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The Boer war in Botswana

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Boer War Page 1:
Outline of the Boer War in Botswana
with an appendix on British Soldiers' Graves

by Neil Parsons

October 12th, 1999, marks the hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902, otherwise known as the South African War.

Botswana (the Bechuanaland Protectorate) experienced the very first hostile act in the war, when Boers sabotaged the Cape-Rhodesia telegraph just south of Mahalapye on the same night as war was declared. Some hours later an armoured British train was attacked in the Cape Colony, south of Mafikeng. See also Botswana History Page 14: Tourism

British preparations for war

The siege of Mafikeng has attracted a considerable historical literature, nearly all of which fails to put the siege in the context of warfare on the north-west frontier between British and Boer territories. Mafikeng was, after all, the administrative headquarters of the Bechuanaland Protectorate (Botswana), from 1895 to 1965.

Robert Baden-Powell was the commander of British 'North West Frontier Forces' in South Africa. He was responsible for the defence of British territory all the way up the Bechuanaland Railway from Mafikeng to Bulawayo and Salisbury in (Southern) Rhodesia - which makes it all the more strange that he chose to be besieged with his main military force in a southern vanguard salient, and to cut himself off from lesser British and allied forces in his hinterland. [See further reading by Gardner, Plaatje]

While Colonel Baden-Powell established his redoubt at Mafikeng, Colonel Plumer brought his British Rhodesian forces to Fort Tuli, near to the Limpopo-Shashe confluence, on October 10th, 1899. [See further reading by Hickman]

When war began on Thursday October 12th, there were two almost immediate incursions by Boer forces on Bechuanaland communications. The first was on the night of the 12th; Boers penetrated deep into Khama's country and cut the Cape-Rhodesia telegraph wire near Mahalapye. The second was the next day, Friday the 13th, when Boers attacked and captured an armoured train at Kraaipan 50 km south of Mafikeng. Number 1 Division of the British South Africa Police, formerly the Bechuanaland Border Police, was divided between its camps at Mafikeng and Gaborone. The latter was an earthen police fort next to the colonial administrative district headquarters for the Southern Protectorate, constructed in the locality most likely to be invaded by Boer forces. [See further reading by Ellenberger, Will & Dent]

Boer preparations for war

The war of 1899-1902 began with Boer offensives on three fronts: into Cape Colony where it was hoped that local Afrikaners would rise to the cause; into Natal to capture the port of Durban; and into the Bechuanaland Protectorate to capture 'Rhodesia'.

Warfare on the western frontier of the Transvaal was divided between district commandos. The Marico (Zeerust) commando seized the railway between Mafeking and Gaborone; the Rustenburg commando confronted the Bakgatla of Kgosi Linchwe, and the Waterberg commando confronted the Bangwato of Kgosi Khama III, while the Soutpansberg commando confronted British-Rhodesian forces at Tuli.

Opening phase of the war

Between October 12th and the 15th the Boer commando from the adjacent Marico district cut the telegraph and the railway at Ootse near Lobatse, between Mafeking and Gaborone.

By the 17th, Mafeking was now cut off - though throughout the siege a 'back-door' sometimes swung open from Mafikeng to Kanye in the Bechuanaland Protectorate, the capital of Bathoen's country which remained unoccupied by Boer forces. The Boer republics had successfully completed the first stage of their offensives on the Bechuanaland and Natal fronts. With most British forces on the north west frontier now safely tucked up in Mafikeng, the Marico commando prepared to drive northwards up the railway line to effect a junction with the Rustenburg commandos around Mochudi in Linchwe's country. Evidently the plan was then to drive further north through Khama's country, effecting a junction there with the Waterberg commando; and finally entering Rhodesia while the Soutpansberg commando engaged Plumer's force at Tuli.

The first casualty among British forces at Gaborone camp was a mounted policeman, Trooper Chere, a Mosotho by origin, who was ambushed on patrol beneath Kgale hill. [See appendix for grave at Old Naledi] Recognizing that Gaborone was undefendable, the British obligingly fell in with the Boer plan. The Bechuanaland police and the Assistant Commissioner for the Southern Protectorate withdrew from Gaborone on October 24th, and steamed northwards in an armoured train up the railway from the hills of Mochudi in Linchwe's country on the 27th.

Crossing almost 200 km of wide open country, they set up their ne plus ultra at the tiny kopje next to Mahalapye station in Khama's country - 60 km south of Khama's capital, (Old) Palapye.

War in Khama's country and Tuli

Phalapye had received news on October 16th that the Waterberg commando, under Assistant Commandant-General Frederick A. Grobler, was assembling on the eastern side of the Limpopo at Seleka's (opposite Ngwapa), near the drift later marked on South African maps as Groblersbrug. The next day Khama ordered out the Maolola (or Mafhiri) regiment, under his brother Kebailele, to guard the Mahalapye railway bridge.

On the 20th and 21st came more definite intelligence that Grobler's force intended to attack Phalapye by way of redoubts at Ngwapa hill, Sefhare hill, and Ratholo at the foot of the Tswapong hills. Khama immediately sent a regiment of 400 men to fortify Ngwapa, the key natural fortress of the area. Thirty-six hours later, 100 Rhodesian white militia with a 7-pounder gun arrived at Palapye Road station. 80 of them repaired to Phalapye town, where the substantial church building was converted into a fortress inside a double-ring of stone walls, stocked with a month's provisions for the white population.

On October 22nd, Khama received an ultimatum from Frederick Grobler, couched in respectful terms, informing him of the South African Republic's intention to invade. Grobler warned Khama to remain neutral. Khama replied the next day: 'If you enter with armed men into my country, and among my cattle-posts, I shall fight you.' He added that white people were under his protection, not vice-versa.

Grobler made no immediate advance. He fretted over the failure of the northward thrust of the Marico and Rustenburg forces up the railway towards Mahalapye. Characteristically impatient, he withdrew with 400 men in a feint to the south and re-appeared in the north at Rhodes' Drift, near Tuli, to reinforce the Soutpansberg commando of Commandant van Rensburg - against the British Rhodesian forces of Colonel Plumer. Grobler's request to invade Rhodesia with van Rensburg was turned down by Pretoria. So, on or about November 5th, Grobler came once again to camp at Seleka's village, with reinforcements from the Soutpansberg commando. There were now reportedly at Seleka's 637 Boers with 97 waggons and 4 field-pieces, together with about 750 armed African auxiliaries. Khama dispatched another regiment of 370 men to Ngwapa hill, a natural fortress that stood high above the valley - making a total of 700 defenders there.

On Tuesday, November 7th, 1899, the combined Transvaal forces crossed the Limpopo and fired four shells at Ngwapa. They then doubled back across the river and began to build an earth-walled fort. There were no casualties on either side in the skirmish. Satisfied with this display of force, the concentration of Boer forces at Seleka's then dispersed north and south along the Bechuanaland front.[See further reading by Parsons, Warwick]

The Soutspansberg commando, with Waterberg assistance, made attacks across the Limpopo on Plumer's forces at Rhodes Drift on November 16th-18th. But Grobler and van Rensburg had dissipated and lost the military initiative. [See further reading by Hickman]

Turning point: the battle of Derdepoort

Colonel Holdsworth, at Mahalapye, pressed home the advantage by pushing back southwards down the railway to Linchwe's country. A small victory over some Boers at Molotwana station, north of Mochudi, finally and irrevocably persuaded Linchwe to throw in his lot with the British. (See appendix for graves at Molotwana associated with military field hospital.)

The Boer advance from the south up the railway line never materialized. Linchwe of the Bakgatla, whom Commandant-General Cronje of the Marico commando, had been satisfied would be an ally, rejected the overtures of the Boers and ordered them out of his country - on October 31st.

Holdsworth and Linchwe now attacked the Rustenburgers at their Derdepoort camp across the Marico (Madikwe) river from Sikwane on November 24th, 1899. British and Bakgatla forces famously collaborated in the attack on Derdepoort - a fact publicized by Paul Kruger's Memoirs (1902), denied in official British accounts of the war, but subsequently fully confirmed by participants. [See further reading by Ellenberger, Kruger, Morton, Schapera, Teichler]

On November 24th, Palapye received intelligence that Transvaal forces were being reinforced and were preparing make a desperate three-pronged attack to capture Phalapye, and Forts Tuli and Mangwe (the strategic hill-pass 50 miles from Bulawayo) in Rhodesia. There were two minor exchanges of fire between Boer and Bangwato troops. But then, on December 2nd, the Boers suddenly struck camp - and rushed to defend the Rustenburg front against Holdsworth and Linchwe.

The rains had begun, and the rising of the Limpopo waters now made an invasion of Rhodesia via Tuli impracticable. By the end of December, Boer forces seem to have abandoned the Northern Transvaal to their African allies.

When there was more heavy fighting at Deerdepoort, Plumer seized the opportunity to go south, to assist and take over command from Holdsworth on the front with the Rustenburg and Zeerust commandos.

Plumer's flying column to Mafikeng

Leaving Linchwe's Bakgatla to engage the enemy at Deerdepoort, which was not finally abandoned by the Rustenburgers until early March, Plumer's 'flying column' re-occupied Gaborone in mid-January 1900.

Between January 16th and February 26th 1900, Plumer's force was engaged in a running battle mainly against German-officered light artillery 7 miles south of Gaborone near Crocodile Pools - the most strategically vulnerable point on the Bechuanaland railway, where the line crossed a bridge pinched between kopjes a couple of hundred metres from the Transvaal frontier. Fighting was particularly fierce between February 12th and 14th. [See further reading by Ellenberger, Will & Dent] (See appendix for graves at Gaborone's and Basuto Kop.)

On March 5th, 1900, Plumer captured Lobatse, on the railway half way between Gaborone and Mafikeng. But Plumer's new position at Lobatse was attacked by General Snyman from Mafikeng on March 15th, and he abandoned Lobatse the next day. [See appendix for graves at Lobatse]

Plumer's advance swung westwards, via the town of Kanye in Bathoen's country, from whence sorties were made towards Mafikeng 100 km to the south-east. The Reuter's correspondent with Plumer's column reported in The Times of London on March 23rd:

Our right flank is protected by the chief Bathoen, who has warned the Boers not to enter his territory. It is improbable that they will do so. Since their ill-advised raids on Linchwe the Dutch have a wholesome dread of the natives.

Plumer's column made sorties from Kanye (and Sefhikile) as far as Ramatlhabama, 12 miles north of Mafikeng, but hung on while a much bigger British relief force from the south, under Mahon, slowly advanced from Kimberley towards Mafikeng. (See appendix for graves at Kanye and Sefhikile.) Eventually, on May 17th, 1900, Plumer's column linked up with Mahon's and relieved Mafikeng from its siege.

Just before Mafikeng was relieved, Transvaal forces made a move to divert Plumer, to cut his lines of communication and reinforcement - threatening another invasion across the now gently flowing or dry Limpopo river. On May 9th, 1900, Palapye received confirmation from Bangwato spies that a Boer force had disembarked at Pietersburg in the Northern Transvaal - the terminus of the railway from Pretoria - and was proceeding once again up the road to Seleka's. But the force's orders were then countermanded, because it turned back. The reason became clear when, on May 19th, 1900, Phalapye received news of Mafikeng's relief.

Guerrilla war across eastern borders

The next, guerrilla phase of the South African War, was limited to within the borders of the Transvaal. The British authorities had grown self-conscious about African participation in the war. Following the request of the colonial Assistant Commissioner at Phalapye, 'Khama strictly forbad any of his men to cross the borders of his country'. But this did not stop the Baseleka being important collaborators with the British in the Waterberg district, or the Bakgatla from conducting their own war with the Boers.

The bitter war between the Bakgatla and the Boers of the Rustenburg district was over the possession of cattle and grazing. The armed struggle lasted through the guerrilla phase of the South African War fully into 1902. The British were happy to leave the Bakgatla to their own devices, since the Bakgatla-Boer war insulated the Cape-Rhodesia railway in Bechuanaland from Boer attacks. [See further reading by Morton, Schapera, Teichler.]

In the northern Transvaal, British 'mopping up' operations against Afrikaner resistance were concentrated around Pietersburg. Afrikaner resistance collapsed in the Waterberg district - due to drought setting in, crops being burnt, and labour denied. By February 1901 Boers in the Waterberg were reported near starvation, reduced to buying clothes off Africans' backs. Assistant Commandant-General Frederick A. Grobler negotiated his surrender by crossing the river to hands-up at Phalapye. He thereby earned a price of £500 on his head for deserting the cause of Afrikaner liberty.

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Further reading

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British Soldiers' Graves in Botswana (as of 1933)


Bechuanaland Border Police
British South Africa Police
Protectorate Native Police
Southern Rhodesia Volunteers
Rhodesia Rifles

[Iron crosses erected for RR by Loyal Women's Guild]

1. Mahalapye (80 yards ENE of station)

Grave Location
Trooper Ross (BSAP) d. 2 Nov.1899 1st grave
Trooper Budd (RR) d. 7 Dec.1899 2nd grave

2. Mochudi Road (335 yards E by S of Molotwane station)

Grave Location
Lance-Corporal Schenk (U.S. citizen?) 1st grave
Trooper Schwartz (U.S. citizen?] also 1st grave
Trooper Bonniwell (RR) d. 8 March 1900 2nd grave
Trooper Weldon (RR) d. 21 Feb. 1900 3rd grave
Civilians other graves

[1909 report of grave of Cecil Van Schade of BSAP]

[1933 report 12 soldiers' graves; 6 identified with iron crosses and names; one wooden cross no name; 5 unidentified. Plus 3 or 4 civilian graves including father of local trader Mr. Harbour]

3. Gaborone's Camp (220 yards NE of Police Stables)

The old cemetery at Gaberone's Camp
Grave Location
Trooper Stephenson, J. 2nd grave L of gate
Trooper Simpson (RR) d. 14 Feb, 1900
[1902 reported as Lieutenant Simpson when sister proposed stone cross]
3rd grave L of gate
Corporal Jones (BSAP) d. 14 Feb. 1900 4th grave L of gate
Lieutenant Wallis (BSAP) 1st grave in centre
Trooper Reid (RR) d.12 Feb. 1900 2nd grave in centre
Trooper Isherwood (RR) d. 12 Feb. 1900 3rd grave in centre
Trooper Garnier (BSAP) d. 12 Feb. 1900 4th grave in centre
Trooper Dahl (SRV) d. 5 April 1900 1st grave on R
Trooper Whitfield (RR) d. 12 Feb. 1900 2nd grave on R
Captain French (RR) d. 12 Feb. 1900 3rd grave on R

other unmarked graves:

4. (Basuto Kop)[Sebekwe Fort??]

Grave Location
Sergeant Winder d. 13 Feb. 1900 grave outside NE corner of entrenched laager, Crocodile Pools
[1902 had wooden cross]

5. (S of Old Naledi)

Grave Location
Trooper Chere (PNP) d. 24 Oct. 1899 grave at mile 962 on railway line

6. Sefhikile

[1927-30 new crosses]

7. Kanye

Grave Location
Bushley 1st L nearest church
May 2nd L
Hitchens 3rd L
Irwin 4th L

8.Lobatse (near railway station and Sarel Farm)

9. Fort Matlaputla ("Macloutsie")

1933 report of 40 graves, a few with crosses, many unidentified - presumably dating from BBP camp and Catholic hospital 1890-96.

10. Moshaneng near Rakops

[1930 report that grave to be moved 8 miles to Mopipi, and charged to his estate]

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Copyright © 2000 Neil Parsons
Last updated 19 September 2000

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