The money needed has been raised, the Memorial is finished and dedicated. >>>
 Search this Site

Tour South Africa

 
Battle of Onverwacht - 4 January 1902

General Background When the Battle of Onverwacht took place, the war was already two years and a few months old. Less than five months later it would end with the Peace Treaty of Vereeniging on the 31 May 1902.

On 25 October 1900 Britain formally annexed the ZAR (Republic of South Africa (Transvaal). Thus 14 months before this Battle, even before this date the Boer forces that did not surrender, the Bitterenders, waged guerrilla warfare. A small force of guerrillas waging a war of fighting and fleeing is in a position to fight indefinitely and even win against an overwhelming army of occupation. In the twentieth century most guerrilla forces won their wars. Even the mighty U.S.A. was brought to its knees by the Viet Cong in Vietnam.

The Bitter-enders, who were actually good guerrilla fighters, lost the battle chiefly for the following reasons:

  • the concentration camps that removed their support bases
  • the death-toll of women and children in the camps
  • the scorched earth policy
  • the superior numbers of the British forces
  • the blockhouse lines and driving hunts
  • the shortage of weapons, ammunition and food supplies for the Bitter-enders

The Battle of Onverwacht was the last great clash of the war between the Boer and British forces on the Eastern Transvaal Highveld. Blockhouse lines stretched in the north from Barberton to Wonderfontein, in the west from Wonderfontein through Ermelo to Standerton and in the south from Standerton through Volksrust to Piet Retief. General Bruce Hamilton with a force of 15,000 was busy pinning down the remaining Boer Commandos in the area against the Swaziland border.

General Louis Botha with a force of 750 guerrillas tried to prevent this. For General Louis Botha this was a last desperate attempt to continue the armed resistance. Increasingly the Bitterenders questioned the sense of continuing with the war which obviously could not be won. Course of the Battle of Onverwacht 4 January 1902 On 1 January 1902 General Bruce Hamilton moved out of Ermelo in a north-easterly direction to corner General Louis Botha's Commando. His force consisted of three columns.

Major J M Vallentin of the Somerset Light Infantry was the Commander of one of the three corps. Major Vallentin is regarded as a capable and brave commander. His corps consisted of companies of the Buffs Mounted Infantry, Hampshire Mounted Infantry, a company of Yeomen and 110 privates of the 5th Queensland Imperial Bushmen under command of Major Frederick W Toll. Major Vallentin's columns served as an advanced patrol for the columns of General Plumer. Major Vallentin also had a Pom-Pom cannon at his disposal. The last-mentioned can be regarded as a light cannon that could fire 60 shots per minute. As such it was a weapon feared by the Boers.

A strong west wind was blowing when Major Vallentin's corps reached the hilly terrain of Onverwacht's ridges. Major Vallentin set the Buffs Mounted Infantry the task of occupying the heights at Bankkop in expectation of the arrival of General Plumer's main force.

Meanwhile Major Vallentin and his corps advanced another mile (1.6 km). There he decided to remain and place his force in a half-circle of 3 miles (4.8 km) long. The Yeomen were placed in the middle, supported by 25 men of the Hampshire Mounted Infantry slightly behind the Yeomen. The 5th Queensland Imperial Bushmen were placed on the flanks.

Shortly after they had come to a halt, they noticed about 50 Boers on the right flank of a small ravine. Without waiting to familiarize himself with the unknown terrain, Major Vallentin decided to chase the 50 Boers. They had hardly advanced half a mile (800 metres) when they were surprised by 300 Boers under the command of General Koos Opperman.

The superior power of the Boers forced Vallentin's forces back. The Boers could then concentrate on trying to seize the Pom-Pom cannon. The lightning-fast action of the Hampshires and the 5th Queensland Imperial Bushmen prevented this. Upon orders of Major Vallentin the Pom-Pom cannon fell back and resumed firing.

The Boers then surrounded the flank of the British forces and succeeded in placing the draft-horses of the Pom-Pom cannon out of action. The Pom-Pom cannon landed in a gully. The Boers could not succeed in capturing it. In the meantime Major Vallentin spurred the rest of his force on to make a last attempt to prevent a defeat. Major Toll of the 5th Queensland Imperial Bushmen had to retreat on foot with his soldiers and together with Major Vallentin and the remaining Hampshires they made a last desperate attempt on a bare ridge. But the superior force was too big - approximately 500 Boers at the time. Major Vallentin was killed in action. Just such a telling loss to the Boers was the death of General Koos Opperman. General Koos Opperman is regarded as one of the bravest and best commanders of General Louis Botha's army. The battle was won by the Boers.

The Boers had thus ambushed the British. With great determination the Boers attacked Vallentin's forces. A Boer eyewitness, C O Stolp, said "It was a fierce battle and one I shall never forget as to see 500 armed Boer riders recklessly attacking the enemy. It is a sight to make your hair rise and send a chill down your spine."

Seventy-nine British soldiers were taken prisoner. The Boer forces did not have much time to celebrate their victory. There was just enough time to seize horses, weapons, ammunition, clothes and footwear before they had to make themselves scarce. General Plumer arrived on the battlefield with reinforcements and the Boers had to sound the retreat. General Plumer had the Boer forces followed but stopped after a while. General Louis Botha tried to operate on the Eastern Transvaal Highveld between the blockhouse lines for about another month. After the Battle of Onverwacht it became more and more senseless.

In February 1902 General Louis Botha and his forces broke through the southern blockhouse lines to the north of the present-day Natal (around Vryheid) and stayed there until the Peace Treaty of Vereeniging on 31 May 1902.

Interesting Facts about the Battle:

The Battle of Onverwacht lasted approximately twenty minutes.

Killed in Action:

  • 5 Boer Soldiers: General J D Opperman; AS Buhrman; W P Erasmus; H F Moolman; M van Buren.
  • British forces: 13 members of the 5QIB; 1 member of the Somersetshire Light Infantry; 7 members of the Hampshire Mounted Infantry; 3 members; one each of the Yeomanry, Hampshire Mounted Infantry, 5QIB, died after the battle as a result of their injuries.

Boer and British forces came quite close to each other during the battle. Some of the Boers died as close as ten metres from the enemy. General Koos Opperman was possibly shot and killed at a distance of 20 metres.


Gideon Erasmus stood behind a hill holding his father, Willem Petrus Erasmus' horse, listening to the sounds of the battle. His father also died during this battle, and his hat, with a bullet hole in the front, was later given to Gideon.

In 1962 all the graves were dug up and the British soldiers were reburied in the Ermelo cemetery. These graves are indicated by a beautiful monument. General Koos Opperman was reburied in Vryheid.

On Saturday 5 May 1962 a memorial service was held for the 140 Boer and British soldiers who had died. All the veterans of the Anglo Boer war in the area attended the service and the unveiling of the statue.

General Louis Botha's ten year old son, who used to go on commando with him, was protected by the orderly Mosie van Buren. Van Buren was also killed. His grave is still on the farm.

Captain Wynyard Joss, who went to South Africa in command of the Cycle Corps attached to the 5th QIB was, at the time of the Onverwacht battle, an inmate of Charlestown Hospital. From accounts conveyed to him about the action, he wrote on 9 January 1902:

"This has been the biggest setback we have had, and it was long promised us, as the Boers have not forgiven the Bushmen for the shaking up they got in the Pongola Bosch, and said they would get square with us, and, by heaven, they have. Our corps commander, Major Vallentin, who succeeded Colonel Jervis, was killed, being shot through the brain early in the fight.

As the Boers numbered fully 700, some say at least 800, and we numbered all told about 200, you can see the odds that had to be contended against. Sergeant Berry and Private Chardon, of the Cycle Corps, were both killed. Poor lads, both good fighters. There were, also, I think, three of the old Cycle Corps wounded...

Major Toll is dreadfully cut up about the matter although not an atom of blame can be attached to him or his men, he was fighting right up to the last in the thickest of the fire, only desisting when it would have been madness to resist any longer, the Boers having galloped right amongst the 5QIB.

As the Boers numbered fully 700, some say at least 800, and we numbered all told about 200, you can see the odds that had to be contended against. Sergeant Berry and Private Chardon, of the Cycle Corps, were both killed. Poor lads, both good fighters. There were, also, I think, three of the old Cycle Corps wounded...

Major Toll is dreadfully cut up about the matter although not an atom of blame can be attached to him or his men, he was fighting right up to the last in the thickest of the fire, only desisting when it would have been madness to resist any longer, the Boers having galloped right amongst the 5QIB.

The Major's command has been very popular, and he is well liked by all, and this last business is keenly felt by him. By all accounts our lads fought well, and had they had the support of the big guns, a different ending would have resulted.

To give the Boers their just due, they also fought well, and are as daring and as reckless in a charge as a mob of Soudan fanatics..." [Source: "Letters of the Veldt" by Len Harvey]

Finally To conclude, the following are words said by W E Gladstone, 20 years before the Anglo Boer War.

"Look back over the pages of history; consider the feelings with which we now regard wars that our forefathers in their time supported . . . see how powerful and deadly are the fascinations of passion and of pride."

It is therefore extremely important that we commemorate such events as the Battle of Onverwacht, in the first place because we have to learn the lessons of the past. In the second place, we must never allow the sacrifices made by our ancestors 100 years ago on this battlefield to sink into oblivion.

   

Based on material from: Mr Albert Swaters, History Master Ermelo School, South Africa - Colleen O'Leary 2010

Royal Australian Armoured Corps Association NSW, ABN 49709547198. Site sponsored by: supportingsite.biz, PO Box 7287, Penrith South NSW 2750, AUSTRALIA