We had a late start this morning due to a long day of around 350 kilometres yesterday. Soft beds, hot water and a wonderful breakfast set us up for what turned out to be an excellent day with many special moments.
We headed east toward Middelburg on the tollway before turning south toward Ermelo. This took us to two sites of significance, one being of particular interest to Gaye Atkinson as we were able to stand on the actual ground where her great uncle Lieutenant Anthony Forrest was shot and killed while in command of an escort for a supply wagon.
Firstly we stopped 1,500 metres before the Wilmansrust position, where due to very poor leadership and no knowledge of the way this campaign was being fought; Major Morris a newly arrived English Artillery officer deployed the men of the 5th Victorian Mounted Rifles, under his command, in an inadequate manner. Their placement was in accord with King’s Regulations, but not in accord with the tactical situation. At a night halt, he deployed a Lieutenant and six men as a piquet a kilometre forward to sound the alarm should the Boer party he was chasing choose to approach. He ordered the men to stack their weapons outside their bell tents as required by the regulations, but no longer the practice in this campaign. The main body of Victorians camped adjacent a farmhouse, the farmer ensuring another group of the enemy who had been tracking them knew exactly where the men were, and the location of their piquets. The Boers attacked at 20:00 (8 pm), shortly after dark; by-passing the guards, they charged through the horse lines and into the camp. The doctor was killed immediately as were many before they could get to their weapons. There were at least 14 Australians killed and 42 wounded. 50 men evaded capture by slipping unarmed into the darkness, Major Morris among them. The remaining men were taken prisoner and walked 2 kilometres into the Veldt, stripped of clothes and boots then abandoned. The Boers also rounded up the horses and gathered the neatly stacked weapons before escaping with their booty.
Our party stood on the ground overlooking the action and John explained what had happened, how it happened and was able to relate his tale to the ground.
We then moved forward another few kilometres toward Ermelo, and just before Hendrita stopped on the side of the road near a bridge, a place that at the time of the Boer War was a creek crossing known as Grobelaar Recht. Here we were able to stand with Gaye Atkinson on the ground where her great uncle was killed 111 years ago. A special moment for Gaye and Tom.
Finally arriving in Ermelo, we were met by Athol Stark, volunteer CEO of the High Veld Visitors Centre. He led us out into the countryside towards Amsterdam to the site of the last major battle between the British and the ‘Bitter Enders’, Boers who continued to fight after most others had withdrawn from the field.
We found ourselves overlooking a huge valley with many canyons where the Boer General Opperman had lured Major Valentine of the Somerset Light Infantry and his command into an ambush by 500 Boer soldiers. The ensuing battle was a Boer victory that left both commanders, Major Valentine and General Opperman dead. Thirteen from the 5th Queensland Imperial Bushmen along with 28 other British soldiers were also killed. A further five Queenslanders died later from wounds they received.
Again the Boers stripped the prisoners and left with their horses and gear.
During this Guerrilla phase of the war, by recovering British clothes and equipment, the Boers were able to keep themselves in the field. Their support base had disappeared due to Kitchener’s ‘scorched earth’ policy of burning their farms and moving their families into concentration camps.
Lunch in Ermelo and then back to Witbank for tomorrow we leave for another adventure.
Colonel Graham Fleeton