This page shows the current selection from Transvaal Citizen, my work of narrative nonfiction about the Boer War.
THE 17TH LANCERS AT MODDERFONTEIN
This excerpt describes the battle between Jan Smuts’ commando and the “C” company of the 17th Lancers on September 17, 1901, at the farm Modderfontein near Tarkastad in the eastern Cape. The commando had been evading numerous British regiments as it crossed the Cape Colony, and the men were on their last legs, nearly out of ammunition, lacking warm clothing, and suffering from starvation and illness. Two nights before the battle, the commando had spent the night riding through a freezing rain. A number of men and horses had died of exposure. Sources for this account include published and unpublished writings of Deneys Reitz and the memoirs of Jan Smuts, Ben Bouwer, and Isaak Meyer.
The men slowly recovered from the Big Rain. They found oats for their horses, sheep to have for their dinner, and a roof to keep them dry through another wet night.
In the morning the sun was shining. The warmth and the radiant brightness made them feel hopeful, but circumstances did not justify their feeling. They learned from farmhands along the way that all the roads and valleys to the south were blocked by the English. The enemy was strong behind them as well. They would keep heading south through the long high-sided valley of Elandsrivier, wherever it might lead them.
In the front, those who still had horses led these pitiful bone bags along. Then came horseless burghers. Bouwer found it hard even to look at these men, “…carrying their saddles with a tenacious ambition that touched my heart.” * Then came the ghostly wounded, attended by their friends.
Smuts sent the Rijk Section to scout ahead. Where the valley opened into a broad sunstruck plain, they spotted a broken-down little farmhouse under some pepper trees. A man ran from the house to tell them breathlessly that the English were waiting for them further along—about 200 men with mountain guns and Maxims. They would learn later that it was the C Company of the 17th Lancers, the historic regiment that had participated in the battle of the Crimean War made famous by Tennyson in “The Charge of the Light Brigade.”
Edgar Duncker of the Rijk Section reported back to Smuts, who came forward with Bouwer and Van Deventer to talk to the man at the farmhouse. Without realizing who he was speaking to, the farmer told Smuts, “They intend to capture Smuts here.”* The general quietly smiled. He went to the scouts and told them that the commando would attack the British force. They indeed had no choice. They had to get ammunition and fresh horses if they were to go on. Bouwer had a sudden inkling that things might work out: “When men have arrived at this pass without losing heart, much can be done with them.”*
The Rijk Section and a dozen others, including Van Deventer, went ahead to locate the enemy while Smuts brought the rest of the commando forward. Deneys and the other scouts soon collided with a patrol that was riding along beside the tree-fringed river. Deneys and his companions jumped off their horses and started firing, or tried to—Deneys’ rifle was so rusted and full of mud that his cartridges wouldn’t fire at all. He tried three times, then flung his rifle aside and ran to a dead soldier to scavenge a weapon and ammunition.
The khakis galloped ahead, but Deneys and his comrades stayed right on their tail. When the English stopped at a farmgate, the young men fired again, killing or wounding two or three more. At the gate Van Deventer pulled some of the men aside to a kopje to assess the situation: that was the sensible thing to do. (He would soon arc around with his men and engage the enemy from the other side.) Deneys and a dozen others, mainly Rijk Section, didn’t stop. The patrol galloped on to a low reef of the sort that crops out insistently in this angular rock-bound country. They jumped off their horses, fired at the British from among the rocks. No way out now for Deneys and his comrades. Amidst a sudden racket of artillery the burghers abandoned their horses and ran to the opposite side of the reef, finding themselves nose to nose with the enemy.
Reitz wrote, “Now that we could look over to the far side, we were surprised to see a large English camp less than a stone’s throw away, buzzing like a disturbed ant-heap.”# Amidst much shouting and hullabaloo, men were running from their tents, some coming straight toward them. Their small group looked about to be engulfed. But Smuts had rushed the commando ahead, and his men started firing from a kopje behind them, keeping the enemy from surrounding the group at the front. The mountain gun fired steadily at the commando, the gunners oblivious to the closer party. Deneys watched as a man at the gun calmly handed shells to his crew. Deneys fired carefully and hit him, watching him spin around and sink down, still upright.
The close range made it easy. They dispatched two of the gun crew, then turned their attention to the soldiers at the reef. Each time one of the khakis raised his head, he stood a good chance of getting a bullet through it. Soon 12 or 13 were dead. On the Boer side there were only three wounded, no dead.
One of the wounded was Edgar Duncker, hit in the heel early in the battle. He and another wounded man, Cohen, had managed to get across dangerous ground to join the group at the ledge. Duncker was weeping with rage. Field Cornet Bester had called him a coward when he stayed behind to check the wound in his foot. Duncker said to the others, “The dog! The dog! If he calls me a coward again I’ll shoot him!”** Then he burst into tears all over again.
The soldiers at the ledge were getting picked off one after another. A Lieutenant Sheridan stuck his head up in front of Jack Borrius, who instantly shot him through the brain. Sheridan’s hat flew up in the air a couple of feet. The young Boers shouted jubilantly in English, with all the heartlessness of combat, “Good shot, Uncle Jack!”**
They were making good headway, except that now they saw a new group of troops riding toward the camp. Were these the advance guard of a larger relief force? If so, the group at the reef would soon be stranded. As they had done at every decision point that morning, the small band of young men opted for the most aggressive possible course of action. At Borrius’ signal they leaped up and charged across the rocks into the midst of the group they’d been fighting. The soldiers immediately surrendered.
The Rijk Section knew that their newly acquired prisoners would obey the rules of war and leave their weapons down, so they left them behind and ran into the camp, cheering loudly. There must have been quite a large number of soldiers still in the camp, but the sight of the dozen or so yelling, grainbag-wearing Boers seems to have terrified them. A number of the English scurried away in a virtual stampede, while others ran forward and threw their rifles down. Many were still in their shirtsleeves, unprepared for the attack, unable to form any sort of defensive position. The rest of the commando galloped up, and the battle was over. Approximately 25 minutes had elapsed.
Except that a small pocket of soldiers, over by a cattle kraal, did not obey when Deneys and Willem Conradi walked over, yelling, “Hands up! Hands up!” Suddenly the soldiers fired at them. Deneys and Conradi ducked down behind the kraal wall and fired back. A soldier peered over the wall only to be swatted by Jack Borrius’ rifle butt. Another let off a shot from so close that Deneys reached out and grabbed the muzzle of his rifle. He was forced to let go when the rifle’s sharp foresight gashed his thumb. Some of the other burghers came running, and the English finally threw their rifles over the wall.
And here Isaak Meyer, a young member of the commando, says he saved Deneys’ life. “A big Tommy stuck his rifle barrel over the kraal wall in a last attempt to pull down a Boer. Like lightning, Deneys Reitz seized the rifle barrel and tried to yank it out of the Khaki’s hands. With a frightful curse, the Tommy pulled the rifle back, Deneys lost his balance, staggered backwards and fell flat on his back. The Tommy threw the rifle up to his shoulder and aimed at the defenseless Reitz. My Mauser barked, the Khaki threw up his arms and toppled backwards. “##
One last soldier who still hadn’t gotten the word was creeping toward the kraal, where Deneys collided with him on his way to collect the prisoners. If the two hadn’t bumped into each other, the soldier would have run ahead and started shooting. But it was possible for enmity to stop at the moment of surrender. The soldier realized his mistake and said goodnaturedly to Deneys, “You’re a surprise packet!”, offering him a cigarette.# With his hand resting on Deneys’ shoulder, he accompanied his captor into the kraal.
It was time to loot the camp. Every member of the commando began joyously plundering the tents and the supply wagons. New clothes! Fresh horses! Rifles in good condition! Nice sturdy boots! The men did not learn until weeks later of Kitchener’s proclamation: any Boer caught wearing khaki would be subject to immediate execution. When they did finally learn, it helped them to understand a number of puzzling incidents in which captured Boers were shot. But on the day of their glorious defeat of the 17th Lancers, the men of the commando were blissfully unaware of this ban. They ran wildly about the camp, turning everything upside down. A contingent ambitiously snatched up the two Maxim-Nordenfelts, but these turned out to be such a bother that once the commando moved on again, the guns were soon heaved into a pond.
Following his usual practice of going back to examine the areas where he had been engaged in fighting, and to check on wounded or dead for whom he may have been responsible, Deneys returned to the reef. There he found two officers of the regiment, Captain Victor Sandeman and Lord George Vivian (2nd Lieutenant), both wounded. He struck up a conversation with them and learned that the regiment had been following the commando since they entered the Cape.
Lord Vivian certainly took a liking to this ragged young Boer, for he told him where to find his bivouac tent—it might be worth something to go have a look at it. Deneys took him up on his suggestion and soon emerged from the tent wearing a splendid cavalry tunic and riding breeches, along with a new Lee-Metford and a full bandolier. The best souvenir was the regiment’s “Death or Glory” badge, complete with skull and crossbones, which Deneys pinned to his hat.
Many years later, in 1935, Reitz was a South African delegate to a meeting of the Empire Parliamentary Association. Soon after he arrived at Grosvenor House in London, he was called upon by a man who seemed somehow familiar—Lord Vivian. They talked over memories of the war, and Vivian put him down for honorary membership at the Brooks Club, an old and exclusive club.
* Ben Bouwer (as written by P.J. le Riche), Memoirs of General Ben Bouwer. Human Sciences Research Council, Pretoria, 1981.
# Deneys Reitz, Commando. In The Trilogy of Deneys Reitz. Wolfe Publishing, Prescott, AZ, 1994.
** Deneys Reitz, Memoirs of the English War, 1899-1902. Translated by Michael Reitz. Unpublished manuscript, Brenthurst Library, Johannesburg.
## J.H. Meyer with E.P. Du Plessis, Kommando-jare: ‘n oud-stryder se persoonlike relaas van die Tweede Vryheidsoorlog. Passage translated for Jenny Bennett by Roon Lewald. Human & Rousseau, Cape Town, 1971.
Copyright by Jenny Bennett. This piece cannot be reprinted or used in any way without permission.