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TOPIC: "I saw my late father dying" - Willem Petrus Van Niekerk

"I saw my late father dying" - Willem Petrus Van Niekerk 5 months 3 weeks ago #64177

  • Rory
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This chap perished in the Boer War version of the Charge of the Light Brigade - the difference is he was a Boer and he died in his sons arms on the battle field, cut almost in two by machine gun fire:

Willem Petrus Van Niekerk
(Killed in Action, Rooiwal, 11 April 1902 )

Burger, Bloemhof Kommando – Anglo Boer War

- Anglo Boer War Medal (Type III) to Burg. W.P. Van Niekerk

Willem van Niekerk never lived to either see or wear the medal he was entitled to. This was claimed on his behalf by his widow twenty years after the Government of the day acquiesced to a request by the Boer forces for the issue of a medal commemorating the role they played in the Anglo Boer War.

Born on the farm “Poortjie” in the Edenburg region of the Orange Free State, he was the son of Frederick Christiaan van Niekerk and his wife Maria Helena. The Van Niekerk’s, like most of their kin of Dutch extraction, were Farmers who made their living off the land in what was, at times, a harsh and unforgiving climate. The “Free State” could be a very hard task master and the sons of the soil who made their home there were quickly made adept at riding, hunting and shooting – often the very means of their survival.

Willem would have been no different – the Boers were a God-fearing people whose lonely existence was punctuated by the monthly “Nagmaal” - religious services where the farmers would trek in from far and wide to a central point to commune with one another, catch up on the local gossip, exchange recipes and tips on how to till the land, and be on the receiving end of conventional wisdom imparted by the “old timers” who always had something to share.

This peaceful routine was rudely interrupted by a war which, for many, especially in the Free State, was not of their making. Their ally, Oom Paul Kruger in the neighbouring Transvaal, declared war on the might of Imperial Britain on 11 October 1899 and the Free State, honour-bound by a pact between the two territories, followed suit.

The Boers had always, more for their own self-defence than for any aggressive intent, formed themselves into Commandos – a form of local regiment – where they elected their leaders and were expected to join forces when in times of need. The Boer War was such a time and it was to the Bloemhof Commando that a 42 year old Van Niekerk gravitated in early October 1899, on the very eve of war.

In order to do so he had returned home from the Transvaal where he had been employed as a “ZARP” – a mounted Policeman in the employ of the South African Republic (Zuid Afrikansche Republiek). As his Veld Cornet he had the experienced Louis Elwin Lauritz Mussman and as his Kommandant, the elder Tollie de Beer.

The Bloemhof Commando were to see plenty of action during the war, commencing with the fighting in the vicinity of Vryburg, where considerable destruction to Railway and Telegraph links was caused. On 9 October 1899 De Beer and the Bloemhof men were at Morokani on the Transvaal border with Bechuanaland before moving on to Taung, a village of trading stores and home to 2000 blacks, which was occupied by 500 men under De Beer on 16 October. He crossed the frontier at Pudimoe with 800 men, raised the Vierkleur and occupied the government buildings.

But the first major engagement in which VAN Niekerk and his comrades took part was the Battle of Magersfontein, which was fought on 11 December 1899, at Magersfontein near Kimberley. British forces under Lieutenant General Lord Methuen were advancing north along the railway line from the Cape in order to relieve the Siege of Kimberley, but their path was blocked at Magersfontein by a Boer force that was entrenched in the surrounding hills.

Lord Methuen failed to perform adequate reconnaissance in preparation for the impending battle, and was unaware that Boer Vecht-generaal (Combat General) De la Rey had entrenched his forces at the foot of the hills rather than the forward slopes as was the accepted practice. This allowed the Boers to survive the initial British artillery bombardment; when the British troops failed to deploy from a compact formation during their advance, the defenders were able to inflict heavy casualties.

The Free State government decided to reinforce Cronje's position after the Battle of Belmont. Between eight hundred and a thousand men of the Heilbron, Kroonstad and Bethlehem commandos arrived at Spytfontein from Natal, accompanied by elements of the Ladybrand commandos from the Basuto border. Reinforcements were also brought up from the Bloemhof and Wolmaranstad commandos who were besieging Kimberley. The Highland Brigade were to suffer the most casualties in this battle, they charged the Boer lines and were met by a murderous fire from the Boer trenches, lined up in long single file and covering an expansive stretch. Pinned down they suffered mercilessly under the boiling hot sun and were shot at when even the slightest move was made. It wasn’t until the artillery came to their rescue that they were able to be extracted.

Methuen lost this battle and was forced to retreat thereby shutting off an early relief for the siege of Kimberley.

Van Niekerk and his commando fought in many more skirmishes over the course of the next year but the next battle of any significance in which he participated was, according to the Vorm B completed in respect of his medal application, that of Yzerspruit. On this occasion the Bloemhoffers fell under the command of General De la Rey and, on 25 February 1902, charged, shooting from the saddle in almost reckless disregard for their foe.

Near a stream called Yzerspruit, on the road from Wolmeranstad to Klerksdorp, they ambushed one of Methuen’s convoys, consisting of 151 wagons. This was one of the very few convoys which by this late date still had to travel across open country as opposed to along a blockhouse line. It was in charge of Major Anderson of the 15th Hussars, who commanded the 5th Imperial Yeomanry. Two hundred and thirty men of this battalion formed the mounted part of the convoy’s escort.

Once again De la Rey’s intelligence, based on ubiquitous scouts and the heliograph, far outmatched Methuen’s. Every movement of the convoy was at once made known to the Boers. Anderson, by contrast, had no idea that 1200 Boers were awaiting him in ambuscade.

Well before dawn these carefully hidden Boers burst forth, attacking first the front (Kemp), then the rear, General J.G. Cilliers) and finally, hoping in vain that front and rear would have drawn the escort to their defence, one flank, under General Liebenberg, of the convoy.

All three attacks were skilfully and stoutly resisted. As the day broke, De la Rey, seeing that the native drivers and conductors were in a state of panic, ordered a general charge. The official historian described its progress thus:

“Nine hundred horsemen appeared on the left. Having advanced in unbroken line to within 500 yards, firing from the saddle as they ambled forward, the whole body suddenly charged impetuously down upon the flank. A fire that was not to be faced met the stormers; three times they came on, wavered and fled back out of range. Once under shelter they were steadied by their officers, and twenty minutes later advanced and charged again. For the fourth time they were hurled back by a terrible fusillade from the men of the flank guard who lay immovable, in the face of what were virtually repeat rushes of cavalry.

….Soon after the second repulse of Kemp from the flank (Cilliers) galloped onto the field with 500 men and immediately rode against the British rearguard…. Like Kemp, Cilliers met with a shattering reception; his men refused to face the fire, and scattering backwards and outwards, contented themselves for the next two hours with bringing a cross-fire to bear upon the rearguard, which suffered considerably but replied with vigour.”

It was to no avail. The escort was outnumbered at least three to one. By 7 a.m. when at last the firing ceased there could be no doubt that there had been suffered an unmitigated disaster. De la Rey, though he found most of the wagons empty, got what e so badly needed. Among the booty were three ammunition carts with half a million rounds in them. He also captured most of the 170 horses and 1 450 mules which were with the convoy.

He lost, though, which he could ill-afford, fifty one burghers. The British casualties numbered 381, of which 58 were killed and 194 taken prisoner – these were released the next day.

The next and final battle that Van Niekerk was to participate in was that of Rooiwal on 12 April 1902. De la Rey was away parleying with Kitchener when his lieutenant, Kemp, with a rashness his commander would certainly have censured, led the most spectacular charge of the war, executed by either side. Rooiwal was very near where he and Cookson had fought the action of Boschbult twelve days previously.

It occurred in the course of the last large-scale drive of the campaign, which Ian Hamilton had been sent by Kitchener to co-ordinate. His group of columns numbered some 11 000. Kemp, wrongly believing that the two columns under Kekewich and commanded by Von Donop and Grenfell, numbering perhaps 1 750, constituted the weak point of the twenty seven mile long line, concentrated against them.

In all he had summoned practically all the remaining fighting burghers in the Western Transvaal: seven commandos, numbering between 1 700 and 2 600 men – a singular feat at the war’s eleventh hour. When Kemp, in broad daylight led some 800 of these, formed in orderly and compact lines, two, three and even four deep, riding, it was said, knee to knee, against the British advance screen, Von Donop mistook them for part of Grenfell’s column and Grenfell mistook them for part of Rawlinson’s. Von Donop actually ordered his signallers to open communication with them.

Kemp’s men, having started a good mile and a half away, were less than 1 000 yards off, topping a slight ridge in what was otherwise flat, open veld and already firing from the saddle, shouting in a blood-curdling manner, before their real identity was established. An irregular dismounted defensive line was speedily formed: there were but a few seconds in which to do it. kemp, whose Intelligence had led him to believe that the right flank of the drive comprised no more than 300 troops, was amazed to see over 1 000 dismounted men with two field guns and a pom-pom hastily making a rough semi-circle to oppose him.

Nearby were many more dismounted troops, including the Imperial Light Horse in Rawlinson’s column, with a further four field guns and two more machine guns; something approaching 3 000 men with rifles , supported by six guns and three machine guns, arrayed against 800 burghers firing at random from magazine rifles.

“To continue the charge,” wrote Thomas Packenham, “seemed folly, if not madness. Yet Kemp and Potgieter (who appears to have been leading the central section) both accepted the challenge; in their attempt to out-do De la Rey’s achievements, they threw his tactics to the wind. They cantered on, forming a massed phalanx…. The six British guns began to tear holes in the column. Still they came on, gambling everything on the chance the British would turn and run.”

A few of the raw, untried Imperial Yeomen did, in fact, turn and run, but the mass of Kekewich’s men stood firm. Considering that so many of them were only half-trained, it is to their credit that they did so, faced by such an alarming spectacle. Certainly such a perfect target had not presented itself to the British troops since the battle of Omdurman.

At one point Kemp’s centre checked its pace to allow his flanks to swing forward into line just as the Russian cavalry had done at Balaklava. The sonorous charge of European cavalry, wrote the official historian, the chanting onset of the Zulu impi were less impressive that the slow oncoming of this brigade of mounted riflemen. Potgieter got to within thirty yards of the British line before he fell with three bullets in his head and body.

At the same moment those behind him spun round and cantered away. ‘I am by no means sure, ‘ wrote Ian Hamilton a week later, ‘that the Boers would have actually fled, had it not been for the promptitude with which Briggs, of Rawlinson’s column, threw the Imperial Light Horse in a direction by which they must fall on the flank of the Boers, unless they cleared right back,’

Now was the time for counter-attack – for three hours the chase went on, covering eighteen miles, but only twenty three stragglers were picked up. By far the most interesting aspect of what was in effect the last engagement of consequence in the Boer War was the question of casualties.

The counted loss in burghers was only fifty-one killed, of whom all fell in the great charge, forty wounded and thirty six unwounded prisoners, making 127 men in all. That so few of the Boers in that phalanx were hit argues that the firing of the British riflemen was abysmally inefficient. At least two and probably six 15-pounders and two machine guns were in action and it seems that these last did “most of the actual execution’. Numbers of the burghers were seen to have received two bullet wounds in the abdomen ‘where machine-gun fire caught them just above the pommel of the saddle’.

Willem Van Niekerk was one of those who, in the brave charge, was shot twice in the abdomen, falling from his horse never to rise again.

An affidavit declared by his son, Frederick Christiaan Van Niekerk, at Christiana on 25 October 1902, several months after the war was over; tells the story. It read as follows: -

“I, Frederick Christiaan Van Niekerk, hereby make oath and say – That I knew the late Willem Petrus Van Niekerk, formerly Policeman in the employ of the late Government of the late South African Republic and that he was my father.

That we went on commando together and so remained fighting with the Burgher forces up to the battle of Rooiwal in the district of Wolmeranstad on 11 April 1902.

At this battle my late father and I were fighting side by side. I was wounded first and later in the battle my father dropped, mortally wounded through the breast by two bullets. Being wounded myself I remained with him until he died shortly after.

He died during the fight, before the British troops captured the wounded and others. I solemnly swear that I did personally see my late father dying and after death again his corpse and I did recognise the same to be his.’

Willem Petrus Van Niekerk, aged 44 years, was no more. He was survived by his wife and eight children – all of them minors. Today he is remembered on the Boer Wall of Remembrance.

His wife, as previously stated, applied for his medal in 1941 and, in a moving letter addressed to the authorities from her farm ‘Nuwejaarsfontein’ in the Amalia district, she wrote (translated from the Afrikaans): -

“Dear Sir

I acknowledge receipt of the medal and many thanks therefore. But I am a helpless widow and, with my husband having served in the police and throughout the war, I have never received his salary despite all the many times I have applied for it. I would be very grateful if you assist me to get it. He fought under Commandant De Beer and, with the peace negotiations underway, fell at Rooiwal under General Kemp. I am but a poor widow who needs help.”










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"I saw my late father dying" - Willem Petrus Van Niekerk 5 months 3 weeks ago #64178

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Thank You Rory for bringing this medal to life...…

A very moving history..... How many people in battle can say that they were with their father or any relative as they passed...…

Your research as I have said previously is Fantastic but this is one of the best...…

Thanks Again.....

Mike
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Military Historical Society
O.M.R.S. 1591

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"I saw my late father dying" - Willem Petrus Van Niekerk 5 months 3 weeks ago #64183

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Rory,

The inclusion of the letters, as Mike says, make this is a superb account.
Dr David Biggins

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