Here's What You Need to Know: Despite his unprepossessing appearance, De Wet had a keen mind for strategy and a quick eye for tactics.
During the infamous Black Week of December 1899, the proud British Army suffered three consecutive bloody defeats in southern Africa. In each of the clashes, Boer citizen-soldiers, called burghers, held fast to their defensive positions and repelled poorly executed attacks by the supposedly better-trained British forces. The shocking victories at Stormberg, Magersfontein, and Colenso lifted Boer morale while crushing British hopes for a quick, decisive victory against the outgunned and outnumbered enemy.
Ironically, a key Boer leader did not participate in any of the Black Week battles. Instead, newly promoted General Christiaan de Wet journeyed by horse and railcar from the eastern front in Natal to the western front in the Orange Free State, where President Marthinus Steyn wanted him to lead two Boer commandos into battle. The Boer fighters at Magersfontein were unacquainted with De Wet and unimpressed by him. De Wet lacked the piercing gaze of Assistant Commandant-General Louis Botha or the paternalistic demeanor of Commandant-General Piet Joubert. Of middle height, with slumping shoulders and kind eyes, De Wet looked more like a station master or a bank clerk than someone capable of derailing the best-laid plans of Great Britain’s most celebrated generals.
De Wet’s Triumph at Nicholson’s Nek
Despite his unprepossessing appearance, De Wet had a keen mind for strategy and a quick eye for tactics. When the Second Boer War erupted in 1899, he was working his farm in the Orange Free State. In keeping with the state’s injunction to raise large families to populate the Boer republics, the 45-year-old farmer and his wife were busy raising 16 children of their own. De Wet, like most Boers, was no stranger to warfare. He had fought alongside the Boer forces from Transvaal that defeated the British in the Battle of Majuba Hill in 1881 during the First Boer War.
In late September 1899, the Boers mobilized and deployed substantial forces on the borders of Cape Colony and Natal. On October 9 they issued an ultimatum to Great Britain to cease interfering in the internal affairs of the Boer republics. Two days later they invaded British-held Cape Colony and Natal.
De Wet did not participate in the initial action in Natal because the Free State forces mobilized more slowly than their northern neighbors in Transvaal. His 500-man commando arrived on the eastern front after the British forces had withdrawn from Dundee and retreated to Ladysmith. In an effort to keep the Boers from encircling Ladysmith, British Lt. Gen. Sir George White dispatched units under his command to drive the Boers from several key hills, or kopjes, north of the town. Lt. Col. Frank Carleton, given orders to occupy Nicholson’s Nek, left Ladysmith at 10:30 am on October 30 at the head of a column comprising the 1st Battalion of Gloucesters, 1st Battalion of the Royal Irish Fusiliers, and the 10th Mountain Battery.
The broken ground and high country of northern Natal made for tough going. At one point, artillery mules stampeded, and the noise alerted the Boers in the vicinity that the enemy was on the move. Carleton failed to reach his objective before nightfall. Fearing that he would be ripe for attack if he camped on low ground at the base of the gap, Carleton ordered his men onto Tchrengula Mountain south of the pass, where they hastily constructed breastworks from loose stones.
The Boers in the vicinity planned to attack Carleton wherever he camped. At daybreak they struck from three sides. De Wet led the northern prong of the attack along the ridgeline. During their advance, the Boers killed or drove off most of Carleton’s pickets before one company of British soldiers raised a white flag to surrender. Believing that the entire British force was preparing to surrender, the Boers emerged from cover. Carleton, realizing what had happened, refused to continue the fight, preferring to surrender his entire force rather than be accused by the enemy of violating a white flag. It was a heady triumph for De Wet and other Boer officers on the scene, who managed to lead away 954 British soldiers with very little bloodshed.
The Army Under Roberts’ Command
The day after the action at Nicholson’s Nek, General Sir Redvers Buller, the commander in chief of British forces in South Africa, arrived in Cape Town along with the 47,000-strong British 1st Army Corps. While en route he wired orders to White instructing him to abandon Ladysmith and take up a new position behind the Tugela River. Upon his arrival, Buller learned that White had disregarded his orders and was trapped in Ladysmith. Immediately, the relief of Ladysmith became one of Buller’s top priorities, along with the relief of other besieged British forces at Kimberley and Mafeking. Buller personally led a rescue force to relieve the 10,000 British troops bottled up inside Ladysmith and clear northern Natal of the Boers.
After several weeks of hard marching, three British columns closed with the enemy. In the center, Lt. Gen. Sir William Gatacre hoped to dislodge Boer forces and capture the railway junction at Stormberg. Following a bungled night march, his troops made a weak attack the morning of December 10 against a Boer army entrenched on high ground. After the initial attack failed, Gatacre ordered his troops to withdraw, but 600 did not get the order in time and subsequently surrendered.
The next day a much larger battle occurred to the west, where Lt. Gen. Lord Methuen attacked an entrenched Boer force at Magersfontein and was thrown back with heavy losses. The last, and perhaps most significant, defeat of Black Week occurred at Colenso, when Buller ordered a frontal assault against Boers on the north bank of the Tugela River. It, too, ended in failure. When news of the shocking string of defeats reached London, the British minister of war, Lord Lansdowne, ordered his friend and colleague Lord Frederick Sleigh Roberts, who was serving in India, to replace Buller as commander in chief of British forces in South Africa.
Roberts planned to march north to seize the Boer capitals at Bloemfontein and Pretoria. Of the nearly 100,000 British troops in Africa by that time, Roberts had half under his direct command. For his initial advance, Roberts would lead a 37,000-man corps north along the Western Railway to relieve Kimberley. Once he took Kimberley, Roberts would be in a good position to outflank Boer Commandant-General Piet Cronje at Magersfontein.
Roberts took command of his army in mid-February at Waterval Drift on the Riet River. The British found when they tried to move their supply train through the drift on February 15 that the soft mud on the riverbanks made for an extremely poor crossing. While the supply train of 200 wagons slowly made its way through the drift, Roberts marched off to the northwest with Maj. Gen. Sir Henry Colville’s 9th Division and crossed at Wegdraai Drift. The teamsters responsible for the supply train allowed the oxen, which had struggled through the mud at Waterval, to graze and rest on the north bank before resuming their march. Five hundred men were assigned to guard the supply train until it rejoined the corps.
Meanwhile, Maj. Gen. John French led 5,000 cavalry on a wide sweep around Cronje’s forces at Magersfontein. After a three-day ride, the British entered Kimberley on February 15. While his exhausted cavalry was given a hero’s welcome in Kimberley, Roberts’s infantry divisions crossed the Riet River and began fanning out across the veldt. In response, Cronje’s force began a slow retreat toward Bloemfontein.
Ambush at Waterval Drift: “A Gigantic Capture”
On that same day, De Wet swooped down on the lightly defended British supply train at Waterval Drift with a force of 1,000 mounted commandos. About mid-morning, the general ordered several long-range guns atop nearby kopjes to open fire on the British position. As the shells crashed into the dirt around them, the badly surprised teamsters attempted to drive as many oxen as possible into the drift, where they hoped the steep banks would protect the animals from shrapnel. Meanwhile, others rushed to the unhitched wagons and began hastily to unload crates to serve as makeshift breastworks for the impending attack.
Observing that the British seemed determined not to give up their supply train without a fight, De Wet ordered his dismounted riflemen to attack. As the fight got under way, the oxen became more difficult to control and, to the consternation of their handlers, stampeded toward the Boer lines. Despite the loss of the oxen, the British infantry defending the supply wagons refused to surrender. The fighting continued well into the afternoon, while the defenders dispatched pleas to Roberts to send reinforcements. In response, Roberts eventually dispatched two battalions of infantry and an artillery battery. He ordered Maj. Gen. Charles Tucker, commanding the 7th Division, to assess the situation and report back to him.
The reinforcements were unable to rescue the besieged forces before De Wet made off with 170 wagons filled with supplies. He also captured or drove off 1,600 oxen that the British needed to haul supplies. “It was, indeed, a gigantic capture; the only question was what to do with it,” De Wet wrote in his memoirs. The oxen proved as difficult for the Boers to control as they had been for the British, and De Wet’s command lost considerable time rounding up scattered animals and dragging off their booty.
Cronje’s Defeat at Paardeberg