Mountain of conflict

The Linconshire Regiment under the command of Col HR Roberts south of Silkaatsnek at the present day Birdwood. 

by Willie Meyer – from his book “Magaliesberg Kaleidoscope”

People travelling from Pretoria or Johannesburg towards the bushveld in Northwest usually have to cross the Magaliesberg either at Kommandonek or Silkaatsnek if they do not go over the dam wall. Both these passes are steeped in history and especially Silkaatsnek has been the site of several bloody battles over the past two hundred years.

The name of the pass seems to have confused writers over the years. Called anything from Mozilikaatsnek, Tulikat’s Neck, Nitral’s Neck, and Uitvalsnek to the presently accepted Silkaatsnek, it derived its name initially from the battles in 1837 in which the impis of the Matabele tyrant were defeated by a combined force of Voortrekkers, Griquas and Barolong and chased out of the area. In 1864 it was the scene of skirmishes between supporters of Paul Kruger and Stephanus Schoeman in the civil war which marked the early days of the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek.

Most of the variations on the name are probably the result of people unfamiliar to the area and its history trying to pronounce what to them must have been completely foreign sounds, corrupting the original name. At least one name, Uitvalsnek, was probably derived from the farm on which the pass is located – the piece of ‘uitvalgrond’ (left-over land) adjoining Rietfontein.

As a student of local military and general history of the area, Jack Seale is sure the name Nitralsnek was due to a misunderstanding created by someone’s poor handwriting. Written carelessly in longhand the U of Uitval could easily have been mistaken for an N and the v for an r. This is the name used by some British historians when they refer to the Battle of Silkaatsnek of 11 July 1900. This was also the name Queen Victoria used when she addressed her subjects on the conduct of the South African War. If the queen used names mentioned in a report, they could not be changed, even if they were wrong in the first place. So, even if the British army did realise that the name Nitralsnek was a mistake, they could not have changed it after the report was submitted to the queen. That might be the reason why Uitvalsnek became Nitralsnek.

The Battle of Silkaatsnek took place five weeks after the British forces marched into Pretoria, fully expecting a quick cessation of hostilities. After the Battle of Diamond Hill, which the British forces technically won, though at great cost, and the occupation of Rustenburg, 11 July came as a shock to the British and a great morale booster for the Boer forces who were now reorganising for guerrilla warfare.

Silkaatsnek was one of three major battles that were fought that day and described by a British eyewitness, probably a chaplain, quoted by Louis Creswicke[1]  as “……. a bit of first class generalship. It was made at five different points against five different forces at exactly the same hour, and when the day was over, the Boers had by far the best of it.” Only three actions have been recorded, though. These are the Battle of Dwarsvlei, the Battle of Onderstepoort and, the most important defeat to the British, the Battle of Silkaatsnek.

During the Battle of Onderstepoort the attacking Boer forces were reportedly fired upon from guns at the Wonderboom fort, the only indication that one of the Pretoria fortresses was actually utilised in combat.

According to Vincent Carruthers in his book about the Magaliesberg, as well as other sources, a British force under the command of General Smith-Dorrien was on its way from Krugersdorp in an operation to drive out General Oosthuizen’s commando from the Moot area and to link up with the forces at Kommandonek. The Boers, however, trapped Smith-Dorrien’s column about 15 kilometres from Krugersdorp at Dwarsvlei near Hekpoort and forced the soldiers to retreat to Krugersdorp. Losses on both sides were severe and General Oosthuizen himself was killed while leading a charge against the artillery of the Gordon Highlanders.

The main action of the day, however, was at Silkaatsnek where General Koos de la Rey led his commando up the Magaliesberg on the Tuesday night of 10 July 1900.

The strategically important Kommandonek and Silkaatsnek were guarded by contingents of the Royal Artillery and the Scots Greys Cavalry under the command of Lt Col WP Alexander. Alexander and his men were due to join Smith-Dorrien on Wednesday 11 July at Hekpoort. The evening before their departure they were joined at Silkaatsnek by Col HR Roberts and the Linconshire Regiment who were to replace them. Alexander’s men guarded Kommandonek and Roberts’s unit held Silkaatsnek.

General Koos de la Rey

Despite the fact that the garrison was at double strength that night, Roberts, due to what is described by one historian as an extraordinary lack of foresight, failed to post guards on the summit of the two high cliffs that overlooked the pass. His entire force guarded the southern entrance to the pass. At dawn the guards saw Boers on the summit but were totally unprepared for battle. Because of the positioning of the guns, they could not be elevated enough to fire on the attackers on the summit.

According to some reports it was an overcast day which rendered the heliographs unable to summon help for the entrapped garrison. Others report that the signalling gear could not be used as it was exposed to Boer fire. Some of the British troops tried to rush the pass but were trapped in the low-walled redoubt in the narrow defile. It wasn’t before mid-morning that a runner reached Alexander’s unit at Kommandonek to summon help. It was only then that Alexander trained his guns on the Boer positions and shelled them for about an hour, relieving the pressure on the troops trapped below. Then, inexplicably, he apparently decided that the day was lost and withdrew, ostensibly to avoid being defeated himself. At midday his entire force retired to Pretoria.

That evening Roberts’s unit, after having run out of ammunition, surrendered with 72 out of its 240 men killed or wounded. Among the Boer casualties was De la Rey’s nephew, but their victory was undisputed and was a great morale booster for the Boer forces in the field.

Among the casualties that day was a 2nd Lieutenant Pilkington of the Royal Dragoon Guards, whose presence baffled historians as the Dragoons were not involved in the Battle of Silkaatsnek. The mystery was solved, however, by the anonymous pastor who was quoted at length by Creswicke on the officers killed in the battle:

“There was young Lieutenant Pilkington, one of the most gentle and sweet-tempered fellows I ever met. He had been a prisoner in Pretoria for five months and on being liberated, got his desire gratified by being attached to us [the Scots Greys]. We all loved him and he too was among the dead, shot in several places while leading his men against the foe. He had five months before been taken prisoner because he refused to leave a wounded comrade.”

The Boer victory at Silkaatsnek was decisive, but they could not hold on to the position for any length of time. The British decided to abandon all positions West of Kommandonek and recalled General Baden-Powell from Rustenburg. A strong force under General Ian Hamilton was sent to recapture Silkaatsnek on 2 August. The force divided into two groups and attacked from both the North and the South of the mountain, forcing the Boers, under command of Commandant Coetzee, to retreat. Hamilton’s Northern force failed to cut off the Boers and Coetzee’s men escaped into the Bushveld.

The Battle of Silkaatsnek, with its concomitant victories at Dwarsvlei and Onderstepoort, won the Boers a short tactical respite, but they were important psychological boosters which encouraged many to keep on fighting. In the end, however, the odds against them were just too great.

As the Battle of Silkaatsnek was raging at Uitval, watching from his stoep on his farm Schoemansrust was General Hendrik Schoeman, the now elderly Boer general who had accepted that the war was over and retired to his farm after giving the British an undertaking that he would not take up arms again.

In his book, “Was hy ‘n verraaier”, his son, Johan Schoeman, defends his father’s position by saying that, although he was now technically a non-combatant, he rejoiced in the successes of the Boer forces. However, the Boer victory wasn’t an unmitigated blessing for Schoeman. Within days, a Boer detachment arrived with orders for Schoeman to re-join the struggle. When he refused, after some unsuccessful attempts to extricate himself, he was escorted to Machadodorp where he was given the option to serve in the government or join the commando as a private. He declined and thought that he would be allowed to return to his farm.

Despite an apparent effort of President Kruger to intercede on his behalf, he was arrested and taken to Potgietersrus where he was tried for high treason and condemned to death, pending ratification of his sentence by General Beyers. He was released when the British occupied Pietersburg, where he was imprisoned, and sent back to Pretoria where he died on 26 May 1901. He was killed when a lyddite shell, which he had brought back from Colesberg and used as an ashtray, exploded as he dropped a match into it while lighting his pipe. Jack Seale[5] is of the opinion that his death might not have been purely accidental as he was mistrusted by both the Boers and the British for his efforts to act as an intermediary between the two sides to bring about peace.

The success of General De la Rey in the Battle of Silkaatsnek and the skirmishes at Dwarsvlei and Onderstepoort, in which the commandos triumphed, encouraged the Boers to pursue the guerrilla war with renewed vigour. By the same token, the British forces renewed their efforts to subdue the Boers and early August Silkaatsnek was recaptured.

On the Free State front, General Christian de Wet was making life miserable for the occupation forces.  He had just suffered the shock of his brother, General Piet de Wet, deciding to renounce his position as a Boer commander and join the English. In addition, a large component of the Free State forces had surrendered in the Brandwater Basin.  De Wet, with a force of about 2 500 men and the Free State government-in-the-veld crossed the Vaal River at Schoemansdrift near Potchefstroom, with five or six British generals with 40 000 to 50 000 troops converging upon them.  At this stage De Wet had an entourage of dozens of ox wagons that restricted his movement and made the commandos vulnerable to attack.

By 14 August De Wet with his commando and President Steyn crossed the Magaliesberg at Olifantsnek and encamped at Buffelspoort for a couple of days.  They moved further eastwards along the Magaliesberg before taking leave from President Steyn and other government members.  A part of his force he sent as escort for the president while he sent another group to join General
De la Rey.  De Wet himself and 250 of his men were to return to the Free State.

By this time the British forces were advancing from all sides and all the passes over the mountain were closed.  De Wet and his commando were at Bokfontein, near the present day Brits, and the only way out seemed to be south – over the mountain.

He did not know the area and did not know if a crossing was possible at all. The South African War Reporter quotes De Wet’s own account of the events:

“Nearby we found a black man. I pointed to the Magalies Mountains and asked him: “Right before us, can a man cross there?”

‘No Master, you cannot!’ the black man answered.

‘Has a man never ridden across here?’

‘Yes, Master,’ replied the black man.  ‘Long ago.’

‘Do baboons walk across?’

‘Yes baboons do, but not a man.’

‘Come on!’ I said to my burghers.  ‘There is only one way, and where baboons can cross, we can cross.’

“We climbed up unobserved to a bit of bush behind which we could hide from the Khakis.  We then reached a ravine and ascended by it, still out of sight of the enemy, until we reached a point nearly half way up the mountain.  There we had to leave the ravine and continue our ascent in full view of the enemy.

“It was now so steep that we could not proceed any further on horseback.  The burghers had to lead their horses and had great difficulty in keeping their own footing.  It frequently happened that a burgher fell and slipped backwards under his horse.  The climb became increasingly difficult.  When we had nearly reached the top of the mountain, there was a huge slab of granite as slippery as ice, and here men and horses stumbled more, and were continually falling.

“We were, as I have said, in full view of the enemy and were within range of their big guns! But nothing happened.  The Khakis neither shot at us nor did they pursue us.  We reached the top of the mountain entirely exhausted.  After having taken a little rest, we began the descent on the southern side.”

The descent was not a picnic either.  The War Reporter quotes one of the burghers that the descent was even more difficult than the ascent, but they reached the farm Remhoogte, near Skeerpoort, just before dusk.

De Wet and his burghers were back in the Free State by 24 August where he established his headquarters at Rhenosterpoort. He returned to Potchefstroom, which had since been abandoned by the British, two days later in an effort to obtain dynamite to sabotage the railway lines.

Although the Boer victory at Silkaatsnek was reversed when Baden-Powell recaptured Silkaatsnek on 2 August 1900 General De la Rey continued to make his presence felt along the Magaliesberg. As a result of Kitchener’s scorched earth policy the Boers were short of supplies and depended heavily on provisions captured by raiding the enemy’s convoys.

De la Rey, in keeping with his reputation as ‘The Lion of the Western Transvaal’, managed to handsomely replenish his stocks by raiding a supply convoy of 150 wagons en route from Pretoria to Rustenburg at Buffelspoort, barely five months after the battle of Silkaatsnek. The five kilometres long convoy was guarded by two companies of West Yorkshires, two guns of the 75th battery and some members of the Victoria Rifles.[6]  Conan Doyle, who compiled his report in 1900, described the escort as totally inadequate considering the value of the cargo and the fact the Boers were known to operate in the area.

On the morning of the 3rd of December a Boer force of 500 men struck and after some fierce fighting managed to capture most of the wagons and the supplies. The British lost 120 wagons in the attack as the Boers destroyed most of what they could not take with them. According to Grobler[7] the Boers lost two burghers while 18 members of the enemy were killed and 46 wounded. Conan Doyle, however, put the British losses at 15 killed and 22 wounded. The Boers also captured 1 000 oxen.

Conan Doyle did not have a high regard for the British actions during the action stating that, “from its feckless start to its spiritless finish the story of the Buffel’s Hoek (sic) convoy is not a pleasant one to tell.”

The Boers’ most successful action in the Magalies, however, came ten days later when De La Rey and Smuts were joined by General Christiaan Beyers to deal the British forces under Brigadier General RAP Clements[8] another devastating blow at Nooitgedacht, just south of the mountain. General Clements was in command of a British force that was raiding the Moot, capturing Boer women and children, burning down crops and farmsteads and commandeering cattle. Clements’s force, consisting of about 1 500 men, was encamped at the foot of the mountain where they spent five days. Conan Doyle is scathing in his assessment of Clements’s defence of his bivouacs, although other authors accept the notion that Clements was comfortable in the assumed superiority of his force and did not consider the possibility that the Boers could muster a force strong enough to challenge his own.

In fact, while the combined De la Rey-Smuts force was still smaller than Clements’s, the Boers’ fighting force was considerably strengthened by the arrival of General Christiaan Beyers from Warmbaths. Clements was not aware of the fact that Beyers was about to join De la Rey, but General George Broadwood, whose cavalry was encamped at Kromrivier near Rustenburg, was. Beyers, however, made it known among the local population that he intended to attack Rustenburg. Broadwood fell for his ruse and rushed off to defend the town without informing Clements whose force was now, unbeknown to him, being threatened by a Boer force almost twice its size. Before daybreak on 13 December 1902 the Boer attack started.

According to Deneys Reitz, the first Boer attack on the soldiers on the summit drew fierce defensive fire and bogged down as the burghers were tired after two days without sleep. At the same time De la Rey’s men launched a mounted attack on the camp below, but were checked by the soldiers rushing to their posts. The soldiers on the summit thought the Boers had been repulsed and started cheering. This spurred on the Boers on the summit to renew their attack and overcome the resistance.

The Boer attack on the camp at the foot of the mountain soon had the British in full retreat, having to withstand fire from the valley and the summit of the mountain. The British retreated to Vaalkop leaving behind all their supplies, including 70 loaded wagons, 200 tents, 700 horses and mules, about 500 trek oxen and a huge supply of ammunition.

Casualties on both sides were high. On the Boer side 32 burghers were killed and 46 wounded, while the British lost 109 (Conan Doyle reported 60) who were killed, 186 wounded and 358 taken prisoner. The prisoners were released a few days later. Six days after the battle Clements was back at Nooitgedacht and reinforced with guns and fresh troops shelled the Boers out of successive positions and had driven them away from that part of the Magaliesberg.

The British never managed to capture either De la Rey or De Wet. It would be another 21 months before the occupation forces managed to corner the illusive chief commandants of the Free State and Transvaal and then only when all the Boer leaders agreed to surrender.  The peace treaty was signed on 31 May 1902 in Melrose House in Pretoria where the British commander-in-chief, Lord Kitchener, had his headquarters.

A copy of the book by Willie Meyer is available at the Kormorant office.

Then and now

2018-12-07T09:18:28+00:00