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The Battle of Dwarsvlei

Rob Milne
0

11th July 1900

At 05h00 on 11th July 1900 General Smith-Dorrien marched with two weak Battalions of his 19th Brigade from Krugersdorp to Hekpoort to meet up with Colonel Scobell and a Squadron of the Scots Greys at Hekpoort, about 22 kilometres away. The combined force, together with two guns of “O” Battery Royal Horse Artillery accompanying the Greys, would then advance on Olifants Nek and re-capture it from Fighting-General Lemmer.

At 11h30 Smith-Dorrien’s column was ambushed as they approached a long rocky ridge near Dwarsvlei, 14 kilometres from Krugersdorp. Fighting General “Rooi Bul” Sarel Oosthuizen had the whole column within rifle range in his sights on the downward slope facing his well-prepared sangars on the highest points of the ridge. Smith-Dorrien ordered his 680 Shropshires to the eastern portion of the battlefield and his 597 Gordon Highlanders to turn off the wagon road and position themselves behind two low kopjies facing the ridge.

The two guns of the 78th Battery Royal Field Artillery deployed too far forward of the kopjies and, in a very exposed position, unlimbered and brought the two ammunition wagons forward. They opened fire on the ridges to their immediate north-west as well as the Boer “skanzes” (sangars) on “Spion Kop”, 4 kilometres away to their east front. Within 30 minutes fourteen of the seventeen gunners were hit and the section commander, Lieutenant Turner, was serving his own guns. It now became a race to save the guns from the Boers who were ready to storm them from the ridge only 730 meters away.

The limbers had been galloped nearly a kilometre back to the baggage when the guns were deployed, instead of the usual 200 meters. Both limbers and teams raced forward but four of the six horses on the first limber were hit, and the horses on the other limber threw their 3 riders and bolted into the distance. Colonel MacBean called for volunteers to drag the guns into the cover of the kopjies. Captain Younger volunteered and took out a small party that managed to drag an ammunition wagon behind one of the kopjies. Captain Younger again volunteered together with Captains Gordon and Allan, leading 10 men into the murderous fire to recover the guns. Within seconds Captain Younger dropped, hit in three places, and three men were wounded. Corporal MacKay of the Gordons rushed into the murderous fire and carried Captain Younger to safety, but the Captain died.

Whilst everyone’s attention was directed towards the attempts to save the guns, Commandant Liebenberg attacked the baggage (40 transport and supply wagons) under cover of dead ground but was eventually beaten off by the Shropshires. The baggage was moved 1 500 meters to the west and all available men were assigned to guard it. At this time Lord Roberts ordered Smith-Dorrien to disengage and return to Krugersdorp due to the “discomfort” of Scots Greys at Silkaatsnek. However, Lt. Turner - wounded three times - refused to leave his guns and Colonel MacBean gave the assurance that the guns would be saved. The order was rescinded.

At dusk the Boers made a desperate rush for the guns, but their attack was beaten off. Fighting-General Sarel Oosthuizen was badly wounded in the final assault and died a month later. Smith-Dorrien withdrew his force to Krugersdorp after dark, together with the two guns (which had been spiked).
Both Captain Gordon and Captain Younger of the Gordon Highlanders were awarded the Victoria Cross for their heroic actions. Corporal MacKay would also have received the award for trying to save Captain Younger, but he had already been gazetted for a Victoria Cross 7 weeks before for his heroics during the Battle of Johannesburg – which he received.

The Battle of Dwarsvlei
The ambush site from the Boer HQ
The ambush site from the Boer HQ
Approaching the Boer positions on the ridge from Krugersdorp
Captain Younger
Captain Younger VC

Tour Highlights

  • Get a birds-eye view of the Battlefield from the lawn above the Bru House & Diner.
  • An easy walk or drive takes you to where the two guns were positioned and where the drama of the Battle unfolded.
  • A visit to the eastern portion of the Battlefield on the Mount Savannah Game Reserve can be arranged in a game drive vehicle. This is where the King’s Shropshire Light Infantry fought off the attacks on the baggage.
  • Stand at the doorway to the present-day ruins of the farmhouse where Captain Trenchard was shot and contemplate some “what-ifs”.
  • Visit the graves of Fighting-General “Rooi Bul” Sarel Oosthuizen and Captain Younger V.C. who are buried only 14 paces apart in the Burgershoop Cemetery, Krugersdorp.

Fitness required: minimal walking. Extended guided walks up the ridge to the Boer fortified positions are available for the fit and healthy. A challenging 8-kilometer hiking trail takes you through both the Boer and British positions, including the Headquarters of General Oosthuizen and General Smith-Dorrien. An easy 2-kilometer walk (there and back) takes you to the ruins of the farmhouse where Captain Trenchard was ambushed and badly wounded)

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Rob Milne

Rob Milne robmilne.com

Rob Milne was born in Johannesburg and educated at St. David's Marist College and the University of the Witwatersrand. From an early age he spent most of his free time in the veld exploring South African battlefields and historic places, developing a keen interest in both South African Wars, archaeology and geology.

Rob Milne
Writer/Tour Guide