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The South African War 1899-1902 (2)

SANDY GRANT
At Gaborone, Plumer decided that it might be better that he leaves the line of rail and head to the Bangwaketse capital of Kanye, where he would effectively side-step Boer forces.

He therefore dispatched Assistant Resident Commissioner W.H. Surmon and Assistant Resident Magistrate J. Ellenberger to see Kgosi Bathoen.

Meanwhile the first armoured train was able to cross the now repaired Metsimaswane bridge at Crocodile Pools and the Boers suddenly abandoned their positions at Sepitsi and made for Lobatse and Mahikeng.

Having achieved Bathoen’s agreement, Plumer, then split his forces sending the majority off into Ngwaketse territory at Sefitili thus adopting the Boer’s own tactics, and anticipating Lawrence of Arabia’s later strategy of ‘disappearing into the desert’.

From there he emerged to link up with his secondary force which had been slowly working its way down the railway, repairing the damage made by the Boers.

On May 17, he linked up with the larger British force commanded by Mahon which was advancing from Kimberley, and together they relieved Mafikeng.

Attention has also been long centred on the relief of Mahikeng and the gunnery duel at Basoto Kop and Sepitsi.  In contrast, little local interest has been shown in Col. Plumer’s achievement in securing one of the longest supply lines in military history – from Maputo in Mozambique through today’s Zimbabwe through to Bulawayo, Gaborone and eventually Lobatse.

History can take curious twists and turns so that anyone who knows about Plumer’s extraordinary achievement in securing his supply line of several thousand kilometres must today wonder why, more than a 100 years later, it is proving so difficult to utilise the same railway route to shift coal from this country to that self same port, Maputo?

If the war to control the railway line was essentially one between the British and Boers, a war between the Bakgatla and the Boers erupted in the very first days of the South African War. 

On November 25, 1899 a small force under the command of the British Col. G.L. Holdsworth joined up with two to 300 Bakgatla irregulars, crossed the Madikwe River at Sikwane and launched an attack on the Boer positions at Deerdepoort, the intention being to relieve the pressure on Mahikeng.

Although there were relatively few casualties in this battle – the Bakgatla lost 14 and had many wounded whilst the Boers had 20 dead including two women. It proved to be the most controversial of the entire war.

The Boers accused the British of involving the ‘natives’ in a supposedly white mans-only war. The Bakgatla accused the British, who had no casualties, of abandoning

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them at a key moment whilst the Boers accused the Bakgatla, who took captured women and children to Mochudi, of outright barbarism.

It can only be a matter of speculation as to whether the action at Deerdepoort affected the Boers ability to push more men into Gaborone and then to hold on to it. A similar question can be asked about Lobatse. 

Had the Boers held on to their control of those two towns, the ability of the British to use the railway to bring men and supplies from the north would have been severely disrupted.

In the event, the Boers responded to the attack on Derdepoort by sacking Sikwane and the other border villages which immediately prompted Linchwe to launch, in turn, his own retributive assault. 

Under the joint command of Segale and Ramono, the Bakgatla proceeded to wreak such havoc on Boer forces and Boer-owned farms that by the war’s end, they were in control of huge parts of the Transvaal and had greatly increased their cattle holdings.

Across the border, at Deerdepoort, there is a small site museum situated just inside the Game Reserve where information about this part of the war can be enjoyed. Elsewhere, remnants of the war are to be seen at the Village graveyard in Gaborone, which Burrett called the ‘Fort Gaberones Cemetery’, where those killed in action, or who died of other causes, are buried. Near the graveyard is the appropriately named Camp Primary School.

In the 1960s the school still possessed buildings whose pitched roofs were suggestive of earlier buildings, which had been, perhaps, used by Col. Plumer’s troops.

Nothing remains other than its name which might point to its earlier history. And near the graveyard can be seen a small mound and ditch which is all that is left of the old Fort. At Molotwana, there is a graveyard, which includes the marked graves of 16 men who died, presumably in the field hospital that was located there.

To the south of Gaborone, the two hilltop sites still command the railway line at its most vulnerable point with more remnants of those days on the one than the other.

In Kanye there are four graves of troops who presumably died at the camp at Sefitili whilst at Lobatse, the hilltop remains of the British defences can still be seen, as can the grave of the British Captain, Tyler.



Etcetera II

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