On February 10 the Field Marshal concentrated three divisions on the Modder River: Kelly-Kenny (6th), Tucker (7th), and Colvile (9th). Then he secretly assembled the cavalry, grouped into three brigades (those of Broadwood, Porter, and Gordon), under General French. The latter, supported by seven mounted batteries and six field batteries, started in the night of the 11th-12th, reached Rooidam, continued by way of Potgieter's Farm, brushed aside General Ferreira, and entered Kimberley on Thursday, February 15, at half-past five in the evening.
The surprise was complete, as we know!
Meanwhile, Lord Roberts had not been idle. On the 15th, Maxwell's Brigade occupied Jacobsdal, and Lord Kitchener was pressing Cronje, who was retiring upon Paardeburg.
French, his raid accomplished, joined Kitchener by way of Koodoesrand, and on the 17th the whole of Roberts' force surrounded the Boer General.
After a ten days' defence, more heroic than reasonable--for he might have broken through with De Wet's help--Cronje, crushed by the terrible fire of 90 cannon,[#] bore out Colonel de Villebois' prediction, being forced to surrender unconditionally on February 27, at 7.30 a.m.
[#] Lord Roberts had 6 field batteries, 1 howitzer battery, 7 horse batteries, and 5 naval guns--90 pieces in all, to be exact.
Lord Roberts telegraphed as follows to the War Office:
'PAARDEBURG, 7.45 a.m.
'General Cronje is now a prisoner in my camp. The strength of his force will be communicated later. I hope Her Majesty's Government will consider this event satisfactory, occurring as it does on the anniversary of Majuba.'
It was afterwards announced by the War Office that the General had surrendered two Krupp guns, one belonging to the Orange Free State, and two Maxims, one of these also belonging to the Orange Free State, 4,000 men, of whom 1,150 were Free Staters, and 47 officers, 18 of them Free Staters. Among the officers was the artillery commandant Albrecht, formerly an Austrian officer.
In Natal, on the 28th, Lord Dundonald entered Ladysmith, the siege of which had been raised at six in the evening, preceding a convoy of provisions which arrived on the morning of March 2.
Lord Roberts did not linger long on the banks of the Modder River. After giving his troops a short rest while he went with Kitchener to visit Kimberley, where he was the guest of Cecil Rhodes, he continued his march upon Bloemfontein. On the 7th he was at Poplar Grove, on the 10th at Abraham's Kraal--he called the battle fought here Driefontein--and on the 13th he entered the capital of the Orange Free State.
'BLOEMFONTEIN, 'March 13, 8 p.m.
'By God's help, and thanks to the bravery of Her Majesty's soldiers, the troops under my command have taken possession of Bloemfontein. The British flag is now flying over the President's house, which was last night abandoned by Mr. Steyn, the late President of the Orange Free State.
'Mr. Fraser, a member of the former executive, the mayor, the secretary of the late Government, the Landdrost and other functionaries, came to meet me two miles out of the town, and handed me the keys of the Government offices.
'The enemy has retired from the neighbourhood, and all seems calm. The inhabitants of Bloemfontein gave our troops a hearty reception.
Lord Roberts's first operation was accomplished; he established a solid base at Bloemfontein, accumulating a great quantity of provisions there, a very wise measure to take before throwing his troops into a hostile country, impoverished by five months of warfare, the resources of which had already been heavily laid under contribution by the Boers. At the same time his troops radiated round the former capital to drive off the little commandos that were still hovering about in the neighbourhood.
The 9th Division, under General Colvile, was broken up to keep communications open, and its chief returned to England.
Such was the situation when, on Monday, April 23, we received orders to saddle at seven in the morning. We started at 8.30, with two days' rations.
The direction is the same as before, towards the south. But after the counter-order of last Monday, we feel no great confidence as to the object of this new manoeuvre. We have christened these starts 'the Monday morning exercises.'
This time, it seems, that while De Wet is busy at Wepener with Brabant's Horse, which he is still surrounding, a strong column is to attempt to cut him off from the north, by establishing a line between Bloemfontein and the frontier of Basutoland. We are to oppose this movement and enable De Wet to pass.
We arrive in the plain watered by the Onspruit about five in the evening. We bivouac there with Lorentz's Germans, with whom we are still grouped. The nights begin to be cold. During the evening 1,000 men and two 75 millimetre Creusot guns arrive.
In Botha's camp, close by, there are still from 300 to 400 men, a Krupp gun, an Armstrong, and a Nordenfeldt.
On the morning of the 24th a reinforcement of from 200 to 300 men arrives. Our total strength is from 1,500 to 1,800 men.
We remain in bivouac, but on the 25th our provisions are exhausted, and they re-victual us by driving a flock of sheep across the plain. Each group of five or six men takes one. Part of the flesh is grilled over a fire of cow-dung--the only fuel available in the Veldt--and the rest, cut into quarters, is slung on the saddles for next day.
For the last two days the luminous balloon of the English has been visible all the evening till midnight.
In the afternoon we get orders to start for the Waterworks, to the east of Bloemfontein, which the English have recaptured from General Lemmer. We are to take provisions for several days; but the English, it seems, are close behind us. They have come down into the plain, and the road from here to Brandfort is very insecure.
At three o'clock in the afternoon Wrangel, two former officers in the German army, Couves, De Loth, and I, set out to fetch a trolley loaded with necessaries for the two corps.
We arrive at Brandfort towards midnight. Captain D----, whom we meet here, gives us the news from France. The Theatre Francais was burnt down on March 9, and Mdlle. Henriot was one of the victims of the catastrophe. We also hear of the explosion at Johannesburg. A telegram says that the fort blew up on the 24th. But we learn later that it was Begbie's factory and not the fort that exploded. Another telegram, relating to the fight at Boshof, says that Prince Bagration is not dead, but wounded only. A lieutenant of marines named Gilles was killed. This is all we have in the way of details, for the official list of the losses of April 5 has not yet appeared.
As regards the explosion, the following information may be of interest.
The citadel of Johannesburg was not constructed with a view to defending the town, but, on the contrary, with the idea of bombarding it. This curious arrangement calls for some explanation.
On January 1, 1896, Dr. Jameson, coming from the east, was checked at Krugersdorp with his contingent, which prevented the execution of his coup de main. But at the news of his arrival a number of Uitlanders, for the most part English, had armed. Forming themselves into commandos, and reinforced by a battery of Maxims smuggled in among machines for use in the mines, they bivouacked on the heights of Yeoville, commanding Johannesburg, to await and join the men of the Chartered Company.
After this escapade the Transvaal Government, in order to work upon the loyal sentiments of its good city of Johannesburg, presented it with a fort, which, situated in a prominent position in the town, would have been capable in a very few minutes of correcting any ill-timed manifestations of sympathy to which its inhabitants might be inclined to give way in the future.
The Begbie factory was used for the manufacture of projectiles. With comparatively primitive methods and absolutely inexperienced workmen, the making and charging of shells of all the patterns in use in our own artillery had been carried on here. Every evening from 700 to 800 were despatched in every direction.
For a long time past, directly after war was declared, the English who had been expelled had publicly predicted an explosion at this factory. On February 2 a telegram from Durban announced that this explosion had taken place. The manager, Mr. Gruenberg, had even vainly called the attention of the police to a house close to the powder magazine.
To be brief, a terrible explosion took place on the 24th, killing some hundred persons, and destroying a quarter of the town.
This was in the main what the inquiry that took place afterwards brought to light:
A little mine containing black powder had been dug in the suspected house, close to the dynamite reserve of the powder magazine. The authors of the explosion had afterwards connected the mine with the electric light of their rooms; then they had departed quietly to a place of safety, having still half a day to spare. In the evening, at five o'clock, when the electric light works turned on the current to distribute light in the town, the explosion was produced automatically. The guilty persons were never discovered.
* * * * *
We spent our evening discussing all this news, and then went to bed in our encampment. On the morning of the 26th we loaded a trolley, to which we had harnessed eight strong mules, with cartridges, biscuit, and a few other necessary provisions. We started at two o'clock in the afternoon, and arrived late in the evening at a farm where an ambulance was installed.
We bivouacked several hundreds of metres off, as we were urgently recommended to do by the doctor, who was accompanied by his wife. He took advantage of the Geneva Convention to protect his domestic peace, no doubt with an eye to Wrangel, who is a very pretty fellow!
I do not know if the legislator foresaw such a case as this!
Our dinner was furnished by the roosters of the farmyard, which three of our number had initiated in the laws of hospitality. Certain protestations are raised by the victims, during which I call and scold my poor Nelly, who is lying perfectly innocent at my feet. But the ambulance men will think it was she who was pursuing the poultry.... One should always try to save appearances.
We take a very light sleep, and towards three o'clock a Kaffir comes to tell us that he has just met a numerous band of English. We harness up rapidly, and make off still more rapidly at a hand-gallop, while in the dawning light we make out the scouts of the enemy on the neighbouring kopjes.
All day we marched across the plain without a guide, and at six in the evening we reached Botha's camp. Our comrades, who had gone off on a little reconnaissance, which proved to be fruitless, came in at about 8.30.
A rumour that we had been taken prisoners together with the trolley had preceded us; it had been brought in by the Irish Americans, and confirmed by a heliographic message from the commissary at Brandfort.
On the 28th all the Europeans were told to hold themselves in readiness to start as an advanced guard. I meet with a very cordial reception from the officers of the staff, for I find among them the Adjutant,[#] Marais, who was with us at Poplar Grove. The order to start was given at two in the afternoon.
[#] The title of Adjutant to a Boer General often corresponds to that of head of the staff, and not to the subordinate rank implied by the grade in France.
We have just heard that Von Loosberg, an ex-lieutenant of the German army, whom we knew at Abraham's Kraal, and who had since taken service in the artillery, had received seven Maxim bullets at Dewetsdorp, two in the head and five in the body. He recovered!
At five o'clock we reach a little stream. Here we are to encamp for three days. From 1,200 to 1,500 are gathered here with Botha, Delarey and Kolby. The tents are set up a little apart. We are very comfortable.
At about 8.30 we had finished dinner, and were about to seek a well-earned repose; several of the party were already rolled up in their blankets. Suddenly there was a noise of the tramp of horses and strange murmurs. We went in search of information. All the camp was astir, and the Boers were making off quietly.
'The English! Be off!'
We struck our tents hastily, saddled our horses, and harnessed the mules, without getting any more precise information, and then we joined in the general retreat. The questions we ask call forth answers precisely like those given by young recruits at their first manoeuvres.
A sweeping gesture embraces the whole horizon; the indication is all the more vague in that it is ten o'clock, and that the night is very dark.
'Are there many of them?'
'I don't know.'
'Which way are they going?'
'I don't know.'
I almost think that if one asked rather sharply, 'Did you see them?' the man would answer, 'No.'
Nevertheless, the convoy takes an easterly direction, and the men are so disposed as to cover the retreat. We are on a rocky kopje swept by an icy wind. Thinking we were to bivouac again further on, we had packed up our cloaks and rugs on the trolley. Our benumbed fingers can no longer grasp our rifles; we shiver, swear, and sneeze in chorus. It was a horrible experience!
After a night that seemed interminable, dawn and sunlight put an end to our torture. During the morning certain information is brought in. The camp has been broken up, 1,500 men have been mobilized, and have spent the night on the qui vive. A patrol of thirteen Lancers passed close by.
The 29th is a Sunday. The Boers sing hymns. We pitch our tents again about two hours' distance from our camp of the night before.
On the 30th, at eight o'clock, orders are given to transport our laager to the foot of the high kopjes we see four or five miles off in the direction of Taba N'chu.
Towards 9.30 the Maxim suddenly opens fire, without our having seen or heard anything to account for it. We gallop off to the kopjes straight in front of us, making for one of the highest, which is called Taba N'berg. But a field-cornet comes after us at a gallop, and sends us more to the left to join General Kolby. It is all the same to us, as we know nothing of what is on hand. We take up a position on a little rocky peak.
The kopjes form a large semicircle, slightly oval, the curve of which lies to the north-east and the opening to the south-east. A group of trees in the midst of the arid yellow basin is Taba N'chu. To the west of our position twenty miles off is Bloemfontein. All the bottom of the vast hollow is full of men in khaki.
It is ten o'clock. We have one cannon on our left, and on our right, between us and the big kopje, another cannon and a Maxim gun. Later in the day two or three Grobler guns appeared on the scene. One English battery took up a position about 4,000 metres from us, then another, distributing common shell and shrapnel all along our line. A brisk fusillade was also brought to bear upon us at a long range (about 2,500 yards).
Judging the distance to be too great for effective rifle-fire, we did not respond to this, but did our best with our guns. At eleven o'clock, however, our Maxim was silenced.
The Duke of Edinburgh's Volunteers and the Royal Irish charged our right wing four times, and finally succeeded in establishing themselves on the flank of the incline, which was relatively slight on their side.
Von Braschel was killed, and Brostolowsky, both former officers in the German army; also Baudin, a former sergeant of marines, who had served his fifteen years, and had come to the Transvaal while waiting for the liquidation of his retiring pension.
About 4.30 we were ourselves vigorously charged by the infantry, but a brisk fire, unerringly delivered, dispersed those who did not fall.
The fighting ceased with the day. In the evening, owing to the unexpected nature of the engagement, we had neither provisions nor coverings. A box of sardines between ten of us was our dinner, and the intense cold debarred us from the sleep that would have consoled us for our missing meal.
We remained in position, and at daybreak on May 1 the battle began again.
With the Germans, we were sent to occupy the big kopje against which the English attack had been most violent the night before. Its dominant position made it of great strategic value; but the Boers who had held it were guilty of the disastrous negligence, only too habitual with them, of retiring from it in order to sleep comfortably, instead of strengthening their position upon it.
The English, on the other hand, had spent the night digging trenches, and were firmly established on the ground they had gained in the two days. From the very beginning, therefore, our position was less favourable.
The ascent of Taba N'berg by a rocky, steep, and almost precipitous incline took about thirty-five minutes. So rugged was the hillside that it was impossible to use litters to bring down the wounded. We were forced to drag them down by the feet, or to make them slide down sitting. Our shelters were therefore often stained with long trails of blood.
Our horses were left at the bottom of the hill, without anyone on guard as usual. On reaching the top, we were greeted by steady infantry fire and by a few shrapnel shells, which we received without responding till ten o'clock. Then, leaning a little upon our right, we began to fire. We numbered about a hundred--fifty foreigners, and as many Boers; for the majority of those who had been with us the night before--perhaps 500 Europeans, and a rather smaller number of Burghers--had returned to the laager, and had not come back.
It is true that the day had been a hard one for them, and that they had had to bear the brunt of the battle under a heavy artillery fire.
Up to this moment nothing serious had been attempted. But about eleven o'clock the whole of the Royal Canadian contingent arrived in open formation. They were greeted on their passage by our two 75 millimetre guns, which had taken up a position on our left at the foot of the kopje.
I heard afterwards that the guns, though they had been remarkably well laid, had not been very effective, the shells with fuses having fallen without exploding. In consequence of this, only two or three men, who had been struck full by the shells as if they had been bullets, had been killed. Several others were knocked over by the shock, but picked themselves up unharmed. I got this information later from a superior officer of an English regiment who had been present in the engagement.
About one o'clock, without any order and without any reason, the Boers, who were occupying another little kopje on our left, forsook their position. The English artillerymen at once rushed forward, and now began to fire upon us at a distance of 3,500 metres. Then, all at once, there was a cry of, 'To the horses!' At our feet, behind us in the plain, a regiment of Lancers, who had come round the big kopje where we were stranded as on an island, sweep forward in loose order, to seize our horses which are sheltered below.
There is a rush to protect them. A few Boers, coming from I know not whence, took ambush in a little spruit, and drove off the Lancers by a withering fire; but while this feint was being carried out, the English made another rush forward, more serious than the first. A fierce fusillade was kept up on both sides.
We are now only hanging on to the kopje by the left corner.
Suddenly, not having been able to seize our horses, the enemy open a terrible artillery fire upon them obliquely. The Boers retreat before it, and the position becomes untenable; we have only just time to reach our horses. As we come down the kopje, one of my comrades, who is a great declaimer of verse, recites 'Rolla'; but his memory fails him at a certain verse, and he asks me to help him out. I reply that I don't know 'Rolla,' but my answer is cut short by a shell which, passing between us, bursts and carries off the head of a Burgher clean from the nape of the neck.
And through the crash of shells and the whistle of bullets I hear a few metres off the voice of my friend De C---- speaking to someone I cannot see:
'It was at Tabarin, you know.'
At last we reach the horses; Buhors arrives, bringing the water-bottles he has filled at a little spring a hundred metres off under a hail of projectiles. An ambulance is on the spot, riddled with bullets, and the doctor, admirably calm, tends the wounded, while the natives hastily harness the mules. We see two or three more men fall; a horse drops disembowelled by a shell; then we are in the saddle.
Four or five men, who were firing at us from a distance of about 200 metres on top of the kopje we had just abandoned, and the battery which was working away unceasingly 3,000 yards off, had got us in an angle of fire. The ground was ploughed up by a hail of projectiles, and the shower of bullets raised thousands of little clouds.
A hard gallop of 2,000 metres under these convergent fires carried us pretty well out of danger.
A German, with a long fair beard, whom I knew well, galloped past me. He had no coat, no hat, no arms; his horse had neither saddle nor bridle; he was guiding it by a halter. Pale, with staring eyes, his face contracted, he dashed past me. There was a large blood-stain on his shirt. He had been shot right through the body!
It was half-past two o'clock.
These two days cost us twenty killed, among them six Europeans, and about fifty wounded, of whom twenty were Europeans.
Scarcely had we got beyond range, when we met Botha, who posted us on a little slope. There were about sixty of us. Then Botha went off. When he had disappeared, a Burgher went slowly up to his horse, mounted it, and left the field. Another followed him, just as slowly, then a third. Soon there were only about fifteen Europeans left.
We could see nothing on the horizon, neither convoy nor retreating troops. We in our turn departed, saluted by a few shells.
Here and there a few wounded, and one or two men who had lost their horses, were going away. No one knew what had become of the army.