Editor's Note -- In Vol. 1, No. 2 of the Military History Journal, Mr Don Forsyth wrote, in his article on the Dekoratie Voor Trouwe Dienst, that he had come across the names of a number of interesting commandos. He also said that their exploits presented an open field for research. How correct that statement is! Here, briefly, are some facts on one of the units which Mr Forsyth mentioned.
Adolf Schiel - the founder
In 1878, a young German, Adolf Schiel, left his home at Frankfurt-on-Main for South Africa. At first, he farmed in Natal but later gave up farming to take up employment in the Government Service in the Transvaal. As an ex-serviceman, he strove to join the Staatsartillerie, of which he was eventually appointed the Administrator. He immediately set about building up the unit but, before his work could be completed, he was appointed a Native Commissioner and eventually head of the Prisons Service. Shortly after the Jameson Raid, Schiel became a member of a building commission which had instructions to build the fort around the Johannesburg prison. On 1 July 1898, Adolf Schiel became Commandant of the Fort with the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel. He was, therefore, the only officer in the Boer republic with the same rank as the Commandant of the Staatsartillerie. By the middle of 1899, the Fort was ready and it was handed over to the Staatsartillerie.
Colonel Adolf Schiel.
The German Commando established
By this time Schiel realised that war with Britain was imminent. He discussed the formation of a commando, consisting of Germans, with his friends, Dr F.X. Elsberger, Count Harra Zeppelin, Fritz Brall and others. These men organised the German League which submitted proposals for the establishment of a commando to the Executive Council. The proposals were accepted. The members of the commando would be allowed to elect their own officers. For purposes of war, the commando would be considered a separate unit but, as was the case with all Boer commandos, the German commandant and his men would be placed under the command of a Boer general.
In September 1899, Schiel held meetings in Johannesburg and Pretoria and, shortly afterwards, the German Commando was established in Johannesburg. A branch, which was called the German Corps, was formed in Pretoria. The commando also had a section consisting of Boers who were mainly from Schiel's prisons staff. Field Cornet H. U. von Quitzow was elected Schiel's replacement in Pretoria with Paul Krantz as Assistant Field Cornet. Schiel selected mainly former German officers for his military staff. Count Harra Zeppelin became his adjutant with the rank of captain. The other staff members were Captain Weiss and Lieutenants Von Aldebyll and G. Badicke. Captain Weiss was the commander of the German troops at the time of the Witbooi uprising in German South West Africa. Captain T.C. Robertson was also appointed to the staff to see to the interests of the Boer section. He was a former officer of the Pretoria Vrijwilliger Corps.
At first the German Commando consisted of about 400 men of whom the majority were naturalized citizens. Thus the impending war was for them not only a matter of sympathy with the Boers but also of being faithful to the Government and of offering their services for the freedom of their new country. The Transvaal Government also had high expectations of the Germans because of the famous military traditions of the German nation.
Before the citizen forces of the South African Republic and the Orange Free State Republic were mobilised, the respective Governments had already agreed on what action would be taken against the forces in Natal. The Transvaal commandos would march against the British forces to the north of Ladysmith, and the Free State commandos would advance on the town itself to isolate the troops there. For the purpose of executing this plan, about 16,560 men were concentrated on the border between the Transvaal and Natal. The main Transvaal force consisted of the Standerton, Krugersdorp, Bethal, Heidelberg, Ermelo, Pretoria and Wakkerstroom Commandos as well as the Hollander Corps, the Irish Corps, the Staatsartillerie and part of the German Commando. All these units were under the command of Commandant-General P.J. Joubert.
Instructions were given for the Johannesburg section of the German Commando to leave for Sandspruit near Volksrust on 1 October 1899. The commando thus became the first corps of foreigners to move to the front with the Boers.
Invasion of Natal
At 6 o'clock in the evening of 11 October 1899, Commandant-General Joubert received final instructions from the Transvaal Government to advance on the British Forces. On 12,13 and 14 October 1899, the Transvaal units invaded Natal from various directions and met at Newcastle, where further strategy was discussed. General J. H. M. Kock was given instructions to advance to the Biggarsberg and to make contact with Chief-Commandant M. Prinsloo and his Free State commandos at Van Reenen's Pass and Bester Station. He also had to destroy the railway line between Newcastle, Dundee and Ladysmith to prevent the British garrison at Ladysmith from supporting the Dundee garrison For this purpose, about 800 men of the Johannesburg Commando, the Hollander Corps and the German Commando, as well as a contingent of Free Staters from the Vrede Commando, were placed under his command.
Unity of the Germans threatened
However, the Pretoria section of the German Commando was not yet at the front, and Schiel telegraphed Field Cornet Hans von Quitzow to join him with his men. In Pretoria, Field Cornet von Quitzow was having difficulties, because his men wanted to form a unit of their own with the popular Assistant Field Cornet Paul Krantz as their officer commanding. General Joubert then decided to send the Pretoria section to General Lucas Meyer near Dundee under the command of Field Cornet von Quitzow, despite all attempts by Schiel to preserve the unity of the German Commando. The Pretoria section eventually formed part of the siege forces around Ladysmith. During the many idle days of the siege, further problems beset the commando. Paul Krantz continued his fight for leadership and Von Quitzow, at his wit's end, decided to lay down his command. This was followed immediately by the unanimous election of Krantz as the commanding officer of the Pretoria section.
Unfortunately this was not the end of the problems which had beset the unit. Field Cornet Richard Runck took matters in his own hands at the outset. He was a better commander and had a stronger personality than Krantz and soon overshadowed the new commander. It did not take Krantz long to realise that his field cornet would take over his leadership in time to come, and he requested the Commandant-General to remove Runck from his commando. As a result Runck was sent to Pretoria with instructions to form a new German unit from any Germans who were not yet in the fighting forces. Runck would then be made commandant of the unit which he formed. However, so much suspicion was cast on Runck in Pretoria, owing to the influence of Mrs Krantz, that he could not succeed in his task. When he realised that his mission to Pretoria was aimed at keeping him out of the commando led by Krantz, Runck decided to join the German commando which had been formed in the Free State.
Penetration to Elandslaagte
On 17 October 1899, General Kock and his men left the Newcastle area and advanced to Biggarsberg Neck. From there, on 19 October, two patrols of about 100 men each under the command of Colonel Schiel and Field Cornet Pienaar of the Fordsburg Commando moved on to the small settlement at Elandslaagte on the railway line between Ladysmith and Glencoe. Here they overpowered a British supply train destined for Dundee. In pursuance of their instructions, they also destroyed the railway line, thus cutting communication between Dundee and Ladysmith. After this, Schiel wanted to return to the main force in the Biggarsberg.
However, the majority of his men were eager for action, and as a result, General Kock decided, reluctantly, to occupy positions at Elandslaagte which were difficult to defend. General Kock's advance to Elandslaagte began at about sunset on 19 October, and he reached his destination the same night with a force of about 800 men. Schiel and Commandant Ben Viljoen of the Johannesburg Commando were still opposed to the step. Some sources give the strength of Kock's force as upwards of 1,000 men, but contemporary sources indicate that this figure is too high. The advance was not as planned during the strategy discussions and Kock and his men became attractive prey for the British force at nearby Ladysmith. Sir George White missed no chances. He instructed Major-General J. P. D. French to clear Elandslaagte with a big force and to repair the damaged telegraph and railway lines.
Elandslaagte - the battle
Early on Saturday morning, 21 October 1899, the battle began at Elandslaagte. This battle will be treated in more detail, because it was the first big encounter in which the German Commando took part and in which it gave a gallant account of itself, despite being badly cut up and losing its wounded commander as a prisoner-of-war. Let us first have a look at the opposing forces. The British force consisted of 3,000 infantry of the Manchesters, Devons and Gordon Highlanders. The mounted troops were squadrons of the Imperial Light Horse, the 5th Dragoon Guards and the 5th Lancers. The artillery consisted of the 42nd and 21st Field Batteries as well as the Natal Volunteer Field Battery. Other troops were the Railway and Telegraph Companies of the Royal Engineers. The Boer force was comprised of about 100 members of the German Commando, another 160 of the Hollander Corps, about 150 Free Staters of the Vrede Commando, and the remainder were from Johannesburg. They had only two guns which had been captured from Jameson. The position, therefore, was about 800 Boers with two guns, against a British infantry and cavalry force of about 3,500 with 18 field pieces.
Part of the British force arrived at Elandslaagte at about 8 a.m. to the complete surprise of the Boers, many of whom were at the station. The Natal Battery fired a few shots in the station yard to which the Boer guns replied from the nearby hillside where they had been positioned. A minor artillery duel followed, during which the Boers withdrew to the position which had been selected about 1.75 miles from the station. The Boer guns continued their accurate fire and General French decided to withdraw his force out of range, in the direction of Modder Spruit, and to await the arrival of the reinforcements which were being despatched from Ladysmith. This withdrawal elevated the Johannesburg men who thought the battle was over. However, this view was not shared by General Kock. The position, which the Boers had occupied, had many weaknesses. Instead of attempting to find a stronger position, it was decided that the Boers would remain where they were. So ended the first phase, as it were, of the battle at Elandslaagte.
The second phase began with the arrival at Elandslaagte of the first British reinforcements at about 11 a.m. Skirmishing between the British and the Boers, in which the German Commando played an outstanding part, took place until about 3 p.m. by which time all the British reinforcements had arrived. General French then decided to attack the Boer position in the few hours of daylight which remained. During the early skirmishing, the Germans were beaten back and they withdrew into the hills to the north with the object of making their way back to the Boer position. Instead they lost their way. They eventually found their bearings again and joined the Boer force when the battle was fully in progress. They were fired upon by the British, and by the Free Staters by mistake, when they suddenly came on to the left flank of the Boer line at about 5 p.m.
The fight had been renewed at about 3 pm. with a British artillery bombardment on the entire Boer line. The Boer guns returned the fire for more than an hour before they were put out of action temporarily. At about 4.30 p.m., the British infantry began their advance. The battle raged on with the overwhelming British force slowly but surely advancing on the position, held so gallantly by the Boers. At about 5 p.m., a thunderstorm drenched the battlefield. The fight continued with the British slowly closing in on the Boer flanks. As already mentioned, Colonel Schiel and his men suddenly came into the Boer line late in the afternoon and were subjected to a devastating fire. The Germans had also lost heavily in encounters with the Dragoons. By 6 p.m. the British had overwhelmed the Boers' position. The latter then began surrendering, but the majority mounted their horses and made for the Newcastle road in a northwesterly direction.
Phase three of the battle now began. The Dragoon Guards and the Lancers, who had been kept in reserve, took up the pursuit of the retreating Boers who had left more than one-third of their number on the field of battle. The cavalry pursuit was pressed home until complete darkness had set in.
Although they formed only a small portion of the Boer force, the Hollanders and the Germans suffered heavily. It is difficult to give the exact number of casualties suffered by the Boers. Figures given by authors differ considerably. The British Official History gives them as approximately 67 killed, 108 wounded and 188 prisoners -- a total of 363. Dr. J. H. Breytenbach in ,,Die Geskiedenis van Tweede Vryheidsoorlog in Suid-Afrika, 1899-1902" sums up as follows - 38 killed on the field of battle, 113 wounded who fell into British hands - of these eight, including General Kock, died, and 185 uninjured taken prisoners - a total of 336.
The wounded included Colonel Schiel who was taken prisoner. General Kock died at Ladysmith a few days after the battle.
After the defeat at Elandslaagte, General Joubert branded the Germans as cowardly fugitives. He collected them at Newcastle and sent them back to Johannesburg where they were, however, allowed to reorganise. General Joubert contended that the Germans were not acquainted fully with the military tactics and strategy of the Boers and that the military views and methods of fighting of the Boers differed widely from those of the Germans. Yet despite these views the Germans were allowed to reorganise.
In Johannesburg, Special Field Cornet K.R. Middeldorf again raised the German Commando under Lieutenant von Aldebyll. The latter had escaped at Elandslaagte. By the end of November 1899, it was clear that the British would not attack the northern borders of the Transvaal. It was decided to send some of General Grobler's commandos, and as many other units as possible, to General Schoeman at Colesberg. At the request of President Steyn of the Free State, these units included the German Commando under the command of Lieutenant von Aldebyll. Part of the commando, under the command of Fritz Brall, was detached to guard the bridge near Colesberg. The field cornet of the detachment was C. Claus and the unit later formed the nucleus of the Free State German Corps.
The International Corps
Internal dissension later caused the German Commando to break up. Commanders followed each other in rapid succession. The breaking up of units into new, separate commandos was an almost daily occurrence. On 17 February 1900, Colesberg was evacuated and the retreat to Pretoria began. The Germans also played their part in fighting the rearguard action. At the last big military conference at Kroonstad on 17 March 1900, Count Georges de Villebois Mareuil was appointed a Combat-General with instructions to form all the foreign units into an International Corps under his command. With the death of De Villebois Mareuil on the farm Tweefontein near Boshof on 5 April 1900, the existence of the International Corps came to an end. The members of this unit then joined the various Boer commandos in small groups.
Germans remain in the field
The Free State German Corps remained a separate unit during the retreat through the Free State, but their commander was taken captive, together with a number of his men, in May 1900. After the fall of Pretoria, there were various groups of Germans who remained in the field with the Boers to the end of the war. These included a small reconnaissance corps, under Field Cornet H.D. Meyer, which, in April 1901, was fighting under General de la Rey in the Swartruggens Hills. There was also another group under Lieutenant Lothar Kunze which remained in the field to the end. After Pretoria had been evacuated, a small contingent of German volunteers was formed at Middelburg in the Transvaal. Commanded by an Austrian, Baron von Goldeck, the 60-man contingent later joined the army which General Botha was organising in the Eastern Transvaal.
In his book, 'The Boer Fight for Freedom', Michael Davitt says that Schiel's "services to the Transvaal army have been greatly exaggerated." This statement is hardly fair on Schiel as well as all the other foreigners who joined in the fray and remained in the field to the bitter end. Schiel, in fact, had an outstanding record of public service in the Transvaal and even played an important part in various operations as a lieutenant in the Rijdende Artillerie en Polisiekorps, long before the outbreak of the South African War. He also took part in the Malaboch Campaign of 1894. Whatever motivated them, the Germans, as well as the many other foreigners who took up arms for the Boer cause, should be praised, for they kept high the honour of their nations in the fight between Boer and Briton.
1. Commando by Deneys Reitz.
2. The Times History of the War in South Africa.
3. Gedenkalbum van die Tweede Vryheidsoorlog.
4. Commando magazine (now Paratus).
5. Good-Bye Dolly Gray by Rayne Kruger.
6. The Boer Fight for Freedom by Michael Davitt.
7. De Oorlog in Zuid-Afrika by Dr W. van Everdingen.
8. History of the War in South Africa 1899-1902 by Maj-Gen. Sir Frederick Maurice.
9. Die Geskiedenis van Tweede Vryheidsoorlog in Suid-Afrika, 1899-1902" by J.H. Breytenbach.
Author's Note -- I am indebted to the Director of the Oorlogsmuseum, Bloemfontein, Mr Karol Pienaar, for his assistance and for lending me the photograph of Colonel Schiel. My thanks go also to the Director of the National Museum in Bloemfontein, Mr Hannes Oberholzer, for allowing me to make use of the Museum's library.
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