The Historical Progression of Events in Boer War

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The forgotten battle at Sandfontein is an exception when the overall history of the war devotes a single line to the skirmish. For South Africa it constitutes the first active conflict for the Union. Although defeated, the men of Colonel Grant would go into captivity with their heads held high. The UDF campaign against German South West Africa commenced on 18 September 1914. With three disparate assaults, a sea landing at Luderitz Bay and from the desert border, west of Upington. The middle thrust to advance upon the German garrison at Warmbad entrusted to the brigade of five SAMR regiments under Brigadier General Lukin. The only water on hand between the Orange River and Warmbad were the wells at the foot of the Sandfontein koppie. Making capture imperative for any military operation entirely dependent on horse and mule for transportation.

Prior to a general advance into the hostile territory. The British ‘A’ Column under the Command of Brigadier General Lukin seized the drifts on the Orange River at Houms, Ramans and Gudaus, and the Sandfontein Wells, On September the 25th, the Wells were garrisoned by the second Squadron of the 1st S.A.M.R. under the Command of Captain E. J. Welby. On the evening of the 25th a force was despatched from Ramans Drift to reinforce the Sandfontein detachment. This reinforcement, under the Command of Colonel R.C. Grant (Officer commanding 1st S.A.M.R.), left the drift at about 6.30 p.m., and comprised the following details - One section of the Transvaal Horse Artillery consisting of two 13-pounder quick-firing field guns, under the Command of Lieutenant F. B. Adler; one machine gun section of two guns of the 1st S.A.M.R., commanded by Lieutenant W. E. Butler, and three Troops of the 3rd Squadron 1st S.A.M.R. under Captain P. E. Hale with subaltern Officers in Lieutenants D. G. S. Scott, P. B. Clements, and W. G. Austin.

At the last moment, the 4th Troop of the Squadron under Lieutenant G. Allen was detached as a transport escort, which was intended to follow as soon as the wagons had been loaded with force rations. No rations were issued to the details of the column before leaving the drift, relying on transport to be supplied from Colonel Grants detachment. Until the SAMR Brigade arrived they were to occupy and if necessary, defend this crucial position. While British South African regiments landed in Luderitz, the advance from Upington was to be under the hard-line bittereinder Manie Maritz.

Gerrit' Mannie' Maritz was a Boer officer in the Second Boer War. At the end of the war, all former Boer commanders were asked to sign a pledge to abide by the peace terms. Some of them refused and were exiled from South Africa. Over the next decade, many returned home, and not all of them signed a pledge on their return. At the end of the Second Boer War, Boers who had fought to the bitter end were not content and had become known as the bittereinders. By the time of the outbreak of the First World War, those who had not made a pledge were all too eager to start a new war against the Union.

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In 1913, Maritz was offered a commission in the Active Citizen Force of the Union Defence Force. He accepted and was appointed to command the military area bordering South-West Africa. He was promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel in August 1914. A large contingent of Maritz's ACF troops, like him, remained detestable anti-British; strangely enough Smuts not only entrusted a very important post to his recent Boer comrade in arms, but had also expected him to support Lukin by drawing some of the German forces.

On 23 September 1914 to support the union’s invasion in the vicinity of Sandfontein where a portion of Lieutenant-Colonel Lukin's force was stranded, Maritz was ordered to advance to the German border, this he refused to do, he was then ordered to relinquish command to another officer and return to Pretoria, he again refused. On 9 October he ultimately decided to rebel and the next day he occupied the town of Keimoes. Later on, 22 October he was wounded and captured in a skirmish with government troops and was taken to German South-West Africa. This incursion became known as the Maritz Rebellion. At the dawn of the Sandfontein battle, about 1,000 SAMR soldiers were stationed along three drifts along a remote 23-mile stretch of the Orange River. Another 2,000 soldiers would be stationed at Steinkopf as they travelled from Port Nolloth via rail service, or else lumbering across the waterless desert from the railroad head to the drifts.

On the night of 25 September, Grant's detachment left Raman's Drift to help bolster a small advance guard already at Sandfontein. His men were drawn from two squadrons from the 1st SAMR regiment and two thirteen pounder guns of the ACF Transvaal Horse Artillery. His SAMR men were all former CMR troopers who in peacetime had been based at King Williams Town, Umtata and many tiny posts across the Transkei, policing the Xhosa in the aftermath of the numerous nineteenth century frontier wars. The 12-mile all-night trek with mounted infantry, ten wagons and the two field guns covered soft sand between rocky defiles. The German commander Colonel Joachim von Heydebreck had skilfully manoeuvred two thousand mounted troops around the vast terrain to attack Sandfontein from four different directions. The German colonial forces knew the area well, having fought a merciless war in this locality against the Nama-Bondelswarts during 1903-1907. Furthermore, he now had no concerns that Maritz would interfere in his plans.

On the arrival of Grant's men German artillery began firing from distant hillocks. The two Transvaal Horse Artillery guns had been uncoupled and swung into action, the men courageously fighting back from such an exposed position with ammunition being rushed across from inconveniently parked munition wagons. UDF artillery casualties rose and by noon both guns were out of action.

The sun blazed down on the iron stone hillock. The SAMR riflemen scattered across its perimeter unable to reach the wells. They remained well ensconced against any frontal assaults. German artillery bombarded the koppie the entire afternoon. Killing over 200 UDF horses in the blasting and wounding or killing many SAMR members that had huddled behind their sangars. With ten German guns still in action, encircled and under heavy shelling the situation was desperate for the exhausted, thirsty UDF men. Two attempted relief efforts by Lukin from the drifts were futile against the well positioned German troops. By half past 5 in the afternoon Von Heydebreck's troops crawled to within two hundred yards on the hillock's slopes and several German guns were re-positioned. Grant had been wounded and dreading pointless loss of life from a bayonet assault in the dark raised the white flag of surrender.

Men from both sides then rushed together to quench their raging thirst at the wells as if never a shot had been fired. UDF fallen amounted to 15 dead and around 50 wounded, included those killed in the relief attempts. German fatalities being 14 with similar other casualty numbers to their opponents. The German’s took some 200 UDF prisoners.

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