The Orange River Colony did not receive its incorporation into the British Empire with a display of gratitude for the honour conferred upon it.
The urgent message sent by Botha to De Wet on May 27 after the British Army had crossed into the Transvaal was hardly necessary to incite that free lance into action after his own heart, and he at once quitted Frankfort for Lindley.
When Lord Roberts entered the Transvaal he left behind him a considerable force to teach the New Colony its duties. Besides the stationary troops at Bloemfontein and on the railway, the VIIIth and Colonial Divisions under Rundle and Brabant were at Senekal and Ficksburg; Colvile with the IXth Division, who had been taken off Ian Hamilton's lead and allowed to run alone, was near Lindley; and Methuen had come into Kroonstad from Bothaville, the line of his march, which was originally towards the Transvaal, having been changed by orders from Lord Roberts.
Such were the forces against which De Wet was ready to fling himself. Early in June he was faced by another opponent. Lord Kitchener had come down from the Transvaal with a strong column.
Lord Roberts, on leaving Bloemfontein for the north, instructed Rundle to "exercise a vigilant control east of the railway." In co-operation with Brabant, he worked up through the fertile district along the Basuto border, slowly but steadily; his immediate object being to prevent the enemy breaking back towards the south. No serious opposition was encountered, and by the middle of the month the Divisions had advanced to Clocolan and Winburg, where Rundle came in touch with the IXth Division.
Colvile received orders to advance to Lindley and Heilbron. He was instructed to reach Heilbron with the Highland Brigade on May 29, and was informed that a force of Yeomanry under Spragge would on May 23 join him at Ventersburg, which he would pass through on his march.
Spragge was unable to be at Ventersburg on the date fixed and was ordered on to Kroonstad, where he received telegraphic instructions to join Colvile at Lindley on May 26 at the latest. It has never been ascertained by whom this fatal message was despatched. No British staff officer has ever acknowledged himself the sender of it, and it has been suggested that it was sent by a Boer sympathizer who was better informed of Colvile's movements than the Intelligence Staff.
Colvile believed that his presence at Heilbron on May 29 was imperatively required in connexion with the advance, and, although very weak in mounted troops, he pushed on from Ventersburg without waiting for Spragge. On May 26 he reached Lindley after some resistance outside the town, and next day resumed his march to Heilbron, which, though checked on the way, he reached on the appointed day.
Meanwhile, Spragge was doing his best to deliver himself to the IXth Division, to which he was waybilled. He moved a few miles out of Kroonstad on May 25, and next evening was in bivouac within eighteen miles of Lindley. Next day he resumed his march on the town, about the same time that Colvile was quitting it for Heilbron. The two commanders were in entire ignorance of each other's movements.
At midday, Spragge reconnoitred the town, and finding it occupied, withdrew to a position outside. Although Colvile had quitted it but a few hours previously, and although the dust of his column could still be seen on the Heilbron road, a commando under Michael Prinsloo, which he had driven out, had promptly returned; and some burghers who had surrendered to Spragge on May 26, and who, having given up their rifles, had been "allowed to return to their farms," went to Lindley instead and gave warning of the approach of the Yeomanry.
Spragge counted on being able to draw rations at Lindley when he joined Colvile, and marched out of Kroonstad with two days' rations only, and these, although eked out by a capture of sheep on the way, were almost exhausted. There were three courses open to him: to retire to Kroonstad, to follow Colvile, or to remain where he was. He chose the last.
He took up, and did his best to make defensible, a plateau and kopje position two miles N.W. of the town. He had 500 men, but no guns, and he reported the situation to Colvile, who was eighteen miles away when he received the message next morning; and to Rundle, who was at Senekal. Colvile answered his appeal for assistance with a refusal, but suggested a retirement on Kroonstad; but the message did not reach Spragge. Rundle was too far away to help Spragge directly, but made a movement towards Bethlehem, which he hoped would draw the enemy away from Lindley.
On May 28 the Boers took up positions which practically surrounded Spragge, but he held his own that day and the next; and although the enemy was reinforced on the 29th, he was not so closely invested that he could not have broken out. Firing was heard in the S.E., and Spragge, believing that it was Rundle in action, endeavoured without success to communicate with him.
So long as the investing force was without guns, Spragge was confident of being able to hold on. But on May 30 a further reinforcement came in. Martin Prinsloo joined his brother with three guns and a strong commando. The Prinsloos, who were acting under the orders of De Wet, had originally been detailed to look after Colvile, but were drawn away by the attraction of an easier prey at Lindley.
On May 30 a kopje on the west, from which the Boers were sniping into the position, was captured by Spragge, but soon fell again into the hands of the burghers. It was recovered next morning, but pressure elsewhere squeezed it finally out of the grasp of the re-captors. The Boers had brought their guns into action. The key of Spragge's position was two kopjes on the S.E. of the defence. The outer kopje was rushed by the enemy, the detachment occupying it being driven back towards the inner kopje. A panic-stricken non-commissioned officer in the connecting post between them raised the white flag without authority, and, it is said, was immediately shot for having done so. The officer in command on the inner kopje considered that he was bound by the act and recognized it, and only hastened the inevitable end. There was a last wriggle or two, and then Spragge, who was surrounded by 2,000 Boers with artillery, gave in.
Nearly 500 yeomen were added to the panel of British prisoners of war by the hawk-like swoop of De Wet and the brothers Prinsloo almost under the eyes of three Divisions of the British Army. For not only were Colvile and Rundle aware of Spragge's predicament, but as soon as it was reported to Lord Roberts, Methuen was ordered to the rescue.
Methuen, who only arrived at Kroonstad from the west on May 28, was already on the move to help Colvile, from whom a disquieting message had been received at Head Quarters. Colvile's safe arrival at Heilbron next day rendered assistance unnecessary, and Methuen, under instructions from Lord Roberts, turned towards Lindley. He was, however, too late, for as he approached the town the news of Spragge's surrender reached him on June 1. He ran into the rear of the Boers hurrying away with their prey, and even intercepted two guns and some wagons, but was unable to retain them.
The Lindley affair sent Colvile back to England in the wake of Gatacre. The responsibility of the surrender was fixed upon him and he was deprived of his command. He had no doubt been in a false position during the first fortnight of the advance from Bloemfontein when he was kept trailing behind a junior officer, and this slight perhaps affected his judgment, but he was constitutionally incapable of viewing a situation synoptically and perspectively. As at Sannah's Post, so again at Lindley the halation of a word or two in his orders fogged the image on his retina. He doggedly stared at the words Heilbron, May 29, as if the whole issue of the campaign depended upon them. There was nothing in the context to show that they were more than the details of an itinerary which he was expected to follow if circumstances permitted. He was urgently in need of the very mounted troops with which he made no effort to put himself in touch. Bis peccare in bello non licet. Lord Roberts could forgive once, but Colvile was superseded for having twice shown a "want of military capacity and initiative."44
Yet the disaster was not due to his default alone, although the contributory defaults of others were rightly not permitted to excuse him. He had good reason to think that a well-mounted force would be able to take care of itself, and to believe that proper staff arrangements had been made for Spragge's march; but in each of these warrantable assumptions he was wrong. Lindley was the first of a series of disasters which seemed to show that Lord Roberts had pushed on too hastily.
Rundle's endeavour to help Spragge by a demonstration in the direction of Bethlehem soon came to an end. It is said that a telegram in which he announced the movement to Brabant fell into the hands of the Boers, who promptly utilized the information. On May 29 he was seriously checked at the Biddulphsberg, where they had taken up a position. He failed in an attack on what he believed was the Boers' flank but which was in reality their front. During the engagement he received a telegram from Head Quarters, dated three days previously, ordering him to join Brabant in the Ficksburg district, and he withdrew from the action, having suffered 186 casualties, some of which were caused by a fire which broke out in the long grass through which he had advanced, and in which helpless wounded men were lying. A brigade of Tucker's Division under Clements took his place at Senekal.
De Wet now set himself in person to execute the task entrusted to him by Botha of getting behind the British force in the Transvaal and breaking or interrupting the line of communication in the Free State. He had not long to wait for opportunities. He left Frankfort with 800 men, and on June 2 placed himself in observation near Heilbron, where Colvile was awaiting a supply column from the railway at Roodeval. The convoy was harassed from the first by mischances. Against Colvile's orders it was despatched with but a small escort and without guns. When he heard that sufficient protection could not be given, he counter-ordered the convoy, but the message did not arrive until after it had started.
On the second day of the march a body of the enemy was found blocking the road at Zwavel Kranz between Heilbron and Heilbron Road Station. It was De Wet waiting for the convoy.
The news of its plight reached Heilbron Road Station,45 and a relieving column was sent out, which came within four miles of Zwavel Kranz. No firing, however, was heard, and the officer in command, hastily concluding that all was well, returned to the railway without finding the convoy, which next morning surrendered, the victim of easy-going indifference and neglect.
So far De Wet had done well, but he was only beginning his work. The railway between Bloemfontein and Vereeniging was weakly held by regiments of militia threaded like beads on a string in posts along the line. At Roodeval supplies and stores in large quantities, urgently needed by the Army in the Transvaal, were waiting until the bridge over the Rhenoster River, which had been destroyed by the Boers retreating before Lord Roberts, could be rebuilt. There was scarcely a post that did not beckon to De Wet to come to it.
He was within reach of the railway at three vulnerable points, and he divided the force to attack them simultaneously; himself taking command of the raid on Roodeval, which was held by casual details of departmental troops stiffened by a detachment of militia. Thus an important link in the chain was unable to bear a comparatively slight tension. No one was recognized as being definitely responsible for the railway north of Bloemfontein. The charge of it had been given to an officer who, unknown to the staff, was at the time in hospital and unable to take over his command; detachments were moved promiscuously by orders which came now from Pretoria and now from Bloemfontein; and in the chaos De Wet wriggled in between Colvile and Methuen.
On June 7 Heilbron Road Station, Rhenoster River Bridge, and Roodeval were captured in succession. At the Bridge the Derbyshire Militia fought gallantly for several hours, but were overpowered in a hopeless position, and soon afterwards Roodeval and its accumulated booty fell into the hands of De Wet,46 who on that day severed Bloemfontein from Pretoria for a week and added nearly 500 men to the muster-roll of his prisoners of war.
It was evident to Lord Roberts that things had taken a serious turn, and that his position in the Transvaal was unsound. In framing his plans for the advance from Bloemfontein, he had naturally expected that the Natal railway would be available as an alternative line of communication soon after he entered the Transvaal; but the movements of Buller were deliberate, and nearly a third of it was still in the enemy's hands. It is probable that Lord Roberts would have been less disinclined to the "steam-rollering" policy if he could have foreseen that on the day he entered Pretoria the Natal Army would be still south of Laing's Nek.
As a preliminary measure pending, the elaboration of a definite scheme to put the Free State in order, Kitchener, who was always held in readiness with steam up to proceed to districts in difficulties and hustle local commandants and their staffs, was sent across the Vaal with a column; and Methuen's Division was set in motion.
On the Bloemfontein side, Kelly-Kenny took temporary charge of all the troops south of Kroonstad, whither a brigade under C. Knox was sent to protect the stores and supplies; and Winburg was strengthened. While C. De Wet was engaged upon his own work his brother P. De Wet, whom he threatened to shoot if he gave in, was discussing terms of surrender with Methuen at Lindley, but as in the contemporaneous negotiations between C. Botha and Buller at Laing's Nek, and between L. Botha and Lord Roberts in the Transvaal, no terms of settlement were arranged; and Methuen quitted a pacificatory colloquy with one brother to encounter the other in arms, and joined Kitchener at Heilbron Road Station on June 10.
De Wet was elbowed away westwards from the railway, but he soon circled back, recrossing it at Lieuw Spruit between Rhenoster River Bridge and Heilbron Road Station, where he not only took fifty prisoners, but almost captured Kitchener, who chanced to be passing through at the time.
It is interesting to speculate briefly on the effect which such a notable capture might have had upon the general situation. The Boers themselves would hardly have realized its importance. They were unaware of the position held by Kitchener in the British Army, and his name was unfamiliar to them. He had been here and there like many another commander whom they had met in the field. Still, they had never yet captured an unwounded general officer, and they would no doubt have made a great effort to prevent his services being again available against them.47 It is, however, unlikely that De Wet would have been able to retain his prisoner for more than a few weeks at most. But no one can say what De Wet could not do. At home it is probable that a disastrous reaction would have followed the news of the railway broken, of Lord Roberts insolated in the Transvaal, and of Lord Kitchener of Khartoum a prisoner of war and possibly a hostage. It is very doubtful whether the nation, entangled by fresh difficulties and deafened by pro-Boer yells growing shriller and shriller every hour, would have remained firm of purpose. It is hardly too much to say that June 12, 1900, was one of the most critical dates in the history of the war.
During the next fortnight, attacks on a convoy for Colvile at Heilbron, on the railway a few miles north of Kroonstad, a threat on Lindley which almost became a siege, and a raid on Virginia Siding by a commando under Roux, which sprang out of the Senekal district, maintained the mutiny, and again showed that however tightly the Boers might seem to be grasped in the hand, some of them were sure to wriggle through the fingers.
It was soon apparent that the Free State would not be brought into subjection by haphazard divagations of brigades and columns; and about the middle of June Lord Roberts planned a systematic and simple campaign. The towns and strategical points were to be strongly held while flying columns shepherded De Wet and his commandos and endeavoured to enfold them. Buller, who arrived at Standerton on June 23, would bar the way should they attempt to retreat into the Transvaal, and a retreat southwards would throw them on to Rundle and Brabant. The four flying columns were based on the line of garrisons which extended from Heidelberg in the Transvaal to Winburg and Senekal in the Free State.
The command of the Heidelberg column, which was strong in mounted troops, was given to Ian Hamilton, but an accident compelled him to hand it over to Hunter, who had come up into the Transvaal after the relief of Mafeking. The Heilbron column was the Highland Brigade of the late IXth Division, which was broken up when Colvile returned to England. At Rhenoster River was Methuen to prevent a break out towards the west. When the Winburg district was cleared by a strong column under Clements, who, a few weeks before, had relieved Rundle at Senekal, he would advance on Bethlehem, Paget at Lindley co-operating with him. As soon as Hunter, who was put in general charge of all the troops engaged, entered the Free State, Macdonald was ordered to join him with the Highland Brigade. Methuen's force at Rhenoster River was soon found to be unnecessary, as the enemy was retreating in the opposite direction, and it was sent into the Transvaal.
At the end of June the columns began to move. Each of them was, as it were, the head of a spear prodding the mob of commandos towards the pen which had been assigned to them. With them, union was not strength, but weakness: the more they were agglomerated the less were they to be feared.
Clements herded Roux, whose commando was the only body known to be at large, towards the kraal, and advanced with Paget to Bethlehem, which was occupied on July 7. The Boers opposed with delaying actions only, capturing but being unable to retain two of Paget's guns, and outside Bethlehem they brought into action and lost a field gun which had been taken from Gatacre at Stormberg, and which now, after half a year's exile in partibus inimicorum, was restored to the British Service. Two days after Clement's entry into Bethlehem, he was joined by Hunter, who had crossed the Vaal on June 29 and had picked up Macdonald at Frankfort.
The Brandwater Basin, into which the Boers had retreated from Bethlehem, taking with them Steyn and the Free State Government, which was set up at Fouriesburg, is a semicircle formed by the Witteberg and Roodeberg at the head-waters of two tributaries of the Caledon, the Little Caledon and the Brandwater; the Caledon being the diameter and the mountains the circumference of the area. The river section of the perimeter lies on the Basuto border, and the mountain section is wild and difficult, there being but four wagon roads into it in nearly seventy-five miles: at Commando, Slabbert's, Retief's, and Naauwpoort Neks. The passes at Witnek, Nelspoort, and the Golden Gate are scarcely better than rough bridle-paths.
The strength of the enemy holding the Basin and the Neks was about 7,000. The Boers had indeed established themselves in an apparently strong defensive position, but they had not been there many days before they began to ask each other what was the good of it to them. They had taken it up against the advice of De Wet, who saw that it was playing the game of Lord Roberts. They had deprived themselves of their mobility and were confined in a house of detention, where they could do no mischief except to each other. They realized too late that De Wet was right. The commandants were at variance and there was indiscipline in the laagers.
De Wet saw that the Brandwater Basin was no place for him. He was beating his wings in a vacuum, and he resolved to get out of it as soon as possible. After a Council of War orders to decamp were issued. The general idea was that a column under De Wet should break out through Slabbert's Nek and make for Kroonstad, and that Roux should take out another column and march on Bloemfontein, a portion of the force being left behind to guard the passes.
On the night of July 15 De Wet, accompanied by Steyn, who went out to establish yet another seat of government, pulled his column, which included 2,600 burghers and 460 vehicles and was nearly three miles long, out of the Basin through Slabbert's Nek. He met with no opposition, and successfully carried out the first episode of the programme.
Hunter at Bethlehem was standing sentry over the northward passes, but want of supplies and deficiency of ammunition prevented him advancing at once on the Basin: and of the range before him he had no accurate maps and knew less about its topography than an astronomer knows of the Mountains of the Moon. While formulating a scheme for blocking the passes, De Wet's sudden outbreak took him by surprise, and he was unable to head the Free State leader, who passed northwards between Bethlehem and Senekal, pursued by Broadwood's cavalry. The hounds were on the scent of the first De Wet hunt.
Rundle, who for two months had been painfully, but not with unnecessary deliberation, pushing his force up the right bank of the Caledon, was at first ordered by Hunter to watch Slabbert's Nek, but on a report that the Boers were about to come out through Commando Nek, he was sent back. The movement, though justified on the assumption that the report, which came on good authority, was correct, was unfortunate, as it left the key of the gate at Slabbert's Nek in the enemy's hands, and allowed De Wet to escape.
De Wet had assigned to himself the initial movement of the withdrawal, and left the rest of the programme to develop itself without him. Roux was put in charge of the Brandwater Basin. De Wet was an unpopular leader. His attempts to leaven the commandos with a little of the military spirit were resented. He had from the first, with only partial success, set his face against the incumbrance of wagons which marched with every commando. On the way to Sannah's Post he had cashiered a commandant named Vilonel for disobeying his orders with regard to transport. His nomination of Roux did not give satisfaction. The partisans of other leaders protested, and it was determined to settle by election the question of the Chief Command. In the meantime, the management was in the hands of a triumvirate composed of Roux, Olivier, and Martin Prinsloo.
In the chaos, the commandos which De Wet had arranged should break out remained in the trap and simplified Hunter's task. In succession, Retief's Nek, Slabbert's Nek, and Commando Nek were taken, the latter by Rundle, who on July 28 joined Hunter at Fouriesburg. Witnek had been abandoned by the Boers, who now had only Naauwpoort Nek and the scarcely practicable Golden Gate open to them.
The Nek was closed by Hunter on July 27, and a position outside the Golden Gate, but not the Gate itself, was occupied. The greater part of the Boer force was now practically sealed up in the Basin.
A Council of War was held to elect a new chief commandant. Had the vote been taken ten days earlier the situation might possibly have been saved, but the belated proceedings which displayed the weakness of a democratically organized army, and which, in the absence of representatives of the commandos not on the spot, were of doubtful validity, only added to the existing confusion. Prinsloo, however, seems to have been informally chosen.
His first act was to endeavour to obtain an armistice from Hunter, who naturally refused it. A few hours later Prinsloo agreed to surrender, and on July 30 the main body of the Boers in the Basin laid down their arms at Slapkranz. Roux, the rival candidate for the Chief Command, protested against the surrender, not only to Prinsloo, but also in person to Hunter, to whom he pleaded, that as Prinsloo had not been duly elected, the act was unauthorized and therefore was not binding on him. Hunter refused to listen to such quibbles. On several occasions during the war the Boers had profited by the honourable reluctance of the British commanders to repudiate an unauthorized raising of the white flag, lest they should be accused of having laid a trap to lure on the enemy. Hunter rightly held that Roux's plea for local option was inadmissible, and that the surrender must apply to the whole force. Roux then yielded.
A large number of burghers, however, as soon as they heard that Prinsloo had agreed to surrender, hurried away under Haasbroek, and scraped through the Golden Gate and joined Olivier and Hattingh outside the Basin. They were successful in evading the capitulation, for Olivier, when informed of it officially under a flag of truce, also declined to be bound by Prinsloo's act, and Hunter was unable to insist upon it. He trekked away towards Harrismith unmolested by the troops watching the Golden Gate, and he baffled for four weeks the columns sent in pursuit by Hunter, who, however, prevented him joining De Wet. He was taken prisoner near Winburg on August 27.
The tangible result of the Brandwater Basin operations was the capture of more than 4,000 Boers and of three guns, two of which had been lost at Sannah's Post. The mountains in which the burghers had taken refuge became a prison, from which they were taken when Hunter came on circuit for the gaol delivery, and on conviction they were sent beyond the seas.
Yet subsequent events showed that Lord Roberts would have made a good bargain if he could have exchanged all the burghers and the guns, and all the loot of horses, cattle, and sheep, for one man who had slipped through Slabbert's Nek on July 15, 1900.
Napoleon said that "a military order must not be passively obeyed except when it is given by a superior who is on the spot at the moment the order is given, knows the state of things, and can hear objections and give full explanations to the officer charged with executing the order."
Also called Vredefort Road Station.
660,000 rounds of Lee-Metford ammunition were buried by him for future use.
In the Russian War the Japanese gave orders that a Russian admiral, who was a wounded prisoner of war on board a Japanese torpedo boat, was to be shot if any attempt was made by the Russians to capture it.