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Chapter 19


Lord Roberts's operations, prepared with admirable secrecy and carried
out with extreme energy, aimed at two different results, each of which
he was fortunate enough to aftain. The first was that an overpowering
force of cavalry should ride round the Boer position and raise the
siege of Kimberley: the fate of this expedition has already been
described. The second was that the infantry, following hard on the
heels of the cavalry, and holding all that they had gained, should
establish itself upon Cronje's left flank and cut his connection with
Bloemfontein. It is this portion of the operations which has now to be

The infantry force which General Roberts had assembled was a very
formidable one. The Guards he had left under Methuen in front of the
lines of Magersfontein to contain the Boer force. With them he had
also left those regiments which had fought in the 9th Brigade in all
Methuen's actions. These, as will be remembered, were the 1st
Northumberland Fusiliers, the 2nd Yorkshire Light Infantry, the 2nd
Northamptons, and one wing of the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment.
These stayed to hold Cronje in his position.

There remained tbree divisions of infantry, one of which, the ninth,
was made up on the spot. These were constituted in this way:

Sixth Division (Kelly-Kenny)
12th Brigade (Knox)
Oxford Light Infantry
Gloucesters (2nd)
West Riding
18th Brigade (Stephenson)
Seventh Division (Tucker)
14th Brigade (Chermside)
Scots Borderers
15th Brigade (Wavell)
North Staffords
S. Wales Borderers
East Lancashires
Ninth Division (Colvile)
Highland Brigade (Macdonald)
Black Watch
Argyll and Sutherlands
Highland Light Infantry
19th Brigade (Smith-Dorrien)
Shropshire Light Infantry
Cornwall Light Infantry

With these were two brigade divisions of artillery under General
Marshall, the first containing the 18th, 62nd, and 75th batteries
(Colonel Hall), the other the 76th, 81st, and 82nd (Colonel
McDonnell). Besides these there were a howitzer battery, a naval
contingent of four 4.7 guns and four 12-pounders under Captain
Bearcroft of the ' Philomel.' The force was soon increased by the
transfer of the Guards and the arrival of more artillery; but the
numbers which started on Monday, February 12th, amounted roughly to
twenty-five thousand foot and eight thousand horse with 98 guns-a
considerable army to handle in a foodless and almost waterless
country. Seven hundred wagons drawn by eleven thousand mules and
oxen, all collected by the genius for preparation and organisation
which characterises Lord Kitchener, groaned and creaked behind the

Both arms had concentrated at Ramdam, the cavalry going down by road,
and the infantry by rail as far as Belmont or Enslin. On Monday,
February 12th, the cavalry had started, and on Tuesday the infantry
were pressing hard after them. The first thing was to secure a
position upon Cronje's flank, and for that purpose the 6th Division
and the 9th (Kelly-Kenny's and Colvils's) pushed swiftly on and
arrived on Thursday, February 15th, at Klip Drift on the Modder, which
had only been left by the cavalry that same morning. It was obviously
impossible to leave Jacobsdal in the hands of the enemy on our left
flank, so the 7th Division (Tucker's) turned aside to attack the town.
Wavell's brigade carried the place after a sharp skirmish, chiefly
remarkable for the fact that the City Imperial Volunteers found
themselves under fire for the first time and bore themselves with the
gallantry of the old train-bands whose descendants they are. Our loss
was two killed and twenty wounded, and we found ourselves for the
first time firmly established in one of the enemy's towns. In the
excellent German hospital were thirty or forty of our wounded.

On the afternoon of Thursday, February 15th, our cavalry, having left
Klip Drift in the morning, were pushing hard for Kimberley. At Klip
Drift was KellyKenny's 6th Division. South of Klip Drift at Wegdraai
was Colvile's 9th Division, while the 7th Division was approaching
Jacobsdal. Altogether the British forces were extended over a line of
forty miles. The same evening saw the relief of Kimberley and the
taking of Jacobsdal, but it also saw the capture of one of our convoys
by the Boers, a dashing exploit which struck us upon what was
undoubtedly our vulnerable point.

It has never been cleared up whence the force of Boers came which
appeared upon our rear on that occasion. It seems to have been the
same body which had already had a skirmish with Hannay's Mounted
Infantry as they went up from Orange Biver to join the rendezvous at
Ramdam. The balance of evidence is that they had not come from
Colesberg or any distant point, but that they were a force under the
command of Piet De Wet, the younger of two famous brothers.
Descending to Waterval Drift, the ford over the Riet, they occupied a
line of kopjes, which ought, one would have imagined, to have been
carefully guarded by us, and opened a brisk fire from rifles and guns
upon the convoy as it ascended the northern bank of the river.
Numbers of bullocks were soon shot down, and the removal of the
hundred and eighty wagons made impossible. The convoy, which
contained forage and provisions, bad no guard of its own, but the
drift was held by Colonel Ridley with one company of Gordons and one
hundred and fifty mounted infantry without artillery, which certainly
seems an inadequate force to secure the most vital and vulnerable spot
in the line of communications of an army of forty thousand men. The
Boers numbered at the first some five or six hundred men, but their
position was such that they could not be attacked. On the other hand
they were not strong enough to leave their shelter in order to drive
in the British guard, who, lying in extended order between the wagons
and the assailants, were keeping up a steady and effective fire.
Captain Head, of the East Lancashire Regiment, a fine natural soldier,
commanded the British firing line, and neither he nor any of his men
doubted that they could hold off the enemy for an indefinite time. In
the course of the afternoon reinforcements arrived for the Boers, but
Kitchener's Horse and a field battery came back and restored the
balance of power. In the evening the latter swayed altogether in
favour of the British, as Tucker appeared upon the scene with the
whole of the 14th Brigade; but as the question of an assault was being
debated a positive order arrived from Lord Roberts that the convoy
should be abandoned and the force return.

If Lord Roberts needed justification for this decision, the future
course of events will furnish it. One of Napoleon's maxims in war was
to concentrate all one's energies upon one thing at one
time. Roberts's aim was to outflank and possibly to capture Cronje's
army. If he allowed a brigade to be involved in a rearguard action,
his whole swift-moving plan of campaign might be dislocated. It was
very annoying to lose a hundred and eighty wagons, but it only meant a
temporary inconvenience. The plan of campaign was the essential
thing. Therefore he sacrificed his convoy and hurried his troops upon
their original mission. It was with heavy hearts and bitter words
that those who had fought so long abandoned their charge, but now at
least there are probably few of them who do not agree in the wisdom of
the sacrifice. Our loss in this affair was between fifty and sixty
killed and wounded. The Boers were unable to get rid of the stores,
and they were eventually distributed among the local farmers and
recovered again as the British forces flowed over the country. Another
small disaster occurred to us on the preceding day in the loss of
fifty men of E company of Kitchener's Horse, which bad been left as a
guard to a well in the desert.

But great events were coming to obscure those small checks which are
incidental to a war carried out over immense distances against a
mobile and enterprising enemy. Cronje had suddenly become aware of
the net which was closing round him. To the dark fierce man who had
striven so hard to make his line of kopjes impregnable it must have
been a bitter thing to abandon his trenches and his rifle pits. But
he was crafty as well as tenacious, and he had the Boer horror of
being cut off -- an hereditary instinct from fathers who had fought on
horseback against enemies on foot. If at any time during the last ten
weeks Methuen had contained him in front with a thin line of riflemen
with machine guns, and had thrown the rest of his force on Jacobsdal
and the east, he would probably have attained the same result. Now at
the rumour of English upon his flank Cronje instantly abandoned his
position and his plans, in order to restore those communications with
Bloemfontein upon which he depended for his supplies. With furious
speed he drew in his right wing, and then, one huge mass of horsemen,
guns, and wagons, he swept through the gap between the rear of the
British cavalry bound for Kimberley and the head of the British
infantry at Klip Drift. There was just room to pass, and at it he
dashed with the furious energy of a wild beast rushing from a trap. A
portion of his force with his heavy guns had gone north round
Kimberley to Warrenton; many of the Freestaters also had slipped away
and returned to their farms. The remainder, numbering about six
thousand men, the majority of whom were Transvaalers, swept through
between the British forces.

This movement was carried out on the night of February 15th, and had
it been a little quicker it might have been concluded before we were
aware of it. But the lumbering wagons impeded it, and on the Friday
morning, February 16th, a huge rolling cloud of dust on the northern
veldt, moving from west to east, told our outposts at Klip Drift that
Cronje's army had almost slipped through our fingers. Lord Kitchener,
who was in command at Klip Drift at the moment, instantly unleashed
his mounted infantry in direct pursuit, while Knox's brigade sped
along the northern bank of the river to cling on to the right haunch
of the retreating column. Cronje's men had made a night march of
thirty miles from Magersfontein, and the wagon bullocks were
exhausted. It was impossible, without an absolute abandonment of his
guns and stores, for him to get away from his pursuers.

This was no deer which they were chasing, however, but rather a grim
old Transvaal wolf, with his teeth flashing ever over his
shoulder. The sight of those distant white-tilted wagons fired the
blood of every mounted infantryman, and sent the Oxfords, the Buffs,
the West Ridings, and the Gloucesters racing along the river bank in
the glorious virile air of an African morning. But there were kopjes
ahead, sown with fierce Dopper Boers, and those tempting wagons were
only to be reached over their bodies. The broad plain across which
the English were hurrying was suddenly swept with a storm of
bullets. The long infantry line extended yet further and lapped round
the flank of the Boer position, and once more the terrible duet of the
Mauser and the Lee-Metford was sung while the 81st field battery
hurried up in time to add its deep roar to their higher chorus. With
fine judgment Cronje held on to the last moment of safety, and then
with a swift movement to the rear seized a further line two miles off,
and again snapped back at his eager pursuers. All day the grim and
weary rearguard stalled off the fiery advance of the infantry, and at
nightfall the wagons were still untaken. The pursuing force to the
north of the river was, it must be remembered, numerically inferior to
the pursued, so that in simply retarding the advance of the enemy and
in giving other British troops time to come up, Knox's brigade was
doing splendid work. Had Cronje been well advised or well informed,
he would have left his guns and wagons in the hope that by a swift
dash over the Modder he might still bring his army away in safety. He
seems to have underrated both the British numbers and the British

On the night then of Friday, February 16th, Cronje lay upon the
northern bank of the Modder, with his stores and guns still intact,
and no enemy in front of him, though Knox's brigade and Hannay's
Mounted Infantry were behind. It was necessary for Cronje to cross the
river in order to be on the line for Bloemfontein. As the river tended
to the north the sooner he could cross the better. On the south side
of the river, however, were considerable British forces, and the
obvious strategy was to hurry them forward and to block every drift at
which he could get over. The river runs between very deep banks, so
steep that one might almost describe them as small cliffs, and there
was no chance of a horseman, far less a wagon, crossing at any point
save those where the convenience of traffic and the use of years had
worn sloping paths down to the shallows. The British knew exactly
therefore what the places were which had to be blocked. On the use
made of the next few hours the success or failure of the whole
operation must depend.

The nearest drift to Cronje was only a mile or two distant, Klipkraal
the name; next to that the Paardeberg Drift; next to that the
Wolveskraal Drift, each about seven miles from the other. Had Cronje
pushed on instant]y after the action, he might have got across at
Klipkraal. But men, horses, and bullocks were equally exhausted after
a long twenty-four hours' marching and fighting. He gave his weary
soldiers some hours' rest, and then, abandoning seventy-eight of his
wagons, he pushed on Before daylight for the farthest off of the
three fords (Wolveskraal Drift). Could he reach and cross it before
his enemies, he was safe. The Klipkraal Drift had in the meanwhile
been secured by the Buffs, the West Ridings, and the Oxfordshire
Light Infantry after a spirited little action which, in the rapid rush
of events, attracted less attention than it deserved. The brunt of
the fighting fell upon the Oxfords, who lost ten killed and
thirty-nine wounded. It was not a waste of life, however, for the
action, though small and hardly recorded, was really a very essential
one in the campaign.

But Lord Roberts's energy had infused itself into his divisional
commanders, his brigadiers, his colonels, and so down to the humblest
Tommy who tramped and stumbled through the darkness with a devout
faith that 'Bobs' was going to catch 'old Cronje' this time. The
mounted infantry had galloped round from the north to the south of the
river, crossing at Klip Drift and securing the southern end of
Klipkraal. Thither also came Stephenson's brigade from Kelly-Kenny's
Division, while Knox, finding in the morning that Cronje was gone,
marched along the northern bank to the same spot. As Klipkraal was
safe, the mounted infantry pushed on at once and secured the southern
end of the Paardeberg Drift, whither they were followed the same
evening by Stephenson and Knox. There remained only the Wolveskraal
Drift to block, and this had already been done by as smart a piece of
work as any in the war. Wherever French has gone he has done well, but
his crowning glory was the movement from Kimberley to head off
Cronje's retreat.

The exertions which the mounted men had made in the relief of
Kimberley have been already recorded. They arrived there on Thursday
with their horses dead beat. They were afoot at three o'clock on
Friday morning, and two brigades out of three were hard at work all
day in an endeavour to capture the Dronfield position. Yet when on the
same evening an order came that French should start again instantly
from Kimberley and endeavour to head Cronje's army off, he did not
plead inability, as many a commander might, but taking every man whose
horse was still fit to carry him (something under two thousand out of
a column which had been at least five thousand strong), he started
within a few hours and pushed on through the whole night. Horses died
under their riders, but still the column marched over the shadowy
veldt under the brilliant stars. By happy chance or splendid
calculation they were heading straight for the one drift which was
still open to Cronje. It was a close thing. At midday on Saturday the
Boer advance guard was already near to the kopjes which command
it. But French's men, still full of fight after their march of thirty
miles, threw themselves in front and seized the position before their
very eyes. The last of the drifts was closed. If Cronje was to get
across now, he must crawl out of his trench and fight under Roberts's
conditions, or he might remain under his own conditions until
Roberts's forces closed round him. With him lay the alternative. In
the meantime, still ignorant of the forces about him, but finding
himself headed off by French, he made his way down to the river and
occupied a long stretch of it between Paardeberg Drift and Wolveskraal
Drift, hoping to force his way across. This was the situation on the
night of Saturday, February 17th.

In the course of that night the British brigades, staggering with
fatigue but indomitably resolute to crush their evasive enemy, were
converging upon Paardeberg. The Highland Brigade, exhausted by a heavy
march over soft sand from Jacobsdal to Klip Drift, were nerved to
fresh exertions by the word 'Magersfontein,' which flew from lip to
lip along the ranks, and pushed on for another twelve miles to
Paardeberg. Close at their heels came Smith-Dorrien's 19th Brigade,
comprising the Shropshires, the Cornwalls, the Gordons, and the
Canadians, probably the very finest brigade in the whole army. They
pushed across the river and took up their position upon the north
bank. The old wolf was now fairly surrounded. On the west the
Highianders were south of the river, and Smith-Dorrien on the north.
On the east Kelly-Kenny's Division was to the south of the river, and
French with his cavalry and mounted infantry were to the north of it.
Never was a general in a more hopeless plight. Do what he would, there
was no possible loophole for escape.

There was only one thing which apparently should not have been done,
and that was to attack him. His position was a formidable one. Not
only were the banks of the river fringed with his riflemen under
excellent cover, but from these banks there extended on each side a
number of dongas, which made admirable natural trenches. The only
possible attack from either side must be across a level plain at least
a thousand or fifteen hundred yards in width, where our numbers would
only swell our losses. It must be a bold soldier and a far bolder
civilian, who would venture to question an operation carried out under
the immediate personal direction of Lord Kitchener; but the general
consensus of opinion among critics may justify that which might be
temerity in the individual. Had Cronje not been tightly surrounded,
the action with its heavy losses might have been justified as an
attempt to hold him until his investment should be complete. There
seems, however, to be no doubt that he was already entirely
surrounded, and that, as experience proved, we had only to sit round
him to insure his surrender. It is not given to the greatest man to
have every soldierly gift equally developed, and it may be said
without offence that Lord Kitchener's cool judgment upon the actual
field of battle has not yet been proved as conclusively as his
longheaded power of organisation and his iron determination.

Putting aside the question of responsibility, what happened on the
morning of Sunday, February 18th, was that from every quarter an
assault was urged across the level plains, to the north and to the
south, upon the lines of desperate and invisible men who lay in the
dongas and behind the banks of the river. Everywhere there was a
terrible monotony about the experiences of the various regiments which
learned once again the grim lessons of Colenso and Modder River. We
surely did not need to prove once more what had already been so amply
proved, that bravery can be of no avail against concealed riflemen
well entrenched, and that the more hardy is the attack the heavier
must be the repulse. Over the long circle of our attack Knox's
brigade, Stephenson's brigade, the Highland brigade, Smith-Dorrien's
brigade all fared alike. In each case there was the advance until
they were within the thousand-yard fire zone, then the resistless
sleet of bullets which compelled them to get down and to keep down.
Had they even then recognised that they were attempting the
impossible, no great harm might have been done, but with generous
emulation the men of the various regiments made little rushes, company
by company, towards the river bed, and found themselves ever exposed
to a more withering fire. On the northern bank Smith-Dorrien's
brigade, and especially the Canadian regiment, distinguished
themselves by the magnificent tenacity with which they persevered in
their attack. The Cornwalls of the same brigade swept up almost to
the river bank in a charge which was the admiration of all who saw it.
If the miners of Johannesburg had given the impression that the
Cornishman is not a fighter, the record of the county regiment in the
war has for ever exploded the calumny. Men who were not fighters
could have found no place in Smith-Dorrien's brigade or in the charge
of Paardeberg.

While the infantry had been severely handled by the Boer riflemen, our
guns, the 76th, 81st, and 82nd field batteries, with the 65th howitzer
battery, had been shelling the river bed, though our artillery fire
proved as usual to have little effect against scattered and hidden
riflemen. At least, however, it distracted their attention, and made
their fire upon the exposed infantry in front of them less
deadly. Now, as in Napoleon's time, the effect of the guns is moral
rather than material. About midday French's horse-artillery guns came
into action from the north. Smoke and flames from the dongas told
that some of our shells bad fallen among the wagons and their
combustible stores.

The Boer line had proved itself to be unshakable on each face, but at
its ends the result of the action was to push them up, and to shorten
the stretch of the river which was held by them. On the north bank
Smith. Dorrien's brigade gained a considerable amount of ground. At
the other end of the position the Welsh, Yorkshire, and Essex
regiments of Stephenson's brigade did some splendid work, and pushed
the Boers for some distance down the river bank. A most gallant but
impossible charge was made by Colonel Hannay and a number of mounted
infantry against the northern bank. He was shot with the majority of
his followers. General Knox of the 12th Brigade and General Macdonald
of the Highlanders were among the wounded. Colonel Aldworth of the
Cornwalls died at the head of his men. A bullet struck him dead as he
whooped his West Countrymen on to the charge. Eleven hundred killed
and wounded testified to the fire of our attack and the grimness of
the Boer resistance. The distribution of the losses among the various
battalions -- eighty among the Canadians, ninety in the West Riding
Regiment, one hundred and twenty in the Seaforths, ninety in the
Yorkshires, seventy-six in the Argyll and Sutherlands, ninetysix in
the Black Watch, thirty-one in the Oxfordshires, fifty-six in the
Coruwnlls, forty-six in the Shropshires -- shows how universal was the
gallantry, and especially how well the Highland Brigade carried
itself. It is to be feared that they had to face, not only the fire of
the enemy, but also that of their own comrades on the further side of
the river. A great military authority has stated that it takes many
years for a regiment to recover its spirit and steadiness if it has
been heavily punished, and yet within two months of Magersfontein we
find the indomitable Highlanders taking without flinching the very
bloodiest share of this bloody day -- and this after a march of thirty
miles with no pause before going into action. A repulse it may have
been, but they hear no name of which they may be more proud upon the
victory scroll of their colours.

What had we got in return for our eleven hundred casualties? We had
contracted the Boer position from about three miles to less than
two. So much was to the good, as the closer they lay the more
effective our artillery fire might be expected to be. But it is
probable that our shrapnel alone, without any loss of life, might have
effected the same thing. It is easy to be wise after the event, but
it does certainly appear that with our present knowledge the action at
Paardeberg was as unnecessary as it was expensive. The sun descended
on Sunday, February 18th, upon a bloody field and crowded field
hospitals, but also upon an unbroken circle of British troops still
hemming in the desperate men who lurked among the willows and mimosas
which drape the brown steep banks of the Modder.

There was evidence during the action of the presence of an active Boer
force to the south of us, probably the same well-handled and
enterprising body which had captured our convoy at Waterval. A small
party of Kitchener's Horse was surprised by this body, and thirty men
with four officers were taken prisoners. Much has been said of the
superiority of South African scouting to that of the British regulars,
but it must be confessed that a good many instances might be quoted in
which the colonials, though second to none in gallantry, have been
defective in that very quality in which they were expected to excel.

This surprise of our cavalry post had more serious consequences than
can be measured by the loss of men, for by it the Boers obtained
possession of a strong kopje called Kitchener's Hill, lying about two
miles distant on the south-east of our position. The movement was an
admirable one strategically upon their part, for it gave their
beleaguered comrades a first station on the line of their retreat.
Could they only win their way to that kopje, a rearguard action might
be fought from there which would cover the escape of at least a
portion of the force. De Wet, if he was indeed responsible for the
manoeuvres of these Southern Boers, certainly handled his small force
with a discreet audacity which marks him as the born leader which he
afterwards proved himself to be.

If the position of the Boers was desperate on Sunday, it was hopeless
on Monday, for in the course of the morning Lord Roberts came up,
closely followed by the whole of Tucker's Division (7th) from
Jacobsdal. Our artillery also was strongly reinforced. The 18th, 62nd,
and 75th field batteries came up with three naval 4.7 guns and two
naval 12-pounders. Thirty-five thousand men with sixty guns were
gathered round the little Boer army. It is a poor spirit which will
not applaud the supreme resolution with which the gallant farmers held
out, and award to Cronje the title of one of the most grimly resolute
leaders of whom we have any record in modern history.

For a moment it seemed as if his courage was giving way. On Monday
morning a message was transmitted by him to Lord Kitchener asking for
a twenty-four hours' armistice. The answer was of course a curt
refusal. To this he replied that if we were so inhuman as to prevent
him from burying his dead there was nothing for him save surrender. An
answer was given that a messenger with power to treat should be sent
out, but in the interval Cronje had changed his mind, and disappeared
with a snarl of contempt into his burrows. It had become known that
women and children were in the laager, and a message was sent offering
them a place of safety, but even to this a refusal was given. The
reasons for this last decision are inconceivable.

Lord Roberts's dispositions were simple, efficacious, and above all
bloodless. Smith-Dorrien's brigade, who were winning in the Western
army something of the reputation which Hart's Irishmen had won in
Natal, were placed astride of the river to the west, with orders to
push gradually up, as occasion served, using trenches for their
approach. Chermside's brigade occupied the same position on the
east. Two other divisions and the cavalry stood round, alert and
eager, like terriers round a rat-hole, while all day the pitiless guns
crashed their common shell, their shrapnel, and their lyddite into the
river-bed. Already down there, amid slaughtered oxen and dead horses
under a burning sun, a horrible pest-hole had been formed which sent
its mephitic vapours over the countryside. Occasionally the sentries
down the river saw amid the brown eddies of the rushing water the
floating body of a Boer which had been washed away from the Golgotha
above. Dark Cronje, betrayer of Potchefstroom, iron-handed ruler of
natives, reviler of the British, stern victor of Magersfontein, at
last there has come a day of reckoning for you!

On Wednesday, the 21st, the British, being now sure of their grip of
Cronje, turned upon the Boer force which had occupied the hill to the
south-east of the drift. It was clear that this force, unless driven
away, would be the vanguard of the relieving army which might be
expected to assemble from Ladysmith, Bloemfontein, Colesberg, or
wherever else the Boers could detach men. Already it was known that
reinforcements who had left Natal whenever they heard that the Free
State was invaded were drawing near. It was necessary to crush the
force upon the hill before it became too powerful. For this purpose
the cavalry set forth, Broadwood with the 10th Hussars, 12th Lancers,
and two batteries going round on one side, while French with the 9th
and 16th Lancers, the Household Cavalry, and two other batteries
skirted the other. A force of Boers was met and defeated, while the
defenders of the hill were driven off with considerable loss. In this
well-managed affair the enemy lost at least a hundred, of whom fifty
were prisoners. On Friday, February 23rd, another attempt at rescue
was made from the south, but again it ended disastrously for the
Boers. A party attacked a kopje held by the Yorkshire regiment and
were blown back by a volley, upon which they made for a second kopje,
where the Buffs gave them an even rougher reception. Eighty prisoners
were marched in. Meantime hardly a night passed that some of the Boers
did not escape from their laager and give themselves up to our
pickets. At the end of the week we had taken six hundred in all.

In the meantime the cordon was being drawn ever tighter, and the fire
became heavier and more deadly, while the conditions of life in that
fearful place were such that the stench alone might have compelled
surrender. Amid the crash of tropical thunderstorms, the glare of
lightning, and the furious thrashing of rain there was no relaxation
of British vigilance. A balloon floating overhead directed the fire,
which from day to day became more furious, culminating on the 26th
with the arrival of four 5-inch howitzers. But still there came no
sign from the fierce Boer and his gallant followers. Buried deep
within burrows in the river bank the greater part of them lay safe
from the shells, but the rattle of their musketry when the outposts
moved showed that the trenches were as alert as ever. The thing could
only have one end, however, and Lord Roberts, with admirable judgment
and patience, refused to hurry it at the expense of the lives of his

The two brigades at either end of the Boer lines had lost no chance of
pushing in, and now they had come within striking distance. On the
night of February 26th it was determined that Smith-Dorrien's men
should try their luck. The front trenches of the British were at that
time seven hundred yards from the Boer lines. They were held by the
Gordons and by the Canadians, the latter being the nearer to the
river. It is worth while entering into details as to the arrangement
of the attack, as the success of the campaign was at least accelerated
by it. The orders were that the Canadians were to advance, the Gordons
to support, and the Shropshires to take such a position on the left as
would outflank any counter attack upon the part of the Boers. The
Canadians advanced in the darkness of the early morning before the
rise of the moon. The front rank held their rifles in the left hand
and each extended right hand grasped the sleeve of the man next
it. The rear rank had their rifles slung and carried spades. Nearest
the river bank were two companies (G and H.) who were followed by the
7th company of Royal Engineers carrying picks and empty sand bags. The
long line stole through a pitchy darkness, knowing that at any instant
a blaze of fire such as flamed before the Highlanders at Magersfontein
might crash out in front of them. A hundred, two, three, four, five
hundred paces were taken. They knew that they must be close upon the
trenches. If they could only creep silently enough, they might spring
upon the defenders unannounced. On and on they stole, step by step,
praying for silence. Would the gentle shuffle of feet be heard by the
men who lay within stone-throw of them? Their hopes had begun to rise
when there broke upon the silence of the night a resonant metallic
rattle, the thud of a falling man, an empty clatter! They had walked
into a line of meat-cans slung upon a wire. By measurement it was only
ninety yards from the trench. At that instant a single rifle sounded,
and the Canadians hurled themselves down upon the ground. Their bodies
had hardly touched it when from a line six hundred yards long there
came one furious glare of rifle fire, with a hiss like water on a
red-hot plate, of speeding bullets. In that terrible red light the men
as they lay and scraped desperately for cover could see the heads of
the Boers pop up and down, and the fringe of rifle barrels quiver and
gleam. How the regiment, lying helpless under this fire, escaped
destruction is extraordinary. To rush the trench in the face of such
a continuous blast of lead seemed impossible, and it was equally
impossible to remain where they were. In a short time the moon would
be up, and they would be picked off to a man. The outer companies upon
the plain were ordered to retire. Breaking up into loose order, they
made their way back with surprisingly little loss; but a strange
contretemps occurred, for, leaping suddenly into a trench held by the
Gordons, they transfixed themselves upon the bayonets of the men. A
subaltern and twelve men received bayonet thrusts -- none of them
fortunately of a very serious nature.

While these events had been taking place upon the left of the line,
the right was hardly in better plight. All firing had ceased for the
moment -- the Boers being evidently under the impression that the whole
attack had recoiled. Uncertain whether the front of the small party on
the right of the second line (now consisting of some sixty-five
Sappers and Canadians lying in one mingled line) was clear for firing
should the Boers leave their trenches, Captain Boileau, of the
Sappers, crawled forward along the bank of the river, and discovered
Captain Stairs and ten men of the Canadians, the survivors of the
firing line, firmly ensconced in a crevice of the river bank
overlooking the laager, quite happy on being reassured as to the
proximity of support. This brought the total number of the daring
band up to seventy-five rifles. Meanwhile, the Gordons, somewhat
perplexed by the flying phantoms who had been flitting into and over
their trenches for the past few minutes, sent a messenger along the
river bank to ascertain, in their turn, if their own front was clear
to fire, and if not, what state the survivors were in. To this
message Colonel Kincaid, R.E., now in command of the remains of the
assaulting party, replied that his men would be well entrenched by
daylight. The little party had been distributed for digging as well
as the darkness and their ignorance of their exact position to the
Boers would permit. Twice the sound of the picks brought angry
volleys from the darkness, but the work was never stopped, and in the
early dawn the workers found not only that they were secure
themselves, but that they were in a position to enfilade over half a
mile of Boer trenches. Before daybreak the British crouched low in
their shelter, so that with the morning light the Boers did not
realise the change which the night had wrought. It was only when a
burgher was shot as he filled his pannikin at the river that they
understood how their position was overlooked. For half an hour a
brisk fire was maintained, at the end of which time a white flag went
up from the trench. Kincaid stood up on his parapet, and a single
haggard figure emerged from the Boer warren. 'The burghers have had
enough; what are they to do?' said he. As he spoke his comrades
scrambled out behind him and came walking and running over to the
British lines. It was not a moment likely to be forgotten by the
parched and grimy warriors who stood up and cheered until the cry came
crashing back to them again from the distant British camps. No doubt
Cronje had already realised that the extreme limit of his resistance
was come, but it was to that handful of Sappers and Canadians that the
credit is immediately due for that white flag which fluttered on the
morning of Majuba Day over the lines of Paardeberg.

It was six o'clock in the morning when General Pretyman rode up to
Lord Roberts's headquarters. Behind him upon a white horse was a
dark-bearded man, with the quick. restless eyes of a hunter,
middle-sized, thickly built, with grizzled hair flowing from under a
tall brown felt hat. He wore the black broadcloth of the burgher with
a green summer overcoat, and carried a small whip in his hands. His
appearance was that of a respectable London vestryman rather than of a
most redoubtable soldier with a particularly sinister career behind

The Generals shook hands, and it was briefly intimated to Cronje that
his surrender must be unconditional, to which, after a short silence,
he agreed. His only stipulations were personal, that his wife, his
grandson, his secretary, his adjutant, and his servant might accompany
him. The same evening he was despatched to Cape Town, receiving those
honourable attentions which were due to his valour rather than to his
character. His men, a pallid ragged crew, emerged from their holes
and burrows, and delivered up their rifles. It is pleasant to add
that, with much in their memories to exasperate them, the British
privates treated their enemies with as large-hearted a courtesy as
Lord Roberts had shown to their leader. Our total capture numbered
some three thousand of the Transvaal and eleven hundred of the Free
State. That the latter were not far more numerous was due to the fact
that many had already shredded off to their farms. Besides Cronje,
Wolverans of the Transvaal, and the German artillerist Albrecht, with
forty-four other field-cornets and commandants, fell into our hands.
Six small guns were also secured. The same afternoon saw the long
column of the prisoners on its way to Modder River, there to be
entrained for Cape Town, the most singular lot of people to be seen at
that moment upon earth -- ragged, patched, grotesque, some with goloshes,
some with umbrellas, coffee-pots, and Bibles, their favourite baggage.
So they passed out of their ten days of glorious history.

A visit to the laager showed that the horrible smells which had been
carried across to the British lines, and the swollen carcasses which
had swirled down the muddy river were true portents of its condition.
Strong-nerved men came back white and sick from a contemplation of the
place in which women and children had for ten days been living. From
end to end it was a festering mass of corruption, overshadowed by
incredible swarms of flies. Yet the engineer who could face evil
sights and nauseous smells was repaid by an inspection of the deep
narrow trenches in which a rifleman could crouch with the minimum
danger from shells, and the caves in which the non-combatants remained
in absolute safety. Of their dead we have no accurate knowledge, but
two hundred wounded in a donga represented their losses, not only
during a bombardment of ten days, but also in that Paardeberg
engagement which had cost us eleven hundred casualties. No more
convincing example could be adduced both of the advantage of the
defence over the attack, and of the harmlessness of the fiercest shell
fire if those who are exposed to it bave space and time to make

A fortnight had elapsed since Lord Roberts had launched his forces
from Ramdam, and that fortnight had wrought a complete revolution in
the campaign. It is hard to recall any instance in the history of war
where a single movement has created such a change over so many
different operations. On February 14th Kimberley was in danger of
capture, a victorious Boer army was facing Methuen, the lines of
Magersfontein appeared impregnable, Clements was being pressed at
Colesberg, Gatacre was stopped at Stormberg, Buller could not pass the
Tugela, and Ladysmith was in a perilous condition. On the 28th
Kimberley had been relieved, the Boer army was scattered or taken, the
lines of Magersfontein were in our possession, Clements found his
assailants retiring before him, Gatacre was able to advance at
Stormberg, Buller had a weakening army in front of him, and Ladysmith
was on the eve of relief. And all this had been done at the cost of a
very moderate loss of life, for most of which Lord Roberts was in no
sense answerable. Here at last was a reputation so well founded that
even South African warfare could only confirm and increase it. A
single master hand had in an instant turned England's night to day,
and had brought us out of that nightmare of miscalculation and
disaster which had weighed so long upon our spirits. His was the
master hand, but there were others at his side without whom that hand
might have been paralysed: Kitchener the organiser, French the cavalry
leader -- to these two men, second only to their chief, are the
results of the operations due. Henderson, the most capable head of
Intelligence, and Richardson, who under all difficulties fed the army,
may each claim his share in the success.

Arthur Conan Doyle