De Wet’s lucky escape

A visit to South Africa of a descendant of a British soldier who was killed in the Anglo Boer War has rekindled interest in one of the lesser known but equally important battles – the Battle of Doornkraal. John Powell from Yorkshire recently went to Bothaville in the Free State to find the grave of his great uncle, Major Welch. Annelie Coleman accompanied him and tells his story with pictures.
Issue date : 28 November 2008

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Annelie Coleman

The Battle of Doornkraal, that brought John Powell to South Africa recently, took place on 6 November 1900 near Bothaville. General Charles Knox with mounted infantry under Colonels de Lisle and le Gallais ambushed General Christiaan de Wet and the Free State President MT Steyn while they were camped on the farm Doornkraal some 15km outside town, after De Wet’s scouts misjudged the situation and informed him that an attack was highly unlikely.

The British were camped on the banks of the Vals River nearby and De Wet and his commando were surprised shortly after sunrise. It’s rumoured that the fiery De Wet got on his horse and drove some of his fleeing men back to the battlefield with his horsewhip (sjambok). A bloody battle ensued in which 131 Boers and 46 British lost their lives. Le Gallais occupied one of the houses on the farm, the Red House, which was used as the headquarters, and he was fatally wounded by a Mauser bullet. Apparently he was standing in front of an open door, neatly silhouetted, when he was shot by a Boer sniper.

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 De Wet and Steyn were fortunate and succeeded in escaping. This, General Knox took as personal affront and he tried his best the next year-and-a-half to capture De Wet, but did not succeed. bout three weeks later, De Wet got his revenge and captured hundreds of British soldiers in the southern Free State. |fw

1: The commander of the mounted troops of Sir Archibald Hunter’s force, Colonel Phillip Walter Jules le Gallais occupied one of the houses on the farm called the Red House, which was used as the headquarters. He was apparently standing in front of an open door when he was fatally wounded by a Boer sniper.
2: Hercules van Wyk was nine years old and lived in the Red House with his family. Cornay says he used to tell the story of his mom being terribly upset because the Brits used up all her precious linen after the battle to bandage the wounded. He also told the story about his mother sending him to the pantry to fetch food and how he had to leap between the puddles of the blood of the solders that were killed or wounded in their house.

Major Norman Charles Welch was wounded in the neck and died four days after the Battle of Doornkraal, according to his great nephew John Powell who went to his uncle’s grave in the memorial garden for British soldiers in the old cemetery of Bothaville.