The Sanna’s Post catastrophe January 1, 2010Posted by Jenny in Boer War, military history.
Tags: Boer War, Christiaan De Wet, Orange Free State, Robert Broadwood, Sanna's Post
On March 31, 1900, Christiaan De Wet inflicted a humiliating defeat on Robert George Broadwood. The whole thing was made possible by the shape of watercourses on the veld: angular incisions, like miniature canyons, carved out by violent summer rains.
Broadwood’s column formed part of the army of Lord Roberts, which was advancing across the Orange Free State. Roberts’ army had overrun the Free State capital of Bloemfontein and now continued inexorably toward Pretoria, the Transvaal capital. The vastly outnumbered Boers could not succeed in a frontal collision, but nipped at the British forces where they could.
De Wet had learned that a small British garrison was guarding the Bloemfontein waterworks, protecting supplies of potable water for the occupying forces. But by chance Broadwood’s column of 1,700 khakis blundered onto the scene, coming from the direction of Thaba n’Chu—and De Wet decided to pounce.
At dawn on the 31st, De Wet shelled the English from hills overlooking the waterworks. Broadwood ordered his long wagon convoy to hurry off to the safety of Bloemfontein. But the Thaba n’Chu–Bloemfontein road crossed a deep spruit [stream], and Broadwood had camped on the near side of this obstacle—a beginner’s mistake. The spruit turned out to be teeming with Mauser-cuddling Boers.
Broadwood had compounded his error by failing to send scouts ahead. As his wagons descended the steep bank of the drift [ford], two of De Wet’s adjutants calmly climbed onto the first cart and ordered the driver to keep going as directed. Each wagon was quietly taken over by Boers as it entered the drift. Approximately two minutes elapsed between the time a wagon disappeared from view into the spruit and the time it emerged over the far bank, now guided by Boers. Following behind the wagons, Broadwood’s soldiers marched into the drift. “Hands up!” came the cry. De Wet later wrote in his memoir, “Directly they heard the words, a forest of hands rose in the air.”* In a short time 200 of them had been disarmed. A successful operation, though the irascible De Wet was not entirely satisfied: “If my men had only been able to think for themselves, they would have thrown the rifles on the bank as they came into their hands, and so would have disarmed far more of the English than they succeeded in doing. But, as it was, the burghers kept on asking: “Where shall I put this rifle, General? What have I to do with this horse?”*
Two batteries of the Royal Horse Artillery followed the convoy into the spruit. The man in charge of the second battery, a Major Phipps-Hornby, couldn’t understand why the first battery had halted beside the drift. Then one of the gunners ran up to him and said, “We are all prisoners! The Boers are there.” (He pointed to the bank of the spruit.) “They are in among the convoy and among the guns.”#
By the time Broadwood realized something was amiss, the Boers had already captured 100 wagons and seven guns. Phipps-Hornby made a valiant stand among a maelstrom of Mauser-fire, succeeding at least in transforming a stampede into an orderly retreat. When the last survivors had cleared the spruit, Phipps-Hornby rode into Bloemfontein, gulped down three whiskies, and wept when his fellow officers complimented him on his courage.
At the end of the day, De Wet had the seven guns, 117 wagons, and 428 prisoners at a cost of three killed and five wounded; the British casualties were 350 dead or wounded. Broadwood was censured after the affair. He was a protege of Kitchener, having fought under him in the battle of Omdurman. Broadwood had held a position on Kitchener’s right flank against 50,000 Mahdists charging with their spears. But his experience against this enemy in the Sudan, however brave it may have been to stand firm against a horde of running attackers, left him strangely unprepared for dealing with the Boers. They never charged en masse against the enemy.
It was not the last time De Wet and Broadwood would tangle with each other. Six months later would find Broadwood chasing De Wet in great sweeping circles across the wide Free State veld. De Wet always escaped, having uncanny instincts for the plans of his foes. In a favorite ploy, as several columns closed in, he would start his men going in a certain direction. This would set in motion a column whose location and size De Wet would already know. By night he would double back with his men and slip out through the gap left by the column. Then he was free to resume his cherished pastime of blowing up rail lines and capturing trains.
* C. R. De Wet, Three Years’ War, New York: Scribner’s, 1902.
** H. Hillegas, With the Boer Forces, London: Methuen, 1900.
# Quoted in T. Pakenham, The Boer War, New York: Random House, 1979.
This post is adapted from my work, Transvaal Citizen.