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The Great Boer War
38: De La Rey's Campaign of 1902
<< 37: The Campaign of January-April, 190 || 39: The End >>
IT will be remembered that at the close of 1901 Lord Methuen and Colonel Kekewich had both come across to the eastern side of their district and made their base at the railway line in the Klerksdorp section. Their position was strengthened by the fact that a blockhouse cordon now ran from Klerksdorp to Ventersdorp, and from Ventersdorp to Potchefstroom, so that this triangle could be effectively controlled. There remained, however, a huge tract of difficult country which was practically in the occupation of the enemy. Several thousand stalwarts were known to be riding with De la Rey and his energetic lieutenant Kemp. The strenuous operations of the British in the Eastern Transvaal and in the Orauge River Colony had caused this district to be comparatively neglected, and so everything was in favour of an aggressive movement of the Boers. There was a long lull after the unsuccessful attack upon Kekewich's camp at Moedwill, but close observers of the war distrusted this ominous calm and expected a storm to follow.
The new year found the British connecting Ventersdorp with Tafelkop by a blockhouse line. The latter place had been a centre of Boer activity. Colonel Hickie's column covered this operation. Meanwhile Methuen had struck across through Wolmaranstad as far as Vryburg. In these operations, which resulted in constant small captures, he was assisted by a column under Major Paris working from Kimberley. From Vryburg Lord Methuen made his way in the middle of January to Lichtenburg, meeting with a small rebuff in the neighbourhood of that town, for a detachment of Yeomanry was overwhelmed by General Celliers, who killed eight, wounded fifteen, and captured forty. From Lichtenburg Lord Methuen continued his enormous trek, and arrived on February 1st at Klerksdorp once more. Little rest was given to his hard-worked troops, and they were sent off again within the week under the command of Von Donop, with the result that on February 8th, near Wolmaranstad, they captured Potgieter's laager with forty Boer prisoners. Von Donop remained at Wolmaranstad until late in FebruaTy; On the 23rd he despatched an empty convoy back to Klerksdorp, the fate of which will be afterwards narrated.
Kekewich and Hickie had combined their forces at the beginning of February. On February 4th an attempt was made by them to surprise General De la Rey. The mounted troops who were despatched under Major Leader failed in this enterprise, but they found and overwhelmed the laager of Sarel Alberts, capturing 132 prisoners. By stampeding the horses the Boer retreat was cut off, and the attack was so furiously driven home, especialy by the admirable Scottish Horse, that few of the enemy got away. Alberts himself with all his officers were among the prisoners. From this time until the end of February this column was not seriously engaged.
It has been stated above that on February 23rd Von Donop sent in an empty convoy from Wolmaranstad to Klerksdorp, a distance of about fifty miles. Nothing bad been heard for some time of De la Rey, but he had called together his men and was waiting to bring off some coup. The convoy gave him the very opportunity for which he sought.
The escort of the convoy consisted of the 5th Imperial Yeomanry, sixty of Paget's Horse, three companies of the ubiquitous Northumberland Fusiliers, two guns of the 4th R.F.A., and a pom-pom, amounting in all to 630 men. Colonel Anderson was in command. On the morning of Tuesday, February 25th, the convoy was within ten miles of its destination, and the sentries on the kopjes round the town could see the gleam of the long line of white-tilted wagons. Their hazardous voyage was nearly over, and yet they were destined to most complete and fatal wreck within sight of port. So confident were they that the detachment of Paget's Horse was permitted to ride on the night before into the town. It was as well, for such a handful would have shared and could not have averted the disaster.
The night had been dark and wet, and the Boers under cover of it had crept between the sleeping convoy and the town. Some bushes which afford excellent cover lie within a few hundred yards of the road, and here the main ambush was laid. In the first grey of the morning the long line of the convoy, 130 wagons in all, came trailing past-guns and Yeomanry in front, Fusiliers upon the flanks and rear. Suddenly the black bank of scrub was outlined in flame, and a furious rifle fire was opened upon the head of the column. The troops behaved admirably under most difficult circumstances. A counter-attack by the Fusiliers and some of the Yeomanry, under cover of shrapnel from the guns, drove the enemy out of the scrub and silenced his fire at this point. It was evident, however, that he was present in force, for firing soon broke out along the whole left flank, and the rearguard found itself as warmly attacked as the van. Again, bowever, the assailants were driven off. It was now broad daylight, and the wagons, which had got into great confusion in the first turmoil of battle, had been remarshalled and arranged. It was Colonel Anderson's hope that he might be able to send them on into safety while he with the escort covered their retreat. His plan was certainly the best one, and if it did not succeed it was due to nothing which he could avert, but to the nature of the ground and the gallantry of the enemy.
The physical obstacle consisted in a very deep and difficult spruit, the Jagd Spruit, which forms an ugly passage in times of peace, but which when crowded and choked with stampeding mules and splintering wagons, under their terrified conductors, soon became impassable. Here the head of the column was clubbed and the whole line came to a stand. Meanwhile the enemy, adopting their new tactics, came galloping in on the left flank I and on the rear. The first attack was repelled by the steady fire of the Fusiliers, but on the second occasion the horsemen got up to the wagons, and galloping down them were able to overwhelm in detail the little knots of soldiers who were scattered along the flank. The British, who were outnumbered by at least three to one, made a stout resistance, and it was not until seven o'clock that the last shot was fired. The result was a complete success to the burghers, but one which leaves no shadow of discredit on any officer or man among those who were engaged. Eleven officers and 176 men fell out of about 550 actually engaged. The Boers, so the teams were shot and the wagons burned before they withdrew. The prisoners too, they were unable to retain, and their sole permanent trophies consisted of the two guns, the rifles, and the ammunition. Their own losses amounted to about fifty killed and wounded.
A small force sallied out from Klerksdorp in the hope of helping Anderson, but on reaching the Jagd Drift it was found that the fighting was over and that the field was in possession of the Boers. De la Rey was seen in person among the burghers, and it is pleasant to add that he made himself conspicuous by his humanity to the wounded. His force drew off in the course of the morning, and was soon out of reach of immediate pursuit, though this was attempted by Kekewich, Von Donop, and Grenfell. It was important to regain the guns if possible, as they were always a menace to the blockhouse system, and for this purpose Grenfell with sixteen hundred horsemen was despatched to a point south of Lichtenburg, which was conjectured to be upon the Boer line of retreat. At the same time Lord Methuen was ordered up from Vryburg in order to cooperate in this movement, and to join his forces to those of Grenfell. It was obvious that with an energetic and resolute adversary like De la Rey there was great danger of these two forces being taken in detail, but it was hoped that each was strong enough to hold its own until the other could come to its aid. The result was to show that the danger was real and the hope fallacious.
It was on March 2nd that Methuen left Vryburg. The column was not his old one, consisting of veterans of the trek, but was the Kimberley column under Major Paris, a body of men who bad seen much less service and were in every way less reliable. It included a curious mixture of units, the most solid of which were four guns (two of the 4th, and two of the 38th R.F.A.), 200 Northumberland Fusiliers, and 100 Loyal North Lancashires. The mounted men included 5th Imperial Yeomanry (184), Cape Police (233), Cullinan's Horse (64), 86th Imperial Yeomanry (110), Diamond Fields Horse (92), Dennison' s Scouts (58), Ashburner's Horse (126), and British South African Police (24). Such a collection of samples would be more in place, one would imagine, in a London procession than in an operation which called for discipline and cohesion. In warfare the half is often greater than the whole, and the presence of a proportion of halfhearted and inexperienced men may be a positive danger to their more capable companions.
Upon March 6th Methuen, marching east towards Lichtenburg, came in touch near Leeuwspruit with Van Zyl's commando, and learned in the small skirmish which ensued that some of his Yeomanry were unreliable and ill-instructed. Having driven the enemy off by his artillery fire, Methuen moved to Tweebosch, where he laagered until next morning. At 3 A.M. of the 7th the ox-convoy was sent on, under escort of half of his little force. The other half followed at 4.20, 50 as to give the slow-moving oxen a chance of keeping ahead. It was evident, however, immediately after the column had got started that the enemy were all round in great numbers, and that an attack in force was to be expected. Lord Methuen gave orders therefore that the ox-wagons should be halted and that the mule-transport should close upon them so as to form one solid block, instead of a straggling line. At the same time he reinforced his rearguard with mounted men and with two guns, for it was in that quarter that the enemy appeared to be most numerous and aggressive. An attack was also developing upon the right flank, which was held off by the infantry and by the second section of the guns.
It has been said that Methuen's horsemen were for the most part inexperienced irregulars. Such men become in time excellent soldiers, as all this campaign bears witness, but it is too much to expose them to a severe ordeal in the open field when they are still raw and untrained. As it happened, this particular ordeal was exceedingly severe, but nothing can excuse the absolute failure of the troops concerned to rise to the occasion. Had Methuen's rearguard consisted of Imperial Light Horse, or Scottish Horse, it is safe to say that the battle of Tweebosch would have had a very different ending.
What happened was that a large body of Boers formed up in five lines and charged straight home at the rear screen and rearguard, firing from their saddles as they had done at Brakenlaagte. The sight of those wide-flung lines of determined men galloping over the plain seems to have been too much for the nerves of the unseasoned troopers. A panic spread through their ranks, and in an instant they had turned their horses' heads and were thundering to their rear, leaving the two guns uncovered and streaming in wild confusion past the left flank of the jeering infantry who were lying round the wagons. The limit of their flight seems to have been the wind of their horses, and most of them never drew rein until they had placed many miles between themselves and the comrades whom they had deserted. "It was pitiable," says an eye-witness, "to see the grand old General begging them to stop, but they would not; a large body of them arrived in Kraaipan without firing a shot," It was a South African "Battle of the Spurs,"
By this defection of the greater portion of the force the handful of brave men who remained were left in a hopeless position. The two guns of the 38th battery were overwhelmed and ridden over by the Boer horsemen, every man being killed or wounded, including Lieutenant Nesham, who acted up to the highest traditions of his corps.
The battle, however, was not yet over. The infantry were few in number, but they were experienced troops, and they maintained the struggle for some hours in the face of overwhelming numbers. Two hundred of the Northumberland Fusiliers lay round the wagons and held the Boers off from their prey. With them were the two remaining guns, which were a mark for a thousand Boer riflemen. It was while encouraging by his presence and example the much-tried gunners of this section that the gallant Methuen was wounded by a bullet which broke the bone of his thigh. Lieutenant Venning and all the detachment fell with their General round the guns.
An attempt had been made to rally some of the flying troopers at a neighbouring kraal, and a small body of Cape Police and Yeomanry under the command of Major Paris held out there for some hours. A hundred of the Lancashire Infantry aided them in their stout defence. But the guns taken by the Boers from Von Donop's convoy had free play now that the British guns were out of action, and they were brought to bear with crushing effect upon both the kraal and the wagons. Further resistance meant a useless slaughter, and orders were given for a surrender. Convoy, ammunition, guns, horses—nothing was saved except the honour of the infantry and the gunners. The losses, 68 killed and 121 wounded, fell chiefly upon these two branches of the service. There were 205 unwounded prisoners.
This, the last Boer victory in the war, reflected equal credit upon their valour and humanity, qualities which had not always gone hand in hand in our experience of them. Courtesy and attention were extended to the British wounded, and Lord Methuen was sent under charge of his chief medical officer, Colonel Townsend (the doctor as severely wounded as the patient), into Klerksdorp. In De la Rey we have always found an opponent who was as chivalrous as he was formidable. The remainder of the force reached the Kimberley-Mafeking railway line in the direction of Kraaipan, the spot where the first bloodshed of the war had occurred some twenty-nine months before.
On Lord Methuen himself no blame can rest for this unsuccessful action. If the workman's tool snaps in his hand he cannot be held responsible for the failure of his task. The troops who misbehaved were none of his training. "If you hear anyone slang him," says one of his men, "you are to tell them that he is the finest General and the truest gentleman that ever fought in this war." Such was the tone of his own troopers, and such also that of the spokesmen of the nation when they commented upon the disaster in the Houses of Parliament. It was a fine example of British justice and sense of fair play, even in that bitter moment, that to hear his eulogy one would have thought that the occasion had been one when thanks were being returned for a victory. It is a generous public with fine instincts, and Paul Methuen, wounded and broken, still remained in their eyes the heroic soldier and the chivalrous man of honour.
The De Wet country had been pretty well cleared by the series of drives which have already been described, and Louis Botha's force in the Eastern Transvaal had been much diminished by the tactics of Bruce Hamilton and Wools-Sampson. Lord Kitchener was able, therefore, to concentrate his troops and his attention upon that wide-spread western area in which General De la Rey had dealt two such shrewd blows within a few weeks of each other. Troops were rapidly concentrated at Klerksdorp. Kekewich, Walter Kitchener, Rawlinson, and Rochfort, with a number of small columns, were ready in the third week of March to endeavour to avenge Lord Methuen.
The problem with which Lord Kitchener was confronted was a very difficult one, and he has never shown more originality and audacity than in the fashion in which he handled it. De la Rey's force was scattered over a long tract of country, capable of rapidly concentrating for a blow, but otherwise as intangible and elusive as a phantom army. Were Lord Kitchener simply to launch ten thousand horsemen at him, the result would be a weary ride over illimitable plains without sight of a Boer, unless it were a distant scout upon the extreme horizon. Delarey and his men would have slipped away to his northern hiding-places beyond the Marico River. There was no solid obstacle here, as in the Orange River Colony, against which the flying enemy could be rounded up. One line of blockhouses there was, it is true—the one called the Schoonspruit cordon, which flanked the De la Rey country. It flanked it, however, upon the same side as that on which the troops were assembled. If the troops were only on the other side, and De la Rey was between them and the blockhouse line, then, indeed, something might be done. But to place the troops there, and then bring them instantly back again, was to put such a strain upon men and horses as had never yet been done upon a large scale in the course of the war. Yet Lord Kitchener knew the mettle of the men whom he commanded, and he was aware that there were no exertions of which the human frame is capable which he might not confidently demand.
The precise location of the Boer laagers does not appear to have been known, but it was certain that a considerable number of them were scattered about thirty miles or so to the west of Klerksdorp and the Shoonspruit line. The plan was to march a British force right through them, then spread out into a wide line and come straight back, driving the burghers on to the cordon of blockhouses, which had been strengthened by the arrival of three regiments of Highlanders. But to get to the o~her side of the Boers it was necessary to march the columns through by night. It was a hazardous operation, but the secret was well kept, and the movement was so well carried out that the enemy had no time to check it. On the night of Sunday, March 23rd, the British horsemen passed stealthily in column through the Delarey country, and then, spreading out into a line, which from the left wing at Lichtenburg to the right wing at Commando Drift measured a good eighty miles, they proceeded to sweep back upon their traces. In order to reach their positions the columns had, of course, started at different points of the British blockhouse line, and some had a good deal farther to go than others, while the southern extension of the line was formed by Bochfort's troops, who had moved up from the Vaal. Above him from south to north came Walter Kitchener, Rawlinson, and Kekewich in the order named.
On the morning of Monday, March 24th, a line of eighty miles of horsemen, without guns or transport, was sweeping back towards the blockhouses, while the country between was filled with scattered parties of Boers who were seeking for gaps by which to escape. It was soon learned from the first prisoners that De la Rey was not within the cordon. His laager had been some distance farther west. But the sight of fugitive horsemen rising and dipping over the rolling veldt assured the British that they had something within their net. The catch was, however, by no means as complete as might have been desired. Three hundred men in khaki slipped through between the two columns in the early morning. Another large party escaped to the south wards. Some of the Boers adopted extraordinary devices in order to escape from the ever-narrowing cordon. "Three, in charge of some cattle, buried themselves, and left a small hole to breathe through with a tube. Some men began to probe with bayonets in the new.turned earth and got immediate and vociferous subterranean yells. Another man tried the same game and a horse stepped on him. He writhed and reared the horse, and practically the horse found the prisoner for us." But the operations achieved one result, which must have lifted a load of anxiety from Lord Kitchener's mind. Three fifteen-pounders, two pom-poms, and a large amount of ammunition were taken. To Kekewich and the Scottish Horse fell the honour of the capture, Colonel Wools-Sampson and Captain Rice heading the charge and pursuit. By this means the constant menace to the blockhouses was lessened, if not entirely removed. One hundred and seventy-five Boers were disposed of, nearly all as prisoners, and a considerable quantity of transport was captured. In this operation the troops had averaged from seventy to eighty miles in twenty-six hours without change of horses. To such a point had the slow-moving ponderous British Army attained after two years' training of that stern drill-master, necessity.
The operations had attained some success, but nothing commensurate with the daring of the plan or the exertions of the soldiers. Without an instant's delay, however, Lord Kitchener struck a second blow at his enemy. Before the end of March Kekewich, Rawlinson, and Walter Kitchener were all upon the trek once more. Their operations were pushed farther to the west than in the last drive, since it was known that on that occasion De la Rey and his main commando had been outside the cordon.
It was to one of Walter Kitchener's lieutenants that the honour fell to come in direct contact with the main force of the burghers. This General had moved out to a point about forty miles west of Klerksdorp. Forming his laager there, he despatched Cookson on March 30th with seventeen hundred men to work further westward in the direction of the Harts River. Under Cookson's immediate command were the 2nd Canadian Mounted Infantry, Damant's Horse, and four guns of the 7th R.F.A. His lieutenant, Keir, commanded the 28th Mounted Infantry, the Artillery Mounted Rifles, and 2nd Kitchener's Fighting Scouts. The force was well mounted, and carried the minimum of baggage.
It was not long before this mobile force found itself within touch of the enemy. The broad weal made by the passing of a convoy set them off at full cry, and they were soon encouraged by the distant cloud of dust which shrouded the Boer wagons. The advance guard of the column galloped at the top of their speed for eight miles, and closed in upon the convoy, but found themselves faced by an escort of five hundred Boers, who fought a clever rearguard action, and covered their charge with great skill. At the same time Cookson closed in upon his mounted infantry, while on the other side Delarey's main force fell back in order to reinforce the escort. British and Boers were both riding furiously to help their own comrades. The two forces were fairly face to face.
Perceiving that he was in front of the whole Boer army, and knowing that he might expect reinforcements, Cookson decided to act upon the defensive. A position was rapidly taken up along the Brakspruit, and preparations made to resist the impending attack. The line of defence was roughly the line of the spruit, but for some reason, probably to establish a cross fire, one advanced position was occupied upon either flank. On the left flank was a farmhouse, which was held by two hundred men of the Artillery Rifles. On the extreme right was another outpost of twenty-four Canadians and forty-five Mounted Infantry. They occupied no defensible position, and their situation was evidently a most dangerous one, only to be justified by some strong military reason which is not explained by any account of the action.
The Boer guns had opened fire, and considerable bodies of the enemy appeared upon the flanks and in front. Their first efforts were devoted towards getting possession of the farmhouse, which would give them a point d'appui from which they could turn the whole line. Some five hundred of them charged on horseback, but.were met by a very steady fire from the Artillery Rifles, while the guns raked them with shrapnel. They reached a point within five hundred yards of the building, but the fire was too hot, and they wheeled round in rapid retreat. Dismounting in a mealie-patch they skirmished up towards the farmhouse once more, but they were again checked by the fire of the defenders and by a pompom which Colonel Keir had brought up. No progress whatever was made by the attack in this quarter.
In the meantime the fate which might have been foretold had befallen the isolated detachment of Canadians and 28th Mounted Infantry upon the extreme right. Bruce Carruthers, the Canadian officer in command, behaved with the utmost gallantry, and was splendidly seconded by his men. Overwhelmed by vastly superior numbers, amid a perfect hail of bullets they fought like heroes to the end. "There have been few finer instances of heroism in the course of the campaign," says the reticent Kitchener in his official despatch. Of the Canadians eighteen were hit out of twenty-one, and the Mounted Infantry hard by lost thirty out of forty-five before they surrendered.
This advantage gained upon the right flank was of no assistance to the Boers in breaking the British line. The fact that it was so makes it the more difficult to understand why this outpost was so exposed. The burghers had practically surrounded Cookson's force, and De la Rey and Kemp urged on the attack; buL~ their artillery fire was dominated by the British guns, and no weak point could be found in the defence. At 1 o'clock the attack had been begun, and at 5.30 it was finally abandoned, and Delarey was in full retreat. That he was in no sense routed is shown by the fact that Cookson did not attempt to follow him up or to capture his guns; but at least he had failed in his purpose, and had lost more heavily than in any engagement which he had yet fought. The moral effect of his previous victories had also been weakened, and his burghers had learned, if they had illusions upon the subject, that the men who fled at Tweebosch were not typical troopers of the British Army. Altogether, it was a well-fought and useful action, though it cost the British force some two hundred casualties, of which thirty-five were fatal. Cookson's force stood to arms all night mitil the arrival of Walter Kitchener's men in the morning.
General Ian Hamilton, who had acted for some time as Chief of the Staff to Lord Kitchener, had arrived on April 8th at Klerksdorp to take supreme command of the whole operations against De la Rey. Early in April the three main British columns had made a rapid cast round without success. To the very end the better intelligence and the higher mobility seem to have remained upon the side of the Boers, who could always force a fight when Lhey wished and escape when they wished. Occasionally, however, they forced one at the wrong time, as in the instance which I am about to describe.
Hamilton had planned a drive to cover the southern portion of Delarey's country, and for this purpose, with Hartebeestefontein for his centre, he was manoeuvring his columns so as to swing them into line and then sweep back towards Klerksdorp. Kekewich, Rawlinson, and Walter Kitchener were all manoeuvring for this purpose. The Boers, however, game to the last, although they were aware that their leaders had gone in to treat, and that peace was probably due within a few days, determined to have one last gallant fall with a British column. The forces of Kekewich were the farthest to the westward, and also, as the burghers thought, the most isolated, and it was upon them, accordingly, that the attack was made. In the morning of April 11th, at a place called Rooiwal, the enemy, who had moved up from Wolmaranstad, nineteen hundred strong, under Kemp and Vermaas, fell with the utmost impetuosity upon the British column. There was no preliminary skirmishing, and a single gallant charge by 1,500 Boers both opened and ended the engagement. "I was just saying to the staff officer that there were no Boers within twenty miles," says one who was present, "when we heard a roar of musketry and saw a lot of men galloping down on us." The British were surprised but not shaken by this unexpected apparition. "I never saw a more splendid attack. They kept a distinct line," says the eye-witness. Another spectator says, "They came on in one long line four deep and knee to knee." It was an old-fashioned cavalry charge, and the fact that it got as far as it did shows that we have over rated the stopping power of modern rifles. They came for a good five hundred yards under direct fire, and were only turned within a hundred of the British line. The Yeomanry, the Scottish Horse, and the Constabulary poured a steady fire upon the advancing wave of horsemen, and the guns opened with case at two hundred yards. The Boers were stopped, staggered, and turned. Their fire, or rather the covering fire of those who had not joined in the charge, had caused some fifty casualties, but their own losses were very much more severe. The fierce Potgieter fell just in front of the British guns. "Thank goodness he is dead!" cried one of his wounded burghers, "for he sjamboked me into the firing line this morning." Fifty dead and a great number of wounded were left upon the field of battle. Rawlinson's column came up on Kekewich's left, and the Boer flight became a rout, for they were chased for twenty miles, and their two guns were captured. It was a brisk and decisive little engagement, and it closed the Western campaign, leaving the last trick, as well as the game, to the credit of the British. From this time until the end there was a gleaning of prisoners but little fighting in De la Rey's country, the most noteworthy event being a surprise visit to Schweizer-Renecke by Rochfort, by which some sixty prisoners were taken, and afterwards the drive of Ian Hamilton's forces against the Mafeking railway line by which no fewer than 364 prisoners were secured. In this difficult and well-managed operation the gaps between the British columns were concealed by the lighting of long veldt-fires and the discharge of rifles by scattered scouts. The newly arrived Australian Commonwealth Regiments gave a brilliant start to the military history of their united country by the energy of their marching and the thoroughness of their entrenching.
Upon May 29th, only two days before the final declaration of peace, a raid was made by a few Boers upon the native cattle reserves near Fredericstad. A handful of horsemen pursued them, and were ambushed by a considerable body of the enemy in some hilly country ten miles from the British lines. Most of the pursuers got away in safety, but young Sutherland, second lieutenant of the Seaforths, and only a few months from Eton, found himself separated from his horse and in a hopeless position. Scorning to surrender, the lad actually fought his way upon foot for over a mile before he was shot down by the horsemen who circled round him. Well might the Boer commander declare that in the whole course of the war he had seen no finer example of British courage. It is indeed sad that at this last instant a young life should be thrown away, but Sutherland died in a noble fashion for a noble cause, and many inglorious years would be a poor substitute for the example and tradition which such a death will leave behind.
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