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Chapter 20

ROBERTS'S ADVANCE ON BLOEMFONTEIN

The surrender of Cronje had taken place on February 27th, obliterating
for ever the triumphant memories which the Boers had for twenty years
associated with that date. A halt was necessary to provide food for
the hungry troops, and above all to enable the cavalry horses to pick
up. The supply of forage had been most inadequate, and the beasts had
not yet learned to find a living from the dry withered herbage of the
veldt.[Footnote: A battery which turned out its horses to graze found
that the puzzled creatures simply galloped about the plain, and could
only be reassembled by blowing the call which they associated with
feeding, when they rushed back and waited in lines for their nosebags
to be put on.] In addition to this, they had been worked most
desperately during the fortnight which had elapsed. Lord Roberts
waited therefore at Osfontein, which is a farmhouse close to
Paardeberg, until his cavalry were fit for an advance. On March 6th he
began his march for Bloemfontein.

The force which had been hovering to the south and east of him during
the Paardeberg operations had meanwhile been reinforced from Colesberg
and from Ladysmith until it had attained considerable
proportions. This army, under the leadership of De Wet, had taken up a
strong position a few miles to the east, covering a considerable range
of kopjes. On March 3rd a reconnaissance was made of it, in which
some of our guns were engaged; but it was not until three days later
that the army advanced with the intention of turning or forcing it. In
the meantime reinforcements had been arriving in the British camp,
derived partly from the regiments which had been employed at other
points during these operations, and partly from newcomers from the
outer Empire. The Guards came up from Klip Drift, the City Imperial
Volunteers, the Australian Mounted Infantry, the Burmese Mounted
Infantry and a detachment of light horse from Ceylon helped to form
this strange invading army which was drawn from five continents and
yet had no alien in its ranks.

The position which the enemy had taken up at Poplars Grove (so called
from a group of poplars round a farmhouse in the centre of their
position) extended across the Modder River and was buttressed on
either side by well-marked hills, with intermittent kopjes between.
With guns, trenches, rifle pits, and barbed wire a bull-headed general
might have found it another Magersfontein. But it is only just to Lord
Roberts's predecessors in command to say that it is easy to do things
with three cavalry brigades which it is dilficult to do with two
regiments. The ultimate blame does not rest with the man who failed
with the two regiments, but with those who gave him inadequate means
for the work which he had to do. And in this estimate of means our
military authorities, our politicians, and our public were all in the
first instance equally mistaken.

Lord Roberts's plan was absolutely simple, and yet, had it been
carried out as conceived, absolutely effective. It was not his
intention to go near any of that entanglement of ditch and wire which
had been so carefully erected for his undoing. The weaker party, if
it be wise, atones for its weakness by entrenchments. The stronger
party, if it be wise, leaves the entrenchments alone and uses its
strength to go round them. Lord Roberts meant to go round. With his
immense preponderance of men and guns the capture or dispersal of the
enemy's army might be reduced to a certainty. Once surrounded, they
must either come out into the open or they must surrender.

On March 6th the cavalry were brought across the river, and in the
early morning of March 7th they were sent off in the darkness to sweep
round the left wing of the Boers and to establish themselves on the
line of their retreat. Kelly-Kenny's Division (6th) had orders to
follow and support this movement. Meanwhile Tucker was to push
straight along the southern bank of the river, though we may surmise
that his instructions were, in case of resistance, not to push his
attack home. Colvile's 9th Division, with part of the naval brigade,
were north of the river, the latter to shell the drifts in case the
Boers tried to cross, and the infantry to execute a turning movement
which would correspond with that of the cavalry on the other flank.

The plan of action was based, however, upon one supposition which
proved to be fallacious. It was that after having prepared so
elaborate a position the enemy would stop at least a little time to
defend it. Nothing of the sort occurred, however, and on the instant
that they realised that the cavalry was on their flank they made off.
The infantry did not fire a shot.

The result of this very decisive flight was to derange all
calculations entirly. The cavalry was not yet in its place when the
Boer army streamed off between the kopjes. One would have thought,
however, that they would have had a dash for the wagons and the guns,
even if they were past them. It is unfair to criticise a movement
until one is certain as to the positive orders which the leader may
have received; but on the face of it it is clear that the sweep of our
cavalry was not wide enough, and that they erred by edging to the left
instead of to the right, so leaving the flying enemies always to the
outside of them.

As it was, however, there seemed every possibility of their getting
the guns, but De Wet very cleverly coveved them by his skirmishers.
Taking possession of a farmhouse on the right flank they kept up a
spirited fire upon the 16th Lancers and upon P battery R.H.A. When at
last the latter drove them out of their shelter, they again formed
upon a low kopje and poured so galling a fire upon the right wing that
the whole movement was interrupted until we had driven this little
body of fifty men from their position. When, after a delay of an hour,
the cavalry at last succeeded in dislodging them -- or possibly it may
be fairer to say when, having accomplished their purpose, they retired
-- the guns and wagons were out of reach, and, what is more important,
the two Presidents, both Steyn and Kruger, who had come to stiffen the
resistance of the burghers, had escaped.

Making every allowance for the weary state of the horses, it is
impossible to say that our cavalry were handled with energy or
judgment on this occasion. That such a force of men and guns should be
held off from an object of such importance by so small a resistance
reflects no credit upon us. It would have been better to repeat the
Kimberley tactics and to sweep the regiments in extended order past
the obstacle if we could not pass over it. At the other side of that
little ill-defended kopje lay a possible termination of the war, and
our crack cavalry regiments manoeuvred for hours and let it pass out
of their reach. However, as Lord Roberts good-humouredly remarked at
the end of the action, 'In war you can't expect everything to come out
right.' General French can afford to shed one leaf from his laurel
wreath. On the other hand, no words can be too high for the gallant
little band of Boers who had the courage to face that overwhelming
mass of horsemen, and to bluff them into regarding this handful as a
force fighting a serious rearguard action. When the stories of the war
are told round the fires in the lonely veldt farmhouses, as they will
be for a century to come, this one deserves an honoured place.

The victory, if such a word can apply to such an action, had cost some
fifty or sixty of the cavalry killed and wounded, while it is doubtful
if the Boers lost as many. The finest military display on the British
side had been the magnificent marching of Kelly-Kenny's 6th Division,
who had gone for ten hours with hardly a halt. One 9 lb. Krupp gun
was the only trophy. On he other hand, Roberts had turned them out of
their strong position, had gained twelve or fifteen miles on he road
to Bloemfontein, and for the first time shown how helpless a Boer army
was in country which gave our numbers a chance. From now onwards it
was only in surprise and ambuscade that they could hope for a success.
We had learned and they had learned that they could not stand in the
open field.

The action of Poplars Grove was fought on March 7th. On the 9th the
army was again on its way, and on the 10th it attacked the new
position which the Boers had occupied at a place called Driefontein,
or Abram's Kraal. They covered a front of some seven miles in such a
formation that their wings were protected, the northern by the river
and the southern by flanking bastions of hill extending for some
distance to the rear. If the position had been defended as well as it
had been chosen, the task would have been a severe one.

Since the Modder covered the enemy's right the turning movement could
only be developed on their left, and Tucker's Division was thrown out
very wide on that side for the purpose. But in the meanwhile a
contretemps had occurred which threw out and seriously hampered the
whole British line of battle. General French was in command of the
left wing, which included Kelly-Kenny's Division, the first cavalry
brigade, and Alderson's Mounted Infantry. His orders had been to keep
in touch with the centre, and to avoid pushing his attack home. In
endeavouring to carry out these instructions French moved his men more
and more to the right, until he had really squeezed in between the
Boers and Lord Roberts's central column, and so masked the latter.
The essence of the whole operation was that the frontal attack should
not be delivered until Tucker had worked round to the rear of the
position. It is for military critics to decide whether it was that
the flankers were too slow or the frontal assailants were too fast,
but it is certain that Kelly-Kenny's Division attacked before the
cavalry and the 7th Division were in their place. Kelly-Kenny was
informed that the position in front of him had been abandoned, and
four regiments, the Buffs, the Essex, the Welsh, and the Yorkshires,
were advanced against it. They were passing over the open when the
crash of the Mauser fire burst out in front of them, and the bullets
hissed and thudded among the ranks. The ordeal was a very severe one.
The Yorkshires were swung round wide upon the right, but the rest of
the brigade, the Welsh Regiment leading, made a frontal attack upon
the ridge. It was done coolly and deliberately, the men taking
advantage of every possible cover. Boers could be seen leaving their
position in small bodies as the crackling, swaying line of the British
surged ever higher upon the hillside. At last, with a cheer, the
Welshmen with their Kent and Essex comrades swept over the crest into
the ranks of that cosmopolitan crew of sturdy adventurers who are
known as the Johannesburg Police. For once the loss of the defence
was greater than that of the attack. These mercenaries had not the
instinct which teaches the Boer the right instant for flight, and they
held their position too long to get away. The British had left four
hundred men on the track of that gallant advance, but the vast
majority of them were wounded -- too often by those explosive or
expansive missiles which make war more hideous. Of the Boers we
actually buried over a hundred on the ridge, and their total
casualties must have been considerably in excess of ours.

The action was strategically well conceived; all that Lord Roberts
could do for complete success had been done; but tactically it was a
poor affair, considering his enormous preponderance in men and
guns. There was no glory in it, save for the four regiments who set
their faces against that sleet of lead. The artillery did not do
well, and were browbeaten by guns which they should have smothered
under their fire. The cavalry cannot be said to have done well
either. And yet, when all is said, the action is an important one, for
the enemy were badly shaken by the result. The Johannesburg Police,
who had been among their CORPS D'ELITE, had been badly mauled, and the
burghers were impressed by one more example of the impossibility of
standing in anything approaching to open country against disciplined
troops, Roberts had not captured the guns, but the road had been
cleared for him to Bloemfontein and, what is more singular, to
Pretoria; for though hundreds of miles intervene between the field of
Driefontein and the Transvaal capital, he never again met a force
which was willing to look his infantry in the eyes in a pitched
battle. Surprises and skirmishes were many, but it was the last time,
save only at Doornkop, that a chosen position was ever held for an
effective rifle fire -- to say nothing of the push of bayonet.

And now the army flowed swiftly onwards to the capital. The
indefatigable 6th Division, which had done march after march, one more
brilliant than another, since they had crossed the Riet River, reached
Asvogel Kop on the evening of Sunday, March 11th, the day after the
battle. On Monday the army was still pressing onwards, disregarding
all else and striking straight for the heart as Blucher struck at
Paris in 1814. At midday they halted at the farm of Gregorowski, he
who had tried the Reform prisoners after the Raid. The cavalry pushed
on down Kaal Spruit, and in the evening crossed the Southern railway
line which connects Bloemfontein with the colony, cutting it at a
point some five miles from the town. In spite of some not very
strenuous opposition from a Boer force a hill was seized by a squadron
of Greys with some mounted infantry and Rimington's Guides, aided by U
battery R.H.A., and was held by them all that night.

On the same evening Major Hunter-Weston, an officer who had already
performed at least one brilliant feat in the war, was sent with
Lieutenant Charles and a handful of Mounted Sappers and Hussars to cut
the line to the north. After a difficult journey on a very dark night
he reached his object and succeeded in finding and blowing up a
culvert. There is a Victona Cross gallantry which leads to nothing
save personal decoration, and there is another and far higher
gallantry of calculation, which springs from a cool brain as well as a
hot heart, and it is from the men who possess this rare quality that
great warriors arise. Such feats as the cutting of this railway or
the subsequent saving of the Bethulie Bridge by Grant and Popham are
of more service to the country than any degree of mere valour
untempered by judgment. Among other results the cutting of the line
secured for us twenty-eight locomotives, two hundred and fifty trucks,
and one thousand tons of coal, all of which were standing ready to
leave Bloemfontein station. The gallant little band were nearly cut
off on their return, but fought their way through with the loss of two
horses, and so got back in triumph.

The action of Driefontein was fought on the 10th. The advance began on
the morning of the 11th. On the morning of the 13th the British were
practically masters of Bloemfontein. The distance is forty miles. No
one can say that Lord Roberts cannot follow a victory up as well as
win it.

Some trenches had been dug and sangars erected to the north-west of
the town; but Lord Roberts, with his usual perverseness, took the
wrong turning and appeared upon the broad open plain to the south,
where resistance would have been absurd. Already Steyn and the
irreconcilables had fled from the town, and the General was met by a
deputation of the Mayor, the Landdrost, and Mr. Fraser to tender the
submission of the capital. Fraser, a sturdy clear-headed Highlander,
had been the one politician in the Free State who combined a perfect
loyalty to his adopted country with a just appreciation of what a
quarrel A L'OUTRANCE with the British Empire would mean. Had Fraser's
views prevailed, the Orange Free State would still exist as a happy
and independent State. As it is, he may help her to happiness and
prosperity as the prime minister of the Orange River Colony.

It was at half-past one on Tuesday, March 13th, that General Roberts
and his troops entered Bloemfontein, amid the acclamations of many of
the inhabitants, who, either to propitiate the victor, or as a sign of
their real sympathies, had hoisted union jacks upon their
houses. Spectators have left it upon record how from all that
interminable column of yellow-clad weary men, worn with half rations
and whole-day marches, there came never one jeer, never one taunting
or exultant word, as they tramped into the capital of their enemies.
The bearing of the troops was chivalrous in its gentleness, and not
the least astonishing sight to the inhabitants was the passing of the
Guards, the dandy troops of England, the body-servants of the great
Queen. Black with sun and dust, staggering after a march of
thirty-eight miles, gaunt and haggard, with their clothes in such a
state that decency demanded that some of the men should be discreetly
packed away in the heart of the dense column, they still swung into
the town with the aspect of Kentish hop-pickers and the bearing of
heroes. She, the venerable mother, could remember the bearded ranks
who marched past her when they came with sadly thinned files back from
the Crimean winter; even those gallant men could not have endured more
sturdily, nor have served her more loyally, than these their worthy
descendants.

It was just a month after the start from Ramdam that Lord Roberts and
his army rode into the enemy's capital. Up to that period we had in
Africa Generals who were hampered for want of troops, and troops who
were hampered for want of Generals. Only when the Commander-in-Chief
took over the main army had we soldiers enough, and a man who knew how
to handle them. The result was one which has not only solved the
question of the future of South Africa, but has given an illustration
of strategy which will become classical to the military student. How
brisk was the course of events, how incessant the marching and
fighting, may be shown by a brief recapitulation. On February 13th
cavalry and infantry were marching to the utmost capacity of men and
horses. On the 14th the cavalry were halted, but the infantry were
marching hard. On the 15th the cavalry covered forty miles, fought an
action, and relieved Kimberley. On the 16th the cavalry were in
pursuit of the Boer guns all day, and were off on a thirty-mile march
to the Modder at night, while the infantry were fighting Cronje's
rearguard action, and closing up all day. On the 17th the infantry
were marching hard. On the 18th was the battle of Paardeberg. From
the 19th to the 27th was incessant fighting with Cronje inside the
laager and with De Wet outside. From the 28th to March 6th was
rest. On March 7th was the action of Poplars Grove with heavy
marching; on March 10th the battle of Driefontein. On the 11th and
12th the infantry covered forty miles, and on the 13th were in
Bloemfontein. All this was accomplished by men on half-rations, with
horses which could hardly be urged beyond a walk, in a land where
water is scarce and the sun semi-tropical, each infantryman carrying a
weight of nearly forty pounds. There are few more brilliant
achievements in the history of British arms. The tactics were
occasionally faulty, and the battle of Paardeberg was a blot upon the
operations; but the strategy of the General and the spirit of the
soldier were alike admirable.

Arthur Conan Doyle