Fought between a mixed British force under the command of Major J.M. Valentin, engaged with a force of 750 "so called "Bitter-ender" Boer guerilla fighters under the command of General Louis Botha, this battle was a 'last throw of the dice' for Botha's Boer commando. It was arguably a tactical victory for the Boers but they could not hold the field so its strategic significance was moot.
It is notable becaus of the quantum of losses inflicted on an Australian contingent of the 5th Queensland Imperial Bushmen - no less than 14 men killed / died of wounds.
The British policies of an overwatch line of blockhouses, concentration camps in which Boer women and childredn were detained, and denial of resources to support the Boers' capacity to 'live off the land' were tightening the noose and had caused some of the "Bitter-enders" to increasingly question the sense of continuing with the war which obviously could not be won.
The Battle of Onverwacht was the last major clash of the war between the Boer and British forces on the Eastern Transvaal Highveld. Blockhouse lines stretched in the north from Barberton to Wonderfontein, in the west from Wonderfontein through Ermelo to Standerton and in the south from Standerton through Volksrust to Piet Retief.
General Bruce Hamilton with a force of 15,000 was busy pinning down the remaining Boer Commandos in the area against the Swaziland border. General Hubert Plumer (he was to become a very successful British General in WW1) was moving to neutralise General Botha's commando.
Major J M Vallentin of the Somerset Light Infantry commanded a screening force for General Plumer's main guard. Valentin's column consisted of companies of the Buffs Mounted Infantry, Hampshire Mounted Infantry, a company of Yeomen and 110 soldiers of the 5th Queensland Imperial Bushmen under command of Major Frederick W Toll, and a Pom-Pom gun for fire support. The Pom Pom was an automatic light cannon that could fire 60 high explosive rounds per minuteand was feared by the Boers.
After establishing his force on the ground in anticipation of the arrival of the main guard, Major Valentin and 200 or so of his troops came into contact with 50 or so Boers whom they pursued only to be confronted by a force of more than 300. In a furious tactical engagement both Valentin and a Boer Commander, General Koos Opperman were killed, the British Pom Pom was out of the fight (but not lost to the Boers) and the small detachment came under heavy pressure from 500 or so Boers. The QIB men engaged had to withdraw on foot under their commander Major Toll. About 79 British and Colonial soldiers were captured by the Boers who liberated arms horses clothing and equipment, but their elation was short lived.
The Boers won the tactical engagement but had to quit the field with the imminent arrival of General Plumers column.
Botha managed to break through the Overwatch line until the cessation of hostilities in May 1902
Casualties of the engagement, which lasted about 20 minutes in total, were as follows.
5 Boer Soldiers: General J D Opperman; AS Buhrman; W P Erasmus; H F Moolman; M van Buren.
British forces: 13 members of the 5QIB; 1 member of the Somersetshire Light Infantry (Valentin); 7 members of the Hampshire Mounted Infantry; 3 members; one each of the Yeomanry, Hampshire Mounted Infantry, 5QIB, died after the battle as a result of their injuries.
The 5QIB losses were:
PTE A.G. Belin (/explore/people/653611)
SGT R. Berry (/explore/people/653618)
PTE C. Chardon (/explore/people/653660)
PTE W. Clarke (/explore/people/653670)
PTE A. Eagleton (/explore/people/653728)
CPL J. MacFarlane (/explore/people/653894)
PTE F. Goodall (/explore/people/653774)
PTE R. Kelly (/explore/people/653857)
PTE W. Lilley (/explore/people/653883)
PTE W. McCartney (/explore/people/653891)
SGT J. Power (/explore/people/654007)
PTE E. Salt (/explore/people/654045)
SGT J.P. Shannon (/explore/people/654054)
(c) Steve Larkins 31 March 2016