Boer against Colonial – The story of the Olivier and Temlett families with regard to HJ Oliver’s Mauser Rifle By Richard Henry
Ditsong National Museum of Military History
Date: 23 June 2019
On Friday, 3 May 2002, Professor James Alexander Temlett donated a Boer War Mauser rifle with serial number O.V.S. 4334 to the South African National Museum of Military History. The rifle which had been in the Temlett family since 1900 came with archival material, assisting the Museum in researching the history of this firearm. The firearm involves the histories of two families; the Olivier and Temlett who fought on opposing sides in the Anglo Boer War 1899-1902.
The patriarch – Jan Hendrik Olivier
Jan Hendrik Olivier was born in the Cape Colony in 1848. His family moved to the Oranje Vry Staat(OVS) Orange Free State. At 15 years old he joined the Orange Free State Border Police and in 1865, still only 17 years old, he became a Field Cornet. In early 1867, border incidents with the Basotho again increased and in March of the same year, two commandos were mobilized and when martial law was proclaimed on 18 July, the Free State was for the third time in ten years at war with the Basotho. After taking three Basotho strongholds and preparing to attack Thaba Nchu , Moshweshwe quickly got the British authorities involved. The Cape Governor Sir Philip Wodehouse annexed Basotho land as a British Colony on 17 March 1868. A treaty with the Basotho was signed at Aliwal North on 12 February 1869. For his aggressive actions in the Basotho War, Olivier was given the farm Olifantsbeen in the ward /cornetcy Vechtkopin the Rouxville – Zastron District. His first son also Jan Hendrik, was born in 1871. Henning Jeremias, was born in 1876 and his youngest son Barend Daniel was born in 1882. In 1883, he became a member of the OVS Volksraad for Caledon Rivier. The Olivier family were well known farmers in the area.
Firearms acquisition by the OVS
After the 1896 Jameson Raid into the Transvaal, the two Boer republics realised that they would probably need to defend their independence in the near future. They saw the need for more modern rifles and a lot more ammunition to replace various rifles in use by their citizen-soldier commandos who numbered 22 300. The OVS Volksraad appointed a committee of five memberswho were responsible for the selection and acquisition of new firearms for the state. On 24 April 1896 they recommended that the OVS purchase the 7mm Mauser. An order for 400 Mauser rifles was placed on 30 April 1896. In July 1896 a further order for 1 500 Mausers was placed followed by 1 000 Mausers on 30 November 1896. These would be sold at cost price, £2.17.3 each, to those who could afford them. For poorer men, terms were set for them to purchase a firearm in instalments. For those who could not afford a firearm, the state would loan a rifle to needy burghers of the Free State Commandos. In May 1897 a further order of 1 000 Mausers was placed along with a second order for 500 000 rounds of ammunition. The last documented order for 500 Mausers from the Deutsche Waffen-und Munitionsfabriken, Berlin, marked with the rifle serial numbers O.V.S. 3 901 – O.V.S. 4 400 was placed on Thursday 15 July 1897. Along with this last documented order of firearms, an order for 500 000 rounds of ammunition was also placed. A further 3 510 Mauser rifles were purchased between 18 April 1898 and 29 August 1999. Therefore the Free State the total purchased Mauser rifles amounted to 7 910. This was not enough to equip all her 22 300 Burghers. The Free State ran out of time to purchase further firearms and relied of the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek (Transvaal Republic) who had excess firearms, to give /sell them their excess firearms.
In 1898 Jan Hendrik Olivier (Snr) was elected by a democratic process to become the Commandant of the Rouxville Commando. The two wards in the commando were Vechtkop andOnder-Caledon Rivier. The Vechtkopward was commanded by Jan Hendrik (Jnr) who was elected the field-cornet. Henning Jeremias was elected as the assistant field- cornet and Adjudant to his father, while Barend Daniel, became his father’s secretary.
Taking ownership of Mauser Rifle OVS 4334
Mauser O.V.S.4334 was one of a consignment of 500 Mausers ordered by Captain FWD Albrecht from the Deutsche Waffen-und Munitionsfabriken, Berlin. Captain Albrecht requested that they be delivered with turn-down bolt handles. These rifles were delivered to Port Elizabeth sometime after October 1897 and then railed to Bloemfontein, the capital of the Orange Free State.
Sometime between late 1897 and before Monday 9 October 1899, Assistant Field-Cornet Henning Jeremias Olivier of the farm Sterkfontein in the Zastron district of the south-eastern Free State took possession of the Mauser, with the Serial number O.V.S. 4334. With war imminent, and with the commandos gathering, he decided to carve his name, residential address as well as the date on the right side of his rifle butt. This was to ensure that his rifle was not mistakenly taken by another burgher, or if lost, it would be returned to him. He carved the following:
H J Olivier
THE KNOWN HISTORY OF MAUSER RIFLE OVS 4334
The history of the Mauser rifle belonging to Assistant Field Cornet / Adjudant, Henning Jeremias Olivier, can be assumed to be intertwined with that of the service and battles of his father Commandant Jan Hendrik Olivier, which is described below.
At the start of the Anglo-Boer War 1899-1902, the Rouxville Commando of 528 men and the Thaba Nchu Commando of 98 men were deployed defensively on the banks of the Orange River, the border between the Cape Colony and the Free State. The men quickly got bored and in conjunction with the Philipolis, Bethulie and Caledon River commandos, they undertook raids into the Cape Colony. These aggressive actions were appreciated by the burghers which made General Olivier more popular with the burghers. Olivier shared overall command of the area with General ER Grobler.
On Monday 13 November 1899, General Olivier now with about 1 100 men, occupied Aliwal North. During the next two weeks he entered the towns of Burgersdorp, Jamestown and Barkley East, proclaiming these areas to be liberated. In these areas he started to recruit Cape Colony burghers for the Cape Rebel commandos. By 10 February 1900, he had recruited 1 700 men. Many however were not committed to fighting.
The Battle of Stormberg
When the British first drew up a plan of campaign against the Boer republics, it was intended that the 3Division commanded by Major General Sir William Forbes Gatacre would secure the area known as the Cape Midlands, immediately south of the Orange Free State, in preparation for an advance along the railway running from Cape Town to Bloemfontein. In the event, many of the division’s troops had to be diverted to Natal after disasters there, and Gatacre’s reduced force arrived late. By the time they were ready to take the field, General Olivier with his 2 300 men had already seized the important railway junction of Stormberg. General Gatacre heard of the loss of Stormberg Junction on 8 December while still at Graff- Reinet. He was known as man of action and was criticised in some circles for driving his men too hard. He was determined to make an immediate counterattack to recover the strategic railway junction.
General Gatacre railed 3 000 troops to Molteno, the closest railway station to Stormberg and planned a surprise night attack for Sunday 10 December. In his haste for action, he had failed to do any reconnaissance, and preparations were rushed. Early on 9 December, the British troops hastily boarded the trains, but then sat for hours under a hot sun while locomotives were found. They were already tired when they reached Molteno. Gatacre then ordered them to set off on a night march with fixed bayonets after a hasty meal and very little rest. General Gatacre’s locally engaged guides were soon lost, and the force wandered about the veldt all night.
A small Boer picket on top of a kopje overlooking Stormberg junction, noticed the approaching British force at dawn on 10 December. Sergeant Hendrik Muller of the Free State Artillery Corps, with one 75mm Krupp gun opened fire. Some of the British infantry rushed forward without orders to storm the kopje which was ringed by a vertical rock face, which most of them were unable to climb. A few soldiers scrambled to the top, only to be killed or injured by their own guns which now came into action. Shortly afterwards, General Grobler’s commando, who had ridden from Colesberg, came to Olivier’s assistance.
The attack was in disarray and the order was given to retreat. Some 700 British troops were unable to retreat and were captured by Olivier and his men. The British suffered 26 killed, 68 wounded and 696 captured. The Boers only suffered 8 men killed and 26 wounded. General Olivier was greatly revered in Boer circles for his success in this action.
Actions in the Eastern Free State
From mid- December until March 1900, Olivier ‘played chess’ with Gatacre’s troops which in total amounted to about 8 000 men. There were minor skirmishes, one at least against the Queenstown Volunteer Rifles in the Dordrecht area.
On 1 March 1900, General Olivier received instructions from President Steyn to withdraw to the Orange River. Olivier, now in command of up to 6 000 men from Colesberg and Stormberg, advanced north, taking a route close to the Free State Basutoland border (an area he knew well), side-stepping a British cavalry brigade under Lieutenant-General Sir John French.
General Olivier advanced on Thaba Nchu where a British cavalry force of 1 800 men commanded by Brigadier-General Robert Broadwood had been distributing armistice proclamation forms to the local Boer population. Broadwood was forced to retire to Sannah’s Post where he came under attack from General Christiaan de Wet.
Olivier joined force with General de Wet who was formulating guerrilla warfare tactics. The commandos would henceforth be divided into flying columns, strike fast, attack lines of communications, out posts and storage depots and then disappear quickly. De Wet, Olivier and other Boer generals, continued with these attacks, capturing food, ammunition, rifles and other equipment.
On 21 June 1900, Olivier destroyed the rail and telegraph lines south of the railway station at Heuningspruit . However when he attacked the railway station building, he came under heavy fire and was repulsed by a 400 strong British force under Colonel GM Bullock who had arrived at the railway station at 04h30 that morning. At the end of June 1900, Olivier moved to the Bethlehem area.
From 2 July, the Boer commandos, tired of continual fighting, withdrew to the security of the Brandwater Basin. This is a low-lying area surrounded by mountains, 40 km south of the town of Bethlehem and bordering on Basutoland. Here the Boers hoped to rest and reorganise. The basin was only accessible by five passes and could therefore be easily defended. Lieutenant –General Sir Archibald Hunter was determined to block the passes and surround the Boer forces in the basin and force their surrender. He also hoped to capture General de Wet. General Hunter had to wait for his other generals to move into position and for his supplies to arrive from Kroonstad before he could attack. General de Wet realised that their position could become a trap and told his generals to escape one by one from the basin, from 16 July onwards. De Wet and President Steyn escaped during the night of 15 July. Some passes were blocked by the British on 16 July and Hunter entered the basin from the south on 25 July. During a leadership squabble, the old General Marthinus Prinsloo was elected to command the Boer forces in the basin. Seizing the escape opportunity, General Olivier with the Harrismith Commando and about 1 500 men fled through the Golden Gate pass towards Harrismith. Prinsloo was indecisive and on 30 July surrendered his force of about 4 300 burghers.
Olivier continued to evade the British in the north-eastern Free State. He later disagreed with General de Wet on some issues and decided to take his commando into the Transvaal. On his way north, he came into contact with the Highland Light Infantry on 15 August and inflicted 40 casualties in a brisk fight. Olivier fled and for a few days laid low.
The actions of the Queenstown Rifle Volunteers
James Alexander Temlett (later Sgt) was a member of № 1 Company, Queenstown Rifle Volunteers (QRV). The company left Queenstown on Thursday 8 February 1900. Their preparation, after assembling the unit and getting supplies and equipment had taken some time. The British Army were also some- what reluctant to commit badly trained colonial forces to the war. The British Army was after all a professional well trained force who could deal with these farmers! They moved up towards the Free State border area. At Dordrecht they were involved in a skirmish with Olivier’s commando. They remained in the Dordrecht area until No 2 Company QVR arrived on Saturday 3 March 1900. Both companies left Dordrecht for Jamestown on 11 March, and then rode onto Aliwal North on the Orange River arriving on the 16 March, where they were reviewed by Sir Alfred Milner, Governor of the Cape Colony, on Monday 26 March 1900.
Into the Free State
They crossed the Orange River on 14 April headed for Rouxville, the home town of General Olivier, where they arrived on Sunday 16 April. The town was still inhabited by Boer old men, women and children. Later Lord Roberts sent all its inhabitants to the concentration camp on the Kraai River. This probably accounts for the animosity between the Rouxville Commando men and the OVR men, although the QVR were not responsible for the move to the concentration / refugee camp. At this time Olivier was north east of Rouxville in the Basutoland border area.
The QVR left Rouxville a few days later in search of Olivier’s Commando. They moved up to Zastron and at Boesmanskop, 20 km north of Zastron they were again involved in a skirmish with the burghers on 22 April. They were then ordered to move up to Wepner.
Siege of Wepner
Wepner, a Boer town on the Caledon river had been taken by the British and was held by a British and colonial garrison of 2000 men under Colonel E H Dallgerty. They were however besieged by the Boer commandos under the command of General Christiaan de Wet at Jammersdrift on the Caledon River. The siege lasted 17 days, until reinforcements, including the OVR, arrived on April 25. Trooper A Hearns was severely wounded at Jammersdrift. The Boers withdrew their commandos and the men of QVR rode into Wepner on 27 April. During this period trooper C Bauman became ill and was sent back to Aliwal North where he died on 30 April.
Operations in the Eastern Free State
They headed North West towards Bloemfontein, going via Dewetsdorp (4 May). Here they were given new orders to go on to Thaba Nchu (7 May) and they arrived at Clocolan on 17 May 1900. Until the end of July they were involved in patrols in the Clocolan – Ficksburg area.
On the 28 July they were ordered to travel the 40 km to Fouriesburg, arriving there on 1 August 1900. In a skirmish, trooper J Blewitt was injured at Slabbertneck. Their next mission was to proceed to Winburg via Senekal which they rode into on 6 August. They arrived at Winburg on 9 August. They formed part of the town garrison, as it was expected that the Boers may attack the town. Their duties here were do conduct patrols and to do reconnaissance to see where the Boer forces were.
On Thursday 23 August 1900, Colonel Ridley sent the whole of Queenstown Rifle Volunteers unit (QRV) consisting of about 300 men under Lt Colonel JW ‘Konky’ Bell and Major Hallwell, to scout around Doornberg near Winburg for General Olivier’s commando. On 24 August, Olivier attacked. A running battle ensured and the QVR made for the farm Helpmekaar, six miles away. Here they made a stand behind a stone wall, fighting until dark. Olivier with about 1 000 men surrounded the farm during the night and the next morning shelled the farm with his three guns, firing a total of 132 shells throughout the day.
During this action Lieutenant J H Robbins and troopers HB Brown, JH Foster and F Slater were killed.
The following men were injured:
Lieutenant CD Smith
Sergeant Major R Cooper
Quarter Master Sergeant EH Bradfield
Sergeant H Burkinshaw
Sergeant E Arnott
Corporal EW Wakefield
Corporal M Hill
At dusk, Olivier demanded the QVR surrender but this was refused. On 26 August, Major-General Bruce Hamilton’s force rescued the QVR and covered the QVR retreat to Winburg town, led by Sergeant Temlett.
The Capture of General Olivier and his sons
On the morning of 27 August, Olivier with about 1 500 men surrounded and then attacked the town of Winburg. Olivier was driven off by the 4 000 troops and eight guns in the town. Trooper J Butler was killed. When the firing started, some QVR men mounted their horses and left Winburg to take up positions a short distance out of town. The Boers started to retire and were then chased by some QVR men on horseback.
These men now found they were going to be cut off by the Boers. Eight men under Sergeant James Alexander Temlett hid / took up positions in a large donga through which a track passed. The donga took a sharp turn and the entrance to the donga was then hidden from view. Some of the Boers also selected this hidden track to withdraw to safety.
Sergeant Temlett and his men heard and saw the Boers entering the donga. They hid just after the sharp turn in the donga. General Jan Henrik Olivier and this three sons, road down the path, one by one, unaware of the QVR men in the donga. As they rounded the corner they were ambushed and led out of the way before the next man came along. One by one, the Olivier brothers were captured in the same manner, not in the least expecting any colonial troops to be in the donga. The general at first thought that some of his men were trying to play a trick on him.
A further 21 burghers were also captured in the same manner. Other Boers were in the vicinity and approaching the donga. The QVR men fired at these burghers. The burghers retreated as they were unaware that there were only eight men in the donga. The colonial soldiers now needed to get their prisoners and themselves safely back to Winburg town. They managed to skilfully avoid all Boers and delivered the General, his three sons and the other captives to their Headquarters in Winburg. Here Sergeant Temlett was given the Maser rifle belonging to Henning Jeremias Olivier and with serial number OVS 4334 as a reminder of their famous exploit. He was also given General Olivier’s Basuto pony.
The following men were captured and later escorted to Cape Town. All below listed Burghers but the last marked with an * after her POW number were shipped on board the City Vienna from Cape Town to Ceylon on Monday 3 September 1900. They were held as prisoners at the Diyatalawa Camp.
- General, Jan Henrik Olivier of the farm Oliphantsbeen in the Rouxville district and commander of the Rouxville Commando, aged 52, Prisoner of War (POW) Number 11569
- Field Cornet, Jan Hendrik Olivier of the farm Oliphantsbeen in the Rouxville district, aged 29, POW 11570
- Assistant Field Cornet / Adjudant, Henning Jeremias Olivier, of the farm Sterkfontein in the Rouxville district, aged 24, POW 11572
- Secretary to the General, Barend Daniel Olivier, of the farm Oliphantsbeen in the Rouxville district, aged 18, POW 11571
- Thomas Dry, of the farm Plat Kop, in the Rouxville district, aged 60, POW 11507
- William Spencer Dry, of the farm Plat Kop in the Rouxville district, aged 33, POW 11506
- Hercules Johannes Christian Du Preez, of Springfontein in the Rouxville district, age 64, POW 11585
- Jan Johannes Groenewald, of the farm Pampoenkraal in the Vrede district, age 41, POW 11513
- Jacobus Lodewicus Henning, of the farm Kleinplaats in the Rouxville district, age 30, POW 11519
- Johannes Stephanus Henning, of the farm Kleinplaats in the Rouxville district, age 30, POW 11518
- Christoffel Wilhelm Adrian Lombard, of the farm Cagliagi in the Rouxville district, age 22, POW 11543
- Jan Andries Lombard, of the farm Cagliagi in the Rouxville district, age 47, POW 11544
- Piet Frederik Minne, of the farm Leeuwfontein in the Rouxville district, age 23, POW 11558
- Helgard Petrus Prinsloo, of the farm Vaalspruit in the Vrede district, age 39, POW 11590
- Marthinus Johannes Prinsloo, of the farm Walstand in the Vrede district, age 34, POW 11589
- Field Cornet, Jacobus Johannes Swanepoel, of the farm Marakabi in the Rouxville district, age 37, POW 11613
- Johannes Jacobus Wilhelmus Swanepoel, of the farm Leeuwfontein in the Smithfield district, age 33, POW 11612
- Hendrik Johannes Van Biljon(Jnr), of the farm Kaalkrantz in the Vrede district, age 16, POW 11479
- Hendrik Johannes Van Biljon(Snr), of the farm Kaalkrantz in the Vrede district, age 61, POW 11478
- Sarel Daniel Van Biljon, of the farm Kaalkrantz in the Vrede district, age 15, POW 11480
- Johannes Daniel Van Coller (Jnr), of the farm Kopjesdam in the Winburg district, age 19, POW 11496
- Johannes Daniel Van Coller (Snr), of the farm Kopjesdam in the Winburg district, age 46, POW 11497
- Philippus Nicolas Janse Van Rensburg, of Bertram’s Town in the Heidelberg district, age 45, POW 11387
- Cornelis Johannes van Rooyen, of the farm Leeuwspruit in the Standerton district, age 19, POW 11392
- ANNEE ZYLSTRA, of Rouxville Town, age 16, POW 11638 *
Anee Zylsta was sent to Bermuda on board the SS Aurania. (Here is a story which needs to be researched).
The heroes of the QVR
This action, which resulted in the capture of General Olivier and his three sons, was recognised by the award of the battle honour Capture of Olivier to the Queenstown Rifle Volunteers. The following QVR men were awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for the capture of Olivier:
Sergeant JA Temlett
Corporal F Hayes
Trooper P Barton
Trooper G Bouchier
Trooper C Currie
Trooper T Niland
Trooper W Sladdin
Trooper P Stilwell
After the war
After the war and their return from captivity in Ceylon, the Olivier men were awarded the Dekoratie voor Trouwe Dienstmedal.
The British renamed the Free State as theOrange River Colony. After the Anglo Boer War, there was an effort to achieve closer unity between the various South African colonies. General Olivier sat as an unofficial member the Orange River Colony administration from 1903-1907. On 29 January 1909, the name was again changed to the Orange Free State. General Olivier retired from public life in 1910 and he died on 30 May 1930.
Please return my rifle
In 1933, Henning Jeremias Olivier, was living on the farm Gruiskopin the Hurbert district south west of Kimberley. He received a letter from a friend in Rouxville in which he was told that a Mr Temlett of Queenstown, had in his possession, a Mauser rifle which probably belonged to him as it had the names HJ Olivier engraved on the butt of the rifle. In the letter he was told that a journalist Mr Bartmann had been shown the rifle and was doing a story on the Mauser. Olivier wrote to Bartmann requesting his assistance in the return of his rifle. Bartmann approached Temlett with the request which was politely turned down as it was now considered a Temlett family heirloom. The rifle was passed down from Sergeant Temlett to his son who passed it to his son, the Reverend William A Temlett who gave it to his son Professor James Alexander Temlett. When Professor immigrated to Australia he donated this historic rifle to the South African National Museum of Military History.
- Original letter to Mr Bartmann dated 3/2/1933 from Adjudant HJ Olivier requesting the return of his rifle
- Letter from Mr Bartmann to Mr EW Temlett dated 5/3/1933 enclosing the letter request from Mr HJ Olivier
- Newspaper cutting: Siege at Winburg 70 years ago
- Original handwritten account of Commandant Olivier’s capture
- Poetic Tribute from Queenstown Free Press – 21 September, 1900
- Original letter on Joint Library of Parliament, Cape Town, to Sgt Temlett
- Newspaper cutting of QVR presentation of Colours ( Queenstown Daily Rep. 13/4/1963
- Newspaper cutting naming the 8 men awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal
- Photograph of DCM with comments and names of the 8 men
- Sgt Temlett’s diary while on the front
- Extracts from the diary
- Photograph of 7 QVR men – Sgt Temlett in back row 3rdfrom left
- Photograph of 3 QVR men – Sgt Temlett front left
- Photographs of parade in London when contingent received their DCM from King Edward VII
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