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Chapter 23

THE CLEARING OF THE SOUTH-EAST

Lord Roberts never showed his self-command and fixed purpose more
clearly than during his six weeks' halt at Bloemfontein. De Wet, the
most enterprising and aggressive of the Boer commanders, was attacking
his eastern posts and menacing his line of communications. A fussy or
nervous general would have harassed his men and worn out his horses by
endeavouring to pursue a number of will-of-the-wisp commandos.
Roberts contented himself by building up his strength at the capital,
and by spreading nearly twenty thousand men along his line of rail
from Bloemfontein to Bethulie. When the time came he would strike, but
until then he rested. His army was not only being rehorsed and
reshod, but in some respects was being reorganised. One powerful
weapon which was forged during those weeks was the collection of the
mounted infantry of the central army into one division, which was
placed under the command of Ian Hamilton, with Hutton and Ridley as
brigadiers. Hutton's brigade contained the Canadians, New South Wales
men, West Australians, Queenslanders, New-Zealanders, Victorians,
South Australians, and Tasmanians, with four battalions of Imperial
Mounted Infantry, and several light batteries. Ridley's brigade
contained the South African irregular regiments of cavalry, with some
imperial troops. The strength of the whole division came to over ten
thousand rifles, and in its ranks there rode the hardiest and best
from every corner of the earth over which the old flag is flying.

A word as to the general distribution of the troops at this instant
while Roberts was gathering himself for his spring. Eleven divisions
of infantry were in the field. Of these the 1st (Methuen's) and half
the 10th (Hunter's) were at Kimberley, forming really the
hundred-mile-distant left wing of Lord Roberts's army. On that side
also was a considerable force of Yeomanry, as General Villebois
discovered. In the centre with Roberts was the 6th division
(Kelly-Kenny's) at Bloemfontein, the 7th (Tucker's) at Karee, twenty
miles north, the 9th (Colvile's) and the 11th (Pole-Carew's) near
Bloemfontein. French's cavalry division was also in the centre. As
one descended the line towards the Cape one came on the 3rd division
(Chermside's, late Gatacre's), which had now moved up to Reddersberg,
and then, further south, the 8th (Rundle's), near Rouxville. To the
south and east was the other half of Hunter's division (Hart's
brigade), and Brabant's Colonial division, half of which was shut up
in Wepener and the rest at Aliwal. These were the troops operating in
the Free State, with the addition of the division of mounted infantry
in process of formation.

There remained the three divisions in Natal, the 2nd (Clery's), the
4th (Lyttelton's), and the 5th (Hildyard's, late Warren's), with the
cavalry brigades of Burn-Murdoch, Dundonald, and Brocklehurst. These,
with numerous militia and unbrigaded regiments along the lines of
communication, formed the British army in South Africa. At Mafeking
some 900 irregulars stood at bay, with another force about as large
under Plumer a little to the north, endeavouring to relieve them. At
Beira, a Portuguese port through which we have treaty rights by which
we may pass troops, a curious mixed force of Australians,
New-Zealanders and others was being disembarked and pushed through to
Rhodesia, so as to cut off any trek which the Boers might make in tbat
direction. Carrington, a fierce old soldier with a large experience
of South African warfare, was in command of this picturesque force,
which moved amid tropical forests over crocodile-haunted streams,
while their comrades were shivering in the cold southerly winds of a
Cape winter. Neither our Government, our people, nor the world
understood at the beginning of this campaign how grave was the task
which we had undertaken, but, having once realised it, it must be
acknowledged that it was carried through in no half-hearted way. So
vast was the scene of operations that the Canadian might almost find
his native climate at one end of it and the Queenslander at the other.

To follow in close detail the movements of the Boers and the counter
movements of the British in the southeast portion of the Free State
during this period would tax the industry of the historian and the
patience of the reader. Let it be told with as much general truth and
as little geographical detail as possible. The narrative which is
interrupted by an eternal reference to the map is a narrative spoiled.

The main force of the Freestaters had assembled in the north-eastern
corner of their State, and from this they made their sally southwards,
attacking or avoiding at their pleasure the eastern line of British
outposts. Their first engagement, that of Sanna's Post, was a great
and deserved success. Three days later they secured the five
companies at Reddersberg. Warned in time, the other small British
bodies closed in upon their supports, and the railway line, that
nourishing artery which was necessary for the very existence of the
army, was held too strongly for attack. The Bethulie Bridge was a
particularly important point; but though the Boers approached it, and
even went the length of announcing officially that they had destroyed
it, it was not actually attacked. At Wepener, however, on the
Basutoland border, they found an isolated force, and proceeded at
once, according to their custom, to hem it in and to bombard it, until
one of their three great allies, want of food, want of water, or want
of cartridges, should compel a surrender.

On this occasion, however, the Boers had undertaken a task which was
beyond their strength. The troops at Wepener were one thousand seven
hundred in number, and formidable in quality. The place had been
occupied by part of Brabant's Colonial division, consisting of hardy
irregulars, men of the stuff of the defenders of Mafeking. Such men
are too shrewd to be herded into an untenable position and too valiant
to surrender a tenable one. The force was commanded by a dashing
soldier, Colonel Dalgety, of the Cape Mounted Rifles, as tough a
fighter as his famous namesake. There were with him nearly a thousand
men of Brabant's Horse, four hundred of the Cape Mounted Rifles, four
hundred Kaffrarian Horse, with some scouts, and one hundred regulars,
including twenty invaluable Sappers. They were strong in guns -- two
seven-pounders, two naval twelve-pounders, two fifteen-pounders and
several machine guns. The position which they had taken up,
Jammersberg, three miles north of Wepener, was a very strong one, and
it would have taken a larger force than De Wet had at his disposal to
turn them out of it. The defence had been arranged by Major Cedric
Maxwell, of the Sappers; and though the huge perimeter, nearly eight
miles, made its defence by so small a force a most difficult matter,
the result proved how good his dispositions were.

At the same time, the Boers came on with every confidence of victory,
for they had a superiority in guns and an immense superiority in men.
But after a day or two of fierce struggle their attack dwindled down
into a mere blockade. On April 9th they attacked furiously, both by
day and by night, and on the 10th the pressure was equally severe. In
these two days occurred the vast majority of the casualties. But the
defenders took cover in a way to which British regulars have not yet
attained, and they outshot their opponents both with their rifles and
their cannon. Captain Lukin's management of the artillery was
particularly skilful. The weather was vile and the hastily dug
trenches turned into ditches half full of water, but neither
discomfort nor danger shook the courage of the gallant colonials.
Assault after assault was repulsed, and the scourging of the cannon
was met with stolid endurance. The Boers excelled all their previous
feats in the handling of artillery by dragging two guns up to the
summit of the lofty Jammersberg, whence they fired down upon the camp.
Nearly all the horses were killed and three hundred of the troopers
were hit, a number which is double that of the official return, for
the simple reason that the spirit of the force was so high that only
those who were very severely wounded reported themselves as wounded at
all. None but the serious cases ever reached the hands of
Dr. Faskally, who did admirable work with very slender resources. How
many the enemy lost can never be certainly known, but as they pushed
home several attacks it is impossible to imagine that their losses
were less than those of the victorious defenders. At the end of
seventeen days of mud and blood the brave irregulars saw an empty
laager and abandoned trenches. Their own resistance and the advance of
Brabant to their rescue had caused a hasty retreat of the
enemy. Wepener, Mafeking, Kimberley, the taking of the first guns at
Ladysmith, the deeds of the Imperial Light Horse -- it cannot be
denied that our irregular South African forces have a brilliant record
for the war. They are associated with many successes and with few
disasters. Their fine record cannot, I think, be fairly ascribed to
any greater hardihood which one portion of our race has when compared
with another, for a South African must admit that in the best colonial
corps at least half the men were Britons of Britain. In the Imperial
Light Horse the proportion was very much higher. But what may fairly
be argued is that their exploits have proved, what the American war
proved long ago, that the German conception of discipline is an
obsolete fetish, and that the spirit of free men, whose individualism
has been encouraged rather than crushed, is equal to any feat of arms.
The clerks and miners and engineers who went up Elandslaagte Hill
without bayonets, shoulder to shoulder with the Gordons, and who,
according to Sir George White, saved Ladysmith on January 6th, have
shown for ever that with men of our race it is the spirit witbin, and
not the drill or the discipline, that makes a formidable soldier. An
intligent appreciation of the fact might in the course of the next
few years save us as much money as would go far to pay for the war.

It may well be asked how for so long a period as seventeen days the
British could tolerate a force to the rear of them when with their
great superiority of numbers they could have readily sent an army to
drive it away. The answer must be that Lord Roberts had despatched his
trusty lieutenant, Kitchener, to Aliwal, whence he had been in
heliographic communication with Wepener, that he was sure that the
place could hold out, and that he was using it, as he did Kimberley,
to hold the enemy while he was making his plans for their
destruction. This was the bait to tempt them to their ruin. Had the
trap not been a little slow in closing, the war in the Free State
might have ended then and there. From the 9th to the 25th the Boers
were held in front of Wepener. Let us trace the movements of the other
British detachments during that time.

Brabant's force, with Hart's brigade, which had been diverted on its
way to Kimberley, where it was to form part of Hunter's division, was
moving on the south towards Wepener, advancing through Rouxville, but
going slowly for fear of scaring the Boers away before they were
sufficiently compromised. Chermside's 3rd division approached from the
north-west, moving out from the railway at Bethany, and passing
through Reddersberg towards Dewetsdorp, from which it would directly
threaten the Boer line of retreat. The movement was made with
reassuring slowness and gentleness, as when the curved hand approaches
the unconscious fly. And then suddenly, on April 21st, Lord Roberts
let everything go. Had the action of the agents been as swift and as
energetic as the mind of the planner, De Wet could not have escaped
us.

What held Lord Roberts's hand for some few days after he was ready to
strike was the abominable weather. Rain was falling in sheets, and
those who know South African roads, South African mud, and South
African drifts will understand how impossible swift military movements
are under those circumstances. But with the first clearing of the
clouds the hills to the south and east of Bloemfontein were dotted
with our scouts. Rundle with his 8th division was brought swiftly up
from. the south, united with Chermside to the east of Reddersberg, and
the whole force, numbering 13,000 rifles with thirty guns, advanced
upon Dewetsdorp, Rundle, as senior officer, being in command. As they
marched the blue hills of Wepener lined the sky some twenty miles to
the south, eloquent to every man of the aim and object of their march.

On April 20th, Rundle as he advanced found a force with artillery
across his path to Dewetsdorp. It is always difficult to calculate
the number of hidden men and lurking guns which go to make up a Boer
army, but with some knowledge of their total at Wepener it was certain
that the force opposed to him must be very inferior to his own. At
Constantia Farm, where he found them in position, it is difficult to
imagine that there were more than three thousand men. Their left
flank was their weak point, as a movement on that side would cut them
off from Wepener and drive them up towards our main force in the
north. One would have thought that a containing force of three
thousand men, and a flanking movement from eight thousand, would have
turned them out, as it has turned them out so often before and since.
Yet a long-range action began on Friday, April 20th, and lasted the
whole of the 21st, the 22nd, and the 23rd, in which we sustained few
losses, but made no impression upon the enemy. Thirty of the 1st
Worcesters wandered at night into the wrong line, and were made
prisoners, but with this exception the four days of noisy fighting
does not appear to have cost either side fifty casualties. It is
probable that the deliberation with which the operations were
conducted was due to Rundle's instructions to wait until the other
forces were in position. His subsequent movements showed that he was
not a General who feared to strike.

On Sunday night (April 22nd) Pole-Carew sallied out from Bloemfontein
on a line which would take him round the right flank of the Boers who
were facing Rundle. The Boers had, however, occupied a strong
position at Leeuw Kop, which barred his path, so that the Dewetsdorp
Boers were covering the Wepener Boers, and being in turn covered by
the Boers of Leeuw Kop. Before anything could be done, they must be
swept out of the way. Pole-Carew is one of those finds which help to
compensate us for the war. Handsome, dashing, debonnaire, he
approaches a field of battle as a light-hearted schoolboy approaches a
football field. On this occasion he acted with energy and discretion.
His cavalry threatened the flanks of the enemy, and Stephenson's
brigade carried the position in front at a small cost. On the same
evening General French arrived and took over the force, which
consisted now of Stephenson's and the Guards brigades (making up the
11th division), with two brigades of cavalry and one corps of mounted
infantry. The next day, the 23rd, the advance was resumed, the cavalry
bearing the brunt of the fighting. That gallant corps, Roberts's
Horse, whose behaviour at Sanna's Post had been admirable, again
distinguished itself, losing among others its Colonel, Brazier
Creagh. On the 24th again it was to the horsemen that the honour and
the casualties fell. The 9th Lancers, the regular cavalry regiment
which bears away the honours of the war, lost several men and
officers, and the 8th Hussars also suffered, but the Boers were driven
from their position, and lost more heavily in this skirmish than in
some of the larger battles of the campaign. The 'pom-poms,' which had
been supplied to us by the belated energy of the Ordnance Department,
were used with some effect in this engagement, and the Boers learned
for the first time how unnerving are those noisy but not particularly
deadly fireworks which they had so often crackled round the ears of
our gunners.

On the Wednesday morning Rundle, with the addition cf Pole-Carew's
division, was strong enough for any attack, while French was in a
position upon the flank. Every requisite for a great victory was
there except the presence of an enemy. The Wepener siege had been
raised and the force in front of Rundle had disappeared as only Boer
armies can disappear. The combined movement was an admirable piece of
work on the part of the enemy. Finding no force in front of them, the
combined troops of French, Rundle, and Chermside occupied Dewetsdorp,
where the latter remained, while the others pushed on to Thabanchu,
the storm centre from which all our troubles had begun nearly a month
before. All the way they knew that De Wet's retreating army was just
in front of them, and they knew also that a force had been sent out
from Bloemfontein to Thabanchu to head off the Boers. Lord Roberts
might naturally suppose, when he had formed two cordons through which
De Wet must pass, that one or other must hold him. But with
extraordinary skill and mobility De Wet, aided by the fact that every
inhabitant was a member of his intelligence department, slipped
through the double net which had been laid for him. The first net was
not in its place in time, and the second was too small to hold him.

While Rundle and French had advanced on Dewets dorp as described, the
other force which was intended to head off De Wet had gone direct to
Thabanchu. The advance began by a movement of Ian Hamilton on April
22nd with eight hundred mounted infantry upon the waterworks. The
enemy, who held the hills beyond, allowed Hamilton's force to come
right down to the Modder before they opened fire from three guns. The
mounted infantry fell back, and encamped for the night out of
range.[Footnote: This was a remarkable exhibition of the harmlessness
of shell-fire against troops in open formation. I myself saw at least
forty shells, all of which burst, fall among the ranks of the mounted
infantry, who retired at a contemptuos walk. There were no
casualties.] Before morning they were reinforced by Smith-Dorrien's
brigade (Gordons, Canadians, and Shropshires -- the Cornwalls had been
left behind) and some more mounted Infantry. With daylight a fine
advance was begun, the brigade moving up in very extended order and
the mounted men turning the right flank of the defence. By evening we
had regained the waterworks, a most important point for Bloemfontein,
and we held all the line of hills which command it. This strong
position would not have been gained so easily if it had not been for
Pole-Carew's and French's actions two days before, on their way to
join Rundle, which enabled them to turn it from the south.

Ian Hamilton, who had already done good service in the war, having
commanded the infantry at Elandslaagte, and been one of the most
prominent leaders in the defence of Ladysmith, takes from this time
onwards a more important and a more independent position. A thin,
aquiline man, of soft voice and gentle manners, he had already proved
more than once during his adventurous career that he not only
possessed in a high degree the courage of the soldier, but also the
equanimity and decision of the born leader. A languid elegance in his
bearing covered a shrewd brain and a soul of fire. A distorted and
half-paralysed hand reminded the observer that Hamilton, as a young
lieutenant, had known at Majuba what it was to face the Boer
rifles. Now, in his forty-seventh year, he had returned, matured and
formidable, to reverse the results of that first deplorable campaign.
This was the man to whom Lord Roberts had entrusted the command of
that powerful flanking column which was eventually to form the right
wing of his main advance. Being reinforced upon the morning after the
capture of the Waterworks by the Highland Brigade, the Cornwalls, and
two heavy naval guns, his whole force amounted to not less than seven
thousand men. From these he detached a garrison for the Waterworks,
and with the rest he continued his march over the hilly country which
lies between them and Thabanchu.

One position, Israel's Poort, a nek between two hills, was held
against them on April 25th, but was gained without much trouble, the
Canadians losing one killed and two wonuded. Colonel Otter, their
gallant leader, was one of the latter, while Marshall's Horse, a
colonial corps raised in Grahamstown, had no fewer than seven of their
officers and several men killed or wounded. Next morning the town of
Thabanchu was seized, and Hamilton found himself upon the direct line
of the Boer retreat. He seized the pass which commands the road, and
all next day he waited eagerly, and the hearts of his men beat high
when at last they saw a long trail of dust winding up to them from the
south. At last the wily De Wet had been headed off! Deep and earnest
were the curses when out of the dust there emerged a khaki column of
horsemen, and it was realised that this was French's pursuing force,
closely followed by Rundle's infantry from Dewetsdorp. The Boers had
slipped round and were already to the north of us.

It is impossible to withhold our admiration for the way in which the
boer force was manoeuvred thoughout this portion of the campaign. The
mixture of circumspection and audacity, the way in which French and
Rundle were hindered until the Wepener force had disengaged itself,
the manner in which these covering forces were then withdrawn, and
finally the clever way in which they all slipped past Hamilton, make a
brilliant bit of strategy. Louis Botha, the generalissimo, held all
the strings in his hand, and the way in which he pulled them showed
that his countrymen had chosen the right man for that high office, and
that his was a master spirit even among those fine natural warriors
who led the separate commandos.

Having got to the north of the British forces Botha made no effort to
get away, and refused to be hustled by a reconnaissance developing
into an attack, which French made upon April 27th. In a skirmish the
night before Kitchener's Horse had lost fourteen men, and the action
of the 27th cost us about as many casualties. It served to show that
the Boer force was a compact body some six or seven thousand strong,
which withdrew in a leisurely fashion, and took up a defensive
position at Houtnek, some miles further on. French remained at
Thabanchu, from which he afterwards joined Lord Roberts' advance,
while Hamilton now assumed complete command of the flanking column,
with which he proceeded to march north upon Winburg.

The Houtnek position is dominated upon the left of the advancing
British force by Thoba Mountain, and it was this point which was the
centre of Hamilton's attack. It was most gallantly seized by
Kitchener's Horse, who were quickly supported by Smith-Dorrien's men.
The mountain became the scene of a brisk action, and night fell before
the crest was cleared. At dawn upon May 1st the fighting was resumed,
and the position was carried by a determined advance of the
Shropshires, the Canadians, and the Gordons: the Boers escaping down
the reverse slope of the hill came under a heavy fire of our infantry,
and fifty of them were wounded or taken. It was in this action, during
the fighting on the hill, that Captain Towse, of the Gordons, though
shot through the eyes and totally blind, encouraged his men to charge
through a group of the enemy who had gathered round them. After this
victory Hamilton's men, who had fought for seven days out of ten,
halted for a rest at Jacobsrust, where they were joined by Broadwood's
cavalry and Bruce Hamilton's infantry brigade. Ian Hamilton's column
now contained two infantry brigades (Smith.Dorrien's and Bruce
Hamilton's), Ridley's Mounted Infantry, Broadwood's Cavalry Brigade,
five batteries of artillery, two heavy guns, altogether 13,000
men. With this force in constant touch with Botha's rearguard, Ian
Hamilton pushed on once more on May 4th. On May 5th he fought a brisk
cavalry skirmish, in which Kitchener's Horse and the 12th Lancers
distinguished themselves, and on the same day he took possession of
Winburg, thus covering the right of Lord Roberts's great advance.

The distribution of the troops on the eastern side of the Free State
was, at the time of this the final advance of the main army, as
follows -- Ian Hamilton with his mounted infantry, Smith-Dorrien's
brigade, Macdonald's brigade, Bruce Hamilton's brigade, and
Broadwood's cavalry were at Winburg. Rundle was at Thabanchu, and
Brabant's colonial division was moving up to the same point.
Chermside was at Dewetsdorp, and had detached a force under Lord
Castletown to garrison Wepener. Hart occupied Smithfield, whence he
and his brigade were shortly to be transferred to the Kimberley
force. Altogether there could not have been fewer than thirty thousand
men engaged in clearing and holding down this part of the
country. French's cavalry and Pole-Carew's division had returned to
take part in the central advance.

Before entering upon a description of that great and decisive
movement, one small action calls for comment. This was the cutting off
of twenty men of Lumsden's Horse in a reconnaissance at Karee. The
small post under Lieutenant Crane found themselves by some
misunderstanding isolated in the midst of the enemy. Befusing to hoist
the flag of shame, they fought their way out, losing half their
number, while of the other half it is said that there was not one who
could not show bullet marks upon his clothes or person. The men of
this corps, volunteer Anglo-Indians, had abandoned the ease and even
luxury of Eastern life for the hard fare and rough fighting of this
most trying campaign. In coming they had set the whole empire an
object-lesson in spirit, and now on their first field they set the
army an example of military virtue. The proud traditions of Outram's
Volunteers have been upheld by the men of Lumsden's Horse. Another
minor action which cannot be ignored is the defence of a convoy on
April 29th by the Derbyshire Yeomanry (Major Dugdale) and a company of
the Scots Guards. The wagons were on their way to Rundle when they
were attacked at a point about ten miles west of Thabanchu. The small
guard beat off their assailants in the most gallant fashion, and held
their own until relieved by Brabazon upon the following morning.

This phase of the war was marked by a certain change in the temper of
the British. Nothing could have been milder than the original
intentions and proclamations of Lord Roberts, and he was most ably
seconded in his attempts at conciliation by General Pretyman, who had
been made civil administrator of the State. There was evidence,
however, that this kindness had been construed as weakness by some of
the burghers, and during the Boer incursion to Wepener many who had
surrendered a worthless firearm reappeared with the Mauser which had
been concealed in some crafty hiding-place. Troops were fired at from
farmhouses which flew the white flag, and the good housewife remained
behind to charge the 'rooinek' extortionate prices for milk and fodder
while her husband shot at him from the hills. It was felt that the
burghers might have peace or might have war, but could not have both
simultaneously. Some examples were made therefore of offending
farmhouses, and stock was confiscated where there was evidence of
double dealing upon the part of the owner. In a country where
property is a more serious thing than life, these measures, together
with more stringent rules about the possession of horses and arms, did
much to stamp out the chances of an insurrection in our rear. The
worst sort of peace is an enforced peace, but if that can be
established time and justice may do the rest.

The operations which have been here described may be finally summed up
in one short paragraph. A Boer army came south of the British line and
besieged a British garrison. Three British forces, those of French,
Rundle, and Ian Hamilton, were despatched to cut it off. It
successfully threaded its way among them and escaped. It was followed
to the northward as far as the town of Winburg, which remained in the
British possession. Lord Roberts had failed in his plan of cutting off
De Wet's army, but, at the expense of many marches and skirmishes, the
south-east of the State was cleared of the enemy.

Arthur Conan Doyle