The Battle of Blood River Poort was an early Boer victory that took place on September 17, 1901. The place of the battle got its name from an earlier battle fought in 1836 between Boer settlers and Zulu tribes, which had resulted in so many dead Zulus that the water of the nearby stream has turned red. From then on it had been known as the Blood River. In 1901, during the Boer War, the Boer high command decided to send two units south into British territory to put the British on the defensive. One unit, under General Louis Botha, was to invade the Natal territory of British South Africa with a force of 1000 cavalry.
Natal was a former Boer republic that had been annexed by the British, but it still had a majority Boer population. The Boers hoped that invading Natal would provoke their compatriots to rebel against the British and enter the war on the side of the Boer republics of the Transvaal and Orange Free State. Heavy spring rains made the ground difficult for the Boers' horses which were soon exhausted. On September 14, 1901, Botha and his men set up camp at a farm near the banks of the Blood River to allow the horses to rest. The British had learned of the Boer movements. The British 24th Mounted Infantry unit, consisting of 700 men and horse drawn artillery under the command of Major Hubert Gough (12 August 1870 - 18 March 1963) was redeployed by rail from the front lines in the Orange Free State to the railhead in Dundee, Natal province. From there, the British unit rode towards the Boers encamped near the Blood River, arriving near the Boer positions on September 17, 1901.
British scouts had reported that the Boer forces numbered 700 men, which significantly underestimated their actual strength. However Major Gough believed that the scouts' reports were exaggerated, and that the Boer force was even smaller. The British commander believed that he was facing only 300 Boers, based his assessment on the number of Boers he had personally been able to observe using his field binoculars.
Expecting to encounter only a small Boer force, Major Gough left 450 of his men behind in reserve and then led the rest of his unit across the Blood River. He planned to catch the Boers by surprise. Major Gough had made a serious blunder. He had split his forces, which were already numerically inferior to the Boers, so that he went into battle with an even greater numerical disadvantage.
To make matters worse the Boers had spotted the British and instead of being caught by surprise it was the British would be ambushed. Even as major Gough was advancing on the farm where he believed the Boers were located, General Botha was leading his Boers in an encircling maneuver to strike the unsuspecting British from the side. The British found themselves out maneuvered and overwhelmed by superior forces. Soon the Boers had overcome the right of the British column and were galloping towards the British artillery. In this action, a 23-year-old lieutenant named Price Davies earned the Victoria Cross for his gallant and nearly suicidal stand against the Boer charge. However his efforts were for naught. British resistance soon collapsed, and the guns were captured.
The British suffered 23 killed, 21 wounded and 241 men captured, including their commander Major Gough. Boer losses were minimal, with only one dead and two wounded.
The Boers treated their prisoners humanely. In accordance with Boer policy, they stripped the British of their weapons and equipment and allowed them to walk back towards their lines.
General Botha then attempted to continue his mission into Natal province but found all his routes had been blocked by other, stronger, British units. The Boers were forced to turn back, ending any threat to the British Natal territory.
The Boer victory at Blood River Poort was an example of typically poor British leadership. Perhaps because Major Gough's blunder was not unique in this war, his humiliating defeat did not hurt Major Gough's career. He was soon placed in command of larger units during the Boer War. In the First World War, Gough was promoted to General and placed in command of the British Fifth Army in France.
It appears that Gough's cockiness and tendency to ignore information he did not agree continued later in his career. For example, at the Battle of Loos (1915), he was responsible for ordering the release of poison gas despite the weather forecasters having warned him that the wind was likely to be unfavorable and would probably blow it back onto the British troops. Predictably, this is what happened, and a lot of blame shifting followed.
In 1918, Gough was blamed for the British being pushed back and nearly routed by the final German offensive of the Great War. The jury is still out on whether Gough handled the situation well or not However, the high command sacked General Gough on the grounds that they had lost confidence in him, essentially calling him incompetent. Today, Gough is a footnote to history, almost completely unknown, despite having commanded British forces at most of the major battles of Western front.
This article about the Boer War Battle of Blood River was written on April 2, 2021 and last updated on April 2, 2021.