GEELBEK RIVER BLOCKHOUSE

An interesting place to stop along the N1 is the Geelbek River Blockhouse situated next to the Geelbek railway bridge near Laingsburg.

While a number of blockhouses used stone in their construction, this one is built from shuttered concrete. The design of this, and other blockhouses, was developed by General Sir Elliot Wood – the British army’s chief engineer in South Africa at the time, basing it on a pattern he had used in the Sudan during the 1880s. It was declared a National Monument in 1965.

Although the plaque put up by the Historical Monuments Commission is high up and can no longer be read easily, it states that To prevent the destruction of the railroad by Republican forces, the British military, at the beginning of 1901, built this type of blockhouse near railway bridges at a cost of approximately R2 000 each. It was garrisoned […] for thirty soldiers.

Steel-protected embrasures were located on each floor, while two steel boxes projected at diagonally opposite corners of the top floor provided covering cross-fire to the walls below. The lookout platforms also provided a clear view over the surrounding area.

You can read more about blockhouses along the Cape Town-De Aar railway line at http://samilitaryhistory.org/jnl2/vol181rt.html

THE BATTLE OF DIAMOND HILL / DIE SLAG VAN DONKERHOEK

While it seems strange that the battle site of what proved to be the second last conventional battle of the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1901) before it entered the guerrilla phase has two names, there is a sound reason for it. The steep plateau where the battle took place on 11th – 12th June 1900 is called Diamond Hill – a reference to the discovery of diamonds in that area around 1819. The British thus called this the Battle of Diamond Hill. As part of the battle raged over the farm called Donkerhoek, the Boers called it die Slag van Donkerhoek / the Battle of Donkerhoek.

When the Commander of the British Forces, General Lord Roberts, occupied Pretoria on 5th June 1900, you can imagine that the Transvaal commandos felt despondent and exhausted after months of defeat. Many had, in fact, already returned to their farms on the assumption that the war was over. However, spurred on by Boer successes in the Free State, the Commandant-General of Transvaal, Louis Botha, rallied an army consisting of about 5-6 000 men and 30 guns. He then established a 40-kilometre north-to-south defensive line 29 kilometres east of Pretoria. Louis Botha commanded the centre and left flank while General Koos de la Rey commanded north of the Pretoria-Delagoa Bay railway line.

Determined to hold onto Pretoria, General Lord Roberts sent 14 000 soldiers to destroy this remnant of Boer resistance. Lieutenant-General Ian Hamilton, who later described this battle as the turning point in the Anglo-Boer War, was positioned along the base of the Bronberg ridge with 3 000 cavalry and 2 200 infantry ready to sweep around the south of the Boers and take Diamond Hill. General French with two cavalry and mounted infantry columns was poised to execute a similar manoeuvre to the north. The Boers were hidden among the hills when the British began firing at the whole Boer line of defence on 11th June. The battle was fiercest on the left flank, where General French and his cavalry repeatedly charged the positions of the Ermelo and Bethel burghers, each time to be repulsed with heavy losses.

The Boers had taken cover in the rocky outcrops of the Magaliesberg terrain and sheltered behind stone-walled sangars while they fired on the advancing British troops scrambling up the stone hill, but they were unable to stop the fresh ranks of British soldiers repeatedly sent out against them – despite suffering severe casualties – and Diamond Hill was captured late on the afternoon of 12th June 1900.

The Boers retreated from Diamond Hill / Donkerhoek to Belfast, further east, where they fought their last conventional battle at Bergendal.

Official British casualties have been given as 28 killed in action, 145 wounded, and three missing. Official Boer casualties were three killed in action and 27 wounded. During 1904 the Transvaal Government exhumed the remains of the fallen British soldiers, scattered across a number of farms along the battle line, and re-interred them at Diamond Hill.

Useful references:

https://www.theheritageportal.co.za/article/short-history-battle-diamond-hill-11-12-june-1900

https://www.angloboerwar.com/books/65-viljoen-my-reminiscences-of-the-anglo-boer-war/1342-viljoen-chapter-16-battle-of-donkerhoek-qdiamond-hillq

https://www.geocaching.com/geocache/GC1W2HZ_the-battle-of-diamond-hill?guid=c8ef7a3d-845b-4e48-a883-64f0da82faeb

A LOSS AT THE BATTLE OF COLENSO

First the words around the cross: Thy will be done. The nearest and dearest of this man, Captain Matthew Louis Hughes, probably needed to give themselves up to the belief that thy will be done in order to cope with the grief of their loss during the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902). Did they even know where he was? Did they have any idea of what he was doing? How long did it take for that tragic news to reach them?

Rest in Peace. Yes, rest in peace – away from the sights and sounds of battle. Was he really even aware of what they were fighting for? Did he believe in the cause? Did he have an option? Who was left at home mourning his loss? Captain Matthew Louis Hughes, a member of the Royal Army Medical Corps, aged 32 when he was killed at the Battle of Colenso on the 15th December 1899.

A granite slab, added later, tells us that:

Captain M.L. Hughes R.A.M.C. was a distinguished military medical officer. He was a pioneer in the field of bacteriology. If it had been possible for him to continue his researches instead of to serve as a front line soldier, typhoid vaccine, crude but promising as it then was, might largely by his efforts, have been perfected in time to save the lives of thousands of soldier [sic] and civilians.

In a nutshell, Battle of Colenso took place on 15th December 1899 along the Tugela River in Northern Natal when General Sir Redvers Buller was trying to cross the river in an attempt to relieve the siege of Ladysmith. According to https://www.britishbattles.com/great-boer-war/battle-of-colenso/ during this battle 16 000 British soldiers were pitted against about 12 000 Boers and yet they lost. General Botha’s men did not return fire until the British troops were fully committed to the attack, to permit the British to cross the Tugela at Colenso and then to detonate the charges under the road bridge, leaving a substantial British force north of the river with no option but to surrender.  British casualties at the Battle of Colenso were 1 125: 132 were killed – among them Captain Hughes, 765 were wounded and 228 were captured by the Boers. Their losses are not known but were slight.

What of Captain Hughes? We know that he was a son of Col. Emilius Hughes, C.B., A.S.C., of Guildford and Mary Sandys Emily Hughes. He was born on 7th July 1867 in Yokohama, Japan. He was educated at King’s College, London, as well as at the University of Edinburgh and the Rotunda Hospital Dublin. Prior to joining the R.A.M.C. in 1890, he had been an Assistant Demonstrator in anatomy at King’s College London in 1889. Captain Hughes was husband of Kate Winifred (née Simpson). He was buried in the Chieveley Military Cemetery in South Africa. His grave, along with others, can now be seen in the Clouston Field of Remembrance, next to the R103 at Colenso, which was the site of General Buller’s headquarters during the Battle of Colenso.

More detailed information about Captain Hughes can be read at these sites:

https://www.maltaramc.com/ramcoff/h/hughesml.html

https://kingscollections.org/warmemorials/kings-college/memorials/hughes,-matthew-louis

FORT POST RETIEF REVISITED

My first visit to the Post Retief Barracks was in February 2017 during a period of rain that had turned the grass within the fort a lush green.

Four years later, and at the end of winter, not only was the grass dry and pale, but there were further signs of deterioration of these historic buildings designed by Major Charles Selwyn of the Royal Engineers in 1836.

Local clay bricks and sandstone were used in the construction of these buildings – both materials are showing serious signs of wear and tear. A stone lintel that was already bending and cracking four years ago despite being shored up with timber, has cracked further.

Compare the state of the first of the buildings in this row between 1917 and 2021.

There are other aspects of this fort that are worth returning to later. I will end, as I did with my earlier post, with the narrow gate in the wall opposite the officer’s quarters through which one had to pass to draw water from the Koonap River below.