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 Site Map > Electronic Library > Arthur Conan Doyle > The Great Boer War > CHAPTER XXXIII THE NORTHERN OPERATIONS FROM JANUARY TO APRIL, 1901

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The Great Boer War

by Arthur Conan Doyle



Three consecutive chapters have now given some account of the campaign of De Wet, of the operations in the Transvaal up to the end of the year 1900, and of the invasion of Cape Colony up to April 1901. The present chapter will deal with the events in the Transvaal from the beginning of the new century. The military operations in that country, though extending over a very large area, may be roughly divided into two categories: the attacks by the Boers upon British posts, and the aggressive sweeping movements of British columns. Under the first heading come the attacks on Belfast, on Zuurfontein, on Kaalfontein, on Zeerust, on Modderfontein, and on Lichtenburg, besides many minor affairs. The latter comprises the operations of Babington and of Cunningham to the west and south-west of Pretoria, those of Methuen still further to the south-west, and the large movement of French in the south-east. In no direction did the British forces in the field meet with much active resistance. So long as they moved the gnats did not settle; it was only when quiet that they buzzed about and occasionally stung.

The early days of January 1901 were not fortunate for the British arms, as the check in which Kitchener's Bodyguard was so roughly handled, near Lindley, was closely followed by a brisk action at Naauwpoort or Zandfontein, near the Magaliesberg, in which De la Rey left his mark upon the Imperial Light Horse. The Boer commandos, having been driven into the mountains by French and Clements in the latter part of December, were still on the look-out to strike a blow at any British force which might expose itself. Several mounted columns had been formed to scour the country, one under Kekewich, one under Gordon, and one under Babington. The two latter, meeting in a mist upon the morning of January 5th, actually turned their rifles upon each other, but fortunately without any casualties resulting. A more deadly rencontre was, however, awaiting them.

A force of Boers were observed, as the mist cleared, making for a ridge which would command the road along which the convoy and guns were moving. Two squadrons (B and C) of the Light Horse were instantly detached to seize the point. They do not appear to have realised that they were in the immediate presence of the enemy, and they imagined that the ground over which they were passing had been already reconnoitred by a troop of the 14th Hussars. It is true that four scouts were thrown forward, but as both squadrons were cantering there was no time for these to get ahead. Presently C squadron, which was behind, was ordered to close up upon the left of B squadron, and the 150 horsemen in one long line swept over a low grassy ridge. Some hundreds of De la Rey's men were lying in the long grass upon the further side, and their first volley, fired at a fifty-yard range, emptied a score of saddles. It would have been wiser, if less gallant, to retire at once in the presence of a numerous and invisible enemy, but the survivors were ordered to dismount and return the fire. This was done, but the hail of bullets was terrific and the casualties were numerous. Captain Norman, of C squadron, then retired his men, who withdrew in good order. B squadron having lost Yockney, its brave leader, heard no order, so they held their ground until few of them had escaped the driving sleet of lead. Many of the men were struck three and four times. There was no surrender, and the extermination of B company added another laurel, even at a moment of defeat, to the regiment whose reputation was so grimly upheld. The Boer victors walked in among the litter of stricken men and horses. 'Practically all of them were dressed in khaki and had the water-bottles and haversacks of our soldiers. One of them snatched a bayonet from a dead man, and was about to despatch one of our wounded when he was stopped in the nick of time by a man in a black suit, who, I afterwards heard, was De la Rey himself... The feature of the action was the incomparable heroism of our dear old Colonel Wools-Sampson.' So wrote a survivor of B company, himself shot through the body. It was four hours before a fresh British advance reoccupied the ridge, and by that time the Boers had disappeared. Some seventy killed and wounded, many of them terribly mutilated, were found on the scene of the disaster. It is certainly a singular coincidence that at distant points of the seat of war two of the crack irregular corps should have suffered so severely within three days of each other. In each case, however, their prestige was enhanced rather than lowered by the result. These incidents tend, however, to shake the belief that scouting is better performed in the Colonial than in the regular forces.

Of the Boer attacks upon British posts to which allusion has been made, that upon Belfast, in the early morning of January 7th, appears to have been very gallantly and even desperately pushed. On the same date a number of smaller attacks, which may have been meant simply as diversions, were made upon Wonderfontein, Nooitgedacht, Wildfontein, Pan, Dalmanutha, and Machadodorp. These seven separate attacks, occurring simultaneously over sixty miles, show that the Boer forces were still organised and under one effective control. The general object of the operations was undoubtedly to cut Lord Roberts's communications upon that side and to destroy a considerable section of the railway.

The town of Belfast was strongly held by Smith-Dorrien, with 1,750 men, of which 1,300 were infantry belonging to the Royal Irish, the Shropshires, and the Gordons. The perimeter of defence, however, was fifteen miles, and each little fort too far from its neighbour for mutual support, though connected with headquarters by telephone. It is probable that the leaders and burghers engaged in this very gallant attack were in part the same as those concerned in the successful attempt at Helvetia upon December 29th, for the assault was delivered in the same way, at the same hour, and apparently with the same primary object. This was to gain possession of the big 5-inch gun, which is as helpless by night as it is formidable by day. At Helvetia they attained their object and even succeeded not merely in destroying, but in removing their gigantic trophy. At Belfast they would have performed the same feat had it not been for the foresight of General Smith-Dorrien, who had the heavy gun trundled back into the town every night.

The attack broke first upon Monument Hill, a post held by Captain Fosbery with eighty-three Royal Irish. Chance or treason guided the Boers to the weak point of the wire entanglement and they surged into the fort, where the garrison fought desperately to hold its own. There was thick mist and driving rain; and the rush of vague and shadowy figures amid the gloom was the first warning of the onslaught. The Irishmen were overborne by a swarm of assailants, but they nobly upheld their traditional reputation. Fosbery met his death like a gallant gentleman, but not more heroically than Barry, the humble private, who, surrounded by Boers, thought neither of himself nor of them, but smashed at the maxim gun with a pickaxe until he fell riddled with bullets. Half the garrison were on the ground before the post was carried.

A second post upon the other side of the town was defended by Lieutenant Marshall with twenty men, mostly Shropshires. For an hour they held out until Marshall and nine out of his twelve Shropshires had been hit. Then this post also was carried.

The Gordon Highlanders held two posts to the southeast and to the south-west of the town, and these also were vigorously attacked. Here, however, the advance spent itself without result. In vain the Ermelo and Carolina commandos stormed up to the Gordon pickets. They were blown back by the steady fire of the infantry. One small post manned by twelve Highlanders was taken, but the rest defied all attack. Seeing therefore that his attempt at a COUP-DE-MAIN was a failure, Viljoen withdrew his men before daybreak. The Boer casualties have not been ascertained, but twenty-four of their dead were actually picked up within the British lines. The British lost sixty killed and wounded, while about as many were taken prisoners. Altogether the action was a brisk and a gallant one, of which neither side has cause to be ashamed. The simultaneous attacks upon six other stations were none of them pressed home, and were demonstrations rather than assaults.

The attempts upon Kaalfontein and on Zuurfontein were both made in the early morning of January 12th. These two places are small stations upon the line between Johannesburg and Pretoria. It is clear that the Boers were very certain of their own superior mobility before they ventured to intrude into the very heart of the British position, and the result showed that they were right in supposing that even if their attempt were repulsed, they would still be able to make good their escape. Better horsed, better riders, with better intelligence and a better knowledge of the country, their ventures were always attended by a limited liability.

The attacks seem to have been delivered by a strong commando, said to have been under the command of Beyers, upon its way to join the Boer concentration in the Eastern Transvaal. They had not the satisfaction, however, of carrying the garrison of a British post with them, for at each point they were met by a stout resistance and beaten off. Kaalfontein was garrisoned by 120 men of Cheshire under Williams-Freeman, Zuurfontein by as many Norfolks and a small body of Lincolns under Cordeaux and Atkinson. For six hours the pressure was considerable, the assailants of Kaalfontein keeping up a brisk shell and rifle fire, while those of Zuurfontein were without artillery. At the end of that time two armoured trains came up with reinforcements and the enemy continued his trek to the eastward. Knox 's 2nd cavalry brigade followed them up, but without any very marked result.

Zeerust and Lichtenburg had each been garrisoned and provisioned by Lord Methuen before he carried his column away to the south-west, where much rough and useful work awaited him. The two towns were at once invested by the enemy, who made an attack upon each of them. That upon Zeerust, on January 7th, was a small matter and easily repulsed. A more formidable one was made on Lichtenburg, on March 3rd. The attack was delivered by De la Rey, Smuts, and Celliers, with 1,500 men, who galloped up to the pickets in the early morning. The defenders were 600 in number, consisting of Paget's Horse and three companies of the 1st battalion of the Northumberland Fusiliers, a veteran regiment with a long record of foreign service, not to be confused with that 2nd battalion which was so severely handled upon several occasions. It was well that it was so, for less sturdy material might have been overborne by the vigour of the attack. As it was, the garrison were driven to their last trench, but held out under a very heavy fire all day, and next morning the Boers abandoned the attack. Their losses appear to have been over fifty in number, and included Commandant Celliers, who was badly wounded and afterwards taken prisoner at Warm Baths. The brave garrison lost fourteen killed, including two officers of the Northumberlands, and twenty wounded.

In each of these instances the attacks by the Boers upon British posts had ended in a repulse to themselves. They were more fortunate, however, in their attempt upon Modderfontein on the Gatsrand at the end of January. The post was held by 200 of the South Wales Borderers, reinforced by the 59th Imperial Yeomanry, who had come in as escort to a convoy from Krugersdorp. The attack, which lasted all day, was carried out by a commando of 2,000 Boers under Smuts, who rushed the position upon the following morning. As usual, the Boers, who were unable to retain their prisoners, had little to show for their success. The British casualties, however, were between thirty and forty, mostly wounded.

On January 22nd General Cunninghame left Oliphant's Nek with a small force consisting of the Border and Worcester Regiments, the 6th Mounted Infantry, Kitchener's Horse, 7th Imperial Yeomanry, 8th R.F.A., and P battery R.H.A. It had instructions to move south upon the enemy known to be gathering there. By midday this force was warmly engaged, and found itself surrounded by considerable bodies of De la Rey's burghers. That night they camped at Middelfontein, and were strongly attacked in the early morning. So menacing was the Boer attitude, and so formidable the position, that the force was in some danger. Fortunately they were in heliographic communication with Oliphant's Nek, and learned upon the 23rd that Babington had been ordered to their relief. All day Cunninghame's men were under a long-range fire, but on the 24th Babington appeared, and the British force was successfully extricated, having seventy-five casualties. This action of Middelfontein is interesting as having been begun in Queen Victoria's reign, and ended in that of Edward VII.

Cunninghame's force moved on to Krugersdorp, and there, having heard of the fall of the Modderfontein post as already described, a part of his command moved out to the Gatsrand in pursuit of Smuts. It was found, however, that the Boers had taken up a strong defensive position, and the British were not numerous enough to push the attack. On February 3rd Cunninghame endeavoured to outflank the enemy with his small cavalry force while pushing his infantry up in front, but in neither attempt did he succeed, the cavalry failing to find the flank, while the infantry were met with a fire which made further advance impossible. One company of the Border Regiment found itself in such a position that the greater part of it was killed, wounded, or taken. This check constituted the action of Modderfontein. On the 4th, however, Cunningham, assisted by some of the South African Constabulary, made his way round the flank, and dislodged the enemy, who retreated to the south. A few days later some of Smuts's men made an attempt upon the railway near Bank, but were driven off with twenty-six casualties. It was after this that Smuts moved west and joined De la Rey's commando to make the attack already described upon Lichtenburg. These six attempts represent the chief aggressive movements which the Boers made against British posts in the Transvaal during these months. Attacks upon trains were still common, and every variety of sniping appears to have been rife, from the legitimate ambuscade to something little removed from murder.

It has been described in a previous chapter how Lord Kitchener made an offer to the burghers which amounted to an amnesty, and how a number of those Boers who had come under the influence of the British formed themselves into peace committees, and endeavoured to convey to the fighting commandos some information as to the hopelessness of the struggle, and the lenient mood of the British. Unfortunately these well-meant offers appear to have been mistaken for signs of weakness by the Boer leaders, and encouraged them to harden their hearts. Of the delegates who conveyed the terms to their fellow countrymen two at least were shot, several were condemned to death, and few returned without ill-usage. In no case did they bear back a favourable answer. The only result of the proclamation was to burden the British resources by an enormous crowd of women and children who were kept and fed in refugee camps, while their fathers and husbands continued in most cases to fight.

This allusion to the peace movement among the burghers may serve as an introduction to the attempt made by Lord Kitchener, at the end of February 1901, to bring the war to a close by negotiation. Throughout its course the fortitude of Great Britain and of the Empire had never for an instant weakened, but her conscience had always been sensitive at the sight of the ruin which had befallen so large a portion of South Africa, and any settlement would have been eagerly hailed which would insure that the work done had not been wasted, and would not need to be done again. A peace on any other terms would simply shift upon the shoulders of our descendants those burdens which we were not manly enough to bear ourselves. There had arisen, as has been said, a considerable peace movement among the burghers of the refugee camps and also among the prisoners of war. It was hoped that some reflection of this might be found among the leaders of the people. To find out if this were so Lord Kitchener, at the end of February, sent a verbal message to Louis Botha, and on the 27th of that month the Boer general rode with an escort of Hussars into Middelburg. 'Sunburned, with a pleasant, fattish face of a German type, and wearing an imperial,' says one who rode beside him. Judging from the sounds of mirth heard by those without, the two leaders seem to have soon got upon amiable terms, and there was hope that a definite settlement might spring from their interview. From the beginning Lord Kitchener explained that the continued independence of the two republics was an impossibility. But on every other point the British Government was prepared to go great lengths in order to satisfy and conciliate the burghers.

On March 7th Lord Kitchener wrote to Botha from Pretoria, recapitulating the points which he had advanced. The terms offered were certainly as far as, and indeed rather further than, the general sentiment of the Empire would have gone. If the Boers laid down their arms there was to be a complete amnesty, which was apparently to extend to rebels also so long as they did not return to Cape Colony or Natal. Self-government was promised after a necessary interval, during which the two States should be administered as Crown colonies. Law courts should be independent of the Executive from the beginning, and both languages be official. A million pounds of compensation would be paid to the burghers - a most remarkable example of a war indemnity being paid by the victors. Loans were promised to the farmers to restart them in business, and a pledge was made that farms should not be taxed. The Kaffirs were not to have the franchise, but were to have the protection of law. Such were the generous terms offered by the British Government. Public opinion at home, strong]y supported by that of the colonies, and especially of the army, felt that the extreme step had been taken in the direction of conciliation, and that to do more would seem not to offer peace, but to implore it. Unfortunately, however, the one thing which the British could not offer was the one thing which the Boers would insist upon having, and the leniency of the proposals in all other directions may have suggested weakness to their minds. On March 15th an answer was returned by General Botha to the effect that nothing short of total independence would satisfy them, and the negotiations were accordingiy broken off.

There was a disposition, however, upon the Boer side to renew them, and upon May 10th General Botha applied to Lord Kitchener for permission to cable to President Kruger, and to take his advice as to the making of peace. The stern old man at The Hague was still, however, in an unbending mood. His reply was to the effect that there were great hopes of a successful issue of the war, and that he had taken steps to make proper provision for the Boer prisoners and for the refugee women. These steps, and very efficient ones too, were to leave them entirely to the generosity of that Government which he was so fond of reviling.

On the same day upon which Botha applied for leave to use the British cable, a letter was written by Reitz, State Secretary of the Transvaal, to Steyn, in which the desperate condition of the Boers was clearly set forth. This document explained that the burghers were continually surrendering, that the ammunition was nearly exhausted, the food running low, and the nation in danger of extinction. 'The time has come to take the final step,' said the Secretary of State. Steyn wrote back a reply in which, like his brother president, he showed a dour resolution to continue the struggle, prompted by a fatalist conviction that some outside interference would reverse the result of his appeal to arms. His attitude and that of Kruger determined the Boer leaders to hold out for a few more months, a resolution which may have been injudicious, but was certainly heroic. 'It's a fight to a finish this time,' said the two combatants in the' Punch' cartoon which marked the beginning of the war. It was indeed so, as far as the Boers were concerned. As the victors we can afford to acknowledge that no nation in history has ever made a more desperate and prolonged resistance against a vastly superior antagonist. A Briton may well pray that his own people may be as staunch when their hour of adversity comes round.

The British position at this stage of the war was strengthened by a greater centralisation. Garrisons of outlying towns were withdrawn so that fewer convoys became necessary. The population was removed also and placed near the railway lines, where they could be more easily fed. In this way the scene of action was cleared and the Boer and British forces left face to face. Convinced of the failure of the peace policy, and morally strengthened by having tried it, Lord Kitchener set himself to finish the war by a series of vigorous operations which should sweep the country from end to end. For this purpose mounted troops were essential, and an appeal from him for reinforcements was most nobly answered. Five thousand horsemen were despatched from the colonies, and twenty thousand cavalry, mounted infantry, and Yeomanry were sent from home. Ten thousand mounted men had already been raised in Great Britain, South Africa, and Canada for the Constabulary force which was being organised by Baden-Powell. Altogether the reinforcements of horsemen amounted to more than thirty-five thousand men, all of whom had arrived in South Africa before the end of April. With the remains of his old regiments Lord Kitchener had under him at this final period of the war between fifty and sixty thousand cavalry-such a force as no British General in his happiest dream had ever thought of commanding, and no British war minister in his darkest nightmare had ever imagined himself called upon to supply.

Long before his reinforcements had come to hand, while his Yeomanry was still gathering in long queues upon the London pavement to wait their turn at the recruiting office, Lord Kitchener had dealt the enemy several shrewd blows which materially weakened their resources in men and material. The chief of these was the great drive down the Eastern Transvaal undertaken by seven columns under the command of French. Before considering this, however, a few words must be devoted to the doings of Methuen in the south-west.

This hard-working General, having garrisoned Zeerust and Lichtenburg, had left his old district and journeyed with a force which consisted largely of Bushmen and Yeomanry to the disturbed parts of Bechuanaland which had been invaded by De Villiers. Here he cleared the country as far as Vryburg, which he had reached in the middle of January, working round to Kuruman and thence to Taungs. From Taungs his force crossed the Transvaal border and made for Klerksdorp, working through an area which had never been traversed and which contained the difficult Masakani hills. He left Taungs upon February 2nd, fighting skirmishes at Uitval's Kop, Paardefontein and Lilliefontein, in each of which the enemy was brushed aside. Passing through Wolmaranstad, Methuen turned to the north, where at Haartebeestefontein, on February 19th, he fought a brisk engagement with a considerable force of Boers under De Villiers and Liebenberg. On the day before the fight he successfully outwitted the Boers, for, learning that they had left their laager in order to take up a position for battle, he pounced upon the laager and captured 10,000 head of cattle, forty-three wagons, and forty prisoners. Stimulated by this success, he attacked the Boers next day, and after five hours of hard fighting forced the pass which they were holding against him. As Methuen had but 1,500 men, and was attacking a force which was as large as his own in a formidable position, the success was a very creditable one. The Yeomanry all did well, especially the 5th and 10th battalions. So also did the Australians and tho Loyal North Lancashires. The British casualties amounted to sixteen killed and thirty-four wounded, while the Boers left eighteen of their dead upon the position which they had abandoned. Lord Methuen's little force ret urnedto Klerksdorp, having deserved right well of their country. From Klerksdorp Methuen struck back westwards to the south of his former route, and on March 14th he was reported at Warrenton. Here also in April came Erroll's small column, bringing with it the garrison and inhabitants of Hoopstad, a post which it had been determined, in accordance with Lord Kitchener's policy of centralisation, to abandon.

In the month of January, 1901, there had been a considerable concentration of the Transvaal Boers into that large triangle which is bounded by the Delagoa railway line upon the north, the Natal railway line upon the south, and the Swazi and Zulu frontiers upon the east. The buschveldt is at this season of the year unhealthy both for man and beast, so that for the sake of their herds, their families, and themselves the burghers were constrained to descend into the open veldt. There seemed the less objection to their doing so since this tract of country, though traversed once both by Buller and by French, has still remained a stronghold of the Boers and a storehouse of supplies. Within its borders are to be found Carolina, Ermelo, Vryheid, and other storm centres. Its possession offers peculiar strategical advantages, as a force lying there can always attack either railway, and might even make, as was indeed intended, a descent into Natal. For these mingled reasons of health and of strategy a considerable number of burghers united in this district under the command of the Bothas and of Smuts.

Their concentration had not escaped the notice of the British military authorities, who welcomed any movement which might bring to a focus that resistance which had been so nebulous and elusive. Lord Kitchener having once seen the enemy fairly gathered into this huge cover, undertook the difficult task of driving it from end to end. For this enterprise General French was given the chief command, and had under his orders no fewer than seven columns, which started from different points of the Delagoa and of the Natal railway lines, keeping in touch with each other and all trending south and east. A glance at the map would show, however, that it was a very large field for seven guns, and that it would need all their alertness to prevent the driven game from breaking back. Three columns started from the Delagoa line, namely, Smith-Dorrien's from Wonderfontein (the most easterly), Campbell's from Middelburg, and Alderson's from Eerstefabrieken, close to Pretoria. Four columns came from the western railway line: General Knox's from Kaalfontein, Major Allenby's from Zuurfontein (both stations between Pretoria and Johannesburg), General Dartnell's from Springs, close to Johannesburg, and finally General Colville (not to be confused with Colvile) from Greylingstad in the south. The whole movement resembled a huge drag net, of which Wonderfontein and Greylingstad formed the ends, exactly one hundred miles apart. On January 27th the net began to be drawn. Some thousands of Boers with a considerable number of guns were known to be within the enclosure, and it was hoped that even if their own extreme mobility enabled them to escape it would be impossible for them to save their transport and their cannon.

Each of the British columns was about 2,000 strong, making a total of 14,000 men with about fifty guns engaged in the operations. A front of not less than ten miles was to be maintained by each force. The first decided move was on the part of the extreme left wing, Smith-Dorrien's column, which moved south on Carolina, and thence on Bothwell near Lake Chrissie. The arduous duty of passing supplies down from the line fell mainly upon him, and his force was in consequence larger than the others, consisting of 8,500 men with thirteen guns. On the arrival of Smith-Dorrien at Carolina the other columns started, their centre of advance being Ermelo. Over seventy miles of veldt the gleam of the helio by day and the flash of the signal lamps at night marked the steady flow of the British tide. Here and there the columns came in touch with the enemy and swept him before them. French had a skirmish at Wilge River at the end of January, and Campbell another south of Middelburg, in which he had twenty casualties. On February 4th Smith-Dorrien was at Lake Chrissie; French had passed through Bethel and the enemy was retiring on Amsterdam. The hundred-mile ends of the drag net were already contracted to a third of that distance, and the game was still known to be within it. On the 5th Ermelo was occupied, and the fresh deep ruts upon the veldt told the British horsemen of the huge Boer convoy that was ahead of them. For days enormous herds, endless flocks, and lines of wagons which stretched from horizon to horizon had been trekking eastward. Cavalry and mounted infantry were all hot upon the scent.

Botha, however, was a leader of spirit, not to be hustled with impunity. Having several thousand burghers with him, it was evident that if he threw himself suddenly upon any part of the British line he might hope for a time to make an equal fight, and possibly to overwhelm it. Were Smith-Dorrien out of the way there would be a clear road of escape for his whole convoy to the north, while a defeat of any of the other columns would not help him much. It was on Smith-Dorrien, therefore, that he threw himself with great impetuosity. That General's force was, however, formidable, consisting of the Suffolks, West Yorks and Camerons, 5th Lancers, 2nd Imperial Light Horse, and 3rd Mounted Infantry, with eight field guns and three heavy pieces. Such a force could hardly be defeated in the open, but no one can foresee the effect of a night surprise well pushed home, and such was the attack delivered by Botha at 3 A.M. upon February 6th, when his opponent was encamped at Bothwell Farm.

The night was favourable to the attempt, as it was dark and misty. Fortunately, however, the British commander had fortified himself and was ready for an assault. The Boer forlorn hope came on with a gallant dash, driving a troop of loose horses in upon the outposts, and charging forward into the camp. The West Yorkshires, however, who bore the brunt of the attack, were veterans of the Tugela, who were no more to be flurried at three in the morning than at three in the afternoon. The attack was blown backwards, and twenty dead Boers, with their brave leader Spruyt, were left within the British lines. The main body of the Boers contented themselves with a heavy fusillade out of the darkness, which was answered and crushed by the return fire of the infantry. In the morning no trace, save their dead, was to be seen of the enemy, but twenty killed and fifty wounded in Smith-Dorrien's column showed how heavy had been the fire which had swept through the sleeping camp. The Carolina attack, which was to have co-operated with that of the Heidelbergers, was never delivered, through difficulties of the ground, and considerable recriminations ensued among the Boers in consequence.

Beyond a series of skirmishes and rearguard actions this attack of Botha's was the one effort made to stay the course of French's columns. It did not succeed, however, in arresting them for an hour. From that day began a record of captures of men, herds, guns, and wagons, as the fugitives were rounded up from the north, the west, and the south. The operation was a very thorough one, for the towns and districts occupied were denuded of their inhabitants, who were sent into the refugee camps while the country was laid waste to prevent its furnishing the commandos with supplies in the future. Still moving south-east, General French's columns made their way to Piet Betief upon the Swazi frontier, pushing a disorganised array which he computed at 5,000 in front of them. A party of the enemy, including the Carolina commando, had broken back in the middle of February and Louis Botha had got away at the same time, but so successful were his main operations that French was able to report his total results at the end of the month as being 292 Boers killed or wounded, 500 surrendered, 3 guns and one maxim taken, with 600 rifles, 4,000 horses, 4,500 trek oxen, 1,300 wagons and carts, 24,000 cattle, and 165,000 sheep. The whole vast expanse of the eastern veldt was dotted with the broken and charred wagons of the enemy.

Tremendous rains were falling and the country was one huge quagmire, which crippled although it did not entirely prevent the further operations. All the columns continued to report captures. On March 3rd Dartnell got a maxim and 50 prisoners, while French reported 50 more, and Smith-Dorrien 80. On March 6th French captured two more guns, and on the 14th he reported 46 more Boer casualties and 146 surrenders, with 500 more wagons, and another great haul of sheep and oxen. By the end of March French had moved as far south as Vryheid, his troops having endured the greatest hardships from the continual heavy rains, and the difficulty of bringing up any supplies. On the 27th he reported seventeen more Boer casualties and 140 surrenders, while on the last day of the month he took another gun and two pom-poms. The enemy at that date were still retiring eastward, with Alderson and Dartnell pressing upon their rear. On April 4th French announced the capture of the last piece of artillery which the enemy possessed in that region. The rest of the Boer forces doubled back at night between the columns and escaped over the Zululand border, where 200 of them surrendered. The total trophies of French's drive down the Eastern Transvaal amounted to eleven hundred of the enemy killed, wounded, or taken, the largest number in any operation since the surrender of Prinsloo. There is no doubt that the movement would have been even more successful had the weather been less boisterous, but this considerable loss of men, together with the capture of all the guns in that region, and of such enormous quantities of wagons, munitions, and stock, inflicted a blow upon the Boers from which they never wholly recovered. On April 20th French was back in Johannesburg once more.

While French had run to earth the last Boer gun in the south.eastern corner of the Transvaal, De la Rey, upon the western side, had still managed to preserve a considerable artillery with which he flitted about the passes of the Magaliesberg or took refuge in the safe districts to the south-west of it. This part of the country had been several times traversed, but had never been subdued by British columns. The Boers, like their own veldt grass, need but a few sparks to be left behind to ensure a conflagration breaking out again. It was into this inflammable country that Babington moved in March with Klerksdorp for his base. On March 21st he had reached Haartebeestefontein, the scene not long before of a successful action by Methuen. Here he was joined by Shekleton's Mounted Infantry, and his whole force consisted of these, with the 1st Imperial Light Horse, the 6th Imperial Bushmen, the New-Zealanders, a squadron of the 14th Hussars, a wing each of the Somerset Light Infantry and of the Welsh Fusiliers, with Carter's guns and four pom-poms. With this mobile and formidable little force Babington pushed on in search of Smuts and De la Rey, who were known to be in the immediate neighbourhood.

As a matter of fact the Boers were not only there, but were nearer and in greater force than had been anticipated. On the 22nd three squadrons of the Imperial Light Horse under Major Briggs rode into 1,500 of them, and it was only by virtue of their steadiness and gallantry that they succeeded in withdrawing themselves and their pom-pom without a disaster. With Boers in their front and Boers on either flank they fought an admirable rearguard action. So hot was the fire that A squadron alone had twenty-two casualties. They faced it out, however, until their gun had reached a place of safety, when they made an orderly retirement towards Babington's camp, having inflicted as heavy a loss as they had sustained. With Elandslaagte, Waggon Hill, the relief of Mafeking, Naauwpoort, and Haartebeestefontein upon their standards, the Imperial Light Horse, should they take a permanent place in the Army List, will start with a record of which many older regiments might be proud.

If the Light Horse had a few bad hours on March 22nd at the hands of the Boers, they and their colonial comrades were soon able to return the same with interest. On March 23rd Babington moved forward through Kafir Kraal, the enemy falling back before him. Next morning the British again advanced, and as the New-Zealanders and Bushmen, who formed the vanguard under Colonel Gray, emerged from a pass they saw upon the plain in front of them the Boer force with all its guns moving towards them. Whether this was done of set purpose or whether the Boers imagined that the British had turned and were intending to pursue them cannot now be determined, but whatever the cause it is certain that for almost the first time in the campaign a considerable force of each side found themselves in the open and face to face.

It was a glorious moment. Setting spurs to their horses, officers and men with a yell dashed forward at the enemy. One of the Boer guns unlimbered and attempted to open fire, but was overwhelmed by the wave of horsemen. The Boer riders broke and fled, leaving their artillery to escape as best it might. The guns dashed over the veldt in a mad gallop, but wilder still was the rush of the fiery cavalry behind them. For once the brave and cool-headed Dutchmen were fairly panic-stricken. Hardly a shot was fired at the pursuers, and the riflemen seem to have been only too happy to save their own skins. Two field guns, one pom-pom, six maxims, fifty-six wagons and 140 prisoners were the fruits of that one magnificent charge, while fifty-four stricken Boers were picked up after the action. The pursuit was reluctantly abandoned when the spent horses could go no farther.

While the vanguard had thus scattered the main body of the enemy a detachment of riflemen had ridden round to attack the British rear and convoy. A few volleys from the escort drove them off, however, with some loss. Altogether, what with the loss of nine guns and of at least 200 men, the rout of Haartebeestefontein was a severe blow to the Boer cause. A week or two later Sir H. Rawlinson's column, acting with Babington, rushed Smuts's laager at daylight and effected a further capture of two guns and thirty prisoners. Taken in conjunction with French's successes in the east and Plumer's in the north, these successive blows might have seemed fatal to the Boer cause, but the weary struggle was still destined to go on until it seemed that it must be annihilation rather than incorporation which would at last bring a tragic peace to those unhappy lands.

All over the country small British columns had been operating during these months - operations which were destined to increase in scope and energy as the cold weather drew in. The weekly tale of prisoners and captures, though small for any one column, gave the aggregate result of a considerable victory. In these scattered and obscure actions there was much good work which can have no reward save the knowledge of duty done. Among many successful raids and skirmishes may be mentioned two by Colonel Park from Lydenburg, which resulted between them in the capture of nearly 100 of the enemy, including Abel Erasmus of sinister reputation. Nor would any summary of these events be complete without a reference to the very gallant defence of Mahlabatini in Zululand, which was successfully held by a handful of police and civilians against an irruption of the Boers. With the advent of winter and of reinforcements the British operations became very energetic in every part of the country, and some account of them will now be added.


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