Topic: BatzB - Sannahs Post
The Battle of Sannah's Post
South Africa, 31 March 1900
Sannah's Post, an action fought on 31 March 1900 during the Second South African War, after the British army commanded by Field Marshal Lord Roberts occupied the Orange Free State capital, Bloemfontein, on 13 March. Two days after the town's capture 300 mounted infantry were sent to Sannah's Post, situated on the Modder River 34 kilometres to the east, to secure the pumping station which supplied Bloomfontein's water supply. As it was known that a strong Boar commando under General JH Olivier was in this area, on the 18th another force - a 1,500-strong column of cavalry and mounted infantry under Lieut.-General John Drench - was sent to take up a defensive position at Thaba 'Nchu, a further 34 kilometres east. On the 26th French had departed to resume command of his cavalry division, leaving the garrison at Thaba 'Nchu under command of Colonel R.G. Broadwood.
When Broadwood found himself seriously menaced by Olivier's force of 5,000 men, he decided on 30 March to withdraw in towards Bloemfontein taking with him any of the town's pro-British residents who wished to be evacuated. Unknown to him, his movement coincided with a bold plan by another Boer leader, General Christiaan de Wet, who had moved south from Brandfort with a column of 1,600 men and seven guns, with the intention of seizing control of the Sannah's Post waterworks and placing himself astride the escape route which Broadwood would use once Olivier launched his planned attack. By 4 a.m. on the 31st he had his men in position: 400 under his own command west of the waterworks, the rest east of the Modder. De Wet's plan called for the larger force to mount the initial attack on the Sannah's Post garrison, in the expectation that the defenders (reduced now to only 200) would abandon the place and head to the capital-and straight into the ambush laid for them.
Intelligence reports delivered during the night told De Wet that a convoy had been despatched down the road from Thaba 'Nchu the previous afternoon, but he did not know that Broadwood's whole force was on the move. When he learned of this fact shortly before dawn, he decided to continue, laying in wait even though Broadwood's much larger force (about 1,800) - which he could actually see bivouacking nearby on the west bank of the Modder - could potentially overwhelm his own meagre numbers. While various minor skirmishes before sunrise at 6 a.m. should have given warning that Boers were in the vicinity, the nature and scale of the threat which was actually present was not evidenced to Broadwood until shells from the north-east started falling around the waterworks bivouac site at 6.20 a.m. Assuming that Olivier's commando had caught up with them, the British column and its convoy rapidly took to the saddle and moved out along the road to the west.
When it was reported to Broadwood that 300 Boers had been sighted along hills to the north, he deduced that an enemy force was trying to interpose itself along his escape route from that direction. He accordingly ordered one of his two batteries of Royal Horse Artillery with a mounted escort to occupy rising ground on this flank, retaining the bulk of his mounted infantry to provide a rearguard at the Modder. The battery proceeded towards the head of the supply convoy, which had become bottlenecked in a gully fifteen feet below the level of the plain-not realising that this was due to the action of De Wet's men, who were silently disarming and making prisoners of the teamsters as they entered the trap. The lead battery of guns was already in the enemy's hands when the true position was discovered by the following ('Q') Battery. This immediately turned about, with its escort, and galloped back to where a railway station was under construction-under heavy fire from the Boers after De Wet decided the time was right to reveal his hand.
With the ambush sprung, Broadwood proceeded to try and fight his way out of the predicament. Despite severe losses suffered during its flight out of the Boer trap, Q Battery brought four of its guns into action beside the unfinished railway buildings. Among the officers and men working these weapons was Lieut. J.C. Walch, a member of the Tasmanian Defence Forces on special service duty; he was severely wounded. Aided by the fire of the guns, Broadwood sent cavalry elements around by the south with orders to move into the gully and take the Boers from the right flank and rear. When these moves failed to case the pressure which the Boers continued to apply, at 10 a.m. Broadwood felt obliged to order a general retreat towards the south-west. In preparation for this movement, volunteers braved a storm of rifle-fire to pull back four of the guns and limbers from their exposed positions and thus prevent them being left for the enemy.
While two-thirds of Broadwood's force made good their escape, the various Boer forces now moved in to press the mounted infantry covering the rear-while also collecting up the spoils left behind. The leading elements of the British 9th Infantry Division began reaching the battlefield in the hour before midday, after marching from Bloemfontein, but these were too late to prevent the Boers making an orderly withdrawal by 1 p.m., taking with them 421 prisoners, seven guns and 83 wagons of stores. Broadwood had also suffered 159 officers and men either killed or wounded.
The considerable disaster which befell the British in this action might have been avoided, or at least attenuated, by the skilful intervention of a brigade of mounted infantry which had also arrived three kilometres in De Wet's rear at about 8 a.m. but then wasted the opportunity which its appearance presented. This brigade, ordered by Lord Roberts from Springfield when he first heard of Broadwood's planned retirement, was commanded by Colonel C.G. Martyr and comprised two British battalions and the Queensland contingent (commanded by Lieut.-Colonel St G.C. Henry) - a total of 600 men. A force of this size might have materially altered the course of events, but Martyr chose to split it up and disperse it.
While one battalion was sent to join in the belated cavalry movement Broadwood had initiated against De Wet's right flank and rear, the other British unit and the QMI had been sent north-east to aid an isolated outpost at Waterval Drift, an important crossing on the Modder north of the waterworks. I Here Henry's Queenslanders came into action after crossing the river for a distance, until recalled to take part in a short-lived defence of the ford. When the QMI was forced to join in the abandonment of Waterval to the enemy, they left behind two killed, two wounded and five men who became prisoners. The position at Sannah's Post was not restored to British control until 23 April.
Extracted from the book produced by Chris Coulthard-Clark, Where Australians Fought - The Encyclopaedia of Australia's Battles, Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 1998, pp. 72-74.
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.
R.L. Wallace (1976) The Australians at the Boer War, Canberra: Australian War Memorial & Australian Government Publishing Service.
Citation: The Battle of Sannah's Post, South Africa, 31 March 1900, Outline