Winburg: May 8

Ian Hamilton's orders were to march north from Thabanchu on Winburg by the Jacobsrust road, and he was expected, if no opposition was encountered, to reach his destination by the 7th of May. The column with which he started from Thabanchu was composed of Smith-Dorrien's 19th Infantry Brigade, Ridley's Mounted Infantry Brigade, and two batteries of artillery; but at Jacobsrust he would receive a strong reinforcement, consisting of Bruce-Hamilton's 21st Brigade of Infantry, Broadwood's Cavalry Brigade, two batteries of field and one of horse artillery, and two 5-in. guns. This accession would raise his force to a total of 7,500 Infantry, 4,000 mounted men, and thirty-two guns--an imposing command for an officer who had not yet had time to take the badges of a colonel off his shoulders. The first thing, however, was to reach Jacobsrust, and effect the junction with Bruce-Hamilton's force.

The Thabanchu column started at daybreak on the 30th of April, and when it was within three or four miles of Houtnek Poorte the enemy suddenly unmasked field guns and 'pom-poms,' and opened a long range fire with them from the east on the right flank of the marching troops. Colonel Bainbridge, with the 7th Corps of Mounted Infantry, wheeled up to contain this force of the enemy, and at the same time De Lisle--of polo fame--pushed forward boldly at a gallop with the 6th Corps and the New Zealanders, and seized a commanding position about 2,000 yards south of the actual nek. Colonel Legge, meanwhile advancing on the left front, noticed that Thoba Mountain was weakly held by the enemy, and thereupon ordered Kitchener's Horse to attack it, thus anticipating the order which the General was himself about to send. These dispositions, which were made on their own initiative by the various Mounted Infantry officers, enabled a deliberate view of the situation to be taken.

The pass of Houtnek consists of two parallel grassy ridges separated by a smooth shallow valley a little more than a mile across, and devoid of cover. On the east the pass runs up into sharp rocky kopjes, strengthened by successive lines of stone walls trailing away towards the main laagers of the enemy. Both the centre and the left flank of the Boer position refused all opportunity of attack. The Dutch right was scarcely more encouraging. On the west of the pass rose the great mountain of Thoba, an uneven battlefield, better suited to Boers than to British troops. Yet as it was on Hamilton's safer flank, dominated the rest of the enemy's position, could be turned by mounted troops making a very wide detour, and being, moreover, the only way, the General resolved to attack it.

At 9.30 the Infantry began to come up, and at ten o'clock the approaches to the Boer position were strongly occupied. As soon as Kitchener's Horse were seen to have made good their footing on Thoba Mountain, Hamilton ordered General Smith-Dorrien to support them with part of his brigade, which was accordingly done, two companies of the Shropshires, the Gordon Highlanders, and four companies of the Canadians being successively worked up on to the hill under a heavy shell fire from the enemy. This practically disposed of the whole force, which was soon engaged all along the line, the Mounted Infantry holding the enemy off the right and right rear, the Cornwalls guarding the baggage, one-half Smith-Dorrien's Brigade containing the front, and the other half with Kitchener's Horse pushing the flank attack on Thoba Mountain. As soon as the Boers understood the designs of the British on Thoba they made a strong effort to regain and hold that important feature. At first the troops made good progress; but as the enemy received continual reinforcements the resistance became more severe, until, presently, far from gaining ground, they began to lose it. At last, about two o'clock, some one hundred and fifty of the German corps of the Boer force advanced from the northern point of Thoba in four lines across the table top to drive the British off the hill. So regular was their order that it was not until their levelled rifles were seen pointing south that they were recognised as foes, and artillery opened on them. In spite of an accurate shell fire they continued to advance boldly against the highest part of the hill, and, meanwhile, cloaked by a swell of the ground, Captain Towse, of the Gordon Highlanders, with twelve men of his own regiment and ten of Kitchener's Horse, was steadily moving towards them. The scene on the broad stage of the Thoba plateau was intensely dramatic. The whole army were the witnesses.

The two forces, strangely disproportioned, drew near to each other. Neither was visible to the other. The unexpected collision impended. From every point field glasses were turned on the spectacle, and even hardened soldiers held their breath. At last, with suddenness, both parties came face to face at fifty yards' distance. The Germans, who had already made six prisoners, called loudly on Captain Towse and his little band to surrender. What verbal answer was returned is not recorded; but a furious splutter of musketry broke out at once, and in less than a minute the long lines of the enemy recoiled in confusion, and the top of the hill was secured to the British. Among the foreigners wounded in this encounter, was Colonel Maximoff.

Captain Towse, for his conspicuous gallantry, and for the extraordinary results which attended it, has been awarded the Victoria Cross; but, in gaining what is above all things precious to a soldier, he lost what is necessary to a happy life, for in the moment when his military career was assured by a brilliant feat of arms, it was terminated by a bullet which, striking him sideways, blinded him in both eyes. Thus do Misery and Joy walk hand in hand on the field of war.

All this time the rifle and gun fire along the whole front had been continuous, and as the day wore on without the British making good their hold on Thoba Mountain the enemy gathered in a more and more threatening attitude on the right of the column, and by four o'clock at least 1,500 men were collected, with guns and 'pom-poms,' which threw shell into the rear guard and transport. Hamilton, however, was determined to fight the matter out. He therefore directed that all troops should post guards on their front, lie down wherever darkness found them, and prepare to renew the action at daybreak. He then telegraphed to General French for some assistance, the need of more mounted troops being painfully felt.

At dawn on May-day fighting recommenced, and soon after six o'clock parties of the Gordons and Canadians succeeded in gaining possession of the two peaks of Thoba Mountain. Besides this, half a company of the Shropshires, under Colour-sergeant Sconse, managed to seize the nek between them, and though subjected to a severe cross fire, which caused in this small party ten casualties out of forty, maintained themselves stubbornly for four hours. The points which dominate the flat top of the mountain were thus gained.

Meanwhile reinforcements, consisting of the 8th Hussars, a composite Lancer regiment, the East Yorkshire, and a field battery, had arrived from Thabanchu, and the approach of Bruce-Hamilton's force from the direction of Kranz Kraal was also felt. General Ian Hamilton now ordered Colonel Clowes, commanding the Cavalry, to move right round Thoba Mountain and threaten the Boer line of retreat as a preliminary and accompaniment of the main Infantry assault, which had now become inevitable. Clowes's force was strengthened by the addition of a horse battery. The newly-arrived Infantry and the field battery had to be diverted to support the right and right rear, where the pressure was now very strong.

At about eight A.M. General Smith-Dorrien had himself gone up to the top of Thoba Mountain to direct personally the decisive movement when the time should come. A little before one o'clock, the progress of the Cavalry being satisfactory, he determined to settle the matter, so that if successful the force might get its baggage over the pass before dark. He therefore formed a line of Infantry right across the plateau, two companies of the Shropshires in the centre, and one and a half company of the Gordons on either flank. The advance was sounded.

The troops moved forward with alacrity. For a few moments the fire was heavy, but the Boers knew themselves bested, and on the soldiers raising the cheer that precedes the actual assault they rushed to their horses, and the whole of Thoba Mountain was won. The rest of the position now became untenable, and the enemy, to the number of 4,000, promptly evacuated it, galloping swiftly back in the direction of Jacobsrust.

A few troops of the 8th Hussars alone got near enough to charge; half-a-dozen Dutchmen were sabred, and one was shot dead by an officer, Lieutenant Wylam. The Boers who were making the attack on the right retreated at the same time as their comrades, and the transport, no longer molested, passed safely over the pass and parked for the night on the northern side. No trustworthy estimate can be formed of the enemy's loss; but a score of prisoners were taken, and an equal number of bodies were found on the position.

The British casualties were fortunately slight considering the fire and its duration, and did not exceed a hundred officers and men.

The next day the junction between the columns was effected, and Ian Hamilton's force formed, with reference to the main advance, the Army of the Right Flank, and was composed as follows:[#]

Infantry.   { 19th Brigade     } Smith-Dorrien             { 21st Brigade     } Bruce-Hamilton  Mounted     { 1st M. I.        } Ridley  Infantry.  {    Brigade       }  Cavalry.    { 2nd Cavalry      } Broadwood             {    Brigade       }              { 3 Batteries F.A. } Artillery.  { 2 Batteries H.A. } Waldron             { 2 5-in. Guns.    }

[#] For full composition see Appendix.

This force was supported by the Highland Brigade and two 4.7 naval guns, under General Colvile, who was directed to follow the leading column at a distance of ten miles. Hamilton proposed to march forward on the 2nd of May, but an order from headquarters enjoined a halt; nor was it until the afternoon of the 3rd that the force reached Jacobsrust, as it is called by the inhabitants; Isabellasfontein, as our maps record. A little cavalry skirmishing in the neighbourhood of the camp resulted in the death of one Lancer.

On the 4th of May the whole army moved forward again, Lord Roberts passing through Brandfort towards Smaldeel, Hamilton continuing his march on Winburg. This day did not pass without fighting, for scarcely had the troops left camp when a patter of musketry warned the General that his Cavalry had become engaged. Riding forward, he was the witness of a very dashing cavalry exploit. Across the line of advance was drawn up a strong force of the enemy, estimated at 4,000 men and thirteen guns. These, in a good position along a range of wooded bluffs, promised a sufficient task for the troops during the day. But now, suddenly, from the direction of Brandfort, a new army of Boers began to appear, riding swiftly down to join hands with their comrades athwart the road, and fall on the left flank of the column.

The thing was urgent, and perhaps vital. But between the fast converging Boer forces, at the angle where they would meet, ran a long ridge of indefinite extent. General Broadwood at once, without a moment's delay, galloped forward, and with two squadrons of the Guards' Cavalry and two of the 10th Hussars seized it. The Boers were already scrambling up its lower slopes. A sharp fight immediately opened. Kitchener's Horse, hurrying up in support, occupied a further point of the ridge, and the Dutch, after a determined but futile attempt to clear the hill, fell back. The junction of the two Boer columns was prevented. It seems that the whole of their plan for the day was based on this first condition, and in an army where every individual soldier must have the details of any plan explained to him it is not easy to make fresh dispositions on the field.

Indeed, a sort of panic seems to have taken hold of the enemy, for without waiting for the Infantry attack to develop they fled forthwith at great speed, galloping madly across the drift--as the British proprietor of Welcome Farm told me--horsemen and guns, pell-mell, in downright rout, pursued, so swift was their departure, only by the shells of the Horse Artillery.

The losses in this brief affair were not large, and almost entirely among the Cavalry. In those few minutes of firing on the ridge about a dozen troopers had been hit. Lord Airlie was slightly wounded in the arm, and Lieutenant Rose, Royal Horse Guards, was killed. He had bee sent forward to see what lay beyond the further crest of the hill, and found that deadly riflemen lay there waiting for a certain victim. He fell pierced by several bullets, and lived only for half an hour.

This officer was a most zealous soldier. Though possessed of private means which would have enabled him to lead a life of ease and pleasure, he had for several years devoted himself assiduously to the military profession. He went to India as a volunteer during the Tirah Campaign, and served with distinction on Sir Penn Symons' staff--general and aide-de-camp both vanished now, as the foam fades in the wake of a fast ship! From India he hastened to West Africa, and in that vile and pestilential region won a considerable reputation; indeed, he was to have received the Distinguished Service Order for his part in recent operations there had not another war intervened. He arrived at the Cape, scarcely a month ago, full of hope and energy. This is the end; and while it is one which a soldier must be ready to meet, deep sympathy will be felt for the father, from whom the public necessities have now required two gallant sons.

Though the disorderly and demoralised nature of the Boer flight through Welcome Farm was known throughout the British Army, it was not expected that so strong a position as the bluffs behind the Vet River would be yielded without a shot fired. This, nevertheless, proved to be the case, for when, on the morning of the 6th, Hamilton resumed his advance, he found that no force of the enemy stood between him and Winburg.

He therefore sent, shortly after noon, a staff officer, Captain Balfour to wit, under flag of truce, with a letter to the mayor of the town summoning him forthwith to surrender the town and all stores therein, and promising that if this were done he would use every effort to protect private property, and that whatever foodstuffs were required by the troops should be paid for. This message, which was duly heralded by the sound of a trumpet, concluded by saying that unless an acceptance was received within two hours the General would understand that his offer had been declined.

Thus accredited, Captain Balfour made his way into the town and was soon the centre of an anxious and excited crowd of burghers and others who filled the market square. The mayor, the landdrost, and other prominent persons--indeed, all the inhabitants--were eager to avail themselves of the good terms, and a satisfactory settlement was almost arranged when, arriving swiftly from the northeast, Philip Botha and a commando of 500 men, mostly Germans and Hollanders, all very truculent since they were as yet unbeaten, entered the town.

A violent and passionate scene ensued. Botha declared he would never surrender Winburg without a fight. Dissatisfied with the attentions paid him by Captain Balfour, he turned furiously on him and rated him soundly. Several of the Free Staters had asked what would be done to them if they laid down their arms. Balfour had replied that they would be permitted to return to their farms, unless actually captured on the field. This Botha held to be a breach of the laws of war, and he thereupon charged the officer with attempting to suborn his burghers. What had he to say that he should not be made a prisoner? 'I ask favours of no Dutchman,' replied Balfour, sternly.

'Arrest that man!' shouted Botha, in a fury; 'I shall begin shooting soon.' At these shameful words a great commotion arose. The women screamed, the mayor and landdrost rushed forward in the hopes of averting bloodshed. The Boers raised their rifles in menace, and the unarmed British envoy flourished his white flag indignantly.

For several minutes it seemed that an actual scuffle, possibly a tragedy, would occur. But the influence of the townsfolk, who knew that their liberty and property lay in the hands of the Imperial General, and that the great siege guns were even then being dragged into effective range, prevailed, and Philip Botha, followed by his men, galloped furiously from the square towards the north.

That afternoon General Ian Hamilton entered Winburg at the head of his troops. Under a shady tree outside the town the mayor and landdrost tendered their submission and two large silver keys. The Union Jack was hoisted in the market-place amid the cheers of the British section of the inhabitants, and, as each battalion marching through the streets saw the famous emblem of pride and power, bright in the rays of the setting sun, these feeble or interested plaudits were drowned in the loud acclamations of the victorious invaders.

Hamilton was expected to arrive on the 7th, if no opposition was encountered, He had fought nearly every day, and reached the town on the evening of the 5th.