun. My orders were that at daybreak, they were to attack an English camp which was lying a mile to the north of the railway station at Rhenoster River, and close to some brick-coloured ridges. The third party I commanded myself. It consisted of Commandant Fourie and eighty burghers with one Krupp; and with this force I pushed on to Roodewal Station.” At first light on the morning of 7 June 1900 de Wet sent a message to the British at the station demanding their surrender. The reply, unsurprisingly, was negative, so the Boers opened up with both artillery and rifle fire. De Wet was forced to reposition his Krupp as it became clear that it had been positioned with insufficient cover during the night.
At 10 am Froneman’s force had succeeded in getting the British force he was sent to attack to surrender. The two Krupp guns that he had taken with him were now sent to re-enforce de Wet’s position. Once these two guns came into effect, it took an hour for the British at Roodewal Station to surrender. De Wet goes on (page 101) –“When the enemy had been under fire of three guns and 80 Mausers for an hour, they thought it best to hoist the white flag. We accordingly ceased firing, and I rode out towards the station. Before I had reached it, I was met by two of the officers. They told me that they were willing to surrender, on condition that they were allowed to retain their private property and mail bags, for it appeared that there were two English mails under their charge.”
De Wet accepted the first condition, but refused the second – the mail bags were going to be opened.
Sergeant A. Chapman of the Army Post Office Corp, who was taken prisoner at Roodewal recorded in his memoirs – “The first shell was responsible for two casualties. From this time a stubborn fight ensued, shells bursting in rapid succession, and rifle bullets coming like hail. After 6 hours the garrison of some 190 men surrendered, and the Boers moved in.” (Acknowledgement – Henk Loots)
The other two parties involved at the battle had far easier success. Commandant Steenkamp did not even fire a shot at Vredefort Road Station and had captured 30 men. General Froneman had been engaged with the British troops from just before sunrise, for a number of hours and despite being outnumbered had forced the British force of about 500 to surrender. De Wet records (page 105) – “Their casualties amounted to the large total of one hundred and seventy killed and wounded, Colonel Douglas being one of the killed.” Steve Watt’s book, ‘In Memoriam’ lists that there were 23 who were killed in the action against Froneman.
When de Wet arrived at the Roodewal Station after the surrender of the British, he was impressed to see that the British had used most of the blankets and other supplies, such as flour bags and other food packs, as part of their fortification. De Wet records (page 102) – “I had expected that our booty would be large, and my expectations were more than realised. To begin with, there were the bales of clothing that the English had used as entrenchments. Then there were hundreds of cases of necessities of every description.” De Wet goes on – “We had little time for anything which did not directly forward our cause. I was very sorry that I could not carry away with me the blankets and boots which we found in large quantities. But there was no time for this, as the English held the railway and could at any moment bring up reinforcements.”
De Wet had no means of carrying the captured ammunition to his camp so he buried it a little way from the Station, coming back two days later, with wagons, to retrieve the buried cases. Once the burying of the ammunition was complete, de Wet decided to move from the station. Once the order was give, he records (page 104) – “Each man had loaded his horse so heavily with goods that there was no room for himself on the saddle; he had therefore to walk, and lead his horse by the bridle.” Unable to take all the bounty, and having taken what was needed from the mail bags, what was left behind was set alight. De Wet goes on (page 104) – “When we had covered fifteen hundred paces we heard the explosion of the first shells, and wheeled round to view the conflagration. The night was very dark, and this rendered the sight that met our eyes still more imposing. It was the most beautiful display of fireworks that I have ever seen.”
British casualties recorded vary from 36 killed and 104 wounded to 45 killed and 123 wounded. Steve Watt records that 32 were either killed in action or died of wounds received.