AN INTERLUDE—THE RESULTS OF SANNA’S POST
At Maitland Camp and Queen’s Town the two companies of Lumsden’s Horse would probably have remained many weary weeks, eating their hearts out with the fever of impatience, but for circumstances which must necessarily be explained at some length in order to give a clear view of the general situation. With events leading up to that situation Lumsden’s Horse had nothing to do, but incidentally the crisis had a great deal to do with them as influencing their movements immediately afterwards. It will be remembered that Lord Roberts had found it necessary to halt at Bloemfontein a fortnight earlier, his victorious advance beyond that point being checked by the loss of a very valuable convoy which had fallen into the hands of the Boers at Waterval Drift. With characteristic cheerfulness he made light of a mishap that would have been regarded by many generals as almost disastrous in the circumstances, seeing that the convoy contained supplies without which no forward movement of troops beyond Bloemfontein would be possible pending the repair of railways and the opening up of communications with a secure base. In his despatches Lord Roberts makes but a passing reference to the Waterval Drift affair, as if it were of comparatively little importance, yet he knew perfectly well that its consequences would be a temporary paralysis of his whole force and heart-breaking delay at a time when energetic action might have brought the campaign to a decisive issue.
The relief of Ladysmith, far from improving matters in this respect, had simply set free a number of Boer commandos, whose leaders, baulked in their ambitious schemes for the conquest of Natal, were burning with desire to achieve successes in the Orange Free State. From their point of view it was still possible to retrieve the disaster of Paardeberg, and they knew that a severe blow struck at the British lines of communication would bring them many adherents from Cape Colony who were only waiting for such an opportunity. It would also inevitably prolong the campaign by cutting off sources of supply, on which Lord Roberts was dependent; and it might even turn the scale in their favour by bringing about European intervention. To that hope they clung always, as their State documents and correspondence prove abundantly. Therefore it was of the first importance that they should assume the offensive before Lord Roberts could strengthen his lines of communication and bring up ample supplies to form an advanced base at Bloemfontein. If circumstances had permitted him to push on at once, the moral effect on enemies already disorganised and disheartened would have been enormous. As it was, his inaction revived the drooping Spirits of Boers who were previously on the point of accepting defeat as inevitable. They saw the inherent weakness of a force that could not move far in any direction until the means of feeding itself had been secured, and their thoughts turned at once to the possibility of frustrating that object by vigorous raids at every vulnerable point. In such an emergency the presence of men like Louis Botha and Christian De Wet was worth more than a thousand rifles. They had the brain to plan and the intrepidity to attempt any enterprise that might bring them an advantage by embarrassing their adversaries, and every day’s delay on our side was an opportunity given to them for more complete concentration. This last word must not be misunderstood. When applied to Boer strategy or tactics it does not necessarily mean,a gathering of units into one great force, but rather a concentration of efforts on one object which they often secure while seeming to aim at something entirely different by a distribution of their commandos in many directions. Necessarily such distracting operations can never bring about decisive results, but they served the Boer purpose admirably then, and De Wet got the opportunity he wanted to prove himself an ideal leader for work of that kind.
From some points of view this may be regarded as the most important phase of the whole campaign; it taught the Boers how to harass our forces with the greatest effect while exposing themselves to comparatively little danger. First of all, however, they set themselves to the task of showing that there was life and power for mischief in them yet, their object evidently being to effect surprises that might create panic among our troops and so render raids less difficult of accomplishment. In the development of that idea we recognise the peculiar craft of Christian De Wet, who at that time had less respect for the courage of ‘rooineks’ than he began to entertain soon afterwards. Sanna’s Post was a lesson to him not less than to us. With the exaggeration which characterised a great deal that was written in those days some critics at home described this affair as a ‘black disaster,’ thereby meaning apparently that it was something rather disgraceful and a stain on our military reputation. A disaster it was in the literal sense, for the stars in their courses seemed to be turned against us; but they were certainly not blotted out, and they never shone on soldiers whose deeds could better bear the light. The story of Sanna’s Post or Koorn Spruit is worth telling again, not only because it marks emphatically the revival of Boer hopes, after Ladysmith and Paardeberg and Kimberley had done much to shatter their self-confidence, but because it furnishes a splendid example of British valour, defiant in the moment of defeat, and all the brighter by contrast with the gloom through which it shines. In details the following version of what happened may not be more accurate than others, and it lacks the completeness that subsequent access to official documents might have given; but at least it has the merit of having been written at the time, and of showing what was the impression conveyed to the minds of people who were in the midst of those stirring events and could gauge their significance without exaggeration. This description by the Editor, who, as War Correspondent of ‘The Daily News,’ was then at Bloemfontein, may be given almost in its original form.
We knew that Colonel Pilcher, in attacking Ladybrand, had roused a hornet’s nest, and that Brigadier-General Broadwood, in command of a small mixed column, was retiring along that road from Thaba ’Nchu, hard pressed by Boers, whom he could only keep at a distance by the skilful disposition of his forces in successive rearguard actions. His movements were hampered by the slow progress of a convoy. He was falling back on a post at Sauna’s near the waterworks from which Bloemfontein draws its main supply, and expected to be there some time during the night of Friday. He had made application for reinforcements when the Boers, gathering strength as they came, began to overlap him on each flank, in spite of anything that his men could do to check every move of that kind. Thereupon Lord Roberts sent General Colvile’s Division, with artillery, and Colonel Martyr’s brigade of Mounted Infantry and Irregular Horse eastward by a forced march. They left Bloemfontein hours before daybreak on Friday, but even then it was too late. Colonel Martyr, pushing on as fast as the condition of over-worked horses would permit, only reached Boesman’s (or Bushman’s) Kop with his leading troops about 7 o’clock. There was still six miles of veldt between him and the scene of disaster. Before he could cross that in force sufficient to be of any use, the worst had happened, and nothing remained for him but to cover the retreat of detachments that had already got through the Boer lines before going to help those who were still beset.
What were the causes leading to disaster we did not know then—we do not know with absolute certainty even now. No special correspondents were with General Broadwood’s column when sudden misfortune fell upon it. All details had to be gathered at second hand, and many of the combatants who were best qualified to give an impartial account of the trap in which our troops were caught were either dead or prisoners in the hands of the enemy. In the excitement following that swift surprise those who had to fight hard for their lives could not see much on either side of their immediate front. They were mainly concerned with the necessity for shooting quick and straight. It is therefore not surprising that stories of the fight, as seen from many different points of view, should vary so that it becomes a little difficult to follow the exact sequence of events.
Two or three points, however, seem tolerably clear. When Brigadier-General Broadwood halted his troops to bivouac at 4 o’clock on Saturday morning, March 31, after crossing the Modder River, they were worn out by a long night march that had entailed incessant watchfulness. He was then in touch with the small force of Mounted Infantry holding the waterworks, and, naturally supposing that their commander had taken all precautions to safeguard the drift across Koorn Spruit, he did not call upon his weary column to furnish additional patrols for duty in that direction, but formed a chain of outposts along ridges in rear towards the known enemy, who had been harassing his march all the way from Thaba ’Nchu.
It is known that the officer who was in command at Sanna’s Post did take more than ordinary precautions before dawn that morning by sending a company of Mounted Infantry westward across the drift near Pretorius’s Farm, and, if a Boer prisoner may be trusted, that very precaution contributed to the disaster. According to his story, a party of three hundred Boers, who had been cut off from the main Brandfort body by General French’s Cavalry, on Thursday, were making their way across country to join Grobelaar’s (or, rather, as it had then become, De Wet’s) command on the Ladybrand side. Hearing Koorn Spruit, this party saw the Mounted Infantry patrol, and, the first principle of Boers in warfare being to hide themselves from the enemy, they at once took shelter between the high banks of a water-course which is, in places, nearly as dry as a khor in the Soudan. Then they began to plan an ambush, with the object of cutting off that isolated Mounted Infantry company. Until that moment they had not thought of laying a trap for the convoy, about which, indeed, they knew nothing. Such is the story told by a Boer prisoner. If true, it proves that the capture of Broadwood’s convoy was by a force entirely independent of the one against which he had been fighting his rearguard actions, and therefore unpremeditated, or, at any rate, not the calculated result of skilful tactics.
At first it was hastily assumed that one of the ablest scouts in the British Army had been out-manœuvred, and allowed himself to be surrounded by Boers. That the officer who gained distinction for boldness, dash, and caution when reconnoitring successive Dervish positions in the Soudan, should allow himself to be caught in a trap by Boer farmers was almost inconceivable. It now seems as if the enemy had merely stumbled on an opportunity, of which they took advantage, not quite realising what it meant.
Against this, however, was the evidence of a civilian refugee who declared that there were many more than three hundred Boers concealed in Koorn Spruit, and believed that secret information must have been given to them of the fact that no force had been posted to guard the drift by which Broadwood’s column must cross. On Pretorius’s Farm he met a burgher who had given up his arms, and received a pass from our military authorities permitting him to return to his home and settle down in peace, secure from all fear of molestation at the hands of British troops. This disarmed burgher, who had been fighting against us up to the occupation of Bloemfontein by Lord Roberts, showed such an accurate knowledge of the Boer movements that he must have watched them very closely. He could tell the exact position from which every gun would open fire on the English, column before it came into action. This knowledge he imparted without reserve, and yet, apparently, he had no apprehensions of ill-treatment from his former comrades as the penalty for deserting them. The incident, whatever interpretation may be put upon it, is curious, and will, perhaps, help to explain many things that happened when submissions were accepted and passes granted with too lavish leniency.
It is more than probable that a Boer attack on the waterworks in order to destroy the pumping machinery there was part of a plan conceived directly after the occupation of Bloemfontein by our troops, but it could not be carried out before the column holding Thaba ’Nchu had been forced to retire. The artillery positions may therefore have been selected some time previously for the purpose of shelling out any force that might make a stand at the waterworks, and it is all consistent with the Boer prisoner’s statement that no deliberate attempt was made by General Broadwood’s pursuers to surround him until they found that his convoy had been accidentally headed off and partly destroyed at the drift across Koorn Spruit by a comparatively small body lying in ambush there for another purpose. Such a combination of accidents seems improbable, but certainly not more so than the assumption that a Boer commander, calculating all the chances to a nicety, had ventured to detach such a small force and send it round by a wide détour across some miles of open plain with the object of intercepting, by an ambush, a column that had been able to hold its own against odds for some time. If so, he gave more hostages to fortune than the Boers have risked elsewhere.
Whatever may be the truth in this respect, it is clear that neither the officer in charge of communications, whose Mounted Infantry held Sanna’s Post, nor Brigadier-General Broadwood, had reason to suspect the presence of any hostile force in that immediate neighbourhood.
When the retiring column got touch of its friends near the waterworks, bivouac was immediately formed, and tired men no sooner lay down, with saddles for pillows, and rifles by their sides, than they were sound asleep, leaving the duty of watchfulness to their rearguard, which, in outpost line, occupied a range of rough hills southward, overlooking the road by which they had retired from Thaba ’Nchu. It was then 4 o’clock. Little time could be given to rest, for the column had to start again in two hours. Just before 6 o’clock the convoy of a hundred waggons with mule-teams began to move off towards Koorn Spruit Drift. Such was the false sense of security that no armed body went ahead. Some dismounted men, whose horses had been shot or otherwise used up, marched as a baggage-guard, but most of them had stowed their rifles on the waggons while helping to get the column in marching order. Nothing warned them that danger was near as they approached the drift. Not a movement was to be seen across the broad veldt but dark shadows of hills creeping backwards as the sun rose.
At that moment, from a distant hill in rear, overtopping the outpost ridge, darted the flash of a Boer gun, then another and another from different positions, followed by the shriek of shells and the crash of bursting charges. Every shot, well aimed, struck with a dull thud, and threw up columns of earth among or near the masses of men who were saddling up or inspanning teams for the march, but did no damage beyond frightening mules and increasing the confusion, where Cape boys, in their haste to obey a peremptory order, got harness entangled and themselves bewildered. Our Horse Artillery, being in a hollow, and masked by the movement of troops about them, did not reply, but limbered up and followed the transport waggons, which by that time had begun to cross the drift. Nearly half of them had cleared it, when from behind steep banks in the winding spruit on each side Boers galloped forward in dense troops, and, halting with rifles at the present, summoned everybody to surrender.
Some men of the baggage guard got to their arms, and, lying between waggon wheels, opened fire, but they were few, and the Boers many. The others, unarmed, could do nothing but obey the stern mandate: ‘Hold up your hands; come this way and give us your bandoliers.’
Then U Battery of the Royal Horse Artillery, following close upon the waggons, was surrounded before a gun could be wheeled about for ‘Action front,’ and the drivers were ordered to dismount and outspan. Gunners, however, do not yield without a struggle, even when their eyes look into the barrel of an enemy’s levelled rifle. Hands were on revolvers in an instant, but before these could be drawn shooting had begun, and many a gallant fellow fell. Horses, too, were shot down, or, being wounded, plunged madly over the traces. One team, startled by the din about it, stampeded, and galloped off with gun and limber, but no drivers. Thus one gun was saved. The other five fell into Boer hands, their gunners being either killed, wounded, or taken prisoners.
Sergeant-Major Martin escaped and ran back to warn Major Hornby, who, in command of Q Battery, was then scarcely a hundred yards from the scene of disaster. That officer gave the order to unlimber and come into action, but could not open fire while our men and the enemy were mixed up together among baggage-waggons, and at the same time his own gunners were being shot down. A small body of Remington’s Scouts made one plucky effort to get near the captured battery, but suffered heavily. Then two troops of Roberts’s Horse, acting as escort for the convoy, dashed forward to cross the spruit and take the Boers in flank, but they were confronted by enemies from another ambush, who, at a distance of only a few yards, had them covered and called upon them to surrender. Their only answer was ‘Fours about—gallop’; but it came too late, and before they could get out of range nearly every saddle was emptied. Only five men got away, and of these four were wounded. Among the missing, nine officers had either been killed or fallen into the enemy’s hands.
Emboldened by success, the Boers came into the open, as they had never done before. They galloped up to groups of men who were fighting shoulder to shoulder, reined in, and shot as they sat in the saddle, reckless of the bullets that whistled about them. One body charged close up to a Maxim gun that was pouring out a deadly torrent of bullets, and silenced it for a time by shooting down the detachment, but whether they got away or fell victims to their own bravery could not be seen as the struggle surged round them. Three New Zealanders whom I met coming out of the fight told the story, and spoke with admiration of the daring displayed by many of their foes, but still more enthusiastically of the splendid courage of our Horse Artillery. Of these three, one was a fine type of the half-caste Maori, the others hardy Colonists, who looked as if they had faced death more than once—cold-eyed and calm. They had evidently taken mental note of all that passed within sight of them, while they with others held a group of buildings, keeping the enemy in check by steady shooting.
Major Hornby, finding that he could not bring his guns to bear at short range without shooting down friend as well as foe, limbered up to get clear of the close mêlée. In wheeling round on rough ground one gun capsized, bringing all the team down with it—horses and drivers together in a confused mass. The Boers saw their chance, and brought a withering rifle fire to bear, so that every attempt to right the gun failed. Under this fire the two wheelers of another team fell. The leaders struggled on for a time, dragging their maimed comrades, then came to a standstill, and that gun also had to be left behind. Marksmen of the Durham Light Infantry did their best to keep down the enemy’s fire, while volunteers ran out to help the distressed gunners, who, managing to escape, went off for fresh horses.
Captain Gore Anley, commanding the Essex Regiment’s Mounted Infantry, aided by two of his men, brought a wounded gunner from under that terrific fire to safety, and then went out with a brother-officer to help at the guns. Time after time the artillerymen brought up fresh teams, which were shot down before they could be hooked to the limbers. One driver had nine horses killed or wounded before he gave up the attempt as hopeless.
Meanwhile Major Hornby, with four guns of his own command, and the only one remaining of U Battery, which had been recaptured after stampeding, moved southward to a position twelve hundred yards from Koorn Spruit Drift. There he brought them into action with a cool audacity and effect that paralysed the enemy. Though he could not save the guns that had been left behind, he could cover the retirement of Cavalry and Mounted Infantry of the rearguard, who, unable longer to hold the low ridge against heavy odds, were being forced back from the waterworks, fighting stubbornly, though threatened in flank by the force that had captured our convoy. Shelled at from right and left, smitten by storms of rifle bullets, the gunners of Q Battery never budged. Coolly, as if at target practice, they loaded and aimed. The shells burst among the Boers, checking more than one attempt at a rush, and then the remnants of a shattered brigade were enabled to retire upon their supports, who had rallied for a stand at the station buildings.
All the time officers and men of the Army Medical Corps were covering themselves with honour by brilliant services rendered to stricken soldiers, who lay helpless where the ground was torn by bullets. The coolest deed of all, however, was done by an American named Todd, a trooper in Roberts’s Horse. With a comrade he had first volunteered to go out and bring in some stray horses for the disabled guns. Before they had ridden fifty yards the second trooper was shot dead, but Todd galloped on straight towards the Boers, rounded up both horses, and had nearly brought them back when one was killed. When he rejoined his detachment Todd heard an officer asking for volunteers to go out in search of their doctor, who was lying wounded in a donga. Without waiting to hear more the trooper turned his horse’s head towards the Boer lines again and galloped off. Twenty minutes later he rode back slowly, bearing a heavy burden on his arms. ‘I couldn’t see the doctor anywhere,’ he said, ‘but I have brought back the only wounded man that I found alive there.’ If ever a man earned the right to wear the grim badge of Roberts’s Horse it is Trooper Todd. Deeds of heroism, however, were not rare that day. They could not avert disaster, but they shed a light upon it that dispels the shadow of humiliation.
Our men had still hard fighting to do before they could hope to extricate themselves. Brigadier-General Broadwood’s retirement upon the station buildings was not effected without difficulty, and it is wonderful that he should have been able to keep the remnants of so many broken squadrons in hand, while they were weakened by further losses every minute, and the on-coming enemy gathered strength. Several horsemen, escaping, got away across the veldt, and then, forming groups, headed towards Boesman’s Kop, Boers pursuing for some distance. But the main body made a stand at the station buildings, and fought it out for two weary hours, so fiercely that the enemy did not dare to come to closer quarters. The company of Burmese Mounted Infantry that had been on outpost duty west of Koorn Spruit, when they found themselves cut off by Boers in ambush, made an attempt to rejoin the main body, but were in turn surrounded. Having some advantage of ground, though outnumbered, they were enabled to hold their assailants off until 7 o’clock.
Then the scene changed. Troops appeared on Boesman’s Kop. They were the advanced guard of Colonel Martyr’s Mounted Infantry brigade, which had made a forced march to relieve the beleaguered column. Their commander halted only long enough to let the main body close up, and then ‘Queenslanders to the rescue’ came sweeping across the veldt as fast as their jaded horses could move. But the Boers were at their old tactics again, and the Queensland Mounted Infantry fell into a trap skilfully laid for them. Before the enemy could reap much advantage, however, Colonel Henry was at them with all his companies of Regular Mounted Infantry, which the astute Brigadier had ordered forward when he saw the Queensland men in difficulties. The young officer, who has spent many years with Egyptian Camel Corps, chasing Dervish raiders and scouting about their strongholds, was not to be caught by a Boer ambush. He advanced upon them in a formation too flexible even for their mobility, and gradually drove them before him until the Burmese and Queensland Mounted Infantry were enabled to fight their way through the weakened cordon.
This timely diversion gave General Broadwood his opportunity, Major Hornby’s battery fell back to another position, covering the retirement, and then the column, leaving its wounded under care of our own surgeons, retired slowly to join the welcome reinforcements. They had to turn again and again to face the foe, who still hung on their heels, and all the way they were shelled by Boer guns, until a final stand was made near the waterworks, where the enemy dared not attack, though the artillery fire continued for nearly two hours longer.
Late that afternoon the Highland Brigade, under General Hector MacDonald, passed Boesman’s Kop, and advanced to get touch of the enemy, near Modder River; but except for a few shells and sputtering rifle fire, no attempt was made by the Boers to resist this advance. When General Smith-Dorrien’s brigade, and other troops of the Ninth Division, joined MacDonald, the column that had fought so well after disaster fell upon it, dispersed into scattered remnants once more, each unit making for the appointed bivouac in any want of formation best adapted to the needs of weary men who had to walk because their horses were more tired than themselves.
What a roll-call it would have been if the Brigadier had not in mercy spared them that melancholy ordeal! When the losses came to be counted, they numbered, in dead, wounded, and prisoners, nearly a third of the force that had marched out of Thaba ’Nchu forty hours earlier. Of U Battery, Royal Horse Artillery, only a mere handful remained, and Q Battery had suffered heavily too. Seven out of twelve guns had been left in the enemy’s hands, with some eighty baggage waggons full of stores. Household Cavalry, 10th Hussars, and Mounted Infantry had losses to mourn, and Roberts’s Horse the most of all. Unhappily, it was too late to hope that either guns or convoy could be recaptured. They had all been taken off during the afternoon towards Thaba ’Nchu, and Boers were in possession of the waterworks, with artillery on heights behind, covering the road.
Next day a demonstration of the whole force under General Colvile’s command was made, as if to drive every Boer from the waterworks, where mischief had been done by the destruction of pumping engines; but it ended in nothing, and then we gradually drew in our forces. The Boers assumed the offensive again, and began to threaten our line of communications at several points.
These were the conditions that made Lord Roberts anxious to secure the services of every mounted corps on which he could rely for meeting the new Boer tactics by swift counter-strokes. Most of them he had foreseen when orders were sent for Lumsden’s Horse to be supplied with all the remounts necessary for repairing losses and pushed on to the front. Sanna’s Post with all its consequences had not been counted on; but it made the need for mounted troops all the more urgent in order that pressure round about Wepener might be relieved and lines of communication cleared. That action, lamentable because of the sacrifices it entailed, but glorious in its heroic incidents, gave to Lumsden’s Horse not only an opportunity, but an example; and we may be sure that, when the news reached them at Maitland Camp and at Queen’s Town, every trooper made up his mind to be a worthy comrade of the men who had risked their lives so nobly and fought with such stubborn valour in vain attempts to save the guns at Sanna’s Post.