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The Langberg Campaign

On 31st March 1885 Britain declared that the Tswana-speaking land between the Molopo River in the south and the 22nd Latitude to the north was the British Bechuanaland Protectorate (now named Botswana), thus preventing German South West Africa and the Transvaal from colluding in seizing the territory. The Tswana-speaking land south of the Molopo River was designated as the Crown Colony of British Bechuanaland. In 1895 South Africa annexed British Bechuanaland and this territory became part of the Northern Cape. This annexed land was still referred to locally as Bechuanaland.

In 1896 a serious epidemic of rinderpest (an infectious viral disease of cattle and some other animals) broke out in Bechuanaland affecting many herds. The government took drastic measures and issued regulations to combat the outbreak that included the slaughtering of infected herds. The Bataplin tribe from the former Crown Colony land objected to the regulations and refused to implement them. Also a minor Bataplin chief named Galishiwe fired on a Cape Police party that came to arrest him at Pokwani in connection with the murder of a German trader living nearby.

Right: The Langberg Mountains

The police then sent 600 men to arrest Galishiwe but as they arrived the Chief’s men dispersed and he escaped in the confusion. These “rebels” then killed another European trader and looted his store. Once again the police party sent to deal with the matter failed to apprehend Galishiwe; this led to a troop of Cape Mounted Riflemen under Captain Woon riding in support of the police, but by now the Batlaro natives had also risen in revolt. Woon decided that the rebels were too strong and so he withdrew. Finally in mid-February 1897 the Cape Government decided to form the Bechuanaland Field Force and despatch it to deal with the rebellion. Meanwhile the rebels, about 2,500 in number and armed with good rifles and plenty of ammunition, had fortified very strong defensive positions in the Langberg mountain range that runs in between Kuruman and the German South West Africa border. Large herds of cattle had been driven into these hills.

The major units in the Bechuanaland Field Force were all South African and included:

Prince Alfred’s Own Cape Volunteer Artillery (40 men)
Cape Mounted Riflemen (133 men, Regular soldiers)
Cape Police (897 men)
Cape Town Highlanders (111 men)
Diamond Fields Artillery (23 men)
Diamonds Field Horse (127 men)
Duke of Edinburgh’s Own Volunteer Rifles (241 men)
Kimberley Rifles (176 men)
First City Volunteers (106 men)
Gordonia Volunteers (76 men)
Queenstown Rifle Volunteers (66 men)
Kaffrarian Rifles (87 men)
Oudtshoorn Volunteer Rifles (42 men)
Vryburg Volunteers (39 men)
Cape Medical Staff Corps (24 men)
Transport Corps (19 men)

Over fifty other unit titles appear on the campaign medal roll, but most of these units only sent one or two men. Most men were mounted and came from the volunteer corps and burgher units, more volunteers being called-up as the campaign progressed. The force was around 3,000 men strong and was commanded by Colonel G.H. Dalgety of the Cape Mounted Rifles. Only five British Army personnel were involved.

In early March the Field Force marched the 150 miles from Kimberley westwards to Kuruman, where a base and a hospital were established, and then on to Ryan’s Farm which was located 16 miles east of the Langberg mountains. The Langberg range stretched north to south for 50 miles and was eight miles wide, rising to an average height of 2,000 feet. The rebels controlled the few water sources in the hills, and as the surrounding countryside was arid the Field Force was dependent on the limited supply of water at Ryan’s Farm for all its needs. Water carts were used to bring water up to the troops, but the rebels soon learned to ambush the carts and shoot holes into them to cause leaks. Stronger escorts for the water convoys were provided but the problems did not end there; this was the winter season and the wells at Ryan’s Farm froze-up during the night and did not thaw out till later in the following day. Large storage tanks had to be constructed at the farm and filled during the warmer daylight hours. The first attack on the rebels was made on the Gamasep Kloof (a kloof is a gap or gorge) which contained a good water supply that was defended by the rebels. Before the operation started the Geluk burgher contingent opted out, stating that they were “too old and fat” to perform dismounted duties on the mountain. The Geluk men were hurriedly replaced by other troops. The plan was that the force would ride at night from the farm to the base of the mountains, dismount and leave the horses with a protection party, split into three groups, two of which would climb the slopes on either side of the kloof and prevent the rebels from escaping whilst the main column attacked up the kloof.

Right: A Cape Mounted Rifleman in 1904

The southern group of 150 men under the force’s Chief Staff Officer, Major Frank Johnson, started a very stiff climb at 0200 hours on a freezing cold night, holding onto the coat tails of the man in front. Loose boulders and thorn-bush hedges added to the difficulties. At 0400 hours Johnson ordered the men to “go as you please” so that the summit could be reached by the fitter men before dawn, and this was achieved just before rebels arrived with the intention of rolling boulders down the slopes.

Lieutenant Colonel Dalgety’s main column attacked at dawn and the rebels withdrew towards where the northern group of men under Captain Woon should have been waiting to confront them. However the rebels escaped because, according to Johnson, Woon had been deterred by a few random shots fired down the mountain and his group of 70 men had not moved. (Woon was dismissed from the Service.) Johnson’s men occupied the crest line and were strongly attacked that night. At dawn they moved to a better position for a further night but resupply problems, particularly of water, were acute. Dalgety then ordered a withdrawal and the force returned to Ryan’s Farm to recuperate from its exertions. The rebellion dragged on.

For the next few weeks the force, working without accurate maps and also without useful intelligence as all natives in the area were unfriendly, patrolled and burned crops to deny them to the rebels. The Langberg range was blockaded and a few small rebel positions were captured, all being characterized by the stench of thousands of rotting cattle corpses that the rinderpest had killed. More burgher units refused to fight and went home. Attempts to discipline them failed as it was found that they had not been attested and so did not come under the Army Regulations (Colonial Forces Act). Lieutenant Colonel Dalgety requested reinforcements whilst the Cape Prime Minister, far away from the reality, sent a message ordering that the rebellion be satisfactorily ended by “daily fighting”.

At the end of June a group of miners arrived from Kimberley to sink new wells at Ryan’s Farm and to erect more water tanks. Sixteen hundred new men joined the force to replace the burgher defections. The rebels were now suffering badly from lack of food, and at the end of July their commander Chief Luka Jantje was killed in a fight at Gamasep Kloof. Afterwards a white flag was observed flying from the main rebel stronghold. Dalgety ordered Johnson to ride up the mountain and arrange a capitulation with Chief Toto, the new rebel commander. On approaching the rebels Johnson’s party was fired at and his escort retaliated, killing Toto. The remainder of the rebels, apart from Galishiwe who vanished, surrendered as they were now incapable of further resistance. Unfortunately an officer in the Cape Town Highlanders (later dismissed from the Service) decapitated Toto’s corpse and boiled the head so that he could have a souvenir of the campaign.

The government now acted against the tribes who had rebelled, cancelling their native reserves and dispersing them around Cape Colony for eight years indentured service with various employers of labour. The Cape of Good Hope General Service Medal with clasp “BECHUANALAND” was issued to members of the Bechuanaland Field Force who saw active service, served as guards at any point where an attack was expected, or who were detailed for some specific or special military duty.

(This article has relied almost entirely upon Frank Johnson’s account as no other personal narratives could be found. It is unfortunate that there is not an account from the perspective of the rebels, as they appear to have been effective and well-armed fighters who were defeated by blockade and starvation tactics rather than by battlefield confrontations.)

The Cape of Good Hope General Service Medal 1880-1897 with clasp BECHUANALAND displayed here was awarded to Despatch Rider Trooper W.A. Leach. It is shown through the kindness of the copyright holders the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

SOURCES AND FURTHER READING Great Days - the Autobiography of an Empire Pioneer by Lieut-Colonel Frank Johnson DSO British Battles and Medals published by Spink The Colonial Wars Sourcebook by P.J. Haythornthwaite  

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