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Chapter 26

DIAMOND HILL -- RUNDLE'S OPERATIONS


THE military situation at the time of the occupation of Pretoria was
roughly as follows. Lord Roberts with some thirty thousand men was in
possession of the capital, but had left his long line of
communications very imperfectly guarded behind him. On the flank of
this line of communications, in the eastern and northeastern corner of
the Free State, was an energetic force of unconquered Freestaters who
had rallied round President Steyn. They were some eight or ten
thousand in number, well horsed, with a fair number of guns, under the
able leadership of De Wet, Prinsloo, and Olivier. Above all, they had
a splendid position, mountainous and broken, from which, as from a
fortress, they could make excursions to the south or west. This army
included the commandos of Ficksburg, Senekal, and Harrismith, with all
the broken and desperate men from other districts who had left their
farms and fled to the mountains. It was held in check as a united
force by Rundle's Division and the Colonial Division on the south,
while Colvile, and afterwards Methuen, endeavoured to pen them in on
the west. The task was a hard one, however, and though Rundle
succeeded in holding his line intact, it appeared to be impossible in
that wide country to coop up altogether an enemy so mobile. A strange
game of hide-and-seek ensued, in which De Wet, who led the Boer raids,
was able again and again to strike our line of rails and to get back
without serious loss. The story of these instructive and humiliating
episodes will be told in their order. The energy and skill of the
guerilla chief challenge our admiration, and the score of his
successes would be amusing were it not that the points of the game are
marked by the lives of British soldiers.

General Buller had spent the latter half of May in making his way from
Ladysmith to Laing's Nek, and the beginning of June found him with
twenty thousand men in front of that difficult position. Some talk of
a surrender had arisen, and Christian Botha, who commanded the Boers,
succeeded in gaining several days' armistice, which ended in nothing.
The Transvaal forces at this point were not more than a few thousand
in number, but their position was so formidable that it was a serious
task to turn them out. Van Wyk's Hill, however, had been left
unguarded, and as its possession would give the British the command of
Botha's Pass, its unopposed capture by the South African Light Horse
was an event of great importance. With guns upon this eminence the
infantry were able, on June 8th, to attack and to carry with little
loss the rest of the high ground, and so to get the Pass into their
complete possession. Botha fired the grass behind him, and withdrew
sullenly to the north. On the 9th and 10th the convoys were passed
over the Pass, and on the 11th the main body of the army followed
them.

The operations were now being conducted in that extremely acute angle
of Natal which runs up between the Transvaal and the Orange Free
State. In crossing Botha's Pass the army had really entered what was
now the Orange River Colony. But it was only for a very short time, as
the object of the movement was to turn the Laing's Nek position, and
then come back into the Transvaal through Alleman's Pass. The gallant
South African Light Horse led the way, and fought hard at one point to
clear a path for the army, losing six killed and eight wounded in a
sharp skirmish. On the morning of the 12th the flanking movement was
far advanced, and it only remained for the army to force Alleman's
Nek, which would place it to the rear of Laing's Nek, and close to the
Transvaal town of Volksrust.

Had the Boers been the men of Colenso and of Spion Kop, this stonuing
of Alleman's Nek would have been a bloody business. The position was
strong, the cover was slight, and there was no way round. But the
infantry came on with the old dash without the old stubborn resolution
being opposed to them. The guns prepared the way, and then the
Dorsets, the Dublins, the Middlesex, the Queen's, and the East Surrey
did the rest. The door was open and the Transvaal lay before us. The
next day Volksrust was in our hands.

The whole series of operations were excellently conceived and carried
out. Putting Colenso on one side, it cannot be denied that General
Buller showed considerable power of manoeuvring large bodies of
troops. The withdrawal of the compromised army after Spion Kop, the
change of the line of attack at Pieter's Hill, and the flanking
marches in this campaign of Northern Natal, were all very workmanlike
achievements. In this case a position which the Boers had been
preparing for months, scored with trenches and topped by heavy
artillery, had been rendered untenable by a clever flank movement, the
total casualties in the whole affair being less than two hundred
killed and wounded. Natal was cleared of the invader, Buller's foot
was on the high plateau of the Transvaal, and Roberts could count on
twenty thousand good men coming up to him from the south-east. More
important than all, the Natal railway was being brought up, and soon
the central British Army would depend upon Durban instead of Cape Town
for its supplies -- a saving of nearly two-thirds of the distance.
The fugitive Boers made northwards in the Middelburg direction, while
Buller advanced to Standerton, which town he continued to occupy until
Lord Roberts could send a force down through Heidelberg to join hands
with him. Such was the position of the Natal Field Force at the end
of June. From the west and the south-west British forces were also
converging upon the capital. The indomitable Baden-Powell sought for
rest and change of scene after his prolonged trial by harrying the
Boers out of Zeerust and Rustenburg. The forces of Hunter and of
Mahon converged upon Potchefstroom, from which, after settling that
district, they could be conveyed by rail to Krugersdorp and
Johannesburg.

Before briefly recounting the series of events which took place upon
the line of communications, the narrative must return to Lord Roberts
at Pretoria, and describe the operations which followed his occupation
of that city. In leaving the undefeated forces of the Free State
behind him, the British General had unquestionably run a grave risk,
and was well aware that his railway communication was in danger of
being cut. By the rapidity of his movements he succeeded in gaining
the enemy's capital before that which he had foreseen came to pass;
but if Botha had held him at Pretoria while De Wet struck at him
behind, the situation would have been a serious one. Having once
attained his main object, Roberts could receive with equanimity the
expected news that De Wet with a mobile force of less than two
thousand men had, on June 7th, cut the line at Roodeval to the north
of Kroonstad. Both rail and telegraph were destroyed, and for a few
days the army was isolated. Fortunately there were enough supplies to
go on with, and immediate steps were taken to drive away the intruder,
though, like a mosquito, he was brushed from one place only to settle
upon another.

Leaving others to restore his broken communications, Lord Roberts
turned his attention once more to Botha, who still retained ten or
fifteen thousand men under his command. The President had fled from
Pretoria with a large sum of money, estimated at over two millions
sterling, and was known to be living in a saloon railway carriage,
which had been transformed into a seat of government even more mobile
than that of President Steyn. From Waterval-Boven, a point beyond
Middelburg, he was in a position either to continue his journey to
Delagoa Bay, and so escape out of the country, or to trave] north into
that wild Lydenburg country which had always been proclaimed as the
last ditch of the defence. Here he remained with his gold-bags
waiting the turn of events.

Botha and his stalwarts had not gone far from the capital. Fifteen
miles out to the east the railway line runs through a gap in the hills
called Pienaars Poort, and here was such a position as the Boer loves
to hold. It was very strong in front, and it had widely spread
formidable flanking hills to hamper those turning movements which had
so often been fatal to the Boer generals. Behind was the uncut railway
line along which the guns could in case of need be removed. The whole
position was over fifteen miles from wing to wing, and it was well
known to the Boer general that Lord Roberts had no longer that
preponderance of force which would enable him to execute wide turning
movements, as he had done in his advance from the south. His army had
decreased seriously in numbers. The mounted men, the most essential
branch of all, were so ill horsed that brigades were not larger than
regiments. One brigade of infantry (the 14th) had been left to
garrison Johannesburg, and another (the 18th) had been chosen for
special duty in Pretoria. Smith-Dorrien's Brigade had been detached
for duty upon the line of communications. With all these deductions
and the wastage caused by wounds and disease, the force was in no
state to assume a vigorous offensive. So hard pressed were they for
men that the three thousand released prisoners from Waterval were
hurriedly armed with Boer weapons and sent down the line to help to
guard the more vital points.

Had Botha withdrawn to a safe distance, Lord Roberts would certainly
have halted, as he had done at Bloemfontein, and waited for remounts
and reinforcements. But the war could not be allowed to languish when
an active enemy lay only fifteen miles off, within striking distance
of two cities and of the line of rail. Taking all the troops that he
could muster, the British General moved out once more on Monday, June
11th, to drive Botha from his position. He had with him Pole-Carew's
11th Division, which numbered about six thousand men with twenty guns,
Ian Hamilton's force, which included one infantry brigade (Bruce
Hamilton's), one cavalry brigade, and a corps of mounted infantry,
say, six thousand in all, with thirty guns. There remained French's
Cavalry Division, with Hutton's Mounted Infantry, which could not have
exceeded two thousand sabres and rifles. The total force was,
therefore, not more than sixteen or seventeen thousand men, with about
seventy guns. Their task was to carry a carefully prepared position
held by at least ten thousand burghers with a strong artillery. Had
the Boer of June been the Boer of December, the odds would have been
against the British.

There had been some negotiations for peace between Lord Roberts and
Botha, but the news of De Wet's success from the south had hardened
the Boer general's heart, and on June 9th the cavalry had their orders
to advance. Hamilton was to work round the left wing of the Boers,
and French round their right, while the infantry came up in the
centre. So wide was the scene of action that the attack and the
resistance in each flank and in the centre constituted, on June 11th,
three separate actions. Of these the latter was of least importance,
as it merely entailed the advance of the infantry to a spot whence
they could take advantage of the success of the flanking forces when
they had made their presence felt. The centre did not on this as on
several other occasions in the campaign make the mistake of advancing
before the way had been prepared for it.

French with his attenuated force found so vigorous a resistance on
Monday and Tuesday that he was hard put to it to hold his own.
Fortunately he had with him three excellent Horse Artillery batteries,
G, 0, and T, who worked until, at the end of the engagement, they had
only twenty rounds in their limbers. The country was an impossible one
for cavalry, and the troopers fought dismounted, with intervals of
twenty or thirty paces between the men. Exposed all day to rifle and
shell fire, unable to advance and unwilling to retreat, it was only
owing to their open formation that they escaped with about thirty
casualties. With Boers on his front, his flank, and even on his rear,
French held grimly on, realising that a retreat upon his part would
mean a greater pressure at all other points of the British advance. At
night his weary men slept upon the ground which they had held. All
Monday and all Tuesday French kept his grip at Kameelsdrift, stolidly
indifferent to the attempt of the enemy to cut his line of
communications. On Wednesday, Hamilton, upon the other flank, had
gained the upper hand, and the pressure was relaxed. French then
pushed forward, but the horses were so utterly beaten that no
effective pursuit was possible.

During the two days that French had been held up by the Boer right
wing Hamilton had also been seriously engaged upon the left -- so
seriously that at one time the action appeared to have gone against
him. The fight presented some distinctive features, which made it
welcome to soldiers who were weary of the invisible man with his
smokeless gun upon the eternal kopje. It is true that man, gun, and
kopje were all present upon this occasion, but in the endeavours to
drive him off some new developments took place, which formed for one
brisk hour a reversion to picturesque warfare. Perceiving a gap in
the enemy's line, Hamilton pushed up the famous Q battery -- the guns
which had plucked glory out of disaster at Sanna's Post. For the
second time in one campaign they were exposed and in imminent danger
of capture. A body of mounted Boers with great dash and hardihood
galloped down within close range and opened fire. Instantly the 12th
Lancers were let loose upon them. How they must have longed for their
big-boned long-striding English troop horses as they strove to raise a
gallop out of their spiritless overworked Argentines! For once,
however, the lance meant more than five pounds dead weight and an
encumbrance to the rider. The guns were saved, the Boers fled, and a
dozen were left upon the ground. But a cavalry charge has to end in a
re-formation, and that is the instant of danger if any unbroken enemy
remains within range. Now a sleet of bullets hissed through their
ranks as they retired, and the gallant Lord Airlie, as modest and
brave a soldier as ever drew sword, was struck through the heart.
'Pray moderate your language!' was his last characteristic remark,
made to a battle-drunken sergeant. Two officers, seventeen men, and
thirty horses went down with their Colonel, the great majority only
slightly injured. In the meantime the increasing pressure upon his
right caused Broadwood to order a second charge, of the Life Guards
this time, to drive off the assailants. The appearance rather than
the swords of the Guards prevailed, and cavalry as cavalry had
vindicated their existence more than they had ever done during the
campaign. The guns were saved, the flank attack was rolled back, but
one other danger had still to be met, for the Heidelberg commando -- a
corps D'ELITE of the Boers -- had made its way outside Hamilton's
flank and threatened to get past him. With cool judgment the British
General detached a battalion and a section of a battery, which pushed
the Boers back into a less menacing position. The rest of Bruce
Hamilton's Brigade were ordered to advance upon the hills in front,
and, aided by a heavy artillery fire, they had succeeded, before the
closing in of the winter night, in getting possession of this first
line of the enemy's defences. Night fell upon an undecided fight,
which, after swaying this way and that, had finally inclined to the
side of the British. The Sussex and the City Imperial Volunteers were
clinging to the enemy's left flank, while the 11th Division were
holding them in front. All promised well for the morrow.

By order of Lord Roberts the Guards were sent round early on Tuesday,
the 12th, to support the flank attack of Bruce Hamilton's infantry. It
was afternoon before all was ready for the advance, and then the
Sussex, the London Volunteers, and the Derbyshires won a position upon
the ridge, followed later by the three regiments of Guards. But the
ridge was the edge of a considerable plateau, swept by Boer fire, and
no advance could be made over its bare expanse save at a considerable
loss. The infantry clung in a long fringe to the edge of the
position, but for two hours no guns could be brought up to their
support, as the steepness of the slope was insurmountable. It was all
that the stormers could do to hold their ground, as they were
enfiladed by a Vickers-Maxim, and exposed to showers of shrapnel as
well as to an incessant rifle fire. Never were guns so welcome as
those of the 82nd battery, brought by Major Connolly into the firing
line. The enemy's riflemen were only a thousand yards away, and the
action of the artillery might have seemed as foolhardy as that of Long
at Colenso. Ten horses went down on the instant, and a quarter of the
gunners were hit; but the guns roared one by one into action, and
their shrapnel soon decided the day. Undoubtedly it is with Connolly
and his men that the honours lie.

At four o'clock, as the sun sank towards the west, the tide of fight
had set in favour of the attack. Two more batteries had come up,
every rifle was thrown into the firing line, and the Boer reply was
decreasing in volume. The temptation to an assault was great, but even
now it might mean heavy loss of life, and Hamilton shrank from the
sacrifice. In the morning his judgment was justified, for Botha had
abandoned the position, and his army was in full retreat. The mounted
men followed as far as Elands River Station, which is twenty-five
miles from Pretoria, but the enemy was not overtaken, save by a small
party of De Lisle's Australians and Regular Mounted Infantry. This
force, less than a hundred in number, gained a kopje which overlooked
a portion of the Boer army. Had they been more numerous, the effect
would have been incalculable. As it was, the Australians fired every
cartridge which they possessed into the throng, and killed many horses
and men. It would bear examination why it was that only this small
corps was present at so vital a point, and why, if they could push the
pursuit to such purpose, others should not be able to do the same.
Time was bringing some curious revenges. Already Paardeberg had come
upon Majuba Day. Buller's vietorious soldiers had taken Laing's Nek.
Now, the Spruit at which the retreating Boers were so mishandled by
the Australians was that same Bronkers Spruit at which, nineteen years
before, a regiment had been shot down. Many might have prophesied
that the deed would be avenged; but who could ever have guessed the
men who would avenge it?

Such was the battle of Diamond Hill, as it was called from the name of
the ridge which was opposite to Hamilton's attack. The prolonged two
days' struggle showed that there was still plenty of fight in the
burghers. Lord Roberts had not routed them, nor had he captured their
guns; but he had cleared the vicinity of the capital, he had inflicted
a loss upon them which was certainly as great as his own, and he had
again proved to them that it was vain for them to attempt to stand. A
long pause followed at Pretoria, broken by occasional small alarms and
excursions, which served no end save to keep the army from ENNUI. In
spite of occasional breaks in his line of communications, horses and
supplies were coming up rapidly, and, by the middle of July, Roberts
was ready for the field again. At the same time Hunter had come up
from Potchefstroom, and Hamilton had taken Heidelberg, and his force
was about to join hands with Buller at Standerton. Sporadic warfare
broke out here and there in the west, and in the course of it Snyman
of Mafeking had reappeared, with two guns, which were promptly taken
from him by the Canadian Mounted Rifles. On all sides it was felt
that if the redoubtable De Wet could be captured there was every hope
that the burghers might discontinue a struggle which was disagreeable
to the British and fatal to themselves. As a point of honour it was
impossible for Botha to give in while his ally held out. We will
turn, therefore, to this famous guerilla chief, and give some account
of his exploits. To understand them some description must be given of
the general military situation in the Free State.

When Lord Roberts had swept past to the north he had brushed aside the
flower of the Orange Free State army, who occupied the considerable
quadrilateral which is formed by the north-east of that State. The
function of Rundle's 8th Division and of Brabant's Colonial Division
was to separate the sheep from the goats by preventing the fighting
burghers from coming south and disturbing those districts which had
been settled. For this purpose Rundle formed a long line which should
serve as a cordon. Moving up through Trommel and Clocolan, Ficksburg
was occupied on May 25th by the Colonial Division, while Rundle seized
Senekal, forty miles to the north-west. A small force of forty
Yeomanry, who entered the town some time in advance of the main body,
was suddenly attacked by the Boers, and the gallant Dalbiac, famous
rider and sportsman, was killed, with four of his men. He was a
victim, as so many have been in this campaign, to his own proud
disregard of danger.

The Boers were in full retreat, but now, as always, they were
dangerous. One cannot take them for granted, for the very moment of
defeat is that at which they are capable of some surprising effort.
Rundle, following them up from Senekal, found them in strong
possession of the kopjes at Biddulphsberg, and received a check in his
endeavour to drive them off. It was an action fought amid great grass
fires, where the possible fate of the wounded was horrible to
contemplate. The 2nd Grenadiers, the Scots Guards, the East
Yorkshires, and the West Kents were all engaged, with the 2nd and 79th
Field Batteries and a force of Yeomanry. Our losses incurred in the
open from unseen rifles were thirty killed and 130 wounded, including
Colonel Lloyd of the Grenadiers. Two days later Rundle, from Seneka],
joined hands with Brabant from Ficksburg, and a defensive line was
formed between those two places, which was held unbroken for two
months, when the operations ended in the capture of the greater part
of the force opposed to him. Clements's Brigade, consisting of the
1st Royal Irish, the 2nd Bedfords, the 2nd Worcesters, and the 2nd
Wiltshires, had come to strengthen Rundle, and altogether he may have
had as many as twelve thousand men under his orders. It was not a
large force with which to hold a mobile adversary at least eight
thousand strong, who might attack him at any point of his extended
line. So well, however, did he select his positions that every
attempt of the enemy, and there were many, ended in failure. Badly
supplied with food, he and his half-starved men held bravely to their
task, and no soldiers in all that great host deserve better of their
country.

At the end of May, then, the Colonial Division, Rundle's Division, and
Clements's Brigade held the Boers from Ficksburg on the Basuto border
to Senekal. This prevented them from coming south. But what was
there to prevent them from coming west, and falling upon the railway
line? There was the weak point of the British position. Lord Methuen
had been brought across from Boshof, and was available with six
thousand men. Colvile was on that side also, with the Highland
Brigade. A few details were scattered up and down the line, waiting
to be gathered up by an enterprising enemy. Kroonstad was held by a
single militia battalion; each separate force had to be nourished by
convoys with weak escorts. Never was there such a field for a mobile
and competent guerilla leader. And, as luck would have it, such a man
was at hand, ready to take full advantage of his opportunities.

Arthur Conan Doyle