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The Great Boer War
34: The Winter Campaign (April-September, 1901)
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The African winter extends roughly from April to September, and as the grass during that period would be withered on the veldt, the mobility of the Boer commandos must be very much impaired. It was recognised therefore that if the British would avoid another year of war it could only be done by making good use of the months which lay before them. For this reason Lord Kitchener had called for the considerable reinforcements which have been already mentioned, but on the other hand he was forced to lose many thousands of his veteran Yeomanry, Australians, and Canadians, whose term of service was at an end. The volunteer companies of the infantry returned also to England, and so did nine militia battalions, whose place was taken however by an equal number of new-comers.
The British position was very much strengthened during the winter by the adoption of the block-house system. These were small square or hexagonal buildings, made of stone up to nine feet with corrugated iron above it. They were loopholed for musketry fire and held from six to thirty men. These little forts were dotted along the railways at points not more than 2,000 yards apart, and when supplemented by a system of armoured trains they made it no easy matter for the Boers to tamper with or to cross the lines. So effective did these prove that their use was extended to the more dangerous portions of the country, and lines were pushed through the Magaliesberg district to form a chain of posts between Krugersdorp and Rustenburg. In the Orange River Colony and on the northern lines of the Cape Colony the same system was extensively applied. I will now attempt to describe the more important operations of the winter, beginning with the incursion of Plumer into the untrodden ground to the north.
At this period of the war the British forces had overrun, if they had not subdued, the whole of the Orange River Colony and every part of the Transvaal which is south of the Mafeking-Pretoria-Komati line. Through this great tract of country there was not a vilage and hardly a farmhouse which had not seen the invaders. But in the north there remained a vast district, two hundred miles long and three hundred broad, which had hardly been touched by the war. It is a wild country, scrub-covered, antelope-haunted plains rising into desolate hills, but there are many kloofs and valleys with rich water meadows and lush grazings, which formed natural granaries and depots for the enemy. Here the Boer government continued to exist, and here, screened by their mountains, they were able to organise the continuation of the struggle. It was evident that there could be no end to the war until these last centres of resistance had been broken up.
The british forces had advanced as far north as Rustenburg in the west, Pienaar in the centre, and Lydenburg in the east, but here they had halted, unwilling to go farther until their conquests had been made good behind them. A General might well pause before plunging his troops into that vast and rugged district, when an active foe and an exposed line of communication lay for many hundreds of miles to the south of them. But Lord Kitchener with characteristic patience waited for the right hour to come, and then with equally characteristic audacity played swiftly and boldly for his stake. De Wet, impotent for the moment, had been hunted back over the Orange River. French had harried the burghers in the South-east Transvaal, and the main force of the enemy was known to be on that side of the seat of war. The north was exposed, and with one long, straight lunge to the heart, Pietersburg might be transfixed.
There could only be one direction for the advance, and that must be along the Pretoria-Pietersburg railroad. This is the only line of rails which leads to the north, and as it was known to be in working order (the Boers were running a bi-weekly service from Pietersburg to Warm Baths), it was hoped that a swift advance might seize it before any extensive damage could be done. With this object a small but very mobile force rapidly assembled at the end of March at Pienaar River, which was the British rail-head forty miles north of Pretoria and a hundred and thirty from Pietersburg. This column consisted of the Bushveldt Carbineers, the 4th Imperial Bushmen's Corps, and the 6th New Zealand contingent. With them were the 18th battery R.F.A., and three pom-poms. A detachment of the invaluable mounted Sappers rode with the force, and two infantry regiments, the 2nd Gordons and the Northamptons, were detached to garrison the more vulnerable places upon the line of advance.
Upon March 29th the untiring Plumer, called off from the chase of De Wet, was loosed upon this fresh line, and broke swiftly away to the north. The complete success of his undertaking has obscured our estimate of its danger, but it was no light task to advance so great a distance into a bitterly hostile country with a fighting force of 2,000 rifles. As an enterprise it was in many ways not unlike Mahon's dash on Mafeking, but without any friendly force with which to join hands at the end. However from the beginning all went well. On the 30th the force had reached Warm Baths, where a great isolated hotel already marks the site of what will be a rich and fashionable spa. On April 1st the Australian scouts rode into Nylstroom, fifty more miles upon their way. There had been sufficient sniping to enliven the journey, but nothing which could be caled an action. Gleaning up prisoners and refugees as they went, with the railway engineers working like bees behind them, the force still swept unchecked upon its way. On April 5th Piet Potgeitersrust was entered, another fifty-mile stage, and on the morning of the 8th the British vanguard rode into Pietersburg. Kitchener's judgment and Plumer's energy had met with their reward.
The Boer commando had evacuated the town and no serious opposition was made to the British entry. The most effective resistance came from a single schoolmaster, who, in a moment of irrational frenzy or of patriotic exaltation, shot down three of the invaders before he met his own death. Some rolling stock, one small gun, and something under a hundred prisoners were the trophies of the capture, but the Boer arsenal and the printing press were destroyed, and the Government sped off in a couple of Cape carts in search of some new capital. Pietersburg was principally valuable as a base from which a sweeping movement might be made from the north at the same moment as one from the south-east. A glance at the map will show that a force moving from this point in conjunction with another from Lydenburg might form the two crooked claws of a crab to enclose a great space of country, in which smaller columns might collect whatever was to be found. Without an instant of unnecessary delay the dispositions were made, and no fewer than eight columns slipped upon the chase. It will be best to continue to follow the movements of Plumer's force, and then to give some account of the little armies which were operating from the south, with the results of their enterprise.
It was known that Viljoen and a number of Boers were within the district which lies north of the line in the Middelburg district. An impenetrable bush-veldt had offered them a shelter from which they made their constant sallies to wreck a train or to attack a post. This area was now to be systematically cleared up. The first thing was to stop the northern line of retreat. The Oliphant River forms a loop in that direction, and as it is a considerable stream, it would, if securely held, prevent any escape upon that side. With this object Plumer, on April 14th, the sixth day after his occupation of Pietersburg, struck east from that town and trekked over the veldt, through the formidable Chunies Pass, and so to the north bank of the Oliphant, picking up thirty or forty Boer prisoners upom the way. His route lay through a fertile country dotted with native kraals. Having reached the river which marked the line which he was to hold, Plumer, upon April 17th, spread his force over many miles, so as to block the principal drifts. The flashes of his helio were answered by flash after flash from many points upon the southern horizon. What these other forces were, and whence they came, must now be made clear to the reader.
General Bindon Blood, a successful soldier, had confirmed in the Transvaal a reputation which he had won on the northern frontier of India. He and General Elliot were two of the late comers who had been spared from the great Eastern dependency to take the places of some of those Generals who had returned to England for a well-earned rest. He had distinguished himself by his systematic and effective guardianship of the Delagoa railway line, and he was now selected for the supreme control of the columns which were to advance from the south and sweep the Roos-Senekal district. There were seven of them, which were arranged as follows:
Two columns started from Middelburg under Beatson and Benson, which might be called the left wings of the movement. The object of Beatson's column was to hold the drifts of the Crocodile River, while Benson's was to seize the neighbouring hills called the Bothasberg. This it was hoped would pin the Boers from the west, while Kitchener from Lydenburg advanced from the east in three separate columns. Pulteney and Douglas would move up from Belfast in the centre, with Dulstoom for their objective. It was the familiar drag net of French, but facing north instead of south.
On April 13th the southern columns were started, but already the British preparations had alarmed the Boers, and Botha, with his main commandos, had slipped south across the line into that very district from which he had been so recently driven. Viljoen's commando still remained to the north, and the British troops, pouring in from every side, converged rapidly upon it. The success of the operations was considerable, though not complete. The Tantesberg, which had been the rallying-point of the Boers, was occupied, and Roos-Senekal, their latest capital, was taken, with their State papers and treasure. Viljoen, with a number of followers, slipped through between the columns, but the greater part of the burghers, dashing furiously about like a shoal of fish when they become conscious of the net, were taken by one or other of the columns. A hundred of the Boksburg commando surrendered en masae, fifty more were taken at Roos-Senekal; forty-one of the formidable Zarps with Schroeder, their leader, were captured in the north by the gallantry and wit of a young Australian officer named Reid; sixty more were hunted down by the indefatigable Vialls, leader of the Bushmen. From all parts of the district came the same story of captures and surrenders.
Knowing, however, that Botha and Viljoen had slipped through to the south of the railway line, Lord Kitchener determined to rapidly transfer the scene of the operations to that side. At the end of April, after a fortnight's work, during which this large district was cropped, but by no means shaved, the troops turned south again. The results of the operation had been eleven hundred prisoners, almost the same number as French had taken in the south-east, together with a broken Krupp, a pom-pom, and the remains of the big naval gun taken from us at Helvetia.
It was determined that Plumer's advance upon Pietersburg should not be a mere raid, but that steps should be taken to secure all that he had gained, and to hold the lines of communication. With this object the 2nd Gordon Highianders and the 2nd Wiltshires were pushed up along the railroad, followed by Kitchener's Fighting Scouts. These troops garrisoned Pietersburg and took possession of Chunies Poort, and other strategic positions. They also furnished escorts for the convoys which supplied Plumer on the Oliphant River, and they carried out some spirited operations themselves in the neighbourhood of Pietersburg. Grenfell, who commanded the force, broke up several laagers, and captured a number of prisoners, operations in which he was much assisted by Colenbrander and his men. Finally the last of the great Creusot guns, the formidable Long Toms, was found mounted near Haenertsburg. It was the same piece which had in succession scourged Mafeking and Kimberley. The huge gun, driven to bay, showed its powers by opening an effective fire at ten thousand yards. The British galloped in upon it, the Boer riflemen were driven off, and the gun was blown up by its faithful gunners. So by suicide died the last of that iron brood, the four sinister brothers who had wrought much mischief in South Africa. They and their lesson will live in the history of modern artillery.
The sweeping of the Roos-Senekal district being over, Plumer left his post upon the River of the Elephants, a name which, like Rhenoster, Zeekoe, Kameelfontein, Leeuw Kop, Tigerfontein, Elands River, and so many more, serves as a memorial to the great mammals which once covered the land. On April 28th the force turned south, and on May 4th they had reached the railroad at Eerstefabrieken close to Pretoria. They had come in touch with a small Boer force upon the way, and the indefatigable Vialls hounded them for eighty miles, and tore away the tail of their convoy with thirty prisoners. The main force had left Pretoria on horseback on March 28th, and found themselves back once again upon foot on May 5th. They had something to show, however, for the loss of their horses, since they had covered a circular march of 400 miles, had captured some hundreds of the enemy, and had broken up their last organised capital. From first to last it was a most useful and well-managed expedition.
It is the more to be regretted that General Blood was recalled from his northern trek before it had attained its full results, because those operations to which he turned did not offer him any great opportunities for success. Withdrawing from the north of the railway with his columns, he at once started upon a sweep of that portion of the country which forms an angle between the Delagoa line and the Swazi frontier—the Barberton district. But again the two big fish, Viljoen and Botha, had slipped away, and the usual collection of sprats was left in the net. The sprats count also, however, and every week now telegrams were reaching England from Lord Kitchener which showed that from three to five hundred more burghers had fallen into our hands. Although the public might begin to look upon the war as interminable, it had become evident to the thoughtful observer that it was now a mathematical question, and that a date could already be predicted by which the whole Boer population would have passed into the power of the British.
Among the numerous small British columns which were at work in different parts of the country, in the latter half of May, there was one under General Dixon which was operating in the neighbourhood of the Magaliesberg Range. This locality has never been a fortunate one for the British arms. The country is peculiarly mountainous and broken, and it was held by the veteran De la Rey and a numerous body of irreconcilable Boers. Here in July we had encountered a check at Uitval's Nek, in December Clements had met a more severe one at Nooitgedacht, while shortly afterwards Cunningham had been repulsed at Middelfontein, and the Light Horse cut up at Naauwpoort. After such experiences one would have thought that no column which was not of overmastering strength would have been sent into this dangerous region, but General Dixon had as a matter of fact by no means a strong force with him. With 1,600 men and a battery he was despatched upon a quest after some hidden guns which were said to have been buried in those parts.
On May 26th Dixon's force, consisting of Derbyshires, King's Own Scottish Borderers, Imperial Yeomanry, Scottish Horse, and six guns (four of 8th R.F.A. and two of 28th R.F.A.), broke camp at Naauwpoort and moved to the west. On the 28th they found themselves at a place called Vlakfontein, immediately south of Oliphant's Nek. On that day there were indications that there were a good many Boers in the neighbourhood. Dixon left a guard over his canip and then sallied out in search of the buried guns. His force was divided into three parts, the left column under Major Chance consisting of two guns of the 28th R.F.A., 230 of the Yeomanry, and one company of the Derbys. The centre comprised two guns (8th R.F.A.), one howitzer, two companies of the Scottish Borderers and one of the Derbys; while the right was made up of two guns (8th R.F.A.), 200 Scottish Horse, and two companies of Borderers. Having ascertained that the guns were not there, the force about midday was returning to the camp, when the storm broke suddenly and fiercely upon the rearguard.
There had been some sniping during the whole morning, but no indications of the determined attack which was about to be delivered. The force in retiring upon the camp had become divided, and the rearguard consisted of the small column under Major Chance which had originally formed the left wing. A veldt fire was raging on one flank of this rearguard, and through the veil of smoke a body of five hundred Boers charged suddenly home with magnificent gallantry upon the guns. We have few records of a more dashing or of a more successful action in the whole course of the war. So rapid was it that hardly any time elapsed between the glimpse of the first dark figures galloping through the haze and the thunder of their hoofs as they dashed in among the gunners. The Yeomanry were driven back and many of them shot down. The charge of the mounted Boers was supported by a very heavy fire from a covermg party, and the gun-detachments were killed or wounded almost to a man. The lieutenant in charge and the sergeant were both upon the ground. So far as it is possible to reconstruct the action from the confused accounts of excited eye-witnesses and from the exceedingly obscure official report of General Dixon, there was no longer any resistance round the guns, which were at once turned by their captors upon the nearest British detachment.
The company of infantry which had helped to escort the guns proved however to be worthy representatives of that historic branch of the British service. They were northerners, men of Derbyshire and Nottingham, the same counties which had furnished the brave militia who had taken their punishment so gamely at Roodeval. Though hustled and broken they re-formed and clung doggedly to their task, firing at the groups of Boers who surrounded the guns. At the same time word had been sent of their pressing need to the Scotch Borderers and the Scottish Horse, who came swarming across the valley to the succour of their comrades. Dixon had brought two guns and a howitzer into action, which subdued the fire of the two captured pieces, and the infantry, Derbys and Borderers, swept over the position, retaking the two guns and shooting down those of the enemy who tried to stand. The greater number vanished into the smoke, which veiled their retreat as it had their advance. Forty-one of them were left dead upon the ground. Six officers and fifty men killed with about a hundred and twenty wounded made up the British losses, to which two guns would certainly have been added but for the gallant counter-attack of the infantry. With Dargai and Vlakfontein to their credit the Derbys have green laurels upon their war-worn colours. They share them on this occasion with the Scottish Borderers, whose volunteer company carried itself as stoutly as the regulars.
How is such an action to be summed up? To Kemp, the young Boer leader, and his men belongs the credit of the capture of the guns; to the British that of their recapture and of the final possession of the field. The British loss was probably somewhat higher than that of the Boers, but upon the other hand there could be no question as to which side could afford loss the better. The Briton could be replaced, but there were no reserves behind the fighting line of the Boers.
There is one subject which cannot be ignored in discussing this battle, however repugnant it may be. That is the shooting of some of the British wounded who lay round the guns. There is no question at all about the fact, which is attested by many independent witnesses. There is reason to hope that some of the murderers paid for their crimes with their lives before the battle was over. It is pleasant to add that there is at least one witness to the fact that Boer officers interfered with threats to prevent some of these outrages. It is unfair to tarnish the whole Boer nation and cause on account of a few irresponsible villains, who would be disowned by their own decent comrades. Very many—too many—British soldiers have known by experience what it is to fall into the hands of the enemy, and it must be confessed that on the whole they have been dealt with in no ungenerous spirit, while the British treatment of the Boers has been unexampled in all military history for its generosity and humanity. That so fair a tale should be darkened by such ruffianly outrages is indeed deplorable, but the incident is too well authenticated to be left unrecorded in any detailed account of the campaign. General Dixon, finding the Boers very numerous all round him, and being hampered by his wounded, fell back upon Naauwpoort, which he reached on June 1st.
In May, Sir Bindon Blood, having returned to the line to refit, made yet another cast through that thrice-harried belt of country which contains Ermelo, Bethel, and Carolina, in which Botha, Viljoen, and the fighting Boers had now concentrated. Working over the blackened veldt he swung round in the Barberton direction, and afterwards made a westerly drive in conjunction with small columns commanded by Walter Kitchener, Douglas, and Campbell of the Rifles, while Colville, Garnett, and Bullock co-operated from the Natal line. Again the results were disappointing when compared with the power of the instrument employed. On July 5th he reached Springs, near Johannesburg, with a considerable amount of stock, but with no great number of prisoners. The elusive Botha had slipped away to the south and was reported upon the Zululand border, while Viljoen had succeeded in crossing the Delagoa line and winning back to his old lair in the district north of Middelburg, from which he had been evicted in April. The commandos were like those pertinacious flies which buzz upwards when a hand approaches them, but only to settle again in the same place. One could but try to make the place less attractive than before.
Before Vujoen's force made its way over the line it had its revenge for the long harrying it had undergone by a well-managed night attack, in which it surprised and defeated a portion of Colonel Beatson's column at a place called Wilmansrust, due south of Middelburg, and between that town and Bethel. Beatson had divided his force, and this section consisted of 850 of the 5th Victorian Mounted Rifles, with thirty gunners and two pom-poms, the whole under the command of Major Morris. Viljoen's force trekking north towards the line came upon this detachment upon June 12th. The British were aware of the presence of the enemy, but do not appear to have posted any extra outposts or taken any special precautions. Long months of commando chasing had imbued them too much with the idea that these were fugitive sheep, and not fierce and wily wolves, whom they were endeavouring to catch. It is said that 700 yards separated the four pickets. With that fine eye for detail which the Boer leaders possess, they had started a veldt fire upon the west of the camp and then attacked from the east, so that they were themselves invisible while their enemies were silhouetted against the light. Creeping up between the pickets, the Boers were not seen until they opened fire at point-blank range upon the sleeping men. The rifles were stacked — another noxious military tradition—and many of the troopers were shot down while they rushed for their weapons. Surprised out of their sleep and unable to distinguish their antagonists, the brave Australians did as well as any troops could have done who were placed in so impossible a position. Captain Watson, the officer in charge of the pom-poms, was shot down, and it proved to be impossible to bring the guns into action. Within five minutes the Victorians had lost twenty killed and forty wounded, when the survivors surrendered. It is pleasant to add that they were very well treated by the victors, but the high-spirited colonials felt their reverse most bitterly. 'It is the worst thing that ever happened to Australia!' says one in the letter in which he describes it. The actual number of Boers who rushed the camp was only 180, but 400 more had formed a cordon round it. To Viljoen and his lieutenant Muller great credit must be given for this well-managed affair, which gave them a fresh supply of stores and clothing at a time when they were hard pressed for both. These same Boer officers had led the attack upon Helvetia where the 4.7 gun was taken. The victors succeeded in getting away with all their trophies, and having temporarily taken one of the blockhouses on the railway near Brugspruit, they crossed the line in safety and returned, as already said, to their old quarters in the north, which had been harried but not denuded by the operations of General Blood.
It would take a volume to catalogue, and a library to entirely describe the movements and doings of the very large number of British columns which operated over the Transvaal and the Orange River Colony during this cold-weather campaign. If the same columns and the same leaders were consistently working in the same districts, some system of narrative might enable the reader to follow their fortunes, but they were, as a matter of fact, rapidly transferred from one side of the field of action to another in accordance with the concentrations of the enemy. The total number of columns amounted to at least sixty, which varied in number from two hundred to two thousand, and seldom hunted alone. Could their movements be marked in red upon a chart, the whole of that huge district would be criss-crossed, from Taungs to Komati and from Touws River to Pietersburg, with the track of our weary but indomitable soldiers.
Without attempting to enter into details which would be unbecoming to the modesty of a single volume, one may indicate what the other more important groupings were during the course of these months, and which were the columns that took part in them. Of French's drive in the south-east, and of Blood's incursion into the Roos-Senekal district some account has been given, and of his subsequent sweeping of the south. At the same period Babington, Dixon, and Rawlinson were co-operating in the Klerksdorp district, though the former officer transferred his services suddenly to Blood's combination, and afterwards to Elliot's column in the north of Orange River Colony. Williams and Fetherstonhaugh came later to strengthen this Klerksdorp district, in which, after the clearing of the Magaliesberg, De la Rey had united his forces to those of Smuts. This very important work of getting a firm hold upon the Magaliesberg was accomplished in July by Barton, Allenby, Kekewich, and Lord Basing, who penetrated into the wild country and established blockhouses and small forts in very much the same way as Cumberland and Wade in 1746 held down the Highlands. The British position was much strengthened by the firm grip obtained of this formidable stronghold of the enemy, which was dangerous not only on account of its extreme strength, but also of its proximity to the centres of population and of wealth.
De la Rey, as already stated, had gone down to the Klerksdorp district, whence, for a time at least, he seems to have passed over into the north of the Orange River Colony. The British pressure at Klerksdorp had become severe, and thither in May came the indefatigable Methuen, whom we last traced to Warrenton. From this point on May 1st he railed his troops to Mafeking, whence he trekked to Lichtenburg, and south as far as his old fighting ground of Haartebeestefontein, having one skirmish upon the way and capturing a Boer gun. Thence he returned to Mafeking, where he had to bid adieu to those veteran Yeomanry who had been his comrades on so many a weary march. It was not their fortune to be present at any of the larger battles of the war, but few bodies of troops have returned to England with a finer record of hard and useful service.
No sooner, however, had Methuen laid down one weapon than he snatched up another. Having refitted his men and collected some of the more efficient of the new Yeomanry, he was off once more for a three weeks' circular tour in the direction of Zeerust. It is difficult to believe that the oldest inhabitant could have known more of the western side of the Transvaal, for there was hardly a track which he had not traversed or a kopje from which he had not been sniped. Early in August he had made a fresh start from Mafeking, dividing his force into two columns, the command of the second being given to Von Donop. Having joined hands with Fetherstonhaugh, he moved through the south-west and finally halted at Klerksdorp. The harried Boers moved a hundred miles north to Rustenburg, followed by Methuen, Fetherstonhaugh, Hamilton, Kekewich, and Allenby, who found the commandos of De la Rey and Kemp to be scattering in front of them and hiding in the kloofs and dongas, whence in the early days of September no less than two hundred were extracted. On September 6th and 8th Methuen engaged the main body of De la Rey in the valley of the Great Marico River which lies to the north-west of Rustenburg. In these two actions he pushed the Boers in front of him with a loss of eighteen killed and forty-one prisoners, but the fighting was severe, and fifteen of his men were killed and thirty wounded before the position had been carried. The losses were almost entirely among the newly raised Yeomanry, who had already shown on several occasions that, having shed their weaker members and had some experience of the field, they were now worthy to take their place beside their veteran comrades.
The only other important operation undertaken by the British columns in the Transvaal during this period was in the north, where Beyers and his men were still harried by Grenfell, Colenbrander, and Wilson. A considerable proportion of the prisoners which figured in the weekly lists came from this quarter. On May 30th there was a notable action, the truth of which was much debated but finally established, in which Kitchener's Scouts under Wilson surprised and defeated a Boer force under Pretorius, killing and wounding several, and taking forty prisoners. On July 1st Grenfell took nearly a hundred of Beyers' men with a considerable convoy. North, south, east, and west the tale was ever the same, but so long as Botha, De la Rey, Steyn, and De Wet remained uncaptured, the embers might still at any instant leap into a flame.
It only remains to complete this synopsis of the movements of columns within the Transvaal that I should add that after the conclusion of Blood's movement in July, several of his columns continued to clear the country and to harass Viljoen in the Lydenburg and Dulstroom districts. Park, Kitchener, Spens, Beatson, and Benson were all busy at this work, never succeeding in forcing more than a skirmish, but continually whittling away wagons, horses, and men from that nucleus of resistance which the Boer leaders still held together.
Though much hampered by the want of forage for their horses, the Boers were ever watchful for an opportunity to strike back, and the long list of minor successes gained by the British was occasionally interrupted by a petty reverse. Such a one befell the small body of South African Constabulary stationed near Vereeniging, who encountered upon July 13th a strong force of Boers supposed to be the main commando of De Wet. The Constabulary behaved with great gallantry but were hopelessly outnumbered, and lost their seven-pounder gun, four killed, six wounded, and twenty-four prisoners. Another small reverse occurred at a far distant point of the seat of war, for the irregular corps known as Steinacker's Horse was driven from its position at Bremersdorp in Swaziland upon July 24th, and had to fall back sixteen miles, with a loss of ten casualties and thirty prisoners. Thus in the heart of a native state the two great white races of South Africa were to be seen locked in a desperate conflict. However unavoidable, the sight was certainly one to be deplored.
To the Boer credit, or discredit, are also to be placed those repeated train wreckings, which cost the British during this campaign the lives and limbs of many brave soldiers who were worthy of some less ignoble fate. It is true that the laws of war sanction such enterprises, but there is something indiscriminate in the results which is repelent to humanity, and which appears to justify the most energetic measures to prevent them. Women, children, and sick must all travel by these trains and are exposed to a common danger, while the assailants enjoy a safety which renders their exploit a peculiarly inglorious one. Two Boers, Trichardt and Hindon, the one a youth of twenty-two, the other a man of British birth, distinguished, or disgraced, themselves by this unsavoury work upon the Delagoa line, but with the extension of the blockhouse system the attempts became less successful. There was one, however, upon the northern line near Naboomspruit which cost the lives of Lieutenant Best and eight Gordon Highlanders, while ten were wounded. The party of Gordons continued to resist after the smash, and were killed or wounded to a man. The painful incident is brightened by such an example of military virtue, and by the naive reply of the last survivor, who on being questioned why he continued to fight until he was shot down, answered with fine simplicity, "Because I am a Gordon Highlander."
Another train disaster of an even more tragic character occurred near Waterval, fifteen miles north of Pretoria, upon the last day of August. The explosion of a mine wrecked the train, and a hundred Boers who lined the banks of the cutting opened fire upon the derailed carriages. Colonel Vandeleur, an officer of great promise, was killed and twenty men, chiefly of the West Riding regiment, were shot. Nurse Page was also among the wounded. It was after this fatal affair that the regulation of carrying Boer hostages upon the trains was at last carried out.
It has been already stated that part of Lord Kitchener's policy of concentration lay in his scheme for gathering the civil population into camps along the lines of communication. The reasons for this, both military and humanitarian, were overwhelming. Experience had proved that the men if left at liberty were liable to be persuaded or coerced by the fighting Boers into breaking their parole and rejoining the commandos. As to the women and children, they could not be left upon the farms in a denuded country. That the Boers in the field had no doubts as to the good treatment of these people was shown by the fact that they repeatedly left their families in the way of the columns so that they might be conveyed to the camps. Some consternation was caused in England by a report of Miss Hobhouse, which called public attention to the very high rate of mortality in some of these camps, but examination showed that this was not due to anything insanitary in their situation or arrangement, but to a severe epidemic of measles which had swept away a large number of the children. A fund was started in London to give additional comforts to these people, though there is reason to believe that their general condition was superior to that of the Uitlander refugees, who still waited permission to return to their homes. By the end of July there were no fewer than sixty thousand inmates of the camps in the Transvaal alone, and half as many in the Orange River Colony. So great was the difficulty in providing the supplies for so large a number that it became more and more evident that some at least of the camps must be moved down to the sea coast.
Passing to the Orange River Colony we find that during this winter period the same British tactics had been met by the same constant evasions on the part of the dwindling commandos. The Colony had been divided into four military districts: that of Bloemfontein, which was given to Charles Knox, that of Lyttelton at Springfontein, that of Rundle at Harrismith, and that of Elliot in the north. The latter was infinitely the most important, and Elliot, the warden of the northern marches, had under him during the greater part of the winter a mobile force of about 6,000 men, Commanded by such experienced officers as Broadwood, De Lisle, and Bethune. Later in the year Spens, Bullock, Plumer, and Rimington were all sent into the Orange River Colony to help to stamp out the resistance. Numerous skirmishes and snipings were reported from all parts of the country, but a constant stream of prisoners and of surrenders assured the soldiers that, in spite of the difficulty of the country and the obstinacy of the enemy, the term of their labours was rapidly approaching.
In all the petty and yet necessary operations of these columns, two incidents demand more than a mere mention. The first was a hard-fought skirmish in which some of Elliot's horsemen were engaged upon June 6th. His column had trekked during the month of May from Kroonstad to Harrismith, and then turning north found itself upon that date near the hamlet of Reitz. Major Sladen with 200 Mounted Infantry, when detached from the main body, came upon the track of a Boer convoy and ran it down. Over a hundred vehicles with forty-five prisoners were the fruits of their enterprise. Well satisfied with his morning's work, the British leader despatched a party of his men to convey the news to De Lisle, who was behind, while he established himself with his loot and his prisoners in a convenient kraal. Thence they had an excellent view of a large body of horsemen approaching them with scouts, flankers, and all military precautions. One warm-hearted officer seems actually to have sallied out to meet his comrades, and it was not till his greeting of them took the extreme form of handing over his rifle that the suspicion of danger entered the heads of his companions. But if there was some lack of wit there was none of heart in Sladen and his men. With forty-five Boers to hold down, and 500 under Fourie, De Wet, and De la Rey around them, the little band made rapid preparation for a desperate resistance: the prisoners were laid upon their faces, the men knocked loopholes in the mud walls of the kraal, and a blunt soldierly answer was returned to the demand for surrender.
But it was a desperate business. The attackers were five to one, and the five were soldiers of De Wet, the hard-bitten veterans of a hundred encounters. The captured wagons in a long double row stretched out over the plain, and under this cover the Dutchmen swarmed up to the kraal. But the men who faced them were veterans also, and the defence made up for the disparity of numbers. With fine courage the Boers made their way up to the village, and established themselves in the outlying huts, but the Mounted Infantry clung desperately to their position. Out of the few officers present Findlay was shot through the head, Moir and Cameron through the heart, and Strong through the stomach. It was a Waggon Hill upon a small scale, two dour lines of skirmishers emptying their rifles into each other at point-blank range. Once more, as at Bothaville, the British Mounted Infantry proved that when it came to a dogged pelting match they could stand punishment longer than their enemy. They suffered terribly. Fifty-one out of the little force were on the ground, and the survivors were not much more numerous than their prisoners. To the 1st Gordons, the 2nd Bedfords, the South Australians, and the New South Welsh men belongs the honour of this magnificent defence. For four hours the fierce battle raged, until at last the parched and powder-stained survivors breathed a prayer of thanks as they saw on the southern horizon the vanguard of De Lisle riding furiously to the rescue. For the last hour, since they had despaired of carrying the kraal, the Boers had busied themselves in removing their convoy; but now, for the second time in one day, the drivers found British rifles pointed at their heads, and the oxen were turned once more and brought back to those who had fought so hard to hold them. Twenty-eight killed and twenty-six wounded were the losses in this desperate affair. Of the Boers seventeen were left dead in front of the kraal, and the forty-five had not escaped from the bulldog grip which held them. There seems for some reason to have been no effective pursuit of the Boers, and the British column held on its way to Kroonstad.
The second incident which stands out amid the dreary chronicle of hustlings and snipings is the surprise visit paid by Broadwood with a small British column to the town of Reitz upon July 11th, which resulted in the capture of nearly every member of the late government of the Free State, save only the one man whom they particularly wanted. The column consisted of 200 yeomen, 200 of the 7th Dragoon Guards, and two guns. Starting at 11 P.M., the raiders rode hard all night and broke with the dawn upon the sleeping village. Racing into the main street, they secured the startled Boers as they rushed from the houses. It is easy to criticise such an operation from a distance, and to overlook the practical difficulties in the way, but on the face of it it seems a pity that the holes had not been stopped before the ferret was sent in. A picket at the farther end of the street would have barred Steyn's escape. As it was, he flung himself upon his horse and galloped half-clad out of the town. Sergeant Cobb of the Dragoons snapped a rifle at close quarters upon him, but the cold of the night had frozen the oil on the striker and the Cartridge hung fire. On such trifles do the large events of history turn! Two Boer generals, two commandants, Steyn's brother, his secretary, and several other officials were among the nine-and-twenty prisoners. The treasury was also captured, but it is feared that the Yeomen and Dragoons will not be much the richer from their share of the contents.
Save these two incidents, the fight at Reitz and the capture of a portion of Steyn's government at the same place, the winter's campaign furnished little which was of importance, though a great deal of very hard and very useful work was done by the various columns under the direction of the governors of the four military districts. In the south General Bruce Hamilton made two sweeps, one from the railway line to the western frontier, and the second from the south and east in the direction of Petrusburg. The result of the two operations was about 300 prisoners. At the same time Monro and Hickman re-cleared the already twice-cleared districts of Rouxville and Smithfield. The country in the east of the Colony was verging now upon the state which Grant described in the Shenandoah Valley: "A crow," said he, "must carry his own rations when he flies across it."
In the middle district General Charles Knox, with the columns of Pine-Coffin, Thorneycroft, Pilcher, and Henry, were engaged in the same sort of work with the same sort of results.
The most vigorous operations fell to the lot of Generak Elliot, who worked over the northern and north-eastern district, which still contained a large number of fighting burghers. In May and June Elliot moved across to Vrede and afterwards down the eastern frontier of the Colony, joining hands at last with Rundle at Harrismith. He then worked his way back to Kroonstad through Reitz and Lindley. It was on this journey that Sladen's Mounted Infantry had the sharp experience which has been already narrated. Western's column, working independently, co-operated with Elliot in this clearing of the north-east. In August there were very large captures by Broadwood's force, which had attained considerable mobility, ninety miles being covered by it on one occasion in two days.
Of General Rundle there is little to be said, as he was kept busy in exploring the rough country in his own district—the same district which had been the scene of the operations against Prinsloo and the Fouriesburg surrender. Into this district Kritzinger and his men trekked after they were driven from the Colony in July, and many small skirmishes and snipings among the mountains showed that the Boer resistance was still alive.
July and August were occupied in the Orange River Colony by energetic operations of Spens' and Rimington's columns in the midland districts, and by a considerable drive to the north-eastern corner, which was shared by three columns under Elliot and two under Plumer, with one under Henry and several smaller bodies. A considerable number of prisoners and a large amount of stock were the result of the movement, but it was very evident that there was a waste of energy in the employment of such forces for such an end. The time appeared to be approaching when a strong force of military police stationed permanently in each district might prove a more efficient instrument. One interesting development of this phase of the war was the enrolment of a burgher police among the Boers who had surrendered. These men—well paid, well mounted, and well armed — were an efficient addition to the British forces. The movement spread until before the end of the war there were several thousand burghers under such well-known officers as Celliers, Villonel, and young Cronje, fighting against their own guerilla countrymen. Who, in 1899, could have prophesied such a phenomenon as that!
Lord Kitchener's proclamation issued upon August 9th marked one more turn in the screw upon the part of the British authorities. By it the burghers were warned that those who had not laid down their arms by September 15th would in the case of the leaders be banished, and in the case of the burghers be compelled to support their families in the refugee camps. As many of the fighting burghers were men of no substance, the latter threat did not affect them much, but the other, though it had little result at the time, may be useful for the exclusion of firebrands during the period of reconstruction. Some increase was noticeable in the number of surrenders after the proclamation, but on the whole it had not the result which was expected, and its expediency is very open to question. This date may be said to mark the conclusion of the winter campaign and the opening of a new phase in the struggle.
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