Our orders for Fourteen Streams were countermanded and we were instructed to proceed to Brandfort in the Free State. We took the train without delay and went on our way rejoicing. On reaching Smaldeel, a small station thirty miles from Brandfort, we were ordered to stop and wait for instructions; so we pitched our camp and put everything in readiness for a hot time, for we learned that Lord Roberts and his army of 90,000 men were advancing from Bloemfontein. Before our new arrivals receive their baptismal fire I will relate what had taken place in the Free State while we were engaged at Ladysmith.
During the month of November while we were hi daily skirmishes with the English, who were trying to find a way of escape, there was heavy fighting south of Kimberley. Unfortunately we had there one thoroughly incompetent commander, General Prinsloo, of the Free State. General Prinsloo had most excellent commandants and veldcornets, any one of whom would have made every fight a victory in those parts. General de la Rey was with Prinsloo, but the latter had higher rank, much to our regret. General de la Rey is a remarkable man and the Napoleon of the South African War. In due tune I will give a short account of this great and good man and the deeds he accomplished.
Generals Prinsloo and de la Rey, with their combined force of some 2,000 men and, I think, two guns and two maxim Nordenfelts, were attacked on November 23rd by Lord Methuen with a force of 10,000 to 12,000 men and two or three batteries, together with several maxims. Of course Lord Methuen had an overwhelming force as compared to that of the Boers, yet, had Prinsloo acted with General de la Rey, the British would have suffered a severe defeat.
Prinsloo left his position just at the moment of victory, and, by so doing, came near getting General de la Rey and his men captured. They had actually to fight their way out. The republican forces fell back to Rooilaagte in the direction of Kimberley. Here the burghers to some extent fortified themselves, and awaited the arrival of Methuen. He, with his re-enforced army appeared and opened up their batteries on the Boer positions hi the early morn of November 25th. A very hard and bloody battle was fought here, and it was Prinsloo again who gave way at the wrong moment and allowed Methuen to credit himself with another victory. Prinsloo was always bent on giving way just at the wrong time, much to the disappointment and disgust of General de la Rey, and this, too, in the face of the fact that General de la Rey always took the brunt and did the hardest fighting. The world now has read Methuen's reports of these fights and the Boer reports too, so it is only necessary for me to say that the former's losses were exceedingly heavy, while those of the latter were exceedingly small. Judging by the losses, Methuen was badly defeated in both instances, but an English officer does not care how many men are shot dead so long as he does not lose a gun or have to retreat. To show the true character of this lordly Methuen, I will say that every low and beastly epithet his vulgar imagination could invent, he applied to the enemy, that he might excuse himself for shooting some twenty or thirty Boers, some of them wounded, whom he had captured. Of course he must add another lie, English-like, by claiming the abuse of the white flag.
Now the time was ripe for the Boers to begin to shoot in retaliation the British officers and soldiers at Pretoria, who were spending their time playing football, etc. But the Boer is strictly governed by his religion, and the whole world could not induce him to resort to retaliation under any circumstances. I longed to be in chief command just for a few hours, but, fortunately for many British, I was not. The Boers were convinced that Lord Methuen would receive his punishment on the Day of Judgment, and I was just as thoroughly convinced that I did not believe in such long postponements in dealing with Englishmen.
The Boers fell back from Rooilaagte to Modder River, not many miles from Kimberley. Here Generals Prinsloo and de la Rey were re-enforced by the long expected General Piet Cronje, with about 500 men. He had come all the way from Mafeking on the western border of the Transvaal, but, tired as he and his men were, they were all ready and game for fight. Before Cronje's arrival, General de la Rey had practically assumed command over General Prinsloo, and placed the Boer forces in position on the Modder River to give Methuen and his army another fight. On his arrival, General Cronje, being known to be the best fighter in the land, was given command over all the Boer forces. He looked over the ground and having thoroughly approved in every detail the dispositions of the men that General de la Rey had made, he calmly awaited the arrival of Methuen. Lord Methuen will never forget the battle of Modder River, and hundreds of his men will never remember it. The English were then and are now as afraid of General Cronje, as a baboon is of a snake, and I might say here, that if you bring a baboon in contact with a snake, dead or alive, and prevent him from running away, he will actually have a spasm. Methuen did not find out, however, until it was too late, that Cronje was there, for otherwise he would have asked for something like 20,000 men additional. Finally the 28th of November came, and there was Methuen and his army.
After carrying out his usual program of bombarding for several hours, Methuen advanced his lines, and the rifle firing began. After hours of terrific fighting, during which Cronje and de la Rey had unmercifully slaughtered, and in the end driven back the English, and during which time the Free Staters, too, had covered themselves with glory, and just at the moment when a great victory was really won, General Prinsloo suddenly withdrew his men and allowed the English to turn his flank. He seemed to be afraid to win a victory, and it is a marvel that General Cronje or General de la Rey did not shoot him or drive him to his home and put one of his thoroughly competent commandants in his place. The result of this sudden withdrawal was that the Boer forces had to fall back, and now we find them at Magersfontein.
As Methuen had made but slow progress in killing Boers in honorable fight on the battlefield, he now gave way to his savage inclination and had some twenty or thirty wounded Boers whom he found in a farmhouse near the battlefield, deliberately shot in cold blood. Of course Methuen had seen his men fall by the hundred, and no doubt he was highly enraged at the sight, but it requires a brute to deliberately take the lives of helpless, wounded men, and, in my experience with the brute creation, which is considerable, I am sure that there are exceedingly few brutes that would do such a thing. Even the sneaking hyena would refrain unless he were dying of hunger. Now Lord Methuen had learned that Cronje was on deck, and in the best of health, so he called for all the re-enforcements at hand and brought up his decimated force to something like 15,000 men and six batteries. Cronje was lucky too, and increased his force to something more than 4,000, but not much more. Methuen's were all trained and tried men, and, as the English would put it, invincible; Cronje had his ordinary farmers who knew nothing whatever about military training. No doubt Methuen did lots of thinking, but I do not believe he called any council of war, because he is too conceited and arrogant to do such a thing. He who deigns to make a suggestion to a lord is very liable to be sent away and told to attend to his own business. Although he is supremely arrogant, I think he did some shaking in his boots because he knew that Cronje was in front. For several days after his terrible smashup on Modder River, Methuen spent his time in recuperating and awaiting re-enforcements. Cronje and de la Rey spent their time in preparing for a fight at Magersfontein. In front of the ridge on which they concealed their small guns and maxims they put the Boers to work digging a trench. The trench being finished, it was so well concealed that the English could not see it. They knew that this scheme would work, because Methuen would not think of sending out any reconnoitring parties to find out just how the Boers were to make their fight. He would tell you that it was unnecessary because he had a balloon, and from that balloon he could see the Boers far behind their actual, but unknown to him position. The Boers were not in the trenches by day, but were far behind them. At night you could find everyone of them there, and in perfect readiness for battle.