Heilbron: May 22, 1900.
Having arrived thus prosperously at Kroonstadt, Lord Roberts determined to halt until his supplies were replenished and the railway line from Bloemfontein in working order. Moreover, in the expectation of a general action outside the town, he had concentrated all his troops and had drawn the Army of the Right Flank close in to the main force. Before he advanced again towards the enemy's position on the Rhenoster River, he wished to extend his front widely, as he had done in the previous operation. The scheme of advance by converging columns required a pause after each concentration before the movement could be repeated; so that while the Field-Marshal himself remained stationary his energetic Lieutenant was again on the move.
General Ian Hamilton, with the same troops as before and an addition of four 'pom-poms,' started from his camp outside Kroonstadt on the 15th, and after a short march encamped on the eastern side of the town preparatory to moving on Lindley, whither President Steyn had withdrawn. The question of supplies was a very troublesome one, and it was no light matter to thrust out fifty miles into a hostile country with only three and a half days' food and forage in hand. Suppose anything should happen to the convoys which were to follow. Meat in plenty could be found everywhere, but the stores of flour and other farinaceous goods which the farm-houses might contain were insufficient and precarious. Even the benefits of the abundant meat supply were to some extent discounted by the scarcity of wood, for it is not much satisfaction to a soldier to be provided with a leg of mutton if he has no means of cooking. The deficiencies were hardly made good by the arrival of a small convoy, the greater part of which consisted of disinfectants for standing camps, and the rest--so valuable in a grass country--of compressed hay.
Nevertheless, being determined, and trusting, not without reason, in his supply officer, Captain Atcherley, Hamilton started on the 16th, and the Infantry bivouacked eighteen miles from Kroonstadt on the Lindley road--it would perhaps be less misleading to write track. The Cavalry brigade with one corps of Mounted Infantry under Broadwood were pushed ten miles further on, and seized a fine iron bridge, not marked on any map, which spans an important spruit at Kaalfontein. Here trustworthy information was received that a large force of Boers with guns was retreating before Rundle's column (Eighth Division) northwards upon Lindley, and deeming it important to occupy the town before they arrived, Hamilton ordered the Cavalry to hurry on and take possession of the heights to the north of it. It was a double march when ordinary marches were long. The result, however, justified the effort. Broadwood 'surprised'--the word is taken from the Boer accounts--Lindley on the 17th. Scarcely fifty Boers were at hand to defend it. A waggon with 60,000l. in specie barely escaped from the clutches of the Cavalry. After a brief skirmish the town surrendered. The British loss was three men wounded. Broadwood then retired as directed by his chief to the commanding hill to the north to bivouac. This hill may for convenience be called 'Lindley Hill' in the subsequent narrative.
The Infantry and baggage also made a long march on the 17th, but as the road was obstructed by several bad spruits or dongas, they were still fourteen miles from Lindley when night closed in. Even then the transport was toiling on the road, and a large part of it did not come in, and then in an exhausted condition, until after midnight. I wonder how many people in England realise what a spruit is, and how it affects military operations. Those who live in highly developed countries, where the surface of the earth has been shaped to our convenience by the patient labour of many years, are accustomed to find the road running serenely forward across the valleys, and they scarcely notice the bridges and culverts over which it passes. All is different in South Africa. The long column of transport trails across the plain. The veldt in front looks smooth and easy going. Presently, however, there is a block. What is the matter? Let us ride forward to see: and so onward to where the single string of waggons merges in a vast crowd of transport, twenty rows abreast, mule carts, Cape carts, ox waggons, ambulances, and artillery, all waiting impatiently, jostling each other, while drivers and conductors swear and squabble. Here is the spruit--a great chasm in the ground, fifty feet deep, a hundred yards from side to side. The banks are precipitous and impassable at all points except where the narrow single track winds steeply and unevenly down. The bottom is a quagmire, and though the engineers are doing their best to level and improve the roadway, it is still a combination of the Earl's Court water chute and the Slough of Despond. One by one, after a hot dispute for precedence, the waggons advance. The brakes must be screwed up to their tightest grip lest the ponderous vehicles rush forward down the slope and overwhelm their oxen. Even with this precaution the descent of each is a crash, a scramble, and a bump. At the bottom like a feather-bed lies the quagmire. Here one waggon in every three sticks. The mules give in after one effort--unworthy hybrids. The oxen strain with greater perseverance. But in the end it is the man who has to do the hauling. Forthwith come fatigue parties of weary men--it has been a long march already to soldiers fully equipped. Drag ropes are affixed, and so with sweat, blood, and stretching sinew, long whips cracking and whistling, white men heaving and natives yelping encouragement, another waggon comes safely through. And there are seven miles of transport!
On the morning of the 18th the Infantry were about to move off, when a patter of rifle shots to the north of the road reminded us of the presence of the enemy. A foraging party of Major Rimington's Guides had ridden up to a farm, which stood in full view of the camp and flew (or was it hoisted afterwards?) a white flag. Arrived there, they were received by a volley from five Boers in hiding near. Conceive the impudence of these people: five Boers, within a mile of eight thousand British and a powerful Cavalry force, fire on a foraging party! Luckily no harm done; Cavalry gallop out angrily; Boers vanish among remoter kopjes. 'But,' said the General, 'what about my convoys?'
So it was arranged that Smith-Dorrien should be left where he was (twelve miles west of Lindley) with his own brigade, one battery, and a corps of Mounted Infantry to help in the expected convoy, and should cut off the corner and rejoin the column at the end of its first march towards Heilbron. Ian Hamilton with the rest of the troops then moved on to Lindley. The march lay through the same class of country hitherto traversed--a pleasant grassy upland which, if not abundantly supplied with water by nature, promised a rich reward to man, should he take the trouble to construct even the simplest irrigation works. Spruits ran in all directions, and only required an ordinary dam, like the bunds the peasants build in India, to jewel each valley with a gleaming vivifying lake. The husbanding of water would repair the scarcity of wood, and the tenth year might see the naked grass clothed and adorned with foliage. But at present the country-side is so sparsely populated that the energies of its inhabitants could not produce much effect upon the landscape. The unamiable characteristic of the Boer, to shun the sight of his neighbour's barn, has scattered the farms so widely that little patches of tillage are only here and there to be seen, and the intervening miles lie neglected, often not more than twenty acres of a six thousand acre property being brought into cultivation, which seems rather a pity.
The fair face of the land under its smiling sky was not unmarked by the footprints of war. In the dry weather the careless habits of the soldiers were the constant cause of grass fires. The half-burnt match, tossed idly aside after a pipe was lighted, or an unguarded spark from a cooking fire, kindled at once an extensive conflagration. The strong winds drove the devouring blaze swiftly forward across the veldt, clouding the landscape by day with dense fumes of smoke and scarring the scene by night with vivid streaks of flame. So frequent were these grass fires that they became a serious nuisance, wasting in an hour many acres of grazing, proclaiming the movement and marking the track of the army, stifling the marching columns with pungent odours, destroying the field telegraph, and only extinguished by the heavy dews of the early morning. But in spite of repeated injunctions in the daily orders, the accidents--for which, indeed, there was every excuse--continued, and the plains of brownish grass were everywhere disfigured with ugly patches of black ashes which, as the fires burnt outwards, would spread and spread, like stains of blood soaking through khaki.
At length the track, which had been winding among the smooth undulations, rounded an unusually steep hillock of kopje character, and we saw before us at the distance of a mile the pretty little town of Lindley. The Cavalry bivouacs covered the nearer slopes of the high hill to the northward. The houses--white walls and blue-grey roofs of iron--were tucked away at the bottom of a regular cup, and partly hidden by the dark green Australian trees. We rode first of all to Broadwood's headquarters, following the ground wire which led thither. Arrived there we learned the news. Boer laagers and Boer patrols had been found scattered about the country to the south-east and north-east. There was occasional firing along the picket line. The town had upon most searching requisition yielded nearly two days' supply, and, most important of all, Piet De Wet, brother of the famous Christian, had sent in a message offering to surrender with such of his men as would follow his example, if he were permitted to return to his farm. Broadwood had at once given the required assurance, and Hamilton on his arrival had wired to Lord Roberts fully endorsing the views of his subordinate, and requesting that the agreement might be confirmed. The answer came back with the utmost despatch, and was to the effect that surrender must be unconditional. De Wet, it was remarked, was excluded from the favourable terms of the Proclamation to the Burghers of the Orange Free State, by the fact that he had commanded part of the Republican forces. He could not therefore be permitted to return to his farm. I need not say with what astonishment this decision was received. The messenger carrying the favourable answer was luckily overtaken before he had passed through our picket line and the official letter was substituted. Piet De Wet, who awaited the reply at a farm-house some ten miles from Lindley, found himself presented with the alternative of continuing the war or going to St. Helena, or perhaps Ceylon; and as events have shown he preferred the former course to our loss in life, honour, and money.
In the afternoon I rode into Lindley to buy various stores in which my waggon was deficient. It is a typical South African town, with a large central market square and four or five broad unpaved streets radiating therefrom. There is a small clean-looking hotel, a substantial gaol, a church and a schoolhouse. But the two largest buildings are the general stores. These places are the depôts whence the farmers for many miles around draw all their necessaries and comforts. Owned and kept by Englishmen or Scotchmen, they are built on the most approved style. Each is divided into five or six large well-stocked departments. The variety of their goods is remarkable. You may buy a piano, a kitchen range, a slouch hat, a bottle of hair wash, or a box of sardines over the same counter. The two stores are the rival Whiteley's of the country-side; and the diverse tastes to which they cater prove at once the number of their customers, and the wealth which even the indolent Boer may win easily from his fertile soil.
Personally I sought potatoes, and after patient inquiry I was directed to a man who had by general repute twelve sacks. He was an Englishman, and delighted to see the British bayonets at last. 'You can't think,' he said, 'how we have looked forward to this day.'
I asked him whether the Dutch had ill-used him during the war.
'No, not really ill-used us; but when we refused to go out and fight they began commandeering our property, horses and carts at first and latterly food and clothing. Besides, it has been dreadful to have to listen to all their lies and, of course, we had to keep our tongues between our teeth.'
It was evident that he hated the Boers among whom his lot had been cast with great earnestness. This instinctive dislike which the British settler so often displays for his Dutch neighbour is a perplexing and not a very hopeful feature of the South African problem. Presently we reached his house (where the potatoes were stored). Above the doorway hung a Union Jack. I said--
'I advise you to take that down.'
'Why?' he asked, full of astonishment.
'The British are going to keep the country, aren't they?'
'This column is not going to stay here for ever.'
'But,' with an anxious look, 'surely they will leave some soldiers behind to protect us, to hold the town.'
I told him I thought it unlikely. Ours was a fighting column. Other troops would come up presently for garrison duty. But there would probably be an interval of at least a week. Little did I foresee the rough fighting which would rage round Lindley for the next three months. He looked very much disconcerted; not altogether without reason.
'It's very hard on us,' he said after a pause. 'What will happen when the Boers come back? They're just over the hill now.'
'That's why I should take the flag down if I were you. If you don't fight, keep your politics till the war is over!' He looked very disappointed, and I think was asking himself how much his enthusiasm had compromised him. After we had settled the potato question to his satisfaction and I had sent the sack away upon my pack pony, he perked up. 'Come and see my garden,' he said, and nothing loth I went. It was not above a hundred yards square, but its contents proclaimed his energy and the possibilities of the soil. He explained how he had dammed a marshy sluit in the side of the hills to the eastward. 'Plenty of water at all seasons: this pipe you see, only a question of piping: as much water as ever I want: twenty gardens: grow anything you like, potatoes mostly, cabbages (they were beauties), tomatoes and onions, a vine of sweet white grapes, a bed of strawberries over there--anything: it only wants water, and there's plenty of that if you take the trouble to get it.'
The signs of industry impressed me. 'How long,' I asked, 'have you been here?'
'Eight years last February,' he replied; 'see those trees?'
He pointed to a long row of leafy trees about twenty feet high, which gave a cool shade and whose green colour pleased the eye after looking at so much brown grass. I nodded.
'I planted those myself when I came: they grow quickly, don't they? Only a question of water, and that is only a question of work.'
Then I left him and returned to the camp with my potatoes and some information thrown in.
The next morning before breakfast-time there was firing in the picket line south of Lindley. The patter of shots sounded across the valley, and upon the opposite slopes the British patrols could be seen galloping about like agitated ants. I was at the moment with General Hamilton. He watched the distant skirmish from his tent door for a little while in silence. Then he said:
'The scouts and the Kaffirs report laagers of the enemy over there, and over there, and over there' (he pointed to the different quarters). 'Now either I must attack them to-day or they will attack me to-morrow. If I attack them to-day, I weary my troops; and if I don't we shall have to fight an awkward rear-guard action to get out of this place to-morrow.'
He did not say at the time which course he meant to follow, but I felt quite sure he would not take his troops back very far to the south or south-east to chastise impalpable laagers. We were running on schedule time and had to make our connections with the main army, to securing whose smooth and undisturbed march all our efforts must be directed. So I was not surprised when the day passed without any movement on our part.
Very early on the 20th the brigades were astir, and as soon as the light was strong Broadwood's Cavalry began to stream away over the northern ridges. The guns and the greater part of the Infantry followed them without delay, so that by seven o'clock the great column of transport was winding round the corner of Lindley Hill on the road to Heilbron. The fact that parties of the enemy had been observed on all sides except the west, made the operation of disentangling the force from Lindley difficult and dangerous. Broadwood's duty was to clear the way in front. Legge's corps of Mounted Infantry guarded the right flank: and Ian Hamilton himself watched the movement of the rear guard, which consisted of the Derbyshire Regiment, Bainbridge's corps of Mounted Infantry and, as a special precaution, the 82nd Field Battery.
The full light of day had no sooner revealed the march of the troops than the watching Boers began to feel and press the picket line: and an intermittent musketry spread gradually along the whole three quarter circle round Lindley. At eight o'clock our troops evacuated the town itself, at nine, the convoy being nearly round Lindley Hill, the pickets commenced to draw in. This was a signal for decided increase in the firing. No sooner were the outposts clear of the town than the Boers in twos and threes galloped into it and began to fire from the houses. All kinds of worthy old gentlemen, moreover, who had received us civilly enough the day before, produced rifles from various hiding-places and shot at us from off their verandahs. Indeed, so quickly did the town revert to the enemy's hands that Somers Somerset, the despatch rider of the 'Times,' was within an ace of being caught. He had arrived late the night before, and having found a comfortable bed at the hotel went to sleep without asking questions. The next thing he remembers is the landlord rushing into his room and crying in great excitement that the Boers were in the town. He scrambled into his clothes and, jumping on his horse galloped through the streets and was not fired at till he was more than a quarter of a mile away. History does not record whether among such disturbing events he retained his presence of mind sufficiently to settle his hotel bill.
The General and his staff had watched the beginnings of the action from the now deserted camping ground, a dirty waste, littered with rubbish and dotted with the melancholy figures of derelict horses and mules. So soon as the retiring pickets drew north of the town, he mounted and made his way to the top of Lindley Hill. From this commanding table-top the whole scene of action, indeed the whole surrounding country, was visible. At our feet beyond the abandoned bivouac lay the houses of Lindley giving forth a regular rattle of musketry. On either side, east and west, rose two prominent kopjes held by companies of Mounted Infantry briskly engaged. The tail of the transport serpent was twisting away into safety round the base of our hill. Far away on the broad expanse of down parties of Dutch horsemen cantered swiftly forward; and along a road beyond the eastern kopje rose a steady trickle of mounted men. They moved in true Boer fashion--little independent groups of four and five, now and then a troop of ten or a dozen, here and there a solitary horseman riding back against the general flow. At no particular moment were more than thirty to be seen on the mile of dusty road. Yet to an experienced eye the movement seemed full of dangerous significance. One became conscious of a growing accumulation of force somewhere among the hills to the eastward. The General, who had served on the Indian frontier, understood rear-guard actions, and his face was grave, as I had not seen it when larger operations were toward; and at this moment the boom of a heavy gun told us that the advanced troops were also engaged. The Boers knew what they wanted. There was an air of decision about their movements which boded no good to rear or right flank guard. Gallopers were sent off, one to warn the right corps of Mounted Infantry, another to bid the main body of the force go dead slow, another to the threatened eastern kopje to learn the state of affairs there. The rear-guard battery was brought up on to the table-top, and came into action. This was, I think, the key of the situation. The battery planted on Lindley Hill, and casting its shells now in one direction, now in another, compelled the assailants to keep their distance, and helped the pickets into safety and new positions further back. It called to mind some famous knight of history or romance holding an angry rabble back beyond the sweep of his long sword, while his comrades made good their retreat. Under this good protection the pickets, having dutifully held their positions until the convoy was well on its road, scampered in, and the battery itself began to think about retiring. But the trickle of Boers along the eastern roadway had not stopped. Seven or eight hundred men must have passed already; and those that now came galloped as if they had some very tangible objective. 'Look out, the right flank!'
But now, the rear guard having disengaged itself from Lindley town, the General's place was with his main body, and we set off to trot and gallop the seven miles that intervened between the head and tail of our force. The firing in front had ceased before we came up. Indeed, the affair had not been of any importance. About seven hundred Boers with three or four guns had obstructed the advance near the Rhenoster River; had even checked the Cavalry screen; Tenth Hussars had two officers wounded; a dozen other casualties in the Brigade; Infantry and guns wanted to clear the way. A Cavalry brigade is not a kopje-smashing machine. 'Never mind, here come the cow-guns. Now we shall see.' Indeed, as soon as the head of the 21st Brigade began to deploy, the five-inch guns and a field battery opened on the enemy, who thereupon fled incontinently across the river, pursued by the fire of the guns and of the Cavalry 'pom-poms.'
We were just congratulating ourselves upon the success of these curious operations--curious because the drill books do not contemplate both sides fighting rear-guard actions at the same time--when half a dozen riderless horses galloped in from somewhere miles away on the right flank. Evidently sharp fighting was proceeding there; the flow of Boers had meant mischief. The peaceful landscape told no tale. No sound of musketry, nor sign of action could be distinguished. Indeed, in this scattered warfare one part of a force may easily be destroyed without the rest even knowing that a shot has been fired. 'Why scatter them?' asks the armchair strategist. 'Because if you don't scatter, and haven't got soldiers who are good enough to act when scattered, you will all get destroyed in a lump together.'
The General sent directions to the rear guard to communicate with the flank guard; kept another corps of Mounted Infantry handy to support either if necessary, and turned his attention to getting his brigades across the Rhenoster River. While this was proceeding the head of Smith-Dorrien's column, which had marched prosperously from their bivouac near Kaalfontein, came into view, and the Army of the Right Flank stood again united, a fact which suggests some consideration of its functions in the general scheme of Lord Roberts's advance.
After Kroonstadt had been captured the republican forces on the railway retreated to the line of the Rhenoster. Half a mile to the north of this river there rises abruptly from the smooth plain a long line of rocky hills, and in this strong position the Boers had determined to make a stubborn stand. Any force advancing along the railway would indeed have found it a difficult and costly business to cross the river and dislodge an enemy so posted. Other low hills trending away to either flank would have made any turning movement an exceedingly extended and probably a useless operation, for the enemy being on the inside of the circle would have been able to confront the attack wherever it might fall. But the Rhenoster River, as the reader will see by a glance at the map, rises considerably south of the point where it intersects the railway; and so soon as Ian Hamilton's force was across it, the Boers holding the kopjes position were in considerable danger of being cut off. The effect of our crossing the Rhenoster between Lindley and Heilbron should therefore be to clear the march of the main army. All fell out as Lord Roberts had expected; although the Boers had made great preparations to defend Rhenoster, had constructed strong entrenchments and made sidings to detrain their heavy guns, they evacuated the whole position without a shot being fired, compelled by the movement of a column forty miles away to their left flank.
All who understood the scope and cohesion of the operations were delighted at the prospect of getting across the Rhenoster River. The General was determined, rear and flank guard actions notwithstanding, to have his army and transport over that night: and two practicable crossings having been found, Infantry, Cavalry, guns and baggage began to push across. The last was now increased by the arrival of Smith-Dorrien, who brought with him a much needed convoy with sufficient supplies to carry us on to Heilbron and a march beyond. It was midnight before all the waggons were across; but though this cruel day of march and sun tore the hearts out of the transport animals, and the flocks of sheep were so weary they could scarcely be driven along, we knew that the exertions had not been made in vain.
Late in the evening came the news from the right flank guard. They had waited, fearing to expose the rear guard to a flank attack. The rear guard had made good its retreat. A gap had sprung up between the two bodies. The vigilant Boers had pounced in and stampeded the horses of one Mounted Infantry company. A sharp, fierce fight followed; rear guard hearing the fusillade swung in to help. Ultimately the Boers were checked sufficiently to enable rear and flank guards to cut inwards together and draw off: but it was by general agreement of participants a very unpleasant affair. The officer commanding the company whose horses were stampeded had particularly interesting experiences. The Boers galloped right in among his men, and a confused scrimmage followed: officer was running towards stampeded horses; on the way he passed a burgher; 'Surrender,' cried the Dutchman. 'No,' retorted the officer--an Irishman--(with suitable emphasis) and ran on, whereupon burgher dismounted and began shooting; had four shots and missed every one. Meanwhile officer reached shelter of a convenient rock, turned in just indignation, fitted his Mauser pistol together and fired back. The burgher, finding his enemy behind cover, and himself in the open--by no means the situation for a patriot--jumped on his horse, and would have galloped away but that the officer managed to hit him in the leg with his pistol, and so he dropped, according to the account of an eye-witness, 'like a shot rook.'
The local advantage, however, rested with the Boers, who hit or captured the greater part of the squadron, including twenty wounded. Concerning these latter, Piet De Wet sent in a flag of truce during the night offering to hand them over if ambulances were sent, and several wounded Boers whom we had taken were given up. This was accordingly done. Our total losses during the 20th were about sixty, some of whom were officers. The Boers admitted a loss of twenty killed and wounded, and it may easily have been more. The army bivouacked on the north bank of the Rhenoster within two marches of the town of Heilbron, upon which it was now designed to move.