De Wet rallies disheartened burghers—Retreat of third Free State army from Colesberg to Kroonstad—De Wet leaves Brandfort with 1,000 men to join it—Waylays Broadwood's command at Sannas Post (Koorn Spruit)—Reckons safely on British stupidity—Heroism of British captain—Death of Lieutenant Nix—complete rout of British—De Wet captures British force near Reddersburg—unsuccessful siege of Wepener—Botha's narrow escape.
The first effective blow struck at the enemy after the capture of Bloemfontein was the work of Christian De Wet. He had set to work after the British occupation of the Free State capital to mobilize his commandoes again, visiting villages and farms in the Brandfort and surrounding districts, and rallying the burghers to the field. His influence was very great, especially among the Boer women, who reverenced him for his steadfast loyalty, and for his many striking triumphs over the enemies of their homes and country, and it was largely due to the cooperating patriotism of the noblest race of women who have ever encouraged the cause of freedom that he owed the successful recruiting of the body of burghers who enabled him to win the brilliant victory of Sannas Post. He had fought like a lion from Blaubank to Bloemfontein with his Free State burghers. Xo defeats discouraged, no disasters dismayed him, and when large numbers of men had retired to their farms, sullen and dispirited over the collapse of Cronje's army, he who was to be henceforth the doughtiest champion of his country in the field, left Bloemfontein by the road to the north only as the English were entering the city at the other side.
He retired to the hills between the capital and Brandfort, and from there, as the newly appointed Chief Commandant of the Free State army, issued a brief appeal to his countrymen to face the enemy again, and to battle with him for every inch of Free State soil. In this address he gave an indication of the plan of campaign which he had decided upon, and which was destined to meet with such striking success. " We need not be downhearted," he wrote, "as the most wonderful acts which God has done for us before, and also in this war, were accomplished by small bodies. "We trust in God under this trial, and hope that He may strengthen our officers and burghers through this to do their duty to Him, the Government, country, and people even more than before."
Near the end of March he left Brandfort with a force of about 1,000 men and five guns, under the joint command of Piet De Wet (his brother), and his faithful Lieutenant, Andries Cronje. The Chief Commandant's objective was to try and effect a junction with the third Free State army under Generals Ollivier, Grobler, and Lemmer, which had commenced its retreat north from Colesberg after the catastrophe of Paardeberg. This huge column of over 5,000 men, 800 wagons, with guns, ammunition, cattle, and somewomen and children—refugees from Cape Colony— extended to a length of twenty miles, and had to retreat in between Roberts' huge army at Bloemfontein and the Basuto border on the east. During a period of seventeen days this unwieldly mass of men, cattle, and baggage struggled over a most difficult country, intersected by spruits, rivers, and other obstacles, with fully 50,-000 British troops on its left flank, midway on its journey, and ultimately succeeded in reaching Kroonstad without the loss of a single man, gun, cart, or wagon. The marvelous achievement of carrying such a force for a distance of fully 200 miles (counting the detours occasioned by the difficulties of the route) was only equaled by the astounding inability of Lord Roberts to send a sufficient force of troops across fifty miles of country, directly eastward from Bloemfontein, to intercept Grobler's column and pin it in between the British legions and the Basuto border. No other fact connected with the operations of Roberts' great army in the Free State bears more eloquent testimony to the wretched condition to which the British troops were reduced after Paardeberg, than this failure of the English Commander-in-Chief to intercept this long, straggling procession during its seventeen days' toilsome journey from Cape Colony to Kroonstad.
A force of some 2,000 British troops had, however, been sent to occupy Ladybrand and Thabanchu, eastwards towards the Basuto border, and across the route which Grobler's and Ollivier's forces had to take on their way to Kroonstad. A portion of these troops had come in contact with the advance guard of Ollivier's army under General Lemmer, north of Commissie Drift, and were so roughly handled that the main body in Ladybrand and Thabanchu were at once recalled by Roberts, who feared their capture by the retreating Free Staters and Cape Colony Volunteers. It was these troops so recalled which Christian De Wet encountered at Sannas Post while on his way to succor Ollivier's and Grobler's retreating commandoes.
The road from Thabanehu to Bloemfontein runs into a valley a few miles before it crosses the Modder River, close to the reservoir at Sannas Post, from which the Free State capital is supplied with its water. This valley, with the river running through it, gradually widens in a southwesterly direction until it merges into the open country east of the city. Two miles west of the Waterworks the valley is some three miles wide, having irregular ridges to the north and south. At this part of the valley the road from Sannas Post to Bloemfontein crosses by a drift over a spruit which has worn so deep and wide a channel in the veldt that a large force of men could conceal themselves and their horses in the bed of the stream, in line to the right and left of the drift, without being seen 100 yards away from either bank. This deep channel is known as Koorn Spruit. It runs south of the road, from east to west, almost parallel with the roadway for the two miles from Sannas Post to the drift, and then bends north, where, at a distance of about three more miles, it leads into the Modder River.
The English who were on their way to Bloemfontein were a portion of General French's division, and were under the command of General Broadwood. The British officer was in charge also of an enormous baggage train of ammunition, forage, cattle, and other belongings of the garrisons of Ladybrand and Thabanchu, and his progress was necessarily hampered by this very cumbersome charge.
De Wet learned from his scouts that the enemy had left Thabanchu on Friday, the 30th of March, and would be likely to reach the Waterworks at Sannas Post that night. The strength of the British in men and guns was also communicated, together with the appetizing facts regarding the baggage, provisions, and ammunition, and the man who had so easily captured Lord Roberts' huge convoy at Blaubank resolved to repeat the operation at General Broadwood's expense.
He had outspanned for the night of March 30 at a farm near Osspruit, some fourteen miles due north of Sannas Post, and about midway between Brandfort and Thabanchu. His force had been augmented by 400 or 500 men since leaving Brandfort. On learning the news brought by his scouts, he gave immediate orders to saddle horses and prepare for a night march. The enemy's force, only one-third stronger than his own command, and the opportunity for attack which the convoy would offer, made him resolve to throw his men across Broadwood's path in a surprise engagement, and deliver a smashing blow at some of Roberts' troops almost at the gates of Bloemfontein.
With De Wet to resolve was to execute, and without yet fully considering his plan in any detail, the commando directed its march southward past Osskopje, towards the Bloemfontein Waterworks. His officers were his brother Piet, Commandants Andries Cronje and Nel (the two officers who had cooperated in the capture of the Dublin and Gloucester regiments at Nicholson's Nek) and Commandants Froneman, Wessels, Theron (of Bethlehem), and Gert Van der Merwe. The burghers, who numbered about 1,500 men, belonged mainly to the Kroonstad, Brandfort, Heilbron, Winburg, Ladybrand, and Dewetsdorp districts. The guns consisted of three Krupp quick-firers and two Maxim-Nordenfelts; the latter pieces being in charge of a German-American named Von Losberg. The American, French, and Netherlands military attaches accompanied the commando, and were spectators of the sensational engagement 'which followed.
De Wet off-saddled in the middle of the night when within about five miles of where the English were encamped, and he explained to his officers the plan which he had decided upon during the march from Osspruit. The plan was this: Broadwood's troops were in bivouac at Sannas Post, in between two drifts; one over the Modder River, through which the road from Thabanchu to Sannas Post passed, and the other, about two miles ahead, where the same road, after leaving Sannas Post, descended into the deep recess of Koorn Spruit on its way to Bloemfontein.
The scheme of action was, to divide his men into two divisions: one, 400 strong, under himself, to be concealed in the bed of the Spruit; and the other, 1,000 men, under his brother Piet and Andries Cronje, to post themselves north and south of the Waterworks, from whence they were to attack the enemy at daybreak, and drive the troops towards the drift over the Spruit, where the ambush was laid. Like the smooth movement of oiled clockwork, these places were occupied in the early hours of Saturday morning without a hitch; neither men nor guns being seen or heard where, only two miles away, 2,000 British troops and their convoy reposed oblivious of danger; there being no scouting, nor patrol, nor sentries, nor anybody ahead of or around the sleeping Tommies! De Wet's most daring plan thus placed him with his back to Roberts' huge army at Bloemfontein, and his flanks open to attack by any force which might be on the road from the city to meet Broadwood's convoy. He staked everything upon the enemy's customary stupidity and want of military common sense, and he won the prize, as he deserved to do.
The mules and baggage of the commandoes were left four or five miles north of the river, near a valley through which it had been decided to retire with the convoy and guns if the coup should succeed, and by which way a retreat towards Osspruit should be made if the enemy were reenforced from Bloemfontein before a decisive result could be obtained.
It was about two o'clock in the morning when an adjutant reported to the general down at the drift that all the positions in the plan of attack had been occupied as ordered, and that everything was in readiness. Piet De Wet and Andries Cronje were to open the attack with their guns on Broadwood's camp when the light should reveal its exact position, and at such time as, in their judgment, the greatest confusion might be caused thereby to the convoy. Strict orders were given by the Chief Commandant, to his own men that no shot should be fired from the bed of the Spruit until he gave the signal by firing first. And thus under the great tension of the daring enterprise in which the commando was engaged, the burghers smoked their pipes and waited for the light which was to give them sterner occupation.
It was about half-past four when the boom of Piet De Wet's Krupps eastward rent the oppressive stillness of the early morning, and instantly the whole British camp was thrown into the wildest commotion. Teams were hurriedly yoked, carts were driven off, and in a short time a column of wagons was sent on its way down the road towards the drift, where nothing could be seen to 1 indicate the presence of a single Boer. The Krupps and pom-poms continued to shell the camp from the rear and sides of the valley, and horses and men had already been hit, while vehicles were knocked over, and a portion of the baggage set on fire. Meanwhile wagons and carts were approaching the drift, followed by mounted men.
These came along the road without any patrol or scouts in front! The first drivers to reach the drift came down the sloping road, finding rifles pointed at their heads from the right and left as they reached the bottom. They were ordered down, and burghers jumped up and took their places, whipping the teams, and carrying the wagons up the opposite side of the Spruit without any delay. Several teams were treated in this way without apparently creating any suspicion in the line behind that anything had gone wrong. Slowly, however, a score of horsemen came moving along, in between other wagons, and upon descending into the spruit they were met with the stern demand of "Hands up!” Seeing how things stood they quietly surrendered, without a word, were disarmed, and placed to the right in the bottom of the Spruit, These, however, were not seen by their officers behind to emerge again from the hollow, and one of these officers, with the rank of captain, rode quickly down towards the drift to find out the cause of the halt by his men. He was instantly covered with rifles, and General De Wet, recognizing his rank, and seeing that the ambush could not be much longer concealed, addressed the officer, telling him that he (De Wet) had a large force surrounding the British convoy, and, being wishful to save life, desired him to return to the troops advancing towards the drift, explain matters to them, and induce them to surrender. The captain appeared to assent to the general's suggestion, and turned back, riding up the steep incline to where fully a hundred or more mounted men were approaching along the road. De Wet followed him up the sloping bank, rifle in hand, raising the weapon to his shoulder as the English officer reached his troops. There was a half minute's pause as the captain was seen talking to his men. Suddenly these men were seen to wheel round and dash back upon the column. Instantly Christian De Wet, dropping on one knee, took careful aim, and the English officer rolled from his saddle with a bullet through his body. No Victoria Cross could adequately reward an act which was deliberately done with the knowledge that death might demand an instant penalty for the spoken warning; for the officer, whose name is still, I believe, not associated with this piece of antique heroism, knew right well what the stern Boer officer behind him with the rifle meant to do if a signal of danger was given. It was a superb act of noble self-sacrifice, and the English who survive him, assuming he was killed, are unworthy of such deeds being done in their service, if his name is allowed to remain in oblivion.
The general's signal to fire had been given in this sensational incident, and instantly the rifles of the burghers were pouring bullets into the column along the bank of the Spruit. Broadwood's guns were at the rear of his forces, and had not yet started from Sannas Post when the fight had begun. These guns, some twelve in number, were quickly answering the Boer pieces from Piet De Wet's position to the southeast, and the forces on both sides were soon engaged in a spirited encounter, all within a radius of some two miles. The Boers, as is their habit, shot down the oxen and teams attached to all the wagons, and completely crippled the convoy in this way; the vehicles being left on the road in a long line extending almost all the way between the two drifts. After the first panic the English were rallied somewhat by their officers to protect the guns, and at a few other points where groups could be assembled. Each of these groups, however, was attacked by the burghers who followed every twist and turn of the enemy's frantic efforts to find cover from which to beat them back. The burghers in the Spruit advanced eastward towards where Broadwood's artillery were positioned, with the purpose of assailing the service of the guns and of capturing the pieces. The cover of the Spruit enabled them to get due south of Sannas Post, in between Piet De Wet's Krupps and the British artillery, and in a very few minutes the whole entourage of the enemy's batteries was shot down or scattered. A few of the guns had been removed by some mounted men shortly before the rifle attack from the Spruit had opened, and these escaped with their escort; but the others, seven in number, were pounced upon by a rush of men, and the place where the English had bivouacked during the night was soon in possession of the burghers.
Midway between the drifts two sections of De Wet's men, one under Andries Cronje, and the other under the head Commandant, had closed in upon a body of the enemy who were endeavoring to make a break over that part of the Spruit towards Bloemfontein. There was a lively rifle engagement for fully an hour at this point, but, as the English were shot down from right and left, a white flag was hoisted, and some 400 troops laid down their arms. They wore at once taken northeast to the Kloof through which a portion of the captured convoy was already being led. While another contest at the junction of the river and the Spruit was proceeding, the greater part of Broadwood's force had succeeded in retreating towards Bloemfontein in between Piet De Wet's position and the road, and the Boer guns were turned upon these with an accuracy of aim which accounted for a large number of men and horses. At every single point where any attempt at a rally was made by the English, a Boer officer was ready with a body of burghers to I rush to the nearest available cover, and engage the group thus attempting to make a stand against the resistless farmers with their deadly aim and galloping ponies. The enemy were in this way easily beaten at every point on the battle-field; their own Armstrongs at the Waterworks being turned upon them while Von Losberg was sending his pom-pom shells into their flanks as they flew towards the city. Some 500 burghers took up the pursuit of the fleeing Tommies as far as the ground would permit them, but their tired horses were unequal to the task of heading them off, and the bulk of Broadwood's men managed to clear away; leaving behind them 400 prisoners, including 18 officers, 7 Armstrong guns, 12 cartloads of ammunition, 110 wagons of provision and forage, 1,200 draft mules, oxen, and horses, with 600 rifles, and large quantities of baggage, tents, etc. The killed and wounded on the English side were not counted by the victors, as it was necessary for them to retire north to the hills before British reenforccments should arrive from Bloemfontein, where the guns 27 could be plainly heard during the battle of the morning. It was estimated, however, that Broadwood lost 150 men in killed and wounded in addition to his prisoners. The Boer casualties numbered three men killed and ten wounded, only.
Lieutenant Nix, the Netherlands military attache, was unfortunately hit with a fragment of an English shell while watching the battle. He was sitting on the bank of the Spruit near where the American and French attaches were located, and while he was in the act of looking through his field-glasses was mortally wounded in the chest. He was a modest young officer, only twenty-three, who had made himself very popular with all with whom he had come in contact since arriving on his mission, and his death was much lamented by the Boer officers. He had been only recently married, and it was a deeply affecting scene when the life-blood was ebbing away through a wound that could not be stanched, while the poor young fellow was in the act of dictating to Captain Reichman a letter full of loving expressions, spoken in dying whispers, to his young wife in Holland.
The English made a wretched exhibition of fighting qualities and of generalship in this instance, considering they were numerically stronger in both men and guns than De Wet's forces, and that, being so near Roberts' huge army that their guns could be heard, reenforcements would be sure to arrive in a few hours' time. A large number of mounted men rushed southward past Piet De Wet's position, ventre a terre, at the first attack on the camp, and made off in the direction of Bloemfontein almost without drawing bridle. Possibly these were galloping with the tidings of the battle, and in order to obtain help. A smaller body raced back on the Thabanchu road, pursued for several miles by burghers who, however, were unable to come up with the flying Hussars. Finally General Broadwood seems to have collected numbers of his troops about four miles southwest of the Koorn Spruit drift, from whence, however, he made no attempt to go back for his guns. Here both the general and his troops were observed about noon by General Colvile, who had left Bloemfontein at daybreak with 4,000 men in order to cover Broadwood's retirement with the convoy. This force had been unable to march the distance, some fifteen miles, in time to take part in the fight, but Colvile's division was within some six miles of the drift over the Spruit as De Wet's men were removing the convoy, guns and all, northeast to the hills. Not only were close upon 6,000 of the enemy thus in sight of the 1,500 Boers in the very act of clearing the field of the trophies of their triumph, but a cavalry brigade, under General French, had also been despatched from Bloemfontein by Lord Roberts to cooperate with Colvile. This auxiliary force, however, mounted tho it was, succeeded in reaching the scene of the encounter at ten o'clock on Sunday morning; only twenty-four hours too late.
In the whole conduct of the British in this engagement, officers and men, there was not a single redeeming feature. The troops were knocked at the first onset into a panic from which they appeared unable to recover, while the officers exhibited neither the spirit, tact, nor capacity to avail themselves of the opportunities which the number of men and guns at their disposal, and their proximity to Bloemfontein, gave them to strike back at De Wet's small commando. For him it was, in every sense, a brilliant achievement. When spoken to that evening upon the encounter and its lessons, the general made the extraordinary reply: " We feel that the war has just begun, and we have every reason to be hopeful of the result." That is now (March, 1902) near two years ago, and England has still over 200,000 troops in South Africa!
Following up his succesful coup at Sannas Post, General De Wet moved rapidly to the southeast from the scene of his victory with the object of locating another isolated force which was reported to be in his own native district of Dewetsdorp. Tidings came that a body of 500 British had entered and captured this village on the 1st of April. On nearing the place De Wet was , informed that the enemy had retreated hurriedly on learning of the approach of the Boers, and had gone towards Reddersburg, due south of Bloemfontein. The general wheeled his commando in that direction, and was soon in the locality of the British encampment. His scouts brought him information of the strength and position of the foe, and plans for the capture of the troops were soon arranged.
The enemy's position was found to be on the reverse side of a long kopje, south of where the Boer forces had halted, and it was determined to place the Tommies, as at Sannas Post, between two fires, in a surprise attack. Half of the commando were to move round the southern side of the English, while the other half remained to the north; this section, under the general's immediate command, to commence the fray.
The enemy were completely surprised, so negligent had their officers been in omitting scouting precautions. They made a plucky stand, however, against superior numbers, and held their position luring the whole of the day. De Wet gradually drew his lines closer around his adversaries, and placed his guns, under cover of he night, where the British would be at the mercy of a combined artillery and rifle fire on the following morning. When the light on Wednesday enabled the officer in command of the enemy's force to recognize the hopelessness of any continued struggle, he ordered the white flag to be hoisted, and surrendered.
Twelve officers and 459 men were taken prisoner. There were some fifty casualties on the enemy's side. De Wet's loss was trivial.
I chanced to meet these 471 prisoners on their way to Kroonstad. They belonged to General Gatacre's division, and were a mixed body of Royal Irish and Mounted Infantry, and all wore the appearance of fine strapping fellows. One of them, evidently an English Tommy, mistaking me for a Boer, addressed me in a defiant tone, saying, "We're a coming back again, you bet your life!"
Having despatched his batch of prisoners round by the east of Lord Roberts' huge army at Bloemfontein on to Kroonstad and Pretoria, De Wet turned east again and made for Wepener, close to the Basuto border. Here a body of Colonial British under Colonel Dalgetty were strongly entrenched, with ammunition, provisions, and water. They had heard of the disasters of Sannas Post and Reddersburg, and had made all possible preparations for an expected attack. De Wet's men were placed to the best advantage when the attack was delivered, but so strong had the British officers rendered their entrenchments and so stoutly did the Colonial troops hold their ground, that the place was successfully held for seventeen days, until the besieged were finally relieved by the mounted columns under Generals French, Hart, and Hamilton, with which Lord Roberts had resolved to clear the country east of Bloemfontein preparatory to his advance northward from the Free State capital to Pretoria.
While the siege of Wepener was in progress Commandant-General Louis Botha, accompanied only by two of his adjutants, rode from Osspruit Camp near Brandfort to visit General De Wet's laager. On his return north by Thabanchu, he was riding within a mile of a British camp, in the dark, believing it to be a Boer laager, when he was fortunately met by a Boer scout who was watching the movements of the English, and who thus saved the head of the Transvaal army from walking straight into the hands of the enemy.