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The capture of the “Lady Roberts” July 20, 2010

Posted by Jenny in Boer War, military history.
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A 4.7 inch naval gun similar to the "Lady Roberts." This photo is said to have been taken at the battle of Colenso, a year earlier than the battle of Helvetia described below.#

By June 1900, the British had captured the Boer capitals—Bloemfontein and Pretoria—and the Boers had decided to switch to guerilla tactics and continue the fight, even though they were outnumbered, in any given engagement, on the order of ten to one. They would keep fighting as long as they could. They were forced to capitulate, out of starvation and lack of ammunition, two years later. The British had destroyed most of their farms and transported most of their families to giant unsanitary camps.

Boer farmhouse burned by British army

The massive British army, under the command of Lord Roberts, had pushed the ragtag remnants of the Boer army eastward, toward Portuguese East Africa (now Mozambique). But the various commandos had filtered back to the highveld from dangerous malarial lands inhabited by lion and leopard, a region adjoining and including parts of what is now Kruger National Park.

By November 1900, General Ben Viljoen of Johannesburg had reassembled forces scattered by the eastward flight. Viljoen’s men had little in common with each other except that they came from the goldmining towns of the Rand and they weren’t ready to give up their war. There were fighting Doppers under Field-Cornet Kruger, a relative of the exiled president Paul Kruger. There were the Johannesburgers, the Fordsburg men, the Jeppestown men, the survivors of the Zarps. There was even a remnant of the Transvaal State Artillery, although the artillerists were armed now with rifles, not their giant Creusot guns.

General Ben Viljoen

Their great moment of fame arrived on the night of December 28, when they attacked Helvetia and surrounding forts. A young burgher named Roland Schikkerling and members of the Johannesburg and Fordsburg commandos were to capture a heavily defended fort called Swartkoppies while other commandos attacked Hevetia itself. Their field cornet, with some guides, led the way through the pitch black night.

Schikkerling rode along in the darkness, keeping his horse up close behind the one ahead because he had no idea of the route. But all of a sudden the chain of horsemen broke and the men milled about in confusion. Some hapless fellow named Fick had fallen asleep, and all the burghers behind him had lost their way. Their field cornet continued ahead with about 30 men, unaware that 100 had been left behind. The stragglers quietly searched for the ones in front, then, not wanting to disturb the khakis slumbering in their forts, gave up and stopped behind a kopje to wait for daylight.

Before dawn they saw a blaze of rifle flashes ahead, distant and disconnected from them, like something in astronomy. This was the other commandos attacking Helvetia. The flashes sparkled for about ten minutes and then stopped. When the first streaks of dawn appeared they made out the fort Swartkoppies across the veld. “Now of course, it was too late to do anything and we felt vexed and ashamed of ourselves,” Schikkerling later wrote.* They were desperately curious to know the outcome of the fight. Finally three horsemen rode in their direction, coming with the news that Helvetia had surrendered. The commandos had taken many prisoners and supply wagons. Best of all, they’d captured one of the big English guns. This one was called “Lady Roberts” in honor of the wife of the British commander (who had just gone back to England, thinking most of the work was done). They all rode forward to help bring her out.

Roberts, known as "Bobs," after the Boer War

The khakis were causing aggravation by shooting at the oxen of the gun team. Every time one of the oxen fell, the burghers had to yoke a fresh ox in its place. Sometimes, a man had to step in and carry the empty half of the yoke.

The capture of the “Lady Roberts” was a great thing, but it would be even more satisfactory if they could also bring out the Lady’s ammunition. But as they struggled to make off with the ammunition wagon across the open plain, the Swartkoppies guns got them in their sights and pelted them with shells. Since a direct hit would create a fireball of sufficient size to be seen back in England by Lord Roberts, they abandoned the wagon. A few horsemen grabbed up what they could of the gun’s 46-lb. shells, each man cradling one of the shiny projectiles as he galloped away.

Explosion of an ammunition wagon (this was at Paardeberg the year before)

Two hundred and thirty-four men of the Liverpool regiment marched in a long irregular file behind the gun. When the Boers had overrun the fort and the commanding officer was wounded, many of the Liverpools had filled their water bottles from the garrison’s barrels of rum. Some were already too drunk to walk, while others offered swigs to their captors. As the motley procession staggered up a long hill, thunder and lightning made the sky crackle. The air turned solid with rain. The gun team of 18 oxen struggled and slithered in the mud. Knots of unguarded prisoners followed along, not inclined to run off into the sodden veld. During the height of the downpour Schikkerling and a comrade named Malherbe dismounted and sheltered themselves under their blankets. When they rode on again, they passed straggling Tommies, miles behind the others, who inquired brightly if they were “right for the laager [camp].”

Most of the burghers, tired and hungry, had gone on to the village of Dullstroom. Schikkerling and eight others were asked to guard the “Lady Roberts” as she trundled slowly along. At last they reached the village and, trusting that the prisoners would not suddenly rise up and carry off the gun, they found a storehouse of wool and curled up in its soft contents to go to sleep.

The “Lady Roberts” was presented to the government of the Transvaal Republic, which remained largely intact even though it was attempting to perform its duties on behalf of the nearly extinct Boer republic while being incessantly chased by the khakis. The government happened just then to be camped at Tautesburg, not far away.

Francis William Reitz, secretary of state of the Transvaal and father of the famous Boer fighter Deneys Reitz, wrote a song about the “Lady Roberts” that was sung by the burghers throughout the remainder of the war.  It went: “The women out he [Lord Roberts] drives / He can not overcome the men /  So persecutes the wives. / But his old Lady Roberts / Who lyddite [a type of explosive] spits for sport / He puts her at Helvetia / For safety in a fort / He thought there was no danger / For that confounded Boer / With his confounded Mauser / Would trouble him no more….”

This post is adapted from my work, “Transvaal Citizen.”

* Roland Schikkerling, Commando Courageous: A Boer’s Diary (Hugh Keartland, Johannesburg, 1964).

#The label on the original photo does not specify, but I think this must be one of the guns captured at Colenso by the Boers, as those artillerists are certainly not British.

Ben Viljoen commando. Note "hairy burgher" at front.