On the morning of the 13th March 1900 a British mounted force under the command of Brigadier General Robert George Broadwood were just striking camp at the railway station at Sanna’s Post (Aka Korn Spruit). Unbeknown to them a force of a force of two thousand Boers under command of the Christiaan de Wet had taken up position.
De Wet sent 1600 of his men under his brother Piet to attack Broadwood from the north, while he himself occupied Sanna’s Post to intercept their retreat.
At first light, Piet’s artillery opened fire on the British camp and as De Wet predicted they retreated towards his men hidden in a ravine.
Tactical surprise was complete and all were sent into a state of confusion. The civilian wagon drivers preceding the soldiers were seized by the Boers and told if they warned the British they would be shot. Therefore, the British soldiers suspected nothing and approached the river in small groups. As they did so De Wet’s troops ordered them to surrender, and approximately two hundred were captured, along with the six guns of U Battery.
Luckily for the British, an eagle eyed officer had noticed what happening and ordered Q Battery to gallop away. The British retired back towards the station which offered decent cover for the troops and Q Battery deployed in the open and returned accurate fire which combined with rifle fire from the station pinned down Christiaan de Wet’s men but Piet de Wets’s force was increasing pressure on the British.
Broadwood’s ammunition was running out, and he decided to retire to the south. His guns had first to be recovered. Five were hooked up and towed away, but two had to be abandoned. Many British soldiers were killed crossing the 1300 yards of open ground to retrieve the guns, but unit integrity was maintained.
Eventually, Broadwood managed to break contact. Approximately three hours later the 9th Infantry Division commanded by Major General Sir Henry Colville arrived to relieve the mounted brigade, but de Wet’s men had withdrawn to highly defensible positions across the Modder River and both sides retired from the field. This nevertheless left Bloemfontein’s water works in Boer hands.
In all, the British suffered 155 men killed or wounded. 428 men, seven field artillery pieces and 117 wagons were captured. The Boer force suffered three killed and five wounded. But even more serious than the losses in the action was the loss of Bloemfontein’s water supplies. This greatly aggravated an epidemic of enteric fever dysentery and cholera among the occupying British army, which eventually caused 2000 deaths.
In recognition of the conspicuous gallantry displayed by all ranks of Q Battery on this occasion, Field Marshal Lord Roberts decided to treat the case as one of collective gallantry, under the Rule 13 of the Victoria Cross Warrant. Accordingly, direction was given that one of the officers should be chosen by the other officers, one non-commissioned officer by the non-commissioned officers and two gunners or drivers by the gunners and drivers for the award of the Victoria Cross.
A difficulty arose with regard to the officer, owing to the fact that there were only two unwounded officers. Major Phipps-Hornby was chosen as the senior,
Sergeant Charles Parker was selected by the Non Commissioned officers.
Gunners Issac Lodge and Driver Henry Glassock were elected by the gunners and drivers.
The Sphere (7th July 1900) reported the action as:
The fine achievement of Q Battery may be recalled as follows: When the alarm was given Q Battery was within 300 yards of the Spruit. Major Phipps-Hornby who commanded it at once wheeled about and moved off at a gallop under a very heavy fire. One gun upset when a wheel horse was shot and had to be abandoned, together with a waggon, the horses of which were killed. The Remainder of the battery reached a position closer to some unfinished railway buildings, and came into action.
When the order to retire was received Major Phipps-Hornby ordered the guns and their limbers to be run back by hand to where the teams of uninjured horses stood behind the unfinished buildings. The few remaining gunners directed by Major Phipps-Hornby and Captain Humphreys, the only remaining officers of the battery, succeeded in running back four of the guns under shelter, one or two limbers were similarly withdrawn by hand but the work was most severe and the distance considerable.
In consequence all concerned were so exhausted that they were unable to drag the remaining limbers of the fifth gun. It now became necessary to risk the horses, and volunteers were called for from among the drivers, who readily responded. Several horses were killed and men wounded, but at length only one gun and one limber were left exposed.
Four attempts were made to rescue them but when no more horses were available the attempt had to be given up. Driver Glassock was wounded in the attempt.
Major Phipps-Hornby returned to the United Kingdom, and served as Aide-de-camp to Lord Roberts when he was Commander-in-Chief from 1901 to 1903. He later served in the First World War. He achieved the rank of brigadier general granted upon his retirement in 1918, after 40 years of service.
Sergeant Charles Parker rejoined the army and was seriously injured in World War I. He died in August 1918, aged 48.
Driver Glasock later settled in South Africa and served as a Conductor in the South African Service Corps he died in 1916.
Gunner Issac Lodge later achieved the rank of bombardier and died in 1923.
Pictures and words The Sphere 7th July 1900 page 7