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THE CARVED KRAG JÖRGENSON RIFLE OF CHRISTIAAN BEYERS, ASSISTANT COMMANDANT-GENERAL DURING THE ANGLO-BOER WAR OF 1899-1902

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THE CARVED KRAG JÖRGENSON RIFLE OF CHRISTIAAN BEYERS, ASSISTANT COMMANDANT-GENERAL DURING THE ANGLO-BOER WAR OF 1899-1902

By: Jan van den Bos: Curator of Weapons, DITSONG: National Museum of Cultural History (DNMCH)

After the Jameson Raid of 1895/6 the South African Republic (ZAR) feared war and the Government began expanding their weapon arsenal. PJ Joubert, Commandant-General of the Boer forces during the Anglo-Boer War, investigated several weapon manufacturers for bulk purchases abroad. Joubert still preferred the older and much larger .450 (11.4mm) calibre, single shot Martini-Henry rifle. This rifle’s cartridge caused bigger and severe flesh wounds, which Joubert believed was fair in love and war. It was a direct insult of the 1864 Geneva Convention for humanitarian treatment in war.

Joubert’s small arms choice was based on the 8mm Guedes-Castro M1885 rifle, manufactured by Steyr Arms, a firearms manufacturer based in Austria. The Guedes is a modified version of the Martini-Henry rifle. The Guedes immediately drew Joubert’s attention. The two republics at war with Britain, namely the ZAR ordered 7 700 of these Guedes, followed by the Orange Free State with 3 500. Steyr also manufactured a modern and smaller 6.5mm bolt action rifle known as the Krag Jörgenson (Figure 1a). The latter is to some extent related to the well-known 7mm Mod Mauser of 1896, which was manufactured in Germany and mainly used on the Boer side. The initial Krag Jörgenson order was placed with the company Sigvald Larsen in Pretoria. The ZAR only purchased 100 rifles of the available stock. All efforts from experts in the State Artillery self could not persuade Joubert in changing his viewpoint on the Krag Jörgenson and the effectiveness of the rifle (Figure 1b).

1a                                        1b

   

Figure 1a: The 1897 Krag Jörgenson manufactured by Steyr in Austria which belonged to Assistant Commandant-General CF Beyers.

Figure 1b: Note the black rectangular breech sealing lug or speed loader, a modern feature of this rifle.

The speed loader enables a quick reload action, compared to the single shot Guedes also manufactured by Steyr.

(Source: Weapon collection, DNMCH: HG125)

 

Christiaan Beyers

Christiaan Frederik Beyers (1869-1914) was born on the farm Banhoek in the district of Stellenbosch. He studied law at the Victoria College (today University of Stellenbosch), and qualified as an attorney in 1888/9. Beyers left the Cape for the ZAR and first settled and practised in Pretoria before he moved to Boksburg. He played forward position in the ZAR rugby team until war broke out on 11 October 1899. Beyers voluntarily joined the commando which stopped the advance of angry uitlanders (foreigners) at Doornkop, near Johannesburg during the Jameson Raid. The uitlanders opposed the ZAR government’s high mining taxes and the dynamite monopoly. Beyers’ loyalty rewarded him the citizenship of the ZAR.

 

Figure 2: A young CF Beyers (sitting, front row, second from the left).

The group of Capetonians who voluntarily joined the Jameson Raid commando at Doornkop. They received ZAR citizenship from President Paul Kruger (second row, fifth from the left).

(Source: Document collection, DNMCH, Kr 2144)

With the outbreak of hostilities in October 1899, Beyers joined the Boksburg Commando as an ordinary burgher under the command of General CH Muller (at that stage still Field Cornet). Beyers’ outstanding performance and courage during the Natal offensive at the beginning of the war, awarded him the rank of Assistant Field Cornet in March 1900 (Figure 3).

Beyers’ carved rifle

 

Figure 3: Right side of the butt: central design, ZAR Coat-of-Arms.

Outer circle: “CF Beyers VC” – (Veldcornet – Field Cornet), the dates “1899” – “1900” and “Boksburg”.

The Krag Jörgenson of Beyers was part of a donation acquired by the former State Museum (today DITSONG: Museums of South Africa) after the war. Beyers’ wife, Matilde (née König) donated the rifle to the Museum.

The carved ZAR Coat of Arms (inner circle) symbolised patriotism, nationalism, and a republican idea of togetherness (Figure 3).

 

Figure 4: Jaar 1899, Modderspruit 30 Oct, Chievely Nov, Estcourt Nov, Colenso 13 Dec, Jaar 1900, Pieters Height, Feb, Klipriviersoog, Mei, Rietfontein, Mei, Six Mil Spruit – Jun, Donkerhoek – Jun, Malansplaas.

Jaar 1899, Modderspruit – 30 Oct

Christiaan Beyers’ first major war encounter occurred at Modderspruit near Ladysmith in Natal (today KwaZulu-Natal). Boer forces attacked the area from different fronts. Commandant JD Weilbach commanded the Boksburg Commando. The attack intensified when British reinforcement of the Royal Irish Fusiliers and the Gloucesters under Major-Generals George White and John French entered the war scene. The Boksburg Commando, stationed on the west front (in a southern position), forced a part of the British regiment back to Ladysmith. Casualties totalled to 1 200 on British side against the 200 on Boer side.

 

Chieveley – Nov – (15 November 1899)

The high-ranking and experienced General MW Myburgh commanded the Boksburg Commando from November 1899. His commando was present when the derailing of an armoured train at Chieveley near Estcourt (KwaZulu-Natal) occurred. The British war correspondent of the Morning Post newspaper, Winston Churchill happened to be one of the 69 other prisoners captured. This incident became known as the armoured train disaster.

Estcourt – Nov – (23 November 1899)

The advance of British forces to Estcourt intensified after the armoured train incident. The town became the centre of conflict when various commandos under General PJ Joubert, Commandant-General of the Boer forces entered the town. On British side, Major-General HJT Hildyard advanced with 5 200 soldiers to Estcourt. It left the 2 000 Boers with no other option but to withdraw to the other side of the Tugela River and re-evaluate the situation. 

Colenso – 13 Dec (13 December 1899)

Two days before the Battle of Colenso (15 December 1899), British soldiers of the Second Dublin Fusiliers Regiment, under Colonel CD Cooper marched towards Chieveley in the direction of Colenso. To stop the advance, General Louis Botha, the commanding officer on Boer side, positioned 800 men of the Wakkerstroom, Soutpansberg, and a small fraction of the Boksburg Commandos on the Boskop hill, northeast of Colenso. A remainder of the Boksburg Commando was deployed at the Tugela River. The Battle of Colenso was the third major defeat of the British which became known as the Black Week. The British retreated to Estcourt, south of Colenso after their defeat.

Jaar 1900, Pieters Height – Feb – (27 February 1900)

Pieters Height or Hill overlooks the Ladysmith Road. The route follows the Tugela River for several kilometres before it turns in a westerly direction. Louis Botha, the Boer general in command of the entire operation, positioned various commandos strategically to prevent a British advance to Ladysmith. Major-General G Barton and his Fusiliers Brigade attacked the Boer commando on Pieters Height. Although the Boers stubbornly defended their position, they eventually retreated. Forty-eight Boers were captured. 

Klipriviersoog – Mei (Klip River’s eye – 28 May 1900)

After the British victory at Pieters Height and the total defeat of the Boers at Paardeberg (in the Orange Free State) on 27 February 1900, the morale of the British increased. More than 5 000 British soldiers, in different regiments under the Commander-in-Chief, Field Marshal Lord Roberts marched to the capital towns of Johannesburg and Pretoria. When a column of Generals J French and I Hamilton’s Imperial Yeomanry and Gordon Highlanders crossed the Klip River at Doornkop, a Boer force of more than 2 000 under General Louis Botha’s command – including the Boksburg Commando – bombarded the British. Pakenham recorded that the Gordon Highlanders lost 100 men within 10 minutes of the battle. Despite the Highlanders’ huge losses, they drove the Boer forces away and advanced to Johannesburg.

   

Rietfontein – Mei (29 May 1900)

A Boer force of about 1 000 men awaited the approaching British force of approximately 400 at Rietfontein farm near Johannesburg. The British under the command of Colonel HB Fowler continued their marching campaign to Johannesburg and Pretoria. The Boer commando of Krugersdorp, under Commandant FJ Potgieter encountered the first attack, when the British tried to outflank the latter. After a severe battle, the British withdrew, while the Boers claimed victory. The Boers were forced to abandon their positions, due to the arrival of British reinforcements. The latter occupied Johannesburg at the end of May 1900.

  

Malansplaas – (May 1900)

After the Rietfontein incident, the Boer commandos gathered at the farm Malansplaas near Krugersdorp, west of Johannesburg. At this “temporary base” the commandos reorganised and planned a defence strategy for the capital town of Pretoria.

           

Six Mile Spruit – (4 June 1900)

After the British captured Johannesburg on 31 May 1900, they marched to Pretoria. General J French entered Pretoria from the west to try and circle the town. He was ambushed by the Wolmaransstad and Bloemhof commandos of General SP du Toit. A second group entered the town at Six Mile Spruit (today the Wierda Bridge at the Hennops River) south of Pretoria on 4 June 1900. Lord Roberts, the Commander-in-Chief of the British forces, headed his Imperial Yeomanry, north-eastwards towards the northern bank of Six Mile Spruit and bivouacked at Swartkop. The Boer commandos were entrenched at Schurweberg to the west, behind Swartkop. The British took the Boers by surprise. General Louis Botha who commanded the entire operation, asked for an armistice until the next day. The British entered a deserted Pretoria on 5 June 1900. 

Donkerhoek – (11 and 12) Jun (1900)

The Battle of Donkerhoek, also known as the Battle of Diamond Hill, followed the capture of the ZAR capital. Lord Roberts predicted a Boer surrender after the defeat of Pretoria. On the contrary, General Botha established a 40 kilometre, north to south defence line of 6 000 men to the east of Pretoria. CF Beyers’ Boksburg commando with a small German corps, totalled to 300 men, under General JC Fourie defended Tierpoort to the southeast. The British force included 14 000 men of the Royal Hussars, Lancers and Dragoons, commanded by General I Hamilton. Botha’s force eventually retreated to the north and the victory turned to the British.

     

General Louis Botha who operated closely with the various commandos since the defence of Pretoria, appointed Field Cornet Beyers to Assistant Commandant-General after June 1900. Beyers’ outstanding courage, ingenuity, originality, and efficiency directed him to this position.

Conclusion

After Beyers’ appointment as Assistant Commandant-General for Waterberg and Soutpansberg (northern districts), he and his commandos gained victory over General Clements at Nooitgedacht near the Pienaars River. His battles at Pietersburg and Malepspoort, happened during the vigorous guerrilla phase of the war. The final phase arrived when General CF Beyers was appointed as chair of the Treaty of Vereeniging negotiations on Boer side to end the war.   

 

Sources

Breytenbach, J.H., Die geskiedenis van die Tweede Vryheidsoorlog in Suid-Afrika, 1899-1902, I and III, Die Staatsdrukker, Pretoria, 1978. 

George, D.C. Carvings from the veldt, part two. A pictorial history of rifle stock art from the Anglo-Boer War 1899-1902. Thai Watana Panich Press Co Ltd, 2008.

Hartink, A.E., The complete encyclopedia of antique firearms. An expert guide to firearms and their development. Rebo publishers, Lisse, The Netherlands, 2004.

Malan, J., Die Boere-offisiere van die Tweede Vryheidsoorlog, 1899-1902. J.P. van der Walt, Pretoria, 1990.

Pakenham, T., Die Boere-oorlog. Jonathan Ball, Johannesburg, 1981.

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