Battle of Roodewal (Rooiwal)
South African Battle: 11 April 1902
This was the last set piece battle of the South African War and is known by both names – the British Times referring to it as Roodewal, but the actual farm’s name was Rooiwal, which was 20 km south-west of Delareyville.
Commandant de la Rey and his Commandos, numbering in the region of 2 600 men had used the farm as his main laager since the latter part of March 1902. On 9 April, Commandant de la Rey was in Klerksdorp with the ZAR (Transvaal) Delegation who were meeting with the Orange Free State delegation to discuss the possibility of peace negotiations.
The British, after the defeat of Lieutenant-General Methuen at the Battle of Tweebosch had doubled their efforts to defeat the Boers. They believed that de la Rey was still in the vicinity of Delareyville and had reinforced their considerable force so that they now had over 15 000 troops in the area, under the command of Lieutenant-General Ian Hamilton. Hamilton resumed the ‘sweep’ tactic, which up until now had proved unsuccessful, even though the system of blockhouses was there to assist with this approach of ‘herding the Boers into a corner’. Having identified the position of the Boers, Hamilton ordered the column of Lieutenant Kekewich to the left flank, Colonel Rawlinson’s column in the centre and Colonel (Walter) Kitchener’s column to occupy the right flank in preparation for an attack.
The Boers, who were now under the command of General Kemp, had scouts out reconnoitering the British movements, and identified a weakness on the British left flank. During the night of 10 April, Hamilton also became aware of this weakness and ordered Lieutenant-Colonel von Donop, from Rawlinson’s column, to reinforce the left. Overnight, von Donop moved into position, close to Kekewich, but behind a slight ridge.
Just after 7 am on the morning of 11 April the Boers left their laager to mount their attack on the British forces. After travelling some distance Kemp realised that he was now attacking a force of considerable size, unaware of the movement of troops the previous night. With his men too close the front lines of the British, he ordered a frontal attack. Generals Cilliers and Liebenburg, together with Commandant Potgieter led the Boers on a cavalry charge.
Packenham, in his book ‘The Boer War’ writes “an advanced screen on the Mounted Infantry (British) witnessed one of the eeriest sights of the war. A great wave of slouched-hatted horsemen swept knee-to-knee towards them, opened fire from the saddle and, still firing cantered up the hillside”.
At about 8 am, Rawlinson with his troops from the central position arrived, and Kemp with the rest of the Boers, who were going to flank the British, and cut off their retreat, were forced to retire, leaving behind the guns they had brought. Rawlinson gave chase but once he realised and appreciated that the Boers were more familiar with the terrain, the British returned to their original position.
The attack by the Boers turned into a complete disaster and one is left to wonder what would have happened if de la Rey had been present. Commandant Potgieter was a casualty, with his body being recovered 100 metres from the British front line. The Boers lost 45 killed, 50 wounded and almost 100 taken prisoner. British casualties were considerably less with 15 killed and 60 wounded. It is reported that Hamilton spared the lives of many of the captured Boers, as there was an order that any Boers captured wearing British uniform were to be shot. At that stage of the war a number of captured Boers were wearing British kit.