In mid-December I tramped through clumps of grass and stood on rocky outcrops listening to Anglo-Boer War enthusiast Rob Milne explaining how the Battle of Nooitgedacht unfolded on top of the Magaliesberg mountain top.
It’s a compelling story, with victory going to the Boers, with the Brits, under Major-General Ralph Clements, retreating to Pretoria as soon as they got the chance.
There were 10 fierce battles in the Magaliesberg regionbetween the two forces in the South African War of 1899-1902. In the Battle of Nooitgedacht the Boers gave the British a thrashing although in the end it was the sheer force of numbers of the British that finally forced the Boers out of the Magaliesberg. But these battles gave the Boers a taste for guerrilla tactics, that they were to use successfully in other battle situations against the better-armed and larger British forces.
It was shortly after the British took control of Pretoria in June 1900, that these Magaliesberg battles began.
The Battle of Nooitgedacht (meaning “never thought of”) can be traced through the remains of small fortifications on the top of the Berg, overlooking the original farm of the same name. It's a windswept summit, with rolling green veld stretching east and west, broken by gorges dipping down on its northern edge, and a steep cliff face on the south. It's a 2-billion-old-year mountain range, stretching 120km from Pretoria to Rustenburg.
Clements was instructed to clear the moot or valley south of the mountain of Boers. In December 1900 he camped with his 1 491 men and artillery around the farmhouse Nooitgedacht, a farm established in the 1830s. The original 1872 farmhouse still stands, undergoing renovations at the moment, and situated below a gorge with a stream running down from the mountain.
Clements sent 308 men to the top of the towering mountain, positioning them in encampments of 25 men each, in a rough semi-circular line on either side of the gorge. Some built sangars or small forts, others simply used the rocks lying around for cover. A heliograph station was established on top to communicate with troops in Rustenburg.
Another line of fortifications was built at the bottom in a westerly direction, towards a koppie called Groenkop or Green Hill. Still another line of troops created a picket moving eastwards towards another koppie called Vaalkop or Yeomanry Hill. Clements felt confident he had surrounded his camp with troops. He placed his 12- and 15-pounder guns strategically facing south, never thinking the Boers would attack from the top of the mountain.
Local historian Andre Wedepohl gave an excellent presentation of the battle at the unveiling of a commemorative plaque at the nearby Askari Game Lodge & Spa. He said of Clements’s position: “From a military point of view, however, it was a terrible place to camp. Clements’s position was completely dominated by the heights of the Magaliesberg, more than 300m above the site that Clements had selected.”
And so the scene was set for a humiliating defeat of Clements and his men. The Boers, with around 2 500 troops, attacked the posts on the top of the mountain, and from the west. Those distinguished Boer generals, Koos de la Rey, Jan Smuts, and Christiaan Beyers, were in charge. On the morning of 13 December 1900, at 3.45am, the Pretoria Commando attacked Clements's base camp from the west. This was followed at 4.30am with Commandant Ludwig Krause opening the attack on the mountain top.
The Boers overwhelmed the troops stationed on top of the mountain, then proceeded to fire down on the camp below. British troops managed to hold off the Boers until Clements had retreated in an orderly fashion with his troops and artillery to Vaalkop. From there he fired on the Boers in his former encampment, while the Boers fired on British carts and wagons, causing them to stampede eastwards. Remarkably, a contingent of Boers led by Smuts, intercepted the wagon drivers, forcing them to turn around.
“This was unfortunate from the Boers’ point of view, as without any transport, Clements and his force would have been stranded on Vaalkop and their surrender to the Boers would have become inevitable,” reported Wedepohl.
Without food and water, by about 4pm the next day Clements and his troops withdrew back to Pretoria, tail between the legs. Smuts pursued them for a while, but returned to the farmhouse. There he records the scene:
“What a sight met my eyes! An indescribable pandemonium in which psalm-singing, looting and general hilarity mingled with explosions of bullets and bombs to give a tragi-comic character to the whole.”
The exhausted Boers, low on food, decent clothing and shoes, had helped themselves to what Clements had left behind, instead of finishing the job, which allowed Clements to get away.
Boer losses were 16 men, with 61 wounded. The British lost 88 men, with 172 wounded, and 368 missing or taken prisoner.
So both sides made grave mis-judgements: the British camped in the wrong place, and had their big guns facing the wrong way. The Boers relaxed after they’d defeated the British, when they could have forced them to surrender, and taken their large artillery pieces. But who can blame them after days or weeks in the saddle, tired and hungry, and low on supplies.
Besides, Clements had left his rum behind.
Read the full battle story.