The Seige of Eland’s River and the Rhodesia Regiment

The last major action of the Anglo/Boer War involving the Rhodesia Regiment was in fact an all empire affair that included troops from Rhodesia and the various territories of Australia. This was the iconic Siege of Elands River that occurred between August 4 and August 16 of 1900.

The event probably lives on more fitfully in Australian military lore than African, since the structure and traditions of that institution remain alive and venerated, but is by no means forgotten among those who strive to keep the fading remnants of Rhodesian military glory alive.

The best and the worst of British military endevour

The event is remembered often as having showcased the very best and the very worst of British military endevour The residual assessment of the siege after a century or more of analysis has tended to be that the manpower of the colonies deported itself with formidable courage and fortitude in appalling circumstances while the leadership and command was characterised by vacillation, self preservation and failure. It is not altogether unpredictable that men of a bold and individualistic cut, as was the case with most colonials at that time, would have scant respect for the British ruling classes, but it certainly seemed, as has been the case with many British wars, that victory, or in this case survival, was achieved thanks entirely to the guts of the common man and in spite of the incompetence of regular military command.

The background to the siege was the fall of Pretoria to the British and the breaking of the Siege of Mafeking. In the weeks and months that followed large quantities of ordinance, supplies and equipment was moved between the two locations, with an enormous stockpile eventually building up at Elands River at a site near present day Brakfontein between Zeerust and Rustenburg. These goods were obviously coveted by the Boer, and on August 4 1900, General Koos de la Rey surrounded and laid siege to the post which was defended by 505 men of Lt. Gen. Carrington’s Rhodesian Field Force. The Rhodesian volunteers were in fact slightly outnumbered on this occasion by Australians from a variety of frontier regiments, beginning what colonial historians aptly regard as a relationship under arms of the two colonies that endured until April of 1980.

The compliment of troops present at Eland’s River at this time included: Four men of the Protectorate Regiment, eight of the British South Africa Police, 63 members of the Mashonaland Horse, 148 Queenslanders, 51 Victorian, 111 from new South Wales, 22 men of the Rhodesia Regiment and 101 Southern Rhodesia Volunteers. In nominal command was Colonel Hore.

An early taste of trench warfare

Historian also point to this as a foretaste of the kind of trench warfare that would characterise the great war of 1914/18 to which the two kindred colonies would also contribute. The siege was brief, abrupt and extremely intense, and erupted on August 4 with a rain of shells from ideally placed Boer Artillery positions on high ground surrounding three quarters of the exposed hilltop position. Here the 505 besieged men could offer no effective reply and in fact were afforded absolutely no cover at all. The end of the first nightmarish day of the siege some 1700 shell had fallen, killing five and wounding 27, with the most devastating casualties being felt amongst the large reserves of livestock that had accumulated at the post. Hundreds of shells fell in the midst of milling cattle, horses and mules killing as many as 30 in a single blast. By the end of the second day the site was strewn with carcasses that quickly began to bloat in the late season heat, creating a poisonous atmosphere and a pervading stench of death and decomposition.

Meanwhile, as soon as darkness fell on the first day of the siege, men emerged and began under cover of darkness to try and entrench themselves in expectation of similar treatment the following day. Without trenching tools men spent a long night chipping away at a hard underlay of slate with knives and bayonets that, over the course of several days of bombardment, developed into a reasonable network of trenches. With the primary need for cover partially answered the next question became one of water. There was water source within the defended area of the post and so evenings were spent dodging snipers as volunteers moved backwards and forwards between the banks of the Elands River and the besieged encampment. De la Rey obviously did what could be done to frustrate this, aiming his snipers and artillery along the water routes, despite which the defenders succeeded in providing for themselves a daily ration of a quart of precious water.

On day two only 480 shells fell, with most of the remaining livestock either falling victim or having to be put down. The situation settled into a contest of men under constant fire doing what they could to improve their circumstances by digging and fortifying, and the phlegmatic General de la Rey doing what he could to blast them off the hilltop. Each day became a repetition of the last, with the Boers sighting their artillery at dusk and the firing a blind barrage later at night in the hope that the men of the garrison would have left their shelters to eat, ablute or fetch water. All the while the pervasive and contaminating stench of rotting animals grew and the question of how long the beleaguered defenders could hold out endlessly discussed.

General de la Rey commending the extraordinary courage of the defenders

On day 3 a communication was received from General de la Rey commending the extraordinary courage of the defenders ,and offering them safe passage to the nearest concentration of British troops if they would surrender. Col. Hore, of whom  Col. Baden Powell held such a low opinion, is reported to have very much favoured surrender, but fearing that his throat would be cut by his colonial command he was forced to demur. Captain Butters of Bulawayo put it to him that he dare not convey any instructions to this effect back to men who had so bravely held the line, and, to a man, seemed to suffer no inclination to surrender. ‘If De La Rey wants our camp,’ was the overallresponse from the ranks, ‘why does he not come and take it? We will be pleased to meet him and his men, and promise them a great reception at the end of a toasting fork.’

Not so the commanders

Col. Hore appeared to have inspired little faith in his men, who sullenly regarded his tendency to remain hidden from view to the extent that he refused to crawl out of his hole to arrest the men who openly insulted him from above. The general assumption was that for his conspicuous lack of gallantry he would be awarded a distinguished service order, which indeed was the case, upon, what overall commander Lord Roberts regarded as the gallant defence of his post.

This catalogue of lamentable command continued as Lt. Gen Sir Frederick Carrington, ordered to Elands River post, advanced Mafeking on August 1 with a force of over 1000 of all ranks, pressing forward on August 5 a column of 600 troops supported by artillery to within half a mile of Elands River. The men of the post awoke to the sound of his guns and the hope that the moment of relief had arrived. Accounts vary about what happened next, but presuming by that afternoon that he could not sustain a protracted engagement with de la Rey’s entrenched force, he opted to withdraw, leaving the astonished men of the post to watch in wonder and dismay. He withdrew to Zeerust where he nervously assumed that de la Rey would follow. So driven by this was he that he allowed his men the briefest of respite before pressing on to put as much distance between he and Elands River as possible.

Carrington’s reputation, a reputation established over 25 years of soldiering, arguably never recovered from the 6 weeks campaign between Mafeking and Elands River, and in 1901, after receiving a white feather from the Elands River defenders, he requested that he be returned to England.

And Baden Powell too

Meanwhile next it was the turn of the august and highly honoured Col Robert Baden Powell to probe within striking distance of the besieged post. He also was to conclude at the eleventh hour that all was lost and withdraw. By August 6, marching from the west towards the Elands River to relieve Col. Hore and the garrison with a column of 2000 mounted men, seemingly a sufficient force to do the job, Baden Powell concluded that Carrington had either done the job before him or that the column had been overrun, and returned to Rustenburg to report his assessment to Lord Roberts. Roberts grumbled about the matter while letters where written and options expressed. Baden Powell’s illustrious reputation, so recently gathered, was suddenly tarnished a little, and soon afterwards he was recalled.

A conventional General tries creative tactics

At the siege site the saga continued. De la Rey, feeling no less frustration than his captives – slightly less than captives, of course, for de la Rey was consistently unable to deliver the killing blow – was finding himself driven to explore creative solutions. Taking a leaf out of the Zulu book he tried driving a heard of sheep and cattle ahead of an attacking force to disguise their approach, but these were driven off. More basic assaults against water parties were successful in depriving the holdouts of water, but not of breaking their determination to prevail.

The Colonial legend

All of this is the stuff of legend, indeed the stuff upon which the multi-layered mythology of nations and societies are built. The Australians, an older nation than the Rhodesians, but younger than the Boer, still lay claim to the event as being largely their own. But part of the Rhodesian myth of intractability, self reliability and bitter-ender individualism has been born from just such situations as this. The popular version sees the British ruling classes cringing in their bunkers, the granite jawed Boer taxing their limited intelligence with strategy while the die-hard colonial adventurers refused no matter what the inducement to capitulate. ‘Rhodesians never surrender!’ came the call from the parapet according to the Rhodesians; and ‘Australians never surrender!’ came the same cry according to the Australians. Each nonetheless sat comparing notes in the shallow depth of a slate lined trench while the Boer gradually wearied of hurling canisters and thought up no better solution than to sit and wait it out.

In the end the matter became a blight on the conscience of the commanding generals

In the end the matter became a blight on the conscience of the commanding generals and had to be concluded in the favour of the empire before face was lost B a loss that carried more weight in many quarters than its material value, a few stores and the lives of a handful of determined colonials. A week after having left the defenders of the Elands River Post to their fate Lord Roberts heard that they were still holding out. Astonished he ordered the 2nd and 3rd Cavalry Brigades, a Mounted Infantry and two Infantry Battalions to Elands River. Five miles behind a further Brigade under Maj. Gen. A.S Hart followed. At 8.30am on 16th August 1900, Gen. Lord Kitchener himself arrived at Elands River at the head of a substantial column. By that evening as many as 10 000 troops had passed through the Elands River Post. Kitchener’s convoy alone was over 10 miles long. As the steel eyed and humourless general appraised the desperate situation he glanced at a ragged, encrusted, unshaven and filthy individual greeting his arrival with a cheer. ‘Who are you?’ he asked. ‘A Rhodesian!’ came the reply. With a typical dearth of humour Kitchener spurred his horse with the parting comment: ‘You look dirty enough to be Boers.’

Thus the Rhodesia Regiment, the Rhodesia Volunteers or the Rhodesia Field Force, as it was variously known, deported itself in the hard fought battles of the Boer War. These were admittedly very minor roles in the wider conflict, and in the overall theatre of strife – patrolling the far northwest, the siege of a largely irrelevant town and the defence of a stockpile of supplies – that hardly ring with heroism, but it was the baptism of fire in foreign conflict of a small but proud contingent. In November 1900, three months after the siege, the ‘Rhodesia Regiment’ was disbanded. The flag flown at Elands River was retired to St. Georges Chapel in the Anglican Church of Salisbury where it remained until its removal by the President of the Republic of Zimbabwe. The first order book of the regiment, cut by a bullet scar through its middle, resides currently at the National Archives of Zimbabwe.