Topic: BatzB - Onverwacht
South African (Second Boer) War
South African (Second Boer) War
The Battle of Onverwacht, South Africa, 4 January 1902
Onverwacht an action fought on 4 January 1902 (during the closing stages of the Second South African War), in south-eastern Transvaal about 30 kilometers east of Ermelo. The engagement arose from British efforts to end the activities of a 750 man force led by the Boer commander-in-chief, General Louis Botha. On New Year's Day three mounted columns were sent out from Ermelo in an attempt to pin the enemy against another British column operating along the border with Swaziland. On 3 January the column commanded by Brigadier-General Herbert Plummer suffered an embarrassing minor reverse when New Zealanders forming the advance guard were mauled by the enemy, suffering 28 men captured along with several casualties.
The next day the Boers succeeded in ambushing one of the two corps comprising Plumer's column that led by Major J.M. Vallentin (a British officer) comprising 110 men of the 5th Queensland Imperial Bushmen under Major Frederick Toll along with British Mounted troops. After posting part of his command on the main ridge of a group of kopjes (hills) known as Bankkop, there to wait for the arrival of Plumer and the main body, Vallentin took the rest of his corps forward to the next high ground comprising a line of hills called Onverwacht. Hiding in advance of this new position with a party. Vallentin was suddenly attacked by a force of 300 Boers who had been waiting; concealed in a deep hallow. These pursued Vallentin and his men back to the Onverwacht ridge and immediately forced the entire column to defend its ground.
With their numbers swelling to more than 500, the Boers made a determined push to capture the Maxim quick fire gun (known as a pom-pom) accompanying the corps and prevented its escape by shooting down the horses which pulled it. The gun was pushed into a gully, and the Queenslanders and Hampshire mounted Infantry defending the weapon were forced to retire. Major Toll led his men back from the main ridge on foot, losing one small detachment to enemy capture after all except three men in the group were wounded. Under Vallentin's orders the Queenslanders and Hampshire then attempted to make a last stand on a confined knob of a small ridge which was practically devoid of cover. Assaults on this position by the Boers twice came to within 30 metres and several enemy were shot down just ten metres in front.
After the enemy succeeded in getting in the rear of the knob and effectively isolating it, leaving the defenders subjected to heavy fire on all sides at a range of less than 50 metres, continued resistance became useless. The Boers rushed in to make prisoners of the 70 who remained uninjured, and to take possession of weapons and anything else of use to them. Clothing, including boots, were stripped from the prisoners and even from the dead and wounded. With Plumer's main body fast approaching, the burghers did not linger for long, but promptly turned loose their captives as they made off with their spoils-using 30 captured horses to carry away this material and their dead and wounded. Fortunately, the pom-pom gun was not part of the booty removed by the departing enemy; this was retrieved by men of the 5th Victorian Mounted Rifles who arrived on the scene, and taken to a new defensive position.
Although a pursuit was mounted under the direction of Major l lorry Vialls, a West Australian, the Boers made good their escape and were not again engaged. They had lost at least nine men killed (including their leader, Commandant Oppermann), whereas the British column had suffered 65 casualties (29 dead, 45 wounded). Major Vallentin was among the dead. The Queenslanders alone had thirteen men killed and seventeen wounded. Despite the humiliation of this reverse, which demonstrated the military capabilities of the Boers into the wart very last stages, Plumer was satisfied that no blame attached to the Queenslanders and pointedly commended Toll for his leadership while recommending several of the Australians for gallantry awards.
Extracted from the book produced by Chris Coulthard-Clark, Where Australians Fought - The Encyclopaedia of Australia's Battles, Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 1998, pp. 90-92.
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.
P.L. Murray (1911) Official Records of the Australian Military Contingents to the War in South Africa, Melbourne: Government Printer.
R.L. Wallace (1976) The Australians at the Boer War, Canberra: Australian War Memorial & Australian Government Publishing Service.
Citation: Onverwacht, South Africa, South Africa, 4 January 1902, Outline