Topic: BatzB - Koster River
The Battle of Koster River
South Africa, 22 July 1900
Koster River, a controversial action fought on 22 July 1900 (during the Second South African War), on the road between Rustenburg and Elands River in western Transvaal. After a Boer commando led by General H.L. Lemmer had cut the westward route towards Zeerust and Mafeking, thereby preventing supplies from reaching British forces stationed at Rustenburg under Colonel Robert Baden-Powell, late on the afternoon of 21 July a detachment of 270 Australian Bushmen (from New South Wales, Queensland, Victoria and Western Australia) was sent from Magato Nek (or Pass) under Lieut. Colonel Henry Airey with orders to 'brush aside' the enemy and return with a convoy from Elands River.
At about 8 a.m. the next day Airey's column was ambushed by Lemmer at Koster River, a tributary of the Selons. The Boers allowed the Australians' advance guard and flanking scouts to pass before opening a heavy fire on the main body from a horseshoe of kopjes (low hills) 730 metres away. Forced to seek concealment in the long grass beside the road, in an area offering little cover such as stones or boulders and only a few thin trees, the Bushmen were pinned down and over 200 of their horses stampeded or shot. Airey, finding that his force was unable to move, determined to hold out until help arrived. The action accordingly lasted throughout the day, with the Boers' numbers - initially put at 400-increasing to about 1,000.
At one stage in the heated engagement, an isolated party of an officer and ten men raised a white flag to give themselves up. Airey considered that this act compromised the integrity of the defence, and felt honour-bound to surrender his entire command. I His decision was flatly opposed by the officer commanding the Western Australians, Major Harry Vialls, who reportedly 'stamped and swore' at what he regarded as a shameful order. Attempts to surrender were ignored by the Boers anyway, and in the face of the enemy's unrelenting fire the column was obliged to keep fighting.
After word of the Australians' predicament was carried to Magato Pass by a young Englishwoman who lived on a farm at nearby Woodstock, a relieving force (comprising 200 Australians from Magato Nek and a portion of the Bechuanaland Protectorate Regiment sent out from Rustenburg) proceeded to the scene. When these reinforcements arrived at about 2.30 p.m. and began to threaten the flanks of the Boer position, the enemy broke off the action and rode away. There were 39 casualties incurred by Airey's men in the six-and-a-half hour fight: six killed, three later died of wounds, 23 wounded, and seven men missing.
Extracted from the book produced by Chris Coulthard-Clark, Where Australians Fought - The Encyclopaedia of Australia's Battles, Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 1998, pp. 82-83.
Additional References cited by Chris Coulthard-Clark:
P.L. Murray (1911) Official Records of the Australian Military Contingents to the War in South Africa, Melbourne: Government Printer.
John Stirling (1907) The Colonials in South Africa, 1899-1902, Edinburgh: W. Blackwood & Sons.
R.L. Wallace (1976) The Australians at the Boer War, Canberra: Australian War Memorial & Australian Government Publishing Service.
Citation: The Battle of Koster River, South Africa, 22 July 1900, Outline