TOPIC: The Rustenberg Commando
The Rustenberg Commando 4 months 2 weeks ago #54392
The Rustenberg Commando (Part 1)
Rustenberg at War by Lionel Wulfsohn ISBN 0 620 16769 6.
Privately published by L M Wulfsohn in 1987. Reprinted in 1992.
Since copies of this book may no longer be readily available, I have made a summary of the contents that deal specifically with the service of the Rustenberg Commando between 1899 and 1902. Wulfsohn concentrates on the actions that took place in the vicinity of the Magaliesberg. There is a lot more detail in the book, and other topics are also included. For anyone interested in the Boer side of the war, it is certainly worth consulting.
The Rustenberg Commando had a troubled history early in the war. General Smuts was particularly critical of the Hex River Cornetcy, and he wrote that the men “had a sinister reputation for quarrelsomeness, indiscipline and a constitutional aversion to face the enemy.” Lionel Wulfsohn ascribed the deficiencies of this unit to the poor leadership of Field Cornet Piet Kruger, a son of the President, whose appointment he believed was due to nepotism not merit.
The Rustenberg Commando was given an important assignment shortly before the war started. A strong contingent was sent to create a fortified laager at Derdepoort on the border with the Bechuanaland Protectorate (now Botswana). The adjacent section of the border was occupied by the Marico Commando, and, after the war started, the Marico Commando crossed the border and began tearing up the railway line to stop it being used by a British armoured train. A request for assistance was sent to the Rustenbergers at Derdepoort, who could not or did not comply and the armoured train was able to escape. This was the first of the troubling incidents to involve the Rustenbergers during the war.
This unpromising start was to be compounded by other events in the Derdepoort area. More armoured trains arrived on the line in Bechuanaland, together with a detachment of Rhodesian soldiers and a large impi of Bakgatla, a warlike branch of the Tswana (‘Bechuanas’), who had been provided with ammunition by the British. A portion of this tribe had formerly lived in the Transvaal, but moved to Bechuanaland after a disagreement with Paul Kruger, who later became the Transvaal President, so they naturally sided with the British. The Derdepoort laager was then occupied by 100 Rustenbergers and 85 policemen, and an attack on them was launched on the morning of 25 November 1899 by the Rhodesians under the command of a British officer, Lieutenant-Colonel G L Holdsworth, and with the Bakgatla tribesmen in the van. The attack was started with the firing of the Rhodesian maxim gun.
The Bakgatla crossed the Marico River border and attacked the laager, but then diverted their attention to the village of Derdepoort, where they killed eight policemen and six civilians, including two women. They then plundered and burned homes and shops before crossing back over the border with captive women and children who had survived the massacre. Holdsworth’s Rhodesians had come under long-range fire from the Boer laager, so he withdrew the men, who did nothing to stop the attack on the village, nor to assist the captives when they were brought across the border. The Rhodesians then returned to their base further north. The captives were kept in harrowing conditions by the Bakgatla until they were rescued by British officials on the afternoon of 28 November. They were returned to the Boer side of the border on the afternoon of 30 November.
The Rustenberg Commando did not acquit itself well during this incident. Its reputation was diminished by 15 Burgers deserting the laager during the attack, during which the Commando lost six men killed and four wounded.. The Derdepoort tragedy and the fear of further attacks by the Bakgatla had a profound effect on the mood of the people of Rustenberg and adjacent areas. The response by the Boers was to build up their border force to 6 officers and 500 Burgers to remove the threat of further attacks by the Bakgatla. This force included elements of the Rustenberg Commando. It attacked the Bakgatla on 22 December and routed them.
The Siege of Mafeking, which had started on 13 October 1899 proved to be another difficult trial for the Rustenberg Commando, elements of which were present from the commencement of the Siege, and the Commando was to see it through to its end. Four other Commandos were involved in the investment, but on 18 November three were detached to strengthen the Boer line at Modder River, south of Kimberley. The Marico Commando and the Rustenbergers, initially a total of about 3500 men, were left to hold the perimeter at Mafeking. In January 1900 there was a further reduction when 200 Rustenbergers were detached and sent to strengthen the Boer line on the Tugela River in Natal. The besieging force was further weakened by absences due to illness and men leaving to attend to their farms and other personal matters.
Wulfsohn recorded that then the quality of the officers left much to be desired. As an example, he mentions a Rustenberg Field Cornet who could not ride a horse, which was one of the basic skills required of all Boer soldiers. The result was disrespect on the part of the Burgers, who were often unwilling to follow orders. In addition, the 217 days of the Siege were largely repetitious and monotonous, and the Boers became increasingly depressed and demoralised.
Matters came to a head after the Siege ended on 17 May 1900, and demoralised Boers left both the Marico and Rustenberg Commandos in droves. Wulfsohn reported that by 29 May 1900 the Marico Commando was reduced from 1250 to 110 men. Much the same applied to the Rustenberg Commando, and only about 130 Rustenbergers under Assistant Commandant Casper du Plessis remained in the field.
On pages 80/81 of his book, Wulfsohn wrote:
“In this state of virtually total breakdown in officer control, lack of discipline, disillusionment and ill health, the Rustenbergers were tailor made for Lord Roberts’ proclamations encouraging Burghers to sign the oath of neutrality.”
He went on:
Apart from Assistant Commandant du Plessis, by “June 1900 the only officers of any consequence left in the Rustenberg Commando were Commandant Petrus Steenekamp, Field Cornets Koos van Heerden and Roelf van Tonder.”
The rebirth of the Rustenberg Commando, which began in mid-June, is well documented. The respected General H R Lemmer was sent to the western Transvaal to get its Commandos back into the field. By that time Rustenberg was occupied by the British, and Lemmer’s task of reforming the Rustenberg Commando was greatly assisted after the town was abandoned by the British and re-occupied by the Boers on 4 July.
June 1900 was also the month when the guerrilla war began in earnest in the western Transvaal. It was marked by the actions at Roodewal Station on 7 June and Silkaats Nek on 11 July. By August the area was effectively controlled by the Boers under General de la Rey, who was to become known as the ‘Lion of the West’. Before the war, de la Ray had asked for moderation, since he believed that the two Boer Republics were not strong enough to take on the British. He also did not believe that the Germans would join the war on the side of the Boers. He was proved correct on both counts. Nevertheless, once the war started he performed his duty with zeal. Although an expert marksman, he never carried a weapon during the war, but he was a commander with rare talent, and he never lost a battle.
During this period the Rustenberg Commando was being rebuilt, but its strength would never again exceeded 600 men, a far cry from the 2000 men that Wulfsohn estimated had started the war. However, the new incarnation of the Commando was much improved by being without many of the men who had signed the oath of neutrality, or were otherwise not committed to the Boer cause.
Wulfsohn recorded that Rustenberg’s importance during this phase of the guerrilla war was due to its strategic location in the northern foothills of the Magaliesberg, its proximity to the Olifant’s Nek and Magatos Nek passes, and the important westerly road from Pretoria that passed through it. The most significant actions in the vicinity of Rustenberg and the Magaliesberg that were listed by Wulfsohn were:
Silkaats Nek …………………………………………….. 11/07/1900
Rooipoierspruit (Koster River) ………………………… 21/07/1900 – 22/7/1900
Siege of Elands River ………………………………..... 04/08/1900 – 16/08/1900
Buffelspoort …………………………………………….. 03/12/1900
Nooitgedacht …………………………………………… 13/12/1900
Wonderfontein (Groot Marico) ……………………….. 05/09/1901
Moedwil …………………………………………………. 30/09/1901
Kleinfontein …………………………………………….. 24/10/1901
The Boers had clear advantages over the British at this time. They knew the often difficult terrain well, they could count on the local population for information and practical support, and the mounted Commandos could move rapidly from place to place as situations required, both to engage the enemy and to escape. Initially, although there was much movement of troops by both sides, contacts were rare. An exception was the clash between Boers and Australians at Koster River on 21 July 1900, during which the former lost six men killed and the Australians seven.
A much more significant event was the Siege of Elands River from 4 to 16 August 1900. After the Relief of Mafeking, the British established an outpost at Elands River, a ‘half-way house’ between Rustenberg and Zeerust. In early August it was manned by about 500 Colonials, mainly Rhodesians and Australians. It was decided to abandon it, and the Rhodesian Field Force under General Carrington was ordered to escort the Elands River garrison to Rustenberg. However, the Boers moved first, and early on 4 August 1900 a large force arrived at the outpost. Included were 300 men of the Rustenberg Commando under Commandant P S Steenekamp, who covered the northern approaches to the camp. A bombardment of the Colonials camp began at daybreak, and the siege was underway.
Carrington’s relief force approached the next day, but it was ambushed by the Boers and it beat a hasty retreat to Zeerust, harassed all the way by General Lemmer and a detachment of Boers. Carrington abandoned the rescue bid and ordered the relief supplies destroyed, although Lemmer’s men managed to save some for use by the Boers instead. This debacle heralded the end of Carrington’s soldiering in Africa.
Because of timidity and poor intelligence, a relief column from Rustenberg under Major-General R S S Baden-Powell also withdrew without reaching the Elands River outpost. Baden-Powell’s force was ordered back to Pretoria, and on 7 August Rustenberg was abandoned by the British and it was soon re-occupied by the Boers. The abandoning of Rustenberg and the adjacent Magaliesberg passes had a fortuitous result for the Boers, because it allowed the escape northwards of General de Wet and his Orange Free State commandos, together with President M T Steyn. The safe passage of the Free Staters into the northern Transvaal served to prolong the war and all its later attendant miseries.
These events overshadowed the Elands River siege, but it was eventually lifted on 16 August by a relief force that approached from the west. The Rustenberg Commando retired to Brakkloof, and then on to Rustenberg.
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The Rustenberg Commando 4 months 2 weeks ago #54393
The Rustenberg Commando Part 2
On 26 September 1900, Rustenberg fell under the control of the British for the last time. Also in late September both the British and Boers were on the move again, and the campaign in the Magaliesberg continued until December 1900. The Rustenberg Commando was involved in both major actions that took place during this period, namely at Buffelspoort and Nooitgedacht.
In December 1900, General Smuts was serving under de la Rey and he had the Rustenberg Commando under his command. According to Wulfsohn he wrote that the men were “keenly looking forward for an opportunity to prove that all their hard training had not been in vain”. Their opportunity came when a fully laden and well-guarded convoy of supply wagons left the Rietfontein base camp for Rustenberg. The convoy was ambushed at Buffelspoort at dawn on 3 December. The Boer attack did not go as smoothly as planned, but it eventually prevailed. Wulfsohn reported that “ British soldiers were killed and 22 were wounded, [and]138 wagons, 1832 oxen and 75 prisoners had fallen into Boer hands.”
The Battle of Nooitgedacht was an even more significant victory for the Boers. Major-General R A P Clements left Krugersdorp on 3 December with a force of 1500 men and nine guns, including a 120 mm naval gun, bound for Rustenberg. On 8 December he made camp on the farm Nooitgedacht at the foot of the Breedts Nek pass in the Magaliesberg. His camp was particularly poorly sited as it was open to attack on all sides. The Boers arrived in force with de la Rey’s commandos, including the Rustenbergers, to the west, and Smuts’ commandos to the south. They were reinforced by the fortuitous arrival of General C F Beyers’ commandos to the north of Breedts Nek, which was then guarded by a contingent of British soldiers. After an early false start from the west, the attack on Clements’ camp began at dawn. The advance by Beyers from the north quickly overcame all resistance on the pass, and he was joined by de la Rey at its foot, while Smuts to the south had a slower and more difficult time. Clements’ camp was overrun by the Boers, who then stopped their advance to pillage the camp. Nothing Beyers and de la Rey could do could get them back in action harrying the British who were escaping eastwards. This lapse in discipline allowed Clements to halt his retreat and regroup on Yeomanry Hill, which was one of the features east of Nooitgedacht that Smuts had failed to secure. During the afternoon Clements continued his retreat back to Rietfontein. Smuts tried to get his men to harass the retreat, but the temptation to join the plundering of the camp was too great. Smuts and a few loyal men did follow Clements for a while, and snipers killed a few of his men, but he reached the safety of Rietfontein late in the afternoon.
The British lost 66 men killed and 187 wounded, of whom 14 later died. There were 315 men captured, but they were all released soon afterwards. Of the 31 men missing, 18 had been killed on the high ground along the pass, and their bodies were found later. The number of Boers killed is uncertain, but figures of between 15 and 30 have been estimated. The Boer monument at Breedts Nek indicates that 32 men were buried there in a mass grave. Had it not been for the ill-discipline of the Boers, this British defeat could have turned into a rout.
In the Rustenberg district the first five months of 1901 were characterised by many minor contacts between the two sides. In spite of the best efforts of the reinforced British to lure the Boers into a major confrontation, they were frustrated by the flight tactics of the Boers. The British tried using a large number of troops in a wide sweep to force the Boers into making a stand, but that too failed. Wulfsohn quotes ‘The Times History of the War’ as follows:
“….the British columns were outclassed in generalship, mobility and scouting, and were unable to get to grips with the Boers unless the Boers decided to make a stand themselves.”
Even a contact engineered by the British could be turned to the advantage of the Boers by General de la Rey. This happened on 5 January 1901 on the farm Cyferfontein, south of Rustenberg, where a British column under General Babington made contact with the Boers. De la Rey drew part of the column into an ambush in which 48 men of the Imperial Light Horse were killed or wounded. Seventy horses were also killed. As Babington regrouped, de la Rey disengaged his men and escaped.
The British in the Rustenberg area were also hampered by summer rains, disease, including malaria, and horse sickness. The Boers in turn had increasing difficulty in feeding the men on commando, because many of the farms in the area were deserted due to the implementation of the British ‘scorched earth’ policy, which began on 21 December 1900, and to the depredations of tribesmen, whose destruction of property and plundering went largely unchecked. Also, the British were building many more blockhouses and establishing outposts, all of which added to the difficulties of the men on commando.
Another serious engagement took place on 29 May 1901 at Vlakfontein, south of Rustenberg. General H G Dixon commanded a large force of about 1600 men on a mission to collect Boer guns and ammunition stored on farms near Vlakfontein. The Boer General J G Kemp was able to call up only about 300 men, including Rustenbergers, to oppose the British, whose estimates of the Boer numbers ranged from 500 to 1500. Under the screen of a big veld fire, the Boers attacked the British rearguard, driving off a unit of Imperial Yeomanry and capturing two 7 kg field guns. They turned the captured guns on the retreating Yeomanry, and then pursued them. The regular British troops, the 1st Derbyshire Regiment (Sherwood Foresters), stood their ground, halting the Boer chase and retaking the guns. The nearby village was renamed Derby in honour of this regiment. Before the Boers left the field they loaded captured British cavalry horses with Lee-Metford rifles and ammunition to replace their Mausers. Once again, British casualties were high, with six officers and 56 other ranks killed in action or died of wounds. The British greatly exaggerated Boer casualties, and the Boers admitted to only seven killed in action and two died of wounds.
According to Wulfsohn the fact that the Boers had charged the fleeing enemy marked a significant change in their tactics, which he ascribed to the Boers having been reduced to a hard core of men dedicated to their cause, and no longer with any thought of surrender. This may also have been the first time that the Boers were accused of killing wounded men on the battlefield. These charges were denied by, amongst others, Commandant Steenekamp and Field Cornets van Heerden and van Tonder of the Rustenberg Commando.
This action was followed by a 55 day long sweep of the area in order to engage the Boers again. There were many small contacts, but no decisive action. The British did, however, have some success, including the capture of 41 Boers at Elandskraal on 10 August.
On 1 September another great cordon was set up to capture General Kemp, but once again he slipped through the net and escaped. Wulfsohn points out that the subject of all this intense activity was then a 29 year old with no formal military training, who had started the war as a Field Cornet in the Krugersdorp Commando. In spite of the efforts of a large number of Britain’s professional army officers with thousands of men under their command, they never did manage to capture Kemp.
After the action at Vlakfontein, Colonel R G Kekewich took over the command of the British forces in the Magaliesberg from General Dixon. On 29 September, Kekewich with a force of about 800 men set up camp on the banks of the Selons River on the farm Moedwil, 22 km from Rustenberg on the road to Zeerust. De la Rey and Kemp urgently needed to replenish their supply of Lee-Metford ammunition and were looking for an opportunity to get it. The isolated camp at Moedwil offered that opportunity. The Boers, about 200 in number, already had details of the camp from scouts, and there were Rustenbergers in their ranks who knew the area intimately, so the attack on the camp was planned accordingly. It began about 4.30 am and outlying pickets were quickly overrun, and the camp covered with devastating rifle fire. Horses and mules stampeded and, in the chaos that followed, only the gallant stand by groups of Yeomanry, Scottish Horse and Derbyshires saved the camp from annihilation. The resistance by the British grew stronger, and by 6 am the Boers realised that taking the camp was impossible, so they began to withdraw. The Scottish Horse and Yeomanry were unable to follow, because all their horses had been dispersed.
Fifty-one British soldiers were buried in a cemetery at Moedwil. A large number of wounded, including Colonel Kekewich, were taken to hospital in Rustenberg, where 12 died of wounds and were buried there. The Boer losses were 11 killed, 35 wounded and 10 taken prisoner. There were charges that the British had executed three of the wounded Boers on the battlefield, including Commandant Tobias Boshoff, in apparent retaliation for the alleged murder of British wounded at Vlakfontein. Another Boer casualty at Moedwil was a Dutch teacher Piet Schuil, who was secretary to Field Cornet van Heerden of the Rustenberg Commando. He was alleged to have fired on two British soldiers while carrying a white flag, a charge which he denied. He was not allowed to call any evidence in his defence, and he was executed by firing squad on 2 October.
Wulfsohn attributes the successful British defence at Moedwil to Colonel Kekewich, who was a commander much admired by his men, and respected by the Boers. He was, however, slighted by the British high command, apparently because of his disagreements with Cecil Rhodes during the Siege of Kimberley.
Just as the Boers respected Colonel Kekewich, so too did they respect the Derbyshire Regiment, which had fought with great bravery at both Vlakfontein and Moedwil. After Moedwil the regiment was garrisoned at Rustenberg, where the men established a good relationship with the residents.
By October 1901, the war in the western Transvaal had moved away from Rustenberg and the Magaliesberg to the more open country in the south west of the Republic. Between then and the end of the war in May 1902, the British tightened their control of the Rustenberg area. More blockhouses were built, and the space between them was spanned by barbed wire fences, further impeding the free movement of the commandos. The tribal settlements in the area had become rich through trade and plundering, so the Boers took to raiding them to replenish their resources, which led the chiefs to approach the British for protection. This added another dimension to the conflict during the closing months of the war, with the regular British involvement being strengthened by an irregular unit, Kitchener’s Fighting Scouts, and Baden-Powell’s South African Constabulary.
The regular war did, however, continue, and one of the most bitterly contested actions involving the Rustenberg Commando took place at Kleinfontein on 24 October. Five Boer commandos under the overall command of General de la Rey attacked a column under Colonel van Donop in a wooded valley between Groot Marico and Zeerust. The Boers suffered more casualties that usual, the Rustenbergers alone had 15 men killed, with more dying later of their wounds.
On 7 March 1902 one of the Boer’s greatest victories was fought at Tweebosch, which was a testament to the brilliance of General de la Rey and the tenacity and endurance of the Bittereinder Boers. A large British convoy under Lord Methuen was attacked and overwhelmed by de la Rey’s Commandos, and amongst the wounded was Lord Methuen himself. De la Rey arranged for the injured General to be taken to the British military hospital in Klerksdorp in his own wagon, and he was escorted by de la Rey’s brother-in-law, who cared for the sick and wounded in de la Rey’s commandos. The compassionate treatment of Lord Methuen was widely praised, and it may have made a positive contribution to peace negotiations that were to begin soon.
Although the focus of the war in the western Transvaal had moved away from Rustenberg, the Rustenberg Commando, although depleted, remained an integral part of de la Rey’s army. It was present at the Boer victories at Tweebosch on 7 March, and at Brakspruit on 31 March.
It was also present at the Boer defeat at Rooiwal on 11 April. General de la Rey was away attending preliminary peace negotiations, and three commandos were under the command of General Kemp. The British under Colonel Kekewich were entrenched on a hillside, and the Boers, having underestimated the size of the British force, made a mounted frontal attack on the position, but were repulsed. They had 50 men killed, including Commandant F J Potgieter, 130 wounded and 50 captured. The British had about 70 men killed and wounded. This was the last battle of the Anglo-Boer War, and the end of the war in the western Transvaal.
The Boer cause was by then largely lost, and attention became focussed on the peace negotiations, which culminated with the ending of the war on 31 May 1902. Like Boers elsewhere, the Rustenbergers returned to rebuild their families, their farms and their lives.
During the war, Deneys Reitz wrote this of men of the Rustenberg Commando:
“[They] were big bearded men of the old school, who looked on me as something of an alien, for I was town bred, and they did not always understand my ways, but they were simple kindly souls and we got along well. The Boers had their full share of laggards, but they had a full share, too, of steadfast yeomen such as these men, whose farms were lying in ruins, whose wives and families were scattered they knew not where, but who, unpaid and unbidden, returned to risk their lives in the fighting that swayed continually backwards and forwards over the western plains, and I got a truer insight into the fine courage, and high qualities of our fighting men during this journey than at any other time of the war.”
In his book, Wulfsohn records the names of 126 men from the Rustenberg Commando who were killed in action or died in service during the war, and another 24 who died whilst they were prisoners of war. Not recorded in the book are the names of the women and children who died, mostly in concentration camps, nor are there names of their black employees who died. As in all wars, the many who finished the war with mental and physical injuries are mostly unrecorded. The small town of Rustenberg and its surrounding farming community paid a heavy price for a war that was not of their making.
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The Rustenberg Commando 4 months 2 weeks ago #54395
Super stuff Brett - you have now incentivised me to source a medal to the Rustenburg Commando.
A very imformative article written, as you have said, more with the Boer side in mind. The reference to the Bechuanaland armoured trains was of interest considering my recent post about Captain Wallis who was OC of one of these trains. I'm sure he would have come into contact with members of the Rustenburg Commando at some stage.
The Rustenberg Commando 4 months 2 weeks ago #54399
Thank you for commenting, Rory. Ever since acquiring the copy of Wulfsohn's book, I have been on the lookout for a Rustenberg Commando ABO. I eventually found the one awarded to Burger Jan Hendrik Jacobsz. I hoped that the 'z' in the surname would make it easier to research, but unfortunately that wasn't the case. I have added his story, such as it is, to his name in the section on ABO's.
I am hoping that others will post their Rustenberg Commando medals on this thread, especially those of officers with the DTD/ABO combination. One of the officers added a DSO & trio to his pair, so that would be a great addition here!
I will also look forward to seeing your medals to this Commando as you acquire them. I am sure that you will find them now that they are in your sights!
The Rustenberg Commando 4 months 2 weeks ago #54400
I must apologise for the large size of the pic of Wulfsohn's book in my first post on this thread. I have fallen victim to Windows 10 and so far I have been unable to master its 'picture manager' (amongst other things). Why do people keep fixing things that are not broken?