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    The commanding officer of ‘C’ Division of the SAC was Major J Fair (21st Lancers).


    The ‘C’ Division manned a line of police posts which stretched between the Johannesburg-Natal and the Pretoria-Delagoa Bay railway lines.


    In February 1902 these posts extended from Brugspruit on the Delagoa railway to Waterval on the Natal railway, with an extension to Villiersdorp (today Villiers). The area west of the line was the so-called ‘protected area’ and was supposedly clear of Boers.


    Intelligence reports, probably from local African inhabitants, persistently indicated that a Boer force had encroached into the protected area. 

    When the Commander-in-Chief, General Lord Kitchener, ordered the line of SAC posts to be moved further eastward, Major Fair ordered a reconnaissance preparatory to making such a move. The party consisted of 150 men drawn from three troops of ‘C’ Division under the command of Captain A E Capell.


    They assembled at the farmhouse on Syferfontein (or Cyferfontein) that had been taken over by the SAC as a fortified post, and set off 04h00 on 8 February 1902.


    They proceeded northeast towards the neighbouring farm, Vlakfontein and from there headed towards Van Tondershoek. 


    The intelligence proved to be accurate: the Boers were hidden in a hollow next to a perennial stream, a short distance from the Van Tondershoek farmhouse. The Boers were General Piet Viljoen’s men. After suffering severe losses from a number of British raids, Viljoen decided to move into the protected area.

    Commandant Joachim Prinsloo with 200 men made the first incursion into the area, followed on 24 January by another 400 men of the Pretoria, Germiston and Heidelberg commandos.


    Capell’s men seem to have rather  injudiciously opened fire on the laager, but his 150 men were greatly outnumbered.


    Indications are that the Boers lay hidden until the last possible moment and when it became obvious that their lair had been detected, they returned fire and attempted to outflank the policemen on both sides.

    What followed was an orderly retirement back to base at Syferfontein. There were experienced fighters on both sides and a running fight took them back over Vlakfontein. There, the left and right flank guards were fiercely attacked by the Boers and found themselves unable to join the rest of Captain Capell’s men, who got away safely.


    Capell managed to get most of the left flank away, but eight men, a sergeant, an officer and the medical officer, Captain Martin-Leake, were unable to find a way to escape. They were engaging some Boers at a distance of 1 600 yards and seemed to be secure until a group of Boers crept up a small donga and opened fire from a flank. All eight men were quickly killed or wounded.


    Captain Martin-Leake attended to a number of the men, dressing their wounds and controlling bleeding, apparently oblivious to the heavy close-range fire.


    When Lieut. Abraham was wounded, suffering a mortal injury, Martin-Leake ran over to make him more comfortable and ease his pain. It was here that the doctor was shot three times, being wounded in the right hand and left thigh.


    The Boers overran the little group but were not inclined to take prisoners. They left them where they lay, expressing regret that they had shot the doctor, and disappeared back the way they had come.


    The dead and wounded lay where they had fallen for some hours. Help arrived, probably after dark, bringing stretchers, blankets, bandages and water. Men, when severely wounded, quickly develop a raging thirst and lying for hours in the hot sun must have been agonising.


    There was at first a limited amount of water, but Martin-Leake refused to take his share until all the others had been served.


    The right flank was under the command of Lieutenant Swinburne, who apparently had 24 men with him. A message from Capell did not reach him, the orderly entrusted with its delivery having been shot, but Swinburne’s force managed to hold the Boers off until nightfall, when they made their way back to Syferfontein.


    The dead and wounded were brought back to Syferfontein, where the dead were buried. In about 1965, the remains were reinterred in the Garden of Remembrance in Standerton Cemetery.


    Martin-Leake returned to service as a Lieutenant during the Great War and was awarded a BAR to his Victoria Cross for his Gallantry in November 1914 being one of only three recipients to have been awarded the coveted Decoration on two occasions.


    The Boers did not pursue the SAC patrol. Their hiding place had been discovered and they moved away to the north-west, where the same men were involved in a number of encounters with the British up to the end of the war.


    Martin-Leake was taken to hospital in Heidelberg. His wounds healed easily, but the ulnar nerve had been severed, causing the hand to be paralysed. This was a disaster for a man wishing to become a surgeon, but an operation in England by Sir Victor Horsley was partially successful, although leaving him with a permanent loss of flexibility.


    The Victoria Cross was conferred on Martin-Leake by King Edward VII at Windsor Castle on 2 June 1902.


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