“When the ballad makers of Australia seek for a subject, let them turn to Elands River, for there was no finer resistance in the war.” Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
After the fall of Pretoria and the relief of the Mafeking siege on 17 May 1900 there was a heavy movement of supplies along the road between the two towns and a massive build up of stores accumulated at the Elands River staging post in the Western Transvaal. By August 1900 the post consisted of a telegraph station, a stone ammunition store, military supplies, a hundred wagons, more than 1,500 horses, mules and cattle marked for evacuation or slaughter and thirty beleaguered loyalists awaiting military escort out of the troubled region.
The large stockpile of supplies was being used to offset the disruption of the supply chain between Mafeking and Rustenburg. These supplies (worth at least 100.000 pounds in 1900 terms) were coveted by the Boers and on 4th August 1900 the Boer General, De la Rey, surrounded and laid siege to the post which was defended by 505 men.
The majority of this force were Australians, with 105 being from New South Wales (A squadron NSW Citizens Bushmen [Capt Thomas]) and 141 from Queensland (3QMI these had been part of the force that had relieved Mafeking) along with 42 Victorians (3rdVictorian Imperial Bushmen), nine from Western Australia (from 3rd WA Imperial Bushmen) and two from Tasmania (from 2nd Tasmanian Imperial Bushmen). In addition to these there were 201 men from Rhodesia (Rhodesia Regiment, Protectorate Regt and British South African Police, [BSAP]) along with three Canadians (RCA) and three British (2 Rifle Bde and 1 ASC). Medical support was supplied by Captain Albert Duka (QLD) with a mobile hospital operating from three ambulances waggons that the women of Queensland had financed from public subscription. There were also 50 African labourers, drivers, servants and runners.
Many of these had been security detachments protecting supply columns or in some cases stragglers rejoining units, all were now halted at the post waiting for Carrington’s relief column to arrive and escort them forward.
Their task, whilst self imposed, was to ensure that the supplies did not fall into Boer hands. Some historians have been critical that they were not more aggressive towards the Boers at various points during the siege but this defies military logic in that their prime concern was that the Boers not get their hands on the supplies. With their horses dead, mounting risky infantry operations against the Boers could have jeopardised their prime objective. Certainly from both ours and Boer sources night patrolling was carried out. It is known however that officers had to stop spontaneous attacks on the Boers and convince soldiers that digging trenches was sensible and not cowardly action. It is also unlikely that the force had sufficient combat power to undertake the role some historians thought they should have achieved
The post commander was Lt Col C Hore. Although often maligned, Hore was no stranger to war having been commissioned in the 1st Battalion the Staffordshire Regiment in 1878, seen service in the Egyptian campaigns 1882-1885, commanded the British Mounted Infantry in Egypt in 1898 and raised the Protectorate Regiment and served during the siege of Mafeking however now suffering badly from the affects of malaria.
The second in command was Major Walter Tunbridge of Queensland who took command during some of Hore’s periods of illness.
Personal weapons, one old muzzle loading black powder 7 Pdr and two Maxim MGs. (one .303 and one older .450) All these regularly broke down and required extreme maintenance to keep them going but their presence in part dissuaded the Boers from rushing the post.
The Boers weapons
De la Rey’s force of 2,500 burghers was vastly superior and was equipped with many modern artillery pieces which pounded the post in its exposed position.
5 modern artillery pieces (75mm/12pdrs) and older gun believed to be a 7pdr, three Pom Poms (37mm automatic cannon), and two Maxim 7mm machine guns
The garrison belatedly entrenched their position and, defying offers of safe passage out with their arms if they surrendered, doggedly fought on for 12 days. A relief force from the west commanded by General Carrington was driven back by the Boers and another from the east commanded by Baden-Powell failed to relieve them. Lord Roberts’ Headquarters thought it impossible for the garrison to hold out and presumed that the post had surrendered. When this was found to be incorrect a very large column commanded by Kitchener himself marched to the relief of the post. They could not believe the devastation which they saw. As well as the shells and the sniping and the loss of 19 killed and 58 wounded, the defenders fought through the stench of their 1,500 dead horses and transport animals which had been killed by the Boers early during the siege.
By the last day of July the Boers were commandeering men and cattle from surrounding farms and setting fire to the grass around the post to starve its animals. Patrols sent out by the garrison and an isolated outpost to the south sensed the enemy’s new ascendancy, and two New South Welshmen were badly wounded. Clearly an attack was imminent. The garrison prepared to meet it by rising early, heaping boulders and stones into crescent-shaped ‘sangars’ or ‘schanzes’, and surrounding the rise in barbed wire. To secure their water supply, small detachments under two lieutenants from Thomas’s squadron – Richard Zouch, a tough Bungendore grazier in his early fifties, and William Cope, almost as old as Zouch, a Sydney solicitor and horseman and a veteran of the Sudan War. They occupied and threw up schanzes on the ‘eminence’, henceforth known as Zouch’s kopje, and on the double-headed hill just south of it, soon to be called Butters’ Kopje after Butters, and some Rhodesians took up its defence. The junction of
Elands River and Doornspruit could now be swept by rifle fire. But the little garrison was stretched across eight to ten hectares of land.
4 August 1900
At daybreak on 4 August most of the garrison had been dismissed from its usual pre-dawn alert and was about to eat breakfast when some rifle shots cracked in the cold morning air. ‘Boss! Boss! James Green’s (Methodist Padre) African servant yelled, ‘the Dutchmen!” ‘Nonsense’, Green replied; it was the butchers slaughtering some cattle. But it was Boers all right, crawling along the river bed towards the post. There was little time to digest the disturbing discovery; Boer guns promptly opened fire from distant hills. The second shot tore down the telegraph line and interrupted a distress signal being relayed to Zeerust. In minutes the post was a shambles of smashed wagons, broken shale, and bleeding chunks of animal flesh. Gartside watched the tiny flash of flame in the mouths of the Boer guns when they fired. Exactly six seconds later, he calculated, and another shell would crash down on the post and add to the confusion. The soldiers rushed to the schanzes they had built – Ham and some Victorians to the river side, Thomas and some New South Welshmen to the east. It was the first time most of these men had been shot at.
The big guns of the Boers were out of range of the sole 7 pounder in the camp, which was of little use to the defenders, although they managed to score a direct hit on a farmhouse from which snipers were operating. Major Tunbridge worked untiringly under fire, to try and keep the gun in service; four times it had to be dismantled to effect repairs. Tunbridge spent a day and a night with a file repairing some of the shells, many of which had been damaged in transit.
1700 shells are believed to have been fired by the Boers on that day, killing five and wounding 27, including Pte. S. Masteron, the first Queenslander hit, who was to die later in hospital. The most devastating casualties being felt amongst the large reserves of livestock that had accumulated at the post. Hundreds of shells fell in the midst of milling cattle, horses and mules killing as many as 30 in a single blast. By the end of the second day the site was strewn with carcasses that quickly began to bloat in the late season heat, creating a poisonous atmosphere and a pervading stench of death and decomposition.
Lieutenant James Annat led a patrol of twenty-five Queenslanders in an effort to silence a particularly troublesome pom-pom. By crawling through the grass for more than two hundred metres the patrol opened fire so effectively that the Boers were forced to retire. Later Annat unsuccessfully sought permission to take a raiding party out at night to try and capture the gun. Lieutenant Annat had taken part in the relief of Mafeking. He served with the distinction in the early days of the siege and he often went out into enemy-held territory for hours to signal back the range of the Boer guns. He would become one of the KIAs of the siege on the 6th.
When darkness fell, the defenders worked tirelessly to develop trenches with overhead cover that were impervious to shellfire.
5 August 1900
After the initial Boer gun fire of Day 1 of the Siege, the 500 troops defending the Elands Post were cheered by the sight of forward elements of the remaining Rhodesian Field Force commanded by Maj Gen Carrington approaching along the Reit Valley but were dismayed as they observed the Boers move several guns and 100 riflemen into a position to engage the relief force
None were regular soldiers, almost none had been in battle before, and Carrington had never faced the Boers before. He cautiously left a third of his column guarding the wagons before entering the valley slowly, in extended order, behind advance patrols of Bushmen and Imperial Yeomanry. De la Rey recognised the raw column as a target, not a threat. He considered letting it enter the post then bottling it up too. Then he changed his mind, deciding to defeat it before the garrison’s eyes. He dispatched a commando under Lemmer to do the job. It proved easy enough. Carrington later praised his scouts, including Lieutenant Richard Doyle from Mackay’s regiment, but they could not find the Boer positions let alone get around them. In contrast, Lemmer’s commando quickly crept round the column and swept the valley with fire from the surrounding hills. Their bullets ‘seemed to whistle about in all directions,’ Lieutenant Granville Ryrie recalled later. Carrington backed out of the trap and retreated all the way to Zeerust. The retreat so resembled a panic flight that some of the garrison wondered at first if it were a ruse.
Reaching within four kilometres of Eland River, Carrington withdrew to Marico River at 16:00 after Boer artillery successfully targeted his headquarters and the gun teams.
The Australians wanted to have another go at getting through but now Carrington began to think he was badly outnumbered and faced with a much superior force and with a Garrison that must have surrendered, he decided to not only withdraw to Zeerust but all the way back to Mafeking. He burnt all his stores. (The Boers put out the fires and salvaged significant quantities of stores) He signaled Roberts that the Garrison had surrendered and that he was faced by superior forces. (Apparently in 1901 some Australians sent him a white feather)
De La Rey sent in the first of his surrender offers only to have it rejected by Captain Butters, Rhodesia Regiment.
On day two only 480 shells fell on the post, with most of the remaining livestock either falling victim or having to be put down.
6 August 1900
Another relief force from the east commanded by Baden-Powell with 1500-2000 men had been pulled out a blocking position designed to corner De Wet and sent to relieve the garrison; on hearing that the garrison had surrendered it turned back. Roberts hearing of the ‘surrender’ directed Baden Powell not to commit himself.
The British command due to false information now believed that the post was lost. Hunting De Wet became its main focus over the next few days.
8 August 1900
On 8 August, the Boer commander, De la Rey sent a messenger under a flag of truce to advise Lieutenant Colonel Hore that the relief forces had withdrawn and to let them know that the whole area was in Boer hands. He offered to escort the force to the nearest British post provided that none of the supplies within the camp were destroyed. He concluded, “Your commissioned officers, in such a case, will retain their arms in recognition of your courage in defence of your camp. The local Kgatla tribe now began to make trouble for the Boers causing the attackers to begin to redeploy to deal with them
12 August 1900
On 12 August, De la Rey sent a second offer of honourable surrender to which Colonel Hore replied, ‘Even if I wished to surrender to you – and I don’t – I am commanding Australians who would cut my throat if I accepted your terms.’
The active Boer attacks on Elands River Post dwindled away to nothing after the refusal of the garrison to agree to a surrender offered by Gen De la Rey.
De la Rey, Smuts, and most of the Boers left the scene to reorganise and quash the Kgatla a local tribe taking advantage of the confusion to raid Boer farms. This was now the main concern in the region. Soon only 200 men of the Wolmaransstad commando were surrounding the post and its 500 defenders. Historians have argued that now the time was right to attack. This would have been a risky strategy as the main commandos were still close enough to return rapidly. It would have to be done on foot without supporting weapons with no more than three meager squadrons against a mounted enemy. The risk was that the depot could well have been exposed in the process. There was insufficient combat power to guarantee success. It is certainly true that the garrison did not appreciate that the majority of the enemy were no longer in location or if they did, suspected a ruse. The garrison was content to hold on to its trenches and reflect on what it had done.
13-16 August 1900
Not until 13 August was the true position learnt at headquarters, after a native runner sent by Hore was picked up on the Mafeking railway with the news that the camp was still holding out. (Some sources also claim that a message from De La Rey to de Wet was intercepted requesting assistance in crushing the garrison) The news stunned the British Command and Roberts was less than impressed with Carrington and Baden Powell. A new effort to break the siege was immediately ordered, and columns totaling 10,000 men under General Lord Kitchener started out on the 15th. Kitchener had been hunting De Wet and diverted from this task. De Wet had escaped the attempt to trap him by slipping north through the Magaliesberg Range a few days later
In the face of the overwhelming strength of the advancing British force, De le Rey withdrew his burghers before Kitchener rode into the Elands River camp the next day. By this stage twelve of the garrison had been killed, along with seven native drivers, and another 58 wounded. Two Australian wounded would die later.
A British officer with the relief force wrote to the London TIMES “I do hope that Great Britain will show its gratitude to those Australians for the brightest page in the history of the war”
A few days after the siege some 25,000 relieving troops were camped around the Elands River Post.
In May 1900 the 13th Battalion Imperial Yeomanry had been surrounded by a Boer force at Lindley. Outnumbered and out of ammunition, the force of 400 had been forced to surrender after about six hours of fighting. Relief forces were too late in arriving to rescue the trapped unit. It was a morale sapping result and whilst nothing so spectacular had occurred since then, there was a general view that once a force was surrounded and cut off, the logical consequence was surrender. The stand at Elands River, which was never meant to be defendable, whilst not a typical situation, lifted morale throughout the whole the British force. If the praise was over fulsome, it came as a result of the exultation that all on the British side felt. Ultimately General Carrington was removed from command (both he and Baden Powell were heavily criticised by the British command). South African historians have claimed that if the forces had not been diverted from blocking De Wet to rescue the garrison, he would have been captured and the war ended sooner.
(Notwithstanding Lord Roberts' miscalculation and the ineptitude of Generals Carrington and Hamilton, it is interesting to speculate on whether or not De Wet would have been able to fight his way through Olifants Nek or Magatos Nek had Baden-Powell kept the two passes defended or, had he failed, whether or not he would have been able to turn and fight his way through the encircling forces of Lords Kitchener and Methuen. Furthermore, had De Wet, President Steyn and their commando of Free Staters been captured, would the war have been brought to an early conclusion? Had it been, the implications are enormous. In August 1900 the Refugee (Concentration Camp) programme had not yet been fully implemented. The scorched earth policy with its wholesale destruction of farmhouses, crops and livestock was yet to come and the Cape Dutch rebellion was still in its infancy. Accordingly, it is the writer's contention that had the war ended in August or September 1900, much of which was to cause so much bitterness in South Africa might have been avoided.
Thus it is possible to say that the siege of the small garrison at the Elands River and the attempt to relieve it might have had a close bearing on the subsequent development of South African History. Lionel Wulfsohn 1984.)
However De Wet was ever elusive and there is no definite assurance that he would not have escaped the British blockade anyway. For the Australians, it confirmed their self belief after actions such as Kosters River.
The Bushmen were proud of their two-week stand, even if it had not been the kind of fighting they had expected or wanted on enlistment. De Lisle’s men marvelled at what seemed a ‘splendid stand’ that cost ‘one hundred casualties in four hundred’. An officer with Broadwood’s brigade wrote to the London Times that the ‘four hundred Australians’ – (the Rhodesians, the native drivers and the Kgatla are often overlooked - they should not be forgotten) – had given ‘the most gallant performance of the whole war’. It certainly ‘was the most marvellous piece of heroism’, Hubert Murray believed, especially since the garrison had obviously been ‘shamefully abandoned’ by Carrington and Baden Powell.
They had expected to come in on the action as glamorous outriders, saviours of the empire, just as the fighting was ending. Instead they found themselves garrisoning a pestilential pirates’ fiefdom, and plunged into a hunt on unfamiliar ground for deadly bandits who had all the advantages of local knowledge, battle experience, and sheer desperation.”
They had been outnumbered by four or five to one, they had been massively out-gunned but had not shown the slightest sign of surrendering. They had lost heavily in horses, over 1400 of the 1550 in the post were killed. Among the men the casualties had been amazingly light; of the seventy seven casualties only eight Australians had died.
Describing battle at Elands River, a Boer wrote:
"For the first time in the war we were fighting men who used our own tactics against us. They were Australian volunteers and although small in number we could not take their position. They were the only troops who could scout into our lines at night and kill our sentries. Our men admitted that the Australians were more formidable and far more dangerous than any British troops."
The siege was perhaps the most notable action involving Australians in South Africa, earning high praise from even the Boers' senior commander, Jan Smuts, who said:
Never in the course of this war did a besieged force endure worse sufferings, but they stood their ground with magnificent courage. All honour to these heroes who in the hour of trial rose nobly to the occasion ...
Later he would say:
"There can only be one opinion about the fine determination and pluck of these stalwart Colonials, to many this terrific bombardment must have been their first experience of serious warfare. Deserted by their friends and then, owing to unreasonable obstinacy, abandoned by their disappointed enemies, they simply sat tight until Kitchener's column, which was in pursuit of General De Wet, finally disinterred them from the carcass-covered Kopje, into which they had burrowed so effectually that it seemed unlikely they would ever come out of it."
Arthur Conan Doyle
"But now they can point to Elands River as proudly as the Canadians at Paardeberg...they were sworn to die before the white flag would wave above them. And so fortune yielded, as fortune will when brave men set their teeth...when the ballad makers of Australia seek for a subject, let them turn to Elands River, for there was no finer fighting in the war."
The battle has been described by historian Chris Coulthard-Clark as being "...perhaps the most notable action involving Australians in South Africa".
Australian Troops involved:
Other Significant Troops Involved Included:
David Deasey August 2013
George Essex Evans (1863 – 1909) Described by Prime Minister Alfred Deakin, as Australia’s ‘national poet’.
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