Battle of Biddulphsberg OFS - Engagement at Milldraai Roodepoort SAR 1900
29 May 2017
Battle of Biddulphsberg near the Free State town of Senekal.
During the continuation of FM Lord Roberts’s advance on Johannesburg and Pretoria after the fall of Bloemfontein, one of the Divisions –General Sir Leslie Rundle’s 8th Division – advanced via Springfontein, de Wetsdorp, Thaba ‘Nchu and Koppieskraal. The Boers (under the command of General AJ de Villiers) offered some resistance but fell back towards the north.
On the morning of the 25th May 1900, he approached Senekal. His advance guard under Major HS Dalbiac galloped up to the town and took up a position on the outskirts, were he became hotly engaged by the Boers and he was killed. On hearing the news, Rundle pushed forward but was too late to be of assistance. He then established his HQ in Senekal on the 26th May 1900. His Division comprised the 4th Battalion Imperial Yeomanry, 2nd Grenadier Guards, 2nd Scots Guards, 2nd East Yorkshire Regiment, 2nd Royal West Kent Regiment, 1 company 11th Imperial Yeomanry, 2nd Battery RFA, 79th Battery RFA and Driscoll’s Scouts.
The Boer force in the vicinity of Senekal – still commanded by Gen AJ de Villiers and numbering about 400 burghers (although the Official History stated there were 1500!) – comprised elements from the Senekal, Ficksburg, Wepener, Thaba ‘Nchu, Smithfield and Ladybrand Commandos. He also had three field pieces at his disposal. A nearby mountain named the Biddulphsberg formed part of the Boer deployment
At 06h00 on Tuesday 29th May 1900, Rundle resumed his advance, but left General Boyes in Senekal with two battalions of infantry and some Yeomanry. The main force skirted a feature known as Ghwarriekop and headed north of the Biddulphsberg. It then swung towards the south, heading in the direction of the northern slopes of the Biddulphsberg where Field Cornet Piet Ferreira’s burghers were concealed. The Battery Commander of 79th Battery then opened fire on the Erasmus farm buildings, assuming that they were harbouring the Boers. Ferreira returned fire with his pom-pom, which proved to be devastatingly accurate. Rundle ordered 2nd Battery to respond and Rundle was under the impression that the guns had silenced the Boer gun. He then ordered the Grenadier Guards under Colonel Lloyd to charge recklessly towards the gun position and they walked straight into some Boers under Delport and Rautenbach lying concealed in a nearby vlei and the tall veld, after being warned by their comrades that the Grenadiers were approaching.
The unsuspecting Grenadiers encountered a devastatingly accurate rifle fire from close range, which resulted in them being repulsed. Their second charge was unsuccessful, as was their third. To exacerbate matters for Rundle, the next Boer gun was brought into action once again, causing the hapless soldiers to rise from their positions and retread in the direction of Senekal, followed by intensive artillery and rifle fire. This was not the end of their woes, however; the veld caught fire and when the wind suddenly changed direction, the flames headed towards the soldiers, many of whom lay wounded in its path. The dry grass was extremely tall and the fire raged out of control through the scene of the action, setting fire to the soldiers’ uniforms and scorching their beards and hair. Even the Boers were horrified at the scene; burgher I A Meyer described is as “...een vreeselijk schouspel” (“a terrible scene”). Some soldiers ran to and fro along the lines of flames, trying to escape them. The wounded who were unable to move were simply engulfed alive, and many were writing in pain.
De Villiers then ordered his concealed burghers to follow up the retreat, but the guns of the RFA opened fire, causing them to hesitate. De Villiers led the pursuit but was struck by a shell fragment and seriously wounded in the jaw. Because the Boer doctor was unavailable, he was taken to Senekal the following day, by Commandant Vilonel to the parsonage of General Paul Roux. He was treated in a British hospital where he died a couple of months later from his wounds.
Losses were difficult to determine, but it is generally accepted that 185 British soldiers were killed and wounded, of which 1 officer and 46 ORs were killed. The Boers lost one killed while de Villiers died later.
Rundle called off the battle and the 8th Division then continued its advance, setting the scene for the events in the Brandwater Basin.
Script by Ken Gillings