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The Guns Of Dimawe (II)

In our last episode we observed that the course of the August 30, 1852 Battle at Dimawe was largely determined by nature of the two sides’ weaponry.

Although Sechele’s six-pounder would have been the largest cannon present, in terms of quantity and tactical usage the Boers appear to have had the advantage in artillery. Besides effectively hitting the Batswana defences with coarse shot from their cannonade they were also able to pin down the defenders with smaller swivel cannon. From a September 16, 1852 report by the Rev. Robert Moffat, based on eyewitness accounts:

“The Boers found means of setting fire to the town, when the hill in the centre became enveloped in heat & smoke, when a scene of confusion ensued easier conceived then described. This decided the fate of the Bakuenas, who found their efforts to defend themselves against such a force crippled by the smoke that enveloped them.

Though the Boers kept a respectable distance, they were able by means of small swivels to do much execution among the natives. The Bakuenas, however, continued to defend themselves until the curtains of night were drawn over the melancholy scene.”

The importance of artillery at Dimawe is further confirmed by additional Boer sources. In a 12 September 1852 dispatch to Andries Pretorius, Pieter Scholtz, reported that:

“I gave order to storm the defences when the cannons had fired. This was done with great courage, by the help of the Lord. But, you cannot conceive how hard the fight was. It must have lasted six hours altogether. Afterward I captured everything and set fire to the village. But the enemy retained the hill with caves, and I could not take it because my troops were exhausted. I had 70 cannon shots alone fired.”

In an edited English text of Scholtz’s battle report, which was widely published at the time, the Commandant further observes:

“I advanced with 300 men close to his battery and sent messengers to prevail upon him to accept peace as I would otherwise be compelled to fight with cannon, and this might endanger the women and children. All this did not dispose him to peace... upon which, under a shower of balls, I advanced upon the battery, confiding my fate in the hands of the Lord.”

The official report’s approved Dutch text elaborates:

“During the battle, gunner officer M. Viljoen’s cannon caught fire when being loaded with powder, and he was severely injured, as he loaded the piece himself in order to encourage those under him. Because of this and other circumstances we were overtaken by nightfall; and with the enemy still holding

a rocky hill of caves I was obliged to withdraw my men and return to laager.”

In his Memoirs Paul Kruger, further recalled:

“When the mountain on which Secheli’s  town lay was already partly taken, Louw du Plessis, who was serving the guns, accidently hit a large rock, and the ball, rebounding, struck my head with such force that I fell to the ground unconscious.

A certain van Rooyen had to help me to my feet, and at the same time bound up my aching head in a cloth.”

While Sechele’s cannon was less than ideal against what we can assume was a scattered and often concealed enemy, Scholtz’s repeated reference to the ‘battery’ confirms that it was, nonetheless, the focal point for his attack.

The most effective weapons on the battlefield, however, may not have been the artillery but rather high calibre hunting guns.

The largest Boer hunting guns at the time would have been 8-4 bore smooth- barrel muzzle loaders that fired hardened round shot weighing an eighth to a quarter pound at a maximum range of 100 yards. To bring down an elephant with these guns took a good deal of skill and guts. One would have to try to approach the animal undetected from behind until one was in range to get in a shot behind its forelegs aiming for it lungs and heart.

The heavy nature of the shot would often shock the wounded beast, but its velocity, range and rounded shape were inadequate for head shots. In battle, such rifles would be of limited advantage as their range and accuracy were generally no better than that of the lighter muskets.

Some of the Boers would have also brought to the field superior long guns, including rifles, with a range of up to 200 yards. In previous clashes with the British these weapons had outmatched the latter’s standard issue “Brown Bess” smooth-barrel musket, a reliable weapon, but with a range of only 100 yards with limited accuracy beyond 60 yards.

While the trade muskets in the hands of most of the Batswana would have been on the pattern of the “Brown Bess”, Sechele also had a collection of custom-built state-of-the-art hunting rifles, which appear to have played a decisive role in his defence. Designed for big game hunting, the best of these guns had a range of up to 1,000 yards, firing armour as well as elephant piercing conical shot of 12-8 bore.

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