On January 10, 1900, Lord Roberts reached Capetown in the Dunottar Castle, the ship which ten weeks previously had brought Buller to South Africa, and resumed the task which he was not allowed to finish in 1881. The terms of peace imposed upon the British Government by the Boers after Majuba Hill resulted in an armistice of eighteen years, and he was still the soldier to whom the nation instinctively turned when it was again in trouble in South Africa.
With one unimportant exception all his war experience had been gained in India or near its frontiers; but India is a spacious arena where spacious ideas can be freely developed. His mind had not been scored into grooves by years of desk duties in Pall Mall, or subjected to the necessity of accommodating itself to obsolete methods and House of Commons' views. The Indian Army, of which he obtained the command after serving in it in each commissioned rank, more closely approaches in its training, organization, and readiness for active service, the military standard set up by the chief continental nations, than the British Army; of which a distinguished German officer said at the time of the Boer War that it was meant for detachment warfare only and not to win great battles.
With Lord Roberts came, as Chief of the Staff, Lord Kitchener of Khartoum, a hard and ready man who for fifteen years had been scouring the Nile. All his war service had been in Egypt, where recently he had not only smashed the dervishes and secured the Soudan, but by his diplomatic tact in the Fashoda affair had relaxed the tension of a dangerous international situation. He belonged to the Royal Engineers, who are, like the Army Service Corps, a semi-combatant body engaged in technical duties that do not offer much opportunity of gaining experience in the art of war or of practice in handling troops, but who have, nevertheless, given to the nation not a few soldiers of distinction. It was, perhaps, for this reason that Lord Roberts generally employed Lord Kitchener as an expert military foreman, entrusted with the supervision of the work of others.
The situation in South Africa at the time of Lord Roberts' arrival was as follows:—
Methuen was established at Modder River; Mafeking and Kimberley were holding out, and the latter at least seemed to be in no immediate danger; French was in a good position before Colesberg; Gatacre was maintaining himself without difficulty at Sterkstroom; the garrison at Ladysmith, after sixteen hours' fighting, had recently warded off a determined attack; the disaffected districts in the Cape Colony had not risen; and the despondent Buller, quickened by reinforcements and stimulated by the approach of the Dunottar Castle, was about to make another attempt to relieve Ladysmith.
Schemes for a South African campaign had been for some time under consideration by the War Office, but as the attitude of the Free State could not be forecasted, they were more or less provisional. As late as the end of September the Premier and the War Minister scouted the idea of war with the Free State, and the official plan of a central advance on Bloemfontein by way of Bethulie and Norval's Pont, which held good until some little time after Lord Roberts' arrival, must therefore have been subterraneously drawn up without their knowledge. It was no doubt an excellent solution of a strategical problem studied by men in an office with a map of South Africa before them which showed several lines of communication converging on the Orange River; and Buller was about to carry it out when he was called aside to Natal.
Map, p. 260.
Lord Roberts had, however, two years before drawn up a scheme for an advance on the Transvaal by way of the Kimberley line as far as Mafeking and thence across country to Pretoria, and before leaving England he modified it so as to adapt it to action in the Free State. He proposed to leave the Kimberley line at some point between the Orange River and the Modder River, and to march in a S.E. direction on the Bloemfontein line. He was a firm believer in the indirect results of military movements, and he expected that his arrival at Springfontein or Edenburg and the menace to the Free State capital "must draw the Free Staters back from Kimberley and Natal," and that the occupation of it "would render the Boer positions south of the Orange River untenable." The official plan of an advance from the centre would force back the Free Staters engaged in the Cape Colony, and instead of isolating them would enable them to reinforce Cronje.
After his arrival at Capetown, circumstances however compelled Lord Roberts to modify his plan of campaign. The news of the Spion Kop affair, anxiety on account of Kimberley, the presence of Cronje at Magersfontein and other considerations, determined him to march through the Free State by a more northerly route which would enable him to relieve Kimberley en passant and to give battle to Cronje.
The secret of the plan, which was known only to Lord Roberts' personal staff, was well kept, and operations were continued without reference to it. The earlier orders issued by him seemed to indicate that the central advance was still to be carried out. The VIth Division under Kelly-Kenny was sent to Naauwpoort; French was instructed to make a demonstration against Norval's Pont; and Methuen was warned that it might be necessary to withdraw part of the Modder River force.
The Boers, who had captured at Dundee some intelligence papers which disclosed the original plan of campaign, were now more than ever convinced that the British Army must advance by way of Norval's Pont and Bethulie, and did not discover their error until it was too late to rectify it.34 When Lord Roberts had made all his preparations, which involved the entire reorganization of the transport, and the raising of a considerable force of mounted troops, for his march of 100 miles across the veld eastward from the railway, the secret was disclosed to Kelly-Kenny and French on February 1. This plan of a flank march had also suggested itself to Buller, who proposed it in a memorandum which Lord Roberts found on his arrival in Capetown; but as Buller's scheme included the construction of a railway across the veld, and limited the advance of the Army to the rate at which the line could be pushed forward, it did not fall in with Lord Roberts' ideas.
Meanwhile Cronje was not perturbed by the reports of troops coming up the Western line, and was confident that they only indicated a renewed but isolated attack on Magersfontein. He had no doubt that if necessary he could always fall back upon Kimberley and retreat towards the Transvaal; and the demonstrations made by Methuen westwards in the direction of Koedoesberg Drift served the double purpose of warning a disaffected region and of diverting Cronje's attention from the flank on which he was to be attacked and which he believed to be secure.
The two months following the arrival of Lord Roberts in South Africa were the only brilliant period of a dreary war which lasted nearly three years, and will perhaps save it from being quoted in military history as the most sluggish campaign of recent times. In each of the two objects of strategy, namely to avoid fighting the enemy on ground of his own choosing, and to compel him to fight under unfavourable conditions, Lord Roberts was extraordinarily successful. There was a light touch, an ingenuity, in his swift and silent strategy which contrasted strongly with the heavy and dull methods which had hitherto controlled the action. While Buller was talking about his tedious railway across the veld, and Milner at Capetown was dismalling the situation and discouraging the advance, Lord Roberts had in effect entered the capital of the Free State and seemed to have completed half his task. The Boers were hypnotized and deceived not only by signs from which they drew wrong inferences, but also by bogus orders which it was arranged should come under their notice and which were simultaneously cancelled in cipher: and when too late they awoke from the bewilderment, they began to scuttle to and fro like rabbits in a warren. There is good reason to believe that if the strategic ability of Lord Roberts could have been united in one mind to the determination of Lord Kitchener the war would have been over in a year.
On February 8 Lord Roberts arrived at Modder River, where he found bad news awaiting him. Buller had failed at Vaalkrantz, and the diamond men of Kimberley were threatening to capitulate. By February 13 30,000 combatants, some of whom in order to preserve the illusion had been kept in the centre until the last moment, were in readiness at various points between the Orange and the Modder. The immediate problem before Lord Roberts was the relief of Kimberley in combination with the cornering of Cronje. In the background was the Natal trouble. Buller was again helplessly wringing his hands and reaching round to find excuses for his misadventures. Lord Roberts wisely left him alone and went on with his own work. He saw what Buller refused to see, that the Tugela could be crossed at Magersfontein and Ladysmith relieved at a drift of the Modder River.
On February 11 Lord Roberts set his army in motion; and the operations of the next few days may be summarised with sufficient accuracy as a cavalry raid northwards, but avoiding Cronje's left flank at Brown's Drift, to relieve Kimberley; combined with an infantry advance to cut him off. It was not possible to make the initial movements in the direction of the eventual advance, as the Magersfontein-Brown's Drift quadrant N.E. of Modder River was strongly held by the enemy, and disallowed a cavalry advance from below the junction of the Riet and the Modder in the direction of Kimberley except by a westerly detour which could not be accommodated to the general scheme. In order to strike the practicable drifts on the two rivers above their confluence, it was necessary for the advance to be made along the curve of a parabola which issued from Modder River Station in a S.E. direction, and in a sixty-mile circuit crossed the rivers and finally approached Kimberley, only twenty miles distant from the starting point, almost in the opposite direction.
At midday on February 11 the Cavalry Division under French reached Ramdam, a farm east of Graspan and fronting the drifts of the Riet, where the Army was being concentrated for the advance. Some hours elapsed before Cronje became aware that French had trekked away to the S.E., and to his slow and sullen spirit the movement did nt appear to have much significance. He was persuaded that the British never trusted themselves much more than a day's march away from a railway. It was only a demonstration, a reconnaissance. He did, however, take certain precautions which, if they had been devised with a true appreciation of the situation and intelligently carried out, might have seriously checked French.
He assumed that the initial direction of French's march would be continued indefinitely towards Koffyfontein, possibly even that it was a retirement from the Modder River position caused by bad news from the centre, and he sent a commando of observation, under C. de Wet, up the right bank of the Riet. The most adroit and skilful movement of the war had now begun without Cronje's comprehending its object.
But French did not complete his first day's work very auspiciously. His supply column was far behind when he reached Ramdam, and owing to a misunderstanding Hannay's Brigade of Mounted Infantry from Orange River, which was instructed to join him, did not turn up: conflicting orders had resulted as usual, ordre, contr'ordre, désordre. French, however, felt himself strong enough to continue his march without Hannay, who, on his delayed march to Ramdam, engaged a detached body of Boers and thereby strengthened the enemy's conviction that Koffyfontein was the objective.
As French approached the river, Waterval Drift, the lower of the two drifts across the Riet, was found to be occupied by De Wet, and the Division was diverted to De Kiel's Drift, which was reached without much difficulty at midday, February 12. On the right bank were the commando of the Jacobsdaal garrison under Lubbe, and the commando under De Wet and A.P.J. Cronje which had been sent to observe the cavalry movement; about 1,000 men in all. But De Wet could not get the Koffyfontein idea out of his head, and its influence removed many obstructions from the path of the advance. He boldly rode across French's front at De Kiel's Drift, and made S.E. for Winterhoek, closely followed by A.P.J. Cronje; and all French's horses could not find out where they had gone. Next day it was given out in Divisional Orders that the commandos had gone to the Modder River, and four weeks passed by before the Army ceased to suffer from the error.
There was still "one more river to cross" before the diamond men of Kimberley could be relieved; and ere the thirst of the South African summer could be slaked on the banks of the Modder, a tract of twenty-five miles of veld, in which the absence of any homestead having "fontein" for its suffix declared the scarcity of water, must be traversed under the sun.
In the forenoon of February 13 the Cavalry Division started northwards from De Kiel's Drift; and at last De Wet, who, unknown to French, was watching the trek from its right flank, partially relieved himself of the Koffyfontein idea. The effort weakened him, and he displayed none of that readiness of resource and promptitude of action with which he subsequently worried the British Army for the space of two years. He withdrew his own commando towards Koffyfontein, and having ordered Lubbe to follow French, reported to Cronje at Magersfontein that the cavalry was making for the Modder.
French's objective points were now Rondeval and Klip River Drifts on the Modder, but in order to deceive Lubbe, who was hanging on to his right flank, and to elbow him away from the drifts, French changed direction with two brigades and headed for Klip Kraal Drift, some eight miles above Klip Drift, reverting suddenly to his original line as soon as the river came in sight. The drifts were held by small parties of the enemy, who offered no resistance, and on the evening of February 13 the Division took possession of the kopjes on the north bank.
The occupation of the drifts was soon made known to Cronje, but the news revealed little to his dull and uninstructed nature, permeated with the idea that a British force and a railway were indissoluble entities. Though his communications eastward were now seriously threatened, it did not occur to him that there might be an alternative to fighting him out of Magersfontein, namely manoeuvring him out of it; and he persuaded himself that French's movement was a trap to entice him away pending an attack on Magersfontein from the south, and he was probably unaware that the relief of Kimberley was an urgent matter. He moved his own camp from Brown's Drift to a less exposed position at Bosjespan, and while retaining his hold on Magersfontein with his main body, sent out two commandos to watch French, and these accidentally occupied a line through which the cavalry must pass on its way to Kimberley.
The arrival of the VIth Division on the morning of February 15 set French free to resume his march on Kimberley. The two commandos had on the previous day joined hands with Lubbe, who, after he was pushed out of French's way, crossed the Modder at Klip Kraal Drift and worked round to a position north of Klip Drift. The relieving force was now obstructed in the line of its advance by ridges on its right and left fronts and by the nek connecting them, all occupied by the enemy; while on its left flank was Cronje's new camp at Bosjespan, of the existence of which it was unaware. The situation seemed awkward, as the only way out of it was the shallow valley leading up to the nek, and exposed to a converging fire from the ridges on which two guns were posted.
But French was not long in doubt, and like a bridge player who in order to win the game is sometimes compelled to assume the position of certain cards, with rare intuition correctly assumed that the nek was weakly held. Like a ship going down the ways to the water, the Division was launched to the front; cleaving the opposing waves and gaining momentum as it advanced, then righting itself, rose to the slope of the nek and carried it with resistless energy.
After a short midday halt at Abon's Dam, French raised the siege of Kimberley before sunset; the besiegers under Ferreira did not wait to be attacked, but withdrew towards Boshof.
The relief of Kimberley was perhaps the most brilliant feat of arms in the campaign. It was well-conceived and, considered by itself alone, well carried out, but the merit of it has been obscured by the fact that it cost less than half a hundred human casualties. When, on the morning of February 15, the VIth Division took over the outposts, and the Cavalry Division fell in on the banks of the Modder, there was the terrain of a Balaklava charge before it.
It may well be doubted whether the price paid for the relief of the diamond men was not too high. Uninstructed public opinion at home called for the movement, and forced Lord Roberts' hand, but it was never an imperative military necessity. The horse casualties,35 due to want of water, forced marches, and ignorance of horsemastership on the part of all ranks, who were inclined to regard cavalry work in the light of a steeplechase, were so heavy that when on February 17 French, after an attempt on the previous day to pursue a body of retreating Boers with his exhausted horses, was suddenly called upon to march thirty miles to head off Cronje, he could in all his Division mount less than the strength of two regiments. Nor was this all, for the rush to Kimberley was the indirect cause of the loss of the supply column at Waterval Drift on February 15; and thus in a few hours the mounted force and the supply column and transport which Lord Roberts and his staff had assembled with so much difficulty were, the former partially and the latter entirely, sacrificed.
The VIth, VIIth, and IXth Infantry Divisions, under Kelly-Kenny, Tucker, and Colvile respectively, were withdrawn from Modder River and the stations south of it, and concentrated at Ramdam on February 11 and the two following days. Owing to the steepness of its banks the Riet River could only be crossed at Waterval and De Kiel's Drifts, and on these the Army converged, and trickled through them like the sands in the neck of an hour-glass. Men, horses, guns, supply and ammunition wagons were slowly and painfully transferred to the right bank, and the VIth Division, which followed the cavalry to De Kiel's Drift, though the first infantry to get through by more than twenty-four hours, was delayed by the block of transport and lost its start in the race to the Modder River.
Meanwhile to Waterval Drift came Kelly-Kenny and Colvile in succession, and were soon pushed on to Wegdraai Drift, to which Tucker also hastened as soon as he could shake himself clear of De Kiel's Drift. The latter was now out of the running, for although Kelly-Kenny had already had a nine hours' march from Waterval Drift beginning soon after midnight, by 5 in the afternoon of February 14 the VIth Division was ready to resume its march to support French at Klip Drift, some hours before Tucker came in. Kitchener had been ordered by Lord Roberts to attach himself to the VIth Division as assessor to Kelly-Kenny, and marched out with it.
When Colvile, whose division was detailed as a reserve, arrived at Waterval Drift, he found the passage congested by transport of all kinds; and although after half a day's delay he was able to proceed to Wegdraai Drift, a large convoy on which the Army depended for the greater part of its supplies for the march to Bloemfontein, had to be left behind. A small escort remained with it, the wagons were laagered, and the oxen outspanned and sent out upon the veld to graze. No danger was anticipated.
De Wet had not been lurking on the banks of the Riet for nothing. Hitherto he had not greatly distinguished himself. On the outbreak of the war he and his three sons were commandeered as private burghers, and when he reached the Natal border he was appointed vice-commandant. He served under A.P. Cronje and witnessed Carleton's surrender at Nicholson's Nek. In December he joined P. Cronje at Magersfontein, and was sent early in February to Koedoesberg Drift to check the British demonstrations on the Riet below Modder River Station, and later on to observe French. It is probable that the military deficiencies of his leaders made him sullen. Erasmus at Dundee stood idly in the background while Symons and Yule were on the slopes of Talana Hill, and Cronje was deaf to his remonstrances against a mere passive defence on the Modder River and the presence of women and children in the laager.
But De Wet with a free hand quickly recovered himself when the fortune of war threw him a casual chance after French had despatched him in imagination to a destination where he could do no harm. The convoy was ordered to follow Colvile to Wegdraai at 5 p.m. on February 15, and at 8 that morning, while the oxen were still grazing on the veld, De Wet, who was hovering near Winterhoek, swooped down upon the laager. The slender escort made a good resistance and the attack was reported to Lord Roberts at Wegdraai, who at first sent back a battalion with a battery and some mounted infantry, and when these were found insufficient the rest of the 14th Brigade were despatched under Tucker to endeavour to extricate the convoy. But when Tucker reached the Drift at sunset he found himself unable to bring it away. Most of the oxen had disappeared and De Wet had been reinforced. Lord Roberts was unwilling to delay his advance, and finding that the supplies were not absolutely indispensable to the success of his march, at midnight ordered Tucker to abandon the convoy and to return to Wegdraai. Next morning De Wet took possession of 176 wagon loads of supplies and 500 slaughter oxen—his first exploit in the war.
On February 16 Lord Roberts moved his Head Quarters to Jacobsdaal. It was his intention to advance on Kimberley and to make that town the base of his operations in the direction of Bloemfontein, when suddenly his plans were disarranged by an unexpected event. Cronje, who for two months had held stubbornly to Magersfontein, was reported to be trekking to the east. French's relief of Kimberley, the presence of an infantry division at Klip Drift, and the occupation of Jacobsdaal, were facts which even his obstinacy could not disregard. Like a wild creature startled in the night by a veld fire and suddenly dazzled by the glare, he rushed blindly towards the flames which were soon to consume him. Almost any direction but that which he took, the line of the Modder River, would have given him a better chance of escape. French's maimed cavalry could not have stopped him if he had retreated on either side of Kimberley, and even a withdrawal westward down the right bank of the Riet would have probably saved him. Methuen at Modder River took twelve hours to discover that Magersfontein had been abandoned at midnight on February 15.
On the morning of the 16th Kelly-Kenny sent out from Klip Drift a force under C. Knox to cover the advance of the rest of the VIth Division on Kimberley. Soon a long column of dust was observed in the distance beyond the ridge on the right, and a closer examination showed that it was caused by Cronje's wagons. The discovery came not altogether as a surprise, for Boers had been noticed crossing the front on the previous day, and as what was now seen proved to be the rear of a column, the trek must have been some hours in progress.
Kelly-Kenny at once abandoned his march on Kimberley and faced eastwards. It was found that the enemy had taken up a rearguard position on the southern end of the ridge. The northern end was soon seized by mounted infantry, but an attempt in interpose between the river and the Boer position failed. The ridge was cleared at 9 a. m. by a frontal attack, but not before Cronje's convoy had retired without molestation to Klip Kraal, where a second rearguard position was taken up on either side of Klip Kraal Drift.
On the assumption that Cronje was endeavouring to effect a retreat on Bloemfontein, it was necessary to confine him to the right bank of the Modder. He was already in possession of Klip Kraal Drift, and although he could hardly hope to pass his wagons across it in sight of an active enemy, it was not his only chance. Within ten miles of his laager were Brandvallei, Paardeberg, and Vendutie Drifts, each of which would give him access to the southern bank.
The task before the pursuing army was therefore to drive in his rearguards from their successive positions and prevent him getting comfortably away to secure a passage across the river. At nightfall on February 16 it seemed likely that he would succeed. His convoy in the main laager at Klip Kraal had had twelve hours' rest, and his rearguard had maintained itself on the second position; in spite of a frontal attack on the right bank, and of a flank attack on the left bank made by a battery and a force of mounted infantry which had crossed the semicircle formed by a northward bend of the river between Klip Drift and Klip Kraal Drift. The guns even succeeded in throwing a few shells into the laager, but ran short of ammunition. Kitchener, who remained with Kelly-Kenny as military assessor, had early in the day advocated a raid up the river in order to head off Cronje at Paardeberg Drift, but the exhaustion of the troops prevented the enterprise.
Next day the chase began in earnest—to borrow for the occasion, as was done so frequently during the war, a metaphor from the sporting world—but only a few of the hounds were on the spot, and the rest of the pack were at Kimberley and Jacobsdaal.
When the report of Cronje's retreat from Magersfontein, which Lord Roberts received soon after he reached Jacobsdaal, was confirmed by a message from Kitchener, he ordered French, who at that time was engaged with the enemy some miles north of Kimberley and endeavouring to capture the Long Tom whose recent arrival from Ladysmith viâ Pretoria had scared the Kimberley civilians into a threat of surrender, to hurry eastward and endeavour to place himself between Cronje and Bloemfontein; but owing to a break in the field telegraph cable the message was delayed. Kelly-Kenny was at the same time instructed to carry on the pursuit.
But the situation had not yet clearly disclosed itself, and Lord Roberts did not abandon his intention of sending Colvile's and Tucker's Divisions towards Kimberley; and their orders to march on the lower drifts of the Modder held good. Cronje's retreat in an unexpected direction was hard to explain. Was he going to meet the reinforcements which Buller had just reported were on their way from Natal? De Wet had just shown that there was a vigorous and enterprising body of the enemy ready to raid the railway south of Kimberley, and it was possible that he might have been reinforced from Colesberg.
Towards evening, however, a second message came from Kitchener at Klip Drift. He summarised the situation on the Modder, which he was unable to control with the troops at his disposal, and said that he was asking French to proceed to Koodoos Drift to check Cronje from the east. Lord Roberts was not the man to adhere stolidly to his own plan when a better one was laid before him. The orders to the Divisions were cancelled, and before midnight on February 16 Colvile was marching out to join Kelly-Kenny in the chase. Tucker, whose Division had hardly recovered from the Waterval Drift affair, remained at Jacobsdaal.
After sunset Cronje broke up his camp at Klip Kraal Drift and trekked along the right bank. At midnight he passed half of his transport over to the left bank at Paardeberg Drift, himself going on to Vendutie Drift, where the remainder, with the women and children against whose presence in camp De Wet had vainly protested, joined him next morning.
So far he had done well, and even when his rearguard at Paardeberg was fired on by an advanced brigade of mounted infantry which had been pushed on by Kitchener, he did not lose confidence; although he was surprised that the British, "who could not march," had overtaken him.
To De Wet and especially to Ferreira, whom he knew to be not far off, he looked for help, and even without them he believed that he would be able to cross Vendutie Drift.
Ferreira was indeed not far off, but an obstacle suddenly sprang up between him and Cronje, and the aspect of it was so alarming that he withdrew in the opposite direction. The obstacle was French's attenuated Cavalry Division which, in obedience to Kitchener's summons, had left Kimberley before sunrise that morning, and after a march of twenty-six miles had reached the spot indicated by Kitchener for the heading of Cronje. As the Boer wagons were about to cross Vendutie Drift the shells of French's Horse Artillery began to fall upon them. The convoy was thrown into confusion, the oxen stampeded, Cronje was entangled and bewildered, and but for the gallant exertions of some foreign officers in the service of the Boers a fatal panic might have ensued. The advance guard under De Beer was reinforced from the main laager, and a demonstration made against the left flank of the cavalry; and although French held on, his position remained insecure and even precarious until the arrival of the infantry on the following morning. With a handful of tired, hungry, and unsupported horsemen he not only frightened Ferreira, whose force outnumbered his own, off the field, but also paralysed and prepared for destruction the army which had beaten Methuen and had held Magersfontein for two months.
Next day, February 18, at 3 a.m. began the ten days' operations to which the name of the Battle of Paardeberg has been somewhat inaccurately given. Paardeberg is a prominent hill on the right bank of the Modder, four miles W.S.W. of the battle centre, Cronje's laager at Vendutie Drift, and lies on the extreme edge of the elliptical arena on which the battle was fought. It seems to have been chosen as the official word because the hill was the only distinctive physical feature shown on the banks of the river in the incomplete surveys of the time, and because the alternative would have been Stinkfontein, a farm near the field of battle. The Battle of Vendutie Drift would have been a more correct term.
The Modder forms the major axis of the ellipse, which it enters near Koodoos Drift and leaves at Paardeberg Drift, and like most South African rivers runs in a deep channel between banks intersected by the tributary dongas which the rains have scored in the soft soil, and which afford almost the only shelter from artillery fire. The whole area is commanded by the surrounding kopjes and ridges.
Cronje, though urged to break out of his laager on the night of February 17, refused to move. It is probable that he might have effected his escape if he had abandoned his transport. An active force led by a determined man could have wriggled out under cover of the night, and joined one or other of the commandos which were known to be hovering. Cronje was in communication with Ferreira; he had sent to Bloemfontein for help; and De Wet was known to be on his way from Koffyfontein. But instead of making an effort to save himself he fatally trusted to relief from outside. He did not realize that Vendutie Drift was not a Magersfontein which he could hold indefinitely, or that during the last few weeks the British Army had been greatly increased. One result of his obstinacy was the desertion of several hundred Free Staters, who had not served very willingly under the leadership of a Transvaaler. Most of them returned to their homes.
In the absence of the Commander-in-Chief, who was detained at Jacobsdaal by illness, Kelly-Kenny was the senior officer present with the force on the Modder River; but for some reason which may have formed itself in Lord Roberts' mind when they were fellow-passengers on the Dunottar Castle, he was not entrusted with the management of the battle. Kitchener had marched several hours with the VIth Division on February 14 before Kelly-Kenny was aware of his presence; and as Chief of the Staff in direct communication with Head Quarters, he had much to say at Klip Drift. At Paardeberg the status of Kelly-Kenny became still more anomalous, Kitchener, though junior not only to him but also to two other generals present, being empowered by Lord Roberts to issue orders in his name so that there might be "no delay such as references to and fro would entail." The difficulty of the situation was increased by the fact that Kitchener was practically without a staff.
The reason which induced Cronje to remain in his laager, namely the expected arrival of help from outside, also determined Kitchener to attack it without delay. He confidently expected to carry it in less than four hours, but Cronje held out for nine days.
Kitchener's plan might have been foreseen by any officer who had been present at manoeuvres: a preliminary bombardment of the laager, followed by a holding frontal attack, in combination with rolling-up flank attacks. The strength of Cronje's position was supposed to be the laager itself, whereas it was rather the river banks and tributary dongas which he had occupied.
The frontal display was assigned to a portion of the VIth Division; the Mounted Infantry under Hannay supported by an infantry brigade were to work round upstream and fall upon Cronje's left flank; while the IXth Division attacked his right flank from the west.
Kitchener, who had come on with Hannay in advance of the VIth Division, began to issue his orders before he had seen the commanding officers of the troops which were to carry them out. Hannay, who was at hand, was despatched to his place in the east from which he never returned. Kelly-Kenny's ambiguous and humiliating position; Kitchener's impatience and impetuosity; his lack of a staff to carry out his plan; his omission to explain it to the divisional and brigade commanders; and his habit of "short-circuiting" orders to subordinates while their superior officers stood passively in the background, made unity of action impossible and February 18 a day of misunderstanding and ill-success. The battle was fought by a Board of Directors, who, in the unavoidable absence of their Chairman, were dominated by a headstrong General Manager, who was doubtful of their capacity to carry on the business.
Kelly-Kenny and Colvile, whose Divisions came in during the night, had begun to put their troops in motion before Kitchener's plan was made known to them, and throughout the day the difficulty of co-ordinating the whole force to it was increased by the incorrect transmission or apprehension of oral orders. Kelly-Kenny proposed a preliminary investment of Cronje, but Kitchener would not consent to any postponement of his attack, for which no operation orders were issued. In a few hours, however, the soundness of Kelly-Kenny's judgment was shown; the attack became an investment, which was prolonged many days by the moral and physical exhaustion of the troops, who after forced marches by day and night on scanty rations were hustled without method into a costly battle.
By 8 a.m. Kitchener was able to report to Head Quarters that Cronje was hemmed in.
The cavalry had occupied the ground in rear of the laager, and he "thought that it must be a case of complete surrender." The troops were now set to the assault, and were quickened by an encouraging message from Lord Roberts. But they were almost immediately in trouble. Hannay had placed himself into position for the flank attack from the east, and his battery had already opened fire on the laager, when the guns themselves were shelled. A commando with two guns, under Steyn of Bethlehem, had arrived from Natal, and unobserved had seized a ridge between Stinkfontein and the Modder, which Hannay was about to cross; and although the Boer guns were silenced and the commando compelled to retire, the diversion seriously disarranged the scheme of assault.
Stephenson's Brigade of the VIth Division, when on its way to cross to the right bank at Paardeberg Drift under instructions from Kelly-Kenny, had been recalled by Kitchener, whose orders were so vaguely expressed, that while the Brigadier believed that he was to act in the frontal attack from the south with the other brigade of the Division, he was really intended by the Chief of the Staff to support Hannay's flank movement. He was now compelled to change front to meet Steyn's threat, and Hannay's attack was postponed. Stephenson was then ordered to resume his advance, but apparently still in ignorance that he was expected to act in co-operation with the mounted infantry, he so disposed his troops that he gave little support to Hannay, who early in the afternoon reported to Kitchener that he was too weak to advance with the flank attack. A peremptory message was returned, in which he was ordered "to rush the laager at all costs," even without Stephenson's support. Some of the words of the order seemed to reflect upon his determination, so he obeyed it literally and immediately. At the head of as many men as he could bring to him on the spot, he charged towards the laager, and when his horse was killed under him he marched on foot to meet his death.
As soon as it was seen that Hannay had thrown himself away, Stephenson was ordered to renew the flank attack. With a portion of his troops and some mounted infantry, he crossed to the right bank at Vanderberg's Drift, and formed to the left. A small body of Hannay's force had won a position near the Boer entrenchments, and it is probable that Stephenson's assault would have succeeded but for a curious accident, which could not have been foreseen, and by which he was deprived of part of his firing line when it was most needed. The setting sun suddenly appeared from beneath a bank of clouds in the west, directly in line with the objective, and the dazzle of the light blotted out the laager, at the same time illuminating the target on which the Boers were firing. A further advance was impracticable, and the troops, which had already fixed bayonets for the assault, were withdrawn when within 500 yards of the enemy's position. Thus the second attempt to get at the laager from the east failed, but Stephenson's action was not entirely without a result, as he was able to put his men into entrenchments, where they remained during the night.
Meanwhile, Colvile was pushing upstream from the west. On that side the Boers had an advanced position in a big donga, which runs into the right bank, about two miles below the laager, and upon which a few companies of the Highland Brigade, having waded the river, had already made a gallant but unsuccessful attack. Colvile, under orders from Kitchener, placed himself astride the river, sending the Brigade under Smith-Dorrien across to the north bank, while the Highland Brigade acted on the left of the frontal attack; and when Gun Hill, which outflanked the donga, was occupied, Kitchener ordered an assault on the donga, to be carried out simultaneously with Hannay's attack on the left flank. The order, however, was not communicated to Smith-Dorrien on Gun Hill, and he was not aware of it until he saw some troops of his own Division, supported by a few companies sent across by Kitchener from the left bank, charging across the open. In a few minutes, the gradual retardation of the rush, and then its extinction under a heavy fire, showed that the attempt had failed. It is said that Smith-Dorrien had been so imperfectly made acquainted with Kitchener's plan, that he was under the impression that he had been sent to the north bank to prevent the Boers breaking out of the laager, and not to attack them upstream.
The frontal attack was initiated by Kelly-Kenny with the 13th Brigade under C. Knox, the 18th Brigade having been detached to support Hannay's flank attack. The main body of the Boers was north of the river, but strong detachments held the left-bank dongas. Colvile was dealing with a demonstration against Paardeberg Drift when an oral message from Kitchener reached him, which he interpreted as an order to go to Knox's assistance with his Division, which was thus withdrawn from the flank and lent to the frontal attack. He was doubtfully carrying out what he believed to be his instructions when an order reached him to send the 19th Brigade, under Smith-Dorrien, across the river. A few companies of his Highland Brigade succeeded in establishing themselves on the right bank, and Knox drove the enemy out of the left-bank dongas, but was forbidden by Kelly-Kenny to cross the river, as the enemy was too strongly posted. The frontal attack was spent, but the troops remained on their ground until the approach of night released them.
Two miles S.E. of Vendutie Drift, a hill, to which the name of Kitchener's Kopje was afterwards given, rises out of the veld. In the tactics of the assault on the laager, it was not a position of much importance, but in the Paardeberg drama it was a striking scene. The detachment of infantry which Kelly-Kenny sent early in the day to occupy it had been withdrawn without his knowledge by some wandering staff officer, who thought he had found a better use for the little garrison, and replaced by a few mounted men. These, while watching the progress of the fight, and perhaps regretting that they were not taking a more active part in it, were suddenly called upon to defend themselves.
De Wet, with two guns and 600 men, had arrived from Koffyfontein at the opportune moment of the crisis of the flank attacks. He soon carried the kopje, and when at 4.30 p.m. he opened fire, the shells which he pitched into the VIth Division baggage and artillery were the first intimation of his intervention received by the Head Quarter Staff, absorbed in their attack on the laager; and for the second time the troops were called away from the work in hand, to deal with an unexpected attack from the rear, and the dwindling hope of carrying Cronje's position before nightfall passed away.
If, on the British side at Paardeberg, the commanders were not at their best when acting in partibus beyond the personal control of Lord Roberts, on the other hand De Wet's release from immediate subordination to Cronje seemed to make him a more dangerous foe. His capture of the convoy at Waterval Drift on February 15 was followed in three days by a daring raid on a British army with a handful of men. It was an impudent and haphazard enterprise, which would hardly have been attempted if he had been in possession of fuller information, but it was justified by its success. De Wet had been reinforced at Koffyfontein, and if he had brought all the commandos at his disposal with him to Paardeberg Cronje would probably have been relieved. But he had not clearly discerned the strategy of Lord Roberts, whose presence at Jacobsdaal deceived him, and instead of striking with all his strength in one direction, he weakened his force by expeditions eastward towards Edenburg and westward towards Belmont.
His appreciation of the tactical situation at Paardeberg, based on the rumours which drifted into Koffyfontein, was imperfect, and when he came within sight of the Modder, and saw the British Army before him, he must have regretted that he had not entirely abandoned the idea that the advance would be made by way of Koffyfontein. But the time and the place could not have been better arranged. The British Army was preoccupied with Cronje; and Kitchener's Kopje in De Wet's hands gave a strong flank protection to Steyn, and later on to De Beer, who, when driven out of his position north of Koodoos Drift by a resuscitated cavalry brigade under Gordon, crossed to the kopjes south of the river. Neither Steyn nor De Beer had been effectually checked, and they were hovering for a chance to swoop down.
At nightfall the situation was as follows:—
The laager was holding out, and the chief result of the day's work was a contraction of the line held by the Boers on the river; an attempt by Kelly-Kenny to recapture Kitchener's Kopje had failed; fully one quarter of the perimeter commanding Vendutie Drift was in the possession of the enemy; the troops were exhausted and the casualties exceeded 1,200.36
It does not necessarily follow from the failure of a tactical scheme that it was unsuited to the occasion; but the failure of February 18 was due to one of three causes: to the defects of the scheme, to the mode of its execution, or to the Boer external attacks. It was not a scheme which either Kelly-Kenny or Colvile would have devised if left to himself, and it is very doubtful whether Kitchener had Lord Roberts' direct authority for it. But assuming that it offered a better chance of crippling the enemy at large than the alternative of an investment, it was so hastily devised and so clumsily pursued that it became hourly more difficult to carry through, until it was finally subverted by De Wet. Many of the commanding officers had as little knowledge of Kitchener's purpose as the pawns which are moved by the hands of the chess player.
The conclusion seems to be that but for De Wet's intrusion the brute force of the investors might possibly have prevailed. But the final cause of the failure was Lord Roberts' error of judgment in putting Kitchener into virtual command of the Vendutie Drift force, thereby superseding senior officers of greater tactical ability. The complications arising out of brevet rank and local rank, grades peculiar to the British Army,37 were already sufficiently disturbing, and yet Kitchener was irregularly advanced by a few words in a private letter from Lord Roberts to Kelly-Kenny.
In his report on the day's work to Lord Roberts at Jacobsdaal, Kitchener could only say that he hoped to do something more definite on the morrow. Lord Roberts at once ordered him to be reinforced, and being now convalescent set out for Paardeberg, where he arrived during the forenoon of February 19.
It is significant that Lord Roberts did not renew the assault on the laager, and confined himself to operations against Kitchener's Kopje, thus reverting to the scheme of investment proposed by Kelly-Kenny on the previous day. The burghers evacuated the big donga during the night.
Lord Roberts was, from motives of humanity as well as from lack of hospital accommodation, reluctant to inflict another loss of 8 per cent, upon his troops. The inability to deal with a further accumulation of wounded was perhaps a justification of his decision, but his hesitancy to fight costly battles, which was characteristic of many general and field officers of undoubted personal courage, is not so easy to excuse. Even on the score of humanity, it is better to fight one decisive action in which the casualties amount to 20 per cent., than to obtain the same result by fighting three actions in each of which the casualties amount to 8 per cent. The aggregate of human suffering caused to each side by the war would have been less if the struggle had been fought out more relentlessly, and without so much regard to the expenditure of life. There seems to have been a theory that a percentage of casualties which exceeded ten would demoralize the troops, although it had often been greatly exceeded in the battles of former campaigns. In some of the operation orders subsequently issued, the reservation, "if this be possible without undue loss," appeared.
The presence of De Wet on Kitchener's Kopje gave Cronje a moral support which was not of much use to him. According to De Wet's account, he considered it a point of honour to remain with the women, children, and wagons in the laager, which every hour was growing more unfit for occupation.
The ejectment of De Wet, to be followed by an advance on Bloemfontein by French's cavalry, was substituted by Lord Roberts for the assault on the laager, which was to be left to starve itself out. But the removal of De Wet from the kopje, which he had stolen from his opponents, was not an easy task, and for three nights and two days the Ajax of the Boers defied the lightnings which played upon the hill. On the 19th, a body of cavalry was brought round from the north, but was found unequal to the task. Towards evening an infantry brigade was thrown at the kopje, but after it had obtained some success, and had partially entrenched itself on the slopes, it was withdrawn by Lord Roberts. No action was taken on the following day, but on the 21st a cavalry attack forced De Wet out of his hold; but though squeezed like a sponge between the fingers, his commando was incompressible, and oozed away towards the east; no effective pursuit being possible, owing to the condition of the horses. Meanwhile the investment continued, but the scarcity of ammunition restrained the activity of the bombardment. An offer made by Lord Roberts to take away the piteous women and children, praying for peace in their time, was rejected by Cronje.
The departure of De Wet, who picked up De Beer and Steyn on his way, enabled the gap in the circle of investment to be filled in, and the agony of the laager was drawn out for six days. Nothing but a strenuous attack from outside the circle could save it. De Wet indeed, who had trekked in the direction of Poplar Grove, and who had received reinforcements from Colesberg and Natal, which placed 5,000 burghers under his orders, made an unsuccessful attempt to recover the kopje and retreated hastily, though a gallant remnant of eighty-seven burghers under Theunissen held on, and were not made prisoners until a brigade had been launched against them. An envoy was sent by De Wet into the laager to urge Cronje to break out. A half-hearted consent was given, but at the appointed time the river was in flood and the attempt was postponed.
The exhaustion of the cavalry, and the report of the arrival of reinforcements at Poplar Grove, compelled Lord Roberts to abandon his plan of sending on French to Bloemfontein; but as he confidently looked to an early occupation of the Free State capital, he detached Kitchener to Naauwpoort with instructions to see to the opening up of the railway from the south, upon which the Army would depend for its supplies as soon as it reached Bloemfontein. He was, perhaps, glad of an excuse to employ his Chief of the Staff elsewhere for a time, for although the Divisional Commanders had loyally accepted the situation, he could not but feel that they had not been quite fairly treated, and that the Kitchener dictatorship had not been a success.
The end came on February 27. Soon after sunrise on the anniversary of Majuba Hill the white flag was raised in the laager. During the last five days, Tucker, who with a portion of his Division had been ordered up from Jacobsdaal when the news of the investment reached Lord Roberts, closed gradually in on the west, and Stephenson on the east; and on the 26th the laager was severely bombarded by four newly arrived howitzers. The final stroke was delivered by two companies of the Royal Canadians, who, disregarding a false order to retire, held on, and by daybreak had entrenched themselves within 100 yards of the flanking trench of the laager; and though this feat was not the direct cause of the surrender, which had been decided on the previous evening, it was not the less meritorious. Cronje in vain endeavoured to persuade the burghers to postpone the surrender over Majuba Day. In a few hours 4,000 men, the majority of whom were Transvaalers, were under guard as prisoners of war, and Cronje was on his way to St. Helena, there to commune with the Shade of Napoleon.
It is said that when Kruger heard of the capitulation of Vendutie Drift he exclaimed, "The real war will now begin." To the British public, the surrender of Cronje, followed in a few hours by the relief of Ladysmith, seemed to prove that the real war had now ended.
On the following day Lord Roberts transferred the bulk of the Army to a fresh camping ground at Osfontein, and remained there for seven days. The halt was rendered necessary by the exhaustion of the cavalry and artillery horses, on whom the greater stress of the advance had fallen, and whose rations had been docked even more than those of their riders; and it gave Lord Roberts an opportunity of drawing supplies for the advance from the Kimberley line, from which he was about to sever himself. The halt also enabled the Army of the Modder to pull itself together for a fresh effort, after a fortnight of harassing marches and weary investment work on stinted rations.
What might almost be called a Select Committee of the House of Lords met at Kimberley on March 1. Lord Roberts rode over from Osfontein to consult Lord Methuen, and they were joined by Lord Kitchener, who returned from his brief visit of inspection to Naauwpoort and De Aar.
Mafeking was in greater embarrassment than ever had come upon Kimberley, and there was trouble in the spacious area of Cape Colony lying west of the Capetown-Kimberley railway. Lord Roberts' hopes that a force raised locally in Kimberley might be available for the relief of Mafeking were disappointed; and after his return to Osfontein with Kitchener, he instructed Methuen to see to it with a Yeomanry brigade, which would be sent to him. To check the risings in Cape Colony, which for the time being were confined to the Prieska district, Kitchener had already sent out flying columns from De Aar.
The tenacity and resolution of De Wet were never more conspicuous than during the disheartening days which followed his retirement from Kitchener's Kopje. Neither Cronje's surrender, nor the news of the relief of Ladysmith and of the British working steadily towards the Orange River bridges, nor the despondency of his own men, diverted him from his purpose of interposing between Lord Roberts and the Free State capital. President Steyn came over from Bloemfontein to stimulate the discouraged, and President Kruger was brought round from Joubert's Head Quarters in Natal, where he had been successful in persuading the burghers dismayed by the relief of Ladysmith to hold on to the Biggarsberg positions. After a conference with Steyn, he went on to Poplar Grove, arriving there in time to hear the opening shots of the battle of March 7.
De Wet's force at Poplar Grove was at first sufficient for the occupation of a position on the left bank of the Modder only, but subsequent reinforcements brought it up to a number which was estimated by the British Intelligence not to exceed 14,000 and which was probably much less. The position was then prolonged across the river, the front being divided into two unequal portions by the Drift at Poplar Grove.
To drive away De Wet, and to entangle him as Cronje had been fatally entangled in the Drifts of the Modder River, and cut off his retreat to Bloemfontein, was the tactical scheme of Lord Roberts, who had twice as many men, and at least five times as many guns, as his opponent.
In his method of communicating his plan to the officers concerned Lord Roberts made an innovation. Instead of issuing written Battle Orders he read a memorandum at a council of war, and afterwards circulated copies of it. Thus he was able to explain the situation and expound his plan in greater detail than is possible in the bald and sterilized paragraphs of Orders; but he omitted to give in it definite times at which certain movements were to be begun, or to be completed, and the oral instructions on these points given subsequently were not clearly understood.
In brief, Lord Roberts' plan for Poplar Grove was as follows. When French's cavalry had made a wide circuit of seventeen miles south of the Modder, out of reach of De Wet's left flank, and had placed itself in rear of the Boer position, the VIth Division was to make a flank attack on the Boer left on the Seven Kopjes, and endeavour to roll it up towards the river, by way of Table Mountain. The enemy's centre was to be threatened by the VIIth Division along the line of the Modder, and his right on the north bank of the river by the IXth Division. With his great superiority in men and guns, Lord Roberts might reasonably expect to capture the whole Boer force, although he had no longer a Cronje but a De Wet to deal with.
The day's operations began at 3 a.m., when the cavalry marched out of Osfontein; but soon the absence of precise staff arrangements gave trouble. The VIth Division, which was ordered to follow French, who it was understood would leave camp at 2 a.m., was headed off by the cavalry, and had to be halted until he was clear of the infantry front. Neither Kelly-Kenny nor French seems to have mastered the scheme of attack. At daylight, when the cavalry should have been well in rear of the Boer position, it was in fact not far from the VIth Division, about two miles south of the Boer left flank on Seven Kopjes and in full view of the enemy.
As soon as the Boers perceived that an enveloping movement was in train, they withdrew towards the river, and French reported that he had turned their left flank, and was in pursuit, and that Seven Kopjes was open to Kelly-Kenny's advance. The part assigned to him in the morning's work was, however, the cutting off of the enemy's retreat, and he nullified the tactical scheme by showing himself prematurely.
His next message to Lord Roberts, who was watching the battle from Le Gallais Kopje, announced that he was shelling the wagons in retreat, but that he could not get at them, as they were protected by flanking positions on neighbouring kopjes. It was now evident that French instead of cutting off the enemy was only pursuing him without much success.
The VIth Division advanced with great deliberation. Kelly-Kenny reported to Head Quarters that Seven Kopjes had been reoccupied, and that a detached hill to the east seemed to be strongly held, which was not the impression given by French's message less than an hour previously. However, Kelly-Kenny occupied Seven Kopjes without opposition, and it is said that the infantry on the south bank were never in touch with the enemy. On the north bank the IXth Division slowly, but without much difficulty, pushed back the Boer right and captured a gun on Leeuw Kop, the solitary trophy of the day.
Finally, the Divisions converged on Poplar Grove, but De Wet had shaken himself free without the loss of a single burgher taken prisoner, and with almost his full complement of wagons. He retired along the Modder towards Abraham's Kraal, keeping French at arm's length with his rearguards. He owed his escape to the hesitancy of his opponents and his own mobility. The details of the fight show that some of the commanders waited upon one another like Lord Chatham and Sir Richard Strachan at Walcheren. Again the British cavalry was ineffective for pursuit.
It was not known at the time that had Lord Roberts' scheme been successful in its entirety, a capture would have been made that might have brought the war to a sudden close. President Kruger was present during the greater part of the battle, and with bitter chagrin saw the burghers streaming past him in retreat.
Whether the battle of Poplar Grove is to be considered a success or not depends upon the view which is taken of its actual and potential results. Lord Roberts did not capture another Boer army, as he fully expected to do, but he expelled it from a good position, and put it on the run; and the British Army was one stage nearer to Bloemfontein.
Next day Kitchener was again, in his capacity of military foreman, sent away to superintend the carrying out of the arrangements he had already made for dealing with the disaffected Prieska district. His disengagement from Lord Roberts removed for the time a potential cause of failure, namely, the uncertainty, to which perhaps the escape of De Wet at Poplar Grove may be due, whether a battle was to be fought with the Commander-in-Chiefs rapier or with the Chief-of-the-Staff's bludgeon.
De Wet, undaunted by his defeat and by the defection of a large number of his men, who disappeared after Poplar Grove, summoned a Krijgsraad, which authorized further resistance. A position threatening the left flank of the advance on Bloemfontein was taken up on the kopjes near Abraham's Kraal.
Reinforcements of "Zarps" from the Transvaal, and of contingents under Delarey and P. de Wet, came in, and a force of about 5,000 men was rallied, to make one more rearguard stand against Lord Roberts. In the absence of C. de Wet, who had been called away to Bloemfontein, Delarey was in command.
Lord Roberts' scheme for the advance on Bloemfontein was based on reports that the Boers would take up a strong position a few miles N.W. of the capital. He divided his force into three columns, each having a cavalry brigade attached to it, which, marching by different routes to a point south of the city, would cut the railway and turn the Boer flank. On March 10 the advance began, French being in command of the left column, which alone was seriously engaged during the march.
The position taken up by the Boers at Abraham's Kraal at first only included a group of kopjes near the river, and another group at Damvallei, but eventually it was extended further south to Driefontein and Boschrand, in order to command another road to Bloemfontein.
In accordance with Lord Roberts' instructions, and to the great disappointment of Delarey, who hoped to commit the left column to a frontal attack on the Abraham's Kraal and Damvallei Kopjes, which lay on the direct road to Baberspan, where it was due to bivouac that night, French avoided them, and changed direction towards Driefontein and Boschrand. Delarey, finding that he was not to be attacked on his right, reinforced Driefontein Hill, which, as it happened, had just been evacuated by De Wet, who had returned from Bloemfontein. The occupation of a detached spur of the Boschrand by a chance body of mounted infantry from the centre column, and a threatening movement of that column's cavalry brigade, had drawn him away from Driefontein on to the crest of the Boschrand. French's change of direction caused the march of his column to converge upon that of the centre column, and he was now crossing the front of a sinuous line of ten miles occupied by the enemy, and extending from the Boschrand, through Driefontein, Damvallei, and the Abraham's Kraal Kopjes to Oertel's Drift on the Modder. The right of the line had already diverted French from his march on the appointed bivouac, which he now proposed to reach by turning the left.
Suddenly Delarey opened fire from Driefontein on the cavalry, and the advance of the infantry had to be delayed while the situation was examined. The result of the reconnaissance determined Kelly-Kenny, who was in command of the left column's infantry, to attack the minor features of Delarey's position. He was unable to communicate with French, but the latter, as soon as he saw that Kelly-Kenny had achieved his object, ordered a turning movement by the cavalry.
The cavalry of the centre column, which earlier in the day had been informed that French was not in need of its assistance, co-operated imperfectly. The afternoon was wearing away, and Kelly-Kenny, while waiting impatiently for the turning movement to take effect, received a message from Lord Roberts, instructing him to push on, as it was believed that the enemy's position was not held in great strength.
Kelly-Kenny, for the first time able to fight a battle in his own way, now set himself to clear the enemy out of the Driefontein ridge. Reinforcements were ordered up to him from the centre column, but he won his victory without their aid, and after a struggle which lasted till sunset, Delarey was expelled from Driefontein. The Boers were still in occupation of the other positions on the line, but De Wet, although strongly urged by Delarey to hold on, found it advisable to withdraw from them. The burghers drifted away in the darkness, after the exhausted cavalry had made a formal attempt at pursuit.
Two of the field guns which had been taken three months before at Colenso fought on the Boer side at the Battle of Driefontein, which though but a passing incident in the war, has been favoured by the German critics with their cordial approval. "Driefontein was fought substantially on the principles evolved by the experiences of the campaign of 1870-1871." Kelly-Kenny's wilful and successful "use of deep formations, limited front, and of a wasting fire to obtain ascendancy before crushing the enemy with a simultaneous charge" is considered to uphold the correctness of the German theory of attack, which thirty years of new conditions of warfare have not modified.38
Next day the advance on Bloemfontein was resumed, and French's column was merged in the centre column under Lord Roberts. The column under Tucker was marching on the Free State capital by way of Petrusburg, twenty miles to the south, as there was a possibility that some of the commandos in retreat from beyond the Orange might be approaching. De Wet did his best to organize a final stand N.W. of the city, but it was soon evident that Lord Roberts' movements could not be checked, and President Steyn fled to Kroonstad.
The cavalry was pushed on, and on the afternoon of March 12 the railway was cut at Ferreira's Siding, a few miles south of Bloemfontein. Some resistance was offered at a ridge commanding the approach to the capital, but the defenders withdrew during the night. Soon after midnight, a small party of pioneers, under Hunter-Weston of the Royal Engineers, started to circle eastwards round the city, and having with much difficulty in the darkness found the railway on the north side, destroyed a culvert on the line and thereby entrapped a considerable amount of rolling stock.
Next morning Lord Roberts came to the line, and at midday the municipality and leading citizens of Bloemfontein waited on him at Ferreira's Siding, and tendered the submission of the city. It was a notable episode in the military history of Great Britain, and there was a touch of a vanished mediaevalism in the ceremony.The march from Ramdam to Bloemfontein restored the British Army in the eyes of the nation. It was no longer a machine which constantly broke down whenever stress was laid upon it, but was working quietly and on the whole successfully. It had acquired confidence in itself, and the infantry especially had done well during the month's advance. Notwithstanding long marches, which in the end were equally fatiguing whether made by day or by night, on restricted rations in a trying climate, the proportion of men who fell out was small.
The cavalry did not greatly distinguish itself. Two brilliant exploits, the rush from Klip Drift to Kimberley, and the heading off of Cronje at Vendutie Drift, practically exhausted it. Its reconnaissance work during the advance was poorly executed, and after each fight came the same report, that the horses were unable to pursue the retiring burghers. Overloading, indifferent march discipline and horsemastership, night marches without previously watering and feeding the horses, reduced Lord Roberts' mounted troops to but a fraction of their nominal strength; and raised a question whether French, whose military capacity was undeniable, might not be more usefully employed in infantry operations.
There is more than a substratum of truth in the remark once made by a caustic foreign critic, that an Englishman talks more and knows less about horses and their management than any other man.
In the Egyptian War of 1882 Arabi was similarly misled by Sir Garnet Wolseley, who making as if to land his Army near Aboukir Bay, suddenly took it into the Suez Canal, and threw it ashore at Ismailia.
350,000 horses were used up during the campaign, in other words, the war strength of one cavalry regiment every other day. The removal of a cavalry officer from his command after the battle of Graspan, because he could not do with exhausted horses what was expected of him by an infantry officer, will perhaps account for a considerable portion of the wastage.
It is stated on the authority of the United States Military attaché that Kitchener said next day that if he had known the power of the Mauser behind entrenchments, he would not have attempted to assault the laager.
They were originally granted as a counterpoise to the irregularities of the system of promotion by purchase.
See Colonel du Cane's translation of Vol. II. of the German Official Account, p. 52.