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On opposite sides with the same Commando - Venter of the Lichtenburgers 8 months 2 weeks ago #80703

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Johannes George Venter

Burger, Lichtenburg Commando – Anglo Boer War
Sergeant, Lombard’s Lichtenburg Commando – WWI

- Anglo Boere Oorlog Medal to BURG. J.G. VENTER
- 1914/15 Star to SJT. J.G. VENTER, LICHTBG. KDO.
- British War Medal to SJT. J.G. VENTER, LICHTENBURG KDO.

Johan Venter was born on 22 April 1879 (some reports put his date of birth as 22 April 1876) in the Zeerust district of the Western Transvaal, then part of the Zuid Afrikaansche Republiek. He was the son of Johannes George Venter who, in the Afrikaans tradition, passed down his names to that of his eldest son, and Jacoba Johanna Venter (born De Beer). They married in Marico on 10 June 1878.

As was typical of most Boer families outside of the main towns of Johannesburg and Pretoria, the Venter’s were farmers and a young Johan, after a rudimentary education, would have been taught to ride, shoot and hunt from an early age. He would also not have lacked company, with siblings, Gert Petrus Venter, Martha Catherina Venter, and Paul Johannes Venter added to the family at regular intervals between 1881 and 1895.

The district around Zeerust is still, to this day, a very pastural setting with the chief activity being the tilling of the land and the minding of the various animals that are found on farms, and it is in this sedentary environment that Johan and his family grew and flourished. The peaceful equilibrium of their lives was, however, shattered with the outbreak of the Anglo Boer War on 11 October 1899 when Johann was 18 years old. This war was to be fought between the two Boer Republics of the Transvaal and Orange Free State and the might of Great Britain and, despite what the Imperialists thought, was not going to be “over by Christmas” but was to drag on until peace was finally declared on 31 May 1902.

In the run-up to war the wily President Kruger, sensing that war was inevitable, had begun a re-arming process. Spurred on by the abortive Jameson Raid of 1896, he purchased 30 000 new Mauser rifles from Germany, and the ammunition to go with them. These Mausers were sold to the Burger population at a very affordable price. Additionally, several large artillery pieces had been acquired from Creusot and Krupp on the Continent. Word was also sent out to the various Veld Kornets, in their Wards, to start the mobilisation process so that, when the expected day arrived, the Burgers could assemble in the market squares of every small town and village, in a state of preparedness for their onslaught into Natal and the Northern Cape.

Lemmers men of the Lichtenburg Commando

As residents of Zeerust in the district of Marico, the Venter’s fell under a Ward in nearby Lichtenburg, and it was as a Burger in the Lichtenburg Commando that Johan Venter found himself on the eve of war. Fortunately for the historian, those Burgers who claimed their medals from 1920, when they were authorised, onwards, were required to complete a Vorm B – application for the Anglo Boer War medal. This form normally contains a wealth of detail as to where the man served and with whom. It is thus possible, in many instances, to trace the movements of each Burger, marry that information to the skirmishes and battles in which his Commando participated, and arrive at a reliable conclusion as to where and when he saw action.

Venter’s powers of recollection, as an early applicant on 29 December 1922, was still fresh and he was able to list the following actions in which he participated:

• Kraaipan
• Kimberley (Siege of)
• Magersfontein
• Pretoria
• Boekenhoutskloof
• Silikaatsnek
• Lichtenburg and
• Hartbeesfontein

As a “bitter einder” – a Burger who saw out the entire duration of the war – we know that he was never captured or “turned” by signing an oath of allegiance to the Crown in return for his freedom. Quite an achievement given the fact that, as the war progressed, the Boers were relentlessly pursued, harried, and hounded until a lasting peace was finally agreed to.

The first action in which Venter participated was the well-known Kraaipan incident, the first incident of the war. As part of a force of some 5000 men, comprising the Marico, Rustenburg, Potchefstroom, Bloemhof and Lichtenburg Commandos, under General Cronje, Venter and his comrades had been laagered at Polfontein, near the Bechuanaland border, since they were mobilised. General De la Rey, with 200 Lichtenburgers, Venter as one of them, left the laager before the artillery ordered from Pretoria had arrived, to be over the border by midnight on 11 October 1899. On reaching the railway station at Kraaipan, De la Rey found that the British outposts had retired on seeing the approaching Boers. He and his men tore up the railway line going south to Kimberley and cut the telegraph wires.

The objective for crossing the border had been achieved but De la Rey remained for any possible developments from the direction of Mafeking. His scouts soon discovered an armoured train steaming from the south towards the railway station. This train consisted of an engine and two trucks lined with bullet-proof armour sheeting and armed with a Maxim and two mountain guns.

Evidently unaware of the damage done to the railway line, the officer in charge approached the station in the evening of the 12th October. The engine and trucks capsized on reaching the derailed spot, but not so completely as to prevent the surprised occupants from trying to place the train back on the rails. This the Boers succeeded in preventing by sustained rifle fire. The British were, however, able to get their Maxim and the mountain guns into action, keeping De la Rey at a respectful distance.

The Mosquito

The official report sent by Cronje to Pretoria included the above but went on to add that, “The Burgers kept strict watch during the night. In the morning Captain Van der Merwe arrived with cannon. He directly opened fire with them, the white flag was hoisted, and the enemy surrendered. On our side there were no wounded. The enemy’s casualties were their Captain and eight men (slightly) wounded.” The train was the “Mosquito”, coming back from Vryburg with two guns and a quantity of ammunition under Captain Nesbitt.

The next action of any consequence that Venter took part in was the battle of Magersfontein. By the evening of 10 December 1899, Cronje had placed his men in trenches preparatory to the expected attack, as Methuen made his stuttering way towards the relief of Kimberley. The Lichtenburgers, along with several Free State Commandos and their Transvaal allies, the Wolmeranstad and Bloemhof Commandos, were placed in the trenches to the left of the hill facing where the attack would come from. Commandant Vermaas, a man mentioned specifically in Venter’s Vorm B., commanded them with almost 2000 men taking part in the action, although Amery, in his History of the War in South Africa, mentions that only half of them were in their allotted places when the battle began.

Of the battle itself I don’t intend to elaborate – it is well documented that, with the annihilation of the Highland Brigade and having to ignominiously withdraw the remnants of his force from the battlefield, Methuen had a bad day in what became part of Black Week for the British.

But not all was well on the Boer side, despite their victory. Cronje, on 16 February, at Paardeberg, had dug himself into a hole. Amery tells us that “No part of the Boer forces seems to have been more completely demoralised than the commandos who had been engaged in the investment of Kimberley”. (Here it must be remembered that Venter claimed to have been part of this force at some time). Amery went on to add that, “The Lichtenburgers had not stopped in their flight from General French till they reached Christiana, whence Vermaas sent a despairing appeal to Kruger to stop the war at once in order to save at least the lives and goods of the Burgers, since further resistance was hopeless.” If Vermaas was speaking on behalf of the many left in the field there could only be problems ahead. As it was, the force required to ride to Cronje’s relief was assembled but remained inactive with disastrous consequences to the Boer war effort – Cronje and 4000 men surrendered and were lost to the cause.

With new enthusiasm Venter soldiered on. Having stomached the loss of Bloemfontein in March 1900, the Boer leaders resolved to try and prevent the loss of Pretoria by regrouping those still in the field. The battles of Boekenhoutskloof and Diamond Hill (Donkerpoort) were fought to prevent that eventuality from happening but, to the dismay of the Commandos present, superior British numbers and firepower carried the day and Pretoria was occupied in June 1900. This did not signal the end of the fight – the Boers merely resorted to guerilla tactics, small highly mobile commandos took to the field, harassing the British juggernauts lines of communication with their hit and run tactics. The capital was wherever Kruger, and his high command were, and that was frequently on a train heading progressively eastwards.

De la Rey took the fight to the Western Transvaal, an area well known to Venter and his Lichtenburg comrades. Here they fought actions at Zilikaatsnek and at Hartebeesfontein and at Lichtenburg, Venter’s back door, as well on 3 March 1901. The town of Lichtenburg and the district surrounding it had furnished two Boer commandos, under Commandant H C W Vermaas and Commandant J G Celliers, respectively. The town was occupied by the British for a few days in June 1900 and then on a permanent basis from late November 1900 where it became an important supply depot with a British garrison of 620 men comprising infantry, artillery and Yeomanry, specifically the 10th Company, 3rd Battalion, IY, and two companies of Paget’s Horse, or the 19th Battalion, IY.

The IY at Lichtenburg

On 3 March 1901, Lichtenburg was attacked in a three-pronged assault on the town by an estimated 300 Boers. From the west, Commandant Vermaas (Venter was with him) assailed the fortified British redoubt in the market square, while the second and third attacks from the east and west were directed against the British pickets on the edge of the town. After facing determined resistance for 24 hours, the Boers were forced to withdraw, General de la Rey coming to the assistance of Vermaas.

An Imperial Yeomanry man recounted the action as the Boers rushed the British trenches: ‘How those pickets did fight! The picket trenches never contained more than seven men, and in one trench only two were left, the others being killed or wounded. When relief arrived, a sergeant was just saying to one comrade “Fix bayonets, we’ll keep the ... back.” The defenders lost twenty-one men killed and died of wounds (two of them Yeomanry men), and twenty-four wounded. The Boers lost fourteen men killed and forty wounded.

Although Venter was able to escape any serious injury to his person whilst at war, his younger brother was not as fortunate. Having been taken Prisoner of War, Gert Petrus Venter was despatched to Bombay in India. Here he passed away on 2 December 1901 at the tender age of 19 from typhoid fever. Fortunately, his mother, having passed away in 1898, had not lived to see either the war or the death of a son.

The war over with the peace signed on 31 May 1902, Venter and his comrades laid down their arms. In his case at Goedgedacht in early June. He had attained the rank of Corporal, having been, in accordance with the Boer military system, voted into the role. He now returned to his farm Doornkloof to pick up the pieces and start all over again.

Twelve years later, the world was in turmoil, the British Empire found itself at war with Germany and her Allies on 4 August 1914 and South Africa was requested by the Imperial authorities to provide an Urgent Imperial Service by invading neighboring German South West Africa and destroying the radio communications capability the Germans had established there. General Botha, as Prime Minister and General Smuts, as Minister of Defence, suddenly found themselves asked to fight for and alongside the very enemy they had fought in the Boer War.

They didn’t hesitate and, having won a decisive vote in parliament, took South Africa (a Union since 1910) into the Great War on the British side. As can be imagined, this didn’t sit well with many die-hard Boers who were still aggrieved at the scorched earth policy (the burning of farms and the internment of Boer women and children in concentration camps) perpetrated against them. Before Botha could take a force into South West Africa to fight the Germans, he had to quell the armed uprising that took place in parts of the Orange Free State and Transvaal first. This pitted, in many instances, brother against brother and it was to the Commandos that were loyal to him that he turned.
One such was the Lichtenburg Commando of which Venter was still a member.

On 15 October 1914, a 35-year-old Venter attested for service with the Lichtenburg Commando, under H.J. Lombard, and was assigned no. 371 and the rank of Sergeant. As next of kin he supplied his sister’s particulars – Miss M.C. Venter, P.O. Burgersdorp, Lichtenburg. Having taken to the field in the hunt for rebels, the Lichtenburg Commando was sent to form part of the Northern Force when the invasion of German South West Africa was resumed in early 1915. Venter was part of the Mounted Commandos (1st Mounted Brigade Left Wing) mobilized on 5 January 1915. They were part of the force which hastened the German surrender at Otavi on 9 July 1915.

The campaign in German South West Africa over, Venter returned to his farm. He was awarded the trio of World War I medals for his service – these were despatched to him in 1921 and 1922, at the same time he applied for his recently authorised Anglo Boer War medal. His Vorm B indicated that he had moved to Oost Eind in Lichtenburg.

At some point Venter met and married Johanna Catherina Joubert in Zeerust, Transvaal. In later life he gave up his farming pursuits and moved to 85 Louis Trichardt Street, Parktown, Pretoria where, on 23 July 1948 at the age of 69, he passed away from a Coronary Thrombosis.

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