Some Boer initial mistakes—First blood for the Federals—Kraaipan—Boer and British reports compared—Sketch of General Hercules De la Rey.
The Federals lost no time in resolving to meet the enemy after war had been declared. At midnight, on the 11th of October, in a downpour of rain, Joubert's forces rode in three columns over the frontier of Natal, at Laing's Nek, Botha's Pass, and a drift over the Buffalo River. The invading commandoes comprised the Middelburg, Pretoria, Johannesburg, Krugersdorp, Heidelberg, Ermelo, Standerton, Wakkerstroom, Utrecht, and Vryheid burghers, the Hollander Corps, and Blake's Irish Brigade.
At the same midnight hour on the 11th, De la Rey, at the head of a strong patrol of Cronje's western column, crossed the Bechuanaland border, about twenty miles to the south of Mafeking, on a reconnaissance to discover the strength and possible movements of its garrison.
Cronje's force, numbering some 5,000 men, had been laagered at Polfontein, since being mobilized. It consisted of the Marico, Eustenburg, Potchefstroom, Lichtenburg, and Bloemof commandoes; these being the western districts of the Transvaal which their burghers were called upon to defend under the Boer system of territorial military organization. With these commandoes was a small Scandinavian corps.
This relatively strong force was meant more as a cheek upon the Mafeking garrison than for any contemplated invasion of the Bechuanaland territory. It was not intended to act as a unit, but to supply such details of men as the movements of the enemy over the border and in Rhodesia might require in the work of stopping any attempted entry into the Transvaal from British possessions west and north. It soon became necessary in the carrying out of this plan, to divide this force into three small divisions; one under De la Rey, one under Commandant Snyman, with the stronger of the three bodies remaining with the old hero of Potchefstroom, for his subsequent combats with Methuen, Kitchener, and others. The initial blunder of the war on the part of the Boer generals was committed in this disposition and division of the western commandoes. It was part of the deplorably short-sighted policy of wasting men and opportunities in watching comparatively small British garrisons. The troops under Baden-Powell in Mafeking would not have ventured to cross the frontier for any serious purpose, nor could the Rhodesian levies inflict much injury upon the thinly-peopled localities in the northwest before assistance from the eastern districts would arrive and hold them in check. Almost a third of the whole Transvaal army was sent to watch a few thousand troops who were cut off from reinforcements, while Joubert was to attempt, with less than double the same number of Cronje's burghers, the invasion of territory held by British forces larger than his own, and which were being increased by every transport arriving from England. A plan similar to Joubert's, which Cronje in part attempted when too late, would have changed the whole fortunes of the war, if carried out simultaneously with the crossing of the Commandant-General into Natal. De Aar Junction, on the main line from Cape Town to Kimberley, was some sixty miles south of the Orange River. Enormous military stores were accumulated there as part of the plan for the British advance on Bloemfontein, with only a weak garrison in defense of the place. Naauwpoort, another railway junction some fifty miles eastward, and near a strong pro-Boer center, could have been taken with comparative ease. The English trembled for the fate of these places in the first week of the war, but the commandoes under
Grobler across the river, and of Prinsloo and Wessels near Belmont and Kimberley, made no move on these vulnerable positions. Had Cronje advanced south on Kimberley, at the time Joubert marched through Laing's Nek, the Diamond City would have been in the hands of the Federals long before Lord Methuen could have forced his way past De Aar. The fear of offending a Bond Ministry in Cape Colony was to blame for this disastrous act of omission.
The first encounter of the war occurred at Kraaipan, south of Mafeking, and to General De la Rey belongs the credit of securing the initial victory for the cause of the Republic. He had started from Cronje's laager with two hundred Lichtenburghers before artillery had arrived from Pretoria, in order to be over the border at midnight, and was to await the arrival of Captain Van der Merwe with guns before engaging any force he might locate between Vryburg and Mafeking. On reaching the railway station at Kraaipan he found that the English outposts at that place had retired on seeing the approach of the Boers. De la Rey, in awaiting the arrival of Van der Merwe, tore up the railway going south to Kimberley, and cut the telegraph wires.
The object for which the column had crossed the border was accomplished, but De la Rey remained for possible developments from the direction of Mafeking. His scouts soon discovered an armored train steaming from the south towards the railway station. This mobile fort consisted of an engine and two trucks lined with bullet-proof armor sheeting, and was armed with a Maxim and two mountain guns. The "fort" bore down upon the station at Kraaipan during the evening of the 13th of October, the officer in command being evidently ignorant of the damage done to the railway line. The engine and trucks capsized on reaching the derailed spot, but not so completely as to prevent the surprised occupants from trying to replace the train on the rails. This the Boers easily succeeded in preventing by their rifle fire. The English were enabled, however, to use their mountain guns and Maxim, and by this means to keep De la Rey at a respectful distance during the night.
The official report of this opening engagement of the war, as sent by General Cronje to Pretoria, was as follows :
This account, brief and laconic as it is, as dealing with the first fight of the war, was a lengthy document in comparison with reports of more important engagements in which Cronje took part subsequently. His first "story" of the brilliant victory he gained at Magersfontein was told in a despatch of thirty words. Doubtless the above report was that sent, to the old veteran by De la Rey, and transmitted as received by Cronje to the War Department at Pretoria.
The report, it will be seen, is a bald statement of facts. There is not a word of self-praise or of Boer glorification in it. The details of the encounter are related in the restrained and sober language which has invariably characterized the utterances of these maligned people in their dealings with their enemy.
As a sample of the contrary spirit which has prevailed in almost every phase of this war, the spirit of boastful achievement, of Falstaffian exaggeration on the British side, the following account of the Kraaipan affair, which appeared in the British press, is interesting.
The Kimberley war news man's history of the fight at the train reads as follows:
Various editors of London Jingo papers, not to be outdone by the Kimberley historian in the eulogy of Nesbit and his men, declared that such bravery as theirs, in " dying at their posts in preference to surrender, added another glorious chapter to English military annals." When the truth had a chance of competing with the war correspondents and their editorial rivals, it was found that Captain Nesbit's thumb had been slightly injured in the encounter, and that all his men were prisoners, practically unhurt, in the hands of the Boers, having hoisted the white flag.
Armored trains as novelties in actual warfare were destined not to perform the feats which the English counted upon in their construction. The idea sought to be carried out was to build a mobile fort for patrol and reconnaissance purposes, and for the repairing of railways when damaged by the Boers. It seemed not to occur to the military minds who planned these machines that the displacement of a single rail in front or behind the locomotive would place the trucks, their defenders, and guns at the mercy of an attacking party. They were also built in ignorance of the penetrating power of the Creusot field gun and of the Maxim-Nordenfelt, and have in consequence been a complete failure in the war.
These trains consisted of two or more carriages sheeted over with three-quarter inch boiler iron. The engine was placed between the trucks and protected with armor plating, the cab being roofed over by similar covering. Each truck was fitted to hold some fifty men, with loopholes for machine guns and slots for rifle fire.
GENERAL DE LA REY
Jacob Hercules De la Rey, who fought the first successful engagement of the war, first saw the light in the district of Lichtenburg fifty-four years ago. His father was horn in the Orange Free State and was of Huguenot origin. He took part with Pretorius in driving the English out of Bloemfontein in 1848, and had his farm and property confiscated after Sir Harry Smith had reversed the situation by forcing the old Boer warrior back again across the Vaal. The De la Reys sought a new home in the west of the Transvaal, where Jacob Hercules spent his early life. The general is a man over the medium height, sinewy in build, and remarkable for his quiet, dignified manner. He has deep-set, dark eyes, a prominent Roman nose, and a large, dark brown beard, giving to his face a strong, handsome, and patrician expression.
He was born of a fighting family, and has had the experience and training of campaigns in conflicts with hostile Kaffir tribes. His first command was in the war which the English incited the Basutos to wage against the Free State in the early sixties, when lie was quite young. These experiences qualified him for a prominent military position when the present war broke out, and he was unanimously elected to the command of the Liehtenburg burghers who became part of Cronje's western column.
He represented his native district in the Volksraad for ten years, and was a consistent supporter of the Joubert, as against the Kruger, following in that Assembly. He favored a large franchise concession to the Uitlanders as a means of averting a conflict with England, but soon saw that a demand for political reforms was only a pretext for precipitating a conflict. He was one of the most ardent advocates of an attacking as against a defensive military policy when England forced a resort to hostilities.
Like General Cronje, he carries no weapons in the field. His field-glass, wooden pipe, and, last but not least, his Bible, are his inseparable companions. He is a universal favorite with the burghers of both Republics, and inspires great confidence in his men by his almost unerring military judgment, splendid generalship, heroic courage, an indomitable tenacity of purpose, and an all-round resourcefulness in all emergencies.
He is remarkably self-contained in his actions, never getting excited, even in the thickest of the fight, but always remaining cool, cautious, and alert.
Colonel Baden-Powell essayed a double blow at his assailants on the day of the catastrophe to Captain Nesbit's armored train at Kraaipan. Learning of the approach of another body of Boers, towards a point on the line about a dozen miles north of Mafeking, he despatched two trucks laden with dynamite, and hauled by an engine to the locality. On nearing the place occupied by a party of Marico burghers, the engine driver unhooked his engine, let his trucks run forward, and then retraced his way, safely, back to Mafeking. The Boers fired upon the trucks, as was expected, and a terrible explosion followed. Powell's calculation was not, however, realized. The wary Boers did not approach the trucks as near as their chivalrous foe had hoped for and anticipated, the result being a great waste of dynamite on the British side, with no loss to the objects of this savagely-devised plan of slaughter. The first prisoners taken in the war were the men who had been captured at Kraaipan by General De la Rey, after the fight over the armored train. They were kindly treated by their captors, on their own admission, and sent on to General Cronje's head laager at Polfontein. Cronje telegraphed to Pretoria for instructions as to what action he was to take with these prisoners, intimating in the same message that he favored their being put over the border upon swearing they would not take up arms again against the Republics. The Executive at Pretoria instructed the general to forward his prisoners to the capital. Cronje's generous impulse and soldierly desire did him great credit. The day was to come when very little of the same consideration would be shown towards himself by his foes. The future prisoner of St. Helena had not yet learned that nothing even akin to soldierly chivalry was to be expected on the side of the forces fighting for England. In ordering the general to send his prisoners to Pretoria, the Executive were not unmindful of the obligations on which civilized warfare insists in the treatment of captured foes. By the special order of President Kruger, Field Cornet Meintjes was despatched to Lichtenburg with a mule-wagon load of refreshments for the use of the prisoners during the journey to the Boer capital.