South African Battle: 25 December 1901
Battle of Tweefontein (Groenkop)
Although there were a number of significant battles fought during the months of December in the South African War (1899-1902), such as the battles of Magersfontein, Colenso, Nooitgedacht, Tafelkop and others, the battle of Tweefontein (also known as Groenkop or Christmas Kop), is an uncharacteristic battle fought by the Boers as it was fought on a ‘holy day’.
Tweefontein was a farm in the eastern Free State, with Groenkop being a mountain on the farm. Lord Kitchener was in the process of constructing lines of Blockhouses in strategic areas in the Free State and the Transvaal, and one of these lines was between the towns of Harrismith and Tredoux, about 20 km east of Bethlehem. Major-General Rundle, who commanded the force responsible for this line, deployed four forces to protect the construction of this line. Colonel Firman, an officer who had done good work in organising Rundle’s Yeomanry, was in commanded of the column sent to Tweefontein. Firman’s previous command had included clearing Ficksburg and its neighbourhood with a small Mounted Command in February and May 1901. Prior to that, in July 1900, he had commanded the 35th Company in the operations in the Brandwater Basin. Firman however missed the action at Groenkop as Rundle had, early in December 1901, ordered Firman to take well-earned leave. Firman handed over command to Major Williams.
Groenkop is a prominent hill northwest of the then farm of Tweefontein. Its eastern base is broad with the ascent to the top being gentle. At the top of the hill is a plateau with the drop from this plateau, to all sides other than the east, being a sharp drop. In General de Wet’s memoirs, ‘Three Day War’ he states – “The top of the mountain was not more than three to four hundred paces in diameter. To the east in a hollow the convoy was placed, and from every schanze we could rake it with fire.” (page 242).
De Wet describes the preparation he had made for the attack as such – “Two days previously I had, with General Prinsloo, reconnoitred the neighbourhood of Groenkop. I approached as near as possible to the mountain, but could only inspect it from the west, north and east, but on the following day I reconnoitred it also from the south. My plan of making the attack early the next morning was somewhat spoilt by the fact that the English had already, on 21 December, quitted their camp on the mountain. Thus they had four days in which to entrench themselves.” (page 340)
De Wet also needed to know where the artillery was, so he sent out three scouts, hoping they would be observed and fired upon, thus revealing their position. In his memoirs, de Wet states – “One gun and the Maxim-Nordenfeldt now fired on our two officers……..and thus we learnt that the guns were placed on the high western point of the mountain.” (page 341)
De Wet now had a clear picture of the position of the pickets on the mountain, the position of the artillery and of the camp on the eastern slope of the mountain.
Because of this, some of his Officers wanted him to attack from the east, but as de Wet had noticed from the positioning of the ‘forts’ in the camp, the British expected any attack, should it materialise, to be mounted from the east. De Wet, taking all these observations into consideration, decided to attack from the west, and states in his book – “These reasons brought me to the conclusion that the English would not be on the look-out for us from the west, and I therefore decided to make the attack from this side, the steep side of the mountain. But I did not know then how really steep it was.” (page 341)
During the day on 24 December, de Wet got word to the Commandos that were going to take part in the battle, to make their way to the farm Tigerfontein, and once they were all there to proceed to a meeting point about 4 km to the north of Groenkop where he would be waiting for them. Once there, he proceeded to Groenkop, leaving 100 men behind to look after the Maxim-Nordenfeldt gun and the pack horses.
To quote again from de Wet’s memoirs – “My orders were that they were to march quietly to the western foot of the mountain; here the horses were to be left behind, and the climb made on foot, the burghers keeping the same order as that in which they had been riding. Should the English, however, discover us before we reached the mountain, we must then storm it all together, and leave the horses wherever we had dismounted.” (page 343)
De Wet and his men started the climb at 2 am on 25 December 1901, without shoes, so as not to be heard. Just over half way up the mountain a British sentry challenged a movement and the Boers gave the ‘command’ to storm the summit. As de Wet says in his memoirs, it was hardly a storm on the rocky slopes, but more a steep climb. Once the Boers had reached the summit, the battle lasted little more than 20 minutes.
Some of the British troops who had been wakened by the noise of rifle fire made their way to their designated positions, others fled. The artillery gunners managed to get a couple of shots in before they were overwhelmed.
However, those British troops who were still in camp decided to put up some resistance, and the Boers pursued them for about an hour until the British decided to ‘flee’ the scene. They were not followed by the Boers as the Boers had no horses. The Boers returned to the British camp to re-join their commandos who had remained behind. De Wet goes on in his memoirs – “It was heartrending to hear the moaning of the wounded in the dark. The burghers helped the doctors to bring the wounded into the tents, where they could be attended to; I gave the doctors as much water as they liked to take for the wounded.” (page 344)
De Wet states that the British casualties were 116 dead and wounded, with other reports indicating that there were between 57 and 67 killed. Two hundred and forty men were taken prisoner.
In de Wet’s memoirs he says – “Besides one Armstrong and one Maxim-Nordenfeldt, our booty consisted of twenty waggons, mostly ox-wagons, a great quantity of rifle and gun ammunition, guns, tents, five hundred horses and mules, and one wagon laden with spirits, so that the burghers, who were not averse to this, could now satisfy their thirst.” (page 245)
During the day a British position on a hill to the northeast of Groenkop opened fire on Groenkop but de Wet decided not to retaliate – he had sent many of his men with the wagons.
That evening de Wet, his burghers, and the British prisoners camped north of Bethlehem. The following day he released the British prisoners across the border into Basutoland (now Lesotho).
Major George Albanus Williams, 1st Battalion South Staffordshire Regiment, who commanded the forces at Groenkop, was killed in the battle. The following is taken from the book ‘The Last Post’ by Mildred G. Dooner – “….was born in 1860. He served in South Africa in 1879, in the Zulu Campaign, and in the subsequent operations against Sekukuni, receiving the medal with clasp. At the time of his death he was second in command of the 1st Battalion South Staffordshire Regiment. Major Williamson was killed while rallying those under his command. He is buried at Tweefontein, and his name is inscribed on an obelisk which has been erected in memory of all who fell in this action.” (page 420)