The following report on the battle of Silkaats Neck by prof Ian Copley, is mainly based on research in British military archives.
In the afternoon of the 7th July 1900 the Royal Scots Greys, who were at Derdepoort (between Pretoria and Waterval), started for Silkaats nek to relieve the 1500 men and two batteries at Commando nek and Silkaats nek under Col. Baden-Powell. (He had advocated that forces should not be deployed in outlying posts, but rather concentrated at Rietfontein) (053). With them were two sections of Royal Horse Artillery and some fifty Australian mounted infantry. As they were late starting off they travelled along the unprotected northern side of the Magaliesberg under the gaze of the Boers on the mountaintop, which were too few to attack them as they rode past.
Col. Alexander of the Greys left C Squadron at Silkaats nek under Maj. Scobel, and sent B Squadron to Commando nek, whilst he placed his HQ on the low hills of Rietfontein.
As De la Rey passed Silkaats nek he observed it to be lightly held and decided to attack it with between 200 and 500 men. At the same time the Greys had previously noticed the dust of additional groups coming into the camp at Vissershoek and signalled to Pretoria for reinforcements. This came too late in the day to relieve the Greys, who were required further West by Gen. Smith-Dorien. Five under-strength companies of the 2nd Battalion of the Lincolnshire Regiment only arrived at the Nek, having marched from Pretoria, half an hour before sunset and barely had time to take up the picket stations of the Greys before dark. This delayed the departure of the Greys who camped with the Lincolns in-line-of-march beneath the ‘Wit Kopje’. Col. Roberts of the Lincolns had also requested reinforcements from Pretoria.
During the night De La Rey’s men scaled the heights on either side of the pass so that as dawn broke the British were caught in crossfire, their pickets were pushed in, the two 12-pounder guns captured and turned on the owners. The Boers were already bringing up two field guns, two ‘Pom Poms’ and a Vickers Maxim machine gun. Perhaps the only real shelter from the crossfire was to be found in the road cutting through the side of the Witkopje. Col. Roberts probably had his command post there and also used it to shelter the wounded. An encircling movement by the Boers was delayed by a machine gun from one of two companies of Lincolns at the bottom of the nek who had camped there overnight on the way to Commando nek. Sgt T Rawdin was later decorated with the Distinguished Conduct Medal for this action. It is possible that the two companies were mistaken for Boers by the RHA, the reason they did not advance nearer the Nek during the morning.
The fight lasted all day with little support from the force at Rietfontein. Most of the losses on the Boer side (11) occurred taking the guns whilst most of the Lincolnshire losses (22) were incurred in attempting to get the heliograph that had been left in the camp 150m behind the ‘Witkopje’. It was only acquired later in the day by which time the sun was too low for it to have been of much use. Strangely, this lack of communication and therefore of forward observation for the artillery was not mentioned at the court-martial. The gunners at Rietfontein were looking into the sun, dust and haze of a mid-winter’s day and feared shelling their own troops as well as loosing the guns if they ventured too far across the intervening plain. The Greys’ horses were cut loose and galloped back to Rietfontein ‘in a cloud of dust’. Roberts had got a messenger through to Alexander at Rietfontein as early as nine in the morning to say that they were hard pressed and requested him to shell the eastern buttress, but to no avail.
By dusk shortage of water, lack of ammunition and the number of wounded forced the Lincolns with the Greys and RHA to surrender, at which time the relieving column from Pretoria was still 8 miles away. The RHA and Greys HQ with 50 Australians and the Commando nek elements then retired on the relieving column, which then returned to Pretoria. Lt. Col the Hon W P Alexander of the Greys and Maj. J H Jervis-White-Jervis, Bart, RHA, were both ‘Stellenbosched’ for their ineffectual conduct. Col. Roberts was wounded in the arm and does not appear to have returned to active service after his release.
On that same day the Boers had two other successful engagements besides Silkaats nek at Witpoort and Dwarsvlei as well as an undetermined action at Ondesterpoort. These successes put new heart into the Boer resistance, the beginning of the guerrella phase of the war that was to last another two years.
Even Queen Victoria in her telegram of enquiry with regard to the wounded refers to the action at Silkaats nek as ‘Nitral’s Neck’. On the Jeppeson map of 1899 part of the neck is marked ‘uitval’ or ‘waste’. It is easy to see the signaller’s mistake in deciphering ‘uitval’s nek’ in someone’s handwriting. The 22 dead – Lincolns, Greys and RHA were buried in two cemeteries at the foot of the nek. Another four Lincolns died of wounds and are buried in the Pretoria West cemetery. Five Boers were buried at the Ras family cemetery at Sandfontein (065) 2km NE of Silkaats nek. Another four are buried at the next farm 1km further on whilst one combatant died three weeks later at a farm at Vissershoek 8km further away.
According to recent researches, the reverses at Silkaatsnek and Nooitgedacht (007), largely due to attrition and lack of timely reinforcements, can be attributed to some extent to Lord Kitchener’s chaotic staff administration. He successfully apportioned blame onto others, such as General Clements after Nooitgedacht, in order not to jeopardize his ambitions. Certain files have been ‘missing’ for most of the century. These two disasters and another at Helvetia near Belfast, where scapegoats were made, have come under scrutiny by a researcher in Johannesburg.
Boer and British doctors attend to the wounded the morning after the battle. The road in the centre of the pass is visible.
The two important Magaliesberg passes were now in the hands of the Boers until 2nd August 1900. It is not known whether they used the vacated camp at Rietfontein or not. General Ian Hamilton brought out two columns from Pretoria and made his HQ at Rietfontein. One column came along the North side of the mountain range and his main force came along the Moot. A detachment was sent along the top of the mountain range. The column and the detachment were nowhere near their positions in time neither to take any action in the engagement nor to cut off the Boer rear at the second battle of Silkaats nek. The general was therefore obliged to detail the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders to make a frontal attack towards the ‘Wit Kopje’ and the Royal Berkshires to storm the heights on the eastern side of the nek. During the latter action Private William House gained the Victoria Cross, the highest award for bravery, in rescuing his mortally wounded Sergeant Gibbs whilst himself wounded in the head. By eleven o’clock in the morning the pass had been rushed by the Highlanders and the action was over; 17 prisoners and a few horses and wagons were captured. The rest of the Boers under Coetzee had disappeared into the wilderness north of the Magaliesberg leaving behind a dozen dead; several wounded Boers were found on neighbouring farms. The Berkshires had five killed and five wounded, the Highlanders one killed and three wounded.
Sgt. Gibbs was buried in the Rietfontein cemetery. Pte House was evacuated to England and left the army as a result of his injuries. He later re-enlisted, probably not being able to find work. In 1912, whilst serving with his regiment garrisoning Dover Castle he shot himself. In 1993, the Royal Berkshire Regimental Association, who had both his medal and citation, discovered that Pte House lay buried in a neglected and unmarked grave. The following year the grave was restored and a headstone erected.