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Chapter 21

STRATEGIC EFFECTS OF LORD ROBERTS'S MARCH


>From the moment that Lord Roberts with his army advanced from Ramdam
all the other British forces in South Africa, the Colesberg force, the
Stormberg force, Brabant's force, and the Natal force, had the
pressure relieved in front of them, a tendency which increased with
every fresh success of the main body. A short chapter must be devoted
to following rapidly the fortunes of these various armies, and tracing
the effect of Lord Roberts's strategy upon their movements. They may
be taken in turn from west to east.

The force under General Clements (formerly French's) had, as has
already been told, been denuded of nearly all its cavalry and horse
artillery, and so left in the presence of a very superior body of the
enemy. Under these circumstances Clements had to withdraw his
immensely extended line, and to concentrate at Arundel, closely
followed by the elated enemy. The situation was a more critical one
than has been appreciated by the public, for if the force had been
defeated the Boers would have been in a position to cut Lord Roberts's
line of communications, and the main army would have been in the air.
Much credit is due, not only to General Clements, but to Carter of the
Wiltshires, Hacket Pain of the Worcesters, Butcher of the 4th R.F.A.,
the admirable Australians, and all the other good men and true who
did their best to hold the gap for the Empire.

The Boer idea of a strong attack upon this point was strategically
admirable, but tactically there was not sufficient energy in pushing
home the advance. The British wings succeeded in withdrawing, and the
concentrated force at Arundel was too strong for attack Yet there was
a time of suspense, a time when every man had become of such
importance that even fifty Indian syces were for the first and last
time in the war, to their own supreme gratification, permitted for
twenty-four hours to play their natural part as soldiers.[Footnote:
There was something piteous in the chagrin of these fine Sikhs at
being held back from their natural work as soldiers. A deputation of
them waited upon Lord Roberts at Bloemfontein to ask, with msny
salaams, whether 'his children were not to see one little fight before
they returned.'] But then with the rapid strokes in front the hour of
danger passed, and the Boer advance became first a halt and then a
retreat.

On February 27th, Major Butcher, supported by the Inniskillings and
Australians, attacked Rensburg and shelled the enemy out of it. Next
morning Clements's whole force had advanced from Arundel and took up
its old position. The same afternoon it was clear that the Boers were
retiring, and the British, following them up, marched into Colesherg,
around which they had manoeuvred so long. A telegram from Steyn to De
Wet found in the town told the whole story of the retirement: 'As long
as you are able to hold the positions you are in with the men you
have, do so. If not, come here as quickly as circumstances will
allow, as matters here are taking a serious turn.' The whole force
passed over the Orange River unimpeded, and blew up the Norval's Pont
railway bridge behind it. Clements's brigade followed on March 4th,
and succeeded in the course of a week in throwing a pontoon bridge
over the river and crossing into the Orange Free State. Roberts having
in the meanwhile seized Bloemfontein, communication was restored by
railway between the forces, and Clements was despatched to
Philippolis, Fauresmith, and the other towns in the south-west to
receive the submission of the inhabitants and to enforce their
disarmament. In the meantime the Engineers worked furiously at the
restoration of the railway bridge over the Orange River, which was
not, however, accomplished until some weeks later.

During the long period which had elapsed since the repulse at
Stormberg, General Gatacre had held his own at Sterkstroom, under
orders not to attack the enemy, repulsing them easily upon the only
occasion when they ventured to attack him. Now it was his turn also
to profit by the success which Lord Roberts had won. On February 23rd
he re-occupied Molteno, and on the same day sent out a force to
reconnoitre the enemy's position at Stormberg. The incident is
memorable as having been the cause of the death of Captain de
Montmorency,[Footnote: De Montmorency had established a remarkable
influence over his rough followers. To the end of the war they could
not speak of him without tears in their eyes. When I asked Sergeant
Howe why his captain went almost alone up the hill, his answer was,
'Because the captain knew no fear.' Byrne, his soldier servant (an
Omdurman V.C. like his master), galloped madly off next morning with a
saddled horse to bring back his captain alive or dead, and had to be
forcibly seized and restrained by our cavalry.] one of the most
promising of the younger officers of the British army. He had formed
a corps of scouts, consisting originally of four men, but soon
expanding to seventy or eighty. At the head of these men he confirmed
the reputation for desperate valour which he bad won in the Soudan,
and added to it proofs of the enterprise and judgment which go to make
a leader of light cavalry. In the course of the reconnaissance he
ascended a small kopje accompanied by three companions, Colonel
Hoskier, a London Volunteer soldier, Vice, a civilian, and Sergeant
Howe. 'They are right on the top of us,' he cried to his comrades, as
he reached the summit, and dropped next instant with a bullet through
his heart. Hoskier was shot in five places, and Vice was mortally
wounded, only Howe escaping. The rest of the scouts, being farther
back, were able to get cover and to keep up a fight until they were
extricated by the remainder of the force. Altogether our loss was
formidable rather in quality than in quantity, for not more than a
dozen were hit, while the Boers suffered considerably from the fire of
our guns.

On March 5th General Gatacre found that the Boers were retreating in
front of him -- in response, no doubt, to messages similar to those
which had already been received at Colesberg. Moving forward he
occupied the position which had confronted him so long. Thence,
having spent some days in drawing in his scattered detachments and in
mending the railway, he pushed forward on March 12th to Burghersdorp,
and thence on the 13th to Olive Siding, to the south of the Bethulie
Bridge.

There are two bridges which span the broad muddy Orange River, thick
with the washings of the Basutoland mountains. One of these is the
magnificent high railway bridge, already blown to ruins by the
retreating Boers. Dead men or shattered horses do not give a more
vivid impression of the unrelenting brutality of war than the sight of
a structure, so graceful and so essential, blown into a huge heap of
twisted girders and broken piers. Half a mile to the west is the road
bridge, broad and old-fashioned. The only hope of preserving some
mode of crossing the difficult river lay in the chance that the troops
might anticipate the Boers who were about to destroy this bridge.

In this they were singularly favoured by fortune. On the arrival of a
small party of scouts and of the Cape Police under Major Nolan-Neylan
at the end of the bridge it was found that all was ready to blow it
up, the mine sunk, the detonator fixed, and the wire laid. Only the
connection between the wire and the charge had not been made. To make
sure, the Boers had also laid several boxes of dynamite under the last
span, in case the mine should fail in its effect. The advance guard
of the Police, only six in number, with Nolan-Neylan at their head,
threw themselves into a building which commanded the approaches of the
bridge, and this handful of men opened so spirited and well-aimed a
fire that the Boers were unable to approach it. As fresh scouts and
policemen came up they were thrown into the firing line, and for a
whole long day they kept the destroyers from the bridge. Had the enemy
known how weak they were and how far from supports, they could have
easily destroyed them, but the game of bluff was admirably played, and
a fire kept up which held the enemy to their rifle pits.

The Boers were in a trench commanding the bridge, and their brisk fire
made it impossible to cross. On the other hand, our rifle fire
commanded the mine and prevented any one from exploding it. But at
the approach of darkness it was certain that this would be done. The
situation was saved by the gallantry of young Popham of the
Derbyshires, who crept across with two men and removed the detonators.
There still remained the dynamite under the further span, and this
also they removed, carrying it off across the bridge under a heavy
fire. The work was made absolutely complete a little later by the
exploit of Captain Grant of the Sappers, who drew the charges from the
holes in which they had been sunk, and dropped them into the river,
thus avoiding the chance that they might be exploded next morning by
shell fire. The feat of Popham and of Grant was not only most gallant
but of extraordinary service to the country; but the highest credit
belongs to Nolan-Neylan, of the Police, for the great promptitude and
galantry of his attack, and to McNeill for his support. On that road
bridge and on the pontoon bridge at Norval's Pont Lord Roberts's army
was for a whole month dependent for their supplies.

On March 15th Gatacre's force passed over into the Orange Free State,
took possession of Bethulie, and sent on the cavalry to Springfontein,
which is the junction where the railways from Gape Town and from East
London meet. Here they came in contact with two battalions of Guards
under Pole-Carew, who had been sent down by train from Lord Roberts's
force in the north. With Roberts at Bloemfontein, Gatacre at
Springfontein, Clements in the south-west, and Brabant at Aliwal, the
pacification of the southern portion of the Free State appeared to be
complete. Warlike operations seemed for the moment to be at an end,
and scattered parties traversed the country, 'bill-sticking,' as the
troops called it -- that is, carrying Lord Roberts's proclamation to
the lonely farmhouses and outlying villages.

In the meantime the colonial division of that fine old African
fighter, General Brabant, had begun to play its part in the campaign.
Among the many judicious arrangements which Lord Roberts made
immediately after his arrival at the Cape was the assembling of the
greater part of the scattered colonial bands into one division, and
placing over it a General of their own, a man who had defended the
cause of the Empire both in the legislative assembly and the field.
To this force was entrusted the defence of the country lying to the
east of Gatacre's position, and on February 15th they advanced from
Penhoek upon Dordrecht. Their Imperial troops consisted of the Royal
Scots and a section of the 79th R.F.A., the Colonial of Brabant's
Horse, the Kaffrarian Mounted Rifles, the Cape Mounted Rifles and Cape
Police, with Queenstown and East London Volunteers. The force moved
upon Dordrecht, and on February 18th occupied the town after a
spirited action, in which Brabant's Horse played a distinguished
part. On March 4th the division advanced once more with the object of
attacking the Boer position at Labuschague's Nek, some miles to the
north.

Aided by the accurate fire of the 79th R.F.A., the colonials
succeeded, after a long day of desultory fighting, in driving the
enemy from his position. Leaving a garrison in Dordrecht Brabant
followed up his victory and pushed forward with two thousand men and
eight guns (six of them light 7-pounders) to occupy Jamestown, which
was done without resistance. On March 10th the colonial force
approached Aliwal, the frontier town, and so rapid was the advance of
Major Henderson with Brabant's Horse that the bridge at Aliwal was
seized before the enemy could blow it up. At the other side of the
bridge there was a strong stand made by the enemy, who had several
Krupp guns in position; but the light horse, in spite of a loss of
some twenty-five men killed and wounded, held on to the heights which
command the river. A week or ten days were spent in pacifying the
large north-eastern portion of Cape Colony, to which Aliwal acts as a
centre. Barkly East, Herschel, Lady Grey, and other villages were
visited by small detachments of the colonial horsemen, who pushed
forward also into the south-eastern portion of the Free State, passing
through Rouxville, and so along the Basutoland border as far as
Wepener. The rebellion in the Colony was now absolutely dead in the
northeast, while in the north-west in the Prieska and Carnarvon
districts it was only kept alive by the fact that the distances were
so great and the rebel forces so scattered that it was very difficult
for our flying columns to reach them. Lord Kitchener had returned
from Paardeberg to attend to this danger upon our line of
communications, and by his exertions all chance of its becoming
serious soon passed. With a considerable force of Yeomanry and Cavalry
he passed swiftly over the country, stamping out the smouldering
embers.

So much for the movements into the Free State of Clements, of Gatacre,
and of Brabant. It only remains to trace the not very eventful
history of the Natal campaign after the relief of Ladysmith.

General Buller made no attempt to harass the retreat of the Boers,
although in two days no fewer than two thousand wagons were counted
upon the roads to Newcastle and Dundee. The guns had been removed by
train, the railway being afterwards destroyed. Across the north of
Natal lies the chain of the Biggarsberg mountains, and to this the
Transvaal Boers had retired, while the Freestaters had hurried through
the passes of the Drakensberg in time to make the fruitless opposition
to Roberts's march upon their capital. No accurate information had
come in as to the strength of the Transvaalers, the estimates ranging
from five to ten thousand, but it was known that their position was
formidable and their guns mounted in such a way as to command the
Dundee and Newcastle roads.

General Lyttelton's Division had camped as far out as Elandslaagte
with Burn Murdoch's cavalry, while Dundonald's brigade covered the
space between Burn Murdoch's western outposts and the Drakensberg
passes. Few Boers were seen, hut it was known that the passes were
held in some strength. Meanwhile the line was being restored in the
rear, and on March 9th the gallant White was enabled to take train for
Durban, though it was not until ten days later that the Colenso bridge
was restored. The Ladysmith garrison had been sent down to Colenso to
recruit their health. There they were formed into a new division, the
4th, the brigades being given to Howard and Knox, and the command to
Lyttelton, who had returned his former division, the second, to Clery.
The 5th and 6th brigades were also formed into one division, the 10th,
which was placed under the capable command of Hunter, who had
confirmed in the south the reputation which he had won in the north of
Africa. In the first week of April Hunter's Division was sent down to
Durban and transferred to the western side, where they were moved up
to Kimberley, whence they advanced northwards. The man on the horse
has had in this war an immense advantage over the man on foot, but
there have been times when the man on the ship has restored the
balance. Captain Mahan might find some fresh texts in the
transference of Hunter's Division, or in the subsequent expedition to
Beira.

On April 10th the Boers descended from their mountains and woke up our
sleepy army corps by a brisk artillery fire. Our own guns silenced
it, and the troops instantly relapsed into their slumber. There was
no movement for a fortnight afterwards upon either side, save that of
Sir Charles Warren, who left the army in order to take up the
governorship of British Bechuanaland, a district which was still in a
disturbed state, and in which his presence had a peculiar
significance, since he had rescued portions of it from Boer
dornination in the early days of the Transvaal Republic. Hildyard
took over the command of the 5th Division. In this state of inertia
the Natal force remained until Lord Roberts, after a six weeks' halt
in Bloenifontein, necessitated by the insecurity of his railway
communication and his want of every sort of military supply, more
especially horses for his cavalry and boots for his infantry, was at
last able on May 2nd to start upon his famous march to Pretoria.
Before accompanying him, however, upon this victorious progress, it is
necessary to devote a chapter to the series of incidents and
operations which had taken place to the east and south-east of
Bloemfontein during this period of compulsory inactivity.

One incident must be recorded in this place, though it was political
rather than military. This was the interchange of notes concerning
peace between Paul Kruger and Lord Salisbury. There is an old English
jingle about 'the fault of the Dutch, giving too little and asking too
much,' but surely there was never a more singular example of it than
this. The united Presidents prepare for war for years, spring an
insulting ultimatum upon us, invade our unfortunate Colonies, solemnly
annex all the portions invaded, and then, when at last driven back,
propose a peace which shall secure for them the whole point originally
at issue. It is difficult to believe that the proposals could have
been seriously meant, but more probable that the plan may have been to
strengthen the hands of the Peace deputation who were being sent to
endeavour to secure European intervention. Could they point to a
proposal from the Transvaal and a refusal from England, it might, if
not too curiously examined, excite the sympathy of those who follow
emotions rather than facts.

The documents were as follow:--

`The Prsidents of the Orange Free State and of the South African
Republic to the Marquess of Salisbury.
Bloemfontein March 5th, 1900.

`The blood and the tears of the thousands who have suffered by this
war, and the prospect of all the moral and economic ruin with which
South Africa is now threatened, make it necessary for both
belligerents to ask themselves dispassionately and as in the sight of
the Triune God for what they are fighting and whether the aim of each
justifies all this appalling misery and devastation.

`With this object, and in view of the assertions of various British
statesmen to the effect that this war was begun and is carried on with
the set purpose of undermining Her Majesty's authority in South
Africa, and of setting up an administration over all South Africa
independent of Her Majesty's Government, we consider it our duty to
solemnly declare that this war was undertaken solely as a defensive
measure to safeguard the threatened independence of the South African
Republic, and is only continued in order to secure and safeguard the
incontestable independence of both Republics as sovereign
international States, and to obtain the assurance that those of Her
Majesty's subjects who have taken part with us in this war shall
suffer no harm whatsoever in person or property.

`On these conditions, but on these conditions alone, are we now as in
the past desirous of seeing peace re-established in South Africa, and
of putting an end to the evils now reigning over South Africa; while,
if Her Majesty's Government is determined to destroy the independence
of the Republics, there is nothing left to us and to our people but to
persevere to the end in the course already begun, in spite of the
overwhelming pre-eminence of the British Empire, conscious that that
God who lighted the inextinguishable fire of the love of freedom in
our hearts and those of our fathers will not forsake us, but will
accomplish His work in us and in our descendants.

`We hesitated to make this declaration earlier to your Excellency as
we feared that, as long as the advantage was always on our side, and
as long as our forces held defensive positions far in Her Majesty's
Colonies, such a declaration might hurt the feelings of honour of the
British people. But now that the prestige of the British Empire may
be considered to be assured by the capture of one of our forces, and
that we are thereby forced to evacuate other positions which we had
occupied, that difficulty is over and we can no longer hesitate to
inform your Government and people in the sight of the whole civilised
world why we are fighting and on what conditions we are ready to
restore peace.

Such was the message, deep in its simplicity and cunning in its
candour, which was sent by the old President, for it is Kruger's style
which we read in every line of it. One has to get back to facts after
reading it, to the enormous war preparations of the Republics, to the
unprepared state of the British Colonies, to the ultimatum, to the
annexations, to the stirring up of rebeflion, to the silence about
peace in the days of success, to the fact that by 'inextinguishable
love of freedom' is meant inextinguishable determination to hold other
white men as helots -- only then can we form a just opinion of the worth
of his message. One must remember also, behind the homely and pious
phraseology, that one is dealing with a man who has been too cunning
for us again and again -- a man who is as wily as the savages with whom
he has treated and fought. This Paul Kruger with the simple words of
peace is the same Paul Kruger who with gentle sayings insured the
disarmament of Johannesburg, and then instantly arrested his
enemies -- the man whose name was a by-word for 'slimness' throughout
South Africa. With such a man the best weapon is absolute naked truth
with which Lord Salisbury confronted him in his reply:--
Foreign Office: March 11th.

`I have the honour to acknowledge your Honours' telegram dated March
5th from Bloemfontein, of which the purport was principally to demand
that Her Majesty's Government shall recognise the "incontestable
independence" of the South African Republic and Orange Free State as
"sovereign international States," and to offer on those terms to bring
the war to a conclusion.

`In the beginning of October last peace existed between Her Majesty
and the two Republics under the conventions which then were in
existence. A discussion had been proceeding for some months between
Her Majesty's Government and the South African Republic, of which the
object was to obtain redress for certain very serious grievances under
which British residents in the. Republic were suffering. In the
course of those negotiations the Republic had, to the knowledge of Her
Majesty's Government, made considerable armaments, and the latter had
consequently taken steps to provide corresponding reinforcements to
the British garrisons of Cape Town and Natal. No infringement of the
rights guaranteed by the conventions had up to that time taken place
on the British side. Suddenly, at two days' notice, the South African
Republic, after issuing an insulting ultimatum, declared war, and the
Orange Free State with whom there had not even been any discussion,
took a similar step. Her Majesty's dominions were immediately invaded
by the two Republics, siege was laid to three towns within the British
frontier, a large portion of the two Colonies was overrun with great
destruction to property and life, and the Republics claimed to treat
the inhabitants as if those dominions had been annexed to one or other
of them. In anticipation of these operations the South African
Republic had been accumulating for many years past military stores
upon an enormous scale, which by their character could only have been
intended for use against Great Britain.

`Your Honours make some observations of a negative character upon the
object with which these preparations were made. I do not think it
necessary to discuss the questions which you have raised. But the
result of these preparations, carried on with great secrecy, has been
that the British Empire has been compelled to confront an invasion
which has entailed a costly war and the loss of thousands of precious
lives. This great calamity has been the penalty which Great Britain
has suffered for having in recent years acquiesced in the existence of
the two Republics.

`In view of the use to which the two Republics have put the position
which was given to them, and the calamities which their unprovoked
attack has inflicted upon Her Majesty's dominions, Her Majesty's
Government can only answer your Honours' telegram by saying that they
are not prepared to assent to the independence either of the South
African Bepublic or of the Orange Free State.'

With this frank and uncompromising reply the Empire, with the
exception of a small party of dupes and doctrin aires, heartily
agreed. The pens were dropped, and the Mauser and the Lee-Metford
once more took up the debate.

Arthur Conan Doyle