Kitchener alarmed and asks for more troops - French tries to corner Botha - Failing makes war on Boer women - Botha attacks English at Lake Chrissi - De Wet alarms the English - Defeats them, goes to the colony and returns.
Now I come to the month of February, 1901, and will give the reader a little idea of how the Boers conducted themselves during the twenty-eight days. The British Government had now granted Lord Kitchener's request, and started to South Africa 30,000 more men. England was so hard pressed for recruits that she had to send any and everything in the shape of a man, and most of her recruits were taken from barrooms, I imagine, for, of the 30,000 who came, Lord Kitchener had to send back some 10,000 as being utterly worthless for any use whatever. The remaining 20,000 were put in military training for six months, and in the end were unable to ride or fight, but he needed men so badly that he kept them to make a good display if for nothing else.
During the month before us General Louis Botha and his brother, General Chris. Botha, had a very lively tune. They were in the vicinity of Ermelo on the high veldt, in the Eastern Transvaal. They had made so much trouble that Lord Kitchener resolved to make a determined effort to corner and capture them. He collected all his available cavalry and having supplied them with plenty of maxims and guns he started them in six columns to bring in the two Bothas. General French was put in command of the English and was considered the best cavalry officer in the British service, so then there was no doubt but that he would present to Lord Kitchener the two ordinary farmer generals that had been causing so much trouble and alarm. The Bothas had with them about 1,000 men, and French was to corner and capture them with 15,000 men. General French so placed his columns that when they all advanced they would enclose the Bothas within a circle from which it would be impossible to escape. The Bothas discovered French's object and before the columns could advance they attacked and put to flight one column and then moved off in the direction of Piet Retief. This was a surprise to General French, but he did not despair of capturing the farmer generals. He put all his columns hi pursuit, and when the proper time came to cage them, the two farmers easily broke through the cordon and returned to the vicinity of Ermelo. French was discouraged. He made no further attempt to capture the farmers, but was determined to do something before he returned, so he made war on the women and children and spread great distress and suffering among them. Some of these women were raped, others dragged out of then* homes at night and made witness all their possessions consumed in flames. Many were driven on foot to concentration camps and kicked and cuffed about as so many beasts.
Having made the women suffer as much as possible, he gathered in several thousand cattle and sheep and returned to report what a successful expedition he had completed. At Lake Chrissi, between Ermelo and Carolina, General Botha had the nerve to attack an English camp 2,000 strong. It was a foggy morning, and the noise of the battle stampeded a band of wild horses and they ran into the Krugersdorpers' horses, stampeding them too.
This spoiled the whole affair, for General Botha had the English camp all but taken, but when the burghers saw their saddled horses running away they at once started in pursuit of them. Fortunately they had already captured several hundred horses from the English, for many of their own horses evaded them. Commandant Kemp, one of the most enthusiastic, one of the most energetic, pluckiest and best commandants in the Boer army, was more than disgusted with his men for being so concerned about their horses, but he forgot for the moment that an infantryman is but of little practical use in war. The English, when the Boers retired, lost no time in fleeing to places of safety, and never again showed themselves on the high veldt until the horses, mules and men from America were put into fighting trim, and that was many weeks to come. The two Bothas had proved themselves equal to that almost, if not quite, unequalled De Wet, and such was the impression they made on Lord Kitchener that he requested General Louis Botha to meet and discuss with him some peace terms.
Before going elsewhere, I will tell what happened when last General Botha and Lord Kitchener met in Middleburg at the end of February. For the price of peace, Lord Kitchener told General Botha that after a time he would give the Boers civil government and give this, and that, and one million pounds to build up ten millions' worth of destroyed farms, and so forth. But Lord, or monacle-eyed Joe Chamberlain stepped in, and said "We will do nothing of the kind, and the Boers must make an unconditional surrender." Of course, General Botha smiled at both, and on his return to Ermelo told what had taken place at the conference, exhorted them to fight to the bitter end, and assured them that he would be with them heart, soul and body.
Now I will jump into the Free State and see what the wily De Wet is doing. De Wet, the Stonewall Jackson of South Africa, had all the English of the Free State on the run and, at the end of January, it looked as if he would sweep them from the country. Lord Kitchener resolved to corner and capture him, it mattered not what it might cost, for Lord Roberts and Conan Doyle had declared the war at an end, and if the English people should hear that De Wet was practically in control of the Free State, why, they would be inclined to think that both Roberts and Doyle were liars.
As a side remark, that might be expressing it mildly, but anyhow, Kitchener organized eight or ten columns, all he could get, because the English Government in Washington City had not yet succeeded in landing enough horses or mules for his needs, and sent them to surround and take in the troublesome De Wet. Now General De Wet was on the open veldt near Brandfort, where the English could see him from all directions, and all they had to do was to surround him and take or kill him. As De Wet had about 1500 men, of course it would be a very easy thing for 25,000 trained military men to gobble him in, in quick time. The several columns surrounded him, and despatch men were flying at full speed from column to column bearing instructions that would insure perfect unity of action. General De Wet, when he concluded that the several columns were in good readiness to bury him, saddled up, moved out and attacked the nearest column. He riddled it, put it to flight, and another column which came up quickly was also torn to pieces and scattered in all directions. He took two of their guns, a maxim and a portion of their convoy, a few prisoners whom he released, and went on his way to Cape Colony without consulting with or asking permission of the other columns. I do not know what the officer in command reported on his return, but I suppose he made the usual one, that some one had betrayed him or that his horses and men were so fatigued that he could not make a successful pursuit of De Wet and his fresh horses and men. General De Wet did not stop to hear what kind of a report the English commander did make, because he was anxious to reach Cape Colony, find out what was being done there and replenish his command with horses, and so forth. He had to pass many English commands on the way, but he succeeded in sweeping them aside and reaching the Orange River, where the English had made every preparation not only to prevent his crossing, but also to capture him. Again he outwitted the English, crossed the river, entered Cape Colony, saw Judge Hertzog and other commanders, supplied himself with plenty of horses, had a tough fight with the English, abandoned some of his wagons, and then started back on his way to the Orange River where the English were sure to catch him this tune.
On arriving near the river he found the crossings in possession of the English commands, but he must cross, for he was anxious to go far to the north in the Free State, where he felt that his presence was necessary. He sent a detachment to a certain point up the river with instructions to show themselves, and in case the English advanced they were to retire, put spurs to their horses and overtake the command while crossing the river. The scheme worked beautifully, for as soon as the English saw the detachment they concluded that it was De Wet's advance guard and they prepared to attack him. The detachment played its part well, by going through the form of signalling to the rear.
The English made all possible haste to advance and attack De Wet and if possible hold him engaged until their other commands should come. As all were on the lookout for him, of course the dfferent commands would lose no time in reaching the scene of action. The English completely abandoned the crossing in front of De Wet and made a hurried advance on the detachment. When 1200 yards away the detachment opened fire on the English and a short skirmish took place. At this moment De Wet rushed to the river, crossed it and put his men in fighting order to protect the detachment which he expected every moment. After firing a few shots, the detachment dropped behind the hill from which they had been firing, mounted their horses, put in the spurs and soon joined the wily De Wet across the river. Again the English were easily outwitted and De Wet was once more in the Free State. He had to fight his way all through the Free State, but the English were afraid of him, and he reached his destination at Heilbron without loss of time.
He had now made a round trip of about a thousand miles, had had many skirmishes, successfully fought two battles and landed home with but little loss. His trip had a great moral effect on the English army, the people of Cape Colony and Cape Town. The news of his invasion of Cape Colony had spread all over South Africa and had reached London. The English element in Cape Town and throughout the colony were crazy with fright, for all men were sure that De Wet would lay waste the country as the English had the Transvaal and Free State. The English forces in the Colony were concentrated that they might make a successful defense when De Wet should attack.
Lord Kitchener and his numerous force of cricketers felt the cold chill running down their backs and were at their wit's end to make out a report that would so mislead the English papers that they would not express any regret at having presented Lord Roberts with $500,000 and an earldom for his proclamations, and for declaring that the war was at an end. All were so undone and such nervous wrecks that they did not remember that Conan Doyle had also declared that the war was over.
I think General De Wet made a great mistake in returning to the Free State so soon. With his energy, his ability, his prestige and men he should have gone to the De Aar Junction, destroyed that most important railway point and then followed the railway towards Cape Town, destroying it and all the bridges on his way. Such were the conditions in Cape Town at the time that had he gone ahead and penetrated as far as the Paarl, it is safe to conclude that he would have received at least 15,000 recruits, and these Colonial Boers cannot be surpassed for fighting qualities. Having done this, before retracing his steps he would have had an army 20,000 strong before he reached the Orange River. I always felt that the war should have been carried into Cape Colony and there finished, for the people were ripe for rebellion, and had Generals Botha, De Wet and de la Rey gone there with their commands it is certain that they would have risen, as one, and all joined the Boers. This would have meant the defeat and downfall of the English army and the independence of the Africander race throughout South Africa. But they didn't go there, and the Africander race has yet to free itself.
During this month of February neither General de la Rey nor the English did anything worth recording. The English remained close in their forts, and General de la Rey was satisfied to rest his men and give his horses a chance to recuperate and fatten up.