South African Battle: 16 July 1900

A Battle that so nearly became another Silkaatsnek disaster …  

After the Battle of Diamond Hill (11 – 13 June 1900), the Boer leaders met with the Republican Government at Balmoral and a decision was taken that commandos should return to their Districts to regroup and reorganise.

General Botha returned to the area around, and south-east of Pretoria, and was joined by General Ben Viljoen. In Ben Viljoen’s book, ‘My Reminiscences of the Anglo-Boer War’ (page 107) he states – “at the end of June my commandos marched from Balmoral to near Donkerhoek in order to get in touch with the British.”  He goes on – “As far as our information went the Donkerhoek kopjes were in possession of General Pole-Carew, and on our left General Hutton with a strong mounted force, was operating near Zwavelpoort and Tigerspoort.”  These were two passes through the Bronberg range of hills 30 km south-east of Pretoria.

Lord Roberts was made aware the Boer movements and sent General Hutton with the 1st Mounted Infantry Brigade to Irene to prepare for any action against Botha. A number of engagements took place whilst the British forces under Generals Hutton and Pole-Carew prepared themselves for the inevitable engagements.

On 11 July 1900, General French who had arrived to support General Hutton, occupied Witpoort, about 35 km south-east of Pretoria. However, because of the British defeats to the Boers on the same day (SilkaatsNek, Dwarsvlei and Onderstepoort), the British under French were ordered back to Pretoria to lend support to the forces in the Magaliesberg. General Hutton with his brigade was ordered to stay and protect the gained positions.

Shickerling in his book ‘Commando Courageous’ records the events of 11 July 1900 (page 33) – “The next morning the enemy commenced to shell us, and under cover of their fire, their horsemen cautiously approached. On either flank their advance guard on the sky-line compelled us to fall back, astride our chain of low hills towards Tigerspoort, to avoid being surrounded. All day we were pressed from three sides, and continually falling back, clinging to our stretch of hills. In the evening we retired in earnest to Bronkhorst Spruit.”

The Battle of Witpoort took place five days later. Viljoen in his book relates (page 108) – “Commandant-General Botha finally directed us to attack General Hutton’s position, and I realised what this involved. It would be the first fight I had to direct as a fighting General.”

General Hutton had four companies of the Royal Irish Fusiliers, the 1st Mounted Infantry (Canadians), as well as the Queensland Mounted Infantry. Major Munn commanded three companies of the Royal Irish Fusiliers and half a company of the New Zealand Mounted Rifles and were placed on the three hills straddling the Witpoort Pass.

General Viljoen had positioned his troops for attack on Witpoort during the night of 15 July and then launched his attack at daybreak the following morning. An artillery attack was launched on Major Munn and the Irish positions, together with an attack on General Hutton’s position on a nearby farm. After the artillery onslaught the Boers launched a frontal attack on Munn’s position. Schikerling led the attack on the New Zealand position and after heavy fighting the Boers overpowered the New Zealanders, capturing over 20, including their Captain. This gave the Boers command over the lower hills. When the Canadians were introduced to the battle the lost positions were retaken by the British. Colonel Alderson had sent two squadrons of the Canadians to assist the taken and threatened positions.  Lieutenants Borden and Burch led a counter-attack, but both paid the ultimate price.

At 2p.m. Major Hutton moved all of his troops onto the regained positions. At sundown the Boers retreated and the battle was over. Viljoen says in his book (page 109) – “When darkness supervened we retired to our base with a loss of two killed and seven wounded; whereas 45 prisoners and 20 horses, with saddles were evidence that we had inflicted a severe loss upon the enemy.” Official casualty reports on British losses were seven killed, 30 wounded and two officers and 22 soldiers taken prisoner.

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