Engagement at Reitfontein—Joubert's and White's armies—Account of the battle and defeat of the British-Joubert's refusal "to pursue a fleeing Christian foe"—Colonel Blake's brigade— Nicholson's Nek—General De Wet's first brilliant exploit—British and Boer casualties—The alleged treachery of British guides—Character sketches of General Louis Botha and Christian De Wet.
On the Tuesday (October 24) following the battle at Elandslaagte, an engagement, mainly confined to a fight with guns, took place between General White's forces and some Free Staters, about five miles southwest of the scene of Saturday's encounter. The English general had the service of three batteries of artillery, and of some 3,000 mounted troops and infantry. The Free Staters consisted of half the commandoes which General Prinsloo had led across the Drakensberg by Van Reenan's Pass after the declaration of war; 1,500 men, with two Krupp guns and a Maxim-Nordenfelt.
A railway connecting Natal with the Orange Free State runs from Ladysmith northwest to the alpine range of mountains dividing the two countries, and enters the Free State through the famous pass. This vulnerable point in the northeastern frontier of the Free State was guarded since the 1st of October by the burghers belonging to the districts of the Republic from Winburg to Heilbron, and from Harrismith to Kroonstad.
On the 19th of October the greater portion of this force swept down Van Reenan's Pass and took possession, after a slight encounter between outposts, of Besters railway station; a point on the railway line from Ladysmith to the Free State about as far from the town now famous in the annals of the war as Elandslaagte is from the same town, on the line north to Dundee and Laing's Nek.
The two lines travel northwest and northeast respectively from Ladysmith, branching out somewhat in the form of the letter V for a distance of about a dozen miles, where Elandslaagte is reached on the right hand branch of the letter, and Besters Station on the left hand branch. The distance across from west to east, or point to point, would be some twelve or fifteen miles, and within this V-shaped district Nicholson's Nek may be said to occupy the center, with Reitfontein and Pepworth to the right, near the line going from Ladysmith to Elandslaagte, and Modderspruit a little to the right still of that line, and running parallel with it.
A patrol of fifty burghers under Field Cornet Pretorius preceded the main force of Prinsloo's commandoes on the 19th, and engaged a body of eighty men of the Natal Carbineers west of Besters. The Colonials were under the command of Lieutenant Galway and fought well, but, they were shot back by the Free Staters, who took possession of the station. The British officer and a dozen of his men were wounded in the skirmish, and were taken prisoners by Pretorius.
Prinsloo remained at Besters with the main portion of his force from the 19th to the 24th. He was within fifteen miles of the scene of the desperate fight of Saturday, the 21st, between General Kock's Johannesburgers and French's army, but rendered no help of any kind. This failure to cooperate in an operation outside of the immediate plans of a commando, even though the fight may be near at hand, as in this instance, is more or less incidental to the Boer military system. It is due to the tendency, in the military organization of the Republics, to predominance of local over national or central authority, and has been one of the chief sources of weakness in the Federal armies. It is true, Kock brought on the fight of Saturday through his imprudence, and that no intimation of his plans was given to Prinsloo. But this officer could not be ignorant of what was taking place, a dozen miles away, during the whole of the 21st, two hours' ride eastward of his position, and yet neither a man nor a gun was moved by him in the direction of the fighting. This, however, was by no means the most serious instance of Prinsloo's masterly inactivity in the war.
On Sunday, the 22nd, Commandant Andries Cronje, of Winburg with some 1,500 men moved across in the direction of Elandslaagte to the north of Nicholson's Kop, and took up a position on, some hills at Hobbs' Land Farm extending eastwards towards Reitfontein. Prinsloo remained behind at Besters. The officers who accompanied Cronje were Commandants Christian De Wet, Nel, and Theunissen, of the Heilbron and Kroonstad commandoes. The objective of the Free Staters was to intercept the Dundee garrison, which began its retreat under General Yule on Saturday night, and toiled through the Biggarsberg passes on Sunday and Monday, on its way to the shelter of the British base at Ladysmith. General White moved out from Ladysmith with the guns and men at his disposal on Tuesday morning to meet Yule's retreating columns. On reaching a point west of the railway line near Reitfontein the British cavalry were fired upon and driven back by Andries Cronje's Winburgers, who held a position about a mile eastward of Nicholson's Kop. North of this position, on a higher hill, Commandant Nel, with two Krupp seven-pounders, was posted, while Commandant De Wet, with the Kroonstad and other burghers, held a hill on the left of the Free State lines nearer to Reitfontein. The main English column soon came up with its guns, and an artillery duel between the enemy's batteries and Nel's Krupps continued for several hours. The Boer guns were driven from their first to a second and more secure position by the fire of White's batteries, but beyond this temporary cheek no injury was done. Two attempts were subsequently made by White to turn the Boer positions, and both ended disastrously. The Gloucester Regiment endeavored to work round to the left hill occupied by De Wet's contingent, and were met by such a fusillade that over fifty of the British fell before the Boer fire. The remainder bolted down the hill. A body of Natal Volunteers tried a similar movement against the Winburgers near Nicholson's Nek. They drove Cronje's burghers back, but only to take up a new position where a gun had meantime been placed in readiness for the anticipated tactics of the enemy, and on this piece opening fire upon the advancing Britishers, a retreat was ordered, and White and his force fell back shortly afterwards on Ladysmith.
White had succeeded, however, in forcing an engagement west of the road from Dundee, thus clearing the way for Yule's beaten forces, who streamed past to the right while the fight was in progress, and his object was attained. Some of the men of the Dundee garrison joined in the firing on reaching the protection of White's lines, while others, who were moving nearer to the Boer positions, hoisted white flags while passing within rifle reach of the Free Staters.
Darkness came on soon after the English had retired, and those who had fallen in the fray were searched for by the aid of lanterns. An exceptionally large number of horses had been killed by shrapnel; and their torn bodies, with those of the men killed and wounded on both sides, were found mixed on the field of death; forming a true and ghastly picture in the flickering shadows of the night, of the barbarism and horrors of modern warfare.
The British losses were reported at 120 killed and wounded, while the casualties among the Free Staters numbered sixteen only; six killed and ten wounded. 10
The intervention of General White between the Free Staters and Yule's demoralized men on their flight from Dundee, saved Penn Symons' ill-fated troops again from disaster. They had escaped from Erasmus on Saturday and Sunday, through the dilatoriness of himself and Joubert; and again on Tuesday, when utterly worn out after their flight across the Biggarsberg, they were rescued from the perils which lay in their path near Reitfontein. The "victors" of Talana Hill must have carried a powerful mascot with them in their subsequent adventures.
The successful retreat of General Yule from Dundee added fully 5,000 troops to General White's army and raised that officer's force in Ladysmith to near 12,000 men. With these forces there were the batteries of artillery which had served at Talana and at Elandslaagte, and also the guns that had been retained in Ladysmith for the protection of the chief base of the British in Natal. There would thus be, altogether, seven batteries of artillery, with some mountain guns and Maxims, available for whatever plan of operations the arrival of Joubert and his commandoes to the north and west of White's position might necessitate.
On the 26th of October General Lukas Meyer and his column marched south from their laager behind Talana Hill, and proceeded over the Helpmakaar road, by which Yule and his forces had retreated four days previously. Erasmus and his Pretoria commandoes followed from Dundee. No explanation of this delay in pursuing the beaten British force has been given except one— the Commandant-General's reluctance to press too hard upon a fleeing Christian foe!
During the march of Meyer's commandoes in the wake of Yule's army several dead Britishers were found on the wayside; men who had been overcome by the fatigues and trials of the frightful journey through the Biggarsberg passes. As many as fifteen bodies were buried by the pursuing burghers. The fiery Ben Viljoen also discovered the bodies of some of his dead foes as he was on his way to take part in the fighting at Modderspruit. Crossing the very scene of the battle of Elandslaagte, where his Johannesburgers had been badly cut up in the engagement of the 21st, he found ten Gordon Highlanders unburied. He at once halted his men, had graves dug for the unlucky Tommies, and ordered a salute to be fired as a final token of soldierly respect for his dead foemen.
The Commandant-General moved from Glencoe by Washbank on the 27th, and found himself on the 29th south of Elandslaagte, joining hands with Lukas Meyer's men, and with the Free Staters who had been attacked by White and the Ladysmith army on Tuesday at Reitfontein. Counting the various burgher forces which were thus within reach of Joubert's immediate command on the 29th, the men available for the expected fight on the morrow would be about 8,000 Boers, as against 12,000 English. The British had four times the artillery equipment of the Boers, though the Creusots and pom-poms of the latter had already proved their great superiority over the English guns.
On Sunday, the 29th, several balloons were busy over Ladysmith trying to discover the Boer locations to the west, north, and east; and this, together with information conveyed to Joubert from friendly sources within the enemy's lines, gave warning to be prepared for an attack the following morning.
The Boer positions, tho hastily chosen, were well selected, and showed Joubert's military judgment in defensive operations at its best. His center was strongly posted on and near a flat-topped hill, northeast of Ladysmith, between the Modderspruit and the railway line from Ladysmith to Elandslaagte, near Reitfontein, and distant six or seven miles from the English lines.
The Ermelo, Pretoria, and others burghers, under Commandant Erasmus, with the Irish Brigade under Blake, about 2,000 in all, were the center forces; with Colonel Trichardt and Major Wolmarans in charge of the artillery, which consisted of one large Creusot (Long Tom), two fifteen-pound Creusots, and three pom-poms.
The laager and ammunition wagons were to the right of the long kopje, on the road to Reitfontein.
The left wing, about 4,000 strong, extended eastwards from the center, bending a little south at the extremity, where Lukas Meyer, with the men who fought at Talana, Commandant Weilbach and his Heidelbergers, and General Schalk Burger, with supporting commandoes, held the kopjes near Farquhar's Farm, directly north of Lombard's Kop, the nearest point of the enemy's lines. Captain Pretorius had charge of Meyer's guns, which he served so admirably at Talana, and Schalk Burger had two Krupp howitzers and a pom-pom, which were under the control of Lieutenant Du Toit, making, in all, about one battery of artillery.
Joubert's right bent westward from the long kopje as far as Nicholson's Nek, and was composed mainly of the Free Staters who had held these same hills on Tuesday against White's attack. Some of the Pretoria commando, and Van Dam with his splendid corps of Johannesburg Police, were a little southeast of Nicholson's Nek to watch for any turning movement in that direction by the enemy.
Joubert's positions were selected with the object of inviting the main British attack upon his center near Pepworth, which he had purposely rendered comparatively weak for the special observation of General White's Ladysmith balloons; his object being to expose the expected assaulting column to a flanking fire and attack by his left division under Meyer, Weilbach, and Burger, which was rendered exceptionally strong in men and guns for that object, and was partly concealed from the enemy's balloons.
General White's plan of attack turned out to be almost exactly what his astute adversary had anticipated.
He sent forward a strong force of Gloucesters, Royal Irish Fusiliers, and other troops with a mountain battery on mules, on Sunday night, with orders to envelop or turn the Boer right—which extended to a position near Nicholson's Kop—by the occupation of this hill, and a surprise action at daylight on Monday morning. In any case this column was expected to cut in between the Free Staters and the Transvaal burghers, and thus to divert attention from the scene of the contemplated main British attack on Joubert's center. This force was under the command of Colonel Carleton. It marched north from Ladysmith under cover of the night, and followed the railway leading to Besters, until reaching a spruit southwest of the Boer right wing, where a turn north was made along a valley, so as to reach the western side of Nicholson's Kop unobserved. Carleton gained his objective, as instructed, but not unobserved, as the sequel was to show.
General White was equally busy with his main forces on that Sunday night. He pushed them forward under the shelter of darkness to the positions from which he intended to strike Joubert's center on the following morning. A strong body of cavalry and mounted infantry under General French was sent eastward, round Lombard's Kop, to protect the advance of the English right column which was to move northward from Ladysmith, parallel with the railway line and under the protection of intervening hills, With Lombard's Kop and Bulwana Hill to his right, Ladysmith in his rear, and all the elevated positions to the immediate north and west of the town within the ambit of his operations, White was well prepared and equipped with his 12,000 men and forty guns to decide the issue of the day with Joubert and his 8,000 burghers.
The Commandant-General was not caught napping when the dawn on that Monday morning partly revealed the rival positions of the two armies to each other. On the descent of the last balloon from Ladysmith on Sunday night, which told the English general where his adversary's men and guns were located, Joubert moved his center backward from the south of Long Hill to higher ground, leaving a skeleton force behind so as to conceal from the enemy the change of position. A similar disposition was made where Meyer, Burger, and Weilbach were posted, with the result that the attacking British columns would find themselves, in carrying out White's plans, moving within a crescent-shaped field of operations, with both ends of the Boer lines bending towards Ladysmith, and White's entire force in the center.
The battle, which the English have named both Lombard's Kop and Farquhar's Farm, and the Boers, Modderspruit, began soon after four o'clock on Monday morning in a fierce artillery duel. The enemy had sent forward two strong columns, with most of his guns, to a point near the railway at Limit Hill, from whence the main attack on Long Hill was to be made, after the British batteries had prepared the way. Joubert's guns on Long Hill were only seven, but "Long Tom" and his two fifteen-pound Creusot consorts maintained the unequal combat for three or four hours; the big gun sending his shells occasionally a distance of 9,000 yards into the town of Ladysmith.
While this artillery fight was proceeding, Generals Lukas Meyer and Schalk Burger had engaged, both French's mounted column and White's right wing so hotly that the plan of assaulting Joubert's center had to be abandoned in order to rescue the forces which Joubert's left had furiously assailed both by Mauser and artillery fire south of Farquhar's Farm. White's right wing thus attacked had previously succeeded in gaining a spur of a hill which the Heidelberg burghers under Weilbach had held as an advanced position of Lukas Meyer's commandoes. The ground thus taken from the Heidelbergers was not long in possession of the enemy. An incident had happened which may be said to have decided the fortunes of the day for the Federal forces.
General Meyer had been unwell since the battle of Talana Hill, and became indisposed during the progress of the fight at Modderspruit. Louis Botha, who had been attached to the "Vryheid commando as member of the Volksraad for that district, was at hand. He held no distinct command, but had been an adviser to his friend and colleague, Lukas Meyer, from the outbreak of the war. The command of Meyer's force at a most critical moment in the battle of the 30th was virtually placed in his hands, and he directed the operations which largely helped to achieve the victory that was to be won for the Vierkleur before the sun went down.
He urged a concentration of artillery and Mauser fire upon the position gained by a part of White's force from the Heidelbergers. Under cover of this fierce attack, a body of Meyer's men advanced on the English from their concealment, and drove them from the spur of the hill back upon some of the reenforcements which White was sending at that very time to the assistance of his right. During this confusion among the enemy Pretorius played his pompoms with deadly effect upon the troops which had been forced out into the open, and the enemy's chief loss in dead and wounded in the battle occurred at this turning point.
This unexpected counter attack on his right compelled White to abandon the contemplated blow at Joubert's center, which General Hamilton, with the bulk of the British troops and thirty guns, was to deliver. Generals French and Grimwood had got their men into such serious trouble north of Lombard's Kop, where they had run up against Meyer's and Burger's changed positions, that a large force from the enemy's left column had to be sent across to extricate White's right from its perilous situation. This change in the English general's plan of battle was giving the Boer artillery splendid practice on the flanks of his right and left, and rapidly determining the fortunes of the combat, when two events occurred in this battle of surprises which changed and re-changed the checkered chances of the fray.
At the time when White was forced to send a large part of his center column to the help of his right, and when the Boer guns were pouring a most deadly fire into the English lines, a body of marines in charge of two huge naval guns arrived on the scene, after a continuous journey from Durban, and joined at once in the fight. These guns were most ably handled, and after a few trial shots at the Boer artillery, a shell fired at " Long Tom " at Pepworth killed and wounded half a dozen burghers. This startling intervention of the navals in the battle arrested the tide of Joubert's artillery success, and enabled White to pull his right wing out of Botha's reach, and to prepare his center again for the desired but delayed attack upon Joubert's position at Pepworth.
At this juncture "Long Tom" became suddenly silent, and it was believed in the English lines that the naval guns had succeeded in putting him out of action. What really happened was this:
Ammunition for the Boer guns at the center had given out. Supplies were to the left of the hill on which the now silent Creusot stood, away in a location which was being remorselessly shelled by the British naval guns. No effort was being made by the men in charge of the artillery, or by the burghers on the hill, to go for a fresh supply. Every moment was of vital value, and a suggestion was actually made to remove the big gun to the laager in the rear so as to save it from possible capture.
Colonel Blake's Irish Brigade were on this hill, as an extra guard for "Long Tom," awaiting impatiently a possible infantry advance by the British. Seeing the situation in the matter of the ammunition, Blake instantly ordered his men to go and procure what was required. The order was carried out with pluck and promptness. They raced across the zone of fire, and the needed ammunition was soon brought for the huge gun. The renewed activity of the big Creusot had such a discouraging effect upon the English batteries and the mass of infantry who were preparing again to advance towards the Boer center that both retired precipitately on Ladysmith, and the fight was over.
The British retreated, having doubtless learned by this time of the surrender of the Irish Fusiliers and Gloucestershire regiments at Nicholson's Nek, two hours previously.
In the work of bringing up the supply of ammunition to Trichardt and Wolmarans, two members of the Irish Brigade were killed and five wounded. Colonel Blake was also wounded in the left wrist by a shell splinter. It was the action of the Irish, however, which enabled the Boer guns to help materially in beating back the advancing British, and to force White to retreat to his base, and this service is a proud memory with the men of the Brigade. The day following the battle General Joubert thanked Blake and his men for their gallant action, and spoke warmly of the courage and devotion they had shown at a critical moment in the varying fortunes of the day.
In the meantime the attempt to turn the Boer right was far more disastrous in its results to White's army than his futile efforts to envelop the left or force the center of Joubert's position. Carleton, with his Fusiliers and Gloucesters, and a mountain battery with a mule-train of ammunition, had marched, as already related, under cover of night to occupy Nicholson's Kop, which the enemy's balloon had revealed as an advantageous position to gain on the flank of the Boer right wing some seven miles northwest of Ladysmith. The men and mules were nearing their objective in the silence of midnight when, in passing a steep kopje to their right, within about a mile of Nicholson's Kop, they were observed by a brandwacht.
The Boer sentinels fired down upon the advanced portion of arleton's column in the darkness before taking to their horses, and it was this action which caused the train of mules to enliven the midnight proceedings of the stealthily-marching Britishers with the confusion which followed. The advance on the hill was arrested for a time, but the officer in command continued his march and negotiated the mountain without any further resistance.
Carleton's force spread itself on the mountain in three or four detached groups; the Fusiliers taking up position nearest the Nek, and the Gloucesters and others seizing the crest line of the hill above, which dominated the environment, and from whence, in the daylight, the whole country south to Ladysmith and east to Pepworth was clearly visible.
The mountain measures some 1,500 yards from east to west, and has an average width of 500 feet; narrowing as it approaches the Nek at the eastern end; while its elevation is about 1,000 feet above the level of the veldt.
To the southeast of Nicholson's Kop a somewhat circular hill of lesser elevation rises, while to the north, behind the right-hand view in the picture of the Kop, the crest of a similar hill can be seen. As a result of Colonel Carleton's midnight adventure, these two hills were occupied during the same night by the Free Staters, and when the morning awoke from its slumbers the English column had small Boer forces on the hills to the right and left anxiously peering across the intervening valleys to discover the strength and positions of the nocturnal invaders.
It was fully believed that the force which had thus pushed itself into the region of the Boer right was to be supported by other troops between the hill and Ladysmith, as this was the only intelligible supposition that could explain the sending forward of a wing of the enemy's troops out of reach of support from his main strength and position. The Boer officers, therefore, prepared for a development of a plan of attack based on this supposition, and anxiously awaited the friendly help of the dawn to enable them to discover the full strength and purpose of the foe.
The task of dealing with the forces from whom the mules had " deserted " fell upon Christian De Wet; that is, his position on the kopje to the east of Nicholson's Nek enabled him to take such measures as the enemy's situation on the mountain demanded. It was a situation and an opportunity which required a man of De Wet's extraordinary capacity and resource to deal with in startling effectiveness, and, tho the credit for this, the greatest single capture of the war on the Boer side, was not claimed by nor given to him at the time, there can be no doubt that his was the mind that planned, and carried out the capture of the English column. It was the earliest of a long list of similar achievements on the part of a man who has taken more British prisoners on the battle-field than any general who has ever fought an English enemy since the surrender of the British at Yorktown, Virginia.
When daylight revealed the positions and the forces of the British on the mountain, De Wet resolved upon a coup similar to that of Commandant Smit when General Colley's troops were found lining the top of Majuba Hill. Both movements showed the superb courage of the Boer in facing great odds and a formidable position, having nothing but his rifle with which to meet troops armed with both rifles and bayonets. Charging up a hill, however, as Boers charge, is not a mere exhibition of reckless daring. It is something better. It is a cool, deliberate advance, not in a rushing body, but individually; each man taking cover as he moves, now rapidly, then slowly, as the nature of the ground permits; always halting when a head appears above, and seldom missing his object in the aim which tells of the deadly intent of the mounting foeman. Given average courage and a steady aim, the advantage is more on the side of the man who is seen climbing a hillside, rifle in hand, than on that of the man who witnesses this fearless action on the part of his enemy. The moral prestige of the act has its effect upon the man who has to defend his position against the approaching attack of the intrepid climber, and when moral courage stands behind the physical in a fight on the battle-field, the possessor of both is generally found the victor in the combat. It is also well known that troops firing down from an elevation—in rifle firing— show far less accuracy in shooting than in the reverse position of riflemen who fire upward. All this is known to the Boer, who is likewise aware that when his foe on the hill fails to hit him as he climbs, and sees comrades falling by bullets coming from below, he is not likely to make much of a stand when the climber finally reaches the level of his enemy's position. Another fact in connection with the capture of Nicholson's Kop also tends to explain De Wet's easy victory over his numerically superior foemen. The smokeless powder of the Mauser rifles did not reveal the points from whence the hissing missiles winged their deadly flight. The English heard their enemy's fire, but did not generally know from what quarter they were being shot at by marksmen not always visible to the eye.
The hill to the south of Nicholson's Kop, from whence the Boer outposts stampeded the mules, was held in the early morning by Andries Cronje, of Winburg, with his men, some 300 strong. Commandant Nel, with the Heilbron burghers, worked round to the left of the mountain to cooperate with the Kroonstadmen under De Wet, who were to cross the intervening valley between Nicholson's Kop and the round hill seen to the right of the long hill in the picture. Van Dam and his Johannesburg Police had gone south, nearer to Ladysmith, during the night, to discover whether Carleton's column was part of a greater advancing force, or only an independent wing of White's army. De Wet, Cronje, and Nel had from 700 to 900 men only in the fight with rifles which commenced between them and Carleton's two regiments, and the Boer plan was to shoot the enemy off Nicholson's Kop down to where Van Dam and Cronje of Winburg wyould be ready to receive them.
De Wet's plan, like all his subsequent successful modes of outwitting English officers and capturing English soldiers, was as simple as it was audacious. Cronje and Nel were to spread their men on all points east and south that could command the position on the Kop on which the Fusiliers and Gloucesters were posted, so as to engage all the attention of the enemy and make him think that end of the mountain was alone the object of Boer attack. Under cover of this maneuver, De Wet, with 250 Kroonstad men, was to steal round to the north of the Kop, scale the opposite side to that held by the enemy, and drive him by rifle fire down in the hollow, where Cronje and Van Dam were to catch him between two fires should he attempt to regain the unlucky track which brought him to Nicholson's Kop.
When the morning's light showed Carleton's true location on the mountain, De Wet led his men down from his position and across the valley as secretly and silently as the enemy had marched in the dark, and the Kroonstad burghers began the climb of the Kop on its northwestern side. Not a sentinel or scout was found on that end of the hill! While these movements were in progress, Andries Cronje and his Winburgers engaged in a long-range rifle contest with the Fusiliers who were on the declivity of the Kop near the Nek. The English were attacked from three sides, but very little injury was done during the greater part of the morning. De Wet's men were in the meantime slowly climbing the hill from behind. All this time the thunder of the English and Boer guns was heard to the east, where the main battle was raging; the English artillery belching forth his shrapnel from near Lombard's Kop, and " Long Tom " and his companion Creusots more than holding their own from the hills near Pepworth. The tide of battle was being watched with fluctuating hopes from both English and Boer positions on the hills around Nicholson's Kop, while De Wet was steadily carrying his men up the steep side of the mountain to where the Gloucesters held the ground. Finally the burghers reached the top of the hill, and the Glouecsters soon began to feel the effect of their fire. The English were behind stone sangars, hastily put up, while the Boers took such shelter as the crest line of the mountain offered on the opposite side to that occupied by their enemies. It was now a question of shooting and cover, and the British soon found their sangars unable to protect them from the accurate fire of their assailants. Shortly after the appearance of the burghers opposite the position of the Gloueesters, the Heilbron men topped the Kop to the left of the enemy, and the British were now exposed to a converging fire before which they soon retreated down upon the positions held by the Fusiliers at the Nek.
What has taken only a few minutes to describe was the result of nearly four hours' deliberate, careful advance by De Wet, and of long-range firing on both sides lower down the platberg, there being no artillery engaged in the encounter. The British, however, had suffered from the better shooting of the Boers, and already the wounded and dying on the hilltop were calling for water which was not to be had. The sun was pouring down its scorching rays upon the mountain, adding the suffering of thirst to the punishment which the Boer fire was steadily and continuously inflicting upon the doomed column. The Boer officers were still uncertain as to the outcome of the main battle going on six miles to the southeast, and De Wet's purpose was to force Carleton to fight for his position until Van Dam should return with his Johannesburgers, or until other forces might come from the nearest section of Joubert's right. It was about one o'clock, and the Boer fire was growing more deadly in its effect, when the British uplifted the white flag and brought the fight of the morning to a close. Colonel Carleton, 37 officers, and over 900 men laid down their arms, and the surrender was actually made to a force less than the number of troops who had given up the fight! In fact, it was not until Van Dam appeared on the scene from the south, with 800 Johannesburg Police, that the work of disarmament was actively begun by the victors.
It has been said in every English report of this encounter that the English fought until their ammunition gave out, and that the white flag was hoisted without the consent of the senior officers in command. The facts as related by the Boer officers do not bear out this contention. The cartridge pouches of the Tommies were found not alone not to be empty after the " Cease Fire" had sounded, but to contain what could have served for further fighting if the British had not had enough of it. Whether the white flag was or was not raised by the order of senior authority, it is an undoubted fact that no officer countermanded the order, or took steps to recall the " Cease Fire " signal by one to call the men again to action. The surrender was made on the merits of the fight of the morning; the English believing from the steadier and more widely extended fire of the Boers that the force arrayed against them was much stronger than it actually turned out to be. In reality, De Wet and his 250 men by his admirable tactics and their splendid shooting had decided the fate of the two crack regiments of the British army on the top of Nicholson's Kop.
Nor did the number of killed and wounded of Carleton's men offer any imperative reason for the raising of the white flag. Ten per cent, of casualties are supposed to give a reasonable ground for a surrender or a retreat, when the chances of victory are not otherwise promising. In this instance the British killed and wounded were a trifle over this percentage, but the fact of their being within sight of their base, only six or seven miles from Ladysmith, ought to have called for a longer and more determined stand. The casualty list of the whole battle of Modderspruit is mixed in the English reports, and the relative losses by White and Carleton are not given separately.
The Boer losses in the capture of the mountain and of the British column fell almost entirely upon Christian De Wet's Kroonstaders, and these were given in the reports of the battle as 6 killed; 3 seriously, and 20 slightly wounded; in all, 29 — a small penalty to pay for the capture of two whole British regiments, and near forty British officers, plus some guns of a mountain battery.
After the battle, Boers carried water up from the valley to the English wounded on the mountain, and showed every humane attention to their suffering enemies. There was no show of triumph over beaten foes, nor a single offensive word addressed to the comrades and companions in arms of the " pig-sticking " Lancers of Elandslaagte. The signal victory had been won by men who had proved, by their valor in combat, and by their generosity to their vanquished foes, their preeminent claim to the liberty for which they fought.
General White in his official report of the whole battle sums up his known total losses in the day's engagement as follows: "Including under the head of ' missing' those taken prisoners, our losses this day amounted to 63 non-commissioned officers and men killed; 10 officers and 239 non-commissioned officers and men wounded, and 37 officers and 917 non-commissioned officers and men missing." A total of 1,266 British casualties, with a battery of mountain guns.
These figures are instructive. The number of killed and wounded was less than one-third of the number who surrendered, and no more than one in forty of the total men engaged in the battle! When it is also taken into account that the English had fully four guns for every Boer gun, and three men for every two burghers, it will be seen how poorly the crack regiments of the British army upheld the vaunted valor of their records on the field of Modderspruit.
The Boer casualties were as follows: The artillery, 3 killed and 8 wounded; Lukas Meyer's commando, 4 dead and 6 wounded; Irish Brigade, 2 dead and 5 wounded; Johannesburg Police, 1 dead and 13 wounded; the Free Staters, 6 killed and 23 wounded; making the total Federal loss 16 men killed, and 55 wounded.
General Joubert's victory was signal and complete. He repelled the attack upon him at all points, and compelled his antagonist, despite his superior force in men and guns, to retreat disorganized on Ladysmith, leaving over 1,000 prisoners in the hands of the victors. There was, however, here, as at Dundee, the same woful neglect of opportunity in allowing the enemy to retreat without a prompt and effective pursuit. Colonel Blake told me that both he and other officers had urgently pressed the Commandant-General to follow up the beaten British forces while suffering under the effects of the day's severe punishment, and to deal them a crushing blow before they could recover their shattered morale. Joubert would not listen to such appeals. He engaged in a prayer meeting after learning of White's retreat and of the surrender of Carleton's column, and remonstrated with those who pressed upon him what was the obvious and imperative military obligation of the day's successful operations; his reply being, " It would be barbarous to pursue and slaughter a beaten Christian foe!"
It was widely reported in the British press that the disaster to the English at Nicholson's Nek was due to the treachery of Colonel Carleton's guides. The Natal Government at once denied the statement, in the following terms:
"Durban, November 2nd.—The Colonial Secretary (of Natal) telegraphed last night: The following authentic information has been received by the Governor, and is published for general information:
" The allegation in a local paper that Colonel Carleton's column Was led into a trap by treacherous guides is absolutely without foundation. The column was personally led by a staff officer, thoroughly acquainted with the locality. The two guides with them were Colonial gentlemen of well-known loyalty and repute."
This full and prompt denial of the war correspondents' dishonest efforts to explain away the significance of De Wet's first noted exploit was due to the fact that the guides in question were compromised in the fictitious story, and compelled the Natal Government to vindicate their honor. But, strange to say, no Jingo journal in England published this official and emphatic contradiction of the fabricated story of treachery.
A Boer doctor at Modderspruit attending a severely-wounded British soldier, who appeared to be exceptionally intelligent for a Tommy, asked him for whom he thought he was fighting, country or capitalists? The reply was significant: " Well," replied the soldier, " I won't swear it is not for the Mahdi! I cannot, after what I have seen of the Boers on the field, and since I have been wounded in this battle, believe I am fighting for the Queen of England."
One of the several startling incidents of the battle of Modderspruit was the fact that the two Boer officers who were mainly instrumental in winning it have not yet been credited with that distinction, nor have they claimed any such credit for themselves. Nor is it a less interesting fact that the two men who thus modestly began their triumphs in the second great battle of the war should have shown themselves afterward to be two of the most capable generals in the Federal armies.
GENERAL LOUIS BOTHA
Louis Botha comes of a fighting stock. His paternal grandfather was a captain in the French Navy, though of German origin, he emigrated to South Africa and settled down to a farming life, married a Dutch lady, and became one with the Boers in their aspirations for a national existence in the land of their adoption, and in their distrust of English rule and rulers.
Louis Botha was born at Vrede, in the Orange Free State. His father had fought in all the native wars waged by and against the Dutch settlers, and bequeathed a patriotic record to his five sons, who have all held commands in the present war. Louis is the second son, and is thirty-six years old. The head of the family was the late General Philip Botha, one of the most gallant and courteous men it has ever been my good fortune to meet and the honor to know. In physical appearance Louis Botha is a faultless specimen of robust manhood, standing near six feet high, and built accordingly. The handsome face is of the German mold, with bluish eyes, strong nose, and intellectual expression. He wears a slight brownish mustache and beard. The figure is erect, striking, and noble, the pose of the head indicating great power and capacity. The dominant feature of the face is that of combined manliness and kindness, with a suggestive reserve of immense strength; he is the kind of man who would prefer the ordinary pursuits of peaceful life to the tumult and passions of warfare, but who would shirk from no danger nor sacrifices to uphold a cause which would command his assenting loyalty.
In Great Britain or Ireland Louis Botha would be classed as a gentleman farmer. His home since manhood has been near the border of Zululand, in the Vryheid district, which place he represented in the Volksraad. His farm is a very large one, and was worked by a number of Zulus, whose devotion to this Boer hero of this war was shown in a marked manner. He had been in Pretoria for a whole year attending to his Parliamentary duties, and unable to visit his farm owing to the crisis which Mr. Chamberlain's war-making diplomacy had created. When war was declared he had to leave everything he possessed in the hands of these natives, and he told me that his farm had never been better worked, or his stock more carefully attended to, than during the period of his (then) twelve months' absence from his home.
General Botha has had very little military experience, and no military study. He is one of nature's ready-made generals, cut and fashioned on lines of natural genius. He fought under General Lukas Meyer when the latter went to the assistance of Dinizulu, as already related. He also joined his friend in the founding of the " New Republic " in 1884.
In the same year, Meyer's little Utopia attracted among others a family named Emmet, from Smallendeal, in Cape Colony. Mr. John Emmet, with his four sons and two daughters, settled in the Vryheid district, and became neighbors of Louis Botha. Miss Emmet, a handsome and accomplished young lady, soon attracted the ardent attention of young Botha, and some sixteen years ago they became man and wife. There are four children of this happy union, two boys and two girls. Mrs. Botha is of Irish extraction on the father's side, and is proud of claiming a blood relationship with Robert Emmet. I found General Botha thoroughly conversant with the salient facts of Irish history; a result, of course, of his marriage with a lady whose name recalls that of one of the "revolutionary saints" of Irish political martyrology. Addressing the kreigsraad of his officers on the eve of the battle of Colenso, Botha quoted from the speech of Robert Emmet a sentiment appropriate to the struggle of the Boer nation against the enemy who had exacted the sacrifice of Emmet's young life in the cause of Irish freedom.
General Botha is a man of conspicuous natural culture, and fairly conversant with the trend of modern progress throughout the world. He speaks English correctly, with a slight Boer accent, and has a soft and agreeable voice. His is a personality which impresses you at once with its magnetic influence over men; a figure of striking potency and of great strength of purpose, combined with all the natural traits which offer you a testimony of the highest honor and personal integrity on behalf of the man before you. It was the possession of all these qualities, together with great simplicity of life and character, which so suddenly gave to Louis Botha the wonderful hold upon the Boer nation that enabled him to win many brilliant victories over English generals. With this war his name will be forever associated as that of one of the world's greatest patriot soldiers.
GENERAL DE WET
Christian De Wet is much more of a typical Boer than Louis Botha, in both looks and manner. He possesses none of the distinguished soldierly appearance of the Transvaal general, and speaks no tongue but his native Taal. He is some forty-nine years old, squarely built, standing about five feet nine in height, and wearing much less of a darkish beard and mustache than most of his alleged pictures gratuitously adorn him with. The face is not one that would arrest attention in virtue of any striking feature or expression; though the keen searching gray eyes and massive jaws speak of a character for dogged persistency and alertness of action which indicate their relationship to a strong personality.
Some of De Wet's Irish admirers trace a resemblance — on the evidence of one of his pictures — between him and the late Mr. Parnell, in general appearance; a comparison which may have given birth to the legend (believed in by some very romantic souls, I am told,) that the greatest guerrilla general of modern times is no other than the late leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party still in the flesh. There is a transient likeness to Mr. Parnell in De Wet, when the face is seen in profile, with the hat on, and covering the large head and broad forehead which were not conspicuous features in the physical structure of the Irish leader. The head and face are more powerful and massive than Mr. Parnell's, but possess none of the refinement or handsome lines which gave to the latter's looks, previous to his illness in 1887, their well-remembered impress of dignified attractiveness.
De Wet is of unmixed Dutch extraction, and was born in that southeastern district of the Free State in which he has gained so many of his signal successes over the British. He belongs to the Boer farming class, and possesses all their best qualities; not the least of which is a thorough detestation of the incurable hypocrisy of the English as rulers and as the boasted guardians of liberty. Probably no two men in the Boer nation placed less faith in the peace-seeking professions of the Chamberlain-Milner diplomacy than Paul Kruger and Christian De Wet, and none have been more justified by time and events in the consistency of their distrust.
De Wet is more familiar with the topography of the Free State and Transvaal than any other of the Federal generals. He fought in the war of 1880-81, and resided subsequently at Lydenburg, which district he represented for a time in the Volksraad at Pretoria. In recent years he removed back to his native Free State, and was following an ordinary farming life near Kroonstad when war broke out; he being at the time a member of the Free State Raad.
He is by disposition a silent man, and took no part in the controversies which led up to the war. In social intercourse, however, he is genial and good-humored, and has the reputation of being a capital story-teller of veldt life and of Rooinek peculiarities.
The allegation that De Wet could act in any way towards a captured foeman except in accord with the dictates of an honorable nature, is but a calumny worthy of the exemplars of that chivalry which could burn De Wet's house in retaliation for the defeats which he inflicted upon British troops, and thereby hunt his wife and children from their home. The whole character and disposition of the man are clearly seen in his frank expression and modest bearing when spoken to, and he leaves no doubt upon the mind of friend or foe as to the honesty and uprightness of his motives in any act or emergency in which he plays the part of a soldier and a citizen.
The secret of his marvelous successes in the war is one of these phenomena in the sudden development of genius which can be more easily marveled at than explained. Possibly the parade-ground stupidity of his foes, rather than any striking ability in himself, would be his own method of explaining how and why he was so often able to take advantage of the elephantine tactics and elaborate blundering of British generals and officers, whose incapacity has been ministering to the scoffing criticism of a military world for the past two years. A few neatly expressed judgments of his upon three English generals may offer an indication of his own conception of what military qualitie go to the making of a competent commander of forces in South Africa. Asked by one of his many English prisoners his opinion of Lord Roberts, his reply was: " I would rather hear yours as to what generalship he would be likely to show if he had to fight, say, 200,000 Boers with 35,000 British." On General French alone of all the British officers he passed a complimentary judgment: " He is the only 'Boer' general in the British army;" while the modest and retiring defender of Mafeking was summed up in the joking expression: " He would make a most successful war correspondent for a comic military journal!"
Nature endowed De Wet with a prodigal share of common sense, which has not been spoiled or diluted by any university education, or study of Lord Wolseley's military works. His intimate acquaintance with the topography of the country he has been defending, joined to the possession of a clear head and a dauntless heart, explain why, as a result of his innumerable exploits in foiling and fooling the generals of a universally-detested Power, he has been, in all probability, the most popular living personality of the civilized world during the last two years.De Wet is the father of twelve children, and his two eldest sons are fighting with him in the field. Mrs. De Wet is still young-looking and handsome. Her prompt and contemptuous expulsion of Piet De Wet from her door in Johannesburg when he attempted to enlist her influence in securing the surrender of his great brother, shows that the hero of Nicholson's Nek and of fifty other victories has a wife worthy of his own brave and unconquerable nature.