In each of these instances the attacks by the Boers upon British posts had ended in a repulse to themselves. They were more fortunate, however, in their attempt upon Modderfontein on the Gatsrand at the end of January. The post was held by 200 of the South Wales Borderers, reinforced by the 59th Imperial Yeomanry, who had come in as escort to a convoy from Krugersdorp. The attack, which lasted all day, was carried out by a commando of 2000 Boers under Smuts, who rushed the position upon the following morning. As usual, the Boers, who were unable to retain their prisoners, had little to show for their success. The British casualties, however, were between thirty and forty, mostly wounded.
On January 22nd General Cunninghame left Oliphant's Nek with a small force consisting of the Border and Worcester Regiments, the 6th Mounted Infantry, Kitchener's Horse, 7th Imperial Yeomanry, 8th R.F.A., and P battery R.H.A. It had instructions to move south upon the enemy known to be gathering there. By midday this force was warmly engaged, and found itself surrounded by considerable bodies of De la Rey's burghers. That night they camped at Middelfontein, and were strongly attacked in the early morning. So menacing was the Boer attitude, and so formidable the position, that the force was in some danger. Fortunately they were in heliographic communication with Oliphant's Nek, and learned upon the 23rd that Babington had been ordered to their relief. All day Cunninghame's men were under a long-range fire, but on the 24th Babington appeared, and the British force was successfully extricated, having seventy-five casualties. This action of Middelfontein is interesting as having been begun in Queen Victoria's reign, and ended in that of Edward VII.
Cunninghame's force moved on to Krugersdorp, and there, having heard of the fall of the Modderfontein post as already described, a part of his command moved out to the Gatsrand in pursuit of Smuts. It was found, however, that the Boers had taken up a strong defensive position, and the British were not numerous enough to push the attack. On February 3rd Cunninghame endeavoured to outflank the enemy with his small cavalry force while pushing his infantry up in front, but in neither attempt did he succeed, the cavalry failing to find the flank, while the infantry were met with a fire which made further advance impossible. One company of the Border Regiment found itself in such a position that the greater part of it was killed, wounded, or taken. This check constituted the action of Modderfontein. On the 4th, however, Cunningham, assisted by some of the South African Constabulary, made his way round the flank, and dislodged the enemy, who retreated to the south. A few days later some of Smuts's men made an attempt upon the railway near Bank, but were driven off with twenty-six casualties. It was after this that Smuts moved west and joined De la Rey's commando to make the attack already described upon Lichtenburg. These six attempts represent the chief aggressive movements which the Boers made against British posts in the Transvaal during these months. Attacks upon trains were still common, and every variety of sniping appears to have been rife, from the legitimate ambuscade to something little removed from murder.
It has been described in a previous chapter how Lord Kitchener made an offer to the burghers which amounted to an amnesty, and how a number of those Boers who had come under the influence of the British formed themselves into peace committees, and endeavoured to convey to the fighting commandos some information as to the hopelessness of the struggle, and the lenient mood of the British. Unfortunately these well-meant offers appear to have been mistaken for signs of weakness by the Boer leaders, and encouraged them to harden their hearts. Of the delegates who conveyed the terms to their fellow countrymen two at least were shot, several were condemned to death, and few returned without ill-usage. In no case did they bear back a favourable answer. The only result of the proclamation was to burden the British resources by an enormous crowd of women and children who were kept and fed in refugee camps, while their fathers and husbands continued in most cases to fight.
This allusion to the peace movement among the burghers may serve as an introduction to the attempt made by Lord Kitchener, at the end of February 1901, to bring the war to a close by negotiation. Throughout its course the fortitude of Great Britain and of the Empire had never for an instant weakened, but her conscience had always been sensitive at the sight of the ruin which had befallen so large a portion of South Africa, and any settlement would have been eagerly hailed which would insure that the work done had not been wasted, and would not need to be done again. A peace on any other terms would simply shift upon the shoulders of our descendants those burdens which we were not manly enough to bear ourselves. There had arisen, as has been said, a considerable peace movement among the burghers of the refugee camps and also among the prisoners of war. It was hoped that some reflection of this might be found among the leaders of the people. To find out if this were so Lord Kitchener, at the end of February, sent a verbal message to Louis Botha, and on the 27th of that month the Boer general rode with an escort of Hussars into Middelburg. 'Sunburned, with a pleasant, fattish face of a German type, and wearing an imperial,' says one who rode beside him. Judging from the sounds of mirth heard by those without, the two leaders seem to have soon got upon amiable terms, and there was hope that a definite settlement might spring from their interview. From the beginning Lord Kitchener explained that the continued independence of the two republics was an impossibility. But on every other point the British Government was prepared to go great lengths in order to satisfy and conciliate the burghers.
On March 7th Lord Kitchener wrote to Botha from Pretoria, recapitulating the points which he had advanced. The terms offered were certainly as far as, and indeed rather further than, the general sentiment of the Empire would have gone. If the Boers laid down their arms there was to be a complete amnesty, which was apparently to extend to rebels also so long as they did not return to Cape Colony or Natal. Self-government was promised after a necessary interval, during which the two States should be administered as Crown colonies. Law courts should be independent of the Executive from the beginning, and both languages be official. A million pounds of compensation would be paid to the burghers—a most remarkable example of a war indemnity being paid by the victors. Loans were promised to the farmers to restart them in business, and a pledge was made that farms should not be taxed. The Kaffirs were not to have the franchise, but were to have the protection of law. Such were the generous terms offered by the British Government. Public opinion at home, strongly supported by that of the colonies, and especially of the army, felt that the extreme step had been taken in the direction of conciliation, and that to do more would seem not to offer peace, but to implore it. Unfortunately, however, the one thing which the British could not offer was the one thing which the Boers would insist upon having, and the leniency of the proposals in all other directions may have suggested weakness to their minds. On March 15th an answer was returned by General Botha to the effect that nothing short of total independence would satisfy them, and the negotiations were accordingly broken off.
There was a disposition, however, upon the Boer side to renew them, and upon May 10th General Botha applied to Lord Kitchener for permission to cable to President Kruger, and to take his advice as to the making of peace. The stern old man at The Hague was still, however, in an unbending mood. His reply was to the effect that there were great hopes of a successful issue of the war, and that he had taken steps to make proper provision for the Boer prisoners and for the refugee women. These steps, and very efficient ones too, were to leave them entirely to the generosity of that Government which he was so fond of reviling.
On the same day upon which Botha applied for leave to use the British cable, a letter was written by Reitz, State Secretary of the Transvaal, to Steyn, in which the desperate condition of the Boers was clearly set forth. This document explained that the burghers were continually surrendering, that the ammunition was nearly exhausted, the food running low, and the nation in danger of extinction. 'The time has come to take the final step,' said the Secretary of State. Steyn wrote back a reply in which, like his brother president, he showed a dour resolution to continue the struggle, prompted by a fatalist conviction that some outside interference would reverse the result of his appeal to arms. His attitude and that of Kruger determined the Boer leaders to hold out for a few more months, a resolution which may have been injudicious, but was certainly heroic. 'It's a fight to a finish this time,' said the two combatants in the 'Punch' cartoon which marked the beginning of the war. It was indeed so, as far as the Boers were concerned. As the victors we can afford to acknowledge that no nation in history has ever made a more desperate and prolonged resistance against a vastly superior antagonist. A Briton may well pray that his own people may be as staunch when their hour of adversity comes round.
The British position at this stage of the war was strengthened by a greater centralisation. Garrisons of outlying towns were withdrawn so that fewer convoys became necessary. The population was removed also and placed near the railway lines, where they could be more easily fed. In this way the scene of action was cleared and the Boer and British forces left face to face. Convinced of the failure of the peace policy, and morally strengthened by having tried it, Lord Kitchener set himself to finish the war by a series of vigorous operations which should sweep the country from end to end. For this purpose mounted troops were essential, and an appeal from him for reinforcements was most nobly answered. Five thousand horsemen were despatched from the colonies, and twenty thousand cavalry, mounted infantry, and Yeomanry were sent from home. Ten thousand mounted men had already been raised in Great Britain, South Africa, and Canada for the Constabulary force which was being organised by Baden-Powell. Altogether the reinforcements of horsemen amounted to more than thirty-five thousand men, all of whom had arrived in South Africa before the end of April. With the remains of his old regiments Lord Kitchener had under him at this final period of the war between fifty and sixty thousand cavalry—such a force as no British General in his happiest dream had ever thought of commanding, and no British war minister in his darkest nightmare had ever imagined himself called upon to supply.
Long before his reinforcements had come to hand, while his Yeomanry was still gathering in long queues upon the London pavement to wait their turn at the recruiting office, Lord Kitchener had dealt the enemy several shrewd blows which materially weakened their resources in men and material. The chief of these was the great drive down the Eastern Transvaal undertaken by seven columns under the command of French. Before considering this, however, a few words must be devoted to the doings of Methuen in the south-west.
This hard-working General, having garrisoned Zeerust and Lichtenburg, had left his old district and journeyed with a force which consisted largely of Bushmen and Yeomanry to the disturbed parts of Bechuanaland which had been invaded by De Villiers. Here he cleared the country as far as Vryburg, which he had reached in the middle of January, working round to Kuruman and thence to Taungs. From Taungs his force crossed the Transvaal border and made for Klerksdorp, working through an area which had never been traversed and which contained the difficult Masakani hills. He left Taungs upon February 2nd, fighting skirmishes at Uitval's Kop, Paardefontein and Lilliefontein, in each of which the enemy was brushed aside. Passing through Wolmaranstad, Methuen turned to the north, where at Haartebeestefontein, on February 19th, he fought a brisk engagement with a considerable force of Boers under De Villiers and Liebenberg. On the day before the fight he successfully outwitted the Boers, for, learning that they had left their laager in order to take up a position for battle, he pounced upon the laager and captured 10,000 head of cattle, forty-three wagons, and forty prisoners. Stimulated by this success, he attacked the Boers next day, and after five hours of hard fighting forced the pass which they were holding against him. As Methuen had but 1500 men, and was attacking a force which was as large as his own in a formidable position, the success was a very creditable one. The Yeomanry all did well, especially the 5th and 10th battalions. So also did the Australians and the Loyal North Lancashires. The British casualties amounted to sixteen killed and thirty-four wounded, while the Boers left eighteen of their dead upon the position which they had abandoned. Lord Methuen's little force returned to Klerksdorp, having deserved right well of their country. From Klerksdorp Methuen struck back westwards to the south of his former route, and on March 14th he was reported at Warrenton. Here also in April came Erroll's small column, bringing with it the garrison and inhabitants of Hoopstad, a post which it had been determined, in accordance with Lord Kitchener's policy of centralisation, to abandon.
In the month of January, 1901, there had been a considerable concentration of the Transvaal Boers into that large triangle which is bounded by the Delagoa railway line upon the north, the Natal railway line upon the south, and the Swazi and Zulu frontiers upon the east. The bushveld is at this season of the year unhealthy both for man and beast, so that for the sake of their herds, their families, and themselves the burghers were constrained to descend into the open veld. There seemed the less objection to their doing so since this tract of country, though traversed once both by Buller and by French, had still remained a stronghold of the Boers and a storehouse of supplies. Within its borders are to be found Carolina, Ermelo, Vryheid, and other storm centres. Its possession offers peculiar strategical advantages, as a force lying there can always attack either railway, and might even make, as was indeed intended, a descent into Natal. For these mingled reasons of health and of strategy a considerable number of burghers united in this district under the command of the Bothas and of Smuts.
Their concentration had not escaped the notice of the British military authorities, who welcomed any movement which might bring to a focus that resistance which had been so nebulous and elusive. Lord Kitchener having once seen the enemy fairly gathered into this huge cover, undertook the difficult task of driving it from end to end. For this enterprise General French was given the chief command, and had under his orders no fewer than seven columns, which started from different points of the Delagoa and of the Natal railway lines, keeping in touch with each other and all trending south and east. A glance at the map would show, however, that it was a very large field for seven guns, and that it would need all their alertness to prevent the driven game from breaking back. Three columns started from the Delagoa line, namely, Smith-Dorrien's from Wonderfontein (the most easterly), Campbell's from Middelburg, and Alderson's from Eerstefabrieken, close to Pretoria. Four columns came from the western railway line: General Knox's from Kaalfontein, Major Allenby's from Zuurfontein (both stations between Pretoria and Johannesburg), General Dartnell's from Springs, close to Johannesburg, and finally General Colville (not to be confused with Colvile) from Greylingstad in the south. The whole movement resembled a huge drag net, of which Wonderfontein and Greylingstad formed the ends, exactly one hundred miles apart. On January 27th the net began to be drawn. Some thousands of Boers with a considerable number of guns were known to be within the enclosure, and it was hoped that even if their own extreme mobility enabled them to escape it would be impossible for them to save their transport and their cannon.
Each of the British columns was about 2000 strong, making a total of 14,000 men with about fifty guns engaged in the operations. A front of not less than ten miles was to be maintained by each force. The first decided move was on the part of the extreme left wing, Smith-Dorrien's column, which moved south on Carolina, and thence on Bothwell near Lake Chrissie. The arduous duty of passing supplies down from the line fell mainly upon him, and his force was in consequence larger than the others, consisting of 8500 men with thirteen guns. On the arrival of Smith-Dorrien at Carolina the other columns started, their centre of advance being Ermelo. Over seventy miles of veld the gleam of the helio by day and the flash of the signal lamps at night marked the steady flow of the British tide. Here and there the columns came in touch with the enemy and swept him before them. French had a skirmish at Wilge River at the end of January, and Campbell another south of Middelburg, in which he had twenty casualties. On February 4th Smith-Dorrien was at Lake Chrissie; French had passed through Bethel and the enemy was retiring on Amsterdam. The hundred-mile ends of the drag net were already contracted to a third of that distance, and the game was still known to be within it. On the 5th Ermelo was occupied, and the fresh deep ruts upon the veld told the British horsemen of the huge Boer convoy that was ahead of them. For days enormous herds, endless flocks, and lines of wagons which stretched from horizon to horizon had been trekking eastward. Cavalry and mounted infantry were all hot upon the scent.
Botha, however, was a leader of spirit, not to be hustled with impunity. Having several thousand burghers with him, it was evident that if he threw himself suddenly upon any part of the British line he might hope for a time to make an equal fight, and possibly to overwhelm it. Were Smith-Dorrien out of the way there would be a clear road of escape for his whole convoy to the north, while a defeat of any of the other columns would not help him much. It was on Smith-Dorrien, therefore, that he threw himself with great impetuosity. That General's force was, however, formidable, consisting of the Suffolks, West Yorks and Camerons, 5th Lancers, 2nd Imperial Light Horse, and 3rd Mounted Infantry, with eight field guns and three heavy pieces. Such a force could hardly be defeated in the open, but no one can foresee the effect of a night surprise well pushed home, and such was the attack delivered by Botha at 3 A.M. upon February 6th, when his opponent was encamped at Bothwell Farm.
The night was favourable to the attempt, as it was dark and misty. Fortunately, however, the British commander had fortified himself and was ready for an assault. The Boer forlorn hope came on with a gallant dash, driving a troop of loose horses in upon the outposts, and charging forward into the camp. The West Yorkshires, however, who bore the brunt of the attack, were veterans of the Tugela, who were no more to be flurried at three in the morning than at three in the afternoon. The attack was blown backwards, and twenty dead Boers, with their brave leader Spruyt, were left within the British lines. The main body of the Boers contented themselves with a heavy fusillade out of the darkness, which was answered and crushed by the return fire of the infantry. In the morning no trace, save their dead, was to be seen of the enemy, but twenty killed and fifty wounded in Smith-Dorrien's column showed how heavy had been the fire which had swept through the sleeping camp. The Carolina attack, which was to have co-operated with that of the Heidelbergers, was never delivered, through difficulties of the ground, and considerable recriminations ensued among the Boers in consequence.
Beyond a series of skirmishes and rearguard actions this attack of Botha's was the one effort made to stay the course of French's columns. It did not succeed, however, in arresting them for an hour. From that day began a record of captures of men, herds, guns, and wagons, as the fugitives were rounded up from the north, the west, and the south. The operation was a very thorough one, for the towns and districts occupied were denuded of their inhabitants, who were sent into the refugee camps while the country was laid waste to prevent its furnishing the commandos with supplies in the future. Still moving south-east, General French's columns made their way to Piet Retief upon the Swazi frontier, pushing a disorganised array which he computed at 5000 in front of them. A party of the enemy, including the Carolina commando, had broken back in the middle of February and Louis Botha had got away at the same time, but so successful were his main operations that French was able to report his total results at the end of the month as being 292 Boers killed or wounded, 500 surrendered, 3 guns and one maxim taken, with 600 rifles, 4000 horses, 4500 trek oxen, 1300 wagons and carts, 24,000 cattle, and 165,000 sheep. The whole vast expanse of the eastern veld was dotted with the broken and charred wagons of the enemy.
Tremendous rains were falling and the country was one huge quagmire, which crippled although it did not entirely prevent the further operations. All the columns continued to report captures. On March 3rd Dartnell got a maxim and 50 prisoners, while French reported 50 more, and Smith-Dorrien 80. On March 6th French captured two more guns, and on the 14th he reported 46 more Boer casualties and 146 surrenders, with 500 more wagons, and another great haul of sheep and oxen. By the end of March French had moved as far south as Vryheid, his troops having endured the greatest hardships from the continual heavy rains, and the difficulty of bringing up any supplies. On the 27th he reported seventeen more Boer casualties and 140 surrenders, while on the last day of the month he took another gun and two pom-poms. The enemy at that date were still retiring eastward, with Alderson and Dartnell pressing upon their rear. On April 4th French announced the capture of the last piece of artillery which the enemy possessed in that region. The rest of the Boer forces doubled back at night between the columns and escaped over the Zululand border, where 200 of them surrendered. The total trophies of French's drive down the Eastern Transvaal amounted to eleven hundred of the enemy killed, wounded, or taken, the largest number in any operation since the surrender of Prinsloo. There is no doubt that the movement would have been even more successful had the weather been less boisterous, but this considerable loss of men, together with the capture of all the guns in that region, and of such enormous quantities of wagons, munitions, and stock, inflicted a blow upon the Boers from which they never wholly recovered. On April 20th French was back in Johannesburg once more.
While French had run to earth the last Boer gun in the south-eastern corner of the Transvaal, De la Rey, upon the western side, had still managed to preserve a considerable artillery with which he flitted about the passes of the Magaliesberg or took refuge in the safe districts to the south-west of it. This part of the country had been several times traversed, but had never been subdued by British columns. The Boers, like their own veld grass, need but a few sparks to be left behind to ensure a conflagration breaking out again. It was into this inflammable country that Babington moved in March with Klerksdorp for his base. On March 21st he had reached Haartebeestefontein, the scene not long before of a successful action by Methuen. Here he was joined by Shekleton's Mounted Infantry, and his whole force consisted of these, with the 1st Imperial Light Horse, the 6th Imperial Bushmen, the New Zealanders, a squadron of the 14th Hussars, a wing each of the Somerset Light Infantry and of the Welsh Fusiliers, with Carter's guns and four pom-poms. With this mobile and formidable little force Babington pushed on in search of Smuts and De la Rey, who were known to be in the immediate neighbourhood.
As a matter of fact the Boers were not only there, but were nearer and in greater force than had been anticipated. On the 22nd three squadrons of the Imperial Light Horse under Major Briggs rode into 1500 of them, and it was only by virtue of their steadiness and gallantry that they succeeded in withdrawing themselves and their pom-pom without a disaster. With Boers in their front and Boers on either flank they fought an admirable rearguard action. So hot was the fire that A squadron alone had twenty-two casualties. They faced it out, however, until their gun had reached a place of safety, when they made an orderly retirement towards Babington's camp, having inflicted as heavy a loss as they had sustained. With Elandslaagte, Waggon Hill, the relief of Mafeking, Naauwpoort, and Haartebeestefontein upon their standards, the Imperial Light Horse, should they take a permanent place in the Army List, will start with a record of which many older regiments might be proud.
If the Light Horse had a few bad hours on March 22nd at the hands of the Boers, they and their colonial comrades were soon able to return the same with interest. On March 23rd Babington moved forward through Kafir Kraal, the enemy falling back before him. Next morning the British again advanced, and as the New Zealanders and Bushmen, who formed the vanguard under Colonel Gray, emerged from a pass they saw upon the plain in front of them the Boer force with all its guns moving towards them. Whether this was done of set purpose or whether the Boers imagined that the British had turned and were intending to pursue them cannot now be determined, but whatever the cause it is certain that for almost the first time in the campaign a considerable force of each side found themselves in the open and face to face.
It was a glorious moment. Setting spurs to their horses, officers and men with a yell dashed forward at the enemy. One of the Boer guns unlimbered and attempted to open fire, but was overwhelmed by the wave of horsemen. The Boer riders broke and fled, leaving their artillery to escape as best it might. The guns dashed over the veld in a mad gallop, but wilder still was the rush of the fiery cavalry behind them. For once the brave and cool-headed Dutchmen were fairly panic-stricken. Hardly a shot was fired at the pursuers, and the riflemen seem to have been only too happy to save their own skins. Two field guns, one pom-pom, six maxims, fifty-six wagons and 140 prisoners were the fruits of that one magnificent charge, while fifty-four stricken Boers were picked up after the action. The pursuit was reluctantly abandoned when the spent horses could go no farther.
While the vanguard had thus scattered the main body of the enemy a detachment of riflemen had ridden round to attack the British rear and convoy. A few volleys from the escort drove them off, however, with some loss. Altogether, what with the loss of nine guns and of at least 200 men, the rout of Haartebeestefontein was a severe blow to the Boer cause. A week or two later Sir H. Rawlinson's column, acting with Babington, rushed Smuts's laager at daylight and effected a further capture of two guns and thirty prisoners. Taken in conjunction with French's successes in the east and Plumer's in the north, these successive blows might have seemed fatal to the Boer cause, but the weary struggle was still destined to go on until it seemed that it must be annihilation rather than incorporation which would at last bring a tragic peace to those unhappy lands.
All over the country small British columns had been operating during these months—operations which were destined to increase in scope and energy as the cold weather drew in. The weekly tale of prisoners and captures, though small for any one column, gave the aggregate result of a considerable victory. In these scattered and obscure actions there was much good work which can have no reward save the knowledge of duty done. Among many successful raids and skirmishes may be mentioned two by Colonel Park from Lydenburg, which resulted between them in the capture of nearly 100 of the enemy, including Abel Erasmus of sinister reputation. Nor would any summary of these events be complete without a reference to the very gallant defence of Mahlabatini in Zululand, which was successfully held by a handful of police and civilians against an irruption of the Boers. With the advent of winter and of reinforcements the British operations became very energetic in every part of the country, and some account of them will now be added.
CHAPTER 34. THE WINTER CAMPAIGN (APRIL TO SEPTEMBER, 1901).
The African winter extends roughly from April to September, and as the grass during that period would be withered on the veld, the mobility of the Boer commandos must be very much impaired. It was recognised therefore that if the British would avoid another year of war it could only be done by making good use of the months which lay before them. For this reason Lord Kitchener had called for the considerable reinforcements which have been already mentioned, but on the other hand he was forced to lose many thousands of his veteran Yeomanry, Australians, and Canadians, whose term of service was at an end. The volunteer companies of the infantry returned also to England, and so did nine militia battalions, whose place was taken however by an equal number of new-comers.
The British position was very much strengthened during the winter by the adoption of the block-house system. These were small square or hexagonal buildings, made of stone up to nine feet with corrugated iron above it. They were loopholed for musketry fire and held from six to thirty men. These little forts were dotted along the railways at points not more than 2000 yards apart, and when supplemented by a system of armoured trains they made it no easy matter for the Boers to tamper with or to cross the lines. So effective did these prove that their use was extended to the more dangerous portions of the country, and lines were pushed through the Magaliesberg district to form a chain of posts between Krugersdorp and Rustenburg. In the Orange River Colony and on the northern lines of the Cape Colony the same system was extensively applied. I will now attempt to describe the more important operations of the winter, beginning with the incursion of Plumer into the untrodden ground to the north.
At this period of the war the British forces had overrun, if they had not subdued, the whole of the Orange River Colony and every part of the Transvaal which is south of the Mafeking-Pretoria-Komati line. Through this great tract of country there was not a village and hardly a farmhouse which had not seen the invaders. But in the north there remained a vast district, two hundred miles long and three hundred broad, which had hardly been touched by the war. It is a wild country, scrub-covered, antelope-haunted plains rising into desolate hills, but there are many kloofs and valleys with rich water meadows and lush grazings, which formed natural granaries and depots for the enemy. Here the Boer government continued to exist, and here, screened by their mountains, they were able to organise the continuation of the struggle. It was evident that there could be no end to the war until these last centres of resistance had been broken up.
The British forces had advanced as far north as Rustenburg in the west, Pienaar in the centre, and Lydenburg in the east, but here they had halted, unwilling to go farther until their conquests had been made good behind them. A General might well pause before plunging his troops into that vast and rugged district, when an active foe and an exposed line of communication lay for many hundreds of miles to the south of them. But Lord Kitchener with characteristic patience waited for the right hour to come, and then with equally characteristic audacity played swiftly and boldly for his stake. De Wet, impotent for the moment, had been hunted back over the Orange River. French had harried the burghers in the South-east Transvaal, and the main force of the enemy was known to be on that side of the seat of war. The north was exposed, and with one long, straight lunge to the heart, Pietersburg might be transfixed.
There could only be one direction for the advance, and that must be along the Pretoria to Pietersburg railroad. This is the only line of rails which leads to the north, and as it was known to be in working order (the Boers were running a bi-weekly service from Pietersburg to Warm Baths), it was hoped that a swift advance might seize it before any extensive damage could be done. With this object a small but very mobile force rapidly assembled at the end of March at Pienaar River, which was the British rail-head forty miles north of Pretoria and a hundred and thirty from Pietersburg. This column consisted of the Bushveld Carbineers, the 4th Imperial Bushmen's Corps, and the 6th New Zealand contingent. With them were the 18th battery R.F.A., and three pom-poms. A detachment of the invaluable mounted Sappers rode with the force, and two infantry regiments, the 2nd Gordons and the Northamptons, were detached to garrison the more vulnerable places upon the line of advance.
Upon March 29th the untiring Plumer, called off from the chase of De Wet, was loosed upon this fresh line, and broke swiftly away to the north. The complete success of his undertaking has obscured our estimate of its danger, but it was no light task to advance so great a distance into a bitterly hostile country with a fighting force of 2000 rifles. As an enterprise it was in many ways not unlike Mahon's dash on Mafeking, but without any friendly force with which to join hands at the end. However from the beginning all went well. On the 30th the force had reached Warm Baths, where a great isolated hotel already marks the site of what will be a rich and fashionable spa. On April 1st the Australian scouts rode into Nylstroom, fifty more miles upon their way. There had been sufficient sniping to enliven the journey, but nothing which could be called an action. Gleaning up prisoners and refugees as they went, with the railway engineers working like bees behind them, the force still swept unchecked upon its way. On April 5th Piet Potgietersrust was entered, another fifty-mile stage, and on the morning of the 8th the British vanguard rode into Pietersburg. Kitchener's judgment and Plumer's energy had met with their reward.
The Boer commando had evacuated the town and no serious opposition was made to the British entry. The most effective resistance came from a single schoolmaster, who, in a moment of irrational frenzy or of patriotic exaltation, shot down three of the invaders before he met his own death. Some rolling stock, one small gun, and something under a hundred prisoners were the trophies of the capture, but the Boer arsenal and the printing press were destroyed, and the Government sped off in a couple of Cape carts in search of some new capital. Pietersburg was principally valuable as a base from which a sweeping movement might be made from the north at the same moment as one from the south-east. A glance at the map will show that a force moving from this point in conjunction with another from Lydenburg might form the two crooked claws of a crab to enclose a great space of country, in which smaller columns might collect whatever was to be found. Without an instant of unnecessary delay the dispositions were made, and no fewer than eight columns slipped upon the chase. It will be best to continue to follow the movements of Plumer's force, and then to give some account of the little armies which were operating from the south, with the results of their enterprise.
It was known that Viljoen and a number of Boers were within the district which lies north of the line in the Middelburg district. An impenetrable bush-veld had offered them a shelter from which they made their constant sallies to wreck a train or to attack a post. This area was now to be systematically cleared up. The first thing was to stop the northern line of retreat. The Oliphant River forms a loop in that direction, and as it is a considerable stream, it would, if securely held, prevent any escape upon that side. With this object Plumer, on April 14th, the sixth day after his occupation of Pietersburg, struck east from that town and trekked over the veld, through the formidable Chunies Pass, and so to the north bank of the Oliphant, picking up thirty or forty Boer prisoners upon the way. His route lay through a fertile country dotted with native kraals. Having reached the river which marked the line which he was to hold, Plumer, upon April 17th, spread his force over many miles, so as to block the principal drifts. The flashes of his helio were answered by flash after flash from many points upon the southern horizon. What these other forces were, and whence they came, must now be made clear to the reader.
General Bindon Blood, a successful soldier, had confirmed in the Transvaal a reputation which he had won on the northern frontier of India. He and General Elliot were two of the late comers who had been spared from the great Eastern dependency to take the places of some of those Generals who had returned to England for a well-earned rest. He had distinguished himself by his systematic and effective guardianship of the Delagoa railway line, and he was now selected for the supreme control of the columns which were to advance from the south and sweep the Roos-Senekal district. There were seven of them, which were arranged as follows:
Two columns started from Middelburg under Beatson and Benson, which might be called the left wings of the movement. The object of Beatson's column was to hold the drifts of the Crocodile River, while Benson's was to seize the neighbouring hills called the Bothasberg. This it was hoped would pin the Boers from the west, while Kitchener from Lydenburg advanced from the east in three separate columns. Pulteney and Douglas would move up from Belfast in the centre, with Dulstoom for their objective. It was the familiar drag net of French, but facing north instead of south.
On April 13th the southern columns were started, but already the British preparations had alarmed the Boers, and Botha, with his main commandos, had slipped south across the line into that very district from which he had been so recently driven. Viljoen's commando still remained to the north, and the British troops, pouring in from every side, converged rapidly upon it. The success of the operations was considerable, though not complete. The Tantesberg, which had been the rallying-point of the Boers, was occupied, and Roos-Senekal, their latest capital, was taken, with their State papers and treasure. Viljoen, with a number of followers, slipped through between the columns, but the greater part of the burghers, dashing furiously about like a shoal of fish when they become conscious of the net, were taken by one or other of the columns. A hundred of the Boksburg commando surrendered en masse, fifty more were taken at Roos-Senekal; forty-one of the formidable Zarps with Schroeder, their leader, were captured in the north by the gallantry and wit of a young Australian officer named Reid; sixty more were hunted down by the indefatigable Vialls, leader of the Bushmen. From all parts of the district came the same story of captures and surrenders.
Knowing, however, that Botha and Viljoen had slipped through to the south of the railway line, Lord Kitchener determined to rapidly transfer the scene of the operations to that side. At the end of April, after a fortnight's work, during which this large district was cropped, but by no means shaved, the troops turned south again. The results of the operation had been eleven hundred prisoners, almost the same number as French had taken in the south-east, together with a broken Krupp, a pom-pom, and the remains of the big naval gun taken from us at Helvetia.
It was determined that Plumer's advance upon Pietersburg should not be a mere raid, but that steps should be taken to secure all that he had gained, and to hold the lines of communication. With this object the 2nd Gordon Highlanders and the 2nd Wiltshires were pushed up along the railroad, followed by Kitchener's Fighting Scouts. These troops garrisoned Pietersburg and took possession of Chunies Poort, and other strategic positions. They also furnished escorts for the convoys which supplied Plumer on the Oliphant River, and they carried out some spirited operations themselves in the neighbourhood of Pietersburg. Grenfell, who commanded the force, broke up several laagers, and captured a number of prisoners, operations in which he was much assisted by Colenbrander and his men. Finally the last of the great Creusot guns, the formidable Long Toms, was found mounted near Haenertsburg. It was the same piece which had in succession scourged Mafeking and Kimberley. The huge gun, driven to bay, showed its powers by opening an effective fire at ten thousand yards. The British galloped in upon it, the Boer riflemen were driven off, and the gun was blown up by its faithful gunners. So by suicide died the last of that iron brood, the four sinister brothers who had wrought much mischief in South Africa. They and their lesson will live in the history of modern artillery.
The sweeping of the Roos-Senekal district being over, Plumer left his post upon the River of the Elephants, a name which, like Rhenoster, Zeekoe, Kameelfontein, Leeuw Kop, Tigerfontein, Elands River, and so many more, serves as a memorial to the great mammals which once covered the land. On April 28th the force turned south, and on May 4th they had reached the railroad at Eerstefabrieken close to Pretoria. They had come in touch with a small Boer force upon the way, and the indefatigable Vialls hounded them for eighty miles, and tore away the tail of their convoy with thirty prisoners. The main force had left Pretoria on horseback on March 28th, and found themselves back once again upon foot on May 5th. They had something to show, however, for the loss of their horses, since they had covered a circular march of 400 miles, had captured some hundreds of the enemy, and had broken up their last organised capital. From first to last it was a most useful and well-managed expedition.
It is the more to be regretted that General Blood was recalled from his northern trek before it had attained its full results, because those operations to which he turned did not offer him any great opportunities for success. Withdrawing from the north of the railway with his columns, he at once started upon a sweep of that portion of the country which forms an angle between the Delagoa line and the Swazi frontier—the Barberton district. But again the two big fish, Viljoen and Botha, had slipped away, and the usual collection of sprats was left in the net. The sprats count also, however, and every week now telegrams were reaching England from Lord Kitchener which showed that from three to five hundred more burghers had fallen into our hands. Although the public might begin to look upon the war as interminable, it had become evident to the thoughtful observer that it was now a mathematical question, and that a date could already be predicted by which the whole Boer population would have passed into the power of the British.
Among the numerous small British columns which were at work in different parts of the country, in the latter half of May, there was one under General Dixon which was operating in the neighbourhood of the Magaliesberg Range. This locality has never been a fortunate one for the British arms. The country is peculiarly mountainous and broken, and it was held by the veteran De la Rey and a numerous body of irreconcilable Boers. Here in July we had encountered a check at Uitval's Nek, in December Clements had met a more severe one at Nooitgedacht, while shortly afterwards Cunningham had been repulsed at Middelfontein, and the Light Horse cut up at Naauwpoort. After such experiences one would have thought that no column which was not of overmastering strength would have been sent into this dangerous region, but General Dixon had as a matter of fact by no means a strong force with him. With 1600 men and a battery he was despatched upon a quest after some hidden guns which were said to have been buried in those parts.
On May 26th Dixon's force, consisting of Derbyshires, King's Own Scottish Borderers, Imperial Yeomanry, Scottish Horse, and six guns (four of 8th R.F.A. and two of 28th R.F.A.), broke camp at Naauwpoort and moved to the west. On the 28th they found themselves at a place called Vlakfontein, immediately south of Oliphant's Nek. On that day there were indications that there were a good many Boers in the neighbourhood. Dixon left a guard over his camp and then sallied out in search of the buried guns. His force was divided into three parts, the left column under Major Chance consisting of two guns of the 28th R.F.A., 230 of the Yeomanry, and one company of the Derbys. The centre comprised two guns (8th R.F. A.), one howitzer, two companies of the Scottish Borderers and one of the Derbys; while the right was made up of two guns (8th R.F.A. ), 200 Scottish Horse, and two companies of Borderers. Having ascertained that the guns were not there, the force about midday was returning to the camp, when the storm broke suddenly and fiercely upon the rearguard.
There had been some sniping during the whole morning, but no indications of the determined attack which was about to be delivered. The force in retiring upon the camp had become divided, and the rearguard consisted of the small column under Major Chance which had originally formed the left wing. A veld fire was raging on one flank of this rearguard, and through the veil of smoke a body of five hundred Boers charged suddenly home with magnificent gallantry upon the guns. We have few records of a more dashing or of a more successful action in the whole course of the war. So rapid was it that hardly any time elapsed between the glimpse of the first dark figures galloping through the haze and the thunder of their hoofs as they dashed in among the gunners. The Yeomanry were driven back and many of them shot down. The charge of the mounted Boers was supported by a very heavy fire from a covering party, and the gun-detachments were killed or wounded almost to a man. The lieutenant in charge and the sergeant were both upon the ground. So far as it is possible to reconstruct the action from the confused accounts of excited eye-witnesses and from the exceedingly obscure official report of General Dixon, there was no longer any resistance round the guns, which were at once turned by their captors upon the nearest British detachment.
The company of infantry which had helped to escort the guns proved however to be worthy representatives of that historic branch of the British service. They were northerners, men of Derbyshire and Nottingham, the same counties which had furnished the brave militia who had taken their punishment so gamely at Roodeval. Though hustled and broken they re-formed and clung doggedly to their task, firing at the groups of Boers who surrounded the guns. At the same time word had been sent of their pressing need to the Scotch Borderers and the Scottish Horse, who came swarming across the valley to the succour of their comrades. Dixon had brought two guns and a howitzer into action, which subdued the fire of the two captured pieces, and the infantry, Derbys and Borderers, swept over the position, retaking the two guns and shooting down those of the enemy who tried to stand. The greater number vanished into the smoke, which veiled their retreat as it had their advance. Forty-one of them were left dead upon the ground. Six officers and fifty men killed with about a hundred and twenty wounded made up the British losses, to which two guns would certainly have been added but for the gallant counter-attack of the infantry. With Dargai and Vlakfontein to their credit the Derbys have green laurels upon their war-worn colours. They share them on this occasion with the Scottish Borderers, whose volunteer company carried itself as stoutly as the regulars.
How is such an action to be summed up? To Kemp, the young Boer leader, and his men belongs the credit of the capture of the guns; to the British that of their recapture and of the final possession of the field. The British loss was probably somewhat higher than that of the Boers, but upon the other hand there could be no question as to which side could afford loss the better. The Briton could be replaced, but there were no reserves behind the fighting line of the Boers.
There is one subject which cannot be ignored in discussing this battle, however repugnant it may be. That is the shooting of some of the British wounded who lay round the guns. There is no question at all about the fact, which is attested by many independent witnesses. There is reason to hope that some of the murderers paid for their crimes with their lives before the battle was over. It is pleasant to add that there is at least one witness to the fact that Boer officers interfered with threats to prevent some of these outrages. It is unfair to tarnish the whole Boer nation and cause on account of a few irresponsible villains, who would be disowned by their own decent comrades. Very many—too many—British soldiers have known by experience what it is to fall into the hands of the enemy, and it must be confessed that on the whole they have been dealt with in no ungenerous spirit, while the British treatment of the Boers has been unexampled in all military history for its generosity and humanity. That so fair a tale should be darkened by such ruffianly outrages is indeed deplorable, but the incident is too well authenticated to be left unrecorded in any detailed account of the campaign. General Dixon, finding the Boers very numerous all round him, and being hampered by his wounded, fell back upon Naauwpoort, which he reached on June 1st.
In May, Sir Bindon Blood, having returned to the line to refit, made yet another cast through that thrice-harried belt of country which contains Ermelo, Bethel, and Carolina, in which Botha, Viljoen, and the fighting Boers had now concentrated. Working over the blackened veld he swung round in the Barberton direction, and afterwards made a westerly drive in conjunction with small columns commanded by Walter Kitchener, Douglas, and Campbell of the Rifles, while Colville, Garnett, and Bullock co-operated from the Natal line. Again the results were disappointing when compared with the power of the instrument employed. On July 5th he reached Springs, near Johannesburg, with a considerable amount of stock, but with no great number of prisoners. The elusive Botha had slipped away to the south and was reported upon the Zululand border, while Viljoen had succeeded in crossing the Delagoa line and winning back to his old lair in the district north of Middelburg, from which he had been evicted in April. The commandos were like those pertinacious flies which buzz upwards when a hand approaches them, but only to settle again in the same place. One could but try to make the place less attractive than before.
Before Viljoen's force made its way over the line it had its revenge for the long harrying it had undergone by a well-managed night attack, in which it surprised and defeated a portion of Colonel Beatson's column at a place called Wilmansrust, due south of Middelburg, and between that town and Bethel. Beatson had divided his force, and this section consisted of 850 of the 5th Victorian Mounted Rifles, with thirty gunners and two pom-poms, the whole under the command of Major Morris. Viljoen's force trekking north towards the line came upon this detachment upon June 12th. The British were aware of the presence of the enemy, but do not appear to have posted any extra outposts or taken any special precautions. Long months of commando chasing had imbued them too much with the idea that these were fugitive sheep, and not fierce and wily wolves, whom they were endeavouring to catch. It is said that 700 yards separated the four pickets. With that fine eye for detail which the Boer leaders possess, they had started a veld fire upon the west of the camp and then attacked from the east, so that they were themselves invisible while their enemies were silhouetted against the light. Creeping up between the pickets, the Boers were not seen until they opened fire at point-blank range upon the sleeping men. The rifles were stacked—another noxious military tradition—and many of the troopers were shot down while they rushed for their weapons. Surprised out of their sleep and unable to distinguish their antagonists, the brave Australians did as well as any troops could have done who were placed in so impossible a position. Captain Watson, the officer in charge of the pom-poms, was shot down, and it proved to be impossible to bring the guns into action. Within five minutes the Victorians had lost twenty killed and forty wounded, when the survivors surrendered. It is pleasant to add that they were very well treated by the victors, but the high-spirited colonials felt their reverse most bitterly. 'It is the worst thing that ever happened to Australia!' says one in the letter in which he describes it. The actual number of Boers who rushed the camp was only 180, but 400 more had formed a cordon round it. To Viljoen and his lieutenant Muller great credit must be given for this well-managed affair, which gave them a fresh supply of stores and clothing at a time when they were hard pressed for both. These same Boer officers had led the attack upon Helvetia where the 4.7 gun was taken. The victors succeeded in getting away with all their trophies, and having temporarily taken one of the blockhouses on the railway near Brugspruit, they crossed the line in safety and returned, as already said, to their old quarters in the north, which had been harried but not denuded by the operations of General Blood.
It would take a volume to catalogue, and a library to entirely describe the movements and doings of the very large number of British columns which operated over the Transvaal and the Orange River Colony during this cold-weather campaign. If the same columns and the same leaders were consistently working in the same districts, some system of narrative might enable the reader to follow their fortunes, but they were, as a matter of fact, rapidly transferred from one side of the field of action to another in accordance with the concentrations of the enemy. The total number of columns amounted to at least sixty, which varied in number from two hundred to two thousand, and seldom hunted alone. Could their movements be marked in red upon a chart, the whole of that huge district would be criss-crossed, from Taungs to Komati and from Touws River to Pietersburg, with the track of our weary but indomitable soldiers.
Without attempting to enter into details which would be unbecoming to the modesty of a single volume, one may indicate what the other more important groupings were during the course of these months, and which were the columns that took part in them. Of French's drive in the south-east, and of Blood's incursion into the Roos-Senekal district some account has been given, and of his subsequent sweeping of the south. At the same period Babington, Dixon, and Rawlinson were co-operating in the Klerksdorp district, though the former officer transferred his services suddenly to Blood's combination, and afterwards to Elliot's column in the north of Orange River Colony. Williams and Fetherstonhaugh came later to strengthen this Klerksdorp district, in which, after the clearing of the Magaliesberg, De la Rey had united his forces to those of Smuts. This very important work of getting a firm hold upon the Magaliesberg was accomplished in July by Barton, Allenby, Kekewich, and Lord Basing, who penetrated into the wild country and established blockhouses and small forts in very much the same way as Cumberland and Wade in 1746 held down the Highlands. The British position was much strengthened by the firm grip obtained of this formidable stronghold of the enemy, which was dangerous not only on account of its extreme strength, but also of its proximity to the centres of population and of wealth.
De la Rey, as already stated, had gone down to the Klerksdorp district, whence, for a time at least, he seems to have passed over into the north of the Orange River Colony. The British pressure at Klerksdorp had become severe, and thither in May came the indefatigable Methuen, whom we last traced to Warrenton. From this point on May 1st he railed his troops to Mafeking, whence he trekked to Lichtenburg, and south as far as his old fighting ground of Haartebeestefontein, having one skirmish upon the way and capturing a Boer gun. Thence he returned to Mafeking, where he had to bid adieu to those veteran Yeomanry who had been his comrades on so many a weary march. It was not their fortune to be present at any of the larger battles of the war, but few bodies of troops have returned to England with a finer record of hard and useful service.
No sooner, however, had Methuen laid down one weapon than he snatched up another. Having refitted his men and collected some of the more efficient of the new Yeomanry, he was off once more for a three weeks' circular tour in the direction of Zeerust. It is difficult to believe that the oldest inhabitant could have known more of the western side of the Transvaal, for there was hardly a track which he had not traversed or a kopje from which he had not been sniped. Early in August he had made a fresh start from Mafeking, dividing his force into two columns, the command of the second being given to Von Donop. Having joined hands with Fetherstonhaugh, he moved through the south-west and finally halted at Klerksdorp. The harried Boers moved a hundred miles north to Rustenburg, followed by Methuen, Fetherstonhaugh, Hamilton, Kekewich, and Allenby, who found the commandos of De la Rey and Kemp to be scattering in front of them and hiding in the kloofs and dongas, whence in the early days of September no less than two hundred were extracted. On September 6th and 8th Methuen engaged the main body of De la Rey in the valley of the Great Marico River which lies to the north-west of Rustenburg. In these two actions he pushed the Boers in front of him with a loss of eighteen killed and forty-one prisoners, but the fighting was severe, and fifteen of his men were killed and thirty wounded before the position had been carried. The losses were almost entirely among the newly raised Yeomanry, who had already shown on several occasions that, having shed their weaker members and had some experience of the field, they were now worthy to take their place beside their veteran comrades.
The only other important operation undertaken by the British columns in the Transvaal during this period was in the north, where Beyers and his men were still harried by Grenfell, Colenbrander, and Wilson. A considerable proportion of the prisoners which figured in the weekly lists came from this quarter. On May 30th there was a notable action, the truth of which was much debated but finally established, in which Kitchener's Scouts under Wilson surprised and defeated a Boer force under Pretorius, killing and wounding several, and taking forty prisoners. On July 1st Grenfell took nearly a hundred of Beyers' men with a considerable convoy. North, south, east, and west the tale was ever the same, but so long as Botha, De la Rey, Steyn, and De Wet remained uncaptured, the embers might still at any instant leap into a flame.
It only remains to complete this synopsis of the movements of columns within the Transvaal that I should add that after the conclusion of Blood's movement in July, several of his columns continued to clear the country and to harass Viljoen in the Lydenburg and Dulstroom districts. Park, Kitchener, Spens, Beatson, and Benson were all busy at this work, never succeeding in forcing more than a skirmish, but continually whittling away wagons, horses, and men from that nucleus of resistance which the Boer leaders still held together.
Though much hampered by the want of forage for their horses, the Boers were ever watchful for an opportunity to strike back, and the long list of minor successes gained by the British was occasionally interrupted by a petty reverse. Such a one befell the small body of South African Constabulary stationed near Vereeniging, who encountered upon July 13th a strong force of Boers supposed to be the main commando of De Wet. The Constabulary behaved with great gallantry but were hopelessly outnumbered, and lost their seven-pounder gun, four killed, six wounded, and twenty-four prisoners. Another small reverse occurred at a far distant point of the seat of war, for the irregular corps known as Steinacker's Horse was driven from its position at Bremersdorp in Swaziland upon July 24th, and had to fall back sixteen miles, with a loss of ten casualties and thirty prisoners. Thus in the heart of a native state the two great white races of South Africa were to be seen locked in a desperate conflict. However unavoidable, the sight was certainly one to be deplored.
To the Boer credit, or discredit, are also to be placed those repeated train wreckings, which cost the British during this campaign the lives and limbs of many brave soldiers who were worthy of some less ignoble fate. It is true that the laws of war sanction such enterprises, but there is something indiscriminate in the results which is repellent to humanity, and which appears to justify the most energetic measures to prevent them. Women, children, and sick must all travel by these trains and are exposed to a common danger, while the assailants enjoy a safety which renders their exploit a peculiarly inglorious one. Two Boers, Trichardt and Hindon, the one a youth of twenty-two, the other a man of British birth, distinguished, or disgraced, themselves by this unsavoury work upon the Delagoa line, but with the extension of the blockhouse system the attempts became less successful. There was one, however, upon the northern line near Naboomspruit which cost the lives of Lieutenant Best and eight Gordon Highlanders, while ten were wounded. The party of Gordons continued to resist after the smash, and were killed or wounded to a man. The painful incident is brightened by such an example of military virtue, and by the naive reply of the last survivor, who on being questioned why he continued to fight until he was shot down, answered with fine simplicity, 'Because I am a Gordon Highlander.'
Another train disaster of an even more tragic character occurred near Waterval, fifteen miles north of Pretoria, upon the last day of August. The explosion of a mine wrecked the train, and a hundred Boers who lined the banks of the cutting opened fire upon the derailed carriages. Colonel Vandeleur, an officer of great promise, was killed and twenty men, chiefly of the West Riding regiment, were shot. Nurse Page was also among the wounded. It was after this fatal affair that the regulation of carrying Boer hostages upon the trains was at last carried out.
It has been already stated that part of Lord Kitchener's policy of concentration lay in his scheme for gathering the civil population into camps along the lines of communication. The reasons for this, both military and humanitarian, were overwhelming. Experience had proved that the men if left at liberty were liable to be persuaded or coerced by the fighting Boers into breaking their parole and rejoining the commandos. As to the women and children, they could not be left upon the farms in a denuded country. That the Boers in the field had no doubts as to the good treatment of these people was shown by the fact that they repeatedly left their families in the way of the columns so that they might be conveyed to the camps. Some consternation was caused in England by a report of Miss Hobhouse, which called public attention to the very high rate of mortality in some of these camps, but examination showed that this was not due to anything insanitary in their situation or arrangement, but to a severe epidemic of measles which had swept away a large number of the children. A fund was started in London to give additional comforts to these people, though there is reason to believe that their general condition was superior to that of the Uitlander refugees, who still waited permission to return to their homes. By the end of July there were no fewer than sixty thousand inmates of the camps in the Transvaal alone, and half as many in the Orange River Colony. So great was the difficulty in providing the supplies for so large a number that it became more and more evident that some at least of the camps must be moved down to the sea coast.
Passing to the Orange River Colony we find that during this winter period the same British tactics had been met by the same constant evasions on the part of the dwindling commandos. The Colony had been divided into four military districts: that of Bloemfontein, which was given to Charles Knox, that of Lyttelton at Springfontein, that of Rundle at Harrismith, and that of Elliot in the north. The latter was infinitely the most important, and Elliot, the warden of the northern marches, had under him during the greater part of the winter a mobile force of about 6000 men, commanded by such experienced officers as Broadwood, De Lisle, and Bethune. Later in the year Spens, Bullock, Plumer, and Rimington were all sent into the Orange River Colony to help to stamp out the resistance. Numerous skirmishes and snipings were reported from all parts of the country, but a constant stream of prisoners and of surrenders assured the soldiers that, in spite of the difficulty of the country and the obstinacy of the enemy, the term of their labours was rapidly approaching.
In all the petty and yet necessary operations of these columns, two incidents demand more than a mere mention. The first was a hard-fought skirmish in which some of Elliot's horsemen were engaged upon June 6th. His column had trekked during the month of May from Kroonstad to Harrismith, and then turning north found itself upon that date near the hamlet of Reitz. Major Sladen with 200 Mounted Infantry, when detached from the main body, came upon the track of a Boer convoy and ran it down. Over a hundred vehicles with forty-five prisoners were the fruits of their enterprise. Well satisfied with his morning's work, the British leader despatched a party of his men to convey the news to De Lisle, who was behind, while he established himself with his loot and his prisoners in a convenient kraal. Thence they had an excellent view of a large body of horsemen approaching them with scouts, flankers, and all military precautions. One warm-hearted officer seems actually to have sallied out to meet his comrades, and it was not till his greeting of them took the extreme form of handing over his rifle that the suspicion of danger entered the heads of his companions. But if there was some lack of wit there was none of heart in Sladen and his men. With forty-five Boers to hold down, and 500 under Fourie, De Wet, and De la Rey around them, the little band made rapid preparation for a desperate resistance: the prisoners were laid upon their faces, the men knocked loopholes in the mud walls of the kraal, and a blunt soldierly answer was returned to the demand for surrender.
But it was a desperate business. The attackers were five to one, and the five were soldiers of De Wet, the hard-bitten veterans of a hundred encounters. The captured wagons in a long double row stretched out over the plain, and under this cover the Dutchmen swarmed up to the kraal. But the men who faced them were veterans also, and the defence made up for the disparity of numbers. With fine courage the Boers made their way up to the village, and established themselves in the outlying huts, but the Mounted Infantry clung desperately to their position. Out of the few officers present Findlay was shot through the head, Moir and Cameron through the heart, and Strong through the stomach. It was a Waggon Hill upon a small scale, two dour lines of skirmishers emptying their rifles into each other at point-blank range. Once more, as at Bothaville, the British Mounted Infantry proved that when it came to a dogged pelting match they could stand punishment longer than their enemy. They suffered terribly. Fifty-one out of the little force were on the ground, and the survivors were not much more numerous than their prisoners. To the 1st Gordons, the 2nd Bedfords, the South Australians, and the New South Welsh men belongs the honour of this magnificent defence. For four hours the fierce battle raged, until at last the parched and powder-stained survivors breathed a prayer of thanks as they saw on the southern horizon the vanguard of De Lisle riding furiously to the rescue. For the last hour, since they had despaired of carrying the kraal, the Boers had busied themselves in removing their convoy; but now, for the second time in one day, the drivers found British rifles pointed at their heads, and the oxen were turned once more and brought back to those who had fought so hard to hold them. Twenty-eight killed and twenty-six wounded were the losses in this desperate affair. Of the Boers seventeen were left dead in front of the kraal, and the forty-five had not escaped from the bulldog grip which held them. There seems for some reason to have been no effective pursuit of the Boers, and the British column held on its way to Kroonstad.
The second incident which stands out amid the dreary chronicle of hustlings and snipings is the surprise visit paid by Broadwood with a small British column to the town of Reitz upon July 11th, which resulted in the capture of nearly every member of the late government of the Free State, save only the one man whom they particularly wanted. The column consisted of 200 yeomen, 200 of the 7th Dragoon Guards, and two guns. Starting at 11 P.M., the raiders rode hard all night and broke with the dawn upon the sleeping village. Racing into the main street, they secured the startled Boers as they rushed from the houses. It is easy to criticise such an operation from a distance, and to overlook the practical difficulties in the way, but on the face of it it seems a pity that the holes had not been stopped before the ferret was sent in. A picket at the farther end of the street would have barred Steyn's escape. As it was, he flung himself upon his horse and galloped half-clad out of the town. Sergeant Cobb of the Dragoons snapped a rifle at close quarters upon him, but the cold of the night had frozen the oil on the striker and the cartridge hung fire. On such trifles do the large events of history turn! Two Boer generals, two commandants, Steyn's brother, his secretary, and several other officials were among the nine-and-twenty prisoners. The treasury was also captured, but it is feared that the Yeomen and Dragoons will not be much the richer from their share of the contents.
Save these two incidents, the fight at Reitz and the capture of a portion of Steyn's government at the same place, the winter's campaign furnished little which was of importance, though a great deal of very hard and very useful work was done by the various columns under the direction of the governors of the four military districts. In the south General Bruce Hamilton made two sweeps, one from the railway line to the western frontier, and the second from the south and east in the direction of Petrusburg. The result of the two operations was about 300 prisoners. At the same time Monro and Hickman re-cleared the already twice-cleared districts of Rouxville and Smithfield. The country in the east of the Colony was verging now upon the state which Grant described in the Shenandoah Valley: 'A crow,' said he, 'must carry his own rations when he flies across it.'
In the middle district General Charles Knox, with the columns of Pine-Coffin, Thorneycroft, Pilcher, and Henry, were engaged in the same sort of work with the same sort of results.
The most vigorous operations fell to the lot of General Elliot, who worked over the northern and north-eastern district, which still contained a large number of fighting burghers. In May and June Elliot moved across to Vrede and afterwards down the eastern frontier of the Colony, joining hands at last with Rundle at Harrismith. He then worked his way back to Kroonstad through Reitz and Lindley. It was on this journey that Sladen's Mounted Infantry had the sharp experience which has been already narrated. Western's column, working independently, co-operated with Elliot in this clearing of the north-east. In August there were very large captures by Broadwood's force, which had attained considerable mobility, ninety miles being covered by it on one occasion in two days.
Of General Rundle there is little to be said, as he was kept busy in exploring the rough country in his own district—the same district which had been the scene of the operations against Prinsloo and the Fouriesburg surrender. Into this district Kritzinger and his men trekked after they were driven from the Colony in July, and many small skirmishes and snipings among the mountains showed that the Boer resistance was still alive.
July and August were occupied in the Orange River Colony by energetic operations of Spens' and Rimington's columns in the midland districts, and by a considerable drive to the north-eastern corner, which was shared by three columns under Elliot and two under Plumer, with one under Henry and several smaller bodies. A considerable number of prisoners and a large amount of stock were the result of the movement, but it was very evident that there was a waste of energy in the employment of such forces for such an end. The time appeared to be approaching when a strong force of military police stationed permanently in each district might prove a more efficient instrument. One interesting development of this phase of the war was the enrolment of a burgher police among the Boers who had surrendered. These men—well paid, well mounted, and well armed—were an efficient addition to the British forces. The movement spread until before the end of the war there were several thousand burghers under such well-known officers as Celliers, Villonel, and young Cronje, fighting against their own guerilla countrymen. Who, in 1899, could have prophesied such a phenomenon as that!
Lord Kitchener's proclamation issued upon August 9th marked one more turn in the screw upon the part of the British authorities. By it the burghers were warned that those who had not laid down their arms by September 15th would in the case of the leaders be banished, and in the case of the burghers be compelled to support their families in the refugee camps. As many of the fighting burghers were men of no substance, the latter threat did not affect them much, but the other, though it had little result at the time, may be useful for the exclusion of firebrands during the period of reconstruction. Some increase was noticeable in the number of surrenders after the proclamation, but on the whole it had not the result which was expected, and its expediency is very open to question. This date may be said to mark the conclusion of the winter campaign and the opening of a new phase in the struggle.
CHAPTER 35. THE GUERILLA OPERATIONS IN CAPE COLONY.
In the account which has been given in a preceding chapter of the invasion of Cape Colony by the Boer forces, it was shown that the Western bands were almost entirely expelled, or at least that they withdrew, at the time when De Wet was driven across the Orange River. This was at the beginning of March 1901. It was also mentioned that though the Boers evacuated the barren and unprofitable desert of the Karoo, the Eastern bands which had come with Kritzinger did not follow the same course, but continued to infest the mountainous districts of the Central Colony, whence they struck again and again at the railway lines, the small towns, British patrols, or any other quarry which was within their reach and strength. From the surrounding country they gathered a fair number of recruits, and they were able through the sympathy and help of the Dutch farmers to keep themselves well mounted and supplied. In small wandering bands they spread themselves over a vast extent of country, and there were few isolated farmhouses from the Orange River to the Oudtshoorn Mountains, and from the Cape Town railroad in the west to the Fish River in the east, which were not visited by their active and enterprising scouts. The object of the whole movement was, no doubt, to stimulate a general revolt in the Colony; and it must be acknowledged that if the powder did not all explode it was not for want of the match being thoroughly applied.
It might at first sight seem the simplest of military operations to hunt down these scattered and insignificant bands; but as a matter of fact nothing could be more difficult. Operating in a country which was both vast and difficult, with excellent horses, the best of information and supplies ready for them everywhere, it was impossible for the slow-moving British columns with their guns and their wagons to overtake them. Formidable even in flight, the Boers were always ready to turn upon any force which exposed itself too rashly to retaliation, and so amid the mountain passes the British chiefs had to use an amount of caution which was incompatible with extreme speed. Only when a commando was exactly localised so that two or three converging British forces could be brought to bear upon it, was there a reasonable chance of forcing a fight. Still, with all these heavy odds against them, the various little columns continued month after month to play hide-and-seek with the commandos, and the game was by no means always on the one side. The varied fortunes of this scrambling campaign can only be briefly indicated in these pages.
It has already been shown that Kritzinger's original force broke into many bands, which were recruited partly from the Cape rebels and partly from fresh bodies which passed over from the Orange River Colony. The more severe the pressure in the north, the greater reason was there for a trek to this land of plenty. The total number of Boers who were wandering over the eastern and midland districts may have been about two thousand, who were divided into bands which varied from fifty to three hundred. The chief leaders of separate commandos were Kritzinger, Scheepers, Malan, Myburgh, Fouche, Lotter, Smuts, Van Reenen, Lategan, Maritz, and Conroy, the two latter operating on the western side of the country. To hunt down these numerous and active bodies the British were compelled to put many similar detachments into the field, known as the columns of Gorringe, Crabbe, Henniker, Scobell, Doran, Kavanagh, Alexander, and others. These two sets of miniature armies performed an intricate devil's dance over the Colony, the main lines of which are indicated by the red lines upon the map. The Zuurberg mountains to the north of Steynsburg, the Sneeuwberg range to the south of Middelburg, the Oudtshoorn Mountains in the south, the Cradock district, the Murraysburg district, and the Graaf-Reinet district—these were the chief centres of Boer activity.
In April Kritzinger made his way north to the Orange River Colony, for the purpose of consulting with De Wet, but he returned with a following of 200 men about the end of May. Continual brushes occurred during this month between the various columns, and much hard marching was done upon either side, but there was nothing which could be claimed as a positive success.
Early in May two passengers sailed for Europe, the journey of each being in its way historical. The first was the weary and overworked Pro-Consul who had the foresight to distinguish the danger and the courage to meet it. Milner's worn face and prematurely grizzled hair told of the crushing weight which had rested upon him during three eventful years. A gentle scholar, he might have seemed more fitted for a life of academic calm than for the stormy part which the discernment of Mr. Chamberlain had assigned to him. The fine flower of an English university, low-voiced and urbane, it was difficult to imagine what impression he would produce upon those rugged types of which South Africa is so peculiarly prolific. But behind the reserve of a gentleman there lay within him a lofty sense of duty, a singular clearness of vision, and a moral courage which would brace him to follow whither his reason pointed. His visit to England for three months' rest was the occasion for a striking manifestation of loyalty and regard from his fellow-countrymen. He returned in August as Lord Milner to the scene of his labours, with the construction of a united and loyal commonwealth of South Africa as the task of his life.
The second traveller who sailed within a few days of the Governor was Mrs. Botha, the wife of the Boer General, who visited Europe for private as well as political reasons. She bore to Kruger an exact account of the state of the country and of the desperate condition of the burghers. Her mission had no immediate or visible effect, and the weary war, exhausting for the British but fatal for the Boers, went steadily on.
To continue the survey of the operations in the Cape, the first point scored was by the invaders, for Malan's commando succeeded upon May 13th in overwhelming a strong patrol of the Midland Mounted Rifles, the local colonial corps, to the south of Maraisburg. Six killed, eleven wounded, and forty-one prisoners were the fruits of his little victory, which furnished him also with a fresh supply of rifles and ammunition. On May 21st Crabbe's column was in touch with Lotter and with Lategan, but no very positive result came from the skirmish.
The end of May showed considerable Boer activity in the Cape Colony, that date corresponding with the return of Kritzinger from the north. Haig had for the moment driven Scheepers back from the extreme southerly point which he had reached, and he was now in the Graaf-Reinet district; but on the other side of the colony Conroy had appeared near Kenhart, and upon May 23rd he fought a sharp skirmish with a party of Border Scouts. The main Boer force under Kritzinger was in the midlands, however, and had concentrated to such an extent in the Cradock district that it was clear that some larger enterprise was on foot. This soon took shape, for on June 2nd, after a long and rapid march, the Boer leader threw himself upon Jamestown, overwhelmed the sixty townsmen who formed the guard, and looted the town, from which he drew some welcome supplies and 100 horses. British columns were full cry upon his heels, however, and the Boers after a few hours left the gutted town and vanished into the hills once more. On June 6th the British had a little luck at last, for on that date Scobell and Lukin in the Barkly East district surprised a laager and took twenty prisoners, 166 horses, and much of the Jamestown loot. On the same day Windham treated Van Reenen in a similar rough fashion near Steynsburg, and took twenty-two prisoners.
On June 8th the supreme command of the operations in Cape Colony was undertaken by General French, who from this time forward manoeuvred his numerous columns upon a connected plan with the main idea of pushing the enemy northwards. It was some time, however, before his disposition bore fruit, for the commandos were still better mounted and lighter than their pursuers. On June 13th the youthful and dashing Scheepers, who commanded his own little force at an age when he would have been a junior lieutenant of the British army, raided Murraysburg and captured a patrol. On June 17th Monro with Lovat's Scouts and Bethune's Mounted Infantry had some slight success near Tarkastad, but three days later the ill-fated Midland Mounted Rifles were surprised in the early morning by Kritzinger at Waterkloof, which is thirty miles west of Cradock, and were badly mauled by him. They lost ten killed, eleven wounded, and sixty-six prisoners in this unfortunate affair. Again the myth that colonial alertness is greater than that of regular troops seems to have been exposed.