The Great Boer War/Chapter 36
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Chapter 36 The Spring Campaign (September to December, 1901)
Chapter 36: The Spring Campaign (September to December, 1901).
The history of the war during the African winter of 1901 has now been sketched, and some account given of the course of events in the Transvaal, the Orange River Colony, and the Cape Colony. The hope of the British that they might stamp out resistance before the grass should restore mobility to the larger bodies of Boers was destined to be disappointed. By the middle of September the veld had turned from drab to green, and the great drama was fated to last for one more act, however anxious all the British and the majority of the Boers might be to ring down the curtain. Exasperating as this senseless prolongation of a hopeless struggle might be, there was still some consolation in the reflection that those who drank this bitter cup to the very lees would be less likely to thirst for it again.
September 15th was the date which brought into force the British Proclamation announcing the banishment of those Boer leaders who continued in arms. It must be confessed that this step may appear harsh and unchivalrous to the impartial observer, so long as those leaders were guilty of no practices which are foreign to the laws of civilised warfare. The imposition of personal penalties upon the officers of an opposing army is a step for which it is difficult to quote a precedent, nor is it wise to officially rule your enemy outside the pale of ordinary warfare, since it is equally open to him to take the same step against you. The only justification for such a course would be its complete success, as this would suggest that the Intelligence Department were aware that the leaders desired some strong excuse for coming in--such an excuse as the Proclamation would afford. The result proved that nothing of the kind was needed, and the whole proceeding must appear to be injudicious and high-handed. In honourable war you conquer your adversary by superior courage, strength, or wit, but you do not terrorise him by particular penalties aimed at individuals. The burghers of the Transvaal and of the late Orange Free State were legitimate belligerents, and to be treated as such--a statement which does not, of course, extend to the Afrikander rebels who were their allies.
The tendency of the British had been to treat their antagonists as a broken and disorganised banditti, but with the breaking of the spring they were sharply reminded that the burghers were still capable of a formidable and coherent effort. The very date which put them beyond the pale as belligerents was that which they seem to have chosen in order to prove what active and valiant soldiers they still remained. A quick succession of encounters occurred at various parts of the seat of war, the general tendency of which was not entirely in favour of the British arms, though the weekly export of prisoners reassured all who noted it as to the sapping and decay of the Boer strength. These incidents must now be set down in the order of their occurrence, with their relation to each other so far as it is possible to trace it.
General Louis Botha, with the double intention of making an offensive move and of distracting the wavering burghers from a close examination of Lord Kitchener's proclamation, assembled his forces in the second week of September in the Ermelo district. Thence he moved them rapidly towards Natal, with the result that the volunteers of that colony had once more to grasp their rifles and hasten to the frontier. The whole situation bore for an instant an absurd resemblance to that of two years before--Botha playing the part of Joubert, and Lyttelton, who commanded on the frontier, that of White. It only remained, to make the parallel complete, that some one should represent Penn Symons, and this perilous role fell to a gallant officer, Major Gough, commanding a detached force which thought itself strong enough to hold its own, and only learned by actual experiment that it was not.
This officer, with a small force consisting of three companies of Mounted Infantry with two guns of the 69th R.F.A., was operating in the neighbourhood of Utrecht in the south-eastern corner of the Transvaal, on the very path along which Botha must descend. On September 17th he had crossed De Jagers Drift on the Blood River, not very far from Dundee, when he found himself in touch with the enemy. His mission was to open a path for an empty convoy returning from Vryheid, and in order to do so it was necessary that Blood River Poort, where the Boers were now seen, should be cleared. With admirable zeal Gough pushed rapidly forward, supported by a force of 350 Johannesburg Mounted Rifles under Stewart. Such a proceeding must have seemed natural to any British officer at this stage of the war, when a swift advance was the only chance of closing with the small bodies of Boers; but it is strange that the Intelligence Department had not warned the patrols upon the frontier that a considerable force was coming down upon them, and that they should be careful to avoid action against impossible odds. If Gough had known that Botha's main commando was coming down upon him, it is inconceivable that he would have pushed his advance until he could neither extricate his men nor his guns. A small body of the enemy, said to have been the personal escort of Louis Botha, led him on, until a large force was able to ride down upon him from the flank and rear. Surrounded at Scheepers Nek by many hundreds of riflemen in a difficult country, there was no alternative but a surrender, and so sharp and sudden was the Boer advance that the whole action was over in a very short time. The new tactics of the Boers, already used at Vlakfontein, and afterwards to be successful at Brakenlaagte and at Tweebosch, were put in force. A large body of mounted men, galloping swiftly in open order and firing from the saddle, rode into and over the British. Such temerity should in theory have met with severe punishment, but as a matter of fact the losses of the enemy seem to have been very small. The soldiers were not able to return an effective fire from their horses, and had no time to dismount. The sights and breech-blocks of the two guns are said to have been destroyed, but the former statement seems more credible than the latter. A Colt gun was also captured. Of the small force twenty were killed, forty wounded, and over two hundred taken. Stewart's force was able to extricate itself with some difficulty, and to fall back on the Drift. Gough managed to escape that night and to report that it was Botha himself, with over a thousand men, who had eaten up his detachment. The prisoners and wounded were sent in a few days later to Vryheid, a town which appeared to be in some danger of capture had not Walter Kitchener hastened to carry reinforcements to the garrison. Bruce Hamilton was at the same time despatched to head Botha off, and every step taken to prevent his southern advance. So many columns from all parts converged upon the danger spot that Lyttelton, who commanded upon the Natal frontier, had over 20,000 men under his orders.
Botha's plans appear to have been to work through Zululand and then strike at Natal, an operation which would be the more easy as it would be conducted a considerable distance from the railway line. Pushing on a few days after his successful action with Gough, he crossed the Zulu frontier, and had in front of him an almost unimpeded march as far as the Tugela. Crossing this far from the British base of power, his force could raid the Greytown district and raise recruits among the Dutch farmers, laying waste one of the few spots in South Africa which had been untouched by the blight of war. All this lay before him, and in his path nothing save only two small British posts which might be either disregarded or gathered up as he passed. In an evil moment for himself, tempted by the thought of the supplies which they might contain, he stopped to gather them up, and the force of the wave of invasion broke itself as upon two granite rocks.
These two so-called forts were posts of very modest strength, a chain of which had been erected at the time of the old Zulu war. Fort Itala, the larger, was garrisoned by 300 men of the 5th Mounted Infantry, drawn from the Dublin Fusiliers, Middlesex, Dorsets, South Lancashires, and Lancashire Fusiliers--most of them old soldiers of many battles. They had two guns of the 69th R.F.A., the same battery which had lost a section the week before. Major Chapman, of the Dublins, was in command.
Upon September 25th the small garrison heard that the main force of the Boers was sweeping towards them, and prepared to give them a soldiers' welcome. The fort is situated upon the flank of a hill, on the summit of which, a mile from the main trenches, a strong outpost was stationed. It was upon this that the first force of the attack broke at midnight of September 25th. The garrison, eighty strong, was fiercely beset by several hundred Boers, and the post was eventually carried after a sharp and bloody contest. Kane, of the South Lancashires, died with the words 'No surrender' upon his lips, and Potgieter, a Boer leader, was pistolled by Kane's fellow officer, Lefroy. Twenty of the small garrison fell, and the remainder were overpowered and taken.
With this vantage-ground in their possession the Boers settled down to the task of overwhelming the main position. They attacked upon three sides, and until morning the force was raked from end to end by unseen riflemen. The two British guns were put out of action and the maxim was made unserviceable by a bullet. At dawn there was a pause in the attack, but it recommenced and continued without intermission until sunset. The span betwixt the rising of the sun and its last red glow in the west is a long one for the man who spends it at his ease, but how never-ending must have seemed the hours to this handful of men, outnumbered, surrounded, pelted by bullets, parched with thirst, torn with anxiety, holding desperately on with dwindling numbers to their frail defences! To them it may have seemed a hard thing to endure so much for a tiny fort in a savage land. The larger view of its vital importance could have scarcely come to console the regimental officer, far less the private. But duty carried them through, and they wrought better than they knew, for the brave Dutchmen, exasperated by so disproportionate a resistance, stormed up to the very trenches and suffered as they had not suffered for many a long month. There have been battles with 10,000 British troops hotly engaged in which the Boer losses have not been so great as in this obscure conflict against an isolated post. When at last, baffled and disheartened, they drew off with the waning light, it is said that no fewer than a hundred of their dead and two hundred of their wounded attested the severity of the fight. So strange are the conditions of South African warfare that this loss, which would have hardly made a skirmish memorable in the slogging days of the Peninsula, was one of the most severe blows which the burghers had sustained in the course of a two years' warfare against a large and aggressive army. There is a conflict of evidence as to the exact figures, but at least they were sufficient to beat the Boer army back and to change their plan of campaign.
Whilst this prolonged contest had raged round Fort Itala, a similar attack upon a smaller scale was being made upon Fort Prospect, some fifteen miles to the eastward. This small post was held by a handful of Durham Artillery Militia and of Dorsets. The attack was delivered by Grobler with several hundred burghers, but it made no advance although it was pushed with great vigour, and repeated many times in the course of the day. Captain Rowley, who was in command, handled his men with such judgment that one killed and eight wounded represented his casualties during a long day's fighting. Here again the Boer losses were in proportion to the resolution of their attack, and are said to have amounted to sixty killed and wounded. Considering the impossibility of replacing the men, and the fruitless waste of valuable ammunition, September 26th was an evil day for the Boer cause. The British casualties amounted to seventy-three.
The water of the garrison of Fort Itala had been cut off early in the attack, and their ammunition had run low by evening. Chapman withdrew his men and his guns therefore to Nkandhla, where the survivors of his gallant garrison received the special thanks of Lord Kitchener. The country around was still swarming with Boers, and on the last day of September a convoy from Melmoth fell into their hands and provided them with some badly needed supplies.
But the check which he had received was sufficient to prevent any important advance upon the part of Botha, while the swollen state of the rivers put an additional obstacle in his way. Already the British commanders, delighted to have at last discovered a definite objective, were hurrying to the scene of action. Bruce Hamilton had reached Fort Itala upon September 28th and Walter Kitchener had been despatched to Vryheid. Two British forces, aided by smaller columns, were endeavouring to surround the Boer leader. On October 6th Botha had fallen back to the north-east of Vryheid, whither the British forces had followed him. Like De Wet's invasion of the Cape, Botha's advance upon Natal had ended in placing himself and his army in a critical position. On October 9th he had succeeded in crossing the Privaan River, a branch of the Pongolo, and was pushing north in the direction of Piet Retief, much helped by misty weather and incessant rain. Some of his force escaped between the British columns, and some remained in the kloofs and forests of that difficult country.
Walter Kitchener, who had followed up the Boer retreat, had a brisk engagement with the rearguard upon October 6th. The Boers shook themselves clear with some loss, both to themselves and to their pursuers. On the 10th those of the burghers who held together had reached Luneburg, and shortly afterwards they had got completely away from the British columns. The weather was atrocious, and the lumbering wagons, axle-deep in mud, made it impossible for troops who were attached to them to keep in touch with the light riders who sped before them. For some weeks there was no word of the main Boer force, but at the end of that time they reappeared in a manner which showed that both in numbers and in spirit they were still a formidable body.
Of all the sixty odd British columns which were traversing the Boer states there was not one which had a better record than that commanded by Colonel Benson. During seven months of continuous service this small force, consisting at that time of the Argyle and Sutherland Highlanders, the 2nd Scottish Horse, the 18th and 19th Mounted Infantry, and two guns, had acted with great energy, and had reduced its work to a complete and highly effective system. Leaving the infantry as a camp guard, Benson operated with mounted troops alone, and no Boer laager within fifty miles was safe from his nocturnal visits. So skilful had he and his men become at these night attacks in a strange, and often difficult country, that out of twenty-eight attempts twenty-one resulted in complete success. In each case the rule was simply to gallop headlong into the Boer laager, and to go on chasing as far as the horses could go. The furious and reckless pace may be judged by the fact that the casualties of the force were far greater from falls than from bullets. In seven months forty-seven Boers were killed and six hundred captured, to say nothing of enormous quantities of munitions and stock. The success of these operations was due, not only to the energy of Benson and his men, but to the untiring exertions of Colonel Wools-Sampson, who acted as intelligence officer. If, during his long persecution by President Kruger, Wools-Sampson in the bitterness of his heart had vowed a feud against the Boer cause, it must be acknowledged that he has most amply fulfilled it, for it would be difficult to point to any single man who has from first to last done them greater harm.
In October Colonel Benson's force was reorganised, and it then consisted of the 2nd Buffs, the 2nd Scottish Horse, the 3rd and 25th Mounted Infantry, and four guns of the 84th battery. With this force, numbering nineteen hundred men, he left Middelburg upon the Delagoa line on October 20th and proceeded south, crossing the course along which the Boers, who were retiring from their abortive raid into Natal, might be expected to come. For several days the column performed its familiar work, and gathered up forty or fifty prisoners. On the 26th came news that the Boer commandos under Grobler were concentrating against it, and that an attack in force might be expected. For two days there was continuous sniping, and the column as it moved through the country saw Boer horsemen keeping pace with it on the far flanks and in the rear. The weather had been very bad, and it was in a deluge of cold driving rain that the British set forth upon October 30th, moving towards Brakenlaagte, which is a point about forty miles due south of Middelburg. It was Benson's intention to return to his base.
About midday the column, still escorted by large bodies of aggressive Boers, came to a difficult spruit swollen by the rain. Here the wagons stuck, and it took some hours to get them all across. The Boer fire was continually becoming more severe, and had broken out at the head of the column as well as the rear. The situation was rendered more difficult by the violence of the rain, which raised a thick steam from the ground and made it impossible to see for any distance. Major Anley, in command of the rearguard, peering back, saw through a rift of the clouds a large body of horsemen in extended order sweeping after them. 'There's miles of them, begob!' cried an excited Irish trooper. Next instant the curtain had closed once more, but all who had caught a glimpse of that vision knew that a stern struggle was at hand.
At this moment two guns of the 84th battery under Major Guinness were in action against Boer riflemen. As a rear screen on the farther side of the guns was a body of the Scottish Horse and of the Yorkshire Mounted Infantry. Near the guns themselves were thirty men of the Buffs. The rest of the Buffs and of the Mounted Infantry were out upon the flanks or else were with the advance guard, which was now engaged, under the direction of Colonel Wools-Sampson, in parking the convoy and in forming the camp. These troops played a small part in the day's fighting, the whole force of which broke with irresistible violence upon the few hundred men who were in front of or around the rear guns. Colonel Benson seems to have just ridden back to the danger point when the Boers delivered their furious attack.
Louis Botha with his commando is said to have ridden sixty miles in order to join the forces of Grobler and Oppermann, and overwhelm the British column. It may have been the presence of their commander or a desire to have vengeance for the harrying which they had undergone upon the Natal border, but whatever the reason, the Boer attack was made with a spirit and dash which earned the enthusiastic applause of every soldier who survived to describe it. With the low roar of a great torrent, several hundred horsemen burst through the curtain of mist, riding at a furious pace for the British guns. The rear screen of Mounted Infantry fell back before this terrific rush, and the two bodies of horsemen came pell-mell down upon the handful of Buffs and the guns. The infantry were ridden into and surrounded by the Boers, who found nothing to stop them from galloping on to the low ridge upon which the guns were stationed. This ridge was held by eighty of the Scottish Horse and forty of the Yorkshire M.I., with a few riflemen from the 25th Mounted Infantry. The latter were the escort of the guns, but the former were the rear screen who had fallen back rapidly because it was the game to do so, but who were in no way shaken, and who instantly dismounted and formed when they reached a defensive position.
These men had hardly time to take up their ground when the Boers were on them. With that extraordinary quickness to adapt their tactics to circumstances which is the chief military virtue of the Boers, the horsemen did not gallop over the crest, but lined the edge of it, and poured a withering fire on to the guns and the men beside them. The heroic nature of the defence can be best shown by the plain figures of the casualties. No rhetoric is needed to adorn that simple record. There were thirty-two gunners round the guns, and twenty-nine fell where they stood. Major Guinness was mortally wounded while endeavouring with his own hands to fire a round of case. There were sixty-two casualties out of eighty among the Scottish Horse, and the Yorkshires were practically annihilated. Altogether 123 men fell, out of about 160 on the ridge. 'Hard pounding, gentlemen,' as Wellington remarked at Waterloo, and British troops seemed as ready as ever to endure it.
The gunners were, as usual, magnificent. Of the two little bullet-pelted groups of men around the guns there was not one who did not stand to his duty without flinching. Corporal Atkin was shot down with all his comrades, but still endeavoured with his failing strength to twist the breech-block out of the gun. Another bullet passed through his upraised hands as he did it. Sergeant Hayes, badly wounded, and the last survivor of the crew, seized the lanyard, crawled up the trail, and fired a last round before he fainted. Sergeant Mathews, with three bullets through him, kept steadily to his duty. Five drivers tried to bring up a limber and remove the gun, but all of them, with all the horses, were hit. There have been incidents in this war which have not increased our military reputation, but you might search the classical records of valour and fail to find anything finer than the consistent conduct of the British artillery.
Colonel Benson was hit in the knee and again in the stomach, but wounded as he was he despatched a message back to Wools-Sampson, asking him to burst shrapnel over the ridge so as to prevent the Boers from carrying off the guns. The burghers had ridden in among the litter of dead and wounded men which marked the British position, and some of the baser of them, much against the will of their commanders, handled the injured soldiers with great brutality. The shell-fire drove them back, however, and the two guns were left standing alone, with no one near them save their prostrate gunners and escort.
There has been some misunderstanding as to the part played by the Buffs in this action, and words have been used which seem to imply that they had in some way failed their mounted companions. It is due to the honour of one of the finest regiments in the British army to clear this up. As a matter of fact, the greater part of the regiment under Major Dauglish was engaged in defending the camp. Near the guns there were four separate small bodies of Buffs, none of which appears to have been detailed as an escort. One of these parties, consisting of thirty men under Lieutenant Greatwood, was ridden over by the horsemen, and the same fate befell a party of twenty who were far out upon the flank. Another small body under Lieutenant Lynch was over taken by the same charge, and was practically destroyed, losing nineteen killed and wounded out of thirty. In the rear of the guns was a larger body of Buffs, 130 in number, under Major Eales. When the guns were taken this handful attempted a counter-attack, but Eales soon saw that it was a hopeless effort, and he lost thirty of his men before he could extricate himself. Had these men been with the others on the gun ridge they might have restored the fight, but they had not reached it when the position was taken, and to persevere in the attempt to retake it would have led to certain disaster. The only just criticism to which the regiment is open is that, having just come off blockhouse duty, they were much out of condition, which caused the men to straggle and the movements to be unduly slow.
It was fortunate that the command of the column devolved upon so experienced and cool-headed a soldier as Wools-Sampson. To attempt a counter-attack for the purpose of recapturing the guns would, in case of disaster, have risked the camp and the convoy. The latter was the prize which the Boers had particularly in view, and to expose it would be to play their game. Very wisely, therefore, Wools-Sampson held the attacking Boers off with his guns and his riflemen, while every spare pair of hands was set to work entrenching the position and making it impregnable against attack. Outposts were stationed upon all those surrounding points which might command the camp, and a summons to surrender from the Boer leader was treated with contempt. All day a long-range fire, occasionally very severe, rained upon the camp. Colonel Benson was brought in by the ambulance, and used his dying breath in exhorting his subordinate to hold out. 'No more night marches' are said to have been the last words spoken by this gallant soldier as he passed away in the early morning after the action. On October 31st the force remained on the defensive, but early on November 1st the gleaming of two heliographs, one to the north-east and one to the south-west, told that two British columns, those of De Lisle and of Barter, were hastening to the rescue. But the Boers had passed as the storm does, and nothing but their swathe of destruction was left to show where they had been. They had taken away the guns during the night, and were already beyond the reach of pursuit.
Such was the action at Brakenlaagte, which cost the British sixty men killed and 170 wounded, together with two guns. Colonel Benson, Colonel Guinness, Captain Eyre Lloyd of the Guards, Major Murray and Captain Lindsay of the Scottish Horse, with seven other officers were among the dead, while sixteen officers were wounded. The net result of the action was that the British rear-guard had been annihilated, but that the main body and the convoy, which was the chief object of the attack, was saved. The Boer loss was considerable, being about one hundred and fifty. In spite of the Boer success nothing could suit the British better than hard fighting of the sort, since whatever the immediate result of it might be, it must necessarily cause a wastage among the enemy which could never be replaced. The gallantry of the Boer charge was only equalled by that of the resistance offered round the guns, and it is an action to which both sides can look back without shame or regret. It was feared that the captured guns would soon be used to break the blockhouse line, but nothing of the kind was attempted, and within a few weeks they were both recovered by British columns.
In order to make a consecutive and intelligible narrative, I will continue with an account of the operations in this south-eastern portion of the Transvaal from the action of Brakenlaagte down to the end of the year 1901. These were placed in the early part of November, under the supreme command of General Bruce Hamilton, and that energetic commander set in motion a number of small columns, which effected numerous captures. He was much helped in his work by the new lines of blockhouses, one of which extended from Standerton to Ermelo, while another connected Brugspruit with Greylingstad. The huge country was thus cut into manageable districts, and the fruits were soon seen by the large returns of prisoners which came from this part of the seat of war.
Upon December 3rd Bruce Hamilton, who had the valuable assistance of Wools-Sampson to direct his intelligence, struck swiftly out from Ermelo and fell upon a Boer laager in the early morning, capturing ninety-six prisoners. On the 10th he overwhelmed the Bethel commando by a similar march, killing seven and capturing 131. Williams and Wing commanded separate columns in this operation, and their energy may be judged from the fact that they covered fifty-one miles during the twenty-four hours. On the 12th Hamilton's columns were on the war-path once more, and another commando was wiped out. Sixteen killed and seventy prisoners were the fruits of this expedition. For the second time in a week the columns had done their fifty miles a day, and it was no surprise to hear from their commander that they were in need of a rest. Nearly four hundred prisoners had been taken from the most warlike portion of the Transvaal in ten days by one energetic commander, with a list of twenty-five casualties to ourselves. The thanks of the Secretary of War were specially sent to him for his brilliant work. From then until the end of the year 1901, numbers of smaller captures continued to be reported from the same region, where Plumer, Spens, Mackenzie, Rawlinson, and others were working. On the other hand there was one small setback which occurred to a body of two hundred Mounted Infantry under Major Bridgford, who had been detached from Spens's column to search some farmhouses at a place called Holland, to the south of Ermelo. The expedition set forth upon the night of December 19th, and next morning surrounded and examined the farms.
The British force became divided in doing this work, and were suddenly attacked by several hundred of Britz's commando, who came to close quarters through their khaki dress, which enabled them to pass as Plumer's vanguard. The brunt of the fight fell upon an outlying body of fifty men, nearly all of whom were killed, wounded or taken. A second body of fifty men were overpowered in the same way, after a creditable defence. Fifteen of the British were killed and thirty wounded, while Bridgford the commander was also taken. Spens came up shortly afterwards with the column, and the Boers were driven off. There seems every reason to think that upon this occasion the plans of the British had leaked out, and that a deliberate ambush had been laid for them round the farms, but in such operations these are chances against which it is not always possible to guard. Considering the number of the Boers, and the cleverness of their dispositions, the British were fortunate in being able to extricate their force without greater loss, a feat which was largely due to the leading of Lieutenant Sterling.
Leaving the Eastern Transvaal, the narrative must now return to several incidents of importance which had occurred at various points of the seat of war during the latter months of 1901.
On September 19th, two days after Gough's disaster, a misfortune occurred near Bloemfontein by which two guns and a hundred and forty men fell temporarily into the hands of the enemy. These guns, belonging to U battery, were moving south under an escort of Mounted Infantry, from that very Sanna's Post which had been so fatal to the same battery eighteen months before. When fifteen miles south of the Waterworks, at a place called Vlakfontein (another Vlakfontein from that of General Dixon's engagement), the small force was surrounded and captured by Ackermann's commando. The gunner officer, Lieutenant Barry, died beside his guns in the way that gunner officers have. Guns and men were taken, however, the latter to be released, and the former to be recovered a week or two later by the British columns. It is certainly a credit to the Boers that the spring campaign should have opened by four British guns falling into their hands, and it is impossible to withhold our admiration for those gallant farmers who, after two years of exhausting warfare, were still able to turn upon a formidable and victorious enemy, and to renovate their supplies at his expense.
Two days later, hard on the heels of Gough's mishap, of the Vlakfontein incident, and of the annihilation of the squadron of Lancers in the Cape, there was a serious affair at Elands Kloof, near Zastron, in the extreme south of the Orange River Colony. In this a detachment of the Highland Scouts raised by the public spirit of Lord Lovat was surprised at night and very severely handled by Kritzinger's commando. The loss of Colonel Murray, their commander, of the adjutant of the same name, and of forty-two out of eighty of the Scouts, shows how fell was the attack, which broke as sudden and as strong as a South African thunderstorm upon the unconscious camp. The Boers appear to have eluded the outposts and crept right among the sleeping troops, as they did in the case of the Victorians at Wilmansrust. Twelve gunners were also hit, and the only field gun taken. The retiring Boers were swiftly followed up by Thorneycroft's column, however, and the gun was retaken, together with twenty of Kritzinger's men. It must be confessed that there seems some irony in the fact that, within five days of the British ruling by which the Boers were no longer a military force, these non-belligerents had inflicted a loss of nearly six hundred men killed, wounded, or taken. Two small commandos, that of Koch in the Orange River Colony, and that of Carolina, had been captured by Williams and Benson. Combined they only numbered a hundred and nine men, but here, as always, they were men who could never be replaced.
Those who had followed the war with care, and had speculated upon the future, were prepared on hearing of Botha's movement upon Natal to learn that De la Rey had also made some energetic attack in the western quarter of the Transvaal. Those who had formed this expectation were not disappointed, for upon the last day of September the Boer chief struck fiercely at Kekewich's column in a vigorous night attack, which led to as stern an encounter as any in the campaign. This was the action at Moedwill, near Magato Nek, in the Magaliesberg.
When last mentioned De la Rey was in the Marico district, near Zeerust, where he fought two actions with Methuen in the early part of September. Thence he made his way to Rustenburg and into the Magaliesberg country, where he joined Kemp. The Boer force was followed up by two British columns under Kekewich and Fetherstonhaugh. The former commander had camped upon the night of Sunday, September 30th, at the farm of Moedwill, in a strong position within a triangle formed by the Selous River on the west, a donga on the east, and the Zeerust-Rustenburg road as a base. The apex of the triangle pointed north, with a ridge on the farther side of the river.
The men with Kekewich were for the most part the same as those who had fought in the Vlakfontein engagement--the Derbys, the 1st Scottish Horse, the Yeomanry, and the 28th R.F.A. Every precaution appears to have been taken by the leader, and his pickets were thrown out so far that ample warning was assured of an attack. The Boer onslaught came so suddenly and fiercely, however, in the early morning, that the posts upon the river bank were driven in or destroyed and the riflemen from the ridge on the farther side were able to sweep the camp with their fire. In numbers the two forces were not unequal, but the Boers had already obtained the tactical advantage, and were playing a game in which they are the schoolmasters of the world. Never has the British spirit flamed up more fiercely, and from the commander to the latest yeoman recruit there was not a man who flinched from a difficult and almost a desperate task. The Boers must at all hazard be driven from the position which enabled them to command the camp. No retreat was possible without such an abandonment of stores as would amount to a disaster. In the confusion and the uncertain light of early dawn there was no chance of a concerted movement, though Kekewich made such dispositions as were possible with admirable coolness and promptness. Squadrons and companies closed in upon the river bank with the one thought of coming to close quarters and driving the enemy from their commanding position. Already more than half the horses and a very large number of officers and men had gone down before the pelting bullets. Scottish Horse, Yeomanry, and Derbys pushed on, the young soldiers of the two former corps keeping pace with the veteran regiment. 'All the men behaved simply splendidly,' said a spectator, 'taking what little cover there was and advancing yard by yard. An order was given to try and saddle up a squadron, with the idea of getting round their flank. I had the saddle almost on one of my ponies when he was hit in two places. Two men trying to saddle alongside of me were both shot dead, and Lieutenant Wortley was shot through the knee. I ran back to where I had been firing from and found the Colonel slightly hit, the Adjutant wounded and dying, and men dead and wounded all round.' But the counter-attack soon began to make way. At first the advance was slow, but soon it quickened into a magnificent rush, the wounded Kekewich whooping on his men, and the guns coming into action as the enemy began to fall back before the fierce charge of the British riflemen. At six o'clock De la Rey's burghers had seen that their attempt was hopeless, and were in full retreat--a retreat which could not be harassed by the victors, whose cavalry had been converted by that hail of bullets into footmen. The repulse had been absolute and complete, for not a man or a cartridge had been taken from the British, but the price paid in killed and wounded was a heavy one. No fewer than 161 had been hit, including the gallant leader, whose hurt did not prevent him from resuming his duties within a few days. The heaviest losses fell upon the Scottish Horse, and upon the Derbys; but the Yeomanry also proved on this, as on some other occasions, how ungenerous were the criticisms to which they had been exposed. There are few actions in the war which appear to have been more creditable to the troops engaged.
Though repulsed at Moedwill, De la Rey, the grim, long-bearded fighting man, was by no means discouraged. From the earliest days of the campaign, when he first faced Methuen upon the road to Kimberley, he had shown that he was a most dangerous antagonist, tenacious, ingenious, and indomitable. With him were a body of irreconcilable burghers, who were the veterans of many engagements, and in Kemp he had an excellent fighting subordinate. His command extended over a wide stretch of populous country, and at any time he could bring considerable reinforcements to his aid, who would separate again to their farms and hiding-places when their venture was accomplished. For some weeks after the fight at Moedwill the Boer forces remained quiet in that district. Two British columns had left Zeerust on October 17th, under Methuen and Von Donop, in order to sweep the surrounding country, the one working in the direction of Elands River and the other in that of Rustenburg. They returned to Zeerust twelve days later, after a successful foray, which had been attended with much sniping and skirmishing, but only one action which is worthy of record.
This was fought on October 24th at a spot near Kleinfontein, upon the Great Marico River, which runs to the north-east of Zeerust. Von Donop's column was straggling through very broken and bush-covered country when it was furiously charged in the flank and rear by two separate bodies of burghers. Kemp, who commanded the flank attack, cut into the line of wagons and destroyed eight of them, killing many of the Kaffir drivers, before he could be driven off. De la Rey and Steenkamp, who rushed the rear-guard, had a more desperate contest. The Boer horsemen got among the two guns of the 4th R.F.A., and held temporary possession of them, but the small escort were veterans of the 'Fighting Fifth,' who lived up to the traditions of their famous north-country regiment. Of the gun crews of the section, amounting to about twenty-six men, the young officer, Hill, and sixteen men were hit. Of the escort of Northumberland Fusiliers hardly a man was left standing, and forty-one of the supporting Yeomanry were killed and wounded. It was for some little time a fierce and concentrated struggle at the shortest of ranges. The British horsemen came galloping to the rescue, however, and the attack was finally driven back into that broken country from which it had come. Forty dead Boers upon the ground, with their brave chieftain, Ouisterhuisen, amongst them, showed how manfully the attack had been driven home. The British losses were twenty-eight killed and fifty-six wounded. Somewhat mauled, and with eight missing wagons, the small column made its way back to Zeerust.
From this incident until the end of the year nothing of importance occurred in this part of the seat of war, save for a sharp and well-managed action at Beestekraal upon October 29th, in which seventy-nine Boers were surrounded and captured by Kekewich's horsemen. The process of attrition went very steadily forwards, and each of the British columns returned its constant tale of prisoners. The blockhouse system had now been extended to such an extent that the Magaliesberg was securely held, and a line had been pushed through from Klerksdorp and Fredericstad to Ventersdorp. One of Colonel Hickie's Yeomanry patrols was roughly handled near Brakspruit upon November 13th, but with this exception the points scored were all upon one side. Methuen and Kekewich came across early in November from Zeerust to Klerksdorp, and operated from the railway line. The end of the year saw them both in the Wolmaranstad district, where they were gathering up prisoners and clearing the country.
Of the events in the other parts of the Transvaal, during the last three months of the year 1901, there is not much to be said. In all parts the lines of blockhouses and of constabulary posts were neutralising the Boer mobility, and bringing them more and more within reach of the British. The only fighting forces left in the Transvaal were those under Botha in the south-east and those under De la Rey in the west. The others attempted nothing save to escape from their pursuers, and when overtaken they usually gave in without serious opposition. Among the larger hauls may be mentioned that of Dawkins in the Nylstrom district (seventy-six prisoners), Kekewich (seventy-eight), Colenbrander in the north (fifty-seven), Dawkins and Colenbrander (104), Colenbrander (sixty-two); but the great majority of the captures were in smaller bodies, gleaned from the caves, the kloofs, and the farmhouses.
Only two small actions during these months appear to call for any separate notice. The first was an attack made by Buys' commando, upon November 20th, on the Railway Pioneers when at work near Villiersdorp, in the extreme north-east of the Orange River Colony. This corps, consisting mainly of miners from Johannesburg, had done invaluable service during the war. On this occasion a working party of them was suddenly attacked, and most of them taken prisoners. Major Fisher, who commanded the pioneers, was killed, and three other officers with several men were wounded. Colonel Rimington's column appeared upon the scene, however, and drove off the Boers, who left their leader, Buys, a wounded prisoner in our hands.
The second action was a sharp attack delivered by Muller's Boers upon Colonel Park's column on the night of December 19th, at Elandspruit. The fight was sharp while it lasted, but it ended in the repulse of the assailants. The British casualties were six killed and twenty-four wounded. The Boers, who left eight dead behind them, suffered probably to about the same extent.
Already the most striking and pleasing feature in the Transvaal was the tranquillity of its central provinces, and the way in which the population was settling down to its old avocations. Pretoria had resumed its normal quiet life, while its larger and more energetic neighbour was rapidly recovering from its two years of paralysis. Every week more stamps were dropped in the mines, and from month to month a steady increase in the output showed that the great staple industry of the place would soon be as vigorous as ever. Most pleasing of all was the restoration of safety upon the railway lines, which, save for some precautions at night, had resumed their normal traffic. When the observer took his eyes from the dark clouds which shadowed every horizon, he could not but rejoice at the ever-widening central stretch of peaceful blue which told that the storm was nearing its end.
Having now dealt with the campaign in the Transvaal down to the end of 1901, it only remains to bring the chronicle of the events in the Orange River Colony down to the same date. Reference has already been made to two small British reverses which occurred in September, the loss of two guns to the south of the Waterworks near Bloemfontein, and the surprise of the camp of Lord Lovat's Scouts. There were some indications at this time that a movement had been planned through the passes of the Drakensberg by a small Free State force which should aid Louis Botha's invasion of Natal. The main movement was checked, however, and the demonstration in aid of it came to nothing.
The blockhouse system had been developed to a very complete extent in the Orange River Colony, and the small bands of Boers found it increasingly difficult to escape from the British columns who were for ever at their heels. The southern portion of the country had been cut off from the northern by a line which extended through Bloemfontein on the east to the Basuto frontier, and on the west to Jacobsdal. To the south of this line the Boer resistance had practically ceased, although several columns moved continually through it, and gleaned up the broken fragments of the commandos. The north-west had also settled down to a large extent, and during the last three months of 1901 no action of importance occurred in that region. Even in the turbulent north-east, which had always been the centre of resistance, there was little opposition to the British columns, which continued every week to send in their tale of prisoners. Of the column commanders, Williams, Damant, Du Moulin, Lowry Cole, and Wilson were the most successful. In their operations they were much aided by the South African Constabulary. One young officer of this force, Major Pack-Beresford, especially distinguished himself by his gallantry and ability. His premature death from enteric was a grave loss to the British army. Save for one skirmish of Colonel Wilson's early in October, and another of Byng's on November 14th, there can hardly be said to have been any actual fighting until the events late in December which I am about to describe.
In the meanwhile the peaceful organisation of the country was being pushed forward as rapidly as in the Transvaal, although here the problems presented were of a different order, and the population an exclusively Dutch one. The schools already showed a higher attendance than in the days before the war, while a continual stream of burghers presented themselves to take the oath of allegiance, and even to join the ranks against their own irreconcilable countrymen, whom they looked upon with justice as the real authors of their troubles.
Towards the end of November there were signs that the word had gone forth for a fresh concentration of the fighting Boers in their old haunts in the Heilbron district, and early in December it was known that the indefatigable De Wet was again in the field. He had remained quiet so long that there had been persistent rumours of his injury and even of his death, but he was soon to show that he was as alive as ever. President Steyn was ill of a most serious complaint, caused possibly by the mental and physical sufferings which he had undergone; but with an indomitable resolution which makes one forget and forgive the fatuous policy which brought him and his State to such a pass, he still appeared in his Cape cart at the laager of the faithful remnant of his commandos. To those who remembered how widespread was our conviction of the half-heartedness of the Free Staters at the outbreak of the war, it was indeed a revelation to see them after two years still making a stand against the forces which had crushed them.
It had been long evident that the present British tactics of scouring the country and capturing the isolated burghers must in time bring the war to a conclusion. From the Boer point of view the only hope, or at least the only glory, lay in reassembling once more in larger bodies and trying conclusions with some of the British columns. It was with this purpose that De Wet early in December assembled Wessels, Manie Botha, and others of his lieutenants, together with a force of about two thousand men, in the Heilbron district. Small as this force was, it was admirably mobile, and every man in it was a veteran, toughened and seasoned by two years of constant fighting. De Wet's first operations were directed against an isolated column of Colonel Wilson's, which was surrounded within twenty miles of Heilbron. Rimington, in response to a heliographic call for assistance, hurried with admirable promptitude to the scene of action, and joined hands with Wilson. De Wet's men were as numerous, however, as the two columns combined, and they harassed the return march into Heilbron. A determined attack was made on the convoy and on the rearguard, but it was beaten off. That night Rimington's camp was fired into by a large body of Boers, but he had cleverly moved his men away from the fires, so that no harm was done. The losses in these operations were small, but with troops which had not been trained in this method of fighting the situation would have been a serious one. For a fortnight or more after this the burghers contented themselves by skirmishing with British columns and avoiding a drive which Elliot's forces made against them. On December 18th they took the offensive, however, and within a week fought three actions, two of which ended in their favour.
News had come to British headquarters that Kaffir's Kop, to the north-west of Bethlehem, was a centre of Boer activity. Three columns were therefore turned in that direction, Elliot's, Barker's, and Dartnell's. Some desultory skirmishing ensued, which was only remarkable for the death of Haasbroek, a well-known Boer leader. As the columns separated again, unable to find an objective, De Wet suddenly showed one of them that their failure was not due to his absence. Dartnell had retraced his steps nearly as far as Eland's River Bridge, when the Boer leader sprang out of his lair in the Langberg and threw himself upon him. The burghers attempted to ride in, as they had successfully done at Brakenlaagte, but they were opposed by the steady old troopers of the two regiments of Imperial Horse, and by a General who was familiar with every Boer ruse. The horsemen never got nearer than 150 yards to the British line, and were beaten back by the steady fire which met them. Finding that he made no headway, and learning that Campbell's column was coming up from Bethlehem, De Wet withdrew his men after four hours' fighting. Fifteen were hit upon the British side, and the Boer loss seems to have been certainly as great or greater.
De Wet's general aim in his operations seems to have been to check the British blockhouse building. With his main force in the Langberg he could threaten the line which was now being erected between Bethlehem and Harrismith, a line against which his main commando was destined, only two months later, to beat itself in vain. Sixty miles to the north a second line was being run across country from Frankfort to Standerton, and had reached a place called Tafelkop. A covering party of East Lancashires and Yeomanry watched over the workers, but De Wet had left a portion of his force in that neighbourhood, and they harassed the blockhouse builders to such an extent that General Hamilton, who was in command, found it necessary to send in to Frankfort for support. The British columns there had just returned exhausted from a drive, but three bodies under Damant, Rimington, and Wilson were at once despatched to clear away the enemy.
The weather was so atrocious that the veld resembled an inland sea, with the kopjes as islands rising out of it. By this stage of the war the troops were hardened to all weathers, and they pushed swiftly on to the scene of action. As they approached the spot where the Boers had been reported, the line had been extended over many miles, with the result that it had become very attenuated and dangerously weak in the centre. At this point Colonel Damant and his small staff were alone with the two guns and the maxim, save for a handful of Imperial Yeomanry (91st), who acted as escort to the guns. Across the face of this small force there rode a body of men in khaki uniforms, keeping British formation, and actually firing bogus volleys from time to time in the direction of some distant Boers. Damant and his staff seem to have taken it for granted that these were Rimington's men, and the clever ruse succeeded to perfection. Nearer and nearer came the strangers, and suddenly throwing off all disguise, they made a dash for the guns. Four rounds of case failed to stop them, and in a few minutes they were over the kopje on which the guns stood and had ridden among the gunners, supported in their attack by a flank fire from a number of dismounted riflemen.
The instant that the danger was realised Damant, his staff, and the forty Yeomen who formed the escort dashed for the crest in the hope of anticipating the Boers. So rapid was the charge of the others that they had overwhelmed the gunners before the supports could reach the hill, and the latter found themselves under the deadly fire of the Boer rifles from above. Damant was hit in four places, all of his staff were wounded, and hardly a man of the small body of Yeomanry was left standing. Nothing could exceed their gallantry. Gaussen their captain fell at their head. On the ridge the men about the guns were nearly all killed or wounded. Of the gun detachment only two men remained, both of them hit, and Jeffcoat their dying captain bequeathed them fifty pounds each in a will drawn upon the spot. In half an hour the centre of the British line had been absolutely annihilated. Modern warfare is on the whole much less bloody than of old, but when one party has gained the tactical mastery it is a choice between speedy surrender and total destruction.
The wide-spread British wings had begun to understand that there was something amiss, and to ride in towards the centre. An officer on the far right peering through his glasses saw those tell-tale puffs at the very muzzles of the British guns, which showed that they were firing case at close quarters. He turned his squadron inwards and soon gathered up Scott's squadron of Damant's Horse, and both rode for the kopje. Rimington's men were appearing on the other side, and the Boers rode off. They were unable to remove the guns which they had taken, because all the horses had perished. 'I actually thought,' says one officer who saw them ride away, 'that I had made a mistake and been fighting our own men. They were dressed in our uniforms and some of them wore the tiger-skin, the badge of Damant's Horse, round their hats.' The same officer gives an account of the scene on the gun-kopje. 'The result when we got to the guns was this, gunners all killed except two (both wounded), pom-pom officers and men all killed, maxim all killed, 91st (the gun escort) one officer and one man not hit, all the rest killed or wounded; staff, every officer hit.' That is what it means to those who are caught in the vortex of the cyclone. The total loss was about seventy-five.
In this action the Boers, who were under the command of Wessels, delivered their attack with a cleverness and dash which deserved success. Their stratagem, however, depending as it did upon the use of British uniforms and methods, was illegitimate by all the laws of war, and one can but marvel at the long-suffering patience of officers and men who endured such things without any attempt at retaliation. There is too much reason to believe also, that considerable brutality was shown by those Boers who carried the kopje, and the very high proportion of killed to wounded among the British who lay there corroborates the statement of the survivors that several were shot at close quarters after all resistance had ceased.
This rough encounter of Tafelkop was followed only four days later by a very much more serious one at Tweefontein, which proved that even after two years of experience we had not yet sufficiently understood the courage and the cunning of our antagonist. The blockhouse line was being gradually extended from Harrismith to Bethlehem, so as to hold down this turbulent portion of the country. The Harrismith section had been pushed as far as Tweefontein, which is nine miles west of Elands River Bridge, and here a small force was stationed to cover the workers. This column consisted of four squadrons of the 4th Imperial Yeomanry, one gun of the 79th battery, and one pom-pom, the whole under the temporary command of Major Williams of the South Staffords, Colonel Firmin being absent.
Knowing that De Wet and his men were in the neighbourhood, the camp of the Yeomen had been pitched in a position which seemed to secure it against attack. A solitary kopje presented a long slope to the north, while the southern end was precipitous. The outposts were pushed well out upon the plain, and a line of sentries was placed along the crest. The only precaution which seems to have been neglected was to have other outposts at the base of the southern declivity. It appears to have been taken for granted, however, that no attack was to be apprehended from that side, and that in any case it would be impossible to evade the vigilance of the sentries upon the top.
Of all the daring and skilful attacks delivered by the Boers during the war there is certainly none more remarkable than this one. At two o'clock in the morning of a moonlight night De Wet's forlorn hope assembled at the base of the hill and clambered up to the summit. The fact that it was Christmas Eve may conceivably have had something to do with the want of vigilance upon the part of the sentries. In a season of good will and conviviality the rigour of military discipline may insensibly relax. Little did the sleeping Yeomen in the tents, or the drowsy outposts upon the crest, think of the terrible Christmas visitors who were creeping on to them, or of the grim morning gift which Santa Claus was bearing.
The Boers, stealing up in their stockinged feet, poured under the crest until they were numerous enough to make a rush. It is almost inconceivable how they could have got so far without their presence being suspected by the sentries--but so it was. At last, feeling strong enough to advance, they sprang over the crest and fired into the pickets, and past them into the sleeping camp. The top of the hill being once gained, there was nothing to prevent their comrades from swarming up, and in a very few minutes nearly a thousand Boers were in a position to command the camp. The British were not only completely outnumbered, but were hurried from their sleep into the fight without any clear idea as to the danger or how to meet it, while the hissing sleet of bullets struck many of them down as they rushed out of their tents. Considering how terrible the ordeal was to which they were exposed, these untried Yeomen seem to have behaved very well. 'Some brave gentlemen ran away at the first shot, but I am thankful to say they were not many,' says one of their number. The most veteran troops would have been tried very high had they been placed in such a position. 'The noise and the clamour,' says one spectator, 'were awful. The yells of the Dutch, the screams and shrieks of dying men and horses, the cries of natives, howls of dogs, the firing, the galloping of horses, the whistling of bullets, and the whirr volleys make in the air, made up such a compound of awful and diabolical sounds as I never heard before nor hope to hear again. In the confusion some of the men killed each other and some killed themselves. Two Boers who put on helmets were killed by their own people. The men were given no time to rally or to collect their thoughts, for the gallant Boers barged right into them, shooting them down, and occasionally being shot down, at a range of a few yards. Harwich and Watney, who had charge of the maxim, died nobly with all the men of their gun section round them. Reed, the sergeant-major, rushed at the enemy with his clubbed rifle, but was riddled with bullets. Major Williams, the commander, was shot through the stomach as he rallied his men. The gunners had time to fire two rounds before they were overpowered and shot down to a man. For half an hour the resistance was maintained, but at the end of that time the Boers had the whole camp in their possession, and were already hastening to get their prisoners away before the morning should bring a rescue.
The casualties are in themselves enough to show how creditable was the resistance of the Yeomanry. Out of a force of under four hundred men they had six officers and fifty-one men killed, eight officers and eighty men wounded. There have been very few surrenders during the war in which there has been such evidence as this of a determined stand. Nor was it a bloodless victory upon the part of the Boers, for there was evidence that their losses, though less than those of the British, were still severe.
The prisoners, over two hundred in number, were hurried away by the Boers, who seemed under the immediate eye of De Wet to have behaved with exemplary humanity to the wounded. The captives were taken by forced marches to the Basuto border, where they were turned adrift, half clad and without food. By devious ways and after many adventures, they all made their way back again to the British lines. It was well for De Wet that he had shown such promptness in getting away, for within three hours of the end of the action the two regiments of Imperial Horse appeared upon the scene, having travelled seventeen miles in the time. Already, however, the rearguard of the Boers was disappearing into the fastness of the Langberg, where all pursuit was vain.
Such was the short but vigorous campaign of De Wet in the last part of December of the year 1901. It had been a brilliant one, but none the less his bolt was shot, and Tweefontein was the last encounter in which British troops should feel his heavy hand. His operations, bold as they had been, had not delayed by a day the building of that iron cage which was gradually enclosing him. Already it was nearly completed, and in a few more weeks he was destined to find himself and his commando struggling against bars.