Christiaan de Wet
ON the 28th of March a council of war was held. The first business transacted referred to disciplinary matters; the council then proceeded to lay down the conditions under which the commandos were to operate. It was decided that General De la Rey with his Transvaalers should remain at Brandfort with certain Free State commandos under General Philip Botha, and that the remaining troops, under my command, should withdraw in the evening.
Great was the curiosity of the officers and burghers concerning our movements, but no man learnt anything from me. I was determined that in future my plans should be kept entirely secret. Experience had taught me that whenever a commanding officer allows his intentions to become public something is sure to go wrong, and I made up my mind to hold the reins of discipline with a firmer hand.
It is, of course, true that scarcely anything could be done without the free co-operation of the burghers. They joined the commando when they wished, or, if they preferred it, stayed away. But now I intended that the men who joined the commando should be under a far stricter discipline than formerly, and success rewarded my efforts.
We left Brandfort on the same evening. My object was to surprise the little garrison at Sanna's Post, which guarded the Bloemfontein Water Works, and thus to cut off the supply of water from that town.
I started in the direction of Winburg, so as to throw every one off the scent. On all sides one heard the question, "Where are we really going? What can we have to do at Winburg?"
The following day I concealed my commando, and that evening some spies, on whom I could rely, and who were aware of my secret intentions, brought me all the information I required.
At this point I had a great deal of trouble with Commandant Vilonel. It appeared that, notwithstanding the express interdiction of the council of war, there were some thirty waggons, belonging to burghers from Winburg who were under his orders. I reminded him of the decision to which the council had come; but he replied that he did not wish his burghers to have to undergo the hardship of travelling without waggons. We started that evening, and, sure enough, there he was with his lumber following behind us.
I gave him notice in writing the next morning that he must send back the waggons that very night when we were on the march. This provoked from him a written request that a war council should be summoned to revise the decision come to at Kroonstad. I answered that I absolutely declined to do any such thing.
In the course of that day I received a number of reports. I was informed that General Olivier was driving General Broadwood from Ladybrand towards Thaba' Nchu. A little later I heard from General Froneman and Commandant Fourie how matters stood at Sanna's Post. I had disclosed my plan to them, and sent them out to reconnoitre. There were—so they told me—according to their estimation, about two hundred English troops which were stationed in such and such positions.
I at once summoned Generals A. P. Cronje, J. B. Wessels, C. C. Froneman, and Piet de Wet, and took council with them, telling them of my plans and enjoining strict secrecy. I then gave orders that Commandant P. Fourie and C. Nel, with their burghers, three hundred and fifty in number, should proceed under my command to Koorn Spruit, and be there before break of day.
We settled that Generals Cronje, Wessels, Froneman, and Piet De Wet should proceed with the remaining burghers, numbering eleven hundred and fifty, to the ridges east of the Modder River, right opposite Sanna's Post. They were to take with them the guns, of which we had four or five, and bombard Sanna's Post as soon as it was light.
The English, I expected, would retreat to Bloemfontein, and then from my position in Koorn Spruit I should be able to decimate them as they passed that ravine. I had sent a large number of burghers with the four generals so that our force might be sufficiently strong to turn General Broadwood, in case he should hear that there was fighting at Sanna's Post and come up to reinforce the garrison.
Here again I had trouble with Commandant Vilonel. I had little time to argue-the sun was already setting, and we had to be off at once. I had declined to allow a single waggon to go with me, but the Commandant declared that he would not abide by the decision of the council of war. He also refused to allow his burghers to go into positions which he himself had not reconnoitred. He asked that the attack should be postponed until he had examined Sanna's Post through his telescope.
My patience was now at an end. I told Commandant Vilonel that he must obey my orders, and that if he did not do so I should dismiss him, unless he himself resigned. He preferred to resign. My secretary procured paper, and the Commandant wrote out his resignation. I at once gave him his dismissal, and felt that a weight had been taken off my shoulders now that I was free from so wrong-headed an officer.
There was no time now for the burghers to elect a new Commandant in the usual way. I therefore assembled the Winburg commando, and told them that Vilonel had resigned, that an opportunity of choosing a substitute should be given to them later on, but that in the meanwhile I should appoint Veldtcornet Gert Van der Merve. Nobody had anything to say against "Gerie," who was a courageous and amiable man; and, after he had given orders that the waggons should be sent home, we continued our march.
I met some of my spies at a rendezvous which I had given them on the road to the Water Works, and learnt from them that the force under General Broadwood had come that evening from the direction of Ladybrand and now occupied Thaba' Nchu.
I had ordered my generals to take up positions opposite Sanna's Post and east of the Modder River. I now left them and rode on to Koorn Spruit, not knowing that General Broadwood had left Thaba' Nchu after nightfall and had proceeded to the Water Works. My advance was made as quietly as possible, and as soon as we reached Koorn Spruit I hid my burghers' in the ravine, placing some to the right and some to the left of the drift on the road from Thaba' Nchu and Sanna's Post to Bloemfontein.
As soon as it became light enough to see anything we discovered that just above the spruit stood a waggon, with some Kaffirs and a number of sheep and cattle beside it. The Kaffirs told us that the waggon belonged to one of the "hands-uppers" from Thaba' Nchu, and that they had been ordered to get it down to Bloemfontein as quickly as possible and to sell it to the English. The owner of the sheep and of the cattle, they said, was with General Broadwood, whose troops had just arrived at Sanna's Post.
The light grew brighter, and there, three thousand paces from us, was Broadwood's huge force.
I had only three hundred and fifty men with me; the other generals, to the east of the Modder River, had not more than eleven hundred and fifty between them.
The numbers against us were overwhelming, but I resolved to stand my ground; and, fortunately, the positions which I had chosen were much to our advantage-there would be no difficulty in concealing my burghers and their horses.
I ordered that every one should still remain hidden, even when our party to the east of the Modder River began to shoot, and that not a round was to be fired until I gave the command.
General Broadwood was preparing to strike camp. It was then that I told my men to allow the British troops to get to close quarters and "hands-up" them, without wasting a single bullet.
Then our guns began to fire.
The result was a scene of confusion. Towards us, over the brow of the hill, came the waggons pell-mell, with a few carts moving rapidly in front. When the first of these reached the spruit its occupants—a man with a woman beside him—became aware that something was wrong.
I was standing at the top of the drift with Commandants Fourie and Nel. I immediately ordered two of my adjutants to mount the cart and to sit at the driver's side.
The other carts came one after the other into the drift, and I ordered them to follow close behind the first cart, at the same time warning the occupants that if they gave any signal to the enemy, they would be shot.
The carts were filled with English from Thaba' Nchu. I was very glad that the women and children should thus reach a place of safety, before the fighting began.
So speedily did the carts follow each other that the English had no suspicion of what was occurring, and very shortly the soldiers began to pour into the drift in the greatest disorder. As soon as they reached the stream they were met by the cry of "Hands up!"
Directly they heard the words, a forest of hands rose in the air.
More troops quickly followed, and we had disarmed two hundred of them before they had time to know what was happening. The discipline among the burghers was fairly satisfactory until the disarming work began. If my men had only been able to think for themselves, they would have thrown the rifles on the bank as they came into their hands, and so would have disarmed far more of the English than they succeeded in doing. But, as it was, the burghers kept on asking
"Where shall I put this rifle, General? What have I to do with this horse?"
That the work should be delayed by this sort of thing sorely tried my hasty temper.
Very soon the enemy in the rear discovered that there was something wrong in the drift, for one of their officers suddenly gave orders that the troops should fall back. But in the meantime, as I have already stated, we had disarmed two hundred men; while, about a hundred paces from us on the banks of the spruit stood five of their guns, and more than a hundred of their waggons, in one confused mass. A little further off—two or three hundred paces, perhaps—two more of the enemy's guns had halted.
The English fell back some thirteen hundred yards, to the station on the Dewetsdorp-Bloemfontein railway. I need scarcely say that we opened a terrific fire on them as they retreated. When they reached the station, however, the buildings there gave them considerable protection. I little knew when I voted in the Volksraad for the construction of this line, that I was voting for the building of a station which our enemies would one day use against us.
An attempt was made by the English to save the five guns, but it was far beyond their powers to do so. They did succeed, however, in getting the other two guns away, and in placing them behind the station buildings. From there they severely bombarded us with shrapnel shell.
While the English troops were running to find cover in the buildings, they suffered very heavily from our fire, and the ground between the station and the spruit was soon strewn with their dead and wounded, lying in heaps. But having arrived at the railway they rallied, and posting themselves to the right and left of the station, they fired sharply on us.
The eleven hundred and fifty burghers who were to the east of the Modder River now hurried up to my assistance. But unfortunately, when they attempted to cross the river, they found that the Water-Works dam had made it too deep to ford. So they proceeded up stream over some very rough ground, being much inconvenienced by the dongas which they had to cross. When they had covered three miles of this they were again stopped, for an impassable donga blocked the way. They had therefore to retrace their steps to the place whence they had started. Ultimately they crossed the river below the dam, in the neighbourhood of the waggon-drift.
This delay gave General Broadwood a good three hours in which to tackle us. And had it not been for the excellent positions we had taken on the banks of the spruit, we would have been in a very awkward predicament. But, as it was, only two of my men were hit during the whole of that time.
As soon as our reinforcements had crossed the river, General Broadwood was forced to retire and his troops came hurrying through Koorn Spruit both on the right and on the left of our position. We fired at them as they passed us, and took several more prisoners. Had I but commanded a larger force, I could have captured every man of them. But it was impossible, with my three hundred and fifty men, to surround two thousand.
Our men on the Modder River now attacked the enemy with the greatest energy, and succeeded in putting them to flight, thus bringing the battle to an end.
The conduct of my burghers had been beyond praise. I had never seen them more intrepid. Calm and determined, they stood their ground, when the enemy streamed down upon them like a mighty river. Calm and determined they awaited their arrival, and disarmed them as they came. It was a fresh proof to me of the courage of the Afrikander, who indeed, in my judgment, is in that quality surpassed by no one.
Our loss was three killed and five wounded. Among the latter was Commandant General Van der Merve, who, although very seriously injured, fortunately recovered. I had no time myself to note the enemy's losses, but, from their own report, it amounted to three hundred and fifty dead and wounded. We captured four hundred and eighty prisoners, seven guns, and one hundred and seventeen waggons.
Here again I had the greatest trouble in unravelling the medley. Many of the horses, mules and oxen had been killed., whilst some of the waggons were broken. Everything was in a state of indescribable confusion, and at any moment a force might arrive from Bloemfontein.
But, fortunately, no reinforcement appeared.. Our burghers who had pursued the retreating English, saw, at about twelve o'clock, a body of mounted troops approaching from Bloemfontein. But this force at once came to a halt, remaining at the spot where we had first seen it.
When everything was over a party of troops from General Olivier's commando arrived on the scene of the recent operations. They had been following General Broadwood, and on hearing the firing that morning, had hastened in our direction, maintaining on their arrival, that it was quite impossible for them to have come any sooner.
Lewis P. Orans, 2009