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Spelonken Incident 16 September 1901

By June 1900 the Boer Forces had been defeated in the field and British Forces had occupied Bloomfontein, capital of the Orange free State and Pretoria, capital of the Transvaal. President Steyn of the Orange Free State was still in the field. President Kruger of the Transvaal had been reduced to running the country from a railway coach before fleeing to Holland via Portuguese East Africa taking with him the Republic’s gold reserves, 2,500,000 pounds ($A 5,000,000 but a vastly greater sum in today’s value).

The war developed into a guerrilla conflict and continued for another eighteen months. The Boers split into small groups arid it was a nice question as to whether each group was defending its country or simply acing as a gang of outlaws. The latter situation was very much the case in the North East Transvaal and could be likened to the activities of Frank Gardiner and Ben Hail in the Central West of New South Wales in the 1860s. There was one difference, in the North East Transvaal the Boer gangs robbed all and sundry including their own people. It was with the object of controlling the situation that the Bushveldt Carbineers were Raised in February 1901.

The Bushveldt Carbineers had an authorised strength of 500 but actual strength never exceeded 350. There were same enlistments of local people (in one case this was to have an unforeseen effect later). The majority of enlistments were from. Colonial Troops including many Australians attracted by the high rate of pay, 10 shillings ($1 when our currency was decimal converted in 1966 - in real terms about $1,000 in today's currency) per day and the prospect of further action. The Bushveldt Carbineers was a tough and. experienced unit with a tough and experienced commanding officer.

The Bushveldt Carbineers moved into the Pietersberg District in April 1901 ahead of a column of infantry and artillery commanded by Colonel Plumer. During its short life the Bushveldt Carbineers never fought as a unit, Australian officers known to be serving with the unit were:

Major R.W. Lenehan Commanding Officer
Captain Edwards Adjutant
Lieutenant Mortimer Quartermaster
Lieutenant P. handcock Veternary Officer
Lieutenant Baudinet

Two more Australian officers joined later. At the end of April Lieutenant H.H. Morant, known throughout Australia as “The Breaker”, arrived. Of good English family, well educated, he had knocked about the Australian outback for 16 years before enlisting in the Second South Australian Mounted Rifles in 1900. There was not a horse that Morant could not ride, He was a contributor to “The Bulletin” and on that account was a minor celebrity. As a soldier in South Africa, he had a fine active service record and was commissioned. Bob Lenehan had no hesitation in accepting him as an officer in the Bushveldt Carbineers. Apart from Morant’s service record, he was known to Bob Lenehan socially. Sydney was a small city in the late 19th century, and Morant had met Bob Lenehan on at least two occasions.

The other Australian officer was Lieutenant G.E. Witton, a former gunner in the permanent Victorian Regiment of the Royal Australian Artillery. Witton volunteered for service in South Africa, was quickly promoted Sergeant in the Victorian Rangers and arrived in South Africa in May l900. He was commissioned in the Bushveldt Carbineers in June 1901. Witton had not seen action due a knee injury but was quite fit by the time he received his commission.

Bob Leneban opened the Bushveldt Carbineers at Pietersburg Headquarters and members of the unit were soon dispersed on operation. Authority over the Bushveldt Carbineers at Pietersburg was in the person of the Area Commandant, Colonel F.H. Hall, CB, RA. There was another Area Commandant at Spelonken about 145 kilometres north of Pietersburg. He was Captain A. Taylor of the Intelligence Corps.

The first detachment of the Bushveldt Carbineers commenced operations in the Waterberg district. A second detachment under Morant commenced operations in the Strydespoort district, With minimum military impediments, and living off the country as distinct from the Boers who travelled with wagons and went into laager at night, Morant and his patrol were successful in gaining control of the Strydespoort district. In June the Bushveldt Carbineers established an outpost at Bandolier Kop and a strong detachment in the Spelonken district about 145 kilometres north of Pietersburg. The detachment opened its headquarters in a farm house which it named Fort Edward, handcock went with the Spelonken detachment as veterinary officer. He also acted as a combatant officer.

Disciplinary problems soon emerged at Spelonken and in mid July, Bob Lenehan withdrew the whole detachment with the exception of handcock. The officer commanding was allowed to resign his commission. Bob Lenehan ordered a fresh detachment to Spelonken under the command of Captain P Hunt (formerly 10th Hussars). Hunt was to be assisted by three subalterns; all four officers, one of whom was Morant, could be relied upon to maintain discipline.

Shortly after the change, Lieutenant H. Picton DCM (one of the four), commanding a stores convoy proceeding to Spelonken, reported that some members of the escort had broached the ruin included in the stores and cached a quantity. Hunt immediately ordered that these personnel be placed in close arrest. They broke arrest and made their own way back to Pietersburg where Major Lenehan ordered their re-arrest. After an inquiry, Colonel Hail directed they be discharged.

This second group of defaulters was replaced by a draft of 20 men under Lieutenant Witton which arrived Spelonken on 4th August 1901. Witton, a regular soldier, knew all the answers and had the draft well in hand.

Shortly after Fort Edward was garrisoned in June, a party of six armed Boers coming in to surrender, so it was said, was attacked by a Bushveldt Carbineer patrol and all shot. At about the same time a locally enlisted Dutch Trooper was shot for suspected traitorous activities, thee trooper' death was reported to Major Lenehan as being killed in action.

Throughout August, September to mid-October there was intense patrol activity in the Spelonken district and a number of Boers were shot. A German missionary was shot under unknown circumstances. On 5 August 1901. Hunt was killed in action and his body mutilated at Duivals Kloof. Morant assumed command of the detachment

On 16 September 1901, a patrol of thirty men under Morant and Witton, went out with the object of capturing Veldt-Cornet Kelly, a notorious guerrilla leader in the Spelonken District. Major Lenehan had visited Fort Edward a few days before and had given permission for the patrol insisting, despite the vigorous protests of Morant, that Kelly be brought in alive. Kelly was captured on 22 September in the vicinity of the Birthday Mine and brought in alive. Morant was congratulated by Colonel Hall and granted 14 days leave to Pretoria. The Bushveldt Carbineers now had the Spelonken District under control.

When Morant returned to Pietersburg from leave, he was placed under close arrest in solitary confinement. On 21st October, Fort Edward was ordered to be abandoned and the Spelonken detachment was withdrawn to Pietersburg, arriving on 23rd October, When the detachment arrived, Bob Lenehan, handcock and Witton were promptly placed under arrest in solitary confinement No charges were laid at this time.

The certain officers, two others and a Warrant Officer were to appear before a Court of Inquiry into shootings in the Spelonken District. The court sat early in November and the Officers were informed of the charges against them. In December the officers were informed that they were to be tried by court martial. At about the same time, Colonel Hall was transferred to an appointment in India and the Bushveldt Carbineers was disbanded.

On 15 January 1902, the officers were handed copies of the charge and were informed that Major I.E. Thomas, a solicitor of Tenterfleld, NSW, would be the defending officer. Thomas had commanded A Squadron NSW Citizens’ Bushmen at the Siege of Elands River Post; he had no experience of criminal or court martial proceedings.

Throughout the period of almost three months from date of arrest, the prisoners were held in solitary confinement in the Pietersburg Garrison lines. Bob Lenehan protested vigorously without avail, furthermore he was refused permission to advise the Australian Government of his position.

This article will not follow the court martial of Morant, Handcock and Witton. All three were sentenced to death with a recommendation for mercy. Only Witton’s sentence was commuted to life imprisonment which was remitted on 10 August 1904.

REF: Major L.P. Hindmarsh RFD, Lieutenant Colonel RW Lenehan VD and the Bushveldt Carbineers, Royal Australian Artillery Historical Society Magazine; G. Witton, Scapegoats of the Empire (Melb, 1907); Australian Defence Department, Official Records of Australian Military Contingents to the War in South Africa, P. L. Murray ed (Melb, 1911); R. L. Wallace, The Australians at the Boer War (Canb, 1976); K. Denton, Closed File (Syd, 1983); F. M. Cutlack, Breaker Morant (Syd, 1962); Parliamentary Debates (Commonwealth), 1904, p 3576; Sabretache, Dec 1975; Sydney Morning Herald, 8 Jan 1916, 27 June, 26 Oct 1917, 22 May 1922; Herald (Melbourne), 25 Oct 1917; records (Australian War Memorial).

  

John Howells

© National Boer War Memorial Association Inc ABN 29 293 433 202