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Chapter 14

THE COLESBERG OPERATIONS


Of the four British armies in the field I have attempted to tell the
story of the western one which advanced to help Kimberley, of the
eastern one which was repulsed at Colenso, and of the central one
which was checked at Stormberg. There remains one other central one,
some account of which must now be given.

It was, as has already been pointed out, a long three weeks after the
declaration of war before the forces of the Orange Free State began to
invade Cape Colony. But for this most providential delay it is
probable that the ultimate fighting would have been, not among the
mountains and kopjes of Stormberg and Colesberg, but amid those
formidable passes which lie in the Hex Valley, immediately to the
north of Cape Town, and that the armies of the invader would have been
doubled by their kinsmen of the Colony. The ultimate result of the war
must have been the same, but the sight of all South Africa in flames
might have brought about those Continental complications which have
always been so grave a menace.

The invasion of the Colony was at two points along the line of the two
railways which connect the countries, the one passing over the Orange
River at Norval's Pont and the other at Bethulie, about forty miles to
the eastward. There were no British troops available (a fact to be
considered by those, if any remain, who imagine that the British
entertained any design against the Republics), and the Boers jogged
slowly southward amid a Dutch population who hesitated between their
unity of race and speech and their knowledge of just and generous
treatment by the Empire. A large number were won over by the invaders,
and, like all apostates, distinguished themselves by their virulence
and harshness towards their loyal neighbours. Here and there in towns
which were off the railway line, in Barkly East or Ladygrey, the
farmers met together with rifle and bandolier, tied orange puggarees
round their hats, and rode off to join the enemy. Possibly these
ignorant and isolated men hardly recognised what it was that they were
doing. They have found out since. In some of the border districts the
rebels numbered ninety per cent of the Dutch population.

In the meanwhile, the British leaders had been strenuously
endeavouring to scrape together a few troops with which to make some
stand against the enemy. For this purpose two small forces were
necessary -- the one to oppose the advance through Bethulie and
Stormberg, the other to meet the invaders, who, having passed the
river at Norval's Pont, had now occupied Colesberg. The former task
was, as already shown, committed to General Gatacre. The latter was
allotted to General French, the victor of Elandslaagte, who had
escaped in the very last train from Ladysmith, and had taken over this
new and important duty. French's force assembled at Arundel and
Gatacre's at Sterkstroom. It is with the operations of the former that
we have now to deal.

General French, for whom South Africa has for once proved not the
grave but the cradle of a reputation, had before the war gained some
name as a smart and energetic cavalry officer. There were some who,
watching his handling of a considerable body of horse at the great
Salisbury manoeuvres in 1898, conceived the highest opinion of his
capacity, and it was due to the strong support of General Buller, who
had commanded in these peaceful operations, that French received his
appointment for South Africa. In person he is short and thick, with a
pugnacious jaw. In character he is a man of cold persistence and of
fiery energy, cautious and yet audacious, weighing his actions well,
but carrying them out with the dash which befits a mounted leader. He
is remarkable for the quickness of his decision -- 'can think at a
gallop,' as an admirer expressed it. Such was the man, alert,
resourceful, and determined, to whom was entrusted the holding back of
the Colesberg Boers.

Although the main advance of the invaders was along the lines of the
two railways, they ventured, as they realised how weak the forces were
which opposed them, to break off both to the east and west, occupying
Dordrecht on one side and Steynsberg on the other. Nothing of
importance accrued from the possession of these points, and our
attention may be concentrated upon the main line of action.

French's original force was a mere handful of men, scraped together
from anywhere. Naauwpoort was his base, and thence he made a
reconnaissance by rail on November 23rd towards Arundel, the next
hamlet along the line, taking with him a company of the Black Watch,
forty mounted infantry, and a troop of the New South Wales Lancers.
Nothing resulted from the expedition save that the two forces came
into touch with each other, a touch which was sustained for months
under many vicissitudes, until the invaders were driven back once more
over Norval's Pont. Finding that Arundel was weakly held, French
advanced up to it, and established his camp there towards the end of
December, within six miles of the Boer lines at Rensburg, to the south
of Colesberg. His mission -- with his present forces -- was to prevent
the further advance of the enemy into the Colony, but he was not
strong enough yet to make a serious attempt to drive them out.

Before the move to Arundel on December 13th his detachment had
increased in size, and consisted largely of mounted men, so that it
attained a mobility very unusual for a British force. On December 13th
there was an attempt upon the part of the Boers to advance south,
which was easily held by the British Cavalry and Horse Artillery. The
country over which French was operating is dotted with those singular
kopjes which the Boer loves -- kopjes which are often so grotesque in
shape that one feels as if they must be due to some error of
refraction when one looks at them. But, on the other hand, between
these hills there lie wide stretches of the green or russet savanna,
the noblest field that a horseman or a horse gunner could wish. The
riflemen clung to the hills, French's troopers circled warily upon the
plain, gradually contracting the Boer position by threatening to cut
off this or that outlying kopje, and so the enemy was slowly herded
into Colesberg. The small but mobile British force covered a very
large area, and hardly a day passed that one or other part of it did
not come in contact with the enemy. With one regiment of infantry
(the Berkshires) to hold the centre, his hard-riding Tasmanians,
New-Zealanders, and Australians, with the Scots Greys, the
Inniskillings, and the Carabineers, formed an elastic but impenetrable
screen to cover the Colony. They were aided by two batteries, 0 and
R, of Horse Artillery. Every day General French rode out and made a
close personal examination of the enemy's position, while his scouts
and outposts were instructed to maintain the closest possible touch.

On December 30th the enemy abandoned Rensburg, which had been their
advanced post, and concentrated at Colesberg, upon which French moved
his force up and seized Rensburg. The very next day, December 31st, he
began a vigorous and long-continued series of operations. At five
o'clock on Sunday evening he moved out of Rensburg camp, with R and
half of 0 batteries R.H.A., the 10th Hussars, the Inniskillings, and
the Berkshires, to take up a position on the west of Colesberg. At
the same time Colonel Porter, with the half-battery of 0, his own
regiment (the Carabineers), and the New Zealand Mounted Rifles, left
camp at two on the Monday morning and took a position on the enemy's
left flank. The Berkshires under Major McCracken seized hill, driving
a Boer picket off it, and the Horse enfiladed the enemy's right flank,
and after a risk artillery duel succeeded in silencing his guns. Next
morning, however (January 2nd, 1900), it was found that the Boers,
strongly reinforced, were back near their old positions, and French
had to be content to hold them and to wait for more troops.

These were not long in coming, for the Suffolk Regiment had arrived,
followed by the Composite Regiment (chosen from the Household Cavalry)
and the 4th Battery R.F.A. The Boers, however, had also been
reinforced, and showed great energy in their effort to break the
cordon which was being drawn round them. Upon the 4th a determined
effort was made by about a thousand of them under General Shoemann to
turn the left flank of the British, and at dawn it was actually found
that they had eluded the vigilance of the outposts and had established
themselves upon a hill to the rear of the position. They were shelled
off of it, however, by the guns of 0 Battery, and in their retreat
across the plain they were pursued by the 10th Hussars and by one
squadron of the Inniskillings, who cut off some of the fugitives. At
the same time, De Lisle with his mounted infantry carried the position
which they had originally held. In this successful and well-managed
action the Boer loss was ninety, and we took in addition twenty-one
prisoners. Our own casualties amounted only to six killed, including
Major Harvey of the 10th, and to fifteen wounded.

Encouraged by this success an attempt was made by the Suffolk Regiment
to carry a hill which formed the key of the enemy's position. The town
of Colesberg lies in a basin surrounded by a ring of kopjes, and the
possession by us of any one of them would have made the place
untenable. The plan has been ascribed to Colonel Watson of the
Suffolks, but it is time that some protest should be raised against
this devolution of responsibility upon subordinates in the event of
failure. When success has crowned our arms we have been delighted to
honour our general; but when our efforts end in failure our attention
is called to Colonel Watson, Colonel Long, or Colonel Thorneycroft. It
is fairer to state that in this instance General French ordered
Colonel Watson to make a night attack upon the hill.

The result was disastrous. At midnight four companies in canvas shoes
or in their stocking feet set forth upon their venture, and just
before dawn they found themselves upon the slope of the hill. They
were in a formation of quarter column with files extended to two
paces; H Company was leading. When half-way up a warm fire was opened
upon them in the darkness. Colonel Watson gave the order to retire,
intending, as it is believed, that the men should get under the
shelter of the dead ground which they had just quitted, but his death
immediately afterwards left matters in a confused condition. The
night was black, the ground broken, a hail of bullets whizzing through
the ranks. Companies got mixed in the darkness and contradictory
orders were issued. The leading company held its ground, though each
of the officers, Brett, Carey, and Butler, was struck down. The other
companies had retired, however, and the dawn found this fringe of men,
most of them wounded, lying under the very rifles of the Boers. Even
then they held out for some time, but they could neither advance,
retire, or stay where they were without losing lives to no purpose, so
the survivors were compelled to surrender. There is better evidence
here than at Magersfontein that the enemy were warned and ready. Every
one of the officers engaged, from the Colonel to the boy subaltern,
was killed, wounded, or taken. Eleven officers and one hundred and
fifty men were our losses in this unfortunate but not discreditable
affair, which proves once more how much accuracy and how much secrecy
is necessary for a successful night attack. Four companies of the
regiment were sent down to Port Elizabeth to re-officer, but the
arrival of the 1st Essex enabled French to fill the gap which had been
made in his force.

In spite of this annoying check, French continued to pursue his
original design of holding the enemy in front and working round him on
the east. On January 9th, Porter, of the Carabineers, with his own
regiment, two squadrons of Household Cavalry, the New-Zealanders, the
New South Wales Lancers, and four guns, took another step forward and,
after a skirmish, occupied a position called Slingersfontein, still
further to the north and east, so as to menace the main road of
retreat to Norval's Pont. Some skirmishing followed, but the position
was maintained. On the 15th the Boers, thinking that this long
extension must have weakened us, made a spirited attack upon a
position held by New-Zealanders and a company of the 1st Yorkshires,
this regiment having been sent up to reinforce French. The attempt was
met by a volley and a bayonet charge. Captain Orr, of the Yorkshires,
was struck down; but Captain Madocks, of the New-Zealanders, who
behaved with conspicuous gallantry at a critical instant, took
command, and the enemy was heavily repulsed. Madocks engaged in a
point-blank rifle duel with the frock-coated top-hatted Boer leader,
and had the good fortune to kill his formidable opponent. Twenty-one
Boer dead and many wounded left upon the field made a small set-off to
the disaster of the Suffolks.

The next day, however (January 16th), the scales of fortune, which
swung alternately one way and the other, were again tipped against
us. It is difficult to give an intelligible account of the details of
these operations, because they were carried out by thin fringes of men
covering on both sides a very large area, each kopje occupied as a
fort, and the intervening plains patrolled by cavalry.

As French extended to the east and north the Boers extended also to
prevent him from outflanking them, and so the little armies stretched
and stretched until they were two long mobile skirmishing lines. The
actions therefore resolve themselves into the encounters of small
bodies and the snapping up of exposed patrols -- a game in which the
Boer aptitude for guerrilla tactics gave them some advantage, though
our own cavalry quickly adapted themselves to the new conditions. On
this occasion a patrol of sixteen men from the South Australian Horse
and New South Wales Lancers fell into an ambush, and eleven were
captured. Of the remainder, three made their way back to camp, while
one was killed and one was wounded.

The duel between French on the one side and Schoeman and Lambert on
the other was from this onwards one of maneuvering rather than of
fighting. The dangerously extended line of the British at this period,
over thirty miles long, was reinforced, as has been mentioned, by the
1st Yorkshire and later by the 2nd Wiltshire and a section of the 37th
Howitzer Battery. There was probably no very great difference in
numbers between the two little armies, but the Boers now, as always,
were working upon internal lines. The monotony of the operations was
broken by the remarkable feat of the Essex Regiment, which succeeded
by hawsers and good-will in getting two 15-pounder guns of the 4th
Field Battery on to the top of Coleskop, a hill which rises several
hundred feet from the plain and is so precipitous that it is no small
task for an unhampered man to climb it. From the summit a fire, which
for some days could not be localised by the Boers, was opened upon
their laagers, which had to be shifted in consequence. This energetic
action upon the part of our gunners may be set off against those other
examples where commanders of batteries have shown that they had not
yet appreciated what strong tackle and stout arms can accomplish. The
guns upon Coleskop not only dominated all the smaller kopjes for a
range of 9,000 yards, but completely commanded the town of Colesberg,
which could not however, for humanitarian and political reasons, be
shelled.

By gradual reinforcements the force under French had by the end of
January attained the respectable figure of ten thousand men, strung
over a large extent of country. His infantry consisted of the 2nd
Berkshires, 1st Royal Irish, 2nd Wiltshires, 2nd Worcesters, 1st
Essex, and 1st Yorkshires; his cavalry, of the 10th Hussars, the 6th
Dragoon Guards, the Inniskillings, the New-Zealanders, the
N.S.W. Lancers, some Rimington Guides, and the composite Household
Regiment; his artillery, the R and 0 batteries of R.H.A., the 4th
R.F.A., and a section of the 37th Howitzer Battery. At the risk of
tedium I have repeated the units of this force, because there are no
operations during the war, with the exception perhaps of those of the
Rhodesian Column, concerning which it is so difficult to get a clear
impression. The fluctuating forces, the vast range of country
covered, and the petty farms which give their names to positions, all
tend to make the issue vague and the narrative obscure. The British
still lay in a semicircle extending from Slingersfontein upon the
right to Kloof Camp upon the left, and the general scheme of
operations continued to be an enveloping movement upon the
right. General Clements commanded this section of the forces, while
the energetic Porter carried out the successive advances. The lines
had gradually stretched until they were nearly fifty miles in length,
and something of the obscurity in which the operations have been left
is due to the impossibility of any single correspondent having a clear
idea of what was occurring over so extended a front.

On January 25th French sent Stephenson and Brabazon to push a
reconnaissance to the north of Colesberg, and found that the Boers
were making a fresh position at Rietfontein, nine miles nearer their
own border. A small action ensued, in which we lost ten or twelve of
the Wiltshire Regiment, and gained some knowledge of the enemy's
dispositions. For the remainder of the month the two forces remained
in a state of equilibrium, each keenly on its guard, and neither
strong enough to penetrate the lines of the other. General French
descended to Cape Town to aid General Roberts in the elaboration of
that plan which was soon to change the whole military situation in
South Africa.

Reinforcements were still dribbling into the British force, Hoad's
Australian Regiment, which had been changed from infantry to cavalry,
and J battery R.H.A. from India, being the last arrivals. But very
much stronger reinforcements had arrived for the Boers -- so strong
that they were able to take the offensive. De la Rey had left the
Modder with three thousand men, and their presence infused new life
into the defenders of Colesberg. At the moment, too, that the Modder
Boers were coming to Colesberg, the British had begun to send cavalry
reinforcements to the Modder in preparation for the march to
Kimberley, so that Clements's Force (as it had now become) was
depleted at the very instant when that of the enemy was largely
increased. The result was that it was all they could do not merely to
hold their own, but to avoid a very serious disaster.

The movements of De la Rey were directed towards turning the right of
the position. On February 9th and 10th the mounted patrols,
principally the Tasmanians, the Australians, and the Inniskillings,
came in contact with the Boers, and some skirmishing ensued, with no
heavy loss upon either side. A British patrol was surrounded and lost
eleven prisoners, Tasmanians and Guides. On the 12th the Boer turning
movement developed itself, and our position on the right at
Slingersfontein was strongly attacked.

The key of the British position at this point was a kopje held by
three companies of the 2nd Worcester Regiment. Upon this the Boers
made a fierce onslaught, but were as fiercely repelled. They came up
in the dark between the set of moon and rise of sun, as they had done
at the great assault of Ladysmith, and the first dim light saw them in
the advanced sangars. The Boer generals do not favour night attacks,
but they are exceedingly fond of using darkness for taking up a good
position and pushing onwards as soon as it is possible to see. This
is what they did upon this occasion, and the first intimation which
the outposts had of their presence was the rush of feet and loom of
figures in the cold misty light of dawn. The occupants of the sangars
were killed to a man, and the assailants rushed onwards. As the sun
topped the line of the veldt half the kopje was in their
possession. Shouting and firing, they pressed onwards.

But the Worcester men were steady old soldiers, and the battalion
contained no less than four hundred and fifty marksmen in its
ranks. Of these the companies upon the hill had their due proportion,
and their fire was so accurate that the Boers found themselves unable
to advance any further. Through the long day a desperate duel was
maintained between the two lines of riflemen. Colonel Cuningham and
Major Stubbs were killed while endeavouring to recover the ground
which had been lost. Hovel and Bartholomew continued to encourage
their men, and the British fire became so deadly that that of the
Boers was dominated. Under the direction of Hacket Pain, who commanded
the nearest post, guns of J battery were brought out into the open and
shelled the portion of the kopje which was held by the Boers. The
latter were reinforced, but could make no advance against the accurate
rifle fire with which they were met. The Bisley champion of the
battalion, with a bullet through his thigh, expended a hundred rounds
before sinking from loss of blood. It was an excellent defence, and a
pleasing exception to those too frequent cases where an isolated force
has lost heart in face of a numerous and persistent foe. With the
coming of darkness the Boers withdrew with a loss of over two hundred
killed and wounded. Orders had come from Clements that the whole right
wing should be drawn in, and in obedience to them the remains of the
victorious companies were called in by Hacket Pain, who moved his
force by night in the direction of Rensburg. The British loss in the
action was twenty-eight killed and nearly a hundred wounded or
missing, most of which was incurred when the sangars were rushed in
the early morning.

While this action was fought upon the extreme right of the British
position another as severe had occurred with much the same result upon
the extreme left, where the 2nd Wiltshire Regiment was stationed. Some
companies of this regiment were isolated upon a kopje and surrounded
by the Boer riflemen when the pressure upon them was relieved by a
desperate attack by about a hundred of the Victorian Rifles. The
gallant Australians lost Major Eddy and six officers out of seven,
with a large proportion of their men, but they proved once for a]l
that amid all the scattered nations who came from the same home there
is not one with a more fiery courage and a higher sense of martial
duty than the men from the great island continent. It is the
misfortune of the historian when dealing with these contingents that,
as a rule, by their very nature they were employed in detached parties
in fulfilling the duties which fall to the lot of scouts and light
cavalry -- duties which fill the casualty lists but not the pages of
the chronicler. Be it said, however, once for all that throughout the
whole African army there was nothing but the utmost admiration for the
dash and spirit of the hard-riding, straight, shooting sons of
Australia and New Zealand. In a host which held many brave men there
were none braver than they.

It was evident from this time onwards that the turning movement had
failed, and that the enemy had developed such strength that we were
ourselves in imminent danger of being turned. The situation was a
most serious one: for if Clements's force could be brushed aside there
would be nothing to keep the enemy from cutting the communications of
the army which Roberts had assembled for his march into the Free
State. Clements drew in his wings hurriedly and concentrated his whole
force at Rensburg. It was a difficult operation in the face of an
aggressive enemy, but the movements were well timed and admirably
carried out. There is always the possibility of a retreat
degenerating into a panic, and a panic at that moment would have been
a most serious matter. One misfortune occurred, through which two
companies of the Wiltshire regiment were left without definite orders,
and were cut off and captured after a resistance in which a third of
then number was killed and wounded. No man in that trying time worked
harder than Colonel Carter of the Wiltshires (the night of the retreat
was the sixth which he had spent without sleep), and the loss of the
two companies is to be set down to one of those accidents which may
always occur in warfare. Some of the Inniskilling Dragoons and
Victorian Mounted Rifles were also cut off in the retreat, but on the
whole Clements was very fortunate in being able to concentrate his
scattered army with so few mishaps. The withdrawal was heartbreaking
to the soldiers who had worked so hard and so long in extending the
lines, but it might be regarded with equanimity by the Generals, who
understood that the greater strength the enemy developed at Colesberg
the less they would have to oppose the critical movements which were
about to be carried out in the west. Meanwhile Coleskop had also been
abandoned, the guns removed, and the whole force on February 14th
passed through Rensburg and felt back upon Arundel, the spot from
which six weeks earlier French had started upon this stirring series
of operations. It would not be fair, however, to suppose that they
had failed because they ended where they began. Their primary object
had been to prevent the further advance of the Freestaters into the
colony, and, during the most critical period of the war, this had been
accomplished with much success and little loss. At last the pressure
had become so severe that the enemy had to weaken the most essential
part of their general position in order to relieve it. The object of
the operations had really been attained when Clements found himself
back at Arundel once more. French, the stormy petrel of the war, had
flitted on from Cape Town to Modder River, where a larger prize than
Colesberg awaited him. Clements continued to cover Naauwport, the
important railway junction, until the advance of Roberts's army caused
a complete reversal of the whole military situation.

Arthur Conan Doyle