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The South African War (1899- 1902)

SANDY GRANT
Unsurprisingly, it was to be Rhodes’s railway line, so soon after it had been constructed, which was to be the cause of this country’s involvement in the war.

Before it had even begun, both the British and the Boers had started to deploy their forces.  Colonel Robert Baden Powell, who was in overall charge of the only British force in the area, decided to base himself at Mahikeng where, he hoped to tie down a significant number of Boer commandos and thus to weaken them elsewhere. 

The Boers, in turn, moved three of their commandos close to the Transvaal-Protectorate border. The war began October 11, 1899.  The objectives of the Boers were gain control of the railway line to Cape Town and stop British supplies reaching the Northern Cape, to destroy and take control of the railway line at Crocodile Pools and then knock out Baden Powell’s small force, and take Mahikeng.

The objectives of the British, on the other hand, were to retain control of the entire length of the railway line so that they could relieve Baden Powell’s force in Mahikeng and defeat the Boer forces investing it. 

In the first days of the war Mafikeng was duly encircled.  The British promptly sent an armored train from Bulawayo to join the one which was already at Gaborone, and took control of Crocodile Pools. On October 23, the Boers, who were positioned on Sepitse Hill across the border facing the British at Crocodile Pools, forced the latter to retreat first to Gaborone and then to Mahalapye. 

On the 26th, they occupied Gaborone itself with the British retreating to Mahalapye.  At this stage, neither of the protagonists was able to make a decisive move against the other. Now enter Col. Herbert Plumer, later Viscount and Field Marshall, who was to be one of few British Generals to emerge from the First World War with an intact reputation. 

Plumer was Baden Powell’s subordinate and his instructions had been to use Fort Tuli in the northeast as a base from which to repel Boer attacks. Plumer commanding a homegrown force of volunteers from the newly created Rhodesia, quickly realised that he was faced by no credible threat, and decided to move south. He soon recovered Gaborone, which had been abandoned by the Boers who had retreated to Sepitse Hill from where they were easily able to command the railway line and bridges.  Plumer had no option.

He had to dislodge them.  His first attempt, however, turned

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out to be both disaster and fiasco. Historian Rob Burrett has described what happened. ‘Major Bird commanding 200 men left the Rhodesian lines at 11.30pm on February 11 and by 3.45am on the 12 they had reached the foot of Sepitse Hill.

Looking at the position today this frontal attack seems to be an almost suicidal decision by Major Bird.  The Boer fort is on top of a steep rocky hillside and numerous walled outposts surrounded it.  In addition the Boers would have had the advantage of height and cover.  Soon after beginning their ascent the attacking force set off the first of several large dynamite mines which had been concealed at the base of the hill: the element of surprise was now lost.  Still they pushed forward moving up hill under heavy enemy fire where they became entangled in a dense network of barbed wire, pits and thorn-tree barriers.  

Leading them was Captain S G French who managed to get close to the Fort where he was shot at close range while cutting his way through the final barrier of barbed wire.

At this point it was clear the attack had failed and Bird ordered a retreat, reaching Basuto Kop by 6am on February 13, 1900.  Burrett adds: ‘There is considerable confusion as to the numbers killed, captured and wounded. Contemporary records have all been consulted and the following appears to be as correct a list as possible.  Ten men were left on the field at the time of retreat - one officer and nine men.

Of these five were killed in action: Capt. S.G. French, Corporal S.W. Isherwood Troopers F.H. Reid and W.D. Whitfield and Trooper B. Garner. Their bodies were recovered on the 13th and are buried in the Fort Gaberones cemetery. Captured injured were Sergeant A.C. Winder who later died in the Boer camp and was buried by them. 

His grave has been relocated on the far side of Sepitse Hill. Four others were returned on the 14th.  Of these Corporal W. F. Jones died on the way back to camp and Trooper F.T. Simpson died on the 14th, both from wounds received and they are buried in Gaborone. Troopers A. Martin and C Stone survived to tell their tales.

The other wounded who got back that day included two officers Lieutenant-Colonel H.F. White and Major M. Straker and nineteen men. Trooper F.P. Weldon was initially doing well but he later died of blood poisoning on February 21, 1900 at the camp hospital at Molotwana and is buried there.’



Etcetera II

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