The advance or Lord Roberts—The Boer forces fall back—The English enter Pretoria—Botha's final words in the abandoned capital of the Republic.
From the 13th of March until the 30th of April Lord Roberts remained at Bloemfontein with his huge army. This long inaction, following the sensational British victory at Paardeberg, occasioned some impatient criticism in England, where the real condition of the British troops was badly understood. The delay was a wise resolve on the part of the English general. It was absolutely necessitated on his part by the wear and tear his troops had undergone in the month's marching and fighting from the Modder River Junction to the Free State capital. He knew well how that experience had affected the campaigning spirit and capacity of his men, and, anticipating a sterner task in the carrying out of his resolve to reach Pretoria, he prudently gave his soldiers a long rest.
Roberts in preparing his advance on Pretoria adopted the same tactics which he had employed in deceiving Cronje. He sent troops to Fourteen Streams, at the extreme northwest of the Orange Free State, as if it was his intention to break through there so as to avoid the hills which stood in the way of a movement due north from Bloemfontein by Brandfort, Kroonstad, and the Vaal River. Many of the Boer officers whom I met at Brandfort believed this would be the line of the enemy's march, and so did Villebois-Mareuil. General De la Rey, however, whose judgment has been uniformly right in critical emergencies, rejected this idea as absurd. He held that Roberts was tied to the railway line for his commissariat and communications, and would not dream of marching his huge army so long a distance while so far removed from his base; especially after the rude experiences which his convoy underwent on the occasion of the advance from Modder River Junction to Bloemfontein. Notwithstanding this sound view, the 4,000 Boers in and around Brandfort at the end of April were weakened by the despatch of 800 to Fourteen Streams to reenforce Commandant Andries Cronje, who, with some 1,500 more burghers, was held there by a large force of British under Lord Methuen, threatening the Free State side of the Vaal River as if to be ready for an advance at that point into the yet uninvaded territory of the South African Republic.
The Boer forces in front of the British on the eve of Lord Roberts' advance from the Free State capital, were located as follows: At Brandfort, the then nearest Boer position to the British army at Bloemfontein, General De la Rey was in chief command of about 3,000 burghers; mainly made up of the Ermelo, Carolina, and other Transvaal commandoes. East of this, some dozen miles away, Generals Philip Botha and Kolbe had a combined force of] 1,500 men, while General Christian De Wet, and other Free State officers were already falling back before the extreme right wing of| Roberts' army from the districts round Thabanchu, and the border* of Basutoland, north towards Kroonstad. These latter commandoed numbered from 1,500 to 2,500 men. At Fourteen Streams, on1 the extreme west, Andries Cronje had the number of burghers' already mentioned. The total Boer forces holding a line of defensive positions extending right across from east to west of the Orange Free State, a distance of near 200 miles, amounted to no more than 8,000. Less than half of these were available for De la Rey on the 2nd day of May when the advanced lines of a British army] of 30,000 emerged from behind the hills east of Taffel Kop and made for the village of Brandfort, the first stage on Roberts' journey to Pretoria.
As already related, I chanced to be with Commandant-General Louis Botha at Glencoe, in Natal, when the news of the British, movement on Brandfort was received. It was in a telegram from De la Rey and read as follows: " The English are crossing over the plain. They are as numerous as locusts. I cannot shoot them back!"
Every possible effort was now made to send help to De la Rey. General Botha left Glencoe at once, taking with him the Standerton commando from the forces in front of General Buller. He had to travel north from Natal to Pretoria, then south over the Vaal River to the front. While transacting some business in the capital, a large number of the men who had come with him took train back again to their homes, in and around Standerton. Back went the young general that same night, rallied the men again, and succeeded in bringing all of them with him in his journey to join De la Rey. It was manifest, however, from this painful incident, and from the general reluctance of most of the old burghers to return to the front, that the mass of the elder Boers in the Transvaal and Orange Free State commenced to look upon the struggle against the British " locusts " as hopeless. Cronje's surrender had broken the heart of their good fortune, and the failure of any European power to intervene in their behalf dispelled a lingering hope in an ultimate manifestation of that Divine assistance in which they had so long and so sincerely believed.
Before Louis Botha could reach the scene of renewed action, De la Rey, who had been reenforced by a few small bodies, including Blake's Irish Brigade, was forced back from Brandfort and retired towards Smaldeel, using his little force to the best advantage in retarding the too rapid progress of Roberts. It was not possible, however, to stop effectively the way of ten men by the efforts of one, ,and this was the disproportion between the opposing forces. The English general sent forward a huge mass of men with whom to 'bear down resistance in his immediate front, while his mounted troops were extended for miles to his right and left, with the object of turning the Boer positions whenever a stand should be made by De la Rey's center. In this manner, and by the sheer weight of numbers alone, the Boers were compelled to fall back from one position to another, without being able to make any effective stand against such tactics and numbers.
There are three streams, each with deep beds, crossing the road from Brandfort to the Vaal River; the Vet, the Zand, and the Valsch rivers, with several spruits in addition; at each of which a fight might have been made with a force of 10,000 men, even against Roberts' hosts. But with De la Rey's 4,000, no sooner were the beds of these rivers reached and occupied, and men placed in position to contest the passage of the British center column, than a cloud of cavalry would be seen miles to the right and left, on the north of the stream, menacing the burghers' line of retreat. In face of such odds there was no alternative, short of a hopeless fight against overwhelming numbers at some given place, save that of a continued falling back upon the Vaal River.
The Commandant-General caught up with De la Rey after a three • hours' stand had been made at the Zand River. Philip Botha's commando had made a gallant fight at this stream, in which several British were killed. The march of Roberts' column was arrested for the night, while the Boer guns were carried safely to Venters-burg, ahead. Here on the following day the Commandant-General at the head of the Ermelo, Standerton, and Wakkerstroom skeletons of these famed commandoes charged a large force of advancing English who were a few miles in front of Roberts' main column, and drove them back upon their main lines, capturing some prisoners. Occasional encounters of this kind, and isolated acts of signal 28 bravery, occurred in the rear of what was now a total force of some 5,000 Boers, most of them retiring without fighting—doggedly, sullenly, hopelessly retiring. Night and day from the time of the brief combat at the Zand River, did Generals Botha and De la Rey, with President Steyn, appeal to and implore the men who had fought in fifty successful engagements, and always against odds, to turn round and stand with the few men who were contesting every mile of the ground with the advancing foe. In vain. That haunting specter of Paardeburg was ever present to the eyes of the hitherto resolute men who had so frequently fought and beaten England's best troops. Their only thought seemed to be to retire behind the broad and deep shelter of the Vaal River.
In this way, under the most discouraging circumstances for the Federal cause, the British, to their own agreeable surprise, were able to reach Kroonstad, half the distance to Pretoria, in one of the three weeks which Lord Roberts believed might be required for his task.
On the 11th of May the English army entered the temporary capital of the Free State. Generals Botha and De la Rey, along with President Steyn, moved out of the fever-stricken town as Roberts' forces were crossing the Valsch River, at the southern boundary of the place. The last men to leave Kroonstad, however, were Blake's Brigade, who were nearly caught by the enemy while engaged in a hurried and hungry contest with the viands of the Grand Hotel.
All the Boer forces from east to west of the Free State were now falling back on the Vaal River, the boundary line between the two Republics, while the once dreaded little army of the Tugela was also retreating north on Laing's Nek, through which it had passed into Natal just seven months previously. Retiring yet fighting was the work of the younger Boers, the Cape Afrikanders, and the Uitlander Volunteers, but it was retiring and no fighting with the mass of the elder burghers.
At the Vaal, there was only the semblance of a stand made. The English cavalry had crossed the river ten miles west and east of Botha's retreating column, and the movement was still backward ever. The railway was torn up, bridges were blown down, culverts were destroyed, but this was about the extent of the opposition which was shown by the demoralized burghers to the advance of the once-despised Rooinek foe.
The lines of the retiring Boer army became thinner as the Vaal River was crossed and the Transvaal soil was reached. Many of the Free State burghers had slipped away during the night, and the resisting force of the harassed little column became weaker yet by these desertions. These were still the elder Boers, but tho they left the ranks at this juncture, in this manner, they were yet to right themselves in the eyes of an admiring world, and to prove, in many a daring and successful encounter, that they were men who had been only temporarily dispirited, and not men willingly beaten in the light for their country's independence.
From the Vaal to the environs of Johannesburg Botha's ranks were increased by a few hundred men who had gone from Pretoria and the towns of the Rand to help to keep the English back. The conflict in front of the Boer center became more active as the nature of the ground grew better for positions of advantage on one side, and more difficult for Roberts' advance on the other. The English had fully expected that extreme measures would be resorted to at Johannesburg to destroy the mines, and, possibly, to burn the city which had caused the war, and Roberts' plans after crossing the Vaal River were directed towards the defeat of such purposes should they be attempted. Nothing of this kind took place, owing to the decision arrived at by President Kruger, and the occupation of Johannesburg was effected, after some desultory firing had taken place at Germiston.
The English had at last planted their flag over the gold-reefed city of evil omen, and the consciences of the British were appeased in the knowledge that there was the solid advantage of the richest gold mines in the world on the side of the Union Jack, as a set off against the moral infamy of the war which this gold had provoked. The fruits of the crime were not to be lost, whatever might become of the honor of the Empire.
Inside Pretoria confusion grew more serious as the rapid retreat of the Boers from the Vaal had become known and it was found that the capital would not have to undergo the experience of a siege. This news emboldened the pro-British partisans, and a plot was set on foot to release the English officers still held as prisoners of war within the city, and, in conjunction with the 3,000 other prisoners at Waterval, to seize the arsenal and hold it until Roberts should arrive. There were still, however, enough of police and officials available to stop any such scheme being carried out, and this fact alone prevented the execution of the plot.
On the 29th of May President Kruger and other members of the Executive took their departure from the city eastward to Machadodorp, and the capital of the little Republic was left to its fate.
Three days later Louis Botha, covered with dust and borne down by fatigue, came to visit his wife and children from the lines beyond the boundary of hills, and to see to the proper despatch of such war materials as yet remained in the arsenal and other places. These duties attended to, the Commandant-General was off again to the front, from whence the booming of guns and the shrieking of lyddite could be plainly heard in the town.
Guns, rifles, ammunition, provisions, rolling stock, everything removal within the city that would be useful for further opera-lions were expeditiously sent forward on the Delagoa Bay railway; and the loyal and disloyal citizens awaited with conflicting hopes the advent of the final scene in the war drama around Pretoria.
Down from the gaps leading through the hills from the south came the retreating burghers in broken commandoes, all making their way eastward on the line of general retreat. Behind them could be heard the guns of the advancing British, and the procession continued through Sunday and Monday the 3rd and 4th of June. Attempts had been made by the enemy to send troops enough round by the north and south of the city to cut the railway line east of Pretoria so as to prevent the removal of heavy guns and stores by rail. Botha had, however, anticipated these movements, and in two spirited encounters, one against General French and the other against General Hamilton, the men he had posted to guard these positions had driven these enveloping forces back with loss, and left the railway clear for the final use to which it would be put in Pretoria in the service of the Boer Republic.
On the night of the 4th of June, Lord Roberts sent a staff officer under a flag of truce to Commandant-General Botha demanding the surrender of the capital. The reply was returned that the English could take possession the next morning, and Adjutant Sandberg, General Botha's military secretary, and another officer were commissioned to convey to Lord Roberts the intimation that he could enter the Transvaal capital on that day.
The Boer officers and men who had no secure rest since leaving Kroonstad slept in what was to be the capital of the Republic for that night only, and early the following morning, the 5th of June, Louis Botha and Lukas Meyer bade farewell to their families, vaulted into their saddles, and followed in the rear of the still re-treating Boer columns, eastward out of Pretoria, as the British were entering the city through the southern gap in the circle of surrounding hills.Louis Botha's last words on leaving the city thus violated again, after twenty years of freedom, by the entry of the British flag, were, " We will fight them to the death!"