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Battle of Elands River
Part of Second Boer War
All That Was Left of Them (17th Lancers at Moddersfontein).jpg
17th Lancers in action at Modderfontein, after a painting by Richard Caton Woodville
Date 17 September 1901
Location Modderfontein farm, near Tarkastad, South Africa
31°51′3″S 26°10′4″E / 31.85083°S 26.16778°E / -31.85083; 26.16778Coordinates: 31°51′3″S 26°10′4″E / 31.85083°S 26.16778°E / -31.85083; 26.16778
Result Boer victory
United Kingdom 17th Lancers, United Kingdom Flag of Transvaal.svg South African Republic
Captain Sandeman Jan Smuts
130 250
Casualties and losses
29 killed, 41 wounded, 60 captured 1 killed, 6 wounded

In the Battle of Elands River or Modderfontein on 17 September 1901 during the Second Boer War, a Boer raiding force under Jan Smuts destroyed a British cavalry company led by Captain Sandeman, a cousin of Winston Churchill, on the farm Modderfontein.



Jan Smuts

After a year of guerilla war, the Boer leaders decided to send significant raiding forces into the Cape Colony and Natal. About 1000 Boers in six commandos already operated in the Cape Colony. The Boer leaders hoped to cause an uprising in that Dutch-majority territory or at least to widen the theater of war beyond the Boer republics of Orange Free State and South African Republic. Smuts led a commando south into the Cape Colony, while Louis Botha attempted to cross into Natal.

Earlier Boer raids into the Cape Colony proved unsuccessful. All had been eventually hounded out by British mounted columns and had suffered painful losses. Smuts believed he could do better.[1]

The raid

During the trek south to the Orange River, Smuts' commando lost 36 men. He finally crossed at Kiba Drift on 3 September.[2] Major General Fitzroy Hart's British force had been guarding the ford, but General Herbert Kitchener mistakenly sent them away on another mission.[3] The Basotho attacked the Boers on 4 September near Wittenberg Mission, killing three and wounding seven with spears and ancient guns before being driven off with serious losses. On 7 September, Smuts went on a scout near Mordenaar's Poort (Murderer's Gorge), near Dordrecht, when they were ambushed. All three of his companions were shot by the British and Smuts barely escaped.[4]

The cold spring rains tormented both men and horses as British pursuing columns under the overall command of Major General Sir John French closed in on Smuts' raiders. On 13 September, the Boers were cornered atop Stormberg Mountain (31°17′52.64″S 26°15′17.31″E / 31.2979556°S 26.2548083°E / -31.2979556; 26.2548083) and escaped only when a friendly guide in the form of Hans Kleynhans appeared and led them down a precipitous route to safety. The night of 15 September nearly finished the raiders as freezing rain killed over 60 ponies and fourteen men went missing. In front of the Boers, every mountain pass was reportedly held by the British.[5]


On 17 September, as Smuts' commando threaded through a gorge that opened out into the Elands River valley, a 17-year old farmer named Jan Coetzer informed them that a British force held the pass at Elands River Poort in the next valley. Smuts commented, "If we don't get those horses and a supply of ammunition, we're done for."[6] The British were C Squadron of the 17th Lancers. The Boers took advantage of a mist to encircle the British camp. When Smuts' vanguard ran head on into a Lancer patrol, the British hesitated to fire because many of the Boers wore captured British uniforms. The Boers immediately opened fire and attacked in front while Smuts led the remainder of his force to attack the British camp from the rear. The British party suffered further casualties at a closed gate that slowed them down. The Boers, who were the superior fighters due to a lifetime of warring with either British soldiers or African warriors, made maximum use of their skills. All six British officers were hit and four were killed, only Captain Sandeman, the commander, and his lieutenant Lord Vivian surviving. The 17th Lancers lost 29 killed and 41 wounded before surrendering. Boer losses were only one killed and six wounded. One Boer noted, "We all had fresh horses, fresh rifles, clothing, saddlery, boots and more ammunition than we could carry away, as well as supplies for every man."[7] The Boers destroyed a field gun that they captured, while two maxim guns were dumped in a dam after they proved to be too much trouble.[8]


Smuts and his commando were able to operate for many months in the Cape Colony. Ultimately, 250 Boers were unable to affect the course of the war because, by this time, the Dutch in the Cape Colony were mostly convinced that the Boer republics were losing the war.[9] In addition, while Boers captured in the republics were treated as prisoners of war, Boer fighters captured from the Cape Colony were sometimes treated as rebellious subjects and executed by the British.[10] On the other hand, the British refrained from burning Dutch farms in the Cape Colony as a matter of political policy.

When one of the Boers, Deneys Reitz subsequently became the South African ambassador to the United Kingdom, he met George Vivian at South Africa House who returned the Mauser that he dropped at the battle.[8][11]



  1. ^ Pakenham, p 551
  2. ^ Pakenham, p 550
  3. ^ Pakenham, p 557
  4. ^ Pakenham, p 553
  5. ^ Pakenham, p 554
  6. ^ Pakenham, p 555
  7. ^ Pakenham, p 556
  8. ^ a b Smith, 2004
  9. ^ Pakenham, p 565
  10. ^ Jooste, Graham; Roger Webster (2002). Innocent Blood. South Africa: Spearhead. pp. 238. ISBN 9780864865328.  
  11. ^ Fremont-Barnes, Gregory (2003). The Boer War 1899-1902. Volume 52 of Essential histories. Osprey Publishing. p. 73. ISBN 1841763969.  

Further reading



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