The Epic Tale of Cmdt. Christiaan J. Muller, D.T.D. of the Ladybrand Commando 8 months 1 week ago #69175
Christiaan Jacobus Muller, D.T.D.
Commandant, Ladybrand Commando – Anglo Boer War
- Anglo Boere Oorlog Medal to KOMDT. C.J. MULLER
- Dekorasie Voor Troue Dienst to KOMDT. C.J. MULLER
- Lint Voor Wonden
Christiaan Muller was born in Riversdale in the Cape Colony on 6 September 1870, the son of Petrus Johannes Muller, a Farmer, and his wife Martha Katherina Muller, born De Jager. The family had made the trek to Ladybrand in the Orange Free State by 1874 which is when, on 16 February of that year, Muller senior was adopted into the local Dutch Reformed Church there.
As was fairly typical of 19th century Boers, the Muller family were agriculturists, farming the land and, in their particular lush and fertile corner of the eastern Orange Free State, with a good measure of success – the family appear to have been prosperous and, although Christiaan Muller was described as a “bijwoner” (tenant farmer) there was every indication that he prospered on the farm “Palymyra” in the Marseilles district outside Ladybrand.
Farming can be a lonely life and at the age of 25 he took for his bride a young 19 year old girl from a neighboring farm, Italie – Dorothea Wilhelmina Nell. They tied the marital knot at the Dutch Reformed Church in Ladybrand on 17 March 1896 and settled down to the raising of a family. The first to come along was Johanna Christina, born on 12 January 1898, followed by little Francina, who was born in 1899 and was to die of Pneumonia in a British Concentration camp in Bloemfontein on 21 June 1901.
As Muller went about his daily tasks of tending for his 300 sheep, 6 head of cattle and 3 horses, he would have been unaware that his uncomplicated life and the scenes of idyllic pastoral bliss that surrounded him were soon to be rudely interrupted. Discontent between Kruger and his Zuid Afrikaansche Republiek (Transvaal), his ally, President Steyn of the Orange Free State and the might of the British Empire had been smoldering for quite some time and, on 11 October 1899, on the very eve of the end of the 19th century, things came to a head when Kruger served the British Government with an ultimatum everyone knew they would ignore. The world woke up to war on the morning of 12 October and Muller and his compatriots were obliged, as Burghers of either the Orange Free State or Transvaal, to take up their arms and join their local Commandos.
A resident of the wards around Ladybrand, Muller joined the ranks of the Ladybrand Commando under Commandant Ferreira and, like his brothers in arms from the Bloemfontein, Hoopstad, and Boshof Commandos went north towards Bloemfontein to await their opportunity to pounce on Kimberley. We are very fortunate that Muller, an educated man, kept a diary of his exploits and movements – not all of this has survived the ravages of condition and time, but there is a portion that covers his commencement of the war and which takes us through until Paardeberg on 17 February 1900 and then, after an inexplicable lull, on to the day of his capture and beyond. Where possible, translations from the original Dutch have been made and relevant excerpts will be provided in this work.
We also have the Vorm B, the form Muller completed to apply for his medal, to thank for the confirmation of the actions he was involved in – these he listed as Magersfontein, Paardeberg, Koedoesberg, Jammerbrug (the siege of Wepener), Bidulphsberg and “many others.”
Muller’s account of the war starts on Sunday morning, 26 November 1899 where, at 6 in the morning “We departed from Hex River, Ladybrand, under Assistant Field Cornet P. Ferreira, up to Brakfontein where we meet other Burghers. From there we leave for Klein Leliefontein where our Field Cornet bade us farewell – a lot of tears shed. At Alexander we met up with our Chief Field Cornet. At Thaba ‘Nchu we are entertained in a friendly manner at the market. Enjoyed coffee and cake etc. some speeches were given and we sang some Psalms – only went to bed at 1 o’ clock.”
The next day he wrote that, “At sunrise we arrived at the Modder River – and up to Springfield – the sun was hot. In the afternoon we were off to Bloemfontein, where we arrived at 2 o’ clock. Many ladies and men came to visit us giving us plenty of coffee, cake etc. we also met some Transvaler’s from Soutpansberg. I slept under the wagon.
Tuesday, 28 November
In the morning the Burghers rode to and through the town in groups – to shoe their horses. I went with 8 men to be photographed - namely J. Brink, F Joubert, R Muller, E Kriel, F Jansen, J Joubert, G Delport and C Muller (himself). Late in the afternoon at 5, we departed for Petrusburg. Not too far from the town we met two prisoners of war. In the evening we off-saddled at a dam …. the fires of the Burghers, from where at night you can see the searchlights of Kimberley. In the morning we arrived at the Kaalspruit, at the farm of Theron. There I washed myself all on my own in the dam.”
On 29 November the Ladybrand Commando chose its Corporals – unlike the British Army’s rank structure, the Boers decided on a democratic process where their leaders were voted for – on this occasion, Muller was one of the successful ones.
On 1 December 1899 they rode up from Petrusburg, the road being dry and dusty. That evening they slept among the bushes next to the Modder River. On the next day they slaughtered 16 sheep to eat and, suitably replenished, went on to join Cronje’s main laager. It was from here that Muller “was sent by Commandant Ferreira to scrounge for supplies. “I found two bags of mealies and by the evening I was back behind the ridge in the bushes where I slept”.
On 5 December, unbeknown to Muller, Cronje was preparing to do battle – he wrote in his diary, “We departed with 1000 men under General Prinsloo to Jacobsdal” and on 7 December, “A patrol is sent out to the ridges at Rooilaagte, after an hour and a half a report returns which said that…… I am tasked to join P Ferreira to break up the railway line, the enemy fires on us with a maxim from a cottage, the dust rises between us. When we arrive at the railway we discover we don’t have the right tools to do the work, we can’t remove a post and can’t cut the wire and we go towards a nearby ridge, and then the Commandant and other Burghers arrived and took up position together with a gun. (cannon)
A locomotive came up the railway line from the direction of Belmont. At 3000 yards our gun fired a good few shots at the train, upon which it steamed back from whence it came. At about 12 o’ clock a report saying that the enemy are approaching and we hear the cannon fire in the distance. We go in the direction of the enemy, riding fast with shells falling around us. When I arrived at the kopje, one section of our Burgers opened fire at the Lancers who were about 1700 yards from us, the Lancers quickly retreated.
An order was received from the Commandant that I had to go back. E. Kriel was wounded in his hand. I went to the position occupied by the Ficksburg Burghers and then an order came in that I have to go to a southern position. When I left my position, I went through a storm of shells and a Burgher from Ficksburg is killed by a projectile and another one is hit when he moved too quickly from his position.
When we were out of reach of the cannon we realized that one Burgher was dead and two were wounded from the Commando that was with us. We were told we had to leave our position but that we also had to remain on the battlefield. We arrived at a farm and off saddled at the house. The house appears to have been plundered by the enemy. I heard that 2 Boers were captured by the enemy. In the evening we went to Rondam?
His diary entry for 10 December, the eve of the battle of Magersfontein, outside Kimberley read thus: -
“Arrived in Jacobsdal and go further up to our wagons. Drink, smoke and relax and then at 6 o’ clock leave, heading towards the Nek. Before we left I could hear the artillery of the enemy.”
The dawn of 11 December saw the battle proper – Muller wrote about it thus: -
“We arrived at 3.30 – I heard the firing (shooting); I heard the guns (cannon) firing. Arrived at the Bissett’s house (a farm house used as a Boer first aid post), which is our hospital. From there our Commando headed off in a southern direction towards the Modder River where General De la Rey and others are. I go up a ridge and pull the horses into a kloof. Immediately a gun (cannon) starts firing at us. One part of our commando takes a route next to the ridge and bullets start raining around us, while shells burst around us all the time. D Van Rooyen dies, Commandant Diedericks too. J Liebenberg and A De Wet are wounded and slightly wounded respectively. J.G. … was hit by a shell.
We other Burghers moved off to the southern side where they are fighting. The ambulances from both sides were continuously busy at the foot of the ridge. A group of horses, all shot dead. From where I stand I have a good view of the terrain of the battle. Close to us the struggle is fierce, the enemy’s dead and wounded are spread on the ground. Our gun hardly shoots because if it shoots it is answered by 5 or 6 of the enemy. Some of us go the front of the ridge where our guns (cannons) are positioned.
From that position we fire away until 7 o’ clock. At half past we are ordered to go to the trench at the bottom of the ridge. I went back to bring in our Burghers, who are in the rear, to the front.
Amery in his epic work “The Times History of the War” refers to the lead up to, and the battle itself in some detail in Volume II, from page 386. He wrote thus: -
“On 4 December the Boers abandoned their northern lines and took up a new position in front of the Magersfontein ridges. Here at Magersfontein, in full view of the British camp at Modder River, they at once began entrenching for the frontal attack. The most striking feature of the Boers defences were a single line of trenches excavated on the level ground in front of the kopjes. The trenches themselves were made between 3 to 4 foot deep and narrow, designed to give protection from shrapnel fire.
On the night of the 6th December Prinsloo set off from Jacobsdal with over 1000 horsemen (this tallies with Muller’s diary entry – he was one of these horsemen), and with three guns under Albrecht, to make a descent on Enslin Station. But two companies of Northamptons gallantly held their own, and after 6 hours Prinsloo beat a hasty retreat upon the approach, from Modder River, of the 12th Lancers and an armoured train with the Seaforths. The damage to the line and wire was repaired within a few hours. (After this Prinsloo was relieved of his command as Chief of the O.F.S. forces and replaced by Commandant Ferreira of Ladybrand)
On the eve of the battle “The centre trenches were held by about 2500 men, mainly from the Potchefstroom Commando. On the left were the Ladybrand, Ficksburg, Senekal and Heilbron Free Staters under Ferreira.” They lay in wait for the attack that was to come on the dawn.
General Wauchope and his Highland Brigade were given the unenviable task of leading the attack – they set off at midnight, in the pitch dark and in driving rain, which seemed to increase in intensity as they proceeded across the veld. Progress was excruciatingly slow and, by 3.30 a.m. they had yet to gain their objective. The leading men then became ensnared in thick brambles and Wauchope, instead of ordering the attack at this critical juncture, waited until they had got through this obstacle, not realising that they were now only 400 yards from the entrenched Boers, waiting expectantly.
“Wauchope may well have congratulated himself that he had successfully brought his men within striking range. Suddenly from every side from the left, from the ground almost at their feet, from the hill-side beyond, from the bushes and sand heaps to their right, flashed out a line of fire, and an appalling sleet of missiles swept through the close locked ranks of the Highland Brigade. Never were troops caught at a more terrible disadvantage.”
After more than 10 hours lying in the heat of the day, parched, with no water to be had, in front of the Boer trenches; the Brigade, slowly in two and threes and then en masse, fell back. The Boers had been victorious although, when questioned later, revealed that they did not have enough ammunition to face another day’s fighting should there have been one.
Muller’s account of the day after the battle, the 12th December read thus: -
“Early in the morning the enemy come to collect the dead and wounded. Some of the Burghers jumped up and left their positions and started to take water cans to the English near us. One General and officers of the enemy dead and injured. At 8 o’ clock the ambulances of the enemy came closer. A friend and I visited with them, we spoke to the wounded and gave them water. At 10 o’ clock the guns (cannons) shoot at each other until 2 o’clock when the troops retreated to their camp.”
The next action in which Muller partook was the little-known battle of Koedoesberg Drift - on 3rd February 1900, General Hector MacDonald with the Highland Light Infantry, some cavalry and artillery units marched out via Fraser's Drift to Koedoesberg Drift with the idea of constructing a fort to control the river crossing at the latter. They reached Koedoesberg Drift on the next day and set about building the fort, but very soon realized that the key to the position was the Koedoesberg itself. Two companies were sent to occupy the summit, where they dispersed a small group of Boer scouts. Meanwhile De Wet and his force had arrived to investigate what was going on and had climbed the northern and western extremes of the mountain. Sniping started immediately and continued into the following day while reinforcements were being called up on both sides. The Boer guns opened up with shrapnel on the soldiers on the summit who were forced to withdraw to below the crest. On seeing the effect on the British soldiers, De Wet tried to get his men to charge the position, but his men were not too keen and only a few obeyed the command. The effect was minimal.
At that stage two significant events occurred: MacDonald brought up reinforcements to assist on the summit and De Wet sent a commando to attack the British guns that were deployed on the south bank of the river. The Boer advance on the summit was checked and their positions overrun. At the same time, the British cavalry under Col. Babbington arrived, but wasted their time by standing off at about 6-8 kms distant, until it was too late to take any effective action.
The Boers, who were alarmed at the sudden developments and the possible encirclement posed by the cavalry, withdrew, with De Wet covering their retreat by charging at the cavalry. All this was unbeknown to MacDonald who had planned a dawn attack for the following morning. In the meantime, Roberts ordered them to return to the main force at Modder River without delay. However, on the following morning the Boers were gone and at sunset the British force withdrew and were back in base on the 9th February 1900. It was a pointless operation and one that has been dubbed, "The Battle that should never have happened".
Muller’s own version of events were covered in his diary: -
“5 February 1900
Early this morning the Vecht Generaal arrived here. He has decided that 500 men must go to Koedoesberg, three hours from here, reports having come in that the enemy has taken possession of the kopje and have set up camp there. He ordered me to accompany him with twenty men. We prepared our saddlebags and food for the road (padkos).
We had just started to hold a prayer service with Dominee Du Plessis when the General (De Wet) came riding in with several horses. We were ordered to accompany him, the General stopping only to write a telegram, he looked hurried. Then our horses arrived and we were off with Burghers and the General, they came from all directions. At about 2 o’clock we arrived at the kopje (hill) which the enemy were in possession of. Three of the enemy’s spies emerged from behind a mound and were spotted by three of our Burghers who rushed their position and killed them.
Then about twenty of the enemy approached us, we rushed them and they fled down the kopje. When we reached the top of the kopje the enemy fired on us from a nearby kraal, we fled back and one of our horses was killed. The bullets fell around us so that my horse doesn’t know where to turn – left or right. What frightened me the most was that most of the bullets were aimed at the Burghers closest to the kopje.
We then stormed the ridge from the northern side – we left our horses and some of us went up the kopje while bullets whistled over us. We got close to the strengthened positions of the enemy, together with our Commandant and General we fought until dark, after which we went back to Pool’s farm to get water and some sleep.
In the morning we held a Krijgsraad (Officers Meeting) and it was decided to get some field guns with which to attack the kopje. We lay the whole day on the kopje in the hot sun. in the evening we moved closer and pulled the guns up in rows.
We approached the kopje from 3 sides – the cannon behind us and, behind the cannon, also a group of Burghers – and from both sides of the kopje, other groups of men come as well. We go around from the western side and, after arriving, post guards out by the river. I too go to the river and see some enemy spies near us, we shoot at them and capture one of their horses. Then the troops came, from afar at first, but before we could retreat, some Burghers rode fast past us with the enemy firing terrifyingly at them, luckily without consequence.
I pulled our horses into a ditch, 2 of them were already wounded. It is now difficult to get away – we take up positions and fire at the enemy who are still far from us. The Commandant sent G Olivier with a report to the General, asking him that, if he wants us to move further up the river, he must send us more Burghers, because our horses can’t be left alone. Olivier rushes out with bullets buzzing round him, but he rides on.
I’m on the bank of the river, with Burghers behind sand heaps – we lie still and two cannons take up position above us and take aim at us. I wanted to get up to inform the Commandant that we won’t be able to hold this position much longer when a bomb (shrapnel) burst over us – I jumped and, leaping into a ditch, shouted at the other Burghers to …. and one who was also under fire and fled from there.
I went through the river with some Burghers and took up a new position – all the time the gunfire was growing in intensity – Veld Cornet Geyer from Griqualand went up higher to a kraal near a house, where the enemy fired ferociously at him with a Maxim. They shoot at the house by the kraal and the Burghers at the house, the first few rounds go over the house, and then between us.
Later VC Geyer went back to the river. Then the enemy came and took the kraal and the house, and from there fired ferociously at us. They didn’t realise that I was on the other side – their guns were behind the house to fire on the Burghers, so I decided to shoot at them along with 4 Burghers who were with me. So we killed some of them and then they saw our position there in the ditch – it then rained bullets over us. The Boers fired fiercely on the position of the enemy gun killing I forget how many. The enemy came a couple of times to remove the dead bodies and the wounded but we shot back at them. It was the bodies of the mounted men who had died first.
When it got dark I went through and bought all the horses out. We – the Commandant, two Burghers and myself – kept on shooting to give us a chance to get out. I fired a few more shots in the direction of the enemy. One horse was without its owner, I brought it out and went back to report in the direction of the other Burghers when it was already late at night.
I forgot to mention that, while we were at the river, our cannon demolished all the bulwarks of the enemy, so that they fled in droves. This gave those Burghers close to the bulwarks an opportunity to take that position. When I passed the kopje (Koedoesberg) at 9 o’ clock, I met an artillerist who told me the Burghers left the kopje and left the Major (Albrecht) on his own with the cannon (75mm Krupp).
He (the Major) was scared that the cannon would be captured, it was not pleasant to hear something like this. The Commandant called me and said I should go with Burghers to where the Major is and bring him down off the kopje. I called out for volunteers and about 15 men and myself hurried through the bushes to go and help.
Commandant Du Plooy and I went back to Pool’s farm to collect water and we slept near to there. It was a cool evening. The 37mmm Maxim Nordenfeldt also arrived there. I off-saddled and was soon asleep. I woke up from the cold because my shoes were still wet. I lit some grass with which to warm myself. I am not able to fall asleep again and feel like a wet dog. I walk around to see if there is anyone I can join under a blanket, but there was nothing.
I saddled up, let the horses drink water and move off in a southerly direction, towards the enemy.”
With the British build-up of men and resources galloping along apace, the Boers began to fall back on Bloemfontein – despite their victory at Magersfontein and others they enjoyed in the continual skirmishing that marred their path, they were disorganized and, more importantly, increasingly demoralized. Would this juggernaut that met them at every turn never stop?
The next action in which Muller participated was that of the infamous battle of Paardeberg. This was not to be the Boers finest hour, with them managing to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
As has been alluded to, General Cronje resolved to abandon his position around the Magersfontein Hills and retreat east along the Modder River back to the Orange Free State.
As Cronje made his preparations, General French swept past the Boer positions with the British Cavalry Division into Kimberley, ending the siege, although French’s ride across the Veldt came near to wrecking his regiments by its destruction of horses.
On 15th February 1900, Cronje, his Boer army and an enormous column of ox drawn wagons started the slow march towards Bloemfontein, covering ten miles a day. Cronje and his force marched around Lieutenant General Kelly-Kenny’s Sixth Division, encamped on the Modder River and continued east. General French, alerted by a mounted infantry patrol, pursued the cumbersome column with the remnants of his division and came up with it at Paardeberg Drift on the Modder River.
Cronje would probably have been able to push aside French’s small force of some 1,500 troopers, but chose to halt and entrench his Boer riflemen on the banks of the Modder River. His halt enabled Kelly-Kenny’s infantry division to march up and surround the Boer positions.
Kelly-Kenny had absorbed the painful lesson of the early battles of the war: that positions held by entrenched Boers, armed with magazine rifles and modern artillery, could only be attacked at great loss, with doubtful prospects of success. Kelly-Kenny’s plan was to use his overwhelming preponderance of artillery to bombard Cronje’s Boer force into submission.
The battle began in the early hours of the 17th February 1900. The British artillery opened fire and the Boer positions becoming increasingly untenable, as quantities of wagons and oxen were blown to pieces. The Boers were temporarily reprieved by the arrival of Lord Kitchener, with orders from Lord Roberts putting him in overall command. With his military experience entirely in wars where the premium was on dash and aggression, Kitchener ordered a series of attacks against the Boer positions of the sort that had proved so costly for the British in almost every major battle of the war: Modder River, Magersfontein, Colenso and Spion Kop.
Responding to Kitchener’s orders, Kelly-Kenny’s Sixth Division attacked from the south across open country to the Boer entrenchments on the Modder River, while two flanking attacks by Colville’s Ninth Division assaulted the Boers, from the west along the Modder and downstream from the east.
The Sixth Division assault reached the Modder River in places, but the British suffered heavy casualties from the hidden Boer riflemen, doing little damage in return. Kitchener directed all the commanders to press their attacks. Kelly-Kenny was sufficiently senior to resist Kitchener and avoided making further frontal assaults with his division. On Kitchener’s direct command a half battalion of Cornwalls, holding a key kopje on the south-eastern corner of the battle field, was brought forward and committed to the assault. Once the Cornwalls moved, the Boer leader De Wet, who had been shadowing the battle from a distance with his commando, looking for an opportunity to assist Cronje’s embattled force, took the kopje, known thereafter as Kitchener’s Kopje and gave Cronje his one chance of escaping; a chance Cronje and his men refused to take. Every attempt by the British to displace De Wet failed and it was only when De Wet abandoned the position and left the scene that Cronje’s fate was finally sealed.
The last British attacks took place at around 5pm from the east; following suicidal assaults by Colonel Hannay’s Mounted Infantry, the 1st Leinster Regiment attacked only to be forced back with considerable loss. Although the British force was in disarray following the day of costly and abortive assaults, the soldiers making their way back to camp for food and water, the Boers were in worse condition. Few Boers had become casualties but the lengthy bombardment had destroyed virtually all their wagons, oxen and horses.
On the Wednesday, Roberts made the decision to retreat. He was saved from what would have been the greatest humiliation of the war by De Wet’s withdrawal from the kopje and Cronje’s surrender, with 4500 men, the next day, transforming Paardeberg from disaster to triumph.
It was here, at Paardeberg, that Muller was on the receiving end of one of the wounds he was to get in action. On this occasion he was shot in the right knee, incapacitating him and requiring his removal from the field of battle. This happened on the first day of the battle which, in all likelihood, was a blessing in disguise for Muller, who might well have ended up as one of the Prisoners of War “in the bag.” He had also been promoted, on the death of Commandant Ferreira, to the rank of Commandant.
His diary for the day and leading up to the battle contained the following insights: -
“16th February 1900 – at sunrise O’ Kennedy and I went down to a nearby fountain for a drink of water and to wash etc. We saw one of the enemy and some mounted infantry coming from behind us and decided to return to the ridge. We saw the wagons and the foot soldiers (infantry) moving towards our positions, where our men have been since the previous day. We took possession of some ridges, the enemy is coming up next to the river. I forbid the Burghers to fire on them until they are closer. Gert Lewies and I stand up with our rifles to open fire on them.
The position is dangerous, an officer from the Transvaal orders us to retire from our position, which we do. The enemy’s fire is murderous, and unfortunately we are caught in the cross-fire from the enemy. I feel a sharp pain and realise that I am wounded, and am helped to the back line and the Doctor.” Muller had been shot in the left knee.
At this point, possibly because of his wound and lack of access to writing materials, Muller’s diary entries cease.
The next battle in which he was involved was that of the Siege of Wepener, or Jammersburg as the Boers termed it. Wepener was an Orange Free State, along the Basutoland border. Units of the newly-formed Colonial Division had first moved into the area in late March 1900, and busied themselves disarming surrendering Boers and rounding up local troublemakers.
With the Boer defences collapsing to the north, De Wet mustered between 8,000 and 10,000 men (with ten or twelve guns) and struck against the strategically worthless target of Wepener, well away from Roberts’ lines of supply. Imperial units in the area consisted of elements of the 1st and 2nd Brabant’s Horse, the Cape Mounted Riflemen, Driscoll’s Scouts, the Kaffrarian Rifles, a company of the Royal Scots Mounted Infantry and a small party of Royal Engineers. The total force was somewhere between 1,700 and 1,850 men with seven guns and six Maxims. The garrison was thus overwhelmingly comprised of locally raised units of loyalist South Africans, with Colonel Edmund Dalgety of the Cape Mounted Riflemen as the officer commanding. Realising his predicament, Dalgety took the decision not to hold Wepener itself, but to fortify positions in the hills just outside of town known as the Jammersbergen, the siting of these defences being supervised by Major Maxwell of the Royal Engineers.
The Boers finally commenced their bombardment on the 9th and it was not until the 10th that De Wet attempted to assault the Imperial positions; fierce fighting raged throughout that day and into the small hours of the 11th. All De Wet’s assaults were repulsed, reportedly with heavy loss, and no ground was gained. Though the onslaught had been intense, all the Boer attacks were broken up and driven off by the Imperial troops, some with the bayonet.
Though the initial attacks were all beaten off, the fighting continued for many days thereafter. Apart from the constant sniping and bombardment, four days of incessant rain added to the defenders’ misery, filling their trenches with water and transforming the battlefield into a quagmire. So small was the area defended that troops in some of the more exposed Imperial positions were unable to leave their trenches at any time during the siege, surviving on cold rations brought to them by work parties that crawled forward under cover of darkness.
Roberts despatched a column, specifically tasked to relieve Wepener, fighting its way toward the beleaguered garrison from the south. This column was made up of the balance of the Colonial Division—about 1,200 men and two guns under Brabant —together with about half of Hart’s brigade: two and a half battalions and a Royal Artillery battery. The combined relief force was perhaps 4,000 men in total, with Hart in overall command.
De Wet had told off about 1,300 men and two guns under Froneman to oppose this advance, and the Boers made their first attempt to stop Hart’s southern column at Rouxville. Froneman’s commandos were driven out of that town on 15 April. His forces then made another stand at Boesman’s Kop, some 20 miles south of Wepener. An over-enthusiastic sally by the Boers saw a group of about 60 leaving their positions to attack Hart’s scouts, thus exposing themselves to the rifle fire of the main body and being shot down in detail. Though never able to get to close quarters and destroy these blocking forces, Hart’s men persisted in driving the Boers before them, with Froneman’s units disappearing into the night on the 24th. The siege was lifted by Hart’s command the following day, with de Wet ‘who saw the net closing in on him, and lost not a moment in escaping from it’ fleeing north.
Having negotiated his way safely through the assault on Wepener, Muller fought in one of the most iconic battles of the Boer War – the battle of Biddulphsberg – which was fought on 29 May 1900, some 13 kilometres outside Senekal.
Lord Roberts communicated with Lt-Gen Sir Leslie H Rundle, commanding the 8th Infantry Division at Thaba Nchu, charging him with the task of preventing any Boers from re-occupying the south-eastern Free State – a repeat of Wepener was not to be tolerated. In order to carry out this task Rundle, with 8 000 was to advance north-eastwards with the support of his eastern flank of some 3 000 men of the Colonial Division under Brabant.
By the evening of 24 May 1900, Rundle's headquarters were at Koppieskraal 28 km south-west of Senekal. The Boers, under Gen A I de Villiers, offered no resistance to the British advance and retired slowly northwards. On the following morning Rundle moved out with the 16th Infantry Brigade. The 34th Company (Middlesex) Imperial Yeomanry, which formed part of the 11th Imperial Yeomanry, some sixty men in all, was to go in advance of the main force to Senekal. They entered the town, the inhabitants offering no resistance.
Senekal in 1900 consisted of about twenty-five buildings, including a church, all on a strip of land to the west of which was the Sand River, and a steep spur, seventy metres high, to the east.
On 26 May the headquarters of the 8th Division moved into Senekal, the remainder of which camped in and about the town. Patrols were sent out. At sundown the 34th Coy Imperial Yeomanry returned to the town and camped in the precinct of the church. For the remainder of the month the forces under Lord Roberts advanced northwards.
On 28 May 1900 Rundle departed from Senekal with a force of a little less than 4 000 men, consisting of an infantry brigade, two batteries of artillery and some mounted troops. The camping ground, seven km distant from the Sand Spruit, was reached by nightfall and the troops sat down in darkness. The night was bitterly cold and the stony ground offered the troops little chance of a good night's rest; one blanket each and no greatcoat was the only covering to shield them against the cold.
Ranging from seven km to sixteen km distant further eastwards, 400 Boers with three guns were deployed in a semi-circle on three separate heights; Platkop, Tafelberg and Biddulphsberg under the overall command of Gen A I de Villiers. Biddulphsberg is a large flat-topped, lozenge-shaped mountain where the north-west extremity is a knoll, all of which stand 250 metres above the plain. The south-eastern brow of the mountain overlooks a long spur of varying width. It lay on the northern side of the Senekal-Bethlehem road to the south of which is the flat-topped Tafelkop. The British commander, determined not to enter a trap laid before him, turned his attack to the northern Biddulphsberg.
To cover this change in direction one company of the Imperial Yeomanry was directed toward Tafelkop, another to the south of Biddulphsberg; the latter force being supported by three companies of infantry and two guns on Gwarriekop. Another three companies of Imperial Yeomanry were sent to the north-east of Biddulphsberg to prevent any Boer reinforcements coming from Lindley.
On 29 May 1900 the troops rose shortly after 04:00, and having received orders to be ready to move off at any moment, partook of a hasty breakfast. Within half an hour they were ready but did not move off until 07:00. Gen Rundle with the main force advanced along a road to the north of the mountain. The Imperial Yeomanry, in advance of the infantry, arrived near the northern slopes of the Berg and drew fire from two Boer guns. Gen De Villiers rapidly altered his dispositions so as to command the British line of advance. In all some forty Boers intended to oppose the British advance, the majority of whom were concealed behind stones on the lower slopes of the north-western, northern and north-eastern slopes of the Biddulphsberg.
In addition, thirty-four Boers of the Ladybrand Commando under Field-Cornet P Ferreira (most likely Muller was one of them) had ensconced themselves in several shallow ditches on the flats to the north of the mountain. Support for the latter group was to be provided by artillery fire from a Krupp gun emplaced adjacent to a stone cattle kraal on the north-east slope of Biddulphsberg.
The Boer commander had established his headquarters at the farmstead of J.S. Erasmus. In addition to the gun already mentioned, the Boer artillery also consisted of a Pom-Pom near the kraal, while another Krupp gun was positioned about 5 km to the north-east of Biddulphsberg. Other Boer dispositions consisted of a few scouts on Tafelkop and two groups of 50-60 men astride the rode from Senekal to Bethlehem.
The ground over which the British troops had to pass was covered by a dense growth of tall grass. In the distance high columns of smoke were rising from fired grass through which the soldiers were shortly to pass. A march of nine km brought them to the north of Biddulphsberg. The guns of 2 Bty RFA were unlimbered and at 09:00 opened an ineffective fire on the mountain and near the farmhouse where the Krupp in the nearby kraal responded. After a while, four guns of 79 Bty RFA came up and opened fire with greater effect. The Boer gunners were forced to abandon their gun and sought shelter behind the kraal. A Pom-Pom sent in support was hastily withdrawn to safety in a ditch.
All this time the Boer riflemen on the slopes of the mountain and in the ditches made no sign, but at 11:00, as soon as the Grenadiers had advanced to within 1 100 metres of the mountain, the gun at the kraal opened fire again and the Boers began to shoot from their protected positions. The Grenadier Guards were caught in the Boer enfilading fire from the ditches and were an easy target for the enemy riflemen from their positions at the bottom of the Berg; they could, therefore, neither advance nor retire.
The veld was by then burning over a large expanse. At first the grass on the plain afforded the soldiers some protection, but it soon caused a worse disaster. The wind, blowing in the afternoon from the east, changed direction and began blowing from the west, driving the grass fire towards the soldiers. The men were obliged to run through the flames which rose 1,8 metres high. The Boer shooting increased and casualties began to mount. Many soldiers, not wounded, were badly singed, while the wounded, immobile on the ground, lay helpless and were burnt to death.
Amidst the roar of rifle and artillery fire, the stretcher bearers carried their loads of dead and dying through the dense clouds of smoke to the field dressing stations far to the rear. Meanwhile, the Scots Guards drew some Boer fire and afforded their comrades brief respite before retiring; the West Kent Regiment also supported the general retirement at about 15:30. The Boer Krupp at the farmstead, silent for a while, once again began shooting and the Pom-Pom, brought out from cover, fired for the first time, under cover of smoke and dust. Seeing the British withdrawal, De Villiers, with a few men, charged out ahead. A bullet struck him in the jaw. He was later to die from his wound.
The British attack was not pressed as news was received that the 12th Infantry Brigade under Maj-Gen R A P Clements was advancing towards Senekal and that the 8th Infantry Division was required to proceed to Ficksburg. Under these circumstances the troops started to retire. It was, indeed, during the withdrawal that the majority of the casualties occurred - the most deadly fire coming from the ditches where Muller and his comrades from the Ladybrand Commando lay. The artillery covered the withdrawal, firing 800 rounds. When the Grenadiers retired from the zone of fire, it was afterwards discovered that several of their wounded had been left on the burning veld. Two successful attempts were made to rescue their comrades, and in the act several men were badly burnt themselves.
That the fire did not reach the Boer positions can be ascribed to the firebreak afforded by a road running at the foot of the mountain while thin grass cover was found where Ferreira and his men were ensconced. The loss on the British side, according to the History of the War in South Africa, amounted to 185 men of whom 47 were killed or died of wounds, 130 wounded and eight missing. By contrast, the Boer loss was minimal - two men were killed or died of wounds and three were wounded. There being no doctor with the Boer force they arranged with Sir L Rundle for Gen De Villiers' removal to Senekal where he died. The Boer Commandos involved in the action were that of Ficksburg under Commandant P de Villiers, Wepener under Cmdt Paul Roux, Smithfield under J Potgieter, Ladybrand under Cmdt I Jacobs and a few scouts under Lt P Froneman and Capt H Pretorius.
Skirmishes such as that at Biddulphsberg were frequent, as the structured nature of the war began to give way to the Guerrilla phase that followed but, despite their best efforts, the Boers were being driven inexorably into an ever decreasing corner. Muller was twice-wounded in the war – as has been seen, on the first occasion at Paardeberg. It has been difficult to trace in which action he received his second wound. According to his application for the Lint Voor Wonden, he was shot and wounded in the Right Arm at (or near) Senekal on 22 June 1900.
Amery, in Volume IV page 300, records that: -
“The only force of Free Staters outside the area contemplated for the first “big drive” in the war was the Winburg Commando in the Doornberg, under the command of Roux and Haasbroek. They were a menace not only to the railway but also to Clement’s and Rundle’s convoys marching to and from Winburg. Thus, on 23 June when Clement was going from Senekal to Winburg with a convoy of sick, he was attacked half-way by Roux, and, though he succeeded in driving off his assailants, he inflicted no serious damage upon them.” Could this be the incident in which Muller was wounded?
In his book “Boer Boy”, Chris Schoeman tells the story of a young Free State boy and his adventures at the time of the Boer War. Pages 115 – 116 carry specific reference to Muller, I quote, with the author’s permission, as follows: -
“The next morning they took us out of the jail and put us on a scotch cart with the two oxen again. We trekked past Platberg again on our way to Bloemfontein. We had to travel along a detour, however, as there were Boers ahead on the road. We travelled on until we reached Commissiepoort, where we outspanned so that the oxen could have a rest and drink some water, it was on the farm of a Mr Muller (Muller’s father). Two old Boers arrived and one was Mr Muller. He asked our English guards if he could speak to us and he talked to us a little.
After the war I happened to come across Mr Muller’s son, Christiaan. Christiaan told me this interesting story from the war.
(Christiaan) was wounded in a battle near Lindley and taken prisoner by the English. They kept him there to recover, so that they could send him away as soon as he was healthy again. After a while, he began hobbling along with a walking stick (“kierie”) and asked permission to walk around in the town. After he had walked around town a few times, he walked out of town into the veld. He had not gone far when he saw a Khaki approaching on horseback and he lay down behind an anthill and waited for him. just as the Khaki got near him, he stuck the point of the walking stick over the top of the anthill and shouted, ‘Hands up!’ the Khaki got a fright, threw away his rifle and stuck his hands in the air. He then grabbed the rifle and took the Khaki’s horse and sped off to the Boer Commando.”
Slowly but surely, Roberts applied the necessary amount of pressure and, with the Boers for the most part offering only sporadic and token resistance, his juggernaut rolled on with, almost, impunity. This had the effect of driving the Boers into what was known as the Brandwater Basin and it was here that the surrender of Marthinus Prinsloo and more than 4 000 Orange Free State burghers in Eastern Orange Free State at the end of July 1900 occurred. This had the effect of, seemingly, knocking the Orange Free State out of the war and was a severe blow to the Boer war effort in general. The fact that the Boers surrendered under dubious circumstances and without putting up a fight in the Brandwater Basin fed conspiracy theories and caused a lot of animosity.
The problem ostensibly rose with the question of who was in overall command. There were two leaders, both claiming that honour, as a result of the confusion left on De Wet’s departure – these were the “Fighting Dominee”, the Reverend Paul Roux, and Marthinus Prinsloo.
In July 1900 these two disparate commanders found themselves in the Brandwater Basin and it was just a question of time before clashes would ensue regarding who held overall command in the Basin. Several council meetings ("krijgsraadvergaderings") took place in the Brandwater Basin, with Roux and Prinsloo trying to outwit each other. And all the while, the British forces, commanded by Lieutenant-General Archibald Hunter, were closing in, eventually sealing off all the mountain passes leading into, and out of, the Basin.
During the night of 27–28 July 1900 Roux was elected as overall commander of all the Boer forces that remained in the Brandwater Basin. But then Prinsloo and a number of other officers arrived at the war council meeting and demanded a new vote on the issue, and as a consequence, Prinsloo was elected as overall commander. The war council meeting then debated the issue of what to do next: continue with the military resistance against the British forces; ask for an armistice; or surrender? Sources contradict one another as to what exactly the war council decided to do, but what is a fact, is that soon afterwards, Prinsloo contacted Hunter and surrendered all the Boer forces in the Basin. Roux apparently protested, but to no avail.
Roux’s version of events commences on 5 July 1900. At that stage the commandos of Ficksburg, Ladybrand, Thaba ’Nchu, Wepener and a portion of the Winburg- and Smithfield-commandos were concentrated about 10 km east of Ficksburg and Senekal. This section of the Free State forces was under the command of General J. Crowther and comprised about 2 300 men, including now Commandant Christiaan Muller. A second section, under the command of Chief Commandant F.J.W.J. Hattingh, defended the mountain passes between the O.F.S. and Natal. As with Crowther’s section, Hattingh had about 2 300 man under his command.
The third section, under the command of Chief Commandant C.R. de Wet, took up positions in the vicinity of Bethlehem. This section comprised the Commandos’ of Heilbron, Bethlehem, Kroonstad, Bloemfontein, Rouxville, Bethulie, Jacobsdal and Fauresmith as well as part of the Winburg Commando.
On the 6 July 1900 the British forces attacked Bethlehem and, having discovered a weak point in the defences, occupied the town on the morning of the 7th. By that evening the Boer forces attempting to defend Bethlehem, fell back in the direction of Retiefsnek and Slabbertsnek. The effect of the withdrawal meant that the majority of the Free State forces now found themselves in the Brandwater Basin, in a half-moon shaped deployment around Fouriesburg. The plan was that the Free State forces would now confer as to their next step. They were in a precarious position – the British forces could block all access routes into the Basin at any moment, thereby trapping the Boers and depriving them of almost any hope of escape.
To settle the differences amongst the Boers in the basin, a secret council of war or krijgsraad, consisting of all the senior burgher officers, was held. The meeting was presided over by President Steyn and a decision was taken that the Boer forces would be divided into three columns and that each should attempt to break out of the basin.
The first column, under General de Wet, accompanied by President Steyn and Generals P Botha and Piet de Wet and about 2 600 men, was to start on 15 July. The second, under Paul Roux with Generals P J Fourie and Froneman and about 2 000 men, was to start a day later, and the third one was to follow later under General Crowther with about 500 men. The remaining men under General Martinus Prinsloo were to hold the passes against the British. The plan, which had not been made known to the rank and file, had considerable merit and had it been carried out completely, the British forces would have been kept fully occupied by the escaping Boers and held back by Prinsloo's men.
In the event, however, only the first column under General de Wet managed to escape on the night of 15 July. His laager, which had been in position at Kaffir Kop between Retief's Nek and Slabbert's Nek, moved through Slabbert's Nek in a convoy of about 400 wagons and carts. This escape must also be seen in the light of the fact that the Slabbert's Nek exit had not yet been closed by the British.
There was much criticism of De Wet and President Steyn for abandoning the remaining burghers in the basin and, owing mainly to the lack of an appointed commandant-in-chief, the rest of the plan was not carried out. The Boer military system did not provide for a regular or proper route of promotion, and any hoof commandant in an area at any time could assume command. Since both Prinsloo and Roux - men of equal authority - were left in the basin, a problem existed. Therefore, it had become imperative for the Boers to appoint a new commandant-in-chief or hoof commandant and, after much debate and discussion about the two main contenders, Prinsloo was elected at a krijgsraad at Slaapkranz on 27 July. By this time, valuable time had been lost and the escape plan had not been completed.
In the meantime, the British generals Bruce Hamilton and Hector Macdonald had been charged with closing and holding Naauwpoort Nek to the north of the Brandwater Basin and the Golden Gate exit in the north-east. General Hector Macdonald was despatched to Naauwpoort Nek on 25 July to join up with Bruce Hamilton and the combined forces bivouacked at Middelvlei. Macdonald established himself at David Naude's farm and had effectively closed Naauwpoort Nek by 26 July, after meeting with considerable resistance there.
As the only exit from the Brandwater Basin then still open to the Boers was the Golden Gate, Generals Macdonald and Bruce Hamilton marched eastwards to Darvel's Rust, about 10 miles from Naauwpoort Nek. There they bivouacked on the night of 27 July. On the next day, 28 July 1900, Bruce Hamilton moved eastwards with his brigade. These forces moved the enemy from successive positions and reached Stephanus Draai by nightfall. Bruce Hamilton, as yet unaware of the reinforcements that were being sent to him, moved forward on 29 July with his small force. The country was difficult and the Boers opposed his advance.
Inside the Brandwater Basin, the great majority of burghers were only too glad to be relieved of the intolerable strain of the last month of being harried by the British and surrendered willingly. On the morning of 30 July 1900, General Hunter received the surrender of Generals Prinsloo and Crowther and of the Ficksburg and Ladybrand commandos. The surrender took place on what would become known as 'Surrender Hill'.
The first prominent Boers to appear were Prinsloo, De Villiers and Crowther - fine looking men. Then followed the commandos, who threw down their arms and ammunition with a certain effect of swagger in front of the guns. The whole scene was most romantic ... In the background were huge mountain masses standing out in the clear morning air, and from these came the various commandos winding down the steep mountain paths to the valley below. They were a motley lot - old and young men - some mere boys; all had two horses each at least, but many had three, the spare ones being used for baggage, which consisted of pots, pans, bedding, blankets, etc.
The surrender at Slaapkranz went on for several days and the prisoners of war were despatched in parties of two hundred to the town of Fouriesburg under the escort of the Imperial Yeomanry.
The march of the captured commandos commenced the following day, on 2 August, and the men eventually arrived at Bethlehem, Senekal and Winburg on 12 August. With the exception of about 105 old men and young boys who were issued with railway passes to enable them to return to their homes, the commandos were sent by train to Cape Town and, subsequently, shipped overseas to Ceylon. The net total of the five commandos captured at the Golden Gate was 1 544 men.
The Gloucester Citizen of 31 July 1900 carried the following article: -
Fouriesburg, July 30th – General Hunter having received in writing an offer for the unconditional surrender of all the Boers in the Caledon Valley, attended here to accept their submission. General Prinsloo, who had lately been elected to the chief command of the Free Staters in the district, arrived and tried to repudiate the offer, seeking to make conditions. General Hunter refused to grant any concessions beyond allowing the Boers to keep one riding horse only.
About 11 o’ clock the troops were drawn up in two long lines on the hills overlooking the valley, and the Boers rode in between the ranks, throwing down their rifles as they passed. They are a motley crowd, and as they marched sullenly along, carrying bundles of clothing, blankets and camp and household utensils, the scene recalled that at Cronje’s laager. The Ficksburg Commando came first, about 550 men. It was followed by the Ladybrand Commando, about 450 strong. Fifteen hundred horses two guns, 50 wagons, and many carts were surrendered.
Generals Prinsloo and Crowther were received by Sir Archibald Hunter at his tent, and were treated with every courtesy. Many Boers have gone through Naauwpoort’s Nek to surrender; others are still arriving here. The prisoners have been placed in laager under guard until all the Boers in the district have arrived.”
Muller was one of the 12 Commandants to surrender – in an interview years later, Muller claimed to have been sick in the back of an ambulance when the day of surrender came. This is not supported by his own reminiscences which tell a different story: -
“30 July 1900
This morning at about 8 o’ clock General Crowther gave us an order to saddle up, collect the wagons and carts together, and to move off in the direction where we are to meet the enemy under General Clements. On arrival we rode, two by two between two rows of soldiers, to hand in our rifles and ammunition. These are immediately destroyed on an iron anvil. That night we were heavily guarded.
Early in the morning our horses were checked and the good ones taken by the British officers, leaving the weak ones for the Burghers. We depart for Fouriesburg, arriving there at about sunset. There we find a polite officer who invites us officers for tea which I find agreeably pleasant.
At 8 o; clock we move off in the direction of Slabbertsnek, lots of troops with us. I have a sore throat.”
Muller is seated on the right hand side
Now a Prisoner of War, Muller was sent to Green Point in Cape Town from where, on 26 August 1900, he departed for Ceylon aboard the “Mongolian”. He was to spend almost two years at Diyatalawa Camp on the island before being repatriated. His diary of events whilst there is the subject for another day.
Having been repatriated from Ceylon, Muller immersed himself once more into farming. Valuable time and resources had been lost whilst he was on commando and abroad. So much so that he had to start from scratch again. Mention has been made of the death of his young daughter in a concentration camp – this too had to deal with in his own way. Like many Burghers who had incurred substantial financial loss, Muller applied to the new Orange River Colony administration for aid, completing the Claim for War Losses forms on 9 January 1903.
Confirming that he was a 32 year old tenant farmer in the Palmyra ward and district of Ladybrand, he claimed “5 oxen taken by A. Viljoen of the P.M.P. (Provincial Mounted Police)”, along with 1 cow “shot in the kraal by the troops” and 1 bull. All told the damages amounted to £83 and he called as witnesses to the above, A Viljoen of Ladybrand, D. Delport of Kopfontein, Ladybrand and M. Otto of Mooiplaats, Brandsdrift.
But these were not the true extent of is losses – in an earlier claim, submitted by his wife on 14 May 1901, it was claimed that 22 “mixed cattle” and a cart had been taken by a Policeman on 9 June 1900. The Magistrate adjudicating the claim made the following remarks: -
“(Muller) Surrendered under Prinsloo. Young married man – 2 children. Fairly well – to – do. Possesses 300 sheep, 6 cattle, 3 horses. Family remained always within the British Lines.”
After a long and eventful life, Christiaan Jacobus Muller passed away on 10 October 1947 at the age of 77 years 1 month at King’s Park in Bloemfontein. The “bijwoner” became the owner and he left a number of farms to his wife and children – including the farm “Fortuin” – which means “Fortune” in English – it could be said that Muller was, indeed, a fortunate man.
On Diyatalawa with pennkoppe
In old age
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The Epic Tale of Cmdt. Christiaan J. Muller, D.T.D. of the Ladybrand Commando 8 months 1 week ago #69178
Good evening Rory.
What a fantastic story you have put together about Cmdt Muller. Absolutely well researched. As a person who had an interest in this group, it is interesting that his son, Petrus Johannes who served as a Luit (if I recall correctly)(SAIC), was seconded to the UK forces and served with 2 Parachute regiment there. Not sure how many South Africans served in that elite unit or were trained by them. However the story is not about the son, but quite a family history in the military. Well done and as usual, an excellent research piece.
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The Epic Tale of Cmdt. Christiaan J. Muller, D.T.D. of the Ladybrand Commando 8 months 6 days ago #69192
An epic story indeed. Many thanks, Rory, for an excellent morning's read.
Dr David Biggins
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The Epic Tale of Cmdt. Christiaan J. Muller, D.T.D. of the Ladybrand Commando 8 months 6 days ago #69198
Aren't they rather? There are various services out there offering a similar effect but My Heritage is a free site that I make use of.
The Epic Tale of Cmdt. Christiaan J. Muller, D.T.D. of the Ladybrand Commando 8 months 6 days ago #69202
Thank you Rory, great work..... He really had an active time and I also like the colour pictures...… Mike
Military Historical Society
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