President Kruger arrives at Bloemfontein—With President Steyn views fight at poplars grove—Retreat of Boers—General desertion of burghers—battle of Abram's Kraal—Fall of Bloemfontein—British annexation of Free State—Presidents Kruger and Steyn appeal to Lord Salisbury for peace—Salisbury's reply—Secretary Reitz's rejoinder—Boer casualties up to Paardeberg—Roberts' advance to Pretoria—Obstacles in his way— Concentration of Boer troops impossible—De Wet's plan of guerrilla warfare
President Kruger came from Pretoria to Bloemfontein to encourage the Federals after the defeat and surrender of Cronje. General De la Rey had hastened up from Colesberg with all the burghers he could muster, which comprised a few squadrons of the Johannesburg and Pretoria Police, some of the Band commandoes, and the remnants of other scattered corps and bodies. The Ficksburg, Ladybrand, and Winburg burghers were with De Wet and Philip Botha. The third Free State army, which had been operating across the Orange River, was, at the time, retreating north to Kroonstad under Generals Ollivier, Lemmer and Grobler. This force was between 5,000 and 6,000 strong, and was largely composed of Cape Volunteers. It was moving so slowly with a train of 500 or 600 wagons that it did not reach its destination until some weeks after the fall of Bloemfontein. , Lord Roberts had been reenforced from Methuen's army, and from the eternal arrivals from England and elsewhere; so that it became virtually an advance of 50,000 troops against 5,000 burghers. The Federals fell back to Poplars Grove, a dozen miles eastward of Paardeberg, where they were attacked by Roberts on the 7th of March. Presidents Kruger and Steyn were spectators of the encounter, and were gone from a place at which they had witnessed the fight only ten minutes when the enemy was in occupation of the spot. Roberts succeeded in turning the Federal position at the Modder River by sending a strong cavalry force across lower down the stream, and in this way compelled De Wet to fall back again eastward. In moving his position a strong force of Roberts' cavalry all but surrounded the escort of the Boer guns, quite near to where the two Presidents had been in consultation with the Federal generals. De Wet's men fought superbly, contesting the ground with the enemy's mounted troops in the finest manner possible. General Philip Botha and 100 men threw themselves between the guns and the British, and held the Lancers back with consummate courage and shooting capacity until the artillery and the Presidents were at a safe distance.
In the retreat from Poplars Grove the mass of the burghers understood that it had been determined to make no further stand west of Bloemfontein, and that the campaign for the defense, of the capital was ended. This impression was by no means an unreasonable one after the events of the previous fortnight. The crushing blow of Cronje's surrender, followed immediately as it was by the relief of Ladysmith and the retreat of Joubert, had broken the long and extraordinary spell of Boer success which had been piously attributed to the protecting cafe exercised by Providence over the cause of the Republics. Then came the appeal for peace on the part of the Presidents, which encouraged a delusion that there was to be, at least, a truce that would enable burghers to visit homes from which they had been absent in most instances since the war began in October. Owing to the wide prevalence of this state of feeling large numbers of burghers went straight to their homes in the retreat toward Abram's Kraal. President Steyn, De Wet, and Philip Botha did their utmost by entreaty and persuasion to induce them to stand, but it was well known that it had already been decided not to risk any serious injury to the city in a hopeless effort to defend it, and the disheartened farmers whose homes were far away felt no inclination after six months' campaigning to repeat the fruitless performance of Poplars Grove. No authority can compel a burgher to fight against his will, and fully two-thirds of the men who were ready and eager to fight in the old form for the rescue of Cronje's laager, had he only consented to act as he had been entreated to do, trekked homeward, and left the Free State capital to its fate.
The hill at Abram's Kraal, therefore, had to be occupied by De la Rey and Celliers, whose united forces of police and Band men at this position numbered no more than 300. Celliers had the. name of being one of the most indomitable fighters of the Federal commandoes. In the campaign around Colesberg he had displayed a valor and an eagerness for surprise attacks with small forces upon superior numbers of the enemy that had earned for him the reputation of having a charmed life. Six times during the 9th of March the positions held by himself and De la Rey were attacked by huge forces hurled against them by Roberts. Men fell by the score out of this intrepid band of Band fighters, assailed on all sides, but the attacking columns were driven reeling back each time with ranks thinned and broken. It was to be the last fight for Bloemfontein, and, tho the burghers had no delusions as to being able to stop thirty times their number of foes after the disheartening event of the 27th of February, in no engagement during the whole campaign has there been a finer display of courage or a more stubborn resistance shown than by the Pretoria and Johannesburg Police and by Celliers' Fordsburg and Jeppstown burghers at Abram's Kraal. In one of these attacks upon De la Rey the English advanced within fifty yards of his men, but were forced back by the unflinching valor of the heroic policemen. So sustained and effective was the fire which Celliers' men directed upon a battery which was attacking De la Rey's position, that the guns were abandoned for a time in the middle of the battle-field with all their service shot down around them. In face of Roberts' whole force Celliers was ready to rush out and take them, only he had neither oxen nor horses with which to carry them away. From six in the morning until darkness came on the battle raged—from where De Wet and Philip Botha with only a few hundred burghers, tried to stop the progress of the resistless wave of numbers east of Petrusburg, to where De la Rey and Celliers, with that sturdy old campaigner Kolbe, were standing as it were across the road to Bloemfontein, fighting fully twenty to one in a battle of hopeless but dogged resistance. Ninety men of the immortal 300 Police and Band men were killed at Abram's Kraal. Altogether, out of a force variously estimated at between 900 and 1,500 men, De la Rey, De Wet, and Celliers lost some 390 in killed and wounded in this battle with Roberts' huge army.
De la Rey fell back again slowly, De Wet and himself fighting and retiring, and compelling the English to keep at a cautious movement towards their objective; the Boer plan being not to make any final stand within the town, but to gain time in which to remove north to the hills above the river toward Brandfort such stores and ammunition as could be carried away. On the 13th of March Lord Roberts took possession of Bloemfontein, almost without opposition.
The fall of the Free State capital marked a strong turning of the tide against the Federal forces in the field, while cutting, the Republics adrift from the lingering hope of European intervention. Lord Roberts annexed the Free State, by proclamation, to the British Empire without a protest from any Continental Power, and the two little Christian States were thus left at the mercy of the rapacious Empire whose statesmen had connived at 26the Jameson Raid. The situation was, therefore, one well calculated to encourage despondency and despair in the Boer mind, and it was under the weight of this depression that more than half of the remaining Free State forces gave up the fight for a time and went to their farms.
Presidents Kruger and Steyn had already addressed a dignified appeal for peace to Lord Salisbury, on the 5th of March, pointing out the evils which the war had already occasioned on both sides, in loss of lives and in injury to property; reiterating their previous declarations, that the Republics took up arms solely to defend their liberties, and not with any aggressive intent or purpose against the British Empire in South Africa; and solemnly asseverating their earnest desire for peace. They, however, made it clear that, if England's policy in pursuing the war was to be one of conquest, there was nothing left for the allied Republics " but to continue in their present struggle to the end, in spite of the overwhelming might of the British Empire." Lord Salisbury's reply, as was fully expected, was the negation of the assurance which at I the outbreak of hostilities he had publicly and purposely given to the Powers of Europe, that England in the conflict with the Transvaal sought neither gold mines nor the acquisition of territory, but only the full protection of British subjects. He had nothing better to base his refusal of the offers of peace upon than the Jingo legends of ambitious Boer coalitions against the Empire, " the accumulation for many years past of military stores on an enormous scale which could only have been intended for use against Great Britain," and the fallacy that it was the Republics, and not the British Empire, which began the war. Lord Salisbury ended his reply by declaring that the British Government " were not prepared to assent to the independence of either the South African Republic or the Orange Free State."
Lord Salisbury's reply elicited the following unanswerable rejoinder from State Secretary Reitz:
" Lord Salisbury asserts that at the time of the Ultimatum none of the rights guaranteed by the Convention had been broken, and that our declaration of war had been the first step towards hostilities.
"What is really the truth?
" As the Ultimatum expressed it, Her Majesty's Government had pressed and threatened to enforce changes in the internal Government of the Republics since the Bloemfontein Conference, altho, according to Conventions, such matters were exclusively within the control of our own Governments.
" Further, during these threatening negotiations British troops in abnormal numbers were sent to South Africa and stationed upon our borders, and the High Commissioner assured President Steyn that these troops were not intended for the Free State, but alone for the South African Republic.
"Finally, the negotiations were suddenly broken off by Her Majesty's Government, with the threat that Her Majesty's Government would take its own steps to remove the grievances of her subjects.
"After that, we waited another fourteen days, while an Army Corps was mobilized in England and prepared for despatch to South Africa, and also the Reserves called out—both being measures of an indisputable belligerent tendency.
" After the inquiry of President Steyn as to the object of these threatening proceedings, the High Commissioner gave no reply, but Sir. Chamberlain, in his speeches in England, demonstrated clearly to the world that England had firmly resolved to bring about drastic changes at once.
" Upon this we addressed a communication to the British Government, falsely named an ultimatum, which was not a declaration of war, but simply declared that, unless Her Majesty's Government stopped the further despatch of troops to our borders, and would settle all points at dispute by means of impartial arbitration, this Republic would be obliged to view the action of the British Government as a hostile act and cause of war.
" The communication was, therefore, more of a peace message, and was not intended as a provocation for war from our side.
" Under these circumstances, what could we do other than that which we did? As Mr. Leonard Courtney, a British statesman, said: ' England acted like a man, who, in the middle of friendly negotiations with another person, and with whom he found it impossible to agree, suddenly said, " Wait a bit, until I have got my revolver, then I will continue to argue with you."'
" In connection with the statement of Lord Salisbury, that the Republics had secretly armed, and in a most amazing manner, I only wish to say that we purchased our weapons and ammunition in an open manner, without any secrecy, from English and European firms, and that we had a perfect right to do this, so that the High Commissioner at the Conference at Bloemfontein could boast that Her Majesty's Government was perfectly aware of our arming, and the British military authorities were enabled to issue a secret pamphlet to their officers (found by us in the camp at Dundee), in which full particulars of the state of our arms were set forth. The arming was only commenced after the Jameson Raid had taken place, and it had been made plain to us by means of intercepted telegrams, and the investigation by the House of Commons, that not alone highly placed British officials, but also members of the Government were behind the treacherous conspiracy. " Before this time the British officer who was employed as a spy
(White) says, with a semblance of truth, that the arming of the population was such that the South African Republic could be taken with five thousand men without difficulty.
" From this it is evident that both our arming and our ultimatum were designed as defensive measures, in order to protect and preserve the independence of this Republic. The concluding declaration of Lord Salisbury, that Her Majesty's Government is not prepared to agree to the independence of the South African Republic or that of the Orange Free State, makes it evident to every burgher, of these Eepublies, and to the whole world, that Her Majesty's Government has in view nothing else than the total destruction of our independent national existence. Now that all doubt upon that point is removed, the burghers know why they fight, and they will proceed with the struggle for their national existence to the end, in the firm confidence (as both of our State Presidents have expressed it) 'that that God who has implanted in our hearts and in the hearts of our fathers, the unquenchable fire of love of liberty, will not forsake us, but will complete His work in us and in our posterity."
The casualties in the Federal forces from the outbreak of the war up to, but not including, the surrender of General Cronje's army were:
Accidentally killed 24
Accidentally wounded 171
Died of sickness 99
Sick who had recovered or who were still under treatment 1,251
These figures are given on the authority of Dr. Mollengraaff, chief of the Identity Department of the Red Cross Society of Pretoria. To them must be added the number of prisoners taken by the enemy at Elandslaagte and other engagements, and the total losses at Paardeberg. I estimate the number of prisoners up to Paardeberg to have been 350. Adding to these, and to the above figures the total recorded Boer casualties on the 27th of February—namely, 97 killed, 245 wounded, and 3,919 who surrendered—the grand total would be 8,962 men. That is, more than one-fourth of the total effective forces of the two Republics had been knocked out of the fight with the British Empire the day Cronje laid down his arms. Allowing for a return to the field of two-thirds of the wounded and of the sick, say 2,000 men, the burghers and volunteers remaining as available for the continuation of the war at the time Christian De Wet began his movement from Brandfort, would number about 26,000. This number corresponded with the strength of the combined armies when the Republics took the field on the 12th of October, 1899; the losses in the five months of the war balancing the additions made to the commandoes within the same period. But whereas, while the enemy had only between 30,000 and 40,000 troops in South Africa the day Joubert crossed over Laing's Nek in the invasion of Natal, Lord Roberts was in supreme command of armies numbering more than 150,000 soldiers, with fully 300 guns, when Christian De Wet gazed down on the British camp at Bloemfontein from the hills above the Modder River, early in March, 1900.
The British advance from Bloemfontein to Pretoria was destined to be a great surprise to all who had counted upon Roberts having to meet the combined force of Transvaal and Free State resistance in a most determined form at the Vaal River. It was believed all round that when the Federals were compelled to draw in their scattered lines of observation and defense from the borders of the two
Republics, and concentrate the full strength of the allied States upon one great operation, results would follow which " would stagger humanity." But in war, as in many other affairs of men, it is the unexpected which frequently happens. The popular belief in Europe at the outbreak of the Franco-German conflict was that France would dictate her terms to Germany in Berlin within a few weeks' time. The same confidence obtained, in October, 1899, with reference to the English army, and an occupation of Pretoria by Christmas; and, once more, in the British invasion of the Transvaal after the surrender at Paardeberg, the expected was destined not to materialize into fact.
The explanation of this falling off in the resisting capacity of the Boers before the English advance between the two capitals is found in a rational view of the situation as revolutionized by the disaster of February 27. One kind of campaign had come to an end, and another was called for in the surrender of a Federal army and of the ablest fighting general on the Boer side. This surrender was determined by an overwhelming body striking at a point where Cronje's tactical weakness and the entanglement of the Kimberley investment created an opportunity for Lord Roberts of which he skilfully availed himself. Without a huge outflanking force of troops this movement could never have been carried through as it was. There can be no doubt whatever on that point. Then, had the Boer general's over-confidence in himself and unreasoning contempt for his foes not tied him down to his cherished positions at Magersfontein for two days longer than ordinary prudence should have counseled after French's turning movement, the inferior fighting qualities of Roberts' troops, as seen in the subsequent ten days' combat around Paardeberg, would have given Cronje, De la Rey, and De Wet, with a combined force of 10,000 burghers, the greatest victory ever gained over an English army. This conclusion is also warranted as an unhesitating deduction from the facts of the battles previously fought.
It was not possible, however, after the surrender of February 27, to effect any concentration at any point between the two capitals adequate to the task of keeping back 50,000 troops. Joubert's commandoes, comprising some 8,000 men, were held at the Biggarsberg by the British army in Natal under Buller, while fully 4,000 burghers had to be retained: between Fourteen Streams; continuing the farcical siege of Mafeking; guarding the northwest boundary line against the operations of the Rhodesian forces, British and Kaffir; and policing the Zulu and Swaziland borders. Grobler's and Ollivier's Colesberg commandoes, consisting of Free State burghers and rebels, were the strongest Federal unit remaining in the Free State after Cronje's surrender. It was found impossible, however, to obtain the immediate cooperation in the work of holding Roberts' legions back, of even half of the 5,000 who had carried out one of the most successful retreats in modern military history.
Like thousands of other burghers, mainly the elder and more responsible family men, they went to their farms, and the task of attempting to arrest the progress of the English from one Boer capital to the other was left "solely to the available younger Boers, to the Cape Volunteers, and to the foreign brigades. All the facts and conditions of the situation demanded, therefore, a new plan of operations which would give to the mobility of the fighting burghers, to their intimate knowledge -of the country, thei splendid shooting power, and their unique capacity for endurance, opportunities for asserting such an advantage over the enemy as would neutralize to some extent the effectiveness of his numbers in pitched battles. These opportunities could only be found in such a system of warfare as Christian De Wet had initiated after Paardeberg.