Before Dewetsdorp: April 21.
When the incursion of the Boers into the recently pacified districts became known, the Eighth Division (Rundle) was diverted from Kimberley, whither it was proceeding, and concentrated at Springfontein. The Third Division (Chermside, in supersession of Gatacre) massed at Bethany. Still more troops were needed to guard the line and clear the country.
Sir Redvers Buller was asked whether he could co-operate by forcing Van Reenen's Pass and bringing pressure on the enemy's line of retreat. His position in the centre of the triangle of Natal was, however, an inconvenient one. The strategic advantages possessed by the Boers in this scene of the war have before been noticed. But it may be worth while to explain them again.
The enemy possess the superiority of an enveloping frontier. If Sir Redvers Buller moves west through Van Reenen's Pass to make the diversion required in the Free State, down will come the Boers from the Biggarsburg on his communications and into South Natal. If he moves north to attack the Biggarsburg positions in order to clear Natal he will cut the Boers on his left flank and line.
According to the best information there are three thousand Boers on the Drakensburg Passes, and ten thousand on the Biggarsburg. Buller, therefore, would have preferred to mask Van Reenen's with the Ladysmith Division (Fourth, Lyttelton), which was getting well and strong again, and move northwards with the Second, Fifth, and Tenth Divisions. He did not consider until northern Natal should be cleared that he could safely move westward. On the other hand, the need in the Free State was urgent, and it was therefore arranged that the Tenth Division (Hunter) should come by sea to East London--one brigade to replace the division diverted from Kimberley, one brigade to Bethulie, and that the rest of the Natal Field Army should remain strictly on the defensive until the situation was materially altered.
Practically, therefore, five brigades of troops were available for the operations in the right-hand bottom corner: Hart, with a brigade of Hunter's Division at Bethulie, the Third and Eighth Divisions under Chermside and Rundle at Springfontein and Bethany. Besides these powerful bodies, which were quite independent of the communication troops or the Bloemfontein Army, there were fourteen hundred Yeomanry and Mounted Infantry under General Brabazon, and Brabant's Colonial Brigade, about two thousand five hundred strong.
It is scarcely necessary to follow all the movements in exact detail. Rundle formed a column at Edenburg, and, marching to Reddersburg, joined his force to part of Chermside's Division from Bethany, thus having under his immediate command eight battalions, four batteries, and Brabazon's Mounted Brigade. Another brigade was collecting at Edenburg under Campbell. Hart was moved north-east towards Rouxville, where was also Brabant with a thousand horse. The rest of Brabant's force, some fifteen hundred strong, were blockaded in Wepener by the enemy. Such was the situation when I left Bloemfontein on the morning of the 17th.
I travelled prosperously; came by rail to Edenburg, trekked from there in drenching rains, most unusual for this time of year, and greatly increasing the difficulties of supply; and, resting for the night at Reddersburg, caught up the marching column in its camp, about eleven miles from Dewetsdorp, on the night of the 19th.
The position of the various troops was then as follows: Rundle, with eight battalions, four batteries, and fifteen hundred horse at Oorlogs Poorte, about twelve miles from Dewetsdorp; Campbell, with two battalions and a battery near Rosendal, marching to join him; the Grenadier Guards double marching through Reddersburg to catch up the main force; Hart, with four battalions in Rouxville; Brabant, with one thousand horsemen eight miles north of Rouxville; Dalgety, with a garrison of fifteen hundred men, holding Wepener.
So far as could be learned the enemy had about seven thousand men with twelve guns south of the Bloemfontein-Thabanchu line under Commandants Olivier and De Wet, and with this force, which made up in enterprise and activity what it lacked in numbers or material, they were attempting to blockade and attack Wepener, to bar the road of Rundle's column to Dewetsdorp, and to check Brabant and Hart at Smithfield. Besides proposing this ambitious programme, the Boers sent their patrols riding about the country commandeering all pacified farmers under threats of death.
We had a very pleasant ride from Reddersburg, and it was evening when we rounded the shoulder of a grassy hill and saw the camp of the main British column before us. It lay about the foot of a prominent knoll rising from a broad plain, which was in striking contrast to the mountains of Natal, and seemed to promise ample opportunity to the regular soldier. 'Camp' is, perhaps, an inaccurate description, for there were scarcely any tents to be seen, and the rolling ground was littered with swarms of grazing horses and oxen, and overspread with an immense canopy of white smoke from the hundreds of gleaming grass fires lighted to cook the soldiers' suppers. I presented myself to Sir Leslie Rundle, who received me courteously, and briefly explained the outlines of the situation. We had arrived in the nick of time. The whole force would march at dawn. The scouts had exchanged shots during the day. The Kaffir spies reported that the enemy would fight on the morrow. What could be better? So with much satisfaction we went to bed.
There was a biting chill in the air when the first light of dawn began to grow in the sky, nor was I the only one who searched a modest kit for some of those warm clothes which our friends at home have thoughtfully been sending out. The South African winter was drawing near. But the sun soon rose, and we shivered no longer. The Cavalry were early astir. Indeed their mounted squadrons in silhouette against the morning sky was my first waking impression, and by half-past five all were in motion. I started a little later, but it was not long before I overtook them. Though the command was not a large one it presented several interesting features.
For the first time I saw the Imperial Yeomanry in the field. Trotting across the beautiful green pasture land in a most extended formation, to which they seemed readily to adapt themselves, were seven hundred Yeomen, all good men and true, who had volunteered to fight because they understood the main causes of the quarrel, and from personal conviction earnestly desired to be of some assistance to the State, and who were, moreover, excellently mounted on smart, short-docked cobs, which they sat and rode like the sportsmen they mostly were.
We were moving along in a wide formation, which secured us against all possibilities of surprise, when suddenly I noticed that the scouts far in front were halted.
'Tit-tat, tit-tat': two shots from a high plateau to the right. Shots fired towards you, I must explain, make a double, and those fired away from you a single, report.
We had flushed one of the enemy's outposts. Riding nearer, I could see their figures--seven in all--exposed on the skyline. This showed they were only an outpost, and wished to make us believe they were more. When the Boer is in force he is usually invisible. Still, the position was a strong one, and it is always a possibility worth considering with the Boer that he may foresee your line of thought, and just go one step further, out of contrariness. General Brabazon therefore halted his centre squadrons and detached a turning force of three companies of Yeomanry to the right.
We waited, watching the scouts exchange shots with the Boer picket, and watching--for it was a very pretty sight--the Yeomanry spread out and gallop away to the flank like a pack of hounds in full cry, each independent, yet the whole simultaneous. In a quarter of an hour they were scrambling up the steep sides of the plateau almost in rear of the obstructive picket, which hurriedly departed while time remained. Then the centre swung forward, and the whole Cavalry force advanced again, the greater part of it moving on to the plateau, where a running fight with the Dutch outposts now commenced at long range.
Several times we thought that we had unmasked their main position, and that the Cavalry work for the day was over; but each time Brabazon's turning movement on the right, the execution of which was entrusted to Colonel Sitwell, a very dashing officer of Egyptian note, compelled them to fall back. After an hour of this sort of thing we were in possession of practically the whole of the plateau, which turned out to be of large extent.
Beyond it, commanding it, essential to it, yet not of it, was a steep rocky kopje. The swift advance and the necessity of pressing the enemy had left the Infantry a long way behind. The General felt, however, that this point must be secured. McNeill made a dash for it with the scouts. The Yeomanry galloped off to the right again, as if about to surround it, and the Boers allowed themselves to be bounced out of this strong and important position, and scampered away to a smooth green hill a mile in rear. Brabazon made haste to occupy the captured kopje in force, and did so just in time, for as soon as the turning force--two companies (I am going to call them squadrons in future) of yeomanry and a company of Mounted Infantry--approached the green hill, the musketry suddenly grew from an occasional drip into a regular patter, and there was the loud boom of a field gun. We had found the main Boer position, and the Cavalry came to a standstill. The enemy now directed a very sharp fire on the captured kopje, which, it seems, they originally intended to hold had they not been hustled out of it as has been described. They also shelled the Yeomanry--who were continuing the flank movement--rather heavily as they retired, inflicting some loss.
We had now to wait for the Infantry, and they lagged on the road. The Boer fire began to take effect. Several soldiers were carried wounded off the top of the hill--one poor fellow shot through both cheekbones. Others had to lie where they were struck because it was not possible to move them while the fire was so accurate.
On the reverse slope, however, there was good cover for man and horse. Some of the men were engaged for the first time, and though their behaviour was excellent, the General thought it necessary to walk along the firing line and speak a few words here and there.
The Infantry still lagged on the road, but at about two o'clock Sir Leslie Rundle himself arrived. The firing about the kopje had been loud, and a rumour--who starts these tales?--ran back along the marching columns that the Cavalry were hard pressed, were running short of ammunition, and that the Boers were turning both flanks. At any rate, I found anxious faces in the divisional staff.
Rundle considered that the retention of the kopje was of first importance, and Sir Herbert Chermside, his second in command, fully agreed with him. But the Infantry of the advanced guard were alone near enough. It was decided to push them on. At this moment a reassuring message arrived from Brabazon engaging that he could hold his own, and hoping the Infantry would not be hurried so as to lose their breath.
Everyone was very cheerful after this, and when at last the leading battalion--the Worcester Regiment--marched to the kopje all were able to admire the fine cool way in which they crossed the dangerous ground behind it; and I myself saw three pom-pom shells strike all around a young officer, who waved his rifle thereat in high delight, and shouted out loudly, 'By the left!' an order the purport of which I am as uncertain as the reader, but which, doubtless, was encouraging in spirit. When the Infantry had relieved the mounted men the latter withdrew to safer positions, and as the evening was drawing on the action came to an end--by mutual consent and by the effective intervention of the British Artillery.
The events of the next day, though according to the scale of the war unimportant, were nevertheless instructive from the military point of view, and, so far as they concerned me, sufficiently exciting to require, if not to deserve, a letter to themselves.