The Battle of Bronkhorstspruit

One of the lessons learned from the Zulu War by Britain’s enemies was that the British Army was not invincible. The British woes and defeats suffered during the war had been closely observed and so the Boers plotted and planned to seize the day and stand against the British. But Boer dissention was nothing new. The Transvaal Boers had been antagonistic towards the British ever since the Great Trek of 1838, when, in large numbers, they abandoned the Cape in protest at British rule and high taxation in order to seek self-government in the unknown lands to the north – later named the Transvaal (rough translation, ‘across the Vaal River’). The Boers had long memories and many were still smarting from the annexation of the Transvaal by Britain in 1877. Even though Britain partly went to war against the Zulus to facilitate Boer farming expansion into Zululand, the Boers refused to participate in action against the Zulus, with minor exceptions.

On the 11th November 1879, a public meeting of Boers took place at Potchefstroom to express anger at a fine levied by British officials against a local Boer farmer, Pieter Bezuidenhout. The farmer had earlier refused to pay a fine and the British decided to confiscate his wagon in lieu of payment of £27.5s.0d. After the wagon was removed it was immediately offered for sale, whereupon a crowd of Boer protesters seized the wagon and drove it off. The British Administrator in the Transvaal saw this as an act of aggression, which he felt required a firm hand; he sent a military detachment to Potchefstroom, which inflamed growing Boer resentment.

On the 5th December, two companies of the 94th, together with medical, commissariat staff and some families, set off to march to Pretoria. The total strength of the column was 262, commanded by Colonel Anstruther.

Secret meetings of Boers were held across the Transvaal and, on the 13th December, the leading Boers proclaimed the Transvaal a South African Republic. They decided to take immediate military action and despatched three commandos, one to intercept the 94th Regiment marching from its base at Lydenburg to strengthen the British garrison at Pretoria, where local Boer disaffection was growing. Another went to Potchefstroom and the third to the border to discourage any British attempt to send reinforcements from Natal.

Colonel Anstruther delayed his column’s advance from Lydenburg for a week while extra wagons were hired from local Boer farmers. Because there were no other available wagons, exorbitant rates were demanded, which Anstruther reckoned would cost £1,000 in total. Once the column had obtained the requisite wagons, the column could set off. Their progress was limited to about eight miles each day due to the condition of the track and numerous streams that had to be negotiated. On the 15th December, news reached the column that all companies of the regiment would be concentrating at Pretoria. Anstruther wrote that the whole move was due to the Boers agitating, although he noted that the Boer families along the route were ‘friendly and civil’ even if a regular comment was ‘if you don’t give us back the Transvaal we’ll fight like cats,’ which Anstruther took as friendly banter, commenting:

They have, I am sure, no intention of fighting though if we are firm with them, as I hope we will be, there might be one or two little disturbances.

By the 19th December the column was wet and weary, having had to cross the flooded Oliphants River. The following morning they paused at a Boer farm to purchase fresh provisions and make amends after some of the soldiers had stolen fruit from the farmer’s orchard. Little was made of the incident and the stolen fruit was paid for with an apology. At the time, Anstruther noticed an unaccountable number of horses corralled around the farm, all saddled and ready to depart. On the day following the battle, he recalled that he had overlooked the significance of the horses. Unbeknown to Anstruther, the farm was the rendezvous for the Boers detailed to intercept the column but, taken by surprise by the arriving British, the Boers had hidden themselves but had no option but to leave their horses in full view of the approaching British column. At about 10.00 am the column continued on its way with the intention of stopping for the night at a crossing point at the Bronkhorst stream just a few miles distant. The whole column of marching men and thirty-four wagons extended nearly one mile and blissfully continued on its way with the band playing. It was about two miles from the intended campsite when a rider approached the leading wagons showing a white flag of truce. The British were unsure what was happening but Anstruther had the presence of mind to give the order to close ranks. The order was passed down the column and the band stopped playing. The rider approached Anstruther and handed him a document, which was an ultimatum signed by a Boer leader, Piet Joubert, and was countersigned by Paul Kruger. The order instructed Anstruther not to continue over the river until certain diplomatic negotiations between the British and Boers were resolved. It warned that if the troops advanced beyond the stream the Boers would construe the movement as an act of war.

The rider added that two minutes would be allowed for the column commander to decide his course of action. While Anstruther was considering his predicament and the two-minute ultimatum ticked away, the Boer commando, under the protection of the white flag, approached the column to within 200 yards of the wagons and positioned themselves behind rocks and trees. According to witnesses, Anstruther replied:

I have orders to proceed with all possible despatch to Pretoria and to Pretoria I am going, but tell the Commandant I have no wish to meet him in hostile spirit.

As Anstruther made his comment of non-cooperation, the rider holding the white flag turned his horse and made a signal to the Boers, who immediately opened fire on the helpless and unsuspecting column. The unprotected wagons and soldiers, many of whom were unarmed, were sitting targets for the Boer marksmen and within minutes Anstruther was shot and wounded six times and all the officers and most of the NCOs were killed or wounded, as were more than half the soldiers. To save the lives of the remainder, the seriously wounded Anstruther gave the order to cease firing and to hoist something white to signify their surrender. This done, firing ceased on both sides and the Boers closed in. They ordered the surviving soldiers to lay down their weapons, which they did. The Boers then collected up all available weapons and drove off the wagons containing arms and ammunition, and anything else they considered of use or value. The column conductor, Mr Egerton, received permission to ride to Pretoria to get medical assistance. Leaving the column under a Boer guard to fend for itself as best they could, the survivors began tending the wounded and burying their dead. The following day the fit survivors were marched off by the Boers to Heidelberg and the less serious casualties escorted to Pretoria. Boer losses were kept secret; British survivors’ reports of Boer casualties ranged from two to thirty killed.

As with a number of earlier engagements during the Zulu War, of which Anstruther had been an experienced commander, it is surprising that Anstruther blatantly ignored accurate intelligence of Boer unrest and warnings that something was amiss. On the 16th December, Anstruther had received a written warning that British relationships with the Boers were disintegrating and warned him to be fully on his guard and to deploy patrols before advancing his column. Anstruther seems to have ignored the warning as his scouting was casual, with only one man sent in advance of the column to observe the route and one scout to scan the hills. Only thirty rounds of ammunition were carried by each soldier instead of the usual seventy and reserve ammunition boxes remained sealed on the wagons, so it was clear that no one in the column was expecting to be attacked. From Boer reports, it is evident the Boers had tracked the column for several days. A makeshift British hospital was constructed at Bronkhorstspruit and it remained there for three further months before the remaining more seriously wounded were allowed to travel to Pretoria.

The Boer attack on the unsuspecting column was premeditated and shocking in its sudden and wilful execution. The objective was to cause the most serious damage as swiftly as possible in order to send a shock message to the procrastinating British to resolve Boer claims for independence. British losses were in the ratio of thirty-seven to one and it must be acknowledged that had Anstruther not disobeyed orders to expect resistance from the Boers and had he not been careless in the extreme by permitting only thirty rounds per soldier, his column might have fared better. Likewise, he had not considered it prudent to issue weapons or ammunition to the regimental band.

The 94th lost one officer (Lieutenant Harrison) and seventy-three men killed in the carnage of the attack. Another four officers and ninety men received wounds, of which three officers, Anstruther, Captain Nairne and Captain MacSwiney, and eighteen men later died. One officer and 105 men became prisoners of the Boers. The other six companies of the regiments spent the war besieged by the Boers; C, D and H at Standerton, E and G at Pretoria, B in Marabastad, and a small detachment of fifty men at Lydenburg.

At the conclusion of the war the 94th Regiment remained in the Transvaal until the final ratification of the peace convention with the Boers and then, on the 5th November 1881, they commenced their march back to Natal. After almost three eventful years, the end of the regiment’s service in southern Africa was in sight. Having encountered not only the Zulus, Pedi and Boers on the field of battle, they had faced the ravages of disease, the extremes of weather, the boredom of garrison duty and endured the claustrophobia of siege life – it was time to return home. On the 24th March 1882, seven companies embarked on the Dublin Castle and sailed for Queenstown, Cork, where they arrived on the 20th April.

At home, there were celebrations and campaign medals for the survivors. At Bronkhorstspruit, Colour Sergeant Maistre had been one of two NCOs carrying the regimental colours when the column was attacked by the Boers. To prevent the capture of the colours, Maistre hid them in the bedding of another NCO’s severely wounded wife. The next day the Boers permitted two volunteers to walk to Pretoria to seek medical help. Maistre wrapped the colours around his body and smuggled them out to safety. For his actions in saving the colours, Maistre was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal.

The 94th Regiment was entitled to the honour ‘South Africa 1879’ but when the awards were announced in 1882, the 94th had already amalgamated with the 88th Regiment and become the 2nd Battalion Connaught Rangers. Due to the previous service of the 88th in the Cape Frontier the honour was awarded as ‘South Africa 1877-78-79’. No battle honour, medal, clasp or bar was issued for the campaign against Sekhukhune in 1879 or for service against the Boers in 1881.

Evaluation

Bronkhorstspruit was another disaster for the British Army, especially in terms of the unnecessary loss of life construed at the time that it was coldblooded murder by the Boers. Yet, with all the disasters of the Zulu War still fresh in British commander’s memories, Colonel Anstruther adopted the identical tactic of ‘it won’t happen to me’. He failed to obey his orders relating to the size of the column and insisted on hiring extra wagons from the Boers, who deliberately procrastinated in order to allow their approaching troops to close with the column. He was then warned that relationships with the Boers were rapidly deteriorating and to make haste with his progress to Pretoria, which he did not. He was further advised that the Boers might take aggressive action against his column, which he ignored, and failed to issue his men with sufficient ammunition, and in the case of the band, no weapons. When he came face-to-face with an unaccountable number of Boers’ saddled horses at the farm stopover, he failed to realise their significance. He was certainly ‘taken in’ when allowing the heavily armed Boers to approach his wagons after the Boer messenger rode up to the column under the white flag of truce, which the Boers then disregarded by opening fire on the defenceless column.

Subsequently, there was considerable anger in the British press at the Boers’ disregard of their own flag of truce but, by the time the regiment returned home, the first Boer conflict was over and Bronkhorstspruit was rarely mentioned. Once again, the incident was widely considered to have been unnecessary and any investigation into the battle would have highlighted Anstruther’s many failings. For the Boers, their situation was identical to that of the Zulus a year earlier. They were the dominant population being controlled by a minor governing authority, the British, by being denied their right to run their own country – for which they rebelled. For the public at home, it all seemed to be an extension of the string of embarrassments following on from the Zulu War – and best forgotten.

And like many of the battlefields of the Zulu War, the location of the ambush at Bronkhorstspruit has long since vanished. The roadway where Anstruther’s column was ambushed has disappeared. The original road ran on an east/west line and has subsequently been reclaimed by nature. The new road cuts across where the ambush occurred, near where the monuments are, and runs north/south. The British gravestones are there to be found but they have been moved at some point as they are now set flat in the ground and are therefore difficult to find.

Neither side could be proud of the Boer rebellion. The British would not treat with the Boers, who became militant and, at Bronkhorstspruit, the Boers should have honoured the flag of truce and did not. There could be no pride attached to what had happened and both sides needed to move on. Bronkhorstspruit was soon forgotten.

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