British ladies win awards for
heroism whilst under fire.
In 1880 the British government
was confronted with a problem that it had created in South Africa. When Britain
seized the Cape of Good Hope in order to secure the sea route to Asia, many of
the Dutch colonists there had rejected British rule and moved towards the
interior of South Africa, settling on land north of the Vaal River. At first
Britain took little interest in these Boer farmers in what was called the
Transvaal, but that attitude changed fundamentally once mineral riches were
discovered there. Stating that it was acting to prevent "the Balkanisation
of Southern Africa" and 'to protect the natives" Britain annexed the
Transvaal and raised the Union Flag in Pretoria on 12th April 1877.
(The flag raiser was Rider Haggard, later to become a famous novelist of
Most Boers were antagonized by the annexation, but British
officials ignored this fact and continued to report that the majority of
Transvaalers were in agreement with Britain and would not rebel. Weak British
garrisons were then positioned in isolated forts in the territory. By 1880 the
monotony of life and poor rations of these 1,800 garrison troops had
contributed to a state of low British morale. To save costs the only cavalry
regiment in the Transvaal, the King's Dragoon Guards, was posted elsewhere and
its horses were sold locally to Boers. This proved to be a critical military
mistake as the 7,000 Boer fighting men in the Transvaal were organised into
mounted infantry units called Commandos. However British military and political
minds were distracted elsewhere in southern Africa, principally by the Zulu War
The 94th Regiment (later to be re-named The 2nd
Battalion The Connaught Rangers) was commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Philip R.
Anstruther. As the Regiment was dispersed around the Transvaal orders were
issued for it to concentrate. Lt Col Anstruther was at Lydenburg when he was
told to march to Pretoria with his headquarters and two companies of men,
leaving a rear-party of 50 men at Lydenburg with the sick to protect the
barracks and stores there. This order had arrived at Lydenburg on 27th
November and it was expected that the 94th Regiment would arrive at
Pretoria by the 12th December or shortly after. However Lt Col
Anstruther refused to march with the small number of waggons prepared by the
Transport staff (one ox-waggon, two mule wagons, one water cart and an
ox-ambulance) and insisted on having 26 additional ox-waggons, although that
number greatly exceeded Transport Regulations. It took an additional eight days
to obtain the hire of these extra waggons and this delay was to prove fatal for
the Lieutenant Colonel and many of his men.
Above: The path of the 94th, From Lydenburg in the North East to Pretoria, over Bronkhorst Spruit.
On 5th December Lt Col Anstruther's column
departed from Lydenburg. There were only four mounted infantrymen to
reconnoiter the advance, flanks and rear – a pathetically small number. The
Transport consisted of 30 ox-waggons, two mule waggons, one water cart and one
ox-ambulance with up to 60 African drivers and foreloopers (boys walking
alongside the first yoke of each oxen team to guide them). The wagon train
stretched out at times to nearly a mile in length and moved at about two miles
Lt Col Anstruther commanded nine officers, 254
non-commissioned officers (NCOs) and men, three ladies and two children in his
column. Middleburg was reached on 15th December and the column
halted for a day to procure fresh rations and repair damaged waggons.
On 16 December 1880 the Transvaal Boers proclaimed a South
African Republic with a capital at Heidelburg, and rejected British rule. The
British garrisons were observed from a distance by about half the Boers, whilst
the remainder of the Commandos prepared to repel British reinforcements
expected from Natal. British commanders did not take the Boer preparations
seriously, expecting them not to fight.
Left: A period stereotype of the Pastoral Boer.
All along his route Anstruther encountered friendly Boers
and, despite having received advice from Pretoria to be alert for hostile acts,
he dropped his guard and allowed his men to relax. The soldiers were carrying
well below the stipulated number of rounds in their ammunition pouches and it
appears that the screws on the ammunition boxes had not been slackened off.
Meanwhile the Boers had decided to confront Anstruther's
column and up to 1,000 riflemen had been mobilized and were concentrating in
the area of Bronkhorst Spruit, which had been chosen as a good ambush site. (A
spruit is a small stream that flows only in the wet season.) Commandant-General
Piet Joubert commanded this Boer force. On the morning of 20th
December the British column halted for breakfast by the farm house of a Boer
who was in fact a Field-Cornet in a Commando preparing to attack. The
Field-Cornet chatted with the 94th's officers, telling them that the
large number of Boer mounted men seen coming into the area were here to attend
a peaceful meeting, and that nobody in the vicinity wanted to interfere with
the British column. Anstruther was completely deceived and resumed his march.
The column approached the spruit. Anstruther and a couple
of officers led on horseback followed by the 30-man unarmed regimental band
(their rifles were in a waggon further to the rear) playing a quick step. Then
marched a company 70-men strong followed by the 13-man quarter-guard. The
provost-escort and regimental prisoners, a total of 23 men, preceded the wagon
train which was followed at a distance of 70 paces by the rear-guard of 20 men.
Each waggon was escorted by a couple of soldiers on either side but it is
believed that some of these escorts had stowed their rifles on the waggons. Sergeant
Bradley, the officers mess sergeant, obviously did not anticipate a battle that
day as he was marching in plain clothes, unarmed.
Around noon armed Boer scouts were seen 600 yards away,
followed by around 150 riflemen appearing in skirmishing order on a low wooded
rise 100 yards to Anstruther's left. A Boer with a flag of truce approached and
Anstruther walked forward to meet him. The Boer handed over a letter in English
signed by S.J.P Kruger, M.W. Pretorius and P.J. Joubert in the name of the
South African Republic. The letter forbade the movement of British troops as
any further forward movement would be taken as a declaration of war. Anstruther
replied that he could not comply with such a request as he had orders to
proceed to Pretoria, but he had no wish to meet Joubert's men hostilely.
Boer emissary agreed to deliver Anstruther's reply, and on being requested by
Anstruther to return and advise the result the emissary nodded assent.
However by now Boers on both flanks and in the rear had
advanced to within 150 yards of the doomed column, and Anstruther ran back
shouting orders for the leading company to skirmish, but before this manoeuvre
could be accomplished all the Boers were firing into the column, picking off
the officers and NCOs first. Eleven bandsmen were killed and the remainder ran
back to the waggons for their rifles, causing more confusion. The soldiers, now
nearly leaderless as all the officers and two thirds of the NCOs had been hit,
were firing up-hill from poor positions. Boer marksmen also shot the leading
oxen in each wagon to immobilize the train. The ammunition wagons were marked
by red flags as required by Transport Regulations, and these became Boer
targets. Only three men from the rearguard were not hit. In one of the waggons Mrs
Fox, wife of the Regimental Sergeant Major was hit and seriously wounded.
After about twelve minutes of this severe punishment Lt
Col Anstruther, who was wounded in his legs in five places, ordered a bugler to
sound Cease Fire and a flag of truce was hoisted. Commandant Joubert
approached, the Boers ordered the British to surrender all weapons, and
approximately 40 unwounded NCOs and men were taken prisoner and marched towards
Heidelburg. Eighteen fit men were allowed to stay and tend to the wounded. Sergeant
Bradley, still presumably in plain clothes, now had his moment and served
champagne to Anstruther and Joubert. The Boers provided food for the wounded
from nearby farms.
As all the officers had been shot down during the
fighting, the colours of the 94th Regiment had been carried by
Orderly-Room Sergeant Maistre and Sergeant Master-Tailor Pearce, who was
slightly wounded. To avoid the colours being captured they were hidden under
the bed of Mrs Fox. Later they were torn from their poles and smuggled into a
medical tent where Conductor Egerton, who had a hand-wound, wrapped them around
his waist. Later that day the Boers allowed Conductor Egerton and Sergeant
Bradley to walk the 42 miles to Pretoria to request assistance for the wounded,
and so the concealed colours were removed from the battlefield.
During and after the fighting the two unwounded ladies,
Mrs Marion Smith widow of the Regimental Bandmaster and Mrs Maistre, tended the
wounded. Marion Smith had her ear and lip cut from lead bullet-splashes coming
off wagon wheels and one of her two children received a graze-wound on the
forehead. Despite the hazards surrounding her Mrs Smith tore off strips of her
own clothing and continued to dress wounded soldiers.
The Boers allowed British medical staff from Pretoria to
recover the wounded. The 94th Regiment lost 77 officers and men
killed in action or died of wounds, Lt Col Anstruther dying on 26th
December. Seventy eight other officers and men were wounded, some very
seriously, and survived. Boer casualties are not known; five were admitted but
unconfirmed reports said that 40 men had been buried. Considering the surprise
that the Boers achieved the lesser figure is the more likely one.
The Transvaal War of 1880 - 1881 had started...
Much later Orderly-Room Sergeant Maistre, Sergeant
Master-Tailor Pearce and Officers Mess Sergeant Bradley received Distinguished
Marion Smith was awarded the Silver Medal and the Diploma
of The Order of St John of Jerusalem.
Mrs Fox and Mrs Maistre were each awarded the Royal Red
SOURCES & FURTHER READING:
The Transvaal War 1880-1881 by Blanche St John Bellairs
The First Boer War by Joseph Lehmann
Victorian Military Campaigns by Brian Bond
Lt Col P.R. Anstruther's Report London Gazette Number
24955 dated 29th March 1881.