The relief of Ladysmith and Kimberley, rescuing trapped British forces and providing a badly-needed morale boost for both the home front and the active campaign, altered significantly the dynamic of the Boer War. The Boers’ time having the initiative had largely passed, and Lord Roberts was soon following up his initial success with a major victory at Paardeberg in late February. Paardeberg came at a high cost, thanks to a reckless charge led by Roberts’ second in command, Herbert Kitchener, that left over a thousand British troops dead or injured in an event later dubbed “Bloody Sunday”.
Regardless, it was the British on the advance soon after, with Roberts intent on bringing the war to an end with the capture of the Boers’ political centres, Bloemfontein for the Orange Free State and Pretoria for the Transvaal. The retreating Boers, in a bad state after the (for them) lengthy campaign, did not offer much resistance to Roberts, who duly claimed Bloemfontein in March. His army would camp there for a time, and end up suffering terribly from an epidemic of typhoid exacerbated by poor drinking water and awful medical care. The march on Pretoria would have to wait a while.
It was shortly after this, in early April, that the British got their first nasty taste of what the Boer War would now turn into, thanks to a Free State commander named Christian De Wet. De Wet, 46 years old at the time, was a veteran of the First Boer War and the Battle of Majuba, and had served as Piet Cronje’s closest subordinate in the early stages of the campaign on the western front. Cronje had surrendered alongside 4’000 of his men at Paardeberg, leaving De Wet as the senior active military commander of the Orange Free State. He was soon to prove himself a genius in the manner of combat that would come to define the remainder of the conflict: guerrilla warfare.
The Boers were uniquely suited to guerrilla tactics, to the point that the idea of them engaging in formal battles or sieges seems rather crazy. Nearly every soldier in the Boer armies had a horse, and were experts in riding, having spent a significant portion of their lives on horseback. That made them mobile. They were well-used to rifles and manoeuvres involving dismounting, firing, remounting and riding off. That made them deadly. And they knew the land better than the British, mostly didn’t wear uniforms, and had a commitment to mobility that was in matched in the area of combat operations. That made them hard to catch, and hard to kill.
De Wet would utilize all of these things to advantage, and some of the first to learn that in this phase of the war would be 600 members of the Royal Irish Rifles, stationed near a small town called Reddersburg in the Free State, shortly after the fall of Bloemfontein.
He had already bloodied the British nose. Shortly after the capture of the Free State capital De Wet had led a successful action at nearby Sanna’s Point, ambushing a British camp and capturing some of the towns critical water supplies, before making a successful escape. Five miles south of Bloemfontein, three companies of the Royal Irish Rifles had been marching through the countryside, stopping a few kilometres from Reddersburg on the night of the 2nd of April. Having been well-informed of the advance of this force, De Wet drew his commandos together and prepared to strike.
The Royal Irish Rifles had already suffered during the war, at the Battle of Stormberg the previous December, but now they were going to suffer some more. They had been engaged on some soft power exercises in the area, proclaiming a peace and inviting locals to disarm, so as to avoid being targeted later. On the morning of the 3rd of April, they reached a farm six or so kilometres from Reddersburg, and came under fire from both sides of the road, from an enemy based on kopje’s they could not adequately see. Commanded by a Captain McWhinnie, the Royal Irish scrambled to take up position on a horseshow-shaped set of hills, but soon found themselves attacked from all sides.
Both sides engaged in firing at each other, but in truth to little effect. The Boers were far away and hidden, and the Irish were in a decent defensible position. Both sides had plenty of cover. But the Boers had artillery, and soon had this in position to rain shells down on the Royal Irish.
De Wet gallantly sent a message to McWhinnie requesting surrender, pointing out his advantage in men and artillery. McWhinnie dismissed this request, and De Wet commanded an artillery barrage to begin. There were actually few casualties – a disproportionate amount of officers fell, as was often the case in the Boer War, as they didn’t take advantage of cover the same way the ranks did – but the artillery rattled men’s nerve and morale. The bombardment, and the small-arms fire, continued all day.
The Royal Irish’s options were limited. They could wait for relief: the noise of the fighting would presumably reach allies and then maybe reinforcements could be arranged. A big enough relief force and the Boers would retire, rather than risk a major engagement. But it was just as likely that they would be overwhelmed before that could happen. They could attempt to break out themselves and make a beeline for Reddersburg, but of course this carried the risk of taking enormous casualties in the effort.
With the light failing and the artillery fire dying off, the decision was taken to hold on until the following day. The Royal Irish had only lost nine men, but were running out of both bullets and water. A fitful night followed where the men struggled to snatch a few hours of sleep, with the firing, from both the Boer infantry and the artillery, re-commencing before the sun had even risen.
The Boers crept closer to the British position as the Royal Irish expended much of what was remaining of their ammunition trying to stop them. The local commander, General William Gatacre did organise a relief, but ended up not engaging when they heard the volume of fire from the engagement: Gatacre, his reputation already in ruins after his command at Stormberg, was sent home to Britain soon after.
Before noon De Wet rushed one side of the kopje position, driving a force of mounted infantry back from the height. With one side of their defences caved in, ammunition nearly out and water running low, the Royal Irish were out of options. The white flags went up and the companies surrendered. They were marched into captivity in Pretoria, where they would remain for the next few months. Nine were dead, and over 25 injured. The Boer losses were negligible.
The engagement was a typical example of what was going to start occurring more and more in the Transvaal and the Orange Free State. The mounted mobile Boers utilised their freedom of movement and local intelligence network to identify a weak link in the British deployment, namely a detachment that had been ordered to march without requisite support between defensible points. Knowledge of the terrain allowed De Wet to pick the perfect place to pin the Royal Irish down, and the State Artillery did much of the rest. Lacking both artillery of their own and adequate relief forces, the Royal Irish were hopelessly bereft, but it is to their credit that they were able to hold their nerve and position for as long as they did.
They would not be the last British unit to be caught in such a manner. Roberts could capture as many towns and cities as he liked. Many of the Boers would fight to the bitter end regardless. And De Wet was showing them just how to do so.
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