Rooiwal 2 months 2 days ago #74012
Rooiwal is the site of a farm at the confluence of the Harts and Brak rivers.
On the night of the 10th of April, in accordance with instructions from General Ian Hamilton (who was in supreme command of all the columns operating in the Western Transvaal), Colonel Kekewich's force, composed of Lieutenant-Colonel Grenfell’s and Lieutenant-Colonel Von Donop’s columns, which for some months past had been operating in the Klerksdorp district, occupied a line running west and east along the valley of the Brakspruit and facing south. Kekewich’s force covered ground from near the farms called Rooiwal and Doombult to Oshoek (some three miles away to the east), where it joined hands with the Imperial Light Horse, who were on the right of Sir Henry Rawlinson’s force. The only information available indicated generally that the majority of the enemy were some distance to the south. General Hamilton’s orders to Kekewich for the 11th of April were to move at an early hour to the junction of the Harts River and the Brakspruit, and thence to make a reconnaissance in a west-northwest direction, while Rawlinson’s and Walter Kitchener’s forces reconnoitred towards the south-west.
The “general idea” on which these dispositions were conceived was that of feeling for the enemy while maintaining close touch between the three forces, so that the cordon should be preserved and the enemy enclosed in the area between the columns and the block-houses.
Some few days prior to this date, General Delarey had passed through Colonel Kekewich's lines on his way to discuss terms of peace with Lord Kitchener at Klerksdorp, but there was no amnesty between the two armies. Kemp appears to have been in command of all the western commandos during Delarey’s absence, and to have caused a large concentration of his men in the neighbourhood of Wolmaranstad on the 10th of April. He had under him some 2000 of various commandos, the toughest veterans of the Boer forces — men who had been continuously in the field since October 1899, and whose pugnacious spirit had been fortified by an intimate experience of British tactics, by their own protracted resistance, and, in an especial sense, by their recent striking victories. Kemp’s purpose on the 10th of April was to concentrate every available man in dose proximity to Kekewich, and then in repetition of the tactics which had recently been so successful, to envelop the British force and rush into dose quarters.
Entirely unaware of any impending conflict, at 6 A.M. on the 11th of April Grenfell’s and Von Donop’s columns dosed on their right and moved west— Von Donop’s column leading—towards the junction of the Harts River and the Brakspruit. The country through which the column marched was not only stamped with a natural desolation, but scarred and disfigured with the debris, the putrefying bones and offal, of the recent wayfaring and fighting. At Doombult [Doombult was the scene of Colonel Cookson’s fight, which had taken place a few days before] lay hundreds of animals ten days dead, and on almost every hillock and hollow were tokens of warfare, bodies and bones of animals, broken boxes, newly-covered graves—back-wash left by the storm. Only the white farmhouse of Rooiwal with its smoking chimney (comfortably nestling by some water in a sheltered hollow, between an orchard and an orange grove) at once struck the traveller's eye as the sole kindly and human feature in a fierce and inhospitable landscape.
At 7.30 A.M. the two columns had almost closed up, the head of Von Donop's column having reached the farm of Rooiwal, and his scouts being about a mile and a half ahead. It is said that a short time before this a little girl of about fourteen years of age had run out from the farmhouse up the hillside to the south and had waved her apron high above-her head. It was afterwards conjectured that this had been a signal to call her countrymen to battle, for before the column reached Rooiwal the officer commanding the advanced-guard reported that a large force was approaching from the left and asked if it was Rawlinson. Colonel Von Donop thereupon rode forward to reconnoitre.
At this moment the Scottish Horse [1st Scottish Horse and Right Wing, 2nd Scottish Horse.], under Lieutenant-Colonel Leader (6th Dragoon Guards), were marching at the head of Grenfell’s column and had reached a point about a mile east of Rooiwal farm. They were passing through the low ground along the river-bed, which is here flanked by a large bushy hill on its northern and by a smaller eminence on its southern side—forming a defile from which the view to the front is uninterrupted, but to either flank is limited by the kopjes. I continue the story from the point of view of those who were with the leading files of the Scottish Horse.
As Von Donop’s column reached Rooiwal a few irregular shots were heard from the left front, followed immediately by three or four loud regular volleys, and almost simultaneously it was noticed that the fan-shaped regularity of the screen was broken and that there was some unaccountable galloping in front. A general tendency of this galloping in the direction of the north (that is to say, from the left front away towards the right), was also clearly perceived.
A few moments later—out of the distant uproar and across the bare stretch of plain and the deserted left front—galloped ventre a terre a hatless horseman straight for Colonel Grenfell. The Scottish Horse watched him growing clearer and wondered who he was. A few seconds later and he was hailed by Colonel Grenfell, and recognised as Percival of the 5th Fusiliers, Colonel Von Donop’s aide-de-camp. “ Those men in front are all Boers" he calmly but emphatically shouted, "Boers—nothing but Boers. I have galloped right through them myself.”
Grenfell looked in the direction indicated and saw against the sky to his left front a thick black line, perhaps a mile away. It might have been anything —cattle or sheep or men—all one could say was that a black line a mile or more in length stretched thick and unbroken all along the skyline, across the front, left front, and left flank. Grenfell threw a glance at the screen—saw that it was not—and realised in a second that he must achieve his own salvation. A second glance at the long black line showed it blacker and longer, and dissipated doubts; it was men—it was Boers—they were many—and Percival’s information (at first so surprising as almost to be incredible), was swallowed and digested. Grenfell had some 1100 rifles, with two guns and a pom-pom, and acting under instructions from Colonel Kekewich, he now gave the following orders :— the guns and pom-pom immediately to come into action facing west; the 1st and 2nd Scottish Horse (460 rifles) to wheel to their left, dismount and advance towards the Boers, seizing some mealie-covered ground which rose slightly towards the enemy—thus covering the south-west; the South African Constabulary (290 rifles) to protect the guns; and the Yeomanry (420 rifles) to come up on the left of the Scottish Horse and face south. Otherwise expressed, Colonel Grenfell’s intention was to dispose his column in a crescent-shaped line of dismounted men facing west, south-west, and south, on the best ground available in the few seconds which could be spared. The guns at once began firing at about 1100 yards range, and the Scottish Horse under Leader, being at the head pf the column, were the first to get dismounted under a very heavy but inaccurate fire, under which horses were freely hit and some stampeded. Leader and the first troops climbed the slightly rising ground and took up the best position they could find, some fifty yards away from the horses, facing west and south-west. The men then extended and opened fire at about 600 yards, and the rest of the Scottish Horse formed up to right and left of these troops, extending the firing line until something very like what Grenfell purposed was realised.
Just as the remaining troops of the Scottish Horse followed Colonel Leader and the first troops into the firing line, so the other units formed on the Scottish Horse; and eventually Von Donop’s column rallied and formed on Grenfell.
Thus it is literally true that Colonel Leader with the first few troops of the Scottish Horse formed the nucleus of the entire resistance, and in a sense the fortunes of the whole force depended on Leader at once getting every available rifle into occupation of the right ground; for had the Boers galloped into Grenfell before he had had time to possess himself of the higher ground on his left, they would have been in occupation of a position from which the entire valley would have been at their mercy.
The Boers had advanced slowly so as to give their wings time to swing up and envelop the British force, and this cost them the day. For now the crisis was passed; the Scottish Horse were lying along the higher ground with a good field of fire before them, and stolid north-countrymen are not easily dismayed by the moral effect of an advancing enemy.
The range rapidly diminished to five, four, and three hundred yards, but still the Boer line in close order, knee to knee, and two and more deep, moved slowly onward at the “trippling” pace of African ponies.
Seldom in the history of small-bore warfare have riflemen or gunners had a surer target than that thick crowded line of horsemen. There was no chance of a man mistaking his range; each fired point blank as fast as he could fill his magazine, and the guns were using “case." Still, through this terrific fire-zone, on horses, on mules, on foot—the horsemen firing as they rode—the footmen stopping anon to fire out of the “mealies”—the Boer line surged forward to the charge.
Those who had been at Omdurman had seen a similar imposing spectacle; none of the rest of a veteran column had ever beheld so Homeric a sight as the confident onslaught of 2000 mounted men, knee to knee, two, three, and four deep.
Some of the leading Boers came to within 100 yards of the Scottish Horse and even closer to the Constabulary, and then the tornado of lead in which they found themselves was too much even for their determination, and they broke and galloped away, the last shot being fired at about 8.10 A.M.
Men now had leisure in which to realise that the day was won. Away on the right a few parties of the enemy were still trying to get round that flank through the scrub jungle on the hillside. To the left and to the front, near and far, were galloping horsemen and clouds of dust, while immediately before the recumbent British line were over 100 dead and wounded Dutchmen. Close to the Scottish Horse Maxim (which had done excellent service) lay Commandant Potgieter, a big man in a blue suit and jack boots; and near by a lad of fourteen, himself badly wounded, was holding a blanket over a dying old man to shield him from the sun.
At about 9 o’clock, when the horses had been collected, a movement towards the south in Echelon of columns to the right rear began. An unbroken line of scouts stretched from the valley of the river for six miles in a southerly direction, and for some three hours a ceaseless cantering pursuit was maintained through mealie fields and over the endless veld. “ Only over the next rise ”—but beyond that was another and again another, and beyond again the dust clouds of the fugitives, which never seemed the nearer.
Here and there among the mealies lay wounded Boers; here and there limped a wounded horse with sweat marks on his back, dripping blood, into the com cobs. One might swear the rider was not far to seek; but the pursuit of the dust clouds did not admit of drawing rein. At last in a hollow the Scottish Horse came upon their prize—two beat teams of mules harnessed to the last of the lost field-guns, one pom-pom, a small band of prisoners who held up their hands, and beyond, some waggons. Beyond again, four or five miles to the west, the broken commandos trailed up the hill track for Schweizer Reneke; but the horses were now so exhausted that further pursuit was impossible. The men gave their animals a drink of liquid mud, burnt the waggons (expressing a courteous if not quite sincere regret to the female occupants), and turned their heads towards camp at Rooiwal.
A red-letter day—a day of a thousand days—was done, and a real success, pregnant with results as yet but dimly guessed by those who had achieved it, had been most cheaply won in a country of disasters.
The actual result of the fight, some say, was the end of the war in the west. Be this as it may, Kekewich's column had been privileged to witness a wondrous change in the character of their enemy;—the changing of the leopard's spots— the transmigration of the soul of the Dervish into the heart of the Dutchman.
And the Scottish Horse had seen an even greater thing than that, for they had furnished in themselves an undeniable demonstration of the rule of war that stolid riflemen well led need fear no charge of horsemen, even though the latter be fortified by the prestige of former success.
CASUALTIES OF LIEUTENANT-COLONEL GRENFELL'S COLUMN AT ROOIWAL
1 officer and 4 men killed.
4 officers and 37 men wounded.
200 horses killed.
AMMUNITION EXPENDED BY LIEUTENANT-COLONEL GRENFELL'S COLUMN
Small-arm ammunition, 42,000.
Shell and case, 73.
Pom-pom ammunition, 410.
SCOTTISH HORSE CASUALTIES
1 N.C.O. died of wounds.
8 men wounded.
Source: A military history of Perthshire, 1899-1902 and the Times History, volume V
Dr David Biggins
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