In a game of chess it is a risky move to retreat to a corner of the board when your defences are compromised. In a corner and thus ruling out further retreat, you must be sure that effective frontal attack, or even attack from the rear on your opponent, is still an option open to you. Without adequate opportunity for this, the outcome is most likely not going to be in your favour.
This is the hard lesson learned by the Boers in the Brandwater basin during the Anglo-Boer War.
Our photograph this week is of the Sunnyside area, looking west towards Clarens and further on, towards Fouriesburg, with the Rooiberg Range straddling the northern side of the landscape, stretching all the way to the Witteberg beyond Fouriesburg. This is the view that Olivier, one of the Boer leaders who refused to surrender to the British, would have seen, had he looked back while on his hurried march to Golden Gate, the last remaining escape route out of the valley.
But his was a small force in comparison with the rest of the Boers encamped within the Brandwater Basin. A vast contingent of fighting men and burghers, including women, wagons, Cape carts, black attendants, oxen, horses and artillery had moved south into the valley in response to advancing British columns from the north. Amongst them was the president of the Free State, President Steyn. The British knew the layout of the Brandwater system very well, and had already earmarked the weakness in the natural mountain fortress, passes that the Boers might escape through, but also by which the British could advance.
Initial skirmishes at these passes left fatalities on both sides, but the tactics of the British and their ploys to confuse the Boers of their intentions, caused the Boer leaders, and in particular General Christiaan de Wet, to become increasingly edgy about their position in the basin. An urgent meeting was called and a decision reached to escape the basin. Three breakout columns were planned for execution over consecutive days, while a fourth group were to remain in the basin to protect the passes from British advance. Military critics identify a lack of communication and a lack of proper chains of command as the main reasons that these strategies failed.
Only one of these breakouts took place successfully. General de Wet and his contingency, together with President Steyn, escaped through Slabbert’s Nek, and moved away swiftly to the west. But due to the remaining forces having been left without their leader, and without effective communication or proper authority, much time was wasted electing a new leader and regrouping. De Wet’s escape from the basin has received some criticism in military circles. His leadership in the Brandwater had been indispensable and, had he not departed, the British would have had a considerably bigger battle on their hands.
While the British were considerably effective in their sealing off of the Brandwater Basin, despite operating in the type of terrain much more familiar to the Boers, they completely failed to anticipate and prevent the escape of Olivier and other leaders through the difficult Golden Gate pass, thus losing a number of Boer forces to the east as well.
Boer surrender after de Wet left was inevitable. Their spirits were low, and they were a force who had largely lost interest in the fight. While many were happy to lay down arms, there were some who were less ready to actively surrender and remained in the network of surrounding hills, hiding out in thickly vegetated ravines and caves. Over the many days during which the surrender was formalised, motley groups of individuals came down out of the hills, finally accepting the outcome.
The Boer surrender in the Brandwater basin was considered a great military success for the British, despite the two escapes through the passes. However, the escape by de Wet through Slabbert’s Nek, not a major setback at the time, came back to haunt the British later.
The Boers were on the brink of changing their tactics in the war. Traditional warfare was not something that best suited the natural bent of the Boer, and they had started implementing tactics that completely confounded the British army. Guerrilla warfare. The British, having captured many key Boer leaders across both Boer States, expected that the war would be coming to a close soon. But it didn’t; and for another two years the British struggled to subdue the Boers.
The most formidable leader in guerrilla warfare, and the biggest thorn in Britain’s side, was de Wet, the man they had let slip through Slabbert’s Nek without detection. Despite fighting at the front throughout the war, both in conventional and guerrilla warfare, regularly impairing and incapacitating British strategies and defences, de Wet consistently eluded the British net, and evaded capture right to the very end of the war.
The picture insert features in the 2014 calendar produced by and sold in aid of Cluny Animal Trust. Calendars can be purchased at Clarens Gallery, Clementines Restaurant and the Old Stone Bottle Store, in Clarens. Alternatively they can be ordered from Katherine on 0827886287, Jan on 0782462553, Helen on 0582230918 or by email to firstname.lastname@example.org .
Article and photograph by Mary Walker
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