Battle of Rooiwal(Rrenoster river) OFS 1900
7 June 2017
Battle of Rooiwal
For the British, however, the silence was ominous. By this time on that cold winter's morning De Wet had the Highlanders and their convoy in the hollow of his hand. During the night he had moved silently down the Renoster River with a party of burghers and at daybreak the camp was encircled. Shortly after 9.15 a.m. a burgher with a flag of truce presented himself to Corballis. He delivered a message from De Wet in which the general told the convoy commander that he was hopelessly surrounded and had better surrender. Not long afterwards the white flag was in the air and the Highlanders, with the 9th Division's ammunition and provisions, in Boer hands; and all this was accomplished in De Wet's characteristic style without a shot being fired to warn the troops at Heilbron or along the railway.
De Wet now began to prepare for the assault on Rooiwal. His plan was to attack the British at three points along the railway: at Rooiwal station, at Renoster River bridge, two miles further north, and at Vredefort Road, 14 miles north of the bridge. On Wednesday evening, 6th June De Wet set off from Smitsdrif with his officers and burghers. At Walfontein he divided his force. He was to lead the attack on Rooiwal station personally. Since, according to his information, the enormous stocks of goods at the station were guarded by less than 100 troops, he selected 80 men for this attempt. They were to be supported by a Krupp field gun.
At Renoster River bridge there was a considerably larger force. De Wet assigned the attack here to General Stoffel Froneman, with 300 men, two Krupps and a quick-firing gun. Vredefort Road was to be attacked by Commandant Lucas Steenkamp with 300 men and a Krupp. The troops at Vredefort Road were negligible, but Commandant Steenkamp also had to protect the right flank of the attackers at Renoster River bridge and Rooiwal against a larger British force along the railway further to the north.
The assault parties separated quietly in the darkness and rode off to their objectives . Before dawn on Thursday morning, 7th June 1900 De Wet and his 80 men approached across the open plain to within 800 yards of Rooiwal station. Here the Krupp gun was unlimbered and placed in position. Suddenly three bursts of rifle-fire rang out in the distance; Froneman had made contact with the troops at Renoster River bridge. Then all was quiet once more. At daybreak De Wet again sent a burgher with a flag of truce to the British commander. His message read that the station was surrounded by 1 000 men with four guns and he called upon the post to surrender within ten minutes. The messenger returned with a reply from Captain A. G. W. Grant that he would certainly not do so. De Wet then opened fire on the station, to which the defenders responded briskly.
Grant's force consisted of approximately 170 men - considerably more than De Wet had supposed. They were entrenched, on the eastern side of the station facing the attack, behind a row of trucks and the platform of a goods shed, and on all other sides by barricades of mail bags and bales of clothing and blankets (see sketch). De Wet's burghers fired while lying flat on the ground. The Krupp, however, was without cover and the General ordered the gun to be withdrawn to a distance of 3 000 yards from Rooiwal. The move was carried out under a sharp covering fire by De Wet's riflemen without a man or horse being hit. From their new position the gunners resumed their bombardment and gave De Wet a clear advantage over his opponents, who had no artillery. The station's corrugated iron buildings were shot to pieces and the defenders were pinned down in their entrenchments by shrapnel and a hail of bullets.
Meanwhile there had also been severe fighting at Renoster River bridge. The British here consisted mainly of the 4th Derbyshire Regiment and a detachment of Imperial Yeomanry, altogether approximately 700 men. They had pitched their camp at the foot of the ridge a mile north of the bridge. Two companies guarded the bridge, while two more companies were in position on the hills above the camp. During the night Commandant C. Nel of Kroonstad suddenly overpowered the troops at the bridge. At the same time Froneman reached the hills to the north. At daybreak he had gained complete command of the camp and proceeded to fire into it and to mop up the companies on the hills. The bewildered troops held out for some hours but the relentless artillery- and rifle-fire of the Free Staters gradually cut them down, and at about 10 a.m. white flags were waving everywhere. According to a dispatch by De Wet approximately 200 soldiers were killed or wounded here and 500 taken prisoner as against one burgher mortally wounded. Froneman and his men had carried out their mission splendidly.
By this time Commandant Steenkamp, too, had surprised the garrison at Vredefort Road, capturing the stores and taking 38 prisoners without firing a shot. Later he became engaged in a prolonged skirmish with troops who had arrived by train from the north. The soldiers eventually withdrew again by train after five burghers had been slightly wounded.
As soon as De Wet was informed of the surrender of the troops at Renoster River bridge, he ordered that Froneman's guns be brought to Rooiwal immediately. Against the cross-fire which he brought to bear upon the station after the arrival of the guns, the defenders had no answer and at noon the white flag was hoisted. The British losses, as De Wet reported that evening, were seven killed, 23 wounded and the rest (about 140), prisoners. His own casualties were two burghers wounded.
The booty which now fell into De Wet's hands was the largest captured by the Boers throughout the war. The sight of it astonished the General and his burghers; bales of clothing and cases of ammunition and other supplies piled up in enormous quantities in the barricades, the railway trucks and elsewhere on the station. There were thousands of cases of small-arms and artillery-ammunition of various calibres, including the huge lyddite shells for Lord Roberts's two 9-inch siege guns. There were thousands of winter uniforms (or suits of warm clothes, as De Wet described them), great-coats, warm underwear, socks, boots, gloves and blankets - enough to fit out lavishly all the Free State commandos. The cases of food contained, among other things, tinned meat, canned fruit, coffee and sugar. It was a source of heartfelt regret to De Wet that only a relatively small number of burghers could share in this enormous loot, for to carry away everything was out of the question. With strong British forces in the vicinity, by far the greater part of his capture would have to be destroyed as soon as possible.
There were incredible scenes after De Wet had allowed his burghers to take what they wanted. The first target was the large consignment of champagne. A toast was proposed to Lord Roberts who had so generously provided for all their needs. Then three boisterous cheers went up for 'Oom Christiaan'. In the looting which followed, the burghers were soon smartly dressed in brand-new winter outfits, many of them smoking fat cigars. The parcels from the two big mail consignments of approximately 2 000 bags for Lord Roberts's army yielded a breath-taking treasure: watches, binoculars, clothing, drinking flasks, tobacco, cakes, chocolates. 'You could have found there practically anything from an anchor to a needle', Commandant C. A. van Niekerk (later for many years President of the South African Senate) recalled. With De Wet's permission, the British prisoners-of-war, too, threw themselves upon the loot, plundering their own mail with enthusiasm while chatting amiably with the burghers.
In these circumstances De Wet later had the greatest difficulty in getting a sufficient number of burghers away from the loot for more important duties. He succeeded nevertheless in having some 600 cases of artillery and Lee-Metford ammunition carried away 300 yards from the station. Furthermore the railway was broken up over a 10-mile stretch and all the bridges destroyed, including Renoster River bridge which had previously been blown up by the retreating commandos and had just been repaired by British engineers.
Late in the afternoon preparations were made to burn the goods and explode the ammunition which had to be abandoned. Towards sunset De Wet ordered his burghers and their prisoners to proceed to his camp at Doringdraai. The burghers' horses were so laden with booty that for many of them there was no room in the saddle and they had to lead their animals by the bridle. The prisoners likewise tried to carry away heavy loads. The strain soon proved too much for most of them; they lightened their burdens as they trudged along, leaving a trail of articles which they could carry no further. De Wet then chose 15 men to set light to the supplies they had to leave behind. Soon the dump was ablaze and the General and his burghers galloped off hastily. When they had covered about 1 500 yards the ammunition exploded with tremendous detonations and a huge sheet of flame shot into the air.
De Wet had thus brought his raid to a spectacular conclusion. The operation had been carried out with the flair and tactical skill which always characterised his conduct as a commander. He had slipped past the British troops with ease and had unexpectedly hit the enemy at his most vulnerable point. With a loss of one killed and seven wounded, he had put out of action more than 1 100 soldiers, including, according to his own returns, about 230 killed and wounded. Lord Roberts's line of communication had been badly damaged and the supplies of his army reduced to charred wreckage and a big hole in the ground. This was the sort of coup that made De Wet's name a legend in the Republics, in the British Army, and across the world.
The following night the ammunition which had been removed from Rooiwal, was buried secretly by De Wet's orders on his farm Rooipoort, three miles west of Renoster River bridge. Early in 1901 he had it transferred, again secretly at night, to a cave on the farm of General Wessel Wessels of Harrismith; and in the later stages of the war, when virtually all the burghers were armed with British Lee-Metford rifles, their ammunition was often replenished from this magazine.
But the most important result of Rooiwal was that it helped to rekindle the flame of resistance in the Republics, not only in the Free State, but also in the Transvaal, where it had flickered so uncertainly after the occupation Johannesburg and Pretoria a few days previously. De Wet's report of his success at Rooiwal reached Commandant General Louis Botha on 10th June 1900 on the eve of the battle of Diamond Hill east of Pretoria. After all the set backs of the previous weeks this news was undoubtedly an added incentive to Botha and his commandos to face the future 'with clenched teeth', as De Wet expressed it, and continue the war