Battle of Graspan (Enslin)
25 November 2017
Battle of Graspan (Enslin)
The 25th November 2015 is the 116th anniversary of the Battle of Graspan / Enslin, in the Northern Cape.
Following his rather expensive victory at Belmont on the 23rd November 1899, Lt Gen Lord Methuen was confident that he had driven the Boers away from his continued route of advance on Kimberley. In fact it was the exact opposite; General Marthinus Prinsloo had retired to Ramdam (25km east of Enslin station). General Koos de la Rey (who had arrived too late to participate in the Battle of Belmont) depolyed his ZAR burghers along the low koppies midway between Graspan and Enslin stations. The two Boer generals held a krysraad (council of war) on the 24th November 1899 and decided to defend Lord Methuen’s line of advance across a front of approximately 8 km in extent.
Lord Methuen’s reconnaisance indicated that he was being opposed by a small force, no larger than 500 Boers with two field pieces while in fact de la Rey’s arrival increased the Boer strength to approximately 1200 with three guns and two pop-poms. Gen de la Rey’s ZAR burghers were deployed along the koppies west of the railway line, while Prinsloo’s Free Staters took up positions to the east and south-east. Prinsloo occupied the most southerly feature with the Bloemfontein Commando.
At 03h30 on the 25th November 1899, Methuen’s 9th Brigade (the 1st Northumberland Fusiliers, 2nd Northamptonshire Regiment, 2nd KOYLI and ½ bn of the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment with a small naval detachment with artillery commenced their advance. They were followed about 90 minutes later by the Guards Brigade while the Scots Guards and the Munster Fusiliers formed the rear-guard.
Methuen ordered Col Gough with 2 squadrons of mounted infantry and Rimington’s Guides to outflank the Boers’ left flank towards the east while additional mounted infantry swung to the west in a similar movement. The general advance was supported by two batteries of artillery – 75th Bty on the left and 18th Bty on the right of the British advance while four naval 12-pr 12-cwt guns were transported by rail in general support. His intention was to outflank the Boers and capture the entire force.
As the British approached the line of koppies, their artillery poured a heavy but ineffective fire onto them.
It was then that Methuen realised that he had underestimated the Boers’ strength was far greater than he had estimated. The naval guns were then detrained and came into action alongside the railway line, apparently managing to silence the Boer guns at about 06h30. He ordered the field batteries to advance closer to the Boer positions but this brought them to within rifle range of the burghers.
The infantry were intially ordered to attack the centre koppie but were then ordered to include those to the east as well, resulted in the KOYLI and 2nd Northamptons becoming intermingled. This meant that the planned flanking movement had to be delayed until 09h00. The Free Staters under Commandants Fourie and van der Venter subjected the infantry to heavy and accurate small arms fire, supported by Maj Albrecht’s pom-poms. The British infantry desperately headed for the base of the koppies for shelter because the barren veld offered no protection except for the odd ant-hill. In the west, de la Rey’s and Commandant Jordaan’s burghers initially put up a spiritedresistance but when their flank was threatened by a bayonet charge, they withdrew. The Free Staters similarly began to abandon their positions and Gough actually witnessed the Boer laager retiring towards Jacobsdal but felt his force was too inadequate to follow up. He requested artillery support but the guns arrived too late and the Boers’ retreat went unmolested. The Marines lost heavily in the Battle of Graspan-Enslin, which is commemorated annually as 'Graspan Day'. Methuen replaced Gough due to what he considered a lack of aggressiveness, and he became the first officer to be 'Stellenbosched' (when an officer found to be incompetent in the field was sent to Stellenbosch to to clerical duty). Gough committed suicide at Norval's Pont, while en route to Cape Town.
Another incident involved the Marines' Major Plumbe, who was killed in the assault on van de Venter's position. His body was almost overlooked by the stretcher parties when they heard a dog barking. They discovered Plumbe's body hidden behind some rocks, closely guarded by his faithful terrier which had accompanied his master into battle. The dog had remained with Plumbe for over six hours...
The route towards Kimberley was clear for the time being, but two more major battles lay ahead for Methuen; Modder River (28th November 1899) and Magersfontein (11th December 1899).
The Boers lost about 27 killed and 100 wounded, missing or POW. British losses were 18 killed and 143 wounded. The majority of British losses were suffered by the Naval Brigade (9 killed and 92 wounded).
Source : Ken Gillings's