Boer War

Battle of Kraaipan – Boer perspective

Boers pose with captured train
battle of kraaipan

Who were these men ?

The second Boer war started on 11 October 1899 with President Paul Kruger declaring war on the English after making certain demands that were not met.

The orders then came through for General de la Rey to attack the Kraaipan station where according to intelligence there were approximately 1000 English troops. In addition, the railway line and telegraph lines should be cut.

Prior to this excursion de la Rey was promoted to ‘veggeneraal’ and veldkornet Cronje was promoted to Kommandant. Also in the party was kommandant H C W Vermaas. The 800 man Commando consisted of 200 horsemen from each of veldkornetskappe Lichtenburg, Boven-Schoonspruit, Onderschoonspruit and Gatsrand.

They headed south from the laager at Polfontein resting the horses every two hours but rode through the night as the orders were to cross the border under cover of darkness. They soon found themselves a long way ahead of Captain van der Merwe and his artillery who followed along dutifully.

Early the following morning they reached Maritsane finding the police had already abandoned the Police Station. Here they were able to water their horses and then headed for Kraaipan where they arrived at three in the afternoon.

Kraaipan consisted of a station, a shop and a sandbag fortification but there was no sign of the police or the English troops that they had expected.

The Commando then proceeded to water the horses and some took time to wash themselves after the long ride. The only occupants were a few workers as well as the shop owner, a certain Mr Wright. According to them a garrison of about 70 to 90 men had been there but had left for Mafeking the previous day.

Prior to this Baden Powell had been in telegraph contact with Kekewich who was officer in command of Kimberly and requested permission for the police at Kraaipan to join him in Mafeking as he had a dire need for the additional manpower to defend Mafeking. Kekewich had authorized the withdrawal and they had left the day before the Boer commando arrived.

The Boers then went about cutting the telegraph lines in various places and to cut the railway track about a half mile in each direction. Captain van der merwe in the mean time was given time to catch up while de la Rey waited for a response from Mafeking.

The armored train “Mosquito” was put in the charge of Captain Nesbitt (VC) of 3 Squadron Protectorate Regiment along with 15 men who all reported to Colonel Hore. On 11 October 1899 they escorted a train of women and children from Mafeking to Kimberly where the refugee train continued on its own to Cape Town. Nesbitt had orders to obtain two seven pounder guns, ammunition and an armored engine. From there he was to use the armored engine as a pilot and follow it in the normal engine with carriages attached.

The guns had not yet arrived from Cape Town and so the return trip was delayed. Once the train arrived the wagon with the guns and ammunition was connected to Nesbitts train, ready for the return trip to Mafeking. It was quarter to seven in the evening.

Flowerday was the engine driver in the armored train and was ordered to keep an eye open and stay a short distance ahead of the normal engine and wagons.

Around eleven, the train arrived at Maribogo where Nesbitt was updated by Mathews, a policeman, regarding the Boer presence and the cut lines. Mathews suggested they either return or stay until the morning but the train continued.

Shortly after eleven the train derailed and Nesbitt ordered it to be put back onto the rails. Only one rail had been removed in the hope of tipping any train over. A jack was used to lift the locomotive and a half an hour later there was still very little progress.

In the meantime the Boers were positioning their men. To the right of the train were some small hills where veldkornet I Claasen took position. On the left was a deep gulley where veldkornet J C Coetzee and veldkornet Cronje positioned their men.

Shortly before 12 veldkornet Cronje fired the first shot of the war and the remaining Boers opened fire. The English scrambled back into the train and returned fire with Collins firing the double barrelled Nordenvelder.

At this point Nesbitt was wounded in the mouth after ordering the troops back into the troops back into the armored train.

During the exchange of fire veldkornet Coetzee sent some of his men further south to cut the track again and prevent an escape of the second engine that was still on the tracks.

When the firing started General de la Rey was some distance from the scene and immediately ordered Captain van der Merwe to bring the guns forward. The firing continued through the night with visibility reducing around one o’clock as the moon disappeared over the horizon.

Dawn was breaking when Collins and Nesbitt agreed that Collins attempt to drive the rear engine back towards Maribogo. Booth had tried to get back to his engine from the armored train but was hit in his hand and pulled back into the armored train. Collins volunteered and then crawled to the locomotive all the while under fire, then laying on his back on the footplate tried to build up steam. The locomotive had hardly moved when the Boers realized what was happening and targeted the rear locomotive. A further complication at this point was that the brake was stuck and could not be released due to the lack of steam due to a mauser bullet having ruptured a necessary steam pipe.

It as in the first light that the English became concerned that the Boers may rush the train. The order was given to fix bayonets. Private Rossiter had taken a defensive position outside the train and decided to rejoin his comrades rather than face the charging Boers on his own. As he scrambled into the wagon one of his comrades bayoneted him in the leg believing he was a Boer.

van der Merwes guns had been positioned during the night and now they had the morning light they fired a single range finding shot from about 2000 meters.

Apparently Nesbitt raised the white flag when the artillery started but the artillery was stationed far back and it took time to get a message back to him to cease fire. The shelling continued for some time until the trains boiler had been ruptured releasing a great cloud of scalding steam.

Komandant Vermaas in the company of Veldkornet Claasen signaled the English to come out, the English removed their helmets as a sign of surrender.

The prisoners consisted of :

Captain R.C. Nesbitt and his son C.E. Nesbitt

Corporal Williams, E. Mattersock, A.Kennedy, J.S. Taylor, S.H.P. Bruce, S.J.Barnes, A.W. Bridge, T.E. Liefeldt, R.C. Samson, B.S. Taylor, H.E. Langfield, B. Whitfield, R.E. Plaskett, Railway Inspector F. Hensell, J.L. Millar, J. Thorne, A. Wormsley, J.M. Catheen, T.Schroder, C. Lynch, J.James, Stoker J.Jooste, L.Tillard was wounded, A.Collins, Private A. Rossiter, R. Booth, Danne was wounded and thirteen black men, four of which were wounded.

Collins and the Jooste, the stoker were found on the ground badly burnt by the steam as well as being wounded.

Private A. Rossiter later died of his wound in Vryburg and was possibly the first casualty in the war. Lady Sarah Wilson mentioned having visited three of the wounded in Vryburgs hospital and had found them in good spirits and being well cared for. She did not mention who she spoke to or if Rossiter had already passed on at that stage.

When the white flag went up Flowerday jumped into the gully and covered himself with sand. He lay dead still until things quietened down, mentioning in a later newspaper interview how a group of about 50 mounted Boers has ridden within 50 meters of his hiding place. When the situation allowed, he then started crawling slowly away and eventually when a safe distance away he fell asleep laying in the bush. When he awoke, he managed to make his escape following the track and reached Maribogo on the night of the 13th.

In the train were two cannon,about 30 Lee Metfield rifles, cases of ammunition, Lydite, dynamite, wire and tools for repairing telegraph lines and railway tracks. A controversial find was apparently the presence of dum-dum or flat tipped bullets.

The prisoners and wounded were loaded onto wagons and handed over to the burgers of Uitschot(Lichtenburg District) for medical treatment and care.

de la Rey moved up to Mafeking with his burgers but Jan visser and a certain van Wyk were instructed to remain in Kraaifontein with 200 Lichtenburgers.

Are some of these burgers the men in the photo?


Hoofstuk 3 – Voorbereiding en die eerste slag van die Tweede Vrjheidsoorlog. J OOsthuizen.

Die Tweede Vryheidsoorlog vol 2 J H Breytenbach.

South African Memories Lady Sarah Wilson.

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