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TOPIC: A Transvaal Staatsartillerie man taken P.O.W. at Zusterhoek

A Transvaal Staatsartillerie man taken P.O.W. at Zusterhoek 6 days 1 hour ago #68395

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Marthinus Johannes Bekker

Opperwagmeester and Adjutant, Transvaal Staats Artillerie – Anglo Boer War

- Anglo Boere Oorlog Medal to Artilleris M.J. Bekker

Thinus Bekker was born in Oudtshoorn in the southern Cape Colony on 20 November 1874, the son of Frederik Hendrik Johannes Bekker and his wife Susanna Franzina, born Geyser. Had he have stayed where he was born and taken up arms against the British, he would have been a Cape Rebel and thus liable, if he had been captured, to being put to death by firing squad for High Treason.

As it was his family, at some point during his childhood, moved from Oudtshoorn to Hoopstad in the Orange Free State - one of the Boer Republics that were at war with Great Britain - at the end of the 19th century. The Bekker’s like so many Boer families, were farmers with an inherent love of the soil. The family was a large one, as was often the case where one’s “capital” so often resided in large families who could work the lands and tend to the crops and livestock. Thinus was the oldest of 9 children – five of them boys and four girls, making the house a busy and a noisy one.

At some point Bekker determined that his future lay elsewhere and he took himself off to Pretoria, the capital of the Transvaal Republic, residing outside of the city to the north in the Waterberg district. According to the “Grootboek” – the Register of Service – he joined the ranks of the Transvaal Staats Artillerie in 1896 at the age of 22.

Based in the state capital of Pretoria the TSA had, initially, been a small-scale operation with a handful of antiquated guns and fewer than 100 men to man them. This all changed after the abortive Jameson Raid took place in 1896 where, it was felt, the sovereignty of the Zuid Afrikaansche Republiek was being threatened and steps should be taken to bulk up the defence system.

A massive rearmament programme was undertaken and the TSA was a major beneficiary of this with the acquisition of both Krupp (from Germany) and Creusot guns (from France) being added to the arsenal. Along with this came a recruitment drive to swell the numbers of Artillerymen – it was probably this drive we have to thank for Bekker’s appointment.

The main armament of the Staatsartillerie consisted of C96 Krupp 77 mm Field guns, 75mm Creusot field guns, 37mm Vickers Maxim "Pom-Pom", 120mm Krupp Howitzers and the famous 4 x 155mm Creusot Fortress guns or "Long Toms". These guns were augmented, as the war dragged on, by guns captured from the British forces. Bekker’s battery would have been armed with 75 mm Krupp quick-firing field gulls, the 55 mm siege guns known as 'Long Toms', 37 mm Maxim Nordenfeldt 'pom-poms' and various other assorted weapons.

Discipline in the Staatsartillerie was similar to that of the Prussian Army, where a number of the Boer officers had attended courses, and European instructors had been seconded to mould the force into an efficient fighting unit. Daily drill and inspection parades were carried out and the garrisoning of the recently completed Fort Schanskop formed part of their duties.

Almost immediately after war was declared one half of the Staats Artillerie was sent to Zandspruit, while the other half was despatched to serve under General Cronje at Mafeking and Kimberley – it was with the former half that Bekker served, the Boer forces losing no time in resolving to meet the enemy after war had been declared.

The fortunate thing about researching Boer participants in the war is the fact that, in order to claim their medal, they were required to complete “Vorm B”, a form which requires the combatant to list all the places and battles in which he participated. In Bekker’s case, as with many others, he was a late claimant, only exercising his right to a medal in 1945. As a result of this the majority of officers and men with whom he served were either dead or no longer contactable.

Writing from his home at 6 Smal Street, Barberton, he completed the application form – among the signatories on his claim were P.R. Nel, a former Lieutenant with the T.S.A. and the legendary Major Wolmarans, of whom much has been written. The actions in which he stated he participated were: Ladysmith, Natal; Biggarsberg; Helvetia; Machadadorp; Witrand; Dalmanutha; Belfast; Koolmyne and “various other small skirmishes”. Mr Bekker, it has to be said, saw plenty of action.

Initially the Transvaal Staats Artillerie were a well-oiled and extremely efficient machine – this would certainly have been true of all the actions they saw in the first phase of the war, and would have included the Siege of Ladysmith (in which Bekker participated), Biggarsberg (on the retreat from Ladysmith, through Dundee to reach the relative safety of the Transvaal) and many of the other battles he lists.

Once the Boer capitals had fallen in March and June 1900, the Staats Artillerie was broken up and spread among the various Commandos who now took to the field in smaller, highly mobile groups. This was the fabled guerrilla phase of the war where, being relentlessly pursued by Roberts’ men across the length and breadth of both the Orange Free State and the Transvaal, they adopted hit and run tactics – swooping down of isolated columns and lines of communications, stealing and plundering what they could, and riding off again.

There were pitched battles to be had – again as some of those listed by Bekker – but the Boers tended to try and avoid these where possible – they were, almost always, outnumbered and outgunned as the British kept pouring additional troops into the country.

The intention is not to bore the reader with a history of each and every engagement in which Bekker took part, notwithstanding, a brief account of each action is given. Although it can be taken for granted that he was present (otherwise Wolmarans and others would not have signed off on his Vorm B) – the exact role he played has to be assumed. What we do know is that he was promoted to the rank of Opperwagmeester (Sergeant), a rank which carried plenty of responsibility, and a rank which, given the shortage of trained Artillerists the Boers began to experience as the war dragged on, would have placed him in charge of a gun.

He enjoyed further success when promoted to commissioned rank – that of Adjutant. Precisely when these promotions came about is unknown but they would have been in the field.

With the dawn of 1 November 1899 the town of Ladysmith was besieged. The Boers had taken possession of most of the hills dotting the outskirts of the town and held sway over who entered in and who tried to get out. Colonel Trichardt of the Transvaal Staats Artillerie ordered that the ordinance – at first 17 guns but growing to 22 – be dragged up onto the various heights commanding the town. The bombardment of the town, which was to be a hallmark of the 3-month long siege, begun on 2 November and ceased only on Sundays which the Boers religiously observed.

Although for the most part trifling in its effect, the shells that land among them unnerved the townsfolk and created a sense of despair as the long days wore on without sight of relief. On 13 November, several guns and their crews were taken to Estcourt in preparation for the battle which took place at Colenso and which led to the action at Spioenkop on 22 January. Although this weakened the Boer Artillery surrounding Ladysmith, it did not lead to a reduction in the number of shells being hurled into the town. Frustratingly for trained artillerymen, the long and protracted siege with little action was the strategy of the Boer command to starve Ladysmith into submission.

Buller finally broke through and relieved the town on 28 February 1900 and the Boer forces melted away from their positions. Long convoys could be seen leaving the area, the Free State Boers heading back over the Drakensberg Mountains, and the Transvaal Commandos retracing their way back to the Transvaal via the Biggarsberg mountain range between Ladysmith and Dundee. Determined to make a stand in defence of their homeland, they were spread out over the entire range and, thanks to Buller’s vacillation, were left undisturbed until the beginning of May.

Several skirmishes were fought around the Biggarsberg as the Boers were forced slowly to retreat, perhaps the most important of which, from the Boer Artillery point of view, was Alleman’s Nek on 10 June 1900 – here, as the British infantry advanced, the well-concealed Boer artillery opened fire, accompanied by very heavy rifle fire from the equally well-hidden and well-entrenched burghers. Of greater concern to Buller, Hildyard and their staff were the opening rounds fired by the Boer guns which were accurately directed onto their position, a prominent knoll upon which the heavy artillery had been deployed. The Boer gunners then turned their attention to the advancing infantry, and while the ranging was accurate and the rate of fire heavy, the British surge simply could not be checked and the Boers withdrew, setting the bone-dry veld alight behind them.

Having made it back to the Transvaal, Bekker’s next action was that of Dalmanutha or Berg-en-Dal as it is also known. He mentions Machadadorp, Witrand Dalmanutha and Belfast separately but these can be grouped together as one action that took place from 21 August 1900 until 27 August. This was to be the last pitched battle of the war – as has been alluded to earlier, from this time forth the Artillery was split into smaller sections and attached to Commandos.

Amery, in The Times History of the War in South Africa 1899-1902, described the pleasant countryside between Belfast and Machadadorp (the primary scene of the battle) as being 'swept by hails of shrapnel, while the rocks ... were torn and rent by the explosion of the lyddite shells. Smoke and sulphurous gases and rocks shooting up into the air made the place look like a Vesuvius eruption.'

Buller's army would link up with the forces of Generals French, Hamilton and Pole-Carew advancing eastward from Pretoria. It was the brigades from Buller's Natal Field Army that would engage the Boers at the battle of Bergendal.

General Buller's great northern advance on Machadodorp started when the Natal Field Army, occupied the town on 2 June 1900. The army then advanced to Amersfoort. Despite Boer resistance, the 1st Brigade, King's Royal Rifle Corps, occupied the town on 7 August. Ermelo was occupied without any opposition on 11 August.

Advancing from Ermelo, Buller made contact with Boer commandos, and a brief skirmish occurred. On 14 August a squadron of Strathcona's Horse entered Carolina, and on the same day General Brocklehurst's 2nd Cavalry Brigade made contact with scouts from General French's forces exploring the area. On 15 August the Natal Field Army, 11 000 strong, reached the farm Twyfelaar just south of Carolina and about 36km south of Wonderfontein Station.

Buller was then instructed to halt his advance in order for other British troops and Roberts to reach Belfast. Only on 21 August could he order his troops to march to the farm, Van Wyksvlei, 24km south-east of Belfast. The offensive against the Boers could then start in earnest.
As the British forces advanced, the Boers retreated along the Delagoa Bay Railway in the direction of Machadodorp. On 26 July, French and Hamilton occupied Middelburg, and a line of outposts was established to prevent any communication between Botha and the Boer commandos to the west and south of Pretoria.

At this stage, Roberts believed that 'a considerably larger force than was then at the disposal of the British would be needed to operate against the Boers gathering to the west of Machadodorp. By 26 July, the 11th Division was spread out along the line from Balmoral to Middelburg, while French's Cavalry brigades and Hutton's Mounted infantry were in possession of Middelburg.

On 15 August, when Buller's Natal Field Army reached the farm Twyfelaar, French's Cavalry was deployed between Wonderfontein and Twyfelaar. The Natal Field Army resumed its advance and, on 21 August, it marched to the farm Van Wyksvlei. On 23 August, Buller's and French's forces were positioned on the farm Geluk. On the same day, the 11th Division under Pole-Carew assembled at Wonderfontein, and the next day they occupied Belfast.

On 25 August, Lord Roberts arrived in Belfast from Pretoria to take overall command of the British forces. Roberts, Buller, French and Pole-Carew held a war council and drafted their strategy. Initially, Roberts wanted Buller to move in an easterly direction towards the Carolina-Machadodorp road to cut off the Boer retreat.

Buller wanted to move northward, and in the end the plan that Buller should advance towards the east was abandoned. French and Pole-Carew would concentrate the attack north of the railway, and Buller's army would advance directly on Machadodorp. The line of attack led right across the farm Bergendal where the ZARPs were positioned. Pole-Carew's 11th Division and French's Cavalry on Buller's left flank would have to attack the Boer right flank. The combined British forces of about 20 000 were brought into position along a 20km front to stage the offensive against Botha's 5 000 Boer commandos spread over a much longer line of defence.

Machadodorp, the then seat of the ZAR Government, had to be preserved, and the routes of retreat to Lydenburg and Barberton safeguarded. Various commandos were stationed along the defence line, but because numbers were so few, nowhere along this front was there a large concentration of Boer forces. The result was that none of these commandos remained static. They deployed along the defence line according to circumstances.

Having arranged the defence of the route to Lydenburg, Botha then positioned commandos to defend the Delagoa Bay Railway. This line was vital to the Boers. Just to the north of the railway, and to the left of the Johannesburg Commando, the Krugersdorp Commando under Commandant Jan Kemp took position.

To the west of the Krugersdorp Commando, just north of the railway, about forty Austrians took up position. Just south of the railway, on a stony kopje, or hillock, 70 men of the ZARPs dug themselves in. The defence of the railway was entrusted to them. The Germiston Commando took up position a bit further south.

The third object of defence in the Boer line was the Carolina-Machadodorp road and the route of retreat to Barberton. Positioned further to the south were the Heidelberg, Carolina and Bethal Commandos. Their main task was to oppose Buller if he advanced from the south. General Smuts and 800 burghers had to defend the route of retreat towards Barberton.

Dalmanutha is a railway station just to the east of the kopje, which is almost the highest point of the ridge and rises suddenly from the surrounding grassy slopes. It consists of a mass of immense stones and rocky crevices, and forms a kind of natural fortress. The surrounding grassland afforded no shelter to any advancing troops. The ZARPs (Transvaal Police) stationed there, were supported by about 1 000 burghers on either side, but they were not directly connected to any of the other commandos.

Botha commanded the entire Boer defence and, for the first time in the war, the four State Artillery Creusot guns, the Long Toms, were under his command. There were also a number of other artillery pieces at the disposal of the Boers, but it is difficult to determine the exact strength of the Boer artillery owing to the varying numbers given by different sources. Bekker would have been manning one of these guns.

The four Long Toms were initially placed so as to repel any British advance on Machadodorp and to secure the routes of retreat. One was placed on Groot Suikerkop, north-east of Belfast, to defend the roads leading to Dullstroom. Another was sited at Driekop about 2,5km from Dalmanutha Station, and was still in full operation on 25 August. Precisely where the other two guns were initially placed is not clear. Presumably, one was intended to defend the road leading from Carolina to Machadodorp, while the fourth was positioned further south to safeguard the Carolina Machadodorp road as well as the bridge over the Komati River.

However, when it became evident that there was not going to be a British advance along this road, instructions were given that one gun should be moved to a position on the ridge overlooking the railway to Elandskop while the other was moved closer to the position of the Middelburg Commando.

On 26 August, three of the Long Toms were placed on Elandskop, Driekop and Suikerboschkop and one in the vicinity of Elandsfontein. Botha's military strength, in soldiers as well as artillery, was far less than that of the British. In general, the Boer forces also experienced shortages of ammunition.

Early on the morning of 26 August, French's Cavalry left the farm, Geluk, and advanced towards Belfast. The Cavalry had to occupy the mountainous terrain north of Belfast and Machadodorp. That evening, it reached the farm Lakenvlei. In his support of French's army, Pole-Carew's 11th Division attempted to advance along the Lydenburg road, but owing to heavy shelling and rifle fire from the Boer commandos, little progress was made.

Later that day Buller marched his troops from Geluk to the farm Vogelstruispoort. His initial intention was to advance on the farm Waaikraal. The same day, however, valuable information was acquired which would have a bearing on the movements of Buller's army, and the eventual advance on the Boers the next day. According to the information obtained by Captain F W Chetwode of 19th Hussars, the extreme left of Botha's line was positioned on Bergendal farm. After receiving the information, Buller changed direction and advanced directly north across Bergendal.

Chetwode made the correct assumption that the Boers' centre south of the railway was on the farm Bergendal, but he did not observe the Boer positions behind the Belfast-Dalmanutha plateau. These would only become apparent the following day.

Skirmishes between the Boer forces and various British units occurred throughout, and were quite severe. Buller's baggage convoy was delayed, and Howard's Brigade and Dundonald's regiments were attacked. However, the British did succeed in advancing close to the Boer positions. In telegrams sent to President Kruger, Botha reported that fighting had occurred along the whole Boer defence line, resulting in the ammunition being exhausted. The Boers still succeeded in tormenting Buller's advance, however, and apart from getting closer to the Boer defence line, no other successes were achieved, and it does seem that by the end of the day many burghers had abandoned their positions. The main battle would only take place on the following day.

Early on the morning of 27 August, the 2nd Brigade under Colonel J F Brocklehurst, the 'A' Battery under Major L G F Gordon, and the 4th Division Mounted Infantry under Captain H K Steward, were to cover the advance of the Natal Field Army's regiments. Colonel Brocklehurst successfully placed the artillery in such a way that the British troops would be able to attack from the northern side and at the same time prevent any Boer attack. Colonel Kitchener's 7th Brigade moved along the ridge from Vogelstruispoort towards Bergendal. The 1st Battalion Manchester Regiment was detached to the right and entrenched itself on the eastern crest of the ridge.

At 11.00, the three-hour, uninterrupted bombardment of the kopje began. This attack was a combination of a Bombardment from the howitzers and salvos of shrapnel from a field Battery, assisted by the 4,7-inch naval gun placed at Belfast. The shells ploughed up the land and filled the air with yellow smoke, shrapnel and fragments of rock. The heavy projectiles from the naval guns blew to pieces some heavy blocks of rock on the kopje behind which the ZARPs had taken up their positions. The rock fragments were just as dangerous as the shrapnel. The British artillery had the upper hand, as the Boer guns were too far away to have any impact on Buller's men.

Buller then ordered the infantry onslaught, General Kitchener directed Lieutenant-Colonel Metcalfe to take up a position across the main east and west ridges of the kopje under cover of gunfire. His men were to attack from the west. Lieutenant-Colonel Payne was instructed to march the Inniskilling Fusiliers down the face of the gun ridge. Their assault would be from the south. The 1st Devonshire Regiment was positioned to support the left centre, while the right attack was supported by the Gordon Highlanders.

The Boer defence was breached. The following day, 28 August, Buller's troops marched into Machadodorp, and on 1 September Roberts issued the proclamation declaring the entire Transvaal British territory. The commandos dispersed to Lydenburg and Barberton, and guerilla warfare began.

The battle of Dalmanutha over, Bekker was, together with his artillery piece, posted to the Pretoria Commando for this stage of the war. What followed was his participation in the “various skirmishes” of which he made mention.

Having managed for so long to escape the enveloping clutches of the British army, his luck ran out on 26 October 1901 when he was taken prisoner at Zusterhoek. Specific references to the action are difficult to find but, fortunately, the Staats Artillerie officer Major Thomas Kroon was taken Prisoner of War at the same place on the same day and there are a number of references to him which provide the evidence for Bekker’s capture as well.

The Swindon Advertiser of 1 November 1901 carried an article which stated that, “Colonel Williams and Fortescue were engaged near Dewagen Drift, and drove enemy North-East with a loss of six killed and 17 prisoners including Staats Artillerie, under Captain Kroon, with dynamite for train-wrecking”. From this we can conclude that Bekker was one of the 17 prisoners.

The Times History, in Volume III, page 361 stated that, “Fortescue was sent on an expedition into the bush veld north of the Delagoa Railway where, in conjunction with Colonel Ingouville-Williams and 600 Australians, he succeeded in inflicting considerable loss on two of the North Pretoria bands under Piet Uys and Thys Pretorius.”

Maurice too, in Chapter 3, page 438, also added to the story, “To the north-east of Pretoria Erasmus, Piet Uys, T. Pretorius and Dan Opperman, with about 400 men, were moving south from Zusterhoek, via Rhenosterpoort, in the hope of capturing a train to replenish the failing stores of food and clothing. Besides these there were numerous small bands roving both north and south of the railway”.

Having been made prisoner Bekker was sent down to Cape Town from where he sailed aboard the “Orient” on 17 January 1902 to Deadwood in the island of St. Helena. The British authorities could not have chosen a more isolated spot – St. Helena being a small island in the mid-Atlantic, miles from any civilisation. The P.O.W. Register records that he was an Adjutant in St. Helena.

The war over on 31 May 1902, Bekker was eventually repatriated to South Africa in August of that year. He moved to Barberton in the Eastern Transvaal at some stage, becoming a Transport Contractor. He passed away on 10 March 1956 at the age of 81 years and 4 months and was survived by his second wife (married in 1950) as well as children – Martha Magdalena Lusia Smith, Frederick Hendrik Johannes Bekker, Susanna Fransina Stiglingh and Barend Johannes Bekker.

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A Transvaal Staatsartillerie man taken P.O.W. at Zusterhoek 5 days 21 hours ago #68396

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You are keeping us entertained Rory. Nice medal. Nice story. Thank you.
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A Transvaal Staatsartillerie man taken P.O.W. at Zusterhoek 5 days 19 hours ago #68398

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Thanks Rory..... Love the stories about the Staatsartillerie and the so called Other side..... Please keep them coming..... Mike...…

P.S. This being kept inside gives you lots of time to read.....
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A Transvaal Staatsartillerie man taken P.O.W. at Zusterhoek 5 days 19 hours ago #68399

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We are not in lock down here yet Mike. Things might change in an hour's time when the President addresses the nation....

Will let you know - but, for now, no extra reading..



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A Transvaal Staatsartillerie man taken P.O.W. at Zusterhoek 4 days 22 hours ago #68419

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The ink was scarcely dry on the proverbial page when I received this tit-bit from the kind folks at the Barberton Museum.

I have translated the article in to English below:

Barberton, Monday - We learn with regret about the death at his residence on Saturday, 10 March, after a long sick bed, of Mr. Marthinus Johannes Bekker at the age of 81.


The late Mr Bekker was born in Oudtshoorn and moved to Barberton in 1929. During the Anglo Boer War he was an officer in the Transvaal State Artillery and was taken prisoner and sent to St. Helena. He also, during WWI, saw military service in German East Africa.

In the 27 years that Mr Bekker lived here in Barberton he earned the admiration and respect of all sectors of the community, and his departure is a great loss for the town and the district.


The burial took place from the Nederduitse Hervormde Church this afternoon and was attended by a large crowd of family and friends. Through this mediul we convey our condolences to his wife and four children.

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