Siege of Elands River: 4 – 16 August 1900

Map: Siege of Eland’s River Staging Post 4-14 August 1900

Map: Battle of Eland’s River 4 August 1900

With the capitulation of Johannesburg and Pretoria by early June 1900, the Commander-in-Chief of British Forces in South Africa, Lord Frederick Roberts VC, divided the Western Transvaal operational theatre into districts, with the sole objective of mopping up pockets of Boer resistance.  The Marico District, including the towns of Mafeking, Zeerust, Lichtenburg and Rustenburg, was assigned to Maj. General Robert Baden-Powell, his force including 1,100 Rhodesia Regiment troops, Southern Rhodesia Volunteers and BSA Police.

Boer Generals Koos de la Rey and Christiaan de Wet continued to believe that victory might still be within the grasp of their respective Republics.  With pockets of die-hard ‘bitter einder’ commandos scattered throughout the region, especially in the Magaliesberg, Baden-Powell deployed two mobile columns to effectively search out and neutralise these Boer units.  One of these columns, the northern one, was under Colonel Herbert Plumer, with a force of 500 mounted men of the Rhodesia Regiment, with four guns of the Royal Canadian Artillery.  A small reserve of 100 mounted men of the BSAP was split between the two columns.  In addition to this, 200 dismounted troops of the Rhodesia and Protectorate Regiments were each held at Mafeking and Zeerust.

Of note was that there were no British troops in the whole north west of the Transvaal Republic.  Sir Frederick Carrington, protecting the northern frontier on the Limpopo, had a force of 4,000, comprising Yeomanry Battalions and Bushmen from Australia and New Zealand.

With the objective of occupying Rustenburg, Plumer’s Column moved eastwards from Zeerust via Magatosnek in the rugged Magaliesberg.  This extensive range of mountains provided a substantial barrier, but several passes, referred to locally as ‘neks,’ allowed access for columns of troops with field guns.  En route, Plumer left a garrison of 100 men of the Southern Rhodesian Volunteers at the drift over the Elands River.  Large supplies of provisions and ammunition destined for Rustenburg and brought up by wagon from Mafeking and Zeerust would be secured at this staging post.  Baden-Powell, in the meantime, had moved closer to Pretoria, occupying the Zilikats and Commando Neks to the west of the Transvaal capital.  He left behind at Rustenburg a squadron of the Protectorate Regiment under Lt Colonel CO Hore, but a few days later Hore was ordered to retreat down the road towards Zeerust and the staging post at Elands River, as reports were being received of a large force of Boers descending on the town.

Carrington, in response to a requirement to bolster troop strengths in the region, had reached Mafeking on 27 July, but was told not to proceed any further east than Elands River, in anticipation of Rustenburg being evacuated in the face of large numbers of Boers under de la Rey, de Wet and Lemmer.

By now, Elands River on Brakfontein Farm, in the shadows of the Swartruggens Mountains and once just a communications post between Mafeking and Rustenburg, had become a fortified stronghold under the command of Lt. Colonel Hore.  His force, made up entirely of colonials, comprised 201 Rhodesian Volunteers and BSAP troops under Captain Sandy Butters, 105 New South Wales Bushmen, 141 3rd Queensland Mounted Infantry, 53 Mounted Infantry from other Australian states, and 50 African drivers.  Significantly outnumbered, surrounded by high kopjes and mountains, and with only one 2.5″ 7-pounder gun and two maxims to supplement their small arms, the garrison dug in, hoisted the Union Jack, and prepared themselves to defend the accumulation of stores and ammunition for which they were responsible.

Arthur Conan-Doyle would describe their actions as the finest resistance of the war.

On 3 August, Carrington with a column of 1,100 colonial volunteers and irregulars had reached the Marico River, where he left 350 men with the fifty waggons needed to uplift the stores and ammunition at Elands River. He believed his progress would be faster without the lumbering ox-waggons, plus he would replenish his own supplies when he arrived at Hore’s camp.  Two days later, and a mere eight miles from Elands River, Carrington parked up the mule transport and continued east with 650 men.  As the column neared their objective, Carrington became concerned that the superior numbers of the Lichtenburg and Marico Commandos would not only hinder his passage, but that attempting to cross the last two or three miles over open ground would prove to be disastrous.  After deploying two small patrols to find their way to Hore’s camp, just to have them taken prisoner, Carrington withdrew.  As he retired, he felt that the only safe position would be Mafeking, resulting in his decision to recover all his troops from the Marico and Zeerust.

The post at Elands River was left to its own fate, but Hore and his men were not to know that they had been left on their own to hold their position.  This was to prove historically unique, as there were no Imperial armies anywhere nearby, with the consequence that Rhodesians would fight for Rhodesians and Australians for Australians.

At breakfast on 4 August the siege commenced as the first Boer artillery shell destroyed the telegraph.  This was followed by barrage of artillery and rifle fire from the surrounding Boers, a force of 2,000.  From kopjes to the west and east, seven and twelve pound guns and Pom Poms opened fire on the post, ranging from 3,000 to 4,000 metres.  The Boer guns to the north were much closer, bombarding the hapless colonials, and in the process killing 1,379 of the 1,540 draft animals and horses in the camp.  Boer snipers had entrenched themselves in the dry creeks to the north and south, and on either side of the Elands River to the west where it cut the Zeerust to Rustenburg road.

On the first day of the prolonged Boer artillery onslaught, no fewer than 1,500 shells landed within the confines of the 12-acre camp, the hospital taking several hits.  Five were killed and 32 wounded on that day.

On 6 August, Baden-Powell attempted a rescue bid, but when hearing that Hore had surrendered, and while still twenty miles from Elands River, turned around and returned to Rustenburg where preparations were also in hand to evacuate the town and retire to Pretoria.  Lord Roberts made the decision to withdraw not only Baden-Powell, but also the forces of Colonels Hamilton and Kekewich, the latter from the garrison at Olifants Nek. After destroying 400,000 rounds of ammunition, Baden-Powell joined the other commanders, leaving the area between Mafeking and Commando Nek totally devoid of any resistance to the Boer forces under de la Rey.  All that remained was the beleaguered garrison at Elands River.

The wily Free Stater, General Christiaan de Wet, seized the opportunity to not only join forces with de la Rey, but also to slip under Lord Methuen’s forces who were desperately trying to corner him.  This bold move by de Wet, facilitated by Lord Roberts withdrawing all British forces west of Commando Nek, further exacerbated the situation at Elands River.

On 8 August de la Rey sent a message to Hore, stating that he had driven back Carrington and suggesting the garrison surrender.  In reciprocal gentlemanly fashion, Hore declined, but asked that the Boers desist from shelling the hospital.  The request was complied with, but fighting continued while Roberts mobilised his battalions to ensnare de Wet in the Magaliesberg.

Only by the 13th was news received that Hore was bravely holding out at Elands River, despite round the clock bombardment.  The Boers commenced attacks at night, with the objective of cutting off the garrison’s water supply.  The fortified camp safeguarding the war materiel was in fact about half a mile from the Elands River, their only source of water.  Such forays by the Boers were repulsed by a small party of Southern Rhodesia Volunteers under Captain Butters, operating from a kopje to the east of the camp.  A small detachment of Australian Bushmen under Lieutenant Zouch was similarly deployed on an adjacent kopje overlooking one of the creeks.  Such defence however, came at a price. Capt. Sandy Butters, was mentioned in Lt. Colonel Hore’s dispatch to Lord Kitchener:
I would especially mention Captain Butters SRV for his gallantry in holding a detached post through the whole siege in face of the enemy who were entrenched within 250 yards, and thereby enabling me to retain command of my sole water supply.” Later Captain Butters took up a commission in the newly formed Commander-in-Chief Bodyguard.  He was wounded in action on 3 January 1901 at Kromspruit, 20 km west of Reitz.  Captain Butters died of wounds on 6 January 1901.

A Native messenger had been despatched by Hore on 10 August, seeking immediate assistance.  By this time, de la Rey had withdrawn some of his investing forces in order to occupy Rustenburg and Olifants Nek, left vacant by Roberts’ troop recall.  Shelling had consequently eased, and a relaxation in the cordon allowed the messenger to break through the Boer lines, reaching Carrington on 13 August.  There was at last reaction from Roberts, who instructed Carrington to re-occupy Zeerust and assist with the relief of Elands River.  Carrington’s force had been refitted and rested at Mafeking, and had been increased with the arrival of extra troops from the north.

Now fully committed to succour the post, Roberts diverted his resources away from the pursuit of de Wet, ordering Methuen’s division, the nearest force, to move to Elands River at maximum speed.  Lord Kitchener had however started before the order was received.  Taking with him two cavalry brigades, Ridley’s Mounted Infantry and Smith-Dorrien’s battalions, Kitchener left at 2 am on 15 August, and after a rapid march of thirty-five miles, rode into the Elands River camp the following morning with a force of 10,000 men.  Broadwood’s cavalry had ensured the road was clear on the 14th, followed by Hart’s force.

Whilst Kitchener was engaged at Elands River, Methuen, the senior officer in the Magaliesberg, continued the pursuit of de Wet.  Carrington with almost 3,000 men had reached Otto’s Hoop, only half way to Zeerust from Mafeking, and still a considerable distance from Elands River.

De Wet remained impossible to corner.  It would ultimately take considerable persuasion by a very tired de la Rey for de Wet to accept British peace proposals, which did not include independence for the Republics.

His bitter-end had come.

The men of the Elands River garrison had had to endure almost two weeks of constant attack from the Boers, spending days in roughly hewn pits, suffering from heat and thirst and the all-pervading reek of the rotting carcasses of dead animals.  Four Rhodesian Regiment troops were killed, the Volunteers lost two, and a further two BSAP troopers perished during the siege.  The Australians lost seven; seven native porters were also killed.  There were 58 wounded.

History continues in its attempts to vindicate the decisions and actions of some of Roberts’ senior officers in the first half of August 1900.  In July 1899, Baden-Powell had been sent to Rhodesia to raise two regiments, namely the Rhodesian under Colonel Plumer, and the so-called Protectorate under Colonel Hore.  Baden-Powell took the Protectorate regiment to Mafeking, where Hore was to gain considerable experience in the handling of siege conditions.  Little did he know what else lay in his future.  Plumer would go on to protect the Tuli area of Rhodesia, with the Rhodesia Regiment and elements of the BSAP.  After the relief of Mafeking, there was considerable fragmentation of the Rhodesia Regiment, with the result that there were small detachments throughout the Western Transvaal theatre.

Carrington only appeared later, having crossed Rhodesia after landing at Beira, commanding a brigade of Australian Bushmen.  He therefore entered the Transvaal from its North West border.  It is argued that the forces at his disposal were significantly diminished by the fact that he was compelled to split the Rhodesian Field Force to reinforce Baden-Powell and Plumer.  He however still had a force of 1,000 and a supporting battery of 15-pound guns, enough for a determined push through to Rustenburg, clearing the Elands River staging post at the same time.

After a minor skirmish and some reconnaissance, Carrington turned back, but not only to the Marico or Zeerust, but all the way to Mafeking.  Some of his officers and men noted the speed with which seventeen miles were covered that night by the retiring troops.

Baden-Powell, having heard cannon fire in the direction of Elands River as he was making his way towards the post, concluded that either Hore had been overrun, or that Carrington had relieved the siege.  He therefore returned to Rustenburg.  A lack of supplies at Rustenburg prevented Baden-Powell from committing his force to a further attempt to assess the situation at Elands River.

The Boer General Jan Smuts said of the defenders of Elands River, “Never in the course of this war did a besieged force endure worse sufferings, but they stood their ground with magnificent courage.  All honour to these heroes who in the hour of trial rose nobly to the occasion …

After Elands River, the Rhodesian Regiment and Volunteers operated east of Rustenburg for a further short period before being disbanded in November 1900, but sadly not before five men of the Rhodesia Regiment were killed in action at Klipdrift.

On 20 August 1900, Lt Colonel John Spreckley of ‘E’ Squadron and his party were surrounded by some Boers, who, being dressed in khaki, were first taken for friends.  When the mistake was discovered and Spreckley and his party were called upon to surrender, he replied, “Never give in to them, lads” and was immediately killed.  By his death, Rhodesia lost one of its best-known and most popular men.  He saw much service during the war, the Rhodesian Regiment to which he belonged having been in many battles and actions.  Sergeants George Blurton and Alexander Downis and Corporal Robert Caffyn, all of ‘A’ Squadron, and Trooper Francis Forster of ‘E’ Squadron fell with their Commanding Officer.

This particular feature article on the Siege of Elands River proved very challenging, as it demanded an enormous amount of digging in records, archives, official British Government accounts, the Net, and ultimately a huge dollop of assistance from the Queensland Branch of the Australian National Boer War Memorial Association (NBWMA).  Colleen O’Leary, a committee member, gave me an address which contains the individual page-by-page records of the actual Rhodesia Regiment nominal roll for the Anglo-Boer War, all in that beautiful script of the time.  This was an incredible find, a holy grail for someone like me who spends every minute of his spare time looking for information relating to any one of the five book projects I am currently working on.  Together with Mitch Sterling’s photos from the Elands River Garden of Rest, I have consequently been able to identify seven of the eight Rhodesians reported killed during the siege.

I am also indebted to Peter Wilmot, Chairman of the Victoria Branch of the NBWMA who is currently writing a book on the siege at Elands River.  He has generously shared his research findings with me that proved pivotal in identifying seven of the eight Rhodesians killed at the post or who subsequently died from wounds received during the siege. They are: Troopers John Gamble, Oswald Gordon and James Wares of the Rhodesia Regiment; Troopers T Kenyon, JH  Heughe, and WA Clark, of the Southern Rhodesian Volunteers; BSAP Trooper EJ  Mathais.