Siege of Jammerbergdrif (Wepener) 1900
9 April 2017
Approximately midway between the Free State Towns of Zastron and Ladybrand lies a nondescript little town named Wepener. Outside the town is a hill named the Jammerberg, so named around 1823 by a party of hunters who shot a rhebuck as she was lambing. They expressed their regret (jammer) and the drift across the Caledon River is known as the Jammerbergdrif.
During the Anglo-Boer War, Wepener became famous for a 16 day siege between the 9th and 25th April 1900 although the commander of the Garrison, Lt Col Edmund Dalgety became isolated on the 7th April. The significant aspect of this event was that most of the troops that were besieged were Colonials, with the exception of a detachment of Royal Engineers and 81 all ranks of the Royal Scots Mounted Infantry. The force had been deployed at Wepener in an attempt to prevent them from moving southwards towards Aliwal North.
Before Dalgety’s arrival at Wepener on the 4th April 1900, Commandant Banks demanded the surrender of Major Maxwell, to prevent needless bloodshed. Maxwell curtly rejected the request and troops were then placed in positions on the koppies north of the drift. Dalgety’s force totalled 111 officers and 1781 other ranks, comprising the following: The Royal Engineers; the Royal Scots Mounted Infantry; the Cape Mounted Riflemen; 1s Brabant’s Horse; 2nd Brabant’s Horse; the Kaffrarian Rifles; Driscoll’s Scouts; 7 guns of various calibre and 6 or 7 Maxims commanded by Captain Henry Timson Lukin, and a detachment of the Royal Army Medical Corps. The Engineers worked flat out to prepare trenches, sangars and gun positions. Dalgety ensured that tinned meat and fish, slaughter cattle and sheep were stacked or brought into the encampment.
The Boers totalled approximately 6000 burghers with 7 guns and were commanded by General Christiaan de Wet. His sub-commanders were General Haasbroek, General Christoffel Froneman and General JHB (“Jan Brand”) Wessels.
Early on the morning of the 9th April 1900, de Wet ordered his men to take up positions surrounding the British on both sides of the Caledon River and a Boer shell heralded the commencement of the siege when it landed in the Royal Scots’ camp.
The Siege of Jammerbergdrif continued and the defenders began to suffer casualties almost immediately. The 1800 horses suffered especially with many of them failing to survive the siege.
The Boer artillery shelled the garrison incessantly and several determined attacks were beaten off, especially at the bridge across the Caledon River. At 01h30 on Friday 13th April, the Boers launched a night attack but they were beaten off. They then attacked different positions on a daily basis, but the determined garrison managed to hold out. To exacerbate matters, heavy rain fell between the 12th and 16th April, soaking the men and adding to everyone’s discomfort – especially those manning the trenches.
On the 22nd April, the Boers recommenced their sniping but the garrison heard that a relief force under the command of Maj Gen Sir Leslie Rundle was approaching from the south. This was confirmed when the Boers were observed moving in that direction in an attempt to counter the relief, despite another Boer artillery bombardment on the 24th April.
At dawn on the 25th April 1900, an enormous number of Boer wagons, carts and horsemen were observed moving along the road towards Ladybrand, signalling the end of the Siege.
Field Marshal Lord Roberts was highly impressed by the Colonials’ successful stand during the Siege of Wepener; besides having prevented the Boers from moving southwards, it has been a tremendous morale booster for the British and Roberts wrote the following in a telegram to Maj Gen Sir Edward Brabant, commander of the Colonial Division: “I beg you will convey my hearty congratulations to Colonel Dalgety and all those serving under his orders for the gallant defence of Wepener, which has excited the admiration of their comrades in the force under my command. I look forward to having the pleasure of tendering to them my personal congratulations at no distant date.”
General de Wet wrote of the Siege in “Three Years War”: “...reinforcements were pouring in upon the enemy from all sides.... Accordingly I issued orders to General Froneman to desist from any further attack upon the reinforcement with which he had been engaged, and to join me. When he arrived I fell back on Thaba ‘Nchu. My siege of Colonel Dalgety, with his Brabant’s Horse and Cape Mounted Rifles, had lasted for sixteen days. Our total loss was only five killed and thirteen wounded. The English, as I learnt from the prisoners, had suffered rather severely.”
Script and Photos : Ken Gillings