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Chapter 22

THE HALT AT BLOEMFONTEIN


On March 13th Lord Roberts occupied the capital of the Orange Free
State. On May 1st, more than six weeks later, the advance was
resumed. This long delay was absolutely necessary in order to supply
the place of the ten thousand horses and mules which are said to have
been used up in the severe work of the preceding month. It was not
merely that a large number of the cavalry chargers had died or been
abandoned, but it was that of those which remained the majority were
in a state wbich made them useless for immediate service. How far this
might have been avoided is open to question, for it is notorious that
General French's reputation as a horsemaster does not stand so high as
his fame as a cavalry leader. But besides the horses there was urgent
need of every sort of supply, from boots to hospitals, and the only
way by which they could come was by two single-line railways which
unite into one single-line railway, with the alternative of passing
over a precarious pontoon bridge at Norval's Pont, or truck by truck
over the road bridge at Bethulie. To support an army of fifty
thousand men under these circumstances, eight hundred miles from a
base, is no light matter, and a premature advance which could not be
thrust home would be the greatest of misfortunes. The public at home
and the army in Africa became restless under the inaction, but it was
one more example of the absolute soundness of Lord Roberts's judgment
and the quiet resolution with which he adheres to it. He issued a
proclamation to the inhabitants of the Free State promising protection
to all who should bring in their arms and settle down upon their
farms. The most stringent orders were issued against looting or
personal violence, but nothing could exceed the gentleness and good
humour of the troops. Indeed there seemed more need for an order which
should protect them against the extortion of their conquered enemies.
It is strange to think that we are separated by only ninety years from
the savage soldiery of Badajoz and San Sebastian.

The streets of the little Dutch town formed during this interval a
curious object-lesson in the resources of the Empire. All the
scattered Anglo-Celtic races had sent their best blood to fight for
the common cause. Peace is the great solvent, as war is the powerful
unifier. For the British as for the German Empire much virtue had come
from the stress and strain of battle. To stand in the market square of
Bloemfontein and to see the warrior types around you was to be assured
of the future of the race. The middle-sized, square-set,
weather-tanned, straw-bearded British regulars crowded the footpaths.
There also one might see the hard-faced Canadians, the loose-limbed
dashing Australians, fireblooded and keen, the dark New-Zealanders,
with a Maori touch here and there in their features, the gallant men
of Tasmania, the gentlemen troopers of India and Ceylon, and
everywhere the wild South African irregulars with their bandoliers and
unkempt wiry horses, Rimington's men with the racoon bands, Roberts's
Horse with the black plumes, some with pink puggarees, some with
birdseye, but all of the same type, hard, rugged, and alert. The man
who could look at these splendid soldiers, and, remembering the
sacrifices of time, money, and comfort which most of them had made
before they found themselves fighting in the heart of Africa, doubt
that the spirit of the race burned now as brightly as ever, must be
devoid of judgment and sympathy. The real glories of the British race
lie in the future, not in the past. The Empire walks, and may still
walk, with an uncertain step, but with every year its tread will be
firmer, for its weakness is that of waxing youth and not of waning
age.

The greatest misfortune of the campaign, one which it was obviously
impolitic to insist upon at the time, began with the occupation of
Bloemfontein. This was the great outbreak of enteric among the
troops. For more than two months the hospitals were choked with
sick. One general hospital with five hundred beds held seventeen
hundred sick, nearly all enterics. A half field hospital with fifty
beds held three hundred and seventy cases. The total number of cases
could not have been less than six or seven thousand -- and this not of
an evanescent and easily treated complaint, but of the most persistent
and debilitating of continued fevers, the one too which requires the
most assiduous attention and careful nursing. How great was the strain
only those who had to meet it can tell. The exertions of the military
hospitals and of those others which were fitted out by private
benevolence sufficed, after a long struggle, to meet the crisis. At
Bloemfontein alone, as many as fifty men died in one day, and more
than 1,000 new graves in the cemetery testify to the severity of the
epidemic. No men in the campaign served their country more truly than
the officers and men of the medical service, nor can any one who went
through the epidemic forget the bravery and unselfishness of those
admirable nursing sisters who set the men around them a higher
standard of devotion to duty.

Enteric fever is always endemic in the country, and especially at
Bloemfontein, but there can be no doubt that this severe outbreak had
its origin in the Paardeberg water. All through the campaign, while
the machinery for curing disease was excellent, that for preventing it
was elementary or absent. If bad water can cost us more than all the
bullets of the enemy, then surely it is worth our while to make the
drinking of unboiled water a stringent military offence, and to attach
to every company and squadron the most rapid and efficient means for
boiling it -- for filtering alone is useless. An incessant trouble it
would be, but it would have saved a division for the army. It is
heartrending for the medical man who has emerged from a hospital full
of water-born pestilence to see a regimental watercart being filled,
without protest, at some polluted wayside pool. With precautions and
with inoculation all those lives might have been saved. The fever died
down with the advance of the troops and the coming of the colder
weather.

To return to the military operations: these, although they were
stagnant so far as the main army was concerned, were exceedingly and
inconveniently active in other quarters. Three small actions, two of
which were disastrous to our arms, and one successful defence marked
the period of the pause at Bloemfontein.

To the north of the town, some twelve miles distant lies the
ubiquitous Modder River, which is crossed by a railway bridge at a
place named Glen. The saving of the bridge was of considerable
importance, and might by the universal testimony of the farmers of
that district have been effected any time within the first few days of
our occupation. We appear, however, to have imperfectly appreciated
how great was the demoralisation of the Boers. In a week or so they
took heart, returned, and blew up the bridge. Roving parties of the
enemy, composed mainly of the redoubtable Johannesburg police,
reappeared even to the south of the river. Young Lygon was killed, and
Colonels Crabbe and Codrington with Captain Trotter, all of the
Guards, were severely wounded by such a body, whom they gallantly but
injudiciously attempted to arrest when armed only with revolvers.

These wandering patrols who kept the country unsettled, and harassed
the farmers who had taken advantage of Lord Roberts's proclamation,
were found to have their centre at a point some six miles to the north
of Glen, named Karee. At Karee a formidable line of hills cut the
British advance, and these had been occupied by a strong body of the
enemy with guns. Lord Roberts determined to drive them off, and on
March 28th Tucker's 7th Division, consisting of Chermside's brigade
(Lincolns, Norfolks, Hampshires, and Scottish Borderers), and Wavell's
brigade (Cheshires, East Lancashires, North Staffords, and South Wales
Borderers), were assembled at Glen. The artillery consisted of the
veteran 18th, 62nd, and 75th R.F.A. Three attenuated cavalry brigades
with some mounted infantry completed the force.

The movement was to be upon the old model, and in result it proved to
be only too truly so. French's cavalry were to get round one flank, Le
Gallais's mounted infantry round the other, and Tucker's Division to
attack in front. Nothing could be more perfect in theory and nothing
apparently more defective in practice. Since on this as on other
occasions the mere fact that the cavalry were demonstrating in the
rear caused the complete abandonment of the position, it is difficult
to see what the object of the infantry attack could be. The ground
was irregular and unexplored, and it was late before the horsemen on
their weary steeds found themselves behind the flank of the
enemy. Some of them, Le Gallais's mounted infantry and Davidson's
guns, had come from Bloemfontein during the night, and the horses were
exhausted by the long march, and by the absurd weight which the
British troop-horse is asked to carry. Tucker advanced his infantry
exactly as Kelly-Kenny had done at Driefontein, and with a precisely
similar result. The eight regiments going forward in echelon of
battalions imagined from the silence of the enemy that the position
had been abandoned. They were undeceived by a cruel fire which beat
upon two companies of the Scottish Borderers from a range of two
hundred yards. They were driven back, but reformed in a donga. About
half-past two a Boer gun burst shrapnel over the Lincolnshires and
Scottish Borderers with some effect, for a single shell killed five of
the latter regiment. Chermside's brigade was now all involved in the
fight, and Wavell's came up in support, but the ground was too open
and the position too strong to push the attack home. Fortunately,
about four o'clock, the horse batteries with French began to make
their presence felt from behind, and the Boers instantly quitted their
position and made off through the broad gap which still remained
between French and Le Gallais. The Brandfort plain appears to be ideal
ground for cavalry, but in spite of that the enemy with his guns got
safely away. The loss of the infantry amounted to one hundred and
sixty killed and wounded, the larger share of the casualties and of
the honour falling to the Scottish Borderers and the East Lancashires.
The infantry was not well handled, the cavalry was slow, and the guns
were inefficient-altogether an inglorious day. Yet strategically it
was of importance, for the ridge captured was the last before one came
to the great plain which stretched, with a few intermissions, to the
north. From March 29th until May 2nd Karee remained the advanced post.

In the meanwhile there had been a series of operations in the east
which had ended in a serious disaster. Immediately after the
occupation of Bloemfontein (on March 18th) Lord Roberts despatched to
the east a small column consisting of the 10th Hussars, the composite
regiment, two batteries (Q and U) of the Horse Artillery, some mounted
infantry, Roberts's Horse, and Rimington's Guides. On the eastern
horizon forty miles from the capital, but in that clear atmosphere
looking only half the distance, there stands the impressive mountain
named Thabanchu (the black mountain). To all Boers it is an historical
spot, for it was at its base that the wagons of the Voortrekkers,
coming by devious ways from various parts, assembled. On the further
side of Thabanchu, to the north and east of it, lies the richest
grain-growing portion of the Free State, the centre of which is
Ladybrand. The forty miles which intervene between Bloemfontein and
Thabanchu are intersected midway by the Modder River. At this point
are the waterworks, erected recently with modern machinery, to take
the place of the insanitary wells on which the town had been
dependent. The force met with no resistance, and the small town of
Thabanchu was occupied.

Colonel Pilcher, the leader of the Douglas raid, was inclined to
explore a little further, and with three squadrons of mounted men he
rode on to the eastward. Two commandos, supposed to be Grobler's and
Olivier's, were seen by them, moving on a line which suggested that
they were going to join Steyn, who was known to be rallying his forces
at Kroonstad, his new seat of government in the north of the Free
State. Pilcher, with great daring, pushed onwards until with his
little band on their tired horses he found himself in Ladybrand,
thirty miles from his nearest supports. Entering the town he seized
the landdrost and the field-cornet, but found that strong bodies of
the enemy were moving upon him and that it was impossible for him to
hold the place. He retired, therefore, holding grimly on to his
prisoners, and got back with small loss to the place from which he
started. It was a dashing piece of bluff, and, when taken with the
Douglas exploit, leads one to hope that Pilcher may have a chance of
showing what he can do witb larger means at his disposal. Finding
that the enemy was following him in force, he pushed on the same night
for Thabanchu. His horsemen must have covered between fifty and sixty
miles in the twenty-four hours.

Apparently the effect of Pilcher's exploit was to halt the march of
those commandos which had been seen trekking to the north-west, and to
cause them to swing round upon Thabanchu. Broadwood, a young cavalry
commander who had won a name in Egypt, considered that his position
was unnecessarily exposed and fell back upon Bloemfontein. He halted
on the first night near the waterworks, halfway upon his journey.

The Boers are great masters in the ambuscade. Never has any race shown
such aptitude for this form of warfare -- a legacy from a long
succession of contests with cunning savages. But never also have they
done anything so clever and so audacious as De Wet's dispositions in
this action. One cannot go over the ground without being amazed at
the ingenuity of their attack, and also at the luck which favoured
them, for the trap which they had laid for others might easily have
proved an absolutely fatal one for themselves.

The position beside the Modder at which the British camped had
numerous broken hills to the north and east of it. A force of Boers,
supposed to number about two thousand men, came down in the night,
bringing with them several heavy guns, and with the early morning
opened a brisk fire upon the camp. The surprise was complete. But
the refinement of the Boer tactics lay in the fact that they had a
surprise within a surprise -- and it was the second which was the more
deadly.

The force which Broadwood had with him consisted of the 10th Hussars
and the composite regiment, Rimington's Scouts, Roberts's Horse, the
New Zealand and Burmah Mounted Infantry, with Q and U batteries of
Horse Artillery. With such a force, consisting entirely of mounted
men, he could not storm the hills upon which the Boer guns were
placed, and his twelve-pounders were unable to reach the heavier
cannon of the enemy. His best game was obviously to continue his march
to Bloemfontein. He sent on the considerable convoy of wagons and the
guns, while he with the cavalry covered the rear, upon which the
long-range pieces of the enemy kept up the usual well-directed but
harmless fire.

Broadwood's retreating column now found itself on a huge plain which
stretches all the way to Bloemfontein, broken only by two hills, both
of which were known to be in our possession. The plain was one which
was continually traversed from end to end by our troops and convoys,
so that once out upon its surface all danger seemed at an
end. Broadwood had additional reasons for feeling secure, for he knew
that, in answer to his own wise request, Colvile's Division had been
sent out before daybreak that morning from Bloemfontein to meet him.
In a very few miles their vanguard and his must come together. There
were obviously no Boers upon the plain, but if there were they would
find themselves between two fires. He gave no thought to his front
therefore, but rode behind, where the Boer guns were roaring, and
whence the Boer riflemen might ride.

But in spite of the obvious there WERE Boers upon the plain, so placed
that they must either bring off a remarkable surprise or be themselves
cut off to a man. Across the veldt, some miles from the waterworks,
there runs a deep donga or watercourse -- one of many, but the
largest. It cuts the rough road at right angles. Its depth and breadth
are such that a wagon would dip down the incline, and disappear for
about two minutes before it would become visible again at the crown of
the other side. In appearance it was a huge curving ditch with a
stagnant stream at the bottom. The sloping sides of the ditch were
fringed with Boers, who had ridden thither before dawn and were now
waiting for the unsuspecting column. There were not more than three
hundred of them, and four times their number were approaching; but no
odds can represent the difference between the concealed man with the
magazine rifle and the man upon the plain.

There were two dangers, however, which the Boers ran, and, skilful as
their dispositions were, their luck was equally great, for the risks
were enormous. One was that a force coming the other way (Colvile's
was only a few miles off) would arrive, and that they would be ground
between the upper and the lower millstone. The other was that for
once the British scouts might give the alarm and that Broadwood's
mounted men would wheel swiftly to right and left and secure the ends
of the long donga. Should that happen, not a man of them could
possibly escape. But they took their chances like brave men, and
fortune was their friend. The wagons came on without any scouts.
Behind them was U battery, then Q, with Roberts's Horse abreast of
them and the rest of the cavalry behind.

As the wagons, occupied for the most part only by unarmed sick
soldiers and black transport drivers, came down into the drift, the
Boers quickly but quietly took possession of them, and drove them on
up the further slope. Thus the troops behind saw their wagons dip
down, reappear, and continue on their course. The idea of an ambush
could not suggest itself. Only one thing could avert an absolute
catastrophe, and that was the appearance of a hero who would accept
certain death in order to warn his comrades. Such a man rode by the
wagons -- though, unhappily, in the stress and rush of the moment there
is no certainty as to his name or rank. We only know that one was
found brave enough to fire his revolver in the face of certain death.
The outburst of firing which answered his shot was the sequel which
saved the column. Not often is it given to a man to die so choice a
death as that of this nameless soldier.

But the detachment was already so placed that nothing could save it
from heavy loss. The wagons had all passed but nine, and the leading
battery of artillery was at the very edge of the donga. Nothing is so
helpless as a limbered-up battery. In an instant the teams were shot
down and the gunners were made prisoners. A terrific fire burst at
the same instant upon Roberts's Horse, who were abreast of the guns.
'Files a bout! gallop!' yelled Colonel Dawson, and by his exertions
and those of Major Pack-Beresford the corps was extricated and
reformed some hundreds of yards further off. But the loss of horses
and men was heavy. Major Pack-Beresford and other officers were shot
down, and every unhorsed man remained necessarily as a prisoner under
the very muzzles of the riflemen in the donga.

As Roberts's Horse turned and galloped for dear life across the flat,
four out of the six guns [Footnote:Of the other two one overturned and
could not be righted, the other had the wheelers shot and could not be
extricated from the tumult. It was officially stated that the guns of
Q battery were halted a thousand yards off the donga, but my
impression was, from examining the ground, that it was not more than
six hundred.] of Q battery and one gun (the rearmost) of U battery
swung round nd dashed frantically for a place of safety. At the same
instant every Boer along the line of the donga sprang up and emptied
his magazine into the mass of rushing, shouting soldiers, plunging
horses, and screaming Kaffirs. It was for a few moments a
SAUVE-QUI-PEUT. Serjeant-Major Martin of U, with a single driver on a
wheeler, got away the last gun of his battery. The four guns which
were extricated of Q, under Major Phipps-Hornby, whirled across the
plain, pulled up, unlimbered, and opened a brisk fire of shrapnel from
about a thousand yards upon the donga. Had the battery gone on for
double the distance, its action would have been more effective, for it
would have been under a less deadly rifle fire, but in any case its
sudden change from flight to discipline and order steadied the whole
force. Roberts's men sprang from their horses, and with the Burmese
and New-Zealanders flung themselves down in a skirmish line. The
cavalry moved to the left to find some drift by which the donga could
be passed, and out of chaos there came in a few minutes calm and a
settled purpose.

It was for Q battery to cover the retreat of the force, and most nobly
it did it. A fortnight later a pile of horses, visible many hundreds
of yards off across the plain, showed where the guns had stood. It was
the Colenso of the horse gunners. In a devilish sleet of lead they
stood to their work, loading and firing while a man was left. Some of
the guns were left with two men to work them, one was loaded and fired
by a single officer. When at last the order for retirement came, only
ten men, several of them wounded, were left upon their feet. With
scratch teams from the limbers, driven by single gunners, the
twelve-pounders staggered out of action, and the skirmish line of
mounted infantry sprang to their feet amid the hail of bullets to
cheer them as they passed.

It was no slight task to extricate that sorely stricken force from the
close contact of an exultant enemy, and to lead it across that
terrible donga. Yet, thanks to the coolness of Broadwood and the
steadiness of his rearguard, the thing was done. A practicable passage
had been found two miles to the south by Captain Chester-Master of
Rimington's. This corps, with Roberts's, the New-Zealanders, and the
3rd Mounted Infantry, covered the withdrawal in turn. It was one of
those actions in which the horseman who is trained to fight upon foot
did very much better than the regular cavalry. In two hours' time the
drift had been passed and the survivors of the force found themselves
in safety.

The losses in this disastrous but not dishonourable engagement were
severe. About thirty officers and five hundred men were killed,
wounded, or missing. The prisoners came to more than three hundred.
They lost a hundred wagons, a considerable quantity of stores, and
seven twelve-pounder guns -- five from U battery and two from Q. Of U
battery only Major Taylor and Sergeant-Major Martin seem to have
escaped, the rest being captured EN BLOC. Of Q battery nearly every
man was killed or wounded. Roberts's Horse, the New-Zealanders, and
the mounted infantry were the other corps which suffered most heavily.
Among many brave men who died, none was a greater loss to the service
than Major Booth of the Northumberland Fusiliers, serving in the
mounted infantry. With four comrades he held a position to cover the
retreat, and refused to leave it. Such men are inspired by the
traditions of the past, and pass on the story of their own deaths to
inspire fresh heroes in the future.

Broadwood, the instant that he had disentangled himself, faced about,
and brought his guns into action. He was not strong enough, however,
nor were his men in a condition, to seriously attack the
enemy. Martyr's mounted infantry had come up, led by the
Queenslanders, and at the cost of some loss to themselves helped to
extricate the disordered force. Colvile's Division was behind
Bushman's Kop, only a few miles off, and there were hopes that it
might push on and prevent the guns and wagons from being
removed. Colvile did make an advance, but slowly and in a flanking
direction instead of dashing swiftly forward to retrieve the
situation. It must be acknowledged, however, that the problem which
faced this General was one of great difficulty. It was almost certain
that before he could throw his men into the action the captured guns
would be beyond his reach, and it was possible that he might swell the
disaster. With all charity, however, one cannot but feel that his
return next morning, after a reinforcement during the night, without
any attempt to force the Boer position, was lacking in
enterprise.[Footnote: It may be urged in General Colvile's defence
that his division had already done a long march from Bloemfontein. A
division, however, which contains two such brigades as Macdonald's and
Smith-Dorrien's may safely be called upon for any exertions. The
gunner officers in Colvile's division heard their comrades' guns in
'section-fire' and knew it to be the sign of a desperate situation.]
The victory left the Boers in possession of the waterworks, and
Bloemfontein had to fall back upon her wells -- a change which reacted
most disastrously upon the enteric which was already decimating the
troops.

The effect of the Sanna's Post defeat was increased by the fact that
only four days later (on April 4th) a second even more deplorable
disaster befell our troops. This was the surrender of five companies
of infantry, two of them mounted, at Reddersberg. So many surrenders
of small bodies of troops had occurred during the course of the war
that the public, remembering how seldom the word 'surrender' had ever
been heard in our endless succession of European wars, had become very
restive upon the subject, and were sometimes inclined to question
whether this new and humiliating fact did not imply some deterioration
of our spirit. The fear was natural, and yet nothing could be more
unjust to this the most splendid army which has ever marched under the
red-crossed flag. The fact was new because the conditions were new,
and it was inherent in those conditions. In that country of huge
distances small bodies must be detached, for the amount of space
covered by the large bodies was not sufficient for all military
purposes. In reconnoitring, in distributing proclamations, in
collecting arms, in overawing outlying districts, weak columns must be
used. Very often these columns must contain infantry soldiers, as the
demands upon the cavalry were excessive. Such bodies, moving through
a hilly country with which they were unfamiliar, were always liable to
be surrounded by a mobile enemy. Once surrounded the length of their
resistance was limited by three things: their cartridges, their water,
and their food. When they had all three, as at Wepener or Mafeking,
they could hold out indefinitely. When one or other was wanting, as at
Reddersberg or Nicholson's Nek, their position was impossible. They
could not break away, for how can men on foot break away from
horsemen? Hence those repeated humiliations, which did little or
nothing to impede the course of the war, and which were really to be
accepted as one of the inevitable prices which we had to pay for the
conditions under which the war was fought. Numbers, discipline, and
resources were with us. Mobility, distances, nature of the country,
insecurity of supplies, were with them. We need not take it to heart
therefore if it happened, with all these forces acting against them,
that our soldiers found themselves sometimes in a position whence
neither wisdom nor valour could rescue them. To travel through that
country, fashioned above all others for defensive warfare, with trench
and fort of superhuman size and strength, barring every path, one
marvels how it was that such incidents were not more frequent and more
serious. It is deplorable that the white flag should ever have waved
over a company of British troops, but the man who is censorious upon
the subject has never travelled in South Africa.

In the disaster at Reddersberg three of the companies were of the
Irish Rifles, and two of the 2nd Northumberland Fusiliers -- the same
unfortunate regiments which had already been cut up at Stormberg.
They had been detached from Gatacre's 3rd Division, the headquarters
of which was at Springfontein. On the abandonment of Thabanchu and
the disaster of Sanna's Post, it was obvious that we should draw in
our detached parties to the east; so the five companies were ordered
to leave Dewetsdorp, which they were garrisoning, and to get back to
the railway line. Either the order was issued too late, or they were
too slow in obeying it, for they were only halfway upon their journey,
near the town of Reddersberg, when the enemy came down upon them with
five guns. Without artillery they were powerless, but, having seized
a kopje, they took such shelter as they could find, and waited in the
hope of succour. Their assailants seem to have been detached from De
Wet's force in the north, and contained among them many of the victors
of Sanna's Post. The attack began at 11 A.M. of April 3rd, and all
day the men lay among the stones, subjected to the pelt of shell and
bullet. The cover was good, however, and the casualties were not
heavy. The total losses were under fifty killed and wounded. More
serious than the enemy's fire was the absence of water, save a very
limited supply in a cart. A message was passed through of the dire
straits in which they found themselves, and by the late afternoon the
news had reached headquarters. Lord Roberts instantly despatched the
Camerons, just arrived from Egypt, to Bethany, which is the nearest
point upon the line, and telegraphed to Gatacre at Springfontein to
take measures to save his compromised detachment. The telegram should
have reached Gatacre early on the evening of the 3rd, and he had
collected a force of fifteen hundred men, entrained it, journeyed
forty miles up the line, detrained it, and reached Reddersberg, which
is ten or twelve miles from the line, by 10.30 next morning. Already,
however, it was too late, and the besieged force, unable to face a
second day without water under that burning sun, had laid down their
arms. No doubt the stress of thirst was dreadful, and yet one cannot
say that the defence rose to the highest point of resolution. Knowing
that help could not be far off, the garrison should have held on while
they could lift a rifle. If the ammunition was running low, it was
bad management which caused it to be shot away too fast. Captain
McWhinnie, who was in command, behaved with the utmost personal
gallantry. Not only the troops but General Gatacre also was involved
in the disaster. Blame may have attached to him for leaving a
detachment at Dewetsdorp, and not having a supporting body at
Reddersberg upon which it might fall back; but it must be remembered
that his total foree was small and that he had to cover a long stretch
of the lines of communication. As to General Gatacre's energy and
gallantry it is a by-word in the army; but coming after the Stormberg
disaster this fresh mishap to his force made the continuance of his
command impossible. Much sympathy was felt with him in the army,
where he was universally liked and respected by officers and men. He
returned to England, and his division was taken over by General
Chermside.

In a single week, at a time when the back of the war had seemed to be
broken, we had lost nearly twelve hundred men with seven guns. The
men of the Free State -- for the fighting was mainly done by commandos
from the Ladybrand, Winburg, Bethlehem, and Harrismith districts --
deserve great credit for this fine effort, and their leader De Wet
confirmed the reputation which he had already gained as a dashing and
indefatigable leader. His force was so weak that when Lord Roberts was
able to really direct his own against it, he brushed it away before
him; but the manner in which De Wet took advantage of Roberts's
enforced immobility, and dared to get behind so mighty an enemy, was a
fine exhibition of courage and enterprise. The public at home chafed
at this sudden and unexpected turn of affairs; but the General,
constant to his own fixed purpose, did not permit his strength to be
wasted, aud his cavalry to be again disorganised, by flying
excursions, but waited grimly until he should be strong enough to
strike straight at Pretoria.

In this short period of depression there came one gleam of light from
the west. This was the capture of a commando of sixty Boers, or
rather of sixty foreigners fighting for the Boers, and the death of
the gallant Frenchman, De Villebois-Mareuil, who appears to have had
the ambition of playing Lafayette in South Africa to Kruger's
Washington. From the time that Kimberley had been reoccupied the
British had been accumulating their force there so as to make a strong
movement which should coincide with that of Roberts from
Bloemfontein. Hunter's Division from Natal was being moved round to
Kimberley, and Methuen already commanded a considerable body of
troops, which included a number of the newly arrived Imperial
Yeomanry. With these Methuen pacified the surrounding country, and
extended his outposts to Barkly West on the one side, to Boshof on the
other, and to Warrenton upon the Vaal River in the centre. On April
4th news reached Boshof that a Boer commando had been seen some ten
miles to the east of the town, and a force, consisting of Yeomanry,
Kimberley Light Horse, and half of Butcher's veteran 4th battery, was
sent to attack them. They were found to have taken up their position
upon a kopje which, contrary to all Boer custom, had no other kopjes
to support it. French generalship was certainly not so astute as Boer
cunning. The kopje was instantly surrounded, and the small force upon
the summit being without artillery in the face of our guns found
itself in exactly the same position which our men had been in
twenty-four hours before at Reddersberg. Again was shown the advantage
which the mounted rifleman has over the cavalry, for the Yeomanry and
Light Horsemen left their horses and ascended the hill with the
bayonet. In three hours all was over and the Boers had laid down their
arms. Villebois was shot with seven of his companions, and there were
nearly sixty prisoners. It speaks well for the skirmishing of the
Yeomanry and the way in which they were handled by Lord Chesham that
though they worked their way up the hill under fire they only lost
four killed and a few wounded. The affair was a small one, but it was
complete, and it came at a time when a success was very welcome. One
bustling week had seen the expensive victory of Karee, the disasters
of Sanna's Post and Reddersberg, and the successful skirmish of
Boshof. Another chapter must be devoted to the movement towards the
south of the Boer forces and the dispositions which Lord Roberts made
to meet it.

Arthur Conan Doyle