The Siege Of Wepener, April 1900

When I think of the sieges that took place during the Anglo- Boer War, I am reminded that Wepener gets included with the big three (Ladysmith, Kimberley and Mafeking) by some. I can see the similarities but the siege which lasted 16 days was more a besiegement of the troop positions near the town rather than the town itself. This is likely the rationale for  the clasp issued to the Queen’s South Africa medal being simply WEPENER and not DEFENCE OF WEPENER.

The clasp on the QSA medal is the second rarest in the series (after DEFENCE OF MAFEKING) and approximately 2,000 clasps were issued. The vast majority were issued to Colonial Troops with a little more than  100 being issued to Imperial Troops. The medals named to the British contingent consisted of a little over 80 to the Royal Scots Mounted Infantry, 20 to the Royal Engineers plus a few odd men. Since it’s a rare clasp to begin with and very few “British” troops were involved, the medals to the Royal Scots and Royal Engineers are highly sought after. The majority of medals were issued to men from the Cape Mounted Rifles, Kaffrarian Rifles and the 1st and 2nd contingents of Brabant’s Horse.

wepener2

image courtesy of DNW

Wepener is a small village on the western edge of the Orange Free State near the Basutoland (now Lesotho) Border. By April 5, Colonel Dalgety had some 2,000 troops under his command with the object of controlling the Jammerberg Drift and bridge over the Caledon River.

A day earlier General De Wet had learned from captured Imperial Yeomanry prisoners that Dalgety’s Colonials were digging in. Since the Free Staters had a particular desire to capture the Cape Mounted Rifleman and Brabant’s Horse whom the Boers deemed to be true Afrikaners who shouldn’t be fighting against them, the scene was set for an epic engagement and by April 9th, 6,000 Burghers were investing the position. Further Boer reinforcements arrived from Paardeberg and the Boer forces had increased to 8,000 by April 10th.

The majority of the attack took place at the south west corner of the perimeter where there was an open plain, which was defended by the Cape Mounted Rifles and life in those trenches can not have been pleasant since after 3 days of heavy rainfall beginning on April 12th,  the men were knee high in mud and rations were handed out only under cover of darkness.

In his report Colonel Dalgety said: “The weakest part of the position was on the extreme left rear, which was held by the Cape Mounted Rifles, and it was here that the heaviest casualties took place, the CMR losing 21 killed and 75 wounded, out of a total of 33 killed and 133 wounded”. Colonel Dalgety gives an account in his report of the fierce attacks made by the enemy, especially on the position occupied by the CMR. He said that “it was found to be impossible to contract our lines or to give up any-portion of the position held, so that I had no reserve available for relief, and consequently for sixteen days and nights the whole force was constantly in the trenches, and in the case of the Royal Scots, CMR, and Scouts, they had nothing but cold food and water during the whole sixteen days, while for three days the trenches were flooded by rain. I cannot speak too highly of the behaviour of the whole force during all this time; all did their work cheerfully and well, although the continued strain was telling on all ranks”.

Before too long, British reinforcements were on their way and 3,000 Basutos who were friendly to the British and the Colonials gathered at the border above Wepener, by the 23rd the relieving force was close enough for De Wet to hear British Artillery fire coming from the direction of Dewetsdorp and under pressure from General Botha, De Wet lifted the siege on the 25th and his commando headed to Thaba’Nchu.

Although the Boers had limited casualties (5 dead and 13 wounded) DeWet considered the siege a failure. In the history of the Anglo- Boer War, the defence by the Colonials of Jammerberg Drift earned a great deal of admiration by friend and foe alike.

If you are lucky enough to own a Queen’s South Africa medal with the WEPENER clasp particularly to the Cape Mounted Rifles, you can be sure it was hard earned.

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