Topic: BatzB - Houtnek
South Africa, 30 April-1 May 1900
Houtnek, an action fought on 30 April - 1 May 1900 during the Second South African War, which effectively marked the start of the march by the British army under Field Marshal Lord Roberts from the Orange Free State capital to Pretoria, the capital of the Transvaal republic. The engagement followed Roberts' decision to straighten the alignment of his forces around Bloemfontein (captured on 13 March) by moving north the column commanded by Lieut.-General Ian Hamilton from Thaba 'Nchu, east of Bloemfontein, to Winburg via Jacobsrust. He was, however, unaware that a large enemy force under General Philip Botha was holding positions in ridges astride this route-principally near Houtnek where the road passed through a defile.
Hamilton commenced his march early on 30 April, but his progress was checked soon after 9 a.m. as the mounted infantry leading his advance were approaching Houtnek. Seeing the high ground in front and on both flanks to he held by enemy parties, Hamilton decided to make an attack on Thoba Mountain - a large feature at the western end of' the ranges which dominated a pass through which a second road ran to Jacobsrust. Using his mounted infantry to keep the Boers on his right flank and front engaged, he sent infantry towards the mountain on his left. The troops cleared the lower slopes without difficulty but were unable to carry the position before nightfall, forcing them to bivouac where they were, while Hamilton telegraphed for cavalry reinforcements from Thaba 'Nchu.
According to their custom, during the night most of the burghers returned to laagers (camps) behind the hills. By the next morning Botha had already determined to abandon his position and sent away his supply train. Only a portion of his force resumed the defence, but despite this the British assault on Thoba Mountain was strongly opposed so that it was 1 p.m. before the feature was in Hamilton's hands. Just as this issue was decided, squadrons of British cavalry were sighted approaching around Thoba Mountain from the west. With the Boer positions in the east now outflanked as well, the remaining defenders promptly mounted and rode off. By 3.30 p.m. Hamilton's transport was able to use the road over the mountains to Jacobsrust.
The two-day delaying action had cost the British 103 casualties, including four members of E Squadron of the New South Wales Mounted Rifles under Captain William Holmes. The latter squadron - minus 25 men detached for scouting duty - had been sent to occupy an advanced post on a hill located less than 1,500 metres from several enemy guns. Holmes' men were subjected to intense shrapnel and rifle-fire throughout the first day's fighting and until ordered to withdraw about noon the next day it was while galloping away from the position in groups of four that one of the Australians was fatally wounded.
Extracted from the book produced by Chris Coulthard-Clark, Where Australians Fought - The Encyclopaedia of Australia's Battles, Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 1998, pp. 74-75.
Additional References cited by Chris Coulthard-Clark:
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.
Battles where Australians fought, 1899-1920
Citation: Houtnek, South Africa, April 30 to May 1, 1900