Information and history

ID #2812

Groenkop Anglo-Boer War Battlefield, Kestell, Eastern Free State.

“A good example of the decisive guerrilla attacks made by the Boers during the latter part of the war” “Fine in conception and execution, de Wet’s stroke thus met with the full success it deserved” Times History of the War. “British Camp attacked by De Wet and 1220 Boers. Desperate fighting against all odds. Imperial Light Horse to the rescue. Arrived too late” Telegraph from Lord Kitchener.

The battle took place in the last 6 months of the war. It was different to the initial battles.  After initial Boer successes, their generals realised that they needed to change the way in which the war was waged, and guerrilla warfare started.  The Boers would attack when least expected, relying on their excellent knowledge of the terrain and bushcraft.  They took the initiative and were opportunistic.

The British response was to build strings of blockhouses linked by barbed wire fences to restrict Boer mobility.  They also destroyed all the farms and moved the rural population (black and white) into concentration camps to prevent the Boers getting help from the rural population.

From the British perspective, especially those stationed in Harrismith, Lord Kitchener was not an easy boss.  Commanders who earned their promotions during conventional battles found it difficult to adapt to new situations. There were leadership struggles, the soldiers were demotivated and it was always difficult to find horses. The Imperial Light Horse, made up of English sympathisers, was a great asset in guerrilla warfare. They knew South Africa and the South Africans. However, the British commander-in-chief in Harrismith, General Rundle, had no authority over the ILH in the area.

He was working on completing the blockhouse line from Harrismith to Kroonstad.  They had reached about 40-km from Bethlehem, near what is now the village of Kestell.  The front of the blockhouse line was most vulnerable. In fairness Rundle had been allocated a weak force with which to protect it.  However, he weakened it still further by dividing it into four groups.  To the Boer leader, Christiaan de Wet the most tempting of these was the camp on Groenkop.  It was theoretically the most difficult to attack but in addition to the troops, it had a large supply of food, ammunition and horses.

The British believed that the hill gave them protection.  However, as they did at Majuba, Spioenkop and Caesar’s Camp, they overlooked that the steep side of the hill, where attack is least expected, also gives the best cover. At least lookouts should have been placed at the base of the cliff on the western side of the hill. The British also believed there were only 70 Boers in the vicinity.  There were actually 1100. From a hill slightly higher than Groenkop, de Wet could see what was going on, and he could see sentries taking up their positions with fixed bayonets against the skyline.  He had also drawn the fire of the large guns on top of the hill and knew where they were located.

The Boers secretly gathered at Tigerkloof Spruit, 13-km north of Groenkop.  A small group remained and the rest rode to Groenkop, to the steepest side of the hill.  Here they found two gullies to climb.  A few stayed to guard the horses while the rest rode around to the east of the hill to await developments. About 450 climbed bootless up the hill at about 02h00.  It was a moonlit night but passing clouds and a light mist gave them cover.  The British knew nothing of the attack until the Boers were on the crest of the hill. In full attack, the Boers moved forward through the sleeping camp.

The camp contained 550 soldiers from the 11th Yeomanry, a gun from the 79th Battery, a pompom, the 34th Middlesex Company, the 36th West Kent Company and the 35th Middlesex Company. On that night, the 35th Middlesex Company was deployed on outpost duty.

A third of the British fled, but the rest “preserved a military bearing”.  They took their positions, which unfortunately led them even more into the line of fire.  The 53rd’s position was about 6-m below the southern crest, and the battle swept past them. Only after the Boers had made their way through the camp did they return.  The last shot was fired at 03h15.

The British recorded that the Boers, under de Wet, behaved well, leaving men to look after the wounded. “The real Boers were very decent chaps, and did all they could, but there were a good few foreigners with them who were very bitter…de Wet himself sjambokked (thrashed) several of them when they attempted to loot the doctor’s stores”.

The Boers left with two cannons, guns, ammunition, 20 loaded ox wagons, tents and 500 horses and mules.  One of the wagons even had a load of spirits. What the Boers could not take they destroyed.

“There were dead horses and men lying all over the place”.  British losses amounted to 142 dead and wounded. A monument on the hill records that 67 men were killed in action.  25 blacks were also killed. 240 British were taken prisoner by de Wet.  15 Boers lost their lives, and 30 were wounded.

The first response from Rundle was at 04h00 when a shell fell among the retreating wagons leaden with spoils.  Each of the retreating Boers had an English horse, “…in the pink of condition for a rapid retreat” and nothing came of the attack.

This was the last time that such a large Free State force met with the British.  It also represented the final failure of British methods. The fighting had, until now placed immense strain on the British troops and horses, with little success.

Kestell is on the N5 west of Harrismith, which is at the intersection of the N3 with the N5. Turn north onto the S185 from the N5 between Kestell and Bethlehem.  The turnoff is 5-km from Kestell.  The entrance to the farm is 7-km along the S185, on the left.  The battle site is on a private farm and normal courtesies are expected, like no smoking. A tea garden is available but pre-booking is advised: +27 (58) 652 ask for Kestell 2313. Layout maps and detailed brochures are available on site. BJGroenkop

Contct:            Harrismith Marketing Bureau
Box 43 Harrismith 9880
+27 (58) 622 3235 telephone
+27 (58) 623 0923 fax



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Last update: 2014-05-11 23:17
Author: Alan McIver
Revision: 1.2

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