Our story | Diamonds and 'the white man’s war'

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The British advanced  up the railway line towards Kimberley Picture Supplied
The British advanced up the railway line towards Kimberley Picture Supplied

OUR STORY | TRENDING


The Siege of Kimberley was only a part of the war that had been raging between the British and the Boers, which was known as the Anglo-Boer War. While this battle was termed “the white man’s war”, it would have been easy to assume that the conflict was only between the two mentioned groups.

Of course, this was not so. The war had a devastating effect on the country and touched the lives of all its people.

Kimberley

Kimberley – Diamonds and War (Book 2 of 2)

SA Heritage Publishers

48 pages, illustrated

R115 at bookstores

As we have heard in Our Story, the Kimberley Siege was unexpected. In October 1899, with the Anglo-Boer War officially declared, the Boers had swiftly taken action towards capturing the area.

They occupied the territory outside the town as though it was a branch of a Boer republic. They gave Barkly West a new name, calling it Nieu Boshof, and appointed a magistrate, or landdrost, for the town.

The people of Kimberley were unprepared for the onslaught and the military was pushed to counter with a makeshift defence to prevent the Boers from successfully taking the town. Their defence was hampered by the interference of Cecil John Rhodes who had made his vast diamond fortune in the town – and he controlled the mining.

READ: Our Story | Who owned the diamond fields?

The military considered Rhodes largely responsible for the war breaking out because of his actions during the Jameson Raid, and so Rhodes was confined to his lodgings.

While the Boers continued their merciless attack on the town, the De Beers company engineers worked around the clock to develop a more effective weapon against the enemy’s artillery. In due course the Long Cecil, an impressive prototype, was produced.

The Long Cecil was soon overshadowed by the Boers, who simply countered with a new, even bigger gun. The petrified residents were herded by authorities into the deep mine, where they could shelter.

In October 1899, with the Anglo-Boer War officially declared, the Boers had swiftly taken action towards capturing the area
From the book

Meanwhile, as the Anglo-Boer War raged on, the British military had been forced by public criticism to change their war policy, and it was deemed imperative that action be taken to relieve the sieges of Kimberley, Ladysmith and Mafeking (now Mahikeng).

However, Lord Methuen’s initial attempt to relieve the Siege of Kimberley was a failure. Methuen had failed to perform a proper reconnaissance necessary to prepare for a battle. He didn’t realise that the Boer Vecht-generaal (combat general) De la Rey had entrenched his forces at the foot of the hills. De la Rey had done this in contrast to the usual battle practice of forming along the forward slopes.

This allowed the Boers to survive the initial British artillery offensive. The British troops were unable to form compact enough formations to advance on their enemy.

The military considered Rhodes largely responsible for the war breaking out because of his actions during the Jameson Raid, and so Rhodes was confined to his lodgings
From the book

Through this strategy and fierce fighting, the Boers managed to severely damage the advancing British enemy, with the worst casualties occurring in the Highland Brigade. It did not all go their way, though, and the Scandinavian Corps, which had been fighting as allies of the Boers, was entirely destroyed.

The Boers attained a tactical victory and succeeded in holding the British back. This battle was the second of the three battles of the terrible “Black Week of the Second Boer War”. It was only a strategic win for the Boers, but it kept the British from reaching Kimberley.

With General Lord Roberts newly appointed as commander in chief of the British army, the siege was finally relieved after 124 days by the cavalry division of Lieutenant-General John French. However, the war was far from over.

The British continued their offensive to overthrow General Piet Cronjé and the Boers at the Battle of Paardeberg near Paardeberg Drift on the banks of the Modder River near Kimberley.

Meanwhile, as the Anglo-Boer War raged on, the British military had been forced by public criticism to change their war policy, and it was deemed imperative that action be taken to relieve the sieges of Kimberley, Ladysmith and Mafeking (now Mahikeng)
From the book

Cronjé’s Boer forces were retreating from their position at Magersfontein and heading towards Bloemfontein. French had cut the Boer lines of communication after his cavalry had relieved Kimberley. Cronjé’s men were intercepted by the British at Paardeberg, and Cronjé was forced to surrender after a siege that included a bloody defence against direct attack by Lieutenant General Kitchener.

At dawn on February 19 1900, Roberts arrived at the scene. He initially urged a resumption of the frontal assaults, but Cronjé requested a ceasefire to bury the dead.

The British refused his plea for a truce. The following day, Roberts and Kitchener planned to launch more assaults, but were firmly resisted by the other British senior officers. By February 21, Roberts was intent on withdrawing, but to do so would have allowed Cronjé to escape. The Boers withdrew first.

De Wet, faced with an entire British division who might be reinforced at any time, and fearing for his men’s safety, withdrew his commandos from the southeast.

The Boers attained a tactical victory and succeeded in holding the British back. This battle was the second of the three battles of the terrible “Black Week of the Second Boer War”
From the book

Ferreira’s forces, which might have supported De Wet, had been left without direction after Ferreira was accidentally shot dead by one of his own sentries. Cronjé had inexplicably refused to abandon his laager. De Wet felt forced to abandon Cronjé.

Cronjé’s encampment was subjected to an increasingly heavy artillery bombardment, as more guns (including a battery of 12.7cm medium howitzers and another of 0.5kg “pom-poms”) joined the besieging British forces. Almost every horse, mule and ox were killed, and the stench became unbearable.

On the last night of the battle – February 26 1900 – the Royal Canadian Regiment, having lost more than 70 soldiers in an earlier charge against sheltered Boer positions, was again called to take the lead in the routine daily battalion rotation.

WATCH: The unique stories that made SA

Instead of another charge the next morning, as was expected, the Canadians, with the help of the Royal Engineers, advanced at night towards the Boer camp. Undetected, they set about digging trenches on high ground 59.4m from the Boer lines.

On February 27 1900, the Boers woke up to find themselves staring into the muzzles of Canadian rifles. Cronjé had no choice but to surrender along with 4 019 men and 50 women. Approximately 10% of the entire Boer army were then prisoners.

The war was considered won after the surrender of these helpless people.

From the Our Story series published by SA Heritage Publishers. Ask your nearest bookseller to order from us at info@saheritagepublishers.co.za and visit saheritagepublishers.co.za to see our full range of titles. Engage with us on Facebook at facebook.com/SAHeritage.Publishers/. Visit saheritagepublishers.co.za/


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