The Early Kafir Wars, 1877-78—The Gaika-Galecka War-Major Lanyon Raises the Diamond Fields Horse and Appoints Charles Warren to the Command—March to Fauresmith— Diamond Found at Jagersfontein—Meeting with the 90th Regiment—Stiff Fight at Debe Nek—I Escort Lady Sprigg to Safety—The Griqua Rebellion—Serious Predicament of the Residents in Griquatown—I am asked to Organise a Relief Force—March from Kimberley to Griquatown—Arrival of Colonel Lanyon with Detachment of Frontier Armed Mounted Police—Advance of the Rebels who are Forced Back to Driefon-tein—British Charge the Position and Rout the Rebels who Retire to the Langeberg Mountains—Romantic Sequel Twenty-four Years after the Relief of Griquatown.
In the year 1877 Major Owen Lanyon was the Administrator of Griqualand West, which was then a Crown Colony. Captain Charles Warren, R.E. (afterwards General Sir Charles Warren) was at the time surveying and demarcating the boundary between the Free State and Cape Colony. A large British force, whose headquarters were at King Williams Town, was engaged in a war with the Gaika and Galecka tribes who had attacked the Fingoes, who were under the protection of the Crown, and would have been severely defeated without assistance. The British required more mounted troops, so Major Lanyon was asked whether he could raise a regiment for service against the Gaikas and Galeckas. Major Lanyon replied in the affirmative, and threw his soul and influence into the organisation. He selected Warren to take command, with the local rank of Lieutenant-Colonel, and published a notice calling for volunteers. He further ordered a parade of the Dutoitspan Hussars, a volunteer force of about 120 strong. After putting them through a few movements, he made a very soldier-like speech, and at the end of it called upon all those willing to go to the front to assist the Cape Colony in its emergency. Every man, except one, responded, and so the Dutoitspan Hussars formed the nucleus of the famous Diamond Fields Horse. Men from all quarters of Griqualand West volunteered their services; in fact, many more than were actually required. The most desirable were selected and organised into troops. A certain number of officers and sergeants were appointed, but many vacancies were left to be filled later on, after experience had been gained of the men and their fitness for promotion.
An advance agent was sent to Fauresmith to purchase the horses, as at that time this was a noted district for horse-breeding. We marched on foot to Fauresmith, a distance of 100 miles from Kimberley, and here we remained for several days spending our time in breaking in and training the animals. One officer was badly kicked by a horse, and succumbed to his injuries—a very bad start.
During our stay at Fauresmith, a Dutchman one day came to the Camp and inquired whether there was anybody in the regiment who knew anything about diamonds. He was brought to me, and he took from his pocket a dirty rag from which he produced a diamond. He asked me if it was a real diamond, and I assured him that it was. " What is it worth ?" he asked. I replied, " About £30." He wanted to know whether I would give that amount for it, and I bought the stone. Becoming inquisitive, I asked him where he had found it. "On the farm Jagersfontein," he replied, "about six miles from here" (he pointed in the direction). I placed the stone in an inner pocket, and went about my work, but more of this anon.
After a stay of about a week in Fauresmith we got our horses into fair trim, and started on our long march to King Williams Town, a distance of about 400 miles. Shortly after our arrival, we were inspected by the General, who was accompanied by Sir Bartle Frere (just appointed Governor of the Colony). He gave a very flattering address to the regiment. What struck me, however, as peculiar at the time was that Sir Gordon Sprigg and Sir Thomas Upington were both present. It afterwards transpired that during the time Sir James Molteno and Mr. John X. Merriman had been dismissed by the Governor, Sir Gordon Sprigg had been invited to King Williams Town to form a Ministry and discuss matters with Sir Bartle Frere when the former was appointed Prime Minister.
Soon the regiment was ordered to the Pirie Bush. As we formed up to march away, a terrible storm broke out, and we had to remain sitting on our horses until it had expended itself. The 90th Regiment, composed largely of young soldiers, had marched into King Williams Town from East London. They started out early in the morning, about six or seven hours before us, taking the same route. Preparatory to our departure, I thought it advisable to secure some dry planks which would help us in our cooking on the way, so I placed a large amount of this wood in the wagons. About 8 o'clock that night we came up to the 90th Regiment and found them in a sorry plight through inexperience of Colonial conditions. They had had nothing to eat all day, and could not light a fire to cook anything because everything was wet. Our men sympathised with them in their difficulties, and extended a helping hand. The dry wood was taken off the wagons, fires were started, and in a very short time the food was cooked, and many hungry mouths were satisfied. This regiment was very grateful to us, and never forgot an act of kindness. Whenever we met them afterwards they always reminded us of the manner in which we had come to their assistance at a timely moment.
The Diamond Fields Horse had several skirmishes with the enemy, and the most serious was in the Perie Bush, where we lost two officers— Captain O'Donovan and Lieutenant Ward. This left me in command of a small contingent of about forty men. The natives directed their fire on the officers, whom they recognised on account of the fact that they did not carry rifles. Fortunately, however, I was armed with a carbine. Our formidable opponents endeavoured to overwhelm us by sheer weight of numbers, and their head warriors goaded them on with shouts of "We've killed the Chiefs; now wipe out the soldiers." But our men were as steady as the proverbial rock, and maintained a well-directed fire on the enemy whenever it was possible to see them through the trees and bushes. This was a means of checking their onslaught.
Colonel Warren, who was directing operations some short distance away on our right flank, heard the rapid firing, and at once came to our assistance at the head of another troop. This timely help enabled us to drive off the enemy, who left several of their dead within a few yards of our positions. Commanded by General The Honourable Thesiger, with Colonel Evelyn Wood, V.C., Chief of the Staff, we were engaged in some enveloping movements, but the result was not as effective as anticipated, though we inflicted much damage on the enemy.
For several days we were inactive, but later we received orders to proceed in an endeavour to intercept the Chief Seyolo, who was advancing with about 1,400 natives to join the Gaikas. After a rather stiff march our scouts reported that a large body of the enemy was emerging from the bush. Colonel Warren rightly concluded that this was Seyolo's force, so he at once ordered the men to dismount. We managed to get most of the horses under cover, and then we advanced in open order to meet the enemy.
We manoeuvred into a very strong position, with good cover obtainable by the undulating ground. Colonel Warren himself took up a position with the trumpeter on a small piece of rising ground about fifteen paces behind our line. He stood throughout the whole engagement, and with his field glasses fixed to his eyes, he carefully watched the movements of the natives so as to give orders from time to time. We were only about 120 strong, and the enemy, apparently observing the smallness of our numbers, advanced with confidence. They were being urged to battle by their Chiefs, who could be heard shouting " Wipe them out; they are only a handful!" Colonel Warren reserved his fire. When the oncoming horde was within about 600 yards, he said calmly "Now, men, keep cool. Carefully adjust your sights, take steady aim, and fire low. Put up your 400 yards sights, and wait for the command 'fire'." This order was soon forthcoming, when a steady and fairly accurate fire was immediately brought to bear on the enemy. They were shaken for a moment and retired, but their Chiefs rallied and reformed their warriors. They quickly again advanced to the attack, and threw out two wings for the purpose of enveloping our small force, this being a very old and favourite movement of the kafir impis.
Colonel Warren at once devined their intention, so he threw back two sections on his right and left flanks with orders to maintain a heavy fire on the enemy's wings to prevent them from outflanking his force. The natives now advanced as pluckily as on the first occasion. Some were shot down within a few yards of our line, and one native actually got right up to us. He raised his assegai menacingly for a fatal thrust, when Corporal Perring, who had not had the time to reload, brought down the butt end of his carbine with terrific force on the brave warrior's head and killed him instantly. The natives would not face the fire again, and retired into the bush, after having suffered serious losses. Their plan of forming a junction with the Gaikas was therefore frustrated.
Thus ended the stiff fight at Debe Nek. Our wounded were sent into King Williams Town Hospital for attention, one of whom died. Colonel Warren was delighted with the behaviour of his men, and at a special parade held later he expressed in an eloquent and soldierly speech his pride and gratitude at their gallantry.
When Sir Gordon Sprigg was called on by Sir Bartle Frere in 1878 to form a Ministry, he and his family lived on a farm some distance from King-Williams Town. During the Gaika-Galecka war the farm was in an exposed position, and fighting was taking place not very far from the homestead.
Sir Gordon becoming alarmed concerning the safety of his wife, I was ordered to proceed to the farm with a squadron of the Diamond Fields Horse to escort Lady Sprigg to King Williams Town. This I did with very little difficulty, but much to the delight of Sir Gordon.
Later in the House of Assembly I invariably took part in the discussion on the Defence Vote, and when replying to the debate Sir Gordon always referred to me as "the gallant member for Kimberley, who courageously rescued my dear wife." The thought lingered in his mind, for he mentioned the incident at many Sessions. Eventually I learned to know when the compliment was coming, and always succeeded in hiding my blushing face somewhere beneath my desk.
Fifty years is a long stretch of time over which to cast one's mind, and one is apt to forget incidents that happened then as well as the names of old comrades, nearly all of whom have gone to their rest.
There are not many South Africans who have ever heard of the Relief of Griquatown, and fewer still who remember the events that led up to the Rebellion. Of the original Relief Force, I think I am the sole survivor. There may be a few others, but I have not come across any since the death of Colonel Wollaston. No medals were awarded for this campaign, which extended to the Langeberg, nor was the D.S.O. or M.C. thought of in those far-off days. The men were only too glad to return to their homes with the satisfaction of having rescued the lives of 150 white men, women and children—a noble and gallant mission that brought its own reward.
The Gaika-Galecka War had just been brought to a successful conclusion, and the Diamond Fields Horse was preparing to march back to Griqualand West, when news reached Kimberley that the Griquas were in revolt and intended to capture Griquatown. At this time, Mr. Jacob Dirk Barry (who afterwards became Judge-President of the Cape Colony) was the Recorder, and was acting Administrator in the absence of Colonel Lanyon, who had gone to Koeghuis with a small force of Frontier Armed Mounted Police to inquire into a native disturbance. I did not march back with the Diamond Fields Horse, but returned by post cart, which meant a saving of three weeks.
I had only been home a few days when I received an urgent message late one night from the Acting Administrator to call on him. I went immediately to Kimberley when he told me of the serious state of affairs that existed, and his fear for the safety of 150 white residents of Griquatown, as a large body of Griquas, under their leader, Moses Moos, had looted several stores within a few miles of the town, had murdered some whites, and had threatened to capture Griquatown if it had not surrendered by May 22nd, 1878.
Mr. H. B. Roper, who was then Civil Commissioner of the District, warned the rebels that he would defend the town, and that so long as the British Flag was flying from the mast he would not surrender. Mr. Roper displayed great courage, for there were only twenty-eight able-bodied men with rifles, with about 500 rounds of ammunition between them, as the rebels had broken into the adjacent magazines and had seized all the ammunition and explosives.
The number of men mentioned formed themselves into a small Commando, and appointed Mr. Orpen (who died some time ago) as their Commandant. This small force could only patrol the outskirts of the town, but it was far too weak to hold its own against the large force of Griquas if the latter made a determined attack. The white inhabitants were in dire straits, their lives being in great jeopardy. The gaol was hastily transformed into a laager; everything available, including bales of wool, was utilised to fortify the building in which the whites and 400 supposed loyal Griquas, including the Chief, Waterboer, were huddled together at night, it being considered unsafe for them to remain in their homes after sunset.
The residents were in an awful predicament, and their eyes anxiously turned towards Kimberley for relief, as the small garrison, with scarcely twenty rounds of ammunition per man, could only offer a weak resistence to 800 of the enemy with Winchester repeating rifles and breech-loaders, amply supplied with ammunition.
The Acting Administrator asked me if it were possible quickly to organise a force to proceed to Griquatown to relieve the place and save the lives of the beleagured inhabitants. I replied that I thought it could be done. The next morning a notice appeared calling for volunteers. The response was excellent, as I fully expected it would be from the men of the Diamond Fields, whose military spirit has never waned from that day to the present time. I selected 120 from the numerous applicants, choosing those who had some military experience and who could ride and manage a horse. Mr. Alexander, Mr. Edwin Doveton (who was killed at Wagon Hill during the Anglo-Boer War), his brother Charles and myself were the officers appointed to this force. There was one other whose name I forget. The late Colonel Wollaston was sergeant-major, Dr. Otto was the medical officer, and Mr. Charles Blackbeard, who subsequently became Mayor of Beaconsfield, was also with the force. The men were organised into three troops, mounted and drilled, and equipped within forty-eight hours of the receipt of the news of the rising reaching the authorities. The force left Kimberley with mule wagons carrying supplies and ammunition on Saturday night, May 18, 1878.
Rain fell on the first march, making things very uncomfortable, and we reached Schmidt's Drift early on Sunday morning, where there was a delay of several hours in transporting men, horses and wagons across the Vaal River on the one pont. Mr. Bailey, a Government Land Surveyor, who had a knowledge of the kafir language, and had organised a force of 150 Zulus, had left Kimberley on Friday afternoon. We passed this force on the way, and Mr. Bailey's contingent reached Griquatown just after the fight at Driefontein, having marched no miles in four days—a very creditable performance.
On Monday night the Mounted Relief Force bivouacked about thirty-five miles from Griqua-town, men and horses being very tired. About midnight I was aroused by the sergeant of the guard who informed me that there was a messenger carrying a dispatch. It was a bastard boy riding a bare-backed horse, the saddled animal having been shot by the rebels outside Griquatown. The boy made a slit in his coat, and handed me a piece of paper on which was written the following message:
" To any Officer Commanding a Relief Force.
" Situation perilous. Lose no time. H. B. Roper, C.C."
We intended resuming our advance at 6 a.m., but the Reveille was sounded at 2.30 a.m. The force formed up, and when the foregoing message was read and the men were asked when they would be prepared to march, there was a unanimous response "At once, sir." Just what was expected from such gallant fellows when the lives of women and children were at stake.
We reached Griquatown on Tuesday just as the sun was setting behind the hills. On interviewing the Civil Commissioner we were informed that the Griquas demanded the surrender of the town that afternoon, and after receiving a refusal had left an hour before our arrival, after stating that they were coming again the following morning to capture the town. We made a hurried plan of defence, posted pickets and sentries, and all ranks had a well-deserved rest. One may easily imagine the feelings of the people when we arrived. Despair was depicted on their faces, but this soon gave way to confidence.
Soon after our arrival Dr. Otto amputated the arm of a Mr. van Druten who was wounded while making a heroic effort to save the life of his store-man, whose body we recovered later.
About 3 o'clock on Wednesday morning the distant sound of a bugle was heard. Some thought it was a ruse by the rebels, but to the experienced campaigners it sounded like the call of a trained bugler. Our bugler replied by sounding the advance, and within an hour Colonel Lanyon, who had received some tidings of the serious situation, and not knowing that the Kimberley force had arrived, came from Koegas by forced marches with forty of the old Frontier Armed Mounted Police—a plucky thing for even so brave a colonel to do. He was as cool as the proverbial cucumber. He took in the whole situation, and made necessary dispositions to meet the enemy should they put in an appearance that morning as they had threatened. Colonel Lanyon appointed me his staff officer.
The rebels were as good as their word, and advanced in strength and confidence to capture the town, not knowing that a force 160 strong had arrived since the rebels left the previous day. We waited until they had got a few hundred yards when we opened a heavy and accurate fire which took the rebels quite by surprise. The Griqua leaders tried to rally their men, but without success, and when Colonel Lanyon saw the enemy was wavering he sallied forth with a troop of mounted men with the intention of cutting off the main body retiring through a kloof that was their line of retreat to their headquarters at Witwater. They, however, had too good a start, but the Griquas on foot and some on jaded horses were rallied by some of their chiefs and took up a strong position at Driefontein. They got into four stone sheep kraals which they loopholed. Our force then surrounded the enemy within 200 yards of their defences, taking what cover was available, and piling up stones and earth for protection from the fire of the rebels. The farm was in a slight hollow, so that we occupied the best position.
About 3 o'clock that afternoon Colonel Lanyon said to me: "If I had three or four companies of Regulars I would charge the enemy at once, but as the men from Kimberley are mostly married with families, I must prevent casualties as much as possible, so will wait until sundown before charging, when the enemy will be almost tired out." Orders were then given to each troop under its officers to charge the sheep kraals on a given signal. Three "G's" would be sounded on the bugle, and on the last sound the kraals were to be rushed, each troop being given a particular kraal to attack. As the sun was setting Colonel Lanyon ordered Bugler Hill of the F.A.M.P. to sound the three "G's," and at the sound of the second one Colonel Lanyon dashed off, determined to lead the charge. As the last "G" was sounded Bugler Hill was wounded in the abdomen and fell from his horse. The wound, fortunately, was not fatal; he recovered and later was pensioned.
It took less than a minute for the troops to rush the four sheep kraals. They were subjected to a heavy fire during the charge, but the young men jumped over the walls, the elder men scrambled over, and the fight ended in a few minutes. All the rebels were killed or captured, and we counted forty-eight dead bodies. Our casualties numbered nine, the enemy's about 100. The enemy, nonplussed, retired to the Lange-berg mountains, and it took a big force, under Colonel Warren, several months to drive them out and finally stamp out the revolt.
There is a sequel to the foregoing narrative. In 1904 there was a General Election in the Cape Colony. Mr. Abe Bailey (as he then was) and I stood for Barkly West. The constituency then included Griquatown, and was entitled to two members. We were opposed by Messrs. Donovan and Ricketts, both local men, so that we felt that we would have to tour the country and hold many meetings if we hoped to win the seats. We were scheduled to attend a meeting of the electors of Griquatown. I do not remember the day, but on approaching the town we espied in the distance several Cape carts and wagons. Drawing nearer we saw a party of men and women. Mr. Bailey asked me what I thought of this, and I replied that it was a good sign; some of the inhabitants had come to greet us. We halted, and there was much shaking of hands all round, while for their kind welcome we expressed our thanks in the superlative degree, as is the custom with candidates seeking the suffrages of the electors. Just before the conclusion of the interview a sweet little girl of about three years of age, beautifully dressed, came forward and presented me with a magnificent bouquet. Naturally I accepted it and kissed the child, whereupon a lady approached me and remarked that I looked very surprised when I accepted the bouquet. I replied "Well, to tell you the truth I was. We politicians are not in the habit of being presented with flowers during an electoral campaign. This certainly is my first experience." The lady feelingly replied that twenty-six years ago, when Griquatown was besieged, she was a baby in her mother's arms, and that he (Colonel Harris) was one of those who came to their assistance, so she had brought her child to present him with a few flowers to show him they had not forgotten. The lady in question was a daughter of the Mr. Van Druten referred to earlier in this account as having been wounded. I looked at Bailey and he looked at me. I saw his eyes were a little watery. I wonder if he discerned a few tears trickling down my own cheeks.