Topic: BatzB - Elands
The Battle of Elands River
South Africa, 4 August 1900
Elands River, fought on 4-16 August 1900 during the Second South African War, entailed the heroic defence of a staging post in Western Transvaal by a mixed force of British colonial troops. The defenders comprised some 300 Bushmen from various Australian colonies (105 From New South Wales, 141 from Queensland, 42 Victorians, nine West Australians and two Tasmanians), along with 201 Rhodesians, two Canadians and three from British units - the whole commanded by Lieut.-Colonel Charles Hore, a British officer. The garrison was supported by only one Maxim and an old 7-pounder screw gun. Opposing this force were 2,000 - 3,000 Boers armed with six 12-pounder field-guns and three quick-firing automatic guns known as pom-poms, commanded by General J.H. De la Rey and General H. L. Lemmer.
The garrison was there to guard a large accumulation of supplies intended for other British columns operating in the region, and the latter represented the Boers' primary reason for attacking. The main camp occupied a small rocky ridge situated in the centre of a natural amphitheatre about two hectares in extent, about a kilometre east of the river, but detachments of troops also held two small hills on the riverbank. An attack on the exposed outpost had been anticipated before the siege began on 4 August, although it was hoped that a column of 1,000 New South Wales Imperial Bushmen and South African irregulars under General Sir Frederick Carrington would arrive before this eventuated. As a precaution, though, a defensive perimeter was hastily improvised using ox-wagons and boxes and bags taken from the stores depot.
These preparations enabled the defenders to withstand the enemy's initial onslaught, during which the compound was subjected to a heavy bombardment. In the first two days over 2,500 shells hit the camp, killing most of the 1,500 horses, oxen and mules, blasting stores in all directions and causing numerous human casualties. On the second day of the investment, the leading elements of Carrington's force were spotted on the rising ground three kilometres to the west. Hopes of relief were cruelly dashed, however, when the column - advancing without the use of scouts - rode into an ambush and was put into headlong retreat, albeit after sustaining only seventeen minor casualties.
Left to their own resources, the garrison completed the digging of rifle pits and building of stone sangars to provide shelter from enemy fire. Some relief was also afforded by the fact that the Boers badly wanted the stores being defended, and hence eased up on the weight of their artillery barrage. The battle was nonetheless maintained using smaller calibre weapons, and the colonial troops were kept under fire from all directions, around the clock. This fire had to be braved during the night, when small parties were sent of necessity to carry drinking water into the lines from the river. Occasional night-time forays were also made to deal with particularly troublesome Boer positions. During daylight hours, however, the defenders remained pinned down in their pits, enduring the heat, thirst and overpowering stench from the carcasses of dead animals.
After a week of fighting the Boers called on the camp to surrender. As a mark of respect for the gallant defence which had been made, De la Rey was prepared to allow officers to retain their side-arms and the garrison was guaranteed a safe passage to the nearest British position. His offer was refused and the battle continued. Meanwhile, a second attempt at lifting the siege was being undertaken from the east by Colonel Robert Baden-Powell at the head of a column 2,000 strong. This reached within 30 kilometres of the post but received orders to turn away in the belief that the defenders had already capitulated.
Not until 13 August was the true position learnt, after a native runner was picked up on the Mafeking railway with the news that the camp was still holding out. A new effort to break the siege was immediately ordered, and columns totalling 10,000 men under General Lord Kitchener started out on the 15th. In the face of the overwhelming strength of the advancing British force, De le Rey withdrew his burghers before Kitchener rode into the Elands River camp the next day. By this stage twelve of the garrison had been killed, along with seven native porters, and another 58 wounded. The siege was perhaps the most notable action involving Australians in South Africa, earning high praise from even the Boers' senior commander, Jan Smuts, who said:
Never in the course of this war did a besieged force endure worse sufferings, but they stood their ground with magnificent courage. All honour to these heroes who in the hour of trial rose nobly to the occasion ...
Extracted from the book produced by Chris Coulthard-Clark, Where Australians Fought - The Encyclopaedia of Australia's Battles, Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 1998, pp. 83-84.
Additional References cited by Chris Coulthard-Clark:L.S. Amery, (ed.) The Times History of the War in South Africa 1899-1902, Vol. 4 (1906), London: Sampson Low, Marston & Co.
James Green (1903) The Story of the Australian Bushmen, Sydney: William Brooks & Co.
R.L. Wallace (1976) The Australians at the Boer War, Canberra: Australian War Memorial & Australian Government Publishing Service.
Citation: The Battle of Elands River, South Africa, 4 August 1900, Outline