Thursday 26 October 2023

Where exactly did that battle take place?

The war was fought across much of South Africa's 1.2 million square kilometres - a huge area, twice the size of France. Much of the fighting took place in rural areas with no roads, away from settlements, there was little in the way of sign posts to tell British troops where they were. Navigation was from farm to kopje to river to farm using maps created during the war by the Field Intelligence Department (FID). The next problem was that the British spelling of Afrikaans names was sometimes phonetic, or inconsistent leading to confusion. To compound that confusion many farms shared the name and there was no way of exactly locating a farm. Often times the best way to locate the farm was just "near town X", but to the north, south, east or west and how far away?

The recording of place names in official British military records reflects the imprecision. The official casualty rolls and reporting in the newspapers many times just gave the farm name with no clue as to where in that vast 1.2 square kilometres it was located. Researching casualties was frustrating and mostly impossible with the information at hand.

This situation led to my late Father and I starting a project in the 1990's to create a gazetteer of locations related to the war. We started with the contemporary histories, as many of the FID maps we could locate, lists of farms and settlements (including the fabulous four volume set The Encyclopaedia of South African Post Offices and Postal Agencies by Ralph Putzel, Hale & Putzel, Cape Town, 1986) and copies of the current topo-cadastral maps of SA. In 1999 we published A Gazetteer of the Second Anglo-Boer War 1899-1902 (Military Press, Milton Keynes) which listed 2,346 locations where military action took place. The work was very well received by researchers. Unfortunately we couldn't get any major military history publisher interested, so the small print run was quickly sold out.

I have continued adding to the Gazetteer with my work revising and adding to the casualty rolls published on The Register of the Second Anglo-Boer War. To date I have added 384 entries to the gazetteer, enriching the information available when researching casualties. These are locations not mentioned in the histories but are in the casualty rolls or other sources such as Soldier's Effects. They require far more effort to track them down on a map.

Today I worked on one new location which is illustrative of the problem mapping locations. I was looking for a farm called Tweefontein there are already four farms called Tweefontein in the Gazetteer.

The incident at Tweefontein was an action on 14th November, 1901 where Kitchener's Fighting Scouts (KFS) lost two killed and nine wounded. Four officers (including one who was killed) were mentioned in dispatches "For conspicuous gallantry in action near Heilbron" - note the imprecision "near Heilbron". The casualty rolls list the action as "Tweefontein", this is copied by newspapers. Fortunately there is only one "Heilbron", a town in the Orange Free State which narrows down the search area. This Tweefontein is not named in the contemporary histories.

However, in an example of how confusing the recording of the Guerilla Phase of the war can be. This incident is recorded in the Official History of the War in South Africa 1899-1902 (Maurice and Grant, 1906) vol 3 p.333 as occurring on 16th November at Jagersrust. Jagersrust does occur in the casualty rolls, for one soldier of the KFS who was wounded on the 29th November, 1901. Jagersrust is shown on map 64 (left) of the Official History south-east of Heilbron, Tweefontein is not. Crucially this map narrows down the area of search further and allows us to consult more maps. 




The next map to consult is the modern topo-cadastral map, sheet 2728 that covers Heilbron and the area to the south-east. Locating Jagersrust we can look about for a Tweefontein. Six kilometres to the north-north-east is a Tweefontein (right).

The next complication in trying to locate place names that existed 123 years ago is that place names change and disappear. We must find other evidence to corroborate this is the correct Tweefontein. The London Gazette carries the dispatches from Lord Kitchener, the commander of British forces in South Africa. In the dispatch published on the 17th January, 1902 on p.370 there is a description of this fight, neither Tweefontein or Jagersrust is mentioned. Critically the location is "some few miles to the south of Heilbron". This Tweefontein is approximately 26 kilometres or 16 miles south-east of Heilbron. The commando that attacked the KFS was drawn from men under General C.R. de Wet's command. Unfortunately he doesn't mention this episode in his Three Years War. Stirling's The Colonials in South Africa mentions the fight on the 14th November but does not give a location.

What did occur on the 14th November, a British column with "an unwieldy mass of cattle and vehicles"  was returning to Heilbron when it was attacked. The KFS formed the rearguard and were hotly engaged, the Boers were driven off "who left eight on the field and carried off many more" (Official History p.333).

The Gazetteer provide unique data to allow researchers to accurately locate where casualties occurred. In The Register 45% of casualty locations have been mapped and 81% of all casualties have been linked to a mapped location. The movements of British columns in the Guerilla Phase can be mapped very accurately using the Gazetteer providing a new view of the efforts track down commandos.


1 comment:

  1. Wow great research. I'll have to search at the local SA antiquarian bookshops to locate a copy of your dad's and your book. Many thanks.