"At a mile distant their thousand hooves were stuttering thunder, coming at a rate that frightened a man - they were an awe inspiring sight, galloping through the red haze - knee to knee and horse to horse - the dying sun glinting on bayonet points..." Trooper Ion Idriess
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The Battle of Coetzee Drift, South Africa, 5 May 1900, Outline Topic: BatzB - Coetzees Drift
South African (Second Boer) War
The Battle of Coetzee Drift, South Africa, 5 May 1900
Map of area of engagements.
[From: The Australasian, 12 May 1900, p. 1039.]
Coetzee's Drift, an action during the Second South African War, fought on 5 May 1900 along the Vet River in Orange Free State. After seizing the town of Brandfort two days earlier, the British commander, Field Marshal Lord Roberts, sent forward mounted forces to meet Boer forces under General J.H. De la Rey who were preparing a new line of resistance at the Vet River. The advance was conducted with Major-General Edward Hutton's brigade (which included several Australian units) on the left of the northern railway, and the mounted infantry division commanded by Lieut.-General Ian Hamilton on the right. The latter had secured Welkom Drift (ford) on 4 May and camped there overnight in readiness for Roberts' general push across the river the next day.
When the advance began on 5 May Hamilton had an easy march to Winburg, which he occupied that afternoon. Hutton, meanwhile, faced a more difficult task on the western flank, where the bulk of De la Rey's 1,500 burghers were posted in widely dispersed positions at the main crossing points. Arriving at noon at Coetzee's (or Misgunsfontein) Drift, ten kilometres west of the railway, Hutton found this so strongly defended that he was deterred from making a frontal attack. Learning from a local farmer of the existence of another disused ford four kilometres further west, he sent a British battalion supported by two companies of Canadians across in a flanking movement at this point. Once he saw that these troops were in a position to bear in against the right flank of the Boers occupying the high ground overlooking the main drift, he ordered the New South Wales Mounted Rifles, supported by the Queensland Mounted Infantry and New Zealand Mounted Rifles, to cross the river and attack.
The task given to the men of the NSWMR was a difficult one, for once on the other side they found themselves within a sort of basin formed by steep mimosa-covered banks which the Boers occupied in increasing strength. The pressure on the attacking Australians was relieved by the action of a flanking British battalion, which-having discovered another ford further east-took the initiative of crossing without waiting for orders and began driving in against the enemy's left. At this, the Boer defenders yielded the high ground and began withdrawing. An impetuous assault by the New South Wales men surprised the enemy party covering the retirement of several guns, and inflicted 23 casualties on this rearguard. By 4.45 p.m. Hutton himself crossed over the river to take possession of the Boer positions. The action had cost his force only four men wounded, due to the effective way in which it was managed rather than being indicative of the severity of the fighting involved.
Although Roberts now had both his flanks across the Vet, he was still held up in the centre where De la Rey had posted commandos on two kopjes (low hills) south of the river. When a body of the 2nd West Australian Mounted Infantry operating in advance of the 11th Division came within range of the Boer guns mounted on these hills, they were unable to make much headway until these weapons were subjected to counter-fire from three field batteries and other heavy guns. The kopjes were not occupied until just on dusk, after the WAMI made a spirited bayonet charge which prompted the Boers to withdraw before the attack's full weight could be delivered. The hour was now too late for the British to take effective follow-up action, so that the Boers were able to maintain their pattern of avoiding significant defeat and simply falling back in front of the British advance while imposing delay.
Vet River viewed from Coetzee's Drift (Misgunsfontein).
Extracted from the book produced by Chris Coulthard-Clark, Where Australians Fought - The Encyclopaedia of Australia's Battles, Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 1998, pp. 75-76.
Additional References cited by Chris Coulthard-Clark:
L.S. Amery, (ed.) The Times History of the War in South Africa 1899-1902, Vol. 3 (1906), London: Sampson Low, Marston & Co.
History of the War in South Africa 1899- 1902, Vol. 3 (1908), London: Hurst & Blackett.
R.L. Wallace (1976) The Australians at the Boer War, Canberra: Australian War Memorial & Australian Government Publishing Service.
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