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The First Battle of Silkaats Nek

Rob Milne
0

11th July 1900

This was the opening battle of the Guerrilla War waged by the Boers in the Magaliesberg – the first of four simultaneous attacks co-ordinated by Generals de la Rey and Botha.

After finding the Diamond Hill Battlefield abandoned by the Boers on 13th June 1900, Lord Roberts was convinced that the War was practically over. Rustenburg had surrendered to Baden-Powell without a fight on 14th June, but the Boer Fighting-General Lemmer had occupied a strategic Nek (pass) through the Magaliesberg at Olifants Nek with 300 burghers after his attack on the town had been beaten off on 7th July. To dislodge them, Roberts ordered Major Scobell’s Squadron of Scots Greys and a section of “O” Battery Royal Horse Artillery to proceed from Silkaatsnek to join up with General Smith-Dorrien’s column at Hekpoort and thereafter move west to dislodge Lemmer. This was after they were relieved by 5 companies of the 2nd Linconshire Regiment who were marching from Pretoria.

Colonel Roberts and his Lincolns arrived late on the 10th causing Major Scobell to delay his departure until next morning. That night General de la Rey (who was on his way to Rustenburg to see what he could do to revitalize the Western Transvaal Burghers) heard that the British position was weakly defended and decided to attack. At dawn he fired on the British Camp from the two unoccupied peaks on either side of the pass.

At 09h00 a message got through to the British Camp 5 kilometres away at Rietfontein (now Ifafi/Xanadu) and Colonel Alexander sent a line of horsemen with two guns and shelled the eastern side of the Nek at a range of 2 700 meters for an hour. Worried about shelling his own people and that the Boers may attack his guns, he withdrew. He ordered “D” and “F” Companies of the Lincolns, who were positioned next to the road and stream south of the Nek, to retire to Pretoria. Colonel Roberts was then deprived of supporting fire from the south which had slowed down the Boer attack and reduced their fire from the east.

Fighting continued throughout the day but at 15h00, the Boers having shot down most of the gunners, seized the guns and turned them on the defenders. Early the next morning Colonel Roberts surrendered and was taken prisoner together with his adjutant, the Squadron of Scots Greys, and 84 Lincolns – a total of 138 Officers and men. Other British losses were 26 killed or died of wounds and 51 wounded. The dead were buried in the Rietfontein and Pretoria cemeteries. 11 Boers were killed or died of wounds (including General de la Rey’s nephew) and were buried on nearby farms.

Damage from the Boer Pom-Pom shells on the boulders above the Scots Grey’s position
Damage from the Boer Pom-Pom shells on the boulders above the Scots Grey’s position

 

The old wagon road cutting where the British wounded sheltered from gunfire
The old wagon road cutting where the British wounded sheltered from gunfire

Tour Highlights (both Battles at Silkaatsnek)

  • Drive from the area of the Rietfontein Campsite along the route of the two guns which were sent to support the Lincolns, to where “D” and “F” Company of the Lincolns provided supporting fire to the camp above them in the Nek.
  • Pause below the Nek to see the steep slopes up which the Berkshires and Highlander Infantry attacked Coetzee’s Commando.
  • Have a leisurely picnic lunch under the trees on the Battlefield at the Silkaatsnek Nature Reserve and look at the detailed maps of both Battles.
  • Walk or drive to the Nek itself to see the shell marks on the rocks above the Scots Grey’s position.
  • Examine the road cutting which gave the British wounded shelter during the first Battle.
  • Pay respect to the British dead at the Rietfontein Cemetery, within the old British Campsite, and see the critical Neks or passes from this good vantage point.

Fitness required: minimal walking. Extended guided walks along the heights overlooking the Nek are available for the fit and healthy.

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On 1st August Lord Roberts decided to give up Rustenburg and Olifants Nek and then advance to Rustenburg.

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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

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