Louis Botha relieves General Meyer—Botha's popularity—He gains Joubert's consent for raid in British territory—Derails armored train at blaaukrantz—capture of Winston Churchill—" how I Escaped from the Boers"—David Joubert with one thousand men joins Botha—British fall back to Estcourt—Engagement at Mooi River (Willow Grange or Beacon Hill)—British kill more British than Boers—Botha's report—a "Times" correspondent on devastation by the Boers—General Piet Joubert's disgust at raiding character of the expedition—He leaves Botha to oppose Buller and retires to invest Ladysmith
I return again to the progress of events in Natal. General Lukas Meyer obtained leave of absence a week after the engagement at Modderspruit, owing to illness brought on by the fatigues of the campaign, and Louis Botha was selected as a temporary Commandant of the Southeastern Transvaal forces. This appointment gave general satisfaction to the burghers. They had been quick to discern the capable qualities of the man who had shown such skill in handling men at Modderspruit, and whom they believed to be, tho holding but a subordinate position, the military brains-carrier of that brief but glorious campaign. He had already won confidence all round by the clearness of his views and the intrepidity of his actions, and his promotion to the command in question became exceedingly popular, especially among the younger and more ardent Boers.
The choice thus made was not long in proving itself worthy of the popular recognition it obtained. Botha infused a more aggressive fighting spirit into the men under his control. He had no power to overrule the decision of Joubert, backed as this was by President Kruger, to sit down before Ladysmith, but he resolved to exercise what authority he possessed in the task of forcing the fighting elsewhere.
He at once prepared a flying column for a dash towards the advancing British at and below Colenso, with the double object of showing the Afrikanders as far as Maritzburg the resolute confidence of the Transvaal levies, and to inflict such punishment upon the enemy in his own country as the fortunes of the contemplated raid might enable him to do.
Joubert was got to consent to this proposed reconnaissance in force, and resolved to accompany it; more, it was believed, with the object of restraining the ardor of the column and its commander than from any belief in the wisdom of the too daring adventure.
The British had occupied and fortified the river banks at Colenso before the declaration of war. Two forts had been built, one commanding the railway, and the other the wagon bridge which spanned the stream, and these were held by some Natal troops and Fusiliers. An advanced patrol of Free Staters, under Commandant De Villiers, engaged a body of the Colenso garrison a few miles north of the village on the 7th of November, and drove them back upon their main body. Colonel Cooper, who was in command of the troops in the place, believing he was about to be attacked by a large force, retired from his position and fell back on General Hildyard's camp at Estcourt. The evacuation was carried out under cover of the night, the enemy retreating in a panic.
On the 14th of November the invading column marched south from Colenso. Joubert and Botha were now between two English armies; one near 12,000 strong, in Ladysmith, and the other, supposed to be 20,000 strong, moving towards them from Durban to Estcourt, and to be, within the brief space of ten days, under the immediate orders of the Commander-in-Chief, who was to eat his Christmas dinner in Pretoria—according to the boasts of the Jingo authors of the war. It was in every sense a daring and dashing exploit thus to leave a formidable army in the rear, held in check only by a few thousand farmers, and to push forward into the ' very heart of the enemy's country in face of an advancing army six times numerically stronger in men and guns than Botha's commando. But the Boer general knew his men and the country thoroughly, Greytown, where he had lived when young, was near Estcourt, and the Johannesburg Police, the Wakkerstroom, Ermelo, Krugersdorp, Vryheid, and Free State burghers were in their saddles, as cool and as brave a body of mounted men as ever rode against an advancing foe.
The commando encumbered itself with very little baggage. It was organized for purposes of the swiftest movements, and all impediments were discarded. Two pom-poms, a Creusot fifteen-pounder, and a seven-pound Krupp were the only guns it was safe to take away from the siege of Ladysmith. The column was equipped so that nothing could hamper its mobility during the ten days' foray in the center of Natal which had been decided upon.
On the day after the start south from Colenso an armored train was observed engaged in running from Estcourt to Chieveley and back, on reconnaissance purposes, and it was determined to lay a trap for the "mobile fort" and effect its capture. Botha arranged his plans for this purpose as follows: On the morning of the 15th a hundred of the "Wakkerstroom commando were posted on the side of a high cutting through which the railway line north to Colenso and Ladysmith passes, near Frere. Another force was concealed two miles lower down the line, with instructions to allow the train to pass them unmolested towards the ridges where the first body were posted, who had orders to attack it. These dispositions made, the train was in due course seen steaming northward. It consisted of three armored trucks, two ordinary carriages, and some wagons. The engine pushed the train along, so that in the event of danger it might the more easily run back to Estcourt.
The first body of ambushed Boers permitted it to pass and to proceed on to the ridge, where a Mauser fire was at once opened upon it. This brought it to a- standstill, and the men in charge turned a Maxim upon their assailants. The contest lasted a few minutes only, when the officer in charge of the train ordered the i I driver to steam back to Estcourt.
Meanwhile the Boers in the rear of the train had displaced a rail in the line, and on reaching this spot the front trucks jumped the track and brought the train to a stand. The occupants were now fired upon by the second force of Boers, and a lively engagement took place. Some of the troops in the train defended themselves with spirit, while others were employed in trying to replace the derailed trucks on the track. After firing had gone on for an hour, the locomotive and two of the carriages got free, and started for Estcourt, leaving the dismantled portion of the train behind, with 2 men killed, 10 wounded, and 56 prisoners.
Mr. Winston Churchill was found to be one of the occupants of the train. He claimed that he was a non-combatant, and ought not to be taken prisoner. He took no part whatever in defending the train.
The official report of the encounter with the train, and of the capture of Mr. Churchill, appeared in the following terms in the Boer press:
"Pretoria, Monday (Special).—Mr. Winston Churchill declares that at the time of his capture, near Esteourt, he was armed only with a reporter's note-book and pencil. He was busy recording impressions of armored-train warfare and its effects on modern formations, when the ironclad on wheels was derailed, and hurled him and 56 others into space. He was hopelessly involved with Jack Tars, regulars, and volunteers in the ' meI6e/ and was slightly wounded in the hand.
" The Government is considering representations made on his behalf, and it is believed that his enforced detention is only temporary."
Apropos of Mr. Winston Churchill's arrest and subsequent escape from Pretoria, and the various dramatic accounts which have been published of that exploit, the following correspondence may not be without some interest:
" From Churchill, to Editor ' Standard and Diggers' News.'
" Am now writing ' How I Escaped from the Boers' ; but regret cannot, for obvious reasons, disclose many interesting details. Shall be happy to give you any you may require when next I visit Pretoria, probably third week in March."
" The ' Standard and Diggers' News' has been honored by Mr. Winston Churchill's evident desire to become a contributor to its columns, where, in about the third week of March, he would relate his experiences under the title of ' How I Escaped from the Boers.' We are sorry indeed to have to disappoint so promising a youth; but unless Mr. Churchill can offer something much more interesting to the general public, we must decline the promised contribution. Mr. Churchill is a very young man who has his way to make in the world, and we would, from our maturer experience, venture to suggest that it would be advisable to bear in mind the old adages, ' A still tongue makes a wise head/ ' Least said, soonest mended.' And to demonstrate to our journalistic fledgling the true appreciation of his particular desire we would recommend that he alter the title of his lucubration to ' How I Was Allowed to Escape from the Boers/ a precis of which would read: A moonlight night, easy-going guards, Netherlands Bailway Station. A coal truck. Bessano Garcia Station. Begrimed and miserable object. Arrived at Lourenzo Marquez. Admittance to British Consulate. Departure by French steamer. Typewritten telegrams. And the key to the whole: Scene: Pretoria War Office: 9 a.m., Mr. Churchill reported missing; orders of arrest issued to police authorities. 11 a.m., Receipt of official letter by morning's mail from Commandant-General Joubert, ordering release of Mr. Churchill as non-combatant. Orders to police authorities not to execute warrant of arrest."
In a letter addressed to Mr. De Souza, Secretary to the War Office at Pretoria, and left on his bed in the Model Schools in which he had been detained, Mr. Churchill stated that, being a non-combatant press correspondent, he considered his detention unjustified and had decided to escape. He expressed his keen appreciation for the kind treatment shown to him and his fellow-prisoners by the authorities, and said further that, on reaching the British lines, he would give a true and impartial report of his experiences while here. He concluded by expressing his admiration for the humane and chivalrous conduct of the Republican forces.
After the adventure with the armored train at Blaaukrantz, the column proceeded by a circuitous route towards the west through the hills, and climbed a ridge of the Drakensberg which commanded the English lines in and around their fortified camp at Estcourt. Information was soon obtained from friendly sources as to the exact strength of the enemy, number of guns, and probable plans. There were 8,000 troops commanding the approaches by the Ladysmith road, and some 4,000 more in the vicinity of Estcourt at Mooi River, with, batteries which included several naval guns.
David Joubert, of Carolina, nephew of the Commandant-General, with 1,000 men, had swept eastward from Frere as far as Weenan, where he hoisted the Vierkleur, and then marched south to Mooi River, between Estcourt and Maritzburg. The main division, under Botha, moved westward to White Mountain, and passed Estcourt, joining hands with the smaller column, about ten miles due south of the British forces. The English army was now cut off from its base, and consternation was created in Durban; some of the citizens being reported as seeking safety on board some ships in the harbor. Botha took up positions at the Mooi River which were a challenge to the English general for a combat south of his headquarters, but the challenge was declined. The location of the Boer force was reconnoitered by some of Hildyard's troops, and they refused battle on seeing the burghers prepared to meet them. They fell back again on Estcourt.
The English were very strongly entrenched here behind prepared positions, on a circle of surrounding hills. Naval guns were placed on the kopjes commanding the approaches by the Ladysmith road, and the town was deemed to be impregnable to attack from the north. Yet, despite this circumstance, and the fact that General Hildyard must have been aware of the relative weakness of Joubert's column, he refused to fight until compelled to do so by the menacing action of the Boers in actually raiding the country south of the British general's camp.
On Tuesday, November 22, and early on the morning of the 23rd, an engagement, variously called that of Mooi River, Willow Grange, and Beacon Hill, was fought seven miles south of Estcourt, which has been claimed as a victory by both sides.
General Hildyard's report says:
" It was not my intention to remain in the position, a course which would have entailed a division of forces at Estcourt. The role of the supporting troops was, therefore, restricted to covering the withdrawal of the assaulting battalions. Most of the losses occurred during the retirement; they were chiefly in the 2nd Battalion West Yorkshire Begiment, which was the last regiment to retire. . . . The troops under Lieutenant-Colonel Martyn, after holding a party of some 300 Boers south of Willow Grange, moved to the support of Colonel Kitchener's left flank, where they did valuable service in keeping back the enemy and assisting to get the wounded of the 2nd Battalion West Yorkshire Regiment down the hill."
This language is, clearly enough, the language of British " victories " as " she is wrote" in the English records of the South African War, but it does not in any sense bear out the case put forward by General Buller in his despatch in support of Hildyard's claim of a victory for his army.
General Hildyard's report is significantly silent upon one very serious incident in the attack on Beacon Hill, an incident which has been repeated in connection with British bungling in several subsequent battles.
The hill was scaled by men of the Yorkshires and East Surreys, in pitch darkness, during the night of the 22nd, and, for a time, in a frightful storm of hail and lightning. Some men of the East Surrey Eegiment, moving round an angle of the hill, came suddenly upon troops which they believed to be Boers, and immediately opened fire upon the supposed enemy at close quarters. About a dozen of the Yorkshire men fell before the rifles of their comrades, and, as Boer accounts show, the British actually killed more of their own men than of their enemies in the "great victory" at Willow Grange.
General Botha's report of the battle is as follows:
" We located a big force of British troops around Estcourt and Mooi River, on fortified positions, with plenty of artillery."We combined with the Free State commando and a squadron of the Johannesburg Mounted Police on the 22nd, and advanced on the British position towards Mooi River, amidst fearful weather.
" During a heavy thunder-storm one Free Stater and six horses were killed by lightning.
" Shortly after, great activity was observed among the enemy's troops, who stormed a mountain battery held by the Free Staters, under heavy rifle fire, with great losses.
" The infantry was about 2,000 strong.
" On reaching the top they gave loud ' Hurrahs!' and yelled. ' Majuba is now wiped out,' while we maintained a heavy and steady fire on them.
" We had two men killed at this stage.
" Meanwhile the Band Police and the Free Staters had retired in the direction of the Krugersdorp commando, while reenforce-ments were sent for.
"These turned up in the shape of a strong commando and artillery, personally led by Commandant-General Joubert, who occupied a splendid position close by, and opened fire.
" Under cover of his guns we re-formed with the Free Staters and the Police, and stormed the position held by the English troops, and drove them off, with apparent heavy loss. They retreated in disorder towards Estcourt.
" The engagement was very hot.
" Ambulance reports to me were that the British losses were 120 killed and wounded.
" Our losses were one killed and four wounded—Krugersdorp men.
" My horse was shot under me."
The London " Times " of the 7th of December published the following letter from an Englishman in Natal which tends to confirm the Boer claim, and strongly to deny that put in in favor of a British triumph at Willow Grange:
" For four days a small force of Boers held a track of country with a frontage roughly 25 miles either way, and held it at their leisure, raiding cattle, driving about with traps and horses, mule-wagons, etc., picking up what they wanted; killing time buck shooting and guinea-fowl shooting—all this with 13,000 British troops within eight or ten miles of their main camp on either side of them.
"The Boers, during their occupation here, did no damage to occupied property, but have utterly wrecked all homesteads that had been vacated. By this time our troops had been reenforced to about 18,000 men (Mooi River and Estcourt combined), the Boers were traveling with a convoy eight miles long with men whose maximum speed is three miles an hour; two-thirds of our force was ahead of them in the direction they were supposed to be taking, and eventually did take; the remaining one-third was only 12 miles behind their rear column, which could hardly have got under weigh when my message got to camp. The Boers had to pass out of a deep valley some 24 miles in length, with very steep hills on either side—that's the position—and yet our general let this Boer army, convoy and all, get out on to the main road beyond Estcourt, cross the Tugela at Colenso, and blow up the 1 bridge behind them."
After the battle of the 23rd the Boer column moved leisurely on its way back to Colenso, where it arrived after a ten days' most I successful reconnaissance; Hildyard making no attempt to follow. ; The casualties in the fights with the armored train and near Est-; court were less than a dozen, while the enemy had suffered to the extent of over 100 killed and wounded, and of 50 prisoners.
General Joubert returned from the raid in a gloomy spirit. He! openly regretted having participated in it. It was not his method I of fighting. Some horses were taken from pro-English farmers, ; 6,000 head of cattle were captured, and other things were commandeered contrary to his instructions and ideas. This angered the old general more than it ought to have done, and when asked on his return to the laager at Ladysmith what he thought of the results of the reconnaissance, his reply was:
"Ja, die Engelsehen zal zeg: "Heir was Joubert langs met zyn roovers bende.'" [" The English will say: ' Here was Joubert with a band of robbers.']
Botha, with his characteristic generosity, gave Joubert the credit of having personally led the reenforcements which enabled a successful assault to be made on the enemy at Willow Grange, but the Commandant-General was little more than a passive spectator of the fight. He either felt that he was being forced to engage in methods of warfare which were not to his liking, or that he had neither the military capacity nor the energy to direct a great army of 30,000 men engaged in what was, in comparison with the War of Freedom, a gigantic conflict, and he became dispirited. On the other hand, Louis Botha's masterful character, great energy, and natural genius, the spirit and dash with which he carried out his plans, joined to his growing popularity among the burghers, all impressed Joubert with the conviction that the younger man was the man whom the army required to lead it. This conviction was forced upon his mind during the raid, and it remained there afterward. He left to General Botha the task of barring Buller's way at the Tugela, and retired himself to the task of watching the working of his pet, but fatal, plan of keeping 6,000 or 7,000 burghers wasting ammunition, food, and time in the all but fruitless siege of Ladysmith.
On the return from the reconnaissance to Estcourt his horse stumbled while crossing some very rough ground, and caused a hurt to be inflicted from which he did not recover before his death. His end came in Pretoria, March 27, 1900, one month after the withdrawal of the Boers from the investment of Ladysmith, on the capture of which place the old hero had set his whole heart, and, as it were, staked his very life.