Topic: BatzB - Graspan
South Africa, 25 November 1899
Graspan, an action also referred to as the Battle of Enslin, was fought on 25 November 1899 (during the Second South African War) by a British force of 8,500 men under Lieut.-General Lord Methuen while attempting to break the Boer siege of Kimberley. After an earlier engagement at Belmont (q.v.), eighteen kilometres to the south along the single-track railway line which formed the axis of the British advance, Methuen found the Boers occupying a line of kopjes (small hills) about 60 metres high to the east of the railway station at Graspan. Information from British reconnaissance parties indicated that only about 400 enemy were present, supported by two guns.
To prevent the enemy escaping as had happened at Belmont, Methuen decided to engage the Boer position first with artillery fire while working the 900 mounted troops available to him around both flanks. Once these were in position, a frontal assault was to be mounted by the small Naval Brigade operating with his force. Unfortunately for this plan of attack, unknown to Methuen - whose scouts were unable to observe into the enemy position from closer than about two kilometres - the original Boer defenders were reinforced late on the afternoon of 24 November by 2,000 Free State burghers under Commandant Jacobus Prinsloo.
Map showing the Battle of Graspan, 25 November 1899
[From: The Times History of the War in South Africa, II, London, 1902.]
When the British field batteries opened up soon after 6 a.m. the next morning, the answering fire from the Boers came from five guns instead of two - not including a Hotchkiss quick-fire weapon and a Maxim machine-gun. Realising that his original scheme was unworkable, Methuen promptly opted for an all-out attack on conventional lines. This effort would pit the Naval Brigade with some infantry detachments against the Boers eastern (left) flank, while the rest of the British force sought to immobilise the enemy elsewhere and prevent reinforcement of the sector under attack. This plan worked, but not before the 245 strong assault force had lost 15 killed and 79 wounded. By the time the crest of the hill was reached, the enemy had all gone except for a small group which resisted until only one man remained alive.
The British could observe the Boris retiring in good order across the plain back into Free State territory, but a shortage of mounted troops meant that a vigorous pursuit was not possible. The British weakness in this regard was graphically demonstrated at one point during the Boer retreat, when a large body of burghers suddenly turned and attempted to ride down the lesser number of British horsemen from the 9th Lancers trying to follow them. The threat was averted by the response of some Mounted infantry who, along with a detachment of 29 members of the New South Wales Lancers under Lieut. S.F. Osborne, occupied a fold in the ground and poured a heavy fire into the advancing Boers. The incident reportedly won for Osborne and his men the nickname of ‘The Fighting Twenty-Nine.'.
The engagement had demonstrated once again that the Boers were more than a match for Methuen despite his numerical superiority. While he responded by complaining about the deficiency in the number of mounted troops available to him, and confirmed his disappointment in the part played by his cavalry by removing the commander of the 9th Lancers, nothing could disguise his own tactical incompetence which saw his force suffer total casualties at Graspan of seventeen dead and 168 wounded. Among the dead of the Naval Brigade was 19-year-old Midshipman C. I. Huddart of Ballarat, Victoria.
[From: Sydney Mail, 13 January 1900, p. 89.]
Extracted from the book produced by Chris Coulthard-Clark, Where Australians Fought - The Encyclopaedia of Australia's Battles, Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 1998, pp. 58-59.
Additional References cited by Chris Coulthard-Clark:
W. Baring Pemberton (1964) Battles of the Boer War, London.
R.L. Wallace (1976) The Australians at the Boer War, Canberra: Australian War Memorial & Australian Government Publishing Service.
L.M. Field (1979) The forgotten War, Carlton, Vic. Melbourne University Press.
Citation: Graspan, South Africa, November 25, 1899