General Schoeman's commando occupies Colesberg—Description of district—Inactivity of Schoeman—Tactics of General French, his opponent—Piet De Wet assumes Boer command—Five days' fighting for position—Boers retire to Colesberg defenses— Defeat of the Suffolks—De la Key assumes Boer command— Defeats British rear-guard at Rensburg Siding—Drawn battle at Slingusfontein—British forced south to Naauwpoort Junction —De la Rey goes north with Rand Police to join Cronje—Exploit of Dan Viljoen.
We will leave the scene of operations on the Tugela for a brief space in order to deal with the campaign in the Colesberg District of Cape Colony.
I have summarized the course of events south of the Orange River in the early part of a previous chapter, and told how the occupation of the Colesberg, Burghersdorp, and Aliwal districts by Free State forces under Generals Grobler, Ollivier, and Schoeman led to the attempt on the part of General Gatacre to surprise Ollivier and his men at Stormberg Junction, on the 10th of December. The results of this disastrous adventure to the British have been related in the same chapter.
Following the Boer victory at Stormberg, the English general retired dispirited to the camp at Putterskraal, and the fighting between the British and Boer forces in the north of Cape Colony was transferred to the Colesberg district, some eighty miles northwest of Stormberg, and about thirty south of the Orange River.
General Schoeman, a wealthy Transvaaler of some military experience, was elected Commandant of the Transvaal and Free State Burghers and Cape Colony Volunteers who formed the mixed commando which took possession of Colesberg, in November, 1899.
This body numbered some 2,000 men. The Volunteers from the surrounding country, who knew the entire district and had reliance upon the sympathies of the Dutch population, urged an immediate march southward with the object of seizing the railway junction at Naauwpoort, which was held at the time by a weak British garrison. Schoeman would not sanction any such forward movement, tho the distance was no more than fifty miles along the railroad. He made Colesberg his headquarters, and there he insisted on remaining for fully a month, during which time British troops were despatched from Cape Town to strengthen Naauwpoort, while to General French was entrusted the task of holding the railway and the country south of where Schoeman was engaged in his role of masterly inactivity.
The arrival of French with reenforcements at this important junction, compelled the Federal governments to pay attention to the complaints urged by the burghers against General Schoeman's tactics, and Commandant Piet De Wet was appointed fighting general to the forces in the locality.
In addition to this change, 200 of the Johannesburg Police were added to the Colesberg garrison. Subsequently additions were also made from General Grobler's command, and when the English forces were increased later still in men and guns to close upon 12,000 troops and four or five batteries of artillery, General De la Rey was detached from the Magersfontein army early in January, to assume command of the Federals, and bar French's way in any attempt to carry the enemy's force across the Orange River at Norvals Pont, on the direct road to Bloemfontein.
Colesberg is a picturesque village with about 1,500 inhabitants, lying in a valley surrounded by bare hills. It was noted in the last generation as a rendezvous for hunters and for diamond dealers.
It is claimed to the credit of the little town that the man who found the first diamond at New Bush (Kimberley) was John O'Reilly, a citizen of Colesberg.
The railway from Port Elizabeth to the Free State border passes near to Colesberg, on to Norvals Pont, where it crosses the Orange River. South of Colesberg, the villages of Rensburg, Arundel, and Teesdale, each with a railway station, intervened between Schoeman's headquarters and the junction at Naauwpoort which was General French's base for his operations against the Boer commandoes at Colesberg.
The plan of the British in their marches and countermarches through the Colesberg district, from November until February, when French was transferred to Modder River to carry out Lord Roberts' plan for a cavalry dash on Kimberley, was to keep engaged as large a number of burghers as possible, with the object of preventing their cooperation with Botha on the Tugela or with Cronje at Magersfontein, and of stopping their further movement southward into Cape Colony.
Fully 5,000 Boers were thus engaged during December and January. This number represented nearly one-sixth of the entire Federal forces in the field, and the work of the 13,000 troops who forced these commandoes to defend the British districts which they had invaded, was worth more to the general plan of operations against the Federals than the defeats to which French and Clements were repeatedly subjected at the hands of De la Rey and Piet De Wet.
French's troops included Scots Greys, Inniskillings, Hussars, Household Cavalry, several mounted Colonial regiments, Yorkshires, Suffolks, Berkshires, Wiltshires, Royal Irish, Worcesters, Dragoon Guards, and other forces, together with four batteries of field and horse artillery.
The forces on both sides assumed their maximum strength in January; there having been no more than half the numbers given above present in the field up to Christmas. General French was in supreme command of the British, until he left for the Modder River early in February, 1900.
Schoeman commanded the Boers until about the middle of December, when Commandant Piet De Wet assumed the control, aided by Generals Grobler and Lemmer, and Commandant Fouche. On January 7, General De la Rey was delegated to take over the supreme command, and he left the Magersfontein lines for that purpose. He remained in chief control until French was transferred to another command, and until General Clements was compelled to retreat with this fourth British army back to Arundel.
No important engagement occurred around Colesberg before the 1st of January, 1900. Skirmishes, affairs with outposts, and scouting operations occupied the energies of both armies during the six weeks which elapsed from the seizure of Colesberg by the Boers, until a six days' contest began between French and Schoeman, and Piet De Wet on December 31, which resulted in the retirement of the advanced burgher outposts from Rensburg to Colesberg. During this running fight, the object of the English was, to get round the right flank of the extended Boer line, southwest of Colesberg, turn Schoeman's flank, and occupy the hills immediately surrounding the town, from which positions of advantage, the holding of the village by the Boers would be rendered impossible.
The Boer tactics were those of aggressive defense which inferior forces are induced to adopt, when the nature of the terrain enables strong positions to be held by a few men, while the greater number have to be employed in preventing the outflanking maneuvers of the enemy.
The hilly country southwest of Colesberg was adapted to the employment of these tactics, and enabled the Boers to hold their own against French's greatly superior forces in men and guns. Fighting was continued along a very extended line, over an area of fifteen or twenty miles, and partook largely of surprise attacks upon detached bodies or posts engaged in turning or scouting operations.
During the first week of January General French employed all his command in a series of attempts to drive his opponents off the hills south of Colesberg into the village, and to capture a prominent and symmetrical hill which dominated the entire country from its position, some four or five miles southwest of the town.
A secondary position on a kopje west of the town was held by the German corps of fifty men, with as many Johannesburgers under Jacob Celliers, cooperating.
These were attacked from right to left by a large force of the enemy with guns. A spirited encounter followed for several hours when, after repulsing a charge by 500 or 600 of the enemy, Celliers retired to another position, allowing his foes to occupy the vacated hill. That night Commandant Piet De Wet with a body of 200 Free Staters went to the support of Celliers, and the combined forces gained a footing nearer the captured hill and awaited the morning's light to attack and retake it. The English had, however, also strengthened their hold on the kopje by additional men and four guns, and a determined fight which lasted for several hours, on the 4th of January, was the result.
During the engagement, General Schoeman attempted to cooperate with Piet De Wet by attacking the enemy's right with a relieving force of 500 men. The effort was not successful, as French succeeded in throwing a superior force with a battery of guns in between the two Boer positions, with the result that De Wet and Schoeman were forced back nearer Colesberg, after five hours' fighting, with a loss of 50 or 60 men.
A combat with some of the features of the old style of warfare took place during the fight for the hill, which riveted the attention of both forces while it lasted. Thirty burghers retiring from the kopje held by Piet De Wet were crossing the field of battle to a ridge where the Johannesburg Police were, as usual, more than holding their own, and were making vigorous use of their automatic guns. The movement of the mounted burghers was observed by two companies of Lancers, who immediately galloped towards them over the level ground. The Boers seeing the dusty horsemen coming from near a position which had been held by some of Schoeman's men earlier in the morning, believed them to be friends, and did not fully discover their mistake until a space of 100 yards alone divided the two mounted forces. On recognizing the enemy's men, the Boers leaped from their horses and opened fire upon the Lancers, almost at point-blank range. The first line of horses was shot and the gallop of the English was arrested, when the superior Boer rifle and more accurate aim of the burghers soon decided the issue of the combat. Only six of the 70 or 80 Lancers were seen riding back to their lines from the scene of the brief but decisive encounter.
The result of the four or five days' desultory fighting was the gradual retirement of Piet De Wet and Schoeman nearer to the town, but to the occupation of stronger positions more immediately around it. One of these was a hill, three miles north of the village, which, next to Coleskop, was deemed by French to be the key of his opponent's strong lines of defense at Colesberg.
It was resolved by French to attempt to carry this hill by a surprise attack under cover of darkness, and some 200 of the Suffolk Regiment, led by Colonel Watson, were charged with the carrying out of this daring enterprise.
The hill being so far north of the British lines was thought by the Boers to be safe from assault, and it was only held by a body of 100 Free Staters, Heilbron men, on that Saturday morning, the 0th of January. Away on another ridge, distant about three miles, a detachment of Johannesburg Police were located, and while these were in at the finish of the fight which followed, the honors of the signal victory won in the early morning hours belonged to the Heilbron burghers alone, who have scored so many more triumphs since then under General Christian De Wet.
Watson and his Suffolks set out from their lines about midnight. The men had muffled their shoes with soft covering so as to steal silently along on their daring errand with as little noise as possible. Guides from the locality were employed who knew every yard of the distance, and so well carried out was the plucky plan to seize the kopje that Watson and his men had reached the very slope of the coveted hill just before dawn in the morning, and before a single Boer had heard or seen anything of the advancing Suffolks.
The sentinel's Mauser ahead of the Heilbron men rang out its startling signal of danger, and in an instant the enemy's further progress up the side of the kop was arrested by fire of the alert burghers. The fighting took place in the semi-darkness of the early summer morning, but so cool and well directed was the work of the Heilbroners that half of the storming Tommies, including Colonel Watson, were shot down in a few moments. Most of those who were not hit raced down the hill, only to be met a short time afterward by the Rand Police to whom those of the Suffolks who were not hit surrendered as soon as the full light of the morning revealed the full dangers of the situation.
The English lost a hundred killed and wounded in this engagement, while the other hundred hoisted the white flag and laid down their arms.
The Heilbron men's loss in the fight was 7 men killed and 12 wounded.
So close were the English in formation when they were first fired upon that twenty-seven dead bodies were found within an area of twenty yards.
When the task of the ambulance began one of these Tommies was found riddled with bullets from his knees upward, so near were the combatants, and so deadly was the burgher fire.
Colonel Watson was shot through the head at the very front of his men; a Boer whom it is believed the English officer had himself killed being found close to the body of the dead colonel.
Following the defeat of the Suffolks, Piet De Wet and Schoeman took the aggressive in a two days' series of detached engagements, and forced the enemy back again southward over the old ground in the direction of Rensburg. On the 9th of January General De la Rey arrived from Magersfontein as fighting general, and the presence of this splendid officer with his quiet, self-confident bearing and magnetic qualities infused greater confidence into the Federal forces. Commandant Van Dam with the remainder of the Johannesburg Police Corps arrived also as a reenforcement, and De la Rey lost no time in forcing the fighting.
French had likewise been reenforced, but by a much larger body of troops and guns; still the great prestige of De la Rey and his reputation for a series of triumphs gained without, as yet, a single defeat at the hands of the enemy, put the burghers and Cape Volunteers in the best fighting spirit, and soon the lines round Colesberg were held in greater confidence than before, with the English forced into the adoption of defensive tactics.
On the 15th of January a body of Australian troopers with some English cavalry surprised and took a hill called the Zwartsrand which had been held by a few burghers. The attacking force was 300 strong, and they easily gained and held the position for a time. What occurred in the incident I am about to relate will not be doubted by those of the enemy who may have fought during the war against the Rand Police.
Eight men of Van Dam's renowned Police Corps, believing that the Zwartsrand was occupied by no more than 20 or 30 of the enemy, rode at the position in a spur gallop, dismounted at the bottom of the hill, and deliberately charged the kopje; coolly mounting and firing into the ranks of the Colonials and British on the top. On discovering the extent of the force which was thus audaciously attacked, the eight " Zarps " beat a hasty retreat, leaving one killed and three of their number wounded; the other four succeeding in making good their escape; owing, in all human probability, let us hope, to the fact that the 300 Britishers were none too willing to fire further upon men capable of attempting so plucky an exploit.
A small body of burghers, numbering only thirty men, believing a position held by some New Zealanders was not in possession of more than fifty* of the enemy, charged it and fell into an ambush of Yorkshires and New Zealand troopers, 150 strong. Three-fourths of the burghers were killed or captured.
A few days following this Boer mishap, an almost identical encounter took place, with the fortunes of war reversed; a score of Australian horsemen finding themselves surrounded by superior forces and compelled to surrender to Piet De Wet's men.
On the 5th of February a detachment under De la Rey, who were hotly engaged with a body of British near a place called Polfontein resorted to a stratagem borrowed from the military tactics of the ancients. Being in greatly inferior numbers, and as the English held the stronger position, the burghers collected about 100 horses from spare mounts and neighboring farms, and, driving them into something like a line, whipped them straight across the open space between the opposing forces. The enemy fired on the galloping horses, but this in no way arrested their frantic career over the veldt. Behind the flying steeds the burghers charged safely over the ground and, taking advantage of the confusion caused by the horses, shot the enemy back upon French's main lines at Rasfontein.
De la Rey now pushed his lines southward towards Rensburg, adopting against the enemy's right a turning movement similar to that which the British had been attempting for a month towards the corresponding right of their opponents. General French, however, left the English lines round Colesberg early in February, for Cape Town, from whence he joined Lord Roberts for his great movement against Cronje at Magersfontein, leaving the British army at Rensburg in command of General Clements. A few days subsequently De la Rey caught up with the rear guard of the retiring enemy north of Rensburg Siding, and in a short but brilliant en-counter forced over 150 of the Wiltshire Regiment to surrender, after some forty-nine of the British had been killed.
This action was followed in a few days by a desperate fight between Colesberg and Rensburg in which the honors were claimed on both sides. Some 500 of De la Rey's men made a night attack upon a regiment which held a hill at Slingusfontein. It was an action similar to that in which Colonel Watson and the Suffolks suffered so severely in January. The burghers gained the enemy's position at midnight, and pushed their way, under the darkness, close to the Worcestershire men, some 700 strong, who were well sheltered by stone sangars. The first of the enemy's lines was carried, the Boers shooting with great accuracy even in the dark. As the morning light appeared, however, the comparative weakness of the attacking force was seen, and the defending British began to make it exceedingly warm for the midnight visitors.
Guns were brought into play on the British side from the nearest of the enemy's lines, and a large number of the burghers were shot down as they advanced. The men held their ground with great tenacity until De la Rey was enabled to send up reenforcements from the Band Police. With these the burghers on the hill maintained the combat all the day. When night came on again, both sides resolved to abandon the hill, in the mutual belief that the other's hold upon it could not be shaken. On the following morning the British were found to have evacuated the position and fallen back again upon Rensburg. The losses during this twelve hours' fighting were almost equal; about 100 men being killed and wounded on each side.
From this time forth De la Rey beat his opponents at every engagement, capturing small bodies of Australian troops, of Inniskillings, and others of Clements' somewhat disorganized army. The absence of French seemed to have dispirited the enemy's troops, and they made but a poor stand against the increasing attacks and dash of the inspirited burghers. The English were compelled to even evacuate Rensburg, and to retreat still further south towards Naauwpoort Junction.
Meanwhile, events were shaping themselves 150 miles further northwest where, at this very time, General French at the head of 5,000 horsemen was making his famous dash from Ramdam on Kimberley, with Lord Roberts following in his wake with 40,000 men with whom to smash Cronje's commandoes and bar their way eastward to Bloemfontein.
De la Rey was called from the scene of his month's brilliant campaign round Colesberg to the theater of impending disaster near Paardeberg. He left Generals Grobler, Lemmer, Ollivier, and Schoeman with the Free State burghers and Cape Volunteers to guard the positions which had been so successfully held against French and Clements, taking only Van Dam and the Band Police force with him to the Modder River, near Koedesrand, where he expected to meet the combined Magersfontein and other Boers of the western Federal army in position to stop Roberts' movement on the Free State capital.
The story of how and why De la Rey did not find his anticipations realized, will be told in the chapter dealing with the dramatic surrender of General Cronje near the place where, had De la Rey been at the head of the men under Cronje's command, Lord Roberts' huge army would have met with its Sedan.
A story of the prowess of one Daniel Viljoen, of Germiston, has gone the round of the Free State laagers, and was told me by so many narrators that it merits recording. In the running fight between De la Rey's men and the Wiltshire regiment, near Rensburg, Dan Viljoen, a quiet, modest burgher of herculean build, and a dead shot, found himself on a turn of a road in front of seventeen of the Wiltshire Tommies. He instantly shouted, " Hands up, my men are behind!" and the seventeen Britishers believed him, threw down their arms, held up their hands, and were marched into De la Rey's ranks as prisoners by the Germiston hero.
We return again to the progress of events on the Tugela.