Topic: BatzB - Kimberley
South Africa, 13-15 February 1900
Kimberley, a major operation undertaken by British forces on 13-15 February 1900 (during the Second South African War) to break the Boer siege of the diamond - producing town of that name on the western border of the Orange Free State. After the campaign to relieve the town mounted by Lieut.-General Lord Methuen during November-December 1890 ended at Magersfonein (q.v.), a second attempt was prepared by Field Marshal Lord Roberts who arrived to supersede General Sir Redvers Buller as British Commander-in-Chief in South Africa in January. This effort entailed massing 47,000 combat troops (30,000 infantry, 7,501 cavalry and 3,600 mounted infantry), along with 120 guns, in the area between the Orange River and Modder River stations (q.v.). Included in this formidable army were about 500 Australians - men of the Queensland Mounted Infantry, New South Wales Mounted Rifles, and New South Wales Lancers - who were incorporated into the cavalry division commanded by Lieut.-General John French.
By 11 February Roberts was ready to move. While ordering Methuen to again take his 1st Division forward in a feint towards Magersfontein - thus tying the Boer general, Piet Cronje, to the defences the enemy had carefully developed there - at 2 a.m. the next day he began moving his main force north towards Modder River, as though confirming Boer expectations that the next major thrust would be along the axis of the railway. The cavalry division was used to guard the British right flank, moving out into Orange Free State territory to secure crossings on the Riet River for use by the 7th Infantry Division.
On the morning of 13 February, Roberts inspected the cavalry division before instructing French to proceed with the next step in his hold plan. Instead of continuing a slow ponderous advance via Magersfontein, Roberts had decided to cut the cavalry loose from the main body and send it on a rapid sweep forward to achieve the relief of Kimberley within two days. French's route from deep inside the Free State would carry him across Cronje's line of communications and threaten to cut off all Boer forces assembled on the western border unless these quickly fell back. Roberts himself was preparing to make an easterly thrust with his main force aimed at capturing the Free State capital at Bloemfontein.
Proceeding in scorching summer heat across the waterless veldt, both horses and riders in French's force suffered terribly; hundreds of mounts dropped in their tracks and had to be destroyed. Added to the hardships imposed by the country was the spirited resistance of the Boers, who realised they had been thoroughly wrong-footed and sought desperately to impose delay on the British cavalry's progress from the line of the Riet towards the Modder. Throughout the next two days, the Australian horsemen in French's division were in the vanguard and often under fire. The Lancers in particular were hotly engaged on 14 February at Klip Drift, where a large Boer camp beside the Modder was taken by surprise and captured.
When Cronje realised the significance of French's appearance off his left flank, he despatched 900 men with guns to block any British attempt to push further north away from the drift. The obstruction presented by this force was swept aside on the morning of 15 February with amounted charge which sent the enemy scattering in all directions - mostly back towards Magersfontein. British casualties during this day's fighting were five dead and ten wounded, but nearly 70 horses were lost through exhaustion. The way to Kimberley was now wide open, and by early that same evening General French with his staff and nearly 5,000 men finally rode in through the hastily abandoned Boer lines, to the immense relief of the town's 48,000 residents.
Despite the Australians' prominence during the advance, the only element to actually accompany the relieving troops into the town was a bearer company of the New South Wales Army Medical Corps; this was, in fact, the only medical unit able to keep up with the horse-killing pace of the dash. If the Queensland and New South Wales horsemen were denied a share in the glory of breaking the siege, they still found some hard fighting in securing areas out from Kimberley. On 16 February, for example, both the QMI and NSW Lancers were involved in an action at Dronfield (eleven kilometres north of the town) against an entrenched Boer party who eventually left of their own accord.
Extracted from the book produced by Chris Coulthard-Clark, Where Australians Fought - The Encyclopaedia of Australia's Battles, Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 1998, pp. 66-68.
Additional References cited by Chris Coulthard-Clark:L.M. Field (1979) The forgotten War, Carlton, Vic. Melbourne University Press.
R.L. Wallace (1976) The Australians at the Boer War, Canberra: Australian War Memorial & Australian Government Publishing Service.
Battles where Australians fought, 1899-1920
Citation: Kimberley, South Africa, February 13 to 15, 1900