Dwarsvlei, near Pretoria

Hansie Viljoen with his son and grandson on the foundations of the original farmhouse at Dwarsvlei.(Photo:J Shaw) Image source

The Farm Dwarsvlei is situated 15 kilometres North of Krugersdorp, on the road to Hekpoort, past Sterkfontein of Archaeological fame. It is still Owned and Farmed by Descendants of the Oosthuizen family, the Voortrekkers who first Settled there. It was the scene of at least two almost forgotten clashes between the Boers and the British during the Anglo-Boer War (1899 - 1902)
The first incident which took place here, on 11 July 1900, was a fierce Battle in which three Victoria Crosses were earned in circumstances initially remarkably similar to the Battle of Colenso, seven Months earlier, 15 December 1899. Amongst the Boer casualties was their Commander, Sarel Oosthuizen. The engagement was described by Major-General Smith-Dorrien as their 'most trying fight of the whole war'.
Then, on 9 October 1900, a captain in the Royal Scots Fusiliers, Hugh Montague Trenchard, was ambushed and critically wounded outside the door of the Farmhouse in the second incident which occurred on the Farm, during the War. Trenchard survived to become 'one of the few great men, who can be said to have changed the course of History'. He became 'the father of the Royal Air Force and the Architect of modern air power', dictating the role of Aerial Bombing Warfare in both the First and Second World Wars. He fought Economic cuts to keep the Air Force, in existence between the wars and it is said that, 'without him, there would have been no Battle of Britain'.
 
Today, only a short drive from Johannesburg, the tarred road to Hekpoort passes over the Battlefield of Dwarsvlei, but there is no indication of the events that took place there a Century ago. Not even a cartridge case remains to be seen, although the British alone fired 38 000 rounds that Day. The Farm and the Slope of the Witwatersberg to the North are now covered with invasive Wattle Trees, but the two Kopjes and the Hollow, beyond them remains open Veld, as it was a Century ago. Thus, the Panorama of the Battlefield can be easily surveyed. The positioning of the roads has changed slightly over time with the Hekpoort road to be to the West of the Kopjes, while the present tarred road follows the path between them taken by the guns.
 
The Battle of Dwarsvlei, 11 July 1900-
It was mid-Winter on the Highveld, Pretoria had fallen to the British, and General de la Rey had gathered the Burghers North of the Magaliesberg for the start of the guerrilla phase of the war. On that day, 11 July 1900, the British were engaged at four Places: Witpoort, East of Pretoria; Onderstepoort to the North; and Zilikat's Nek (Silkaatsnek) and Dwarsvlei in the West. The results of the actions at the last three sites was disastrous. The Gordon Highlanders and Shropshire Regiment under the Command of Major-General Smith-Dorrien were to leave Krugersdorp for Hekpoort in order to join the Scots Greys from Pretoria and link up with Baden-Powell at Olifantsnek, South of Rustenburg. The Force consisted of about 1 335 men, 597 Gordon Highlanders, 680 Shropshires, 34 Imperial Yeomanry with a Colt Gun, two Guns of the 78th Battery, three Ambulances and forty Wagons.
The Track they followed is in very much in the same position as the Tarred Road is today, topping a Rise after about 15 km before dropping through an open Hollow and rising again to cross the Witwatersberg beyond. Here the Boers, mainly from the Krugersdorp Commando under Sarel Oosthuizen, opened fire on them from the high ground.
 
The guns advanced between the two Kopjes to the open Ground and opened fire on the opposing Ridges while the Gordons took up positions on the Kopjes. As at Colenso, the Horse-Drawn Artillery, in their eagerness to come into action, had left the Infantry behind and found themselves in an exposed Position. They sent the limbers 600 Yards (548 metres) to the Rear, instead of taking advantage of the perfect cover provided by the Kopjes. The deadly Boer fire, from only 800 Yards (731 metres) away, soon took its toll and within half an hour, fourteen of the seventeen Gunners had been hit and the guns had been silenced. The section commander, Lieutenant Turner, although wounded three times, continued for some time to fire one of the guns himself. One of the limber teams, in endeavouring to remove a gun, had four horses shot and gave up the attempt, while the horses of the other had taken fright and bolted. Captain W E Gordon, with some Gordon Highlanders, then made a gallant but ultimately unsuccessful attempt to manhandle the guns. Captain D R Younger and three men were killed and seventeen were wounded in the attempt.
For his efforts, Captain Gordon was awarded the Victoria Cross, while Captain Younger's award was only gazetted on 8 August 1902, as Posthumous Awards were not made at the time. Corporal J F Mackay had been recommended for the Victoria Cross at Doornkop on 29 May 1900 as well as on three other occasions, including Dwarsvlei, where he had dashed out from the safety of the right Kopje, hoisted Captain Younger on his back, and carried him behind the left Kopje under the concentrated fire of several hundred rifles.
As the expected Scots Greys and two guns of the Royal Horse Artillery were pinned down and eventually Captured by De la Rey at Zilikat's Nek, Lord Roberts Signalled from Pretoria at 13.25 that the operation was to be cancelled and that the force must retire to Krugersdorp. Orders were issued for the withdrawal, but Lieutenant Turner, upon hearing of them from where he lay wounded next to the headquarters, burst out, 'Oh, you can't leave my guns!'  Then, on Colonel Macbean's assurance that the Gordons could hold on all day, Smith-Dorrien cancelled the order.
Skirmishing continued for the rest of the Day and the Transport, HQ and Ambulance all came under fire. At dusk, the Boers, with shouts of 'Voorwaarts, mense, voorwaarts!' (Forward, people, forward!), attempted to capture the guns. They were driven off with considerable losses, including their leader, Sarel Oosthuizen. He was wounded in the thigh and Died a Month later, on 14 August 1900. The British guns were recovered and both sides withdrew from the Field, the British reaching Krugersdorp weary but in good spirits in the early Hours of the following Morning.
A week later, the British resumed their Mission, Reinforced by Lord Methuen's force, and passed the same Area on 19 July, observing a few Boers who kept their Distance and put up but slight resistance later.
 
In the Krugersdorp Cemetery, Captain Younger's Headstone stands thirty paces away from the Memorial stone to vecht-generaal Sarel Oosthuizen and his younger brother, korporaal Izak Johannes Oosthuizen (who died on 20 April 1902, a few days before the end of the war). The Battle of Dwarsvlei has also been referred to as: 'Leeuhoek, Door Boschfontein and Onrus', all being names of Farms in the Area, that the action took place in that day.
 
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Last updated : 07-Jan-2019

This article was produced by South African History Online on 07-Jan-2019

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