Pieter Andries Johannes Swanepoel was nineteen (19) years old when he was captured by the British at the Battle of Elandslaagte. With 286 of his colleagues in arms that were also captured at Elandslaagte they were shipped to Deadwood camp on St Helena Island.
That in itself is not strange or unusual as it is well documented about the Boers soldiers that were interned on St Helena. What makes this soldier’s story unique is that he is a confirmed Wielrijders Rapportgangers Corps member.
According to the very limited documentation one can find on this rather elite group of men, they were a group of men, in the words of Breytenbach “en slegs manne onder alle omstandighede volstrek gereken kon word” loosely translated to only men that could be counted on completely in any situation.
The Wielrijders Rapportgangers Corps was established in August / September 1899 by none other than the Krugersdorp lawyer D.J.S Theron, known as Danie Theron, the most famous reconnaissance scout of the Anglo-Boer war and his friend, J.P. Jooste (known as Koos) a well-known and seasoned cyclist.
So who were these bicycle soldiers of the Boers?
Even before the Anglo Boer War had broken out, Danie Theron was developing the idea of using bicycles for despatch and reconnaissance work. Commandant General Piet Joubert challenged Theron to prove his point as to the effectiveness of bicycles for despatch riders by choosing a man who would race the best horse rider in the Army from Pretoria to the Crocodile River. The approval to form the Wielrijders Rapportgangers Corps was given after a race from Pretoria to the Crocodile River bridge, a distance of 46 miles (75 km), between the champion cyclist, Koos Jooste, and a certain Martiens on horseback. Danie's friend, Koos Jooste, won the 75km race and permission was granted to Danie Theron to form his Wielrijders Rapportgangers Korps.
It must be stated here that this J.P. (Koos) Jooste must not be confused with Major J.P (Piet) Jooste who served the whole war on General Botha’s staff. He too was a Boer cyclist but they are not related. On the Anglo-Boer War forum there is an article written by Henk Loots (2016) who explains the life and time of Major J.P (Piet) Jooste. Our Jooste, seems to have fled to Germany and became a legend based on the tall tales and stories he sold to the German public. That story is for someone else to unravel.
Danie Theron immediately started to advertise in newspapers on the Witwatersrand for young men to join his corps. He sent out trusted associates to select reliable men, drawing his recruits from young, well-educated members of the upper classes. When finally established, the Wielrijders Rapportgangers Corps consisted of one hundred and eight men and was divided into seven sections, each under a lieutenant responsible to Captain Theron. The following were sent out to different districts on the 19th September 1899, 8 men under Jan Niehaus to Waterberg, 17 men under S. de Kock to Soutpansberg, 18 men under C. Maartens to Lichtenburg, 16 men under G.F. Mynhardt to Wakkerstroom, 16 men under H.H. van Gass to Vryheid, 14 men under Klaas Jooste to Zeerust, and 18 men (leader's name omitted) to Bloemfontein. Each man was supplied with a bicycle, short trousers, a revolver and, where deemed necessary, a light carbine. In March 1900 a man named Frazer was sent to Pretoria to obtain desperately needed binoculars, tents, tarpaulins, and wire cutters. The short trousers and carbines seem not to have been used. No photographs of Boer cyclists wearing or using them have been found.
Danie Theron pictured here with a bicycle. Notice the rifle and how it is attached to the Chassis.
This Corp of cyclists were responsible for the delivery of reports and despatches from the front lines but were also responsible for the provision of intelligence on troop movements and terrain evaluations at the front. At a later stage Theron, established his famous Reconnaissance Corps which according to all accounts actually combined the cyclists and the reconnaissance Corps into a Intelligence Unit using both cyclists and horse’s.
The burghers at first looked down on the members of the Wielrijders Rapportgangers Corps, but as Frederick Rompel records in Heroes of the Boer War, as soon as the burghers saw that the despatch riders could not be stopped by rivers, heavy roads, hostile patrols, or even enemy bullets, they gained a new respect for the corps. Sir F. Maurice indirectly ascribes Cronje's faulty intelligence at Magersfontein in December 1899 to the burghers' neglect of despatch riders. They were confined to the Colesberg area, but he goes on to mention that Cronje used them as links with the other Boer leaders in the Western Free State where they had come into favor again.
Scepticism and criticism of the cyclists lessened as a result of their bravery and successful exploits. Danie Theron became a legend in his own lifetime, and as early as March 1900 Lord Roberts labelled him the chief thorn in the side of the British, and wanted him, dead or alive. The burghers, being conservative, regarded their old and tried methods of warfare as sufficient and thought the formation of a cyclist corps a clever stunt to evade the dangers of war. This however soon changed when the cyclists proved their mettle.
One of the most daring exploits carried out by a cyclist during the war was that of Danie Theron when he stole his way into General Piet Cronje's beleaguered laager at Paardeberg in February 1900, to take General Christiaan de Wet's proposed breakthrough plans to Cronje. Theron used a bicycle (another source maintains that he used a horse on this occasion, but this is to be doubted, considering what a perilous mission it was) to get as close as possible to the British sentries and then went further on foot. He undoubtedly used a bicycle because it was less conspicuous than a horse. He asked two of his fellow Wielrijders to fetch him at the same spot the following night. Even prior to this Theron had used his bicycle to good effect in Natal when communications between Generals Erasmus and Meyer were interrupted by the failure of the heliograph.
Theron's men were not stopped by rivers, bad weather, impassable roads, or enemy patrols. At the Battle of Talana, near Dundee, Theron's men were responsible for most of the 246 British prisoners captured according to some literature.
Before delving into the story of Pieter Andries Johannes Swanepoel, research reveals that there were three P.A.J Swanepoel’s who submitted applications for their ABO medals. Based on the application date (1922) and the medal suspender I am sure that I have identified the correct Swanepoel.
So returning to our bicycle soldier, we could assume he was part of the battle of Talana, although I have no specific records as such, but if Danie Theron and his men were at Talana, it is quite possible that Pieter Swanepoel was also involved.
He indicated on his ABO application (Vorm B dated 21st January 1922) that he served as a Wielrijders Rapportgangers Corps member directly under Captain Danie Theron. A certificate indicating his induction into the Corps is also noted on his file confirming his participation. It would be interesting if any forum member who collects ABO’s has actually seen a mention of the Wielrijders Rapportgangers Corps on any of the ABO applications or has a list of the full complement of 108 men of this Corps. I have so far identified 7 men and this was only based on the research literature I have found.
According to his ABO application he served in both Jeppestown (under Veldkornet Schap) and Johannesburg Commando’s (Under General Koch). On the 21st October 1899, he is captured at the Battle of Elandslaagte. His application indicates that he started his Boer War service on the 04th October 1899 and was captured on the 21st October 1899. This means that if the Wielrijders Rapportgangers Corps was established in August / September of 1899, he served less than three (3) weeks in an operational capacity before being captured by the British at Elandslaagte.
Pieter Andries Johannes Swanepoel's ABO:
I wonder if he was the first ever Boer war bicycle soldier POW captured in the Anglo-Boer War. He is then sent to St Helena and released from the island in October 1902. On the 08th August 1902, he signs a declaration confirming that he is a subject of King Edward (VII’th) and pledges allegiance to the Crown.
An example of the Corps in combat mode:
With special acknowledgement of the works of:
a. Dr Peter Hammond (2014)
b. J.H.Breytenbach (1969)
c. Anglo Boer War Museum – Bloemfontein
d. Maree (1977)
e. De Oude Huize blog (2020)
f. Henk Loots – Anglo Boer Forum (2016)
Hi, I wonder if you can help me. I have just joined this site as I'm trying to find out some info. In a cupboard in my home in Northumberland, UK is a hand-made violin and on the back it has the following inscription -
Gen F v d Merwe
27th Feb 1900
I think my great grandfather Edward Joicey, a Northumbrian Fusilier must have been out there. I'd love to return the violin to the General's family if there are any in S Africa. Can you help? My email is [email protected] Thank you Fiona Millais [Joicey]
Thank you Fiona
Good evening Fiona.
I see that Rory has already assisted you in this regard so that is a step in the right direction. I would not have been able to assist as I don't have access to all of the relevant websites. Good luck in your endeavors and I do really hope you can find the family of the General.