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gideon scheepers – boer war

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Gideon Scheepers 4th April 1878 - 18th Jan 1902

Gideon Scheepers 4th April 1878 – 18th Jan 1902

 

 

Gideon Scheepers, young Boer Commandant and expert heliographer ,  carried out effective hit-and-run guerrilla tactics against the British during the Anglo-Boer War of 1899 – 1902. He was born in Middelburg in the Zuid-Afrikaanse Republiek, on the 4th April 1878, son of Jacobus Johannes and Sophia Charlotte Scheepers 

Scheepers was reported to be in the Oudtshoorn district for the first time on 25 August 1901. Prior to this, he and his mounted band had traversed vast distances roaming the Orange Free State and Karoo midlands, his well recorded exploits concentrating on Aberdeen, Willowmore, Steytlerville, Avontuur and Uniondale. He frequently linked up with other commando groups during actions.

The British were desperate to stop Scheeper’s train wrecking and destruction of post and telegraph communications. At every stop Scheepers won new followers, commandeered horses, equipment, food and even locked magistrates and police in their own cells after releasing those being held there, and destroying incriminating records against his fellow countrymen.

Colonel Harry J Scobell

Colonel Harry J Scobell

Not only were the British furious, but enormously embarrassed at their inability to stop this youthful adversary and his mostly teenage men. Lord Kitchener, British Commander in Chief, stepped up, taking strong personal control for the first time in this war, appointing – among others – the distinguished Colonel Harry J. Scobell, of the 5th Lancers, to catch Scheepers, who Scobell pursued relentlessly.

After a victorious battle on 19th August 1901 with the 10th Hussars in the poort (gorge) east of Uniondale, Scheepers and his men left the area via the Langkloof, trekking down the Kammanassie river in the direction of Calitzdorp without any further major engagements.

Commandants Scheepers and Van der Merwe who worked closely together in overlapping areas met up again at this point and scouts were sent out to see if it would be possible to attack Oudtshoorn

On the 24 August 1901 in a skirmish in which Scheepers lost some horses, a captive from Langkloof – one J. van Niekerk – was released. Van Niekerk reported that the estimated total combined forces of Commandants Scheepers and Van der Merwe, was 300.

On 25 August 1901 In Oudtshoorn local reports stated that Boer forces under Scheepers were sighted to the east near Oudtshoorn, but moved on because the town was well defended. It was also on this day in the Oudtshoorn district that 6 rebels joined Scheepers’ commando and Scheepers’ men commandeered 150 horses, all of them fresh and all in excellent condition. Unlike the districts they had come from, the Little Karoo had not yet been cleared of horses, which were ‘used up’ in the fighting much as fuel is used up in modern war machines today. By October 1901, The Times in England reported that the British War Office was supplying their troops in South Africa with nearly 10,000 remounts a month.

Trekking west of Oudtshoorn in the last week of August, Scheepers clashed with a column between that town and Calitzdorp.

Going through the Huisrivier pass, Scheepers turned south-west towards Barrydale and he clashed with a pursuing column near Buffelsfontein (Van Wyksdorp) in the Ladismith district. Scheepers described the Rooiberg pass en route to Buffelsfontein ‘an old wagon trail’.

On 30 August 1901 having turned south towards Riversdale, the commando clashed with the Riversdale Defence force at Muiskraal just 20 kilometers north of the town,.

Scheepers was shocked to find that most of the Afrikaners in that area were pro-imperial, and recruitment was extremely low.

On 31 August 1901 Scheepers captured Barrydale, occupying it for just one day.

Scheepers, centre, chief heliographer in earlier days in his Orange Free State uniform - proof that he was not a Cape Rebel.

Scheepers, centre,  chief heliographer in earlier days
in his Orange Free State uniform – proof that he was not a Cape Rebel.

In the first week of September Scheepers moved towards Montagu, his rear guard being attacked by Col. Alexander’s column. Swinging north towards Oudeberg on 4th September 1901, Scheepers westward movement ended. He was just 150 kilometers from Cape Town.

Scheepers found that British defences were now much more effective and numerous with an armoured train operating on the railway. Getting near the line with the hopes of doing damage was impossible.

After a few days in the mountainous country south of Touwsrivier, Scheepers and van der Merwe trekked east again. They continued east towards Laingsburg over the Witberge, just south of Matjiesfontein.

In the second week of September 1901 they were once again in the Ladismith district. As on previous occasions, the two commandos trekked separately but in close association.

Because of the British scorched earth policy, where innumerable properties were torched and razed by the British, (an estimated 33.000 during whole war) Boer leaders President Steyn and General de Wet had issued a proclamation on 14th January 1901 in the Free State :

‘……..warn the officers of Her Majesty’s troops, as we have already done,
that unless they cease this destruction of property in the Republics
we shall wreak our vengeance by destroying the property of
Her Majesty’s subjects who are not kindly disposed towards us…….’

It seems this was taken seriously by Scheepers as at the end of September 1901 a Northern Cape newspaper recorded that

‘The Boers have burnt about twenty homes of loyal farmers in the Oudtshoorn district.
Scheepers is the champion farm burner of the Boer forces. Nearly every outrage of the
kind committed within our borders (the Cape Colony) has been his work.’

Meeting again on about 7th September 1901 somewhere between Anysberg and the Little Swartberg the two commanders decided that further travel should be separate to divide the pursuing forces. Van der Merwe with his 79 men opted to travel north of the Little Swartberg.

Strangely no guards had been posted north of the mountain range, where there were approaches from the north (Laingsburg) and east (Seweweeks Poort). During the night a local Boer farmer sent a report to Laingsburg and his messenger gave the message to Col. E.M.S. Crabbe’s column 8 miles from Driefontein.

At dawn on the 10th September 1901 Crabbe attacked Van der Merwe’s commando. Van der Merwe and two of his men were killed. More than 20 men were captured. Many of their horses, saddles, rifles and rounds of ammunition were also taken. With no leader and no way of contacting Scheepers on the far side of the Swartberg mountains, the remaining 60 men fled eastwards to Calvinia. Mid-September saw them cross the line near Blood river station at night, into the Karoo.

On the 9th September 1901 a day before Van der Merwe’s death, Scheepers was involved in a heavy clash with a British column, inflicting a number of casualties. In reply Major Lund captured 4 Boers, 3 Africans, 14 horses and a mule.

Things started to deteriorate rapidly for Scheepers at this point. His commando – once, in its heyday in the Karoo midlands, a force of 270 men – started to fragment. It was around then that four of Scheepers men, who had ‘become separated,’ joined Field Coronet J.P. Neser’s small commando in the Sutherland district

On the 12th September 1901 one of Scheepers’ men surrendered – the first ‘hands-upper to be produced by the commando.

Scheepers was a personal friend of Comdt H J Hugo. Hugo had been a judge in the OFS before the war, and having accompanied Cmdt W.C.Malan on his political mission to the O.F.S. at the end of July, was still absent there. So there seemed nothing untoward when on 13th September 1901 somewhere near Calitzdorp, Hugo’s brother joined Scheepers’ commando. What was not known to Scheepers was that the brother was supposedly an Imperial agent – a spy and assassin – and ultimately a uniformed member of the British army. Hugo’s intent on joining the commando is believed to have been to poison Scheepers, and lead the unit into an ambush. His first move was to befriend the commando cook.

Clashes were now increasing. On both the 14th and 15th September 1901 Scheepers clashed with Col. Crabbe’s column, inflicting a large number of casualties on both occasions.

On the 16th September 1901 Scheepers moved east re-entering the Oudtshoorn district. Attacked by a column on the 17th September 1901, he again inflicted heavy losses

On the 18th September 1901 he clashed with Col. Atherton’s column of 12th Lancers. In these actions against Scheepers Maj.-Genl. S. Beatson had 4 columns under his control – those of Atherton, Crabbe, Kavanagh and Alexander

Scheepers returned to the Kammanassie river to the east of Oudtshoorn. After entering the George district for just one day he turned north towards Dysselsdorp. On the 22 September 1901, back on the Kammanassie just east of Oudtshoorn, Scheepers was waiting for a patrol to return from sizing up the possibility of an attack on Oudtshoorn. The commando was certain that the area was clear of patrols in the immediate vicinity. At this point Hugo is rumoured to have given Scheepers a glass of poisoned wine and promptly disappeared.

Almost immediately, and totally without warning, the commando was attacked by a British column. In the confusion resulting from Scheepers’ sudden illness, the commando suffered some casualties. There has been much controversy about this poisoning, but Scheepers’ adjutant Karel Lehmkuhl who was poisoned at the same time, survived to write about it in an article which was published in ‘Die Brandwag’ magazine of 13 August 1937 and ‘Die Huisgenoot’ of 20 May, 1938.

Kango hotelAs soon as Scheepers had recovered sufficiently to ride, the commando moved north stopping in the Cango, close to the caves. Every day they fought small skirmishes and on the 26 September 1901 they found themselves trapped against the Swartberg. Inflicting some casualties on their pursuers, they managed to get away to Kruisrivier.


This photograph
taken on 24 September 1901 shows Scheepers and his commando at the Kango Hotel near Oudtshoorn.   
(Photo: Fransie Pienaar Museum)

 

 

They continued their trek westward along the foot of the Swartberg and on 28 September 1901 re-entered the Ladismith district.  Scheepers condition had worsened and he was transported in a captured horse-drawn cart. They then turned south towards Riversdale and Heidelberg.

the farmhouse at Kopjeskraal – It was here that Scheepers surrendered. photo : David Luttig around 1910: (Photo: Fransie Pienaar Museum)

The farmhouse at Kopjeskraal – It was here that Scheepers surrendered.
photo : David Luttig around 1910: (Photo: Fransie Pienaar Museum)

On 30th September 1901 they were at Brand river in the Riversdale district. There were clashes every day with the pursuing columns, the commandos inflicting many casualties and capturing large numbers of prisoners, horses and rifles.

At the end of September Scheepers was driven north again and on the 1st October 1901 was near Calitzdorp. When forced to flee into the mountains, four of his men rode with him in a blanket slung between them. Another horse-drawn cart was soon commandeered, and their trek continued south and then south-east around Rooiberg.

Arriving at Buffelsfontein (Vanwyksdorp) on the 2nd October 1901 Scheepers commando clashed with a column there, inflicting a number of casualties.

The house at Kopjeskraal is in ruins today having been destroyed in a flood.

The house at Kopjeskraal is in ruins today having been destroyed in a flood.

 

Driven south of Buffelsfontein on the 3rd October 1901 they trekked towards Riversdale; on into the hills between the Rooiberg and the Langeberg, then east towards the Grootrivier.  Changing course again to go north west they had completed a circle and arrived back at Buffelsfontein on the 4th October 1901. Fodder requirements had forced their return. On the same day Lieut. S.W. Pypers captured 67 horses with saddles and bridles.

Their journey continued west to Ockertskraal 25 km south of Ladismith where they were ambushed. The commando scattered, 2 men were killed and 10 men captured. This was a major disaster for the dwindling group as recruitment had hit an all time low with only 3 recruits in the previous six weeks.

Scheepers spent almost a month recovering in the tent hospital in Beaufort West.

Scheepers spent almost a month recovering in the tent hospital in Beaufort West.

 

 

Regrouping at Nellsplaats, Scheepers swung towards Riversdale and then turned north, camped south of Anysberg on 7 October 1901. They continued the next day over the Anysberg towards Laingsberg. Travelling in dangerous, heavily defended territory between the Swartberg and the railway line, Scheepers’ commando headed for Prince Albert, closely pursued by numerous British columns.

With his horses exhausted and Scheepers now desperately ill. the commando reached the farm Koppieskraal on the Dwyka river 40 km west of Prince Albert.  Scheepers could no longer continue and on 10 October 1901 decided to surrender. His commando was to continue eastward under S W Pypers’ command. A group of thirteen men broke away from the group and Pypers managed to break through the columns blocking his way and headed for Willowmore district.

 

 

 

scheepers recovering in bed

Scheepers recovering in bed

Scheepers suffered severe fevers and was believed to be suffering from appendicitis. He was nursed back to health at the British military hospitals of Beaufort West, Noupoort and Graaff-Reinet.

During this time, his old adversary, Colonel Scobell visited him regularly and they discussed their many skirmishes.

Scobell held Scheepers in high esteem writing of him in his diary: “He is evidently a very clever fellow. He told me I was called the Night Devil by his men’. Scheepers was also visited in prison by General John French, British commander in the Cape Colony.

 

 

Promulgation of sentence - Scheepers is to the rear, centre right, in white trousers Photograph: Cape Archives

Promulgation of sentence – 
Scheepers is to the rear, centre right, in white trousers  Photograph: Cape Archives

 

On the 18th December 1901 his trial started in a military court at Graaff-Reinet. He was not allowed witnesses, nor was it accepted that he was an officer of the Free State Artillery and therefore a prisoner of war and not a Cape Rebel.

Sentenced to death on the 17th January 1902, to be executed as a Cape Rebel, his sentence was immediately confirmed by Lord Kitchener and carried out the next day. Tragically, the 17th of January was Gideon’s mother’s birthday.

 

 

 

 

Scheepers being tied to a chair before being executed by the firing squad Photograph: Cape Archives

Scheepers being tied to a chair before being executed by the firing squad    Photograph: Cape Archives

Moment of execurion Photograph: Cape Archives

Moment of execution       Photograph: Cape Archives

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This execution created strong adverse reaction across the world. Locally Comdt Carel P van Heerden, a rebel from Aberdeen who had joined Scheepers early in 1901, was so incensed by the evidence given by one Pieter Booysen of Mooifontein farm against Scheepers at his trial, that he sought Booysen out and rather than shoot him, gave him a severe thrashing with a sjambok – ‘because the deed was too low to have the English elevate him to the position of hero and martyr as a result of his death’.

Shortly after Scheepers’ execution, Olive Schreiner wrote a poem of shame about what Britain had done.


Oh,
England, what is this that thou hast done!

A deed so black, so steeped in coward shame

that we, thy British subject o’er the seas,

must weep hot tears of bitter self contempt

to bear so foul a name. Alas! alas!

Thou dost not know, or see, or feel. Deaf dumb

and stone blind, thou reelest to ruin.

What is one young and gallant life to thee?

What matter faith and knightly-hood and honour

to those, who calmly starve young babes to death?

England, thou hast already lost thy spurs!”

So spake another of they modern seers, –

Thy “spurs”? Aye, knighthood, manhood,

!name and fame!

All, all are lost; and EnglandMilton‘s England,

now grasps a tinsel Empire in their place.

We wish her joy of her so noble choice,

and turn away our hearts to the lone grave

where Scheepers lies, away to burger-faith

to nobler manhood, truer Chivalry

than ever Empire breed.

England, Farewell!

In 1950 D J Opperman wrote a poem of prayer ‘Gebed om die Gebeente’ (Prayer for the bones) from the anguished point of view of Gideon Scheepers’ mother, from which the following line says it all

Hy was gewone kryger, Heer en geen rebel.

“He was an ordinary warrior, Lord and no rebel.”