At last the day came. It was Dec. 10th when Methuen and his big army came up and without delay began with their usual introduction, by turning six batteries upon the supposed position of the Boer force. For two days this formidable array of field and lyddite guns continued to roar and keep the very heavens filled with heavy steel shells that tore up the earth generally. No reply was sent back from any part of Cronje's lines, so Lord Methuen alone can lay claim to making all that deafening noise that so frightened birds and beasts during the 10th and 11th; but when you say noise, you have the sum total of the work accomplished by his vigorous display of fireworks. It was in the very early morning of the 12th, that Lord Methuen decided that the fearful Cronje and his "dirty" Boers were either demolished or so terribly demoralized that they had fled for safety miles to their rear, because he had not heard a murmur from them for two days. Any man with a little grain of sense would, at least at this early hour in the morning, have sent in advance a well extended line of skirmishers to find out if the enemy were near at hand or had actually fled. No; this way of doing business would never meet with the approval of an English lord who had, by the accident of birth, inherited the brains of all past generations in his family line; so he moved his lines forward in close order.
When Methuen's lines arrived within about seventy-five yards of Cronje's trenches, the demolished or absconded "dirty" Boers sent a greeting in the form of a long, dazzling line of fire, which instantly died away, and with it General Wauchope and almost his entire Black Watch, the crack regiment of the English army. Never in all history was such a bloody and disastrous battle fought and won in such a short time. Methuen's men, one and all, regardless of orders or order, fled as fast as their legs could carry them, and the Boers did not fail to apply the whip and spur at every stride they made. Although the battle was now virtually over, yet some hard fighting took place during the day. Methuen could not reconcile himself to his most disastrous and disgraceful defeat at the hands of such a small force of Boers, so spent the greater part of the day in losing more before he finely concluded that he would have to return to his old camp on Modder River.
It is not my purpose to give long descriptions of battles in this narrative, for I know they are tiresome, but, painful to me as it may be, I must say something of that little band of Scandinavians who were with Cronje in that great victory. I knew personally almost every one of that band of sixty men. The Scandinavian is quiet, gentlemanly, and the most tractable soldier in camp, but the most daring, reckless and fearless soldier I have ever seen, when it comes to fighting. Not satisfied with the early morning's work, this little body moved out, on its own account, after the sun was well up, and deliberately attacked Methuen's army. They actually engaged a force of at least fifteen to one against them, and fought till they were practically exterminated as a body. Sure it is that each one of that reckless little band accounted for at least one Englishman before he forfeited his own life. Having practically wiped them out, the English set to work to rob and strip them, and punch their bodies full of holes. General Cronje captured a small bunch of prisoners during the day, but sent them to Pretoria to play football. Early in the afternoon, Methuen, having satisfied himself that he had murdered enough of his own men, decided to retreat, and did so, but at a much more rapid pace than he had expected, for now Cronje's guns were turned upon him, and induced him to move more rapidly, and quickly vanish hi the distance. Here was a fearful slaughter of English, the greatest so far during the war, but only because this great battle was fought just three days before that of Colenso, near Ladysmith, where General Louis Botha so terribly defeated General Buller and his fine army.
After Lord Methuen reached his old camp on Modder River, I have an idea that he did some really hard thinking, for he must make a report, and in that report he must show that his defeat was a victory, because a lord cannot be defeated. Unfortunately, I have never seen his report, but it is safe to conclude that he saw the Boers in overwhelming numbers and that some Colonial had proved traitor to him and led him into an ambush. I merely mention this as a guess, because it is the usual method adopted by the British officer to hide his incapacity. Methuen's soldiers are not through to this day damning him for his conduct in this battle, but we all know that soldiers' words are but naught in England when a lord speaks. It is an awful shame, but very true.
Methuen returned to his old camp fully convinced that he had had enough. He had no desire to try his luck again against Cronje and he never did. Cronje stopped just where he was for several weeks, looking for another advance of Methuen, or some other English army. He did not care how many came, for he was there to fight. I must say this about General Cronje that he may be thoroughly understood. He is stubbornness itself, will take advice from no one, is absolutely fearless, and constantly craves a fight with the English. I do not believe the world's history can show his equal as a commandant, but as a general he is an absolute failure. He must have some one over him, and under no circumstances must he be allowed to command. Order him to take a kopje, and he is sure to take it. Order him to hold a position, and he is sure to hold it. Order him to retreat, and he will do it. But put huii in supreme command, and the combined influence of the immortal gods could not induce him to retreat, it matters not what the odds against him, or what the circumstances might be. Every drop of blood that courses through his body literally burns with patriotism, .and of the whole Africander race I believe that General Piet Cronje would be the first to step forward and lay down his life for the freedom and independence of his people.
But I must say of General Cronje that he is a man wrapped up in his own conceit. He considered himself the only great fighter in South Africa, and, when captured, he is the very man to say that the Boers should surrender because the great Cronje can no longer lead them. In this respect he is a fool, but fools often become wise men by experience. If I should hear that General Cronje was condemning his fellow countrymen for prolonging the war after his capture, I should not be surprised, because he is so eaten up with his own importance.
Such is the man, General Piet Cronje, and may he live long, and have, as a commandant, one more crack at the British, and then I think all will be well for South Africa !
After the Battle of Magersfontein, General de la Rey was sent to Colesberg to take command of the forces against General French. General Piet De Wet and General Schoeman had been fighting French daily, and had been gradually driven back to their strong defensive position at Colesberg. The Boer forces were about 2,500 strong, but were divided into small commands in order to guard a wide extent of country. General French had only 15,000 men and thirty guns, so he made but small progress in his advance on Colesberg. The Boers hotly contested every inch of ground, and almost every one of the little commands did some daring work. Early in January, General de la Rey arrived and at once assumed command. Hot skirmishes were now the general order of the day all along the lines, and on January 25th, west of Colesberg, General de la Rey had made it so warm for him, that, instead of continuing to advance, General French changed his mind and retreated. De la Rey followed him, but never came in touch with him again because he had left for Cape Town. It seems that after the Battle of Magersfontein, Lord Roberts became much frightened at the presence of Cronje and called for help.
French was ordered to report to him at once, and left early in January to help Roberts out of his troubles. General Clements took French's place, but could do no better than his predecessor against de la Rey. On February 11th, the Battle of Slingersfontein was fought. It lasted for many hours and was stubbornly contested by both sides, but in the end de la Rey proved too much for him, and General Clements fled to Arundel, forgetting to take his camp with him. The burghers were hungry and thirsty and this camp amply satisfied all their wants. General de la Rey was now directed to return to the Modder River and co-operate with General Cronje against General Roberts and his mighty army. During his short period of operating about Colesberg he had captured some 500 prisoners, driven French's army back and made good his record of never having been defeated.
In a few weeks after Magersfontein, General Cronje saw that the British were appearing hi thousands in all directions, and he finally made up his mind to move his little command to Paardeberg. His very stubbornness prevented his moving earlier, but he was satisfied. He saw that he was being gradually but surely surrounded by an enormous army, yet he never quailed. He was begged by such patriots and great and competent generals as Christian De Wet, de la Rey, Phillip Botha and even Com.-Gen. Joubert, of the Transvaal, to get out of the ring nearly completed about him while he had an opportunity. He utterly ignored all of them, practically told them to go to Hades, and silenced them, for he was there to fight, and was going to fight. He did fight, and can history show anything to compare with it?
I am not going into the details of this nine days' fight, but will give the main features and the result. Here was a common, ordinary farmer, without any military training or education, in command of a little more than 4,000 equally untrained farmers, and four or five old Krupp guns. With him were a great number of refugee Boer women and children, who had come to him for protection against the insults and outrages of the British soldiery. Sad to relate, this is the actual truth, yet we still hear Anglo-Americans speaking of the civilized English. Opposed to him was the very flower of the English Empire. There were Lord Roberts, Lord Kitchener, General Kelly-Kenny, that able commander, Hector MacDonald, General French and many other stars of the British army. Altogether they had some 50,000 men around General Cronje. These men were all tried military men, trained and educated. Besides, Lord Roberts had 120 cannon, field guns and lyddite guns. The British may tell you that there were mountains there higher than Mount Everest, but believe me, there are no mountains there whatever. General Cronje and his little band of patriots were on the banks of the Modder River, where infantry, cavalry and artillery could manoeuvre without any difficulty. It was, I think, on the 18th of February that Roberts began with all his guns to bombard Cronje. Almost continually for nine days, 120 cannon were busy trying to destroy that little band of patriots. Once Lord Kitchener thought he would play a Khartoum act. He recalled the time when he charged upon and murdered some 10,000 to 15,000 unarmed negroes at Khartoum, and saw no reason why he could not do the same thing with 4,000 Boers. He forgot that the negroes were armed only with sticks, while the Boers had mausers. He advanced boldly, had hundreds and hundreds of his men slaughtered, and then fled as rapidly as he could. After the battle had been raging for two or three days, General Cronje asked for an armistice to bury his dead. Lord Roberts positively refused. During the whole war the Boers never once denied the English an armistice for that purpose, although they knew that the English, in every instance, took advantage of it to strengthen their position. There is a wide difference between a Boer savage and a civilized Englishman. Give me the former, but deliver me from the latter!
As Roberts had captured Cronje's ambulance wagons and would not allow any doctor to go and attend to his wounded, and as he was not permitted to bury his dead, of course, the condition of the camp became such that the women and children could not endure it; and the Boers too were suffering on account of it, so Cronje's commandants and veldcornets forced him to hoist the white flag on February 27th. The battle was over and Lord Roberts had Cronje and his 4,000 men as prisoners of war. No doubt General Cronje would have been shot had there not been about 750 British officers and 4,000 soldiers as prisoners of war in Pretoria. This alone saved the old patriot's life, and we all know it.
On receiving the first news of the capture of the great Cronje and his army by the wonderful Lord Roberts, Commander-in-Chief, A. B. C. D. E., etc., all London took a holiday, went crazy mad, and the papers put out their posters showing that Cronje with 15,000 or 20,000 or 30,000 "dirty" Boers had been captured. When they finally learned that Cronje had only 4,000 men against Lord Robert's big army, all slunk their heads and retired to their homes. What Lord Roberts considered his greatest victory the world at large considered his greatest defeat.
What the English losses were we do not know, and I know that the English people do not know either, for Mr. Chamberlain says that the death lists are not yet completed. If the complete returns are ever made known, I think we shall see that Roberts had as many men put out of action as Cronje had in his command. General Cronje had about seventy men killed and about three times that number wounded.
I will now go to Stormberg and Aliwal North, the two really most important points on the Free State border, for here was the easy and natural way for the English to reach Bloemfontein.
At the beginning of the war the English occupied and well fortified Stormberg, and this was the only sensible thing they did. After a few weeks occupation, they, for some reason unknown to me, abandoned this position and fell back to Molteno. Of course the Boers lost no time in taking possession of the good work the English had done and abandoned. Generals Olivier and Grobler were there, and old General Hendrik Schoeman was near at hand. Schoeman was a fraud and afterwards joined the English to be blown up by a supposed empty lyddite shell in his home in Pretoria while engaged in a plot with others against his people. That empty shell had a little lyddite caked in the bottom, and Schoeman, having struck a match and lighted his pipe, threw the still burning match into the empty shell. An explosion followed, tearing out the side of the building, killing Schoeman, another traitor by the name of Van Der Merwe, and Schoeman's daughter, and seriously wounding old man Viljoen. This proves that it is a good thing for traitors to make useful souvenirs of empty lyddite shells. It was a source of regret to all, however, that Miss Schoeman should have entered the room just as the explosion took place, and lost her life.
Both Grobler and Olivier were good officers and did good work. The total Boer force was less than a thousand with which they had to oppose General Gatacre and 3,000 men. Besides, Gatacre had six or eight cannon, as well as several maxims. Few shots were fired by either side until the 10th of December, when General Gatacre attacked. The fighting was very hot while it lasted, but it did not continue long before Gatacre saw his little army cut into pieces, and in a rapid and disorderly retreat to Molteno. In addition to his severe loss in dead and wounded, two cannon and over 600 of his men were taken. Before this battle all the English and Colonial papers were full of the wonderful deeds and the great capacity of this distinguished soldier, General Gatacre, and it was certain that he would make a skip to Stormberg and then a jump and land in Bloemfontein, leaving nothing but dead Boers behind him. The British officer is a wonderful genius on paper, but a very weak sister on the battlefield. General Gatacre did a great deal in this district towards the ultimate independence of South Africa ; for the number of men he arrested, charged as spies and then shot, is very great, and all their names are dearly cherished in the hearts of the Africanders. This battle finished the great Gatacre; at any rate, we never heard of him again during the war.