The month of February, 1900, which opened with the reverse at Vaal Krantz, proved to be the culminating period of the war. During its course, the tide, which had been running strongly against the British, turned decisively in their favour. Before it closed, Kimberley and Ladysmith had been relieved and Cronje forced to surrender.
After the affair at Magersfontein, December 11, Methuen and Cronje remained confronting one another. The British strengthened themselves upon the line of the Modder, by the railroad; the Boers, from the kopjes of Spytfontein, some three miles to the northward, gradually extended their works east and west until in both directions their flanks rested upon the river. Shelling by guns of long range was carried on intermittingly by both parties, and there were small affairs from time to time, but nothing on a large scale occurred.
After his arrival on January 10, Lord Roberts spent three weeks in Cape Town arranging for his campaign. On the 6th of February he left, accompanied by Lord Kitchener, and on the 9th was at the Modder Camp. On the 11th began the movement which resulted four days later in the relief of Kimberley, and on the 27th of the month in the surrender of Cronje. For these objects, and at this time, 44,000 troops of all arms had been collected near the Modder.
It is needless to say that preparation had preceded execution by more than the two or three days elapsing between Roberts' arrival and the start. At Cape Town he had had interviews with General French, summoned there for that purpose. During January the constant arrival of troops from all quarters at the Modder Camp gave the impression of a purpose to resume the frontal attack and to force the way to Kimberley through Magersfontein; an impression which, produced on the mind of the Boer leader, was itself part of the necessary preparation. On the 3rd of February, General Hector MacDonald, with a brigade of Highlanders, had moved north-west, towards Koodoosberg, where he arrived on the 7th. The movement was in sufficient force to attract the attention of the Boers, and appeared the more plausible because of the disturbed condition of the district; which, although British, was full of Boer partisans showing signs of restlessness. A similar expedition, but less numerous, under Colonel Pilcher, had gone out early in January, capturing forty rebels. While otherwise useful, it seems probably that MacDonald's enterprise was intended chiefly to fasten the enemy's attention in a false direction. On the 8th he was recalled by Methuen, acting under orders from headquarters.
The great projected operation was to turn the eastern left flank of Cronje's position, seizing important drifts, or fords, on the Riet and Modder Rivers by a secret and rapid circuit of cavalry, which should hold them until they were secured by slower moving infantry following on the track. When the last and chief of these, Klip Drift on the Modder, some twenty miles east of Magersfontein, was held by an infantry division, the cavalry's flank would be secured and its advance would then be pressed to Kimberley. While the movement was in progress, Methuen in his old lines on the Modder would hold the enemy in his positions by a demonstration of force seemingly not reduced. If the undertaking were successful, superior British numbers would be planted across the line of Cronje's communications with Bloemfontein, and the cavalry on his rear to intercept retreat in mass to the north. To this turning operation were assigned three divisions of infantry and one of cavalry; the latter was under General French, called from the Naauwport district for this purpose. The infantry divisions were the 6th, General Kelly-Kenny; the 7th, General Tucker; and the 9th, General Colvile. The total force thus engaged in the invasion of the Orange Free State was 34,000; 23,000 infantry and 11,000 mounted men. They were accompanied by 98 pieces of artillery, and by supplies in 700 wagons, drawn by 9,000 mules and oxen.
French's division, three brigades, 4,800 men, accompanied by seven batteries of horse artillery, left Modder River Camp at 3 A.M. Sunday, February 11th. Diverging slightly from the railroad, they marched due south—away from the enemy—seventeen miles to Ramdam, which is about ten miles east of Graspan Station. At sunrise they were out of sight of the empty tents, standing deceitfully behind them. At noon Ramdam was reached, and the division halted till 3 A.M. of the 12th, when it again marched due east for a ford called Waterval Drift, on the Riet River, which it will be remembered is a tributary of the Modder, flowing from south-east to north-west. Reaching there soon after sunrise, the ford was found to be held by a party of the enemy. Covering his change of purpose by a feint upon this position, French swung the rest of his division to the right, and with slight loss forced a passage at De Kiel's Drift, apparently somewhat higher up. That evening he held both sides of the Riet, the enemy having retreated. During the night Kitchener came up with a division of infantry which had made its journey in part by rail, and with which arrived also supply trains, whose slow movement would have delayed unduly the progress of the horse division.
Owing to delays in distributing provisions and fodder, French could not start again until 11.30 A.M. The loss of the five early hours, says an eye-witness, cost 100 horses, which died or failed in the march that day. The goal now was Klip Drift, about twenty-five miles distant. Passing well east of Jacobsdal, suffering intensely from heat and thirst, the division sighted the Modder when still eight miles away. All were much spent, the artillery horses could scarcely drag their pieces, and there was a showing of opposition on the right front; but French, despite the general exhaustion, decided to drive on without halting, lest the enemy, recovering from their surprise, should concentrate to oppose his passage. Thus hastening, the Boers, taken unready, were routed. At 5.35 P.M. French reported back to Roberts, who received the message at De Kiel's Drift, that he had occupied the hills on the north of the river, capturing three of the enemy's laagers with supplies, while Gordon with his brigade had seized Rondeval Drift, four miles west, with a second drift between it and Klip, and two more laagers. Control of both sides of the Modder, and power to operate on either bank freely, were thus assured, provided the infantry followed in time.
That night, February 13-14, the cavalry rested on the north bank, holding the adjacent kopjes, and there remained during the succeeding day, waiting for the infantry. Throughout the 14th the Boers made constant harassing demonstrations, disturbing the rest of the weary men and horses. "But no attack was driven home. 'Could the Boers learn to attack, they would be a formidable foe,' the General once observed. Directly we moved out the attack failed." Kitchener in person arrived at midnight, and the 6th Division, "very tired," at early morning of the 15th. The defence of the position was then turned over to Kelly-Kenny, "leaving French free to act," and the cavalry, reinforced by several new regiments from the westward, which raised its numbers to near 10,000, prepared for the final rush to Kimberley, some twenty-five miles away.
A few miles from Klip Drift, towards Kimberley, lay an enclosed plain, five miles long by three wide, where a number of Boers were waiting to contest progress. The kopjes controlling entrance had been secured by the British, but the transit had to be forced. The enemy were in position on hills in front, and flanking the lines of advance. Measures were taken to cover the flanks with artillery, and to clear them while pressing forward, otherwise the Boer positions were carried by a charge. "The whole division was set in motion. For nearly five miles in perfect order they galloped on, until the head of the plain was reached. It was a thrilling time, never to be forgotten. Our guns held the enemy on our left, while the 9th and 16th Lancers had cleared the ground on the right. About two miles from the head of the plain the main body was halted to allow the guns from the left to rejoin us, but Broadwood's brigade continued the gallop to the very top of the pass on the left, and the 12th Lancers dismounted and held the kopjes in front. The right front was held by the Household Composite and Gordon's Lancers."
After a brief stop to re-assemble the march was resumed. Just beyond the head of the plain the chimneys of the mine works at Kimberley became visible—still ten miles distant. Cronje, by this aware of the direction and purpose of the movement, tried to intercept the advance at a place called Benaauwheidfontein Farm, four miles from the town, but he was just too late to occupy the commanding positions. Brushing aside the inadequate force opposing him, French passed on, and about 7 P.M. entered the place, joining hands with the long besieged. Kimberley was relieved, and the British cavalry established on Cronje's rear.
The general situation that evening, Thursday, February 15, was as follows: Methuen at Magersfontein, in front of Cronje; the 7th Infantry Division at Jacobsdal, ten miles to the south-east; the 6th holding the Klip and Rondeval Drifts on the Modder, twenty miles east of the Boer army; the 9th near Jacobsdal, in reserve, ready to move where most needed. Lord Roberts himself was at Jacobsdal, whence his telegrams were dated on the 16th and 17th. Kitchener remained at Klip Drift.
Cronje, who had not believed that the British could make so rapid a march, or take so large a force far from the railroad, saw that not only had he been outwitted and his position become untenable, but that there was no time to lose if he hoped to escape at all. As French slipped by him into Kimberley, he sent word to the camp to get the trains at once in movement, and to start east towards Bloemfontein. This direction of retreat has been criticised, and it has been argued that he should have tried to retire to the northward, away from the British divisions already east of him. In this direction a certain proportion of his army did break out. It is to be remembered, however, that not only was Bloemfontein the capital of the Free State, and, therefore, not lightly to be sacrificed, but that his movement was concentric, having regard to Joubert and the bulk of the Boer forces elsewhere. Not only so, but French was north of him; and as it turned out it was French, in virtue of the superior mobility of his cavalry, who headed him off to the eastward, giving time for the British infantry to come up. The trains went with Cronje, and apparently it was his unwillingness to drop them, rather than the direction of his retreat, that lost him. Because men not so encumbered escaped north, it cannot be certainly concluded that he could by the same course have saved his trains.
Be it as it may, Friday morning the 16th found the Boer lines at Magersfontein empty. The presence of British divisions south of the Modder compelled Cronje to take a course north of it. Except for the drifts, the river thus protected his flank; and if he could, by diverging sufficiently, slip undetected past Klip Drift, leaving the easternmost of the British divisions—Kelly-Kenny—in his rear, he might reach the point he aimed at, Koodoosrand Drift, twenty-four miles north-east of Klip Drift, cross there, and so reach the direct road from Jacobsdal to Bloemfontein. This effected, the British would have a stern chase, proverbially long, and in this instance certainly fruitless.
Cronje nearly succeeded. Early on Friday morning the British at Klip Drift saw north of them a great cloud of dust, moving eastward. It was the Boer convoy, in rear of which doubtless was their army. Kitchener sent out mounted infantry to get to the north of the retreating force, while a brigade of foot was directed to keep along the river's bank. Word was sent at once to French in Kimberley, who was employing that day in clearing the country north of the town. The field telegraph being cut by the enemy, he received Kitchener's message late at night. This, after stating Cronje's movements, added that if he, "with all available horses and guns, could head him, and prevent him from crossing the river, the infantry from Klip Drift would press on and annihilate or take the whole force prisoners."
French left at 3.30 A.M. with one brigade and three batteries, the others to follow as they could with their worn-out animals. The enemy had a long start, but from Kitchener's message it was evident that their march would be steadily harassed and delayed by the frequent necessity of fighting, of resting at times, and by the slow movement of the ox-team. Using utmost speed, at 11 A.M. French's detachment saw the trees lining the Modder's banks, upon which its route had been converging. On the left a fairly large body of men were perceived moving east. A line of hills between these and the British force concealed the latter, who were nearer the river. The horses were ordered to water while the general and staff rode forward to reconnoitre. Reaching a favourable height, they saw, 4,000 yards away, the leading wagons of the Boer convoy just descending to Koodoosrand Drift, where a road from the northward crosses to Petrusberg, on the Jacobsdal-Bloemfontein highway. The batteries were summoned up, being cautioned to move at a walk, lest their dust should draw attention, and at 12.15 P.M. the first shot was fired which told Cronje that at the very last moment, with safety apparently grasped, his passage was about to be disputed.
The Boer general, who for a day and a half had been fighting a constant succession of rearguard actions with Kitchener's infantry, took his measures promptly to meet this new dilemma. He first tried to seize positions of command which would give him control of the ford. In this French was the quicker, and headed him. He then turned his column to the right to a ford called Wolveskraal Drift, four miles below, west of Koodoosrand, and the same distance above Paardeberg Drift, from which his defence has received its name. At Wolveskraal he "laagered" his trains on the north bank of the river, postponing crossing to next day. Either he felt sure that the British infantry, marching afoot, could not come up in time to stop him, or else, unable to reconcile himself to cutting loose from his guns and his wagons, he determined to risk all on the chance of saving them. French, unsupported, could only answer for Koodoosrand.
The decision was critical, and proved fatal. The British 6th Division pressed on untiring after nightfall, aiming to reach Paardeberg, but, missing the precise point, they passed on and halted a mile and a half below Wolveskraal, nearly opposite the ford Cronje intended to use. Though all unknowing, they had taken a commanding position to head him, as French had at Koodoosrand. Behind them was the mounted infantry, which had crossed back from the north side, and also the 9th Division. Before daybreak both these had halted on the south side, at Paardeberg.
When Cronje camped on the afternoon of the 17th, the only chance left him was to cross at once to Wolveskraal, abandoning his guns and wagons. On the morning of the 18th no chance was left, except by outside help, which could come only from the eastward, probably only from Joubert before Ladysmith. Realising this, and to gain time for such assistance to arrive, he took up a defensive position based upon the bed of the Modder.
In broad outline his dispositions were as follows. The bed of the river, which lies nearly east and west, is from fifty to one hundred yards wide and about thirty deep, in soil that lends itself easily to the spade. On both sides, for a mile above and below Wolveskraal Drift, the edges of the banks were trenched, and at either end of these trenches traverses, thrown forward at right angles, served to strengthen against enfilading attack. North of the river, some cannon were placed in advanced works, three-quarters of a mile from the rifle pits, between which and the river, in the open, was the "laager" of ammunition and other wagons. The river trenches described constituted the nucleus and backbone of the Boer defences, but in his first dispositions Cronje occupied the bed of the stream down to Paardeberg, seeking thus to push back as far as possible from his intended crossing the force which he supposed had yet to come up from that quarter. The Boers that surrendered numbered 4,100 men. It may be supposed, therefore, that there were from 4,500 to 5,000 present at the first.
South of the river is grassy plain, at its widest 3,000 yards, shelving gently to the bank. Beyond it there is a rise of fifty feet in the ground. Behind this plain, on the morning of Sunday, February 18, the British had in position the 6th Division and of the 9th the 19th Brigade, besides three regiments of Highlanders. The mounted infantry, that had been pursuing the day before on the north bank, now occupied the river-bed west of Cronje's lines. The artillery present was three batteries—two field and one howitzer—with a single naval gun. On the north bank at daybreak was French's cavalry brigade, which was slightly reinforced during the day, and his horse artillery.
Soon after daybreak fighting began, the Boers opening fire at the west end of their line upon the mounted infantry. The latter replying succeeded in driving the enemy a quarter of a mile up stream. While this was occurring the British began a frontal attack in line from the south—the 6th Division on the right, the 9th on the left, the advance of the infantry line being supported by the batteries, placed 2,000 yards south-east of the Boer laager. French's horse artillery also opened from the north bank. As usual in frontal attacks upon a well-entrenched resolute enemy, the loss of the assailants greatly exceeded the results obtained. By an eye-witness the action was likened to Methuens at the Modder. The fire of the batteries, however, was extremely destructive to the Boer laager, causing several explosions, and great distress to the enemy could not but ensue from this injury to their only base.
The frontal attack was supplemented later by efforts directed upon the flanks. Three regiments—one a Canadian—of the 19th Brigade at 9 A.M. crossed at Paardeberg, and thence fought their way a mile up-stream—east—on the north bank. Here they were stopped, and had to extend their line to the northward; after which, by short and desperate rushes, they continued to add by driblets to the ground so far gained. This was strictly a flank attack, and not only shortened by so much the Boer front, but enabled the assailants to enfilade their line in part. The attempt was imitated on the eastern flank by the mounted infantry which, after the arrival of the foot divisions, had moved east from Paardeberg and established themselves on the Boers' eastern flank at Koodoosrand Drift. These crossed at this point at about noon and fought west. An hour later they were supported by the two right—east—regiments of the British line, which by a rush reached the river below Koodoosrand, where a number crossed. These moved west in two parties, in mutual support on either bank.
The frontal attack and the flank movements so far stated summarize the details of this action. Support was sent from time to time as occasion demanded and opportunity offered, especially to the flanking parties. The net result of the day was that Cronje's force, from a development of four miles, was shortened in to two, the British holding the river banks above and below that stretch, with considerable part of their force placed perpendicularly to the river across both the Boer flanks, yet bound together in mutual support by the main body, extended along the southern slope, ready to reinforce in either direction. The flanking parties began immediately to entrench, their lines running, as already intimated, perpendicular to the Boer front, and facing the transverse works which the latter had erected as a protection against enfilading.
The British loss this day is variously estimated from 1,100 to 1,250. The official accounts do not particularise, but give as the total casualties, February 16-27, killed 255, wounded 1,209, missing 70. The propriety of the frontal attack has been much doubted. The question is one of expediency, upon which the author does not presume to give a certain opinion. It may be remembered that the Boer position had been hastily assumed, under conditions not long foreseen, and therefore quite possibly not very solid. The fact could be tested only by trial. So severe an assault unquestionably tends to benumb the victim, and to make less probable his escape, quite independent of his actual loss. Moreover, the flanking gains, which ultimately hastened and determined the inevitable surrender, could scarcely have been secured except under the stress of the frontal attack.
The next day, February 19, Lord Roberts arrived at Paardeberg, and with him the 7th Infantry Division. A reconnaissance, the following afternoon, satisfied him that assault would be attended by very heavy loss. He, therefore, ordered a bombardment, at a range of about 2,000 yards, by between forty-five and fifty guns. Of these, rather more than half were on the northern bank and in enfilading positions. The ground upon which this tremendous fire played was some two miles long by a half-mile wide. The character of the injury is best told by the report of an eye-witness of the conditions. "Nothing could be done but crouch in the trenches and wait till dusk prevented a further attack, while wagon after wagon in the laager caught fire and burned away into a heap of scrap iron surrounded by wood ashes. The desolation produced was fearful, and it soon became impossible to make any reply. The losses inflicted upon the horses were the turning point of the siege. So enormous a proportion (estimated by some at 75 per cent.) of the horses, for which no protection could be made, were lost, that any dash for freedom by night was impossible and the condition of the laager rapidly became so foul, that that alone, apart from the want of food, would have compelled an early surrender. There was no opportunity of getting rid of the vast number of dead animals; burial was impossible, and the low state of the river prevented them from sending them down stream for several days; all they could do was to drag them to leeward of their camp. Meanwhile decomposition set in, and the absolute need of clean air caused a serious rebellion in the camp, most of the 4,000 men demanding that surrender should be made at once. When on Sunday, the 25th, the flood brought down past our lines an unending series of dead animals that cannot have been less than 1,500 or 2,000, the desperate straits of the enemy were apparent indeed."
This benumbing concentrated gun fire of February 20 was not repeated. The British Commander-in-Chief thenceforth satisfied himself with hemming in the enemy, under a steady pressure, the result of which could not be doubtful. A few days more or less were not to be counted against the husbanding of his soldiers' lives, in conditions also of comparative rest, favourable to a recuperation sorely needed by men and horses. The last arrived 7th Division entrenched itself on both sides of the river—à cheval, as the French phrase runs—to the eastward of and perpendicular to Cronje's lines, barring the way against attempts to break out towards Bloemfontein, and against the approach of aid from that quarter. The troops were further occupied by the Boer reinforcements, from Natal, and elsewhere, which began to cluster round the scene, seeking to help the beleaguered army. Several smart actions were fought, but all attempts at relief were vain.
The approach of Majuba Day—February 27—appears to have influenced both parties, hastening the issue. The Boers, huddled in the narrow and loathsome bed of the river, with senses sickened by the disgusting accumulations of filth and decay inevitable in the circumstances, clamoured for deliverance even at the cost of surrender. Cronje, obstinately bent to prolong to the utmost the chance of succour, is reported to have promised at last to surrender on the 28th, but by no means on the date illustrated by a boasted Boer victory. On the other hand, it is said that Roberts was urged to effect the consummation on that day, in grateful expiation of the disaster that had ever since rankled in British remembrance. One of his brigadiers, Hector MacDonald, now lying wounded, had been present at the earlier humiliation, and recalled the date to the Commander-in-Chief. However it be, a plan was adopted which brought about the desired coincidence. Ever since the 18th, the detachment of which the Canadian Regiment formed part had held the position then gained on the north bank, on the enemy's west flank. There it occupied a trench, running 700 yards north from the river. In the early hours of February 27, long before daybreak, three companies of the Canadians, acting under specific orders, quitted the trench and moved towards the enemy, followed close at heel by fifty engineer troops. In their silent advance they approached to eighty yards of the Boer traverse trench before discovered. Then a heavy and continuous fire burst forth, lasting for fifteen minutes without intermission. The Canadians lying down replied, while the engineers close behind them dug, till a trench 100 yards long, and giving good cover, ran from the bank to the north. Into it, when finished, the Canadians retired.
The game was won. To quote Roberts' telegram, "At 3 A.M. to-day a most dashing advance made by the Canadian Regiment and some engineers, supported by the 1st Gordon Highlanders and 2nd Shropshires, resulted in our gaining a point some 600 yards nearer the enemy, and within eighty yards of his trenches. This apparently clinched matters." The new position, which passed the power of the Boers to force, enfiladed securely their rifle-trenches along the river, and took in rear the advanced works to the north. At daylight of Majuba Day, Cronje sent Roberts a letter saying that he surrendered unconditionally.
Briefly summarized, this achievement of the British Army was the dislodgment of an inferior force from an extremely formidable position—at Magersfontein—at the least loss to the victors, by a secret and rapid flank march, followed by a swift pursuit, ending in the enforced surrender of a portion that sought escape in flight. Incidentally, Kimberley was relieved. Such effects, by such use of superior numbers, without which they cannot be accomplished, are always the object of war, which aims not at fighting, but at results. To estimate duly the operation, regard must be had to the impediments to movement, the overcoming of which gave success. The larger force, to compass its object, had to reach secretly and rapidly positions which interposed decisively between the inferior and its line of communications and retreat. To do this secretly, a large circuit must be made; that is, a road must be taken far beyond the enemy's ken, therefore much longer than that he himself would traverse to pass the same decisive points and thereby evade interception. The question is one of exterior and interior lines, and therefore of speed. Speed in a country without resources, and especially when opposed to an enemy notoriously mobile, means not only hard legging and much privation, but very high organisation of transport, to insure even a bare sufficiency of support.
By virtue of the interior line, notwithstanding the rapidity with which Roberts' men and horses moved, Cronje got past the decisive points; but for French he might have escaped. His success in this changed instantly the whole direction of the British operation. Trains directed upon one expectation had to be diverted elsewhere, which means not the mere turning round of waggons, but the reversal of a complicated machinery working at high pressure; perhaps rather the redistribution of parts in an engine while in actual operation. That the transport system under this extreme test stood the strain without dislocation, though with necessarily lessened output, is as creditable as the patient fortitude of the hosts, who lacking full food and water, toiled uncomplainingly in pursuit, under the burning sun, not knowing but that after all their labour would be in vain.
The final, and successful, operations of Sir Redvers Buller for the relief of Ladysmith were almost exactly coincident, in beginning and in duration, with those of Lord Roberts which ended in the surrender of Cronje. There was even a certain close approach to synchronism in dates of the more conspicuous incidents in each.
On the 11th of February, when the departure of French began Roberts' turning movement, Buller's force was again assembled at Chieveley. The following day the direction of his next effort was indicated by the occupation of Hussar Hill, south of Hlangwane Hill, which it will be remembered lies near the Tugela, its crest about three-fourths of a mile east of the bend which the river makes just below Colenso, and after which it holds a northerly course for two or three miles before again running east.
This north and south stretch, as before said, divided the Boer military line of the Tugela. Since the battle of Colenso all their positions had been strengthened, especially the eastern portion south of the river, previously comparatively neglected; and continuous entrenchments now extended from Hlangwane east for three miles to a treeless height named Green Hill. East of this, again, and connected with it, is a range called Monte Cristo, which runs north-west to the Tugela. This district south of the river, and between it and the entrenchments just mentioned, is for the most part rugged and intricate, but less so than the region west of Colenso and north of the stream.
The occupation of Hussar Hill on February 12 was for reconnaissance only. The force was afterwards withdrawn. On the 14th the real movement began. Hussar Hill was again taken, and from that day the operations, though varying in activity, were continuous until the 18th, when, after two days of heavy fighting from hill to hill, the British succeeded in gaining possession of Green Hill, their ultimate object, upon the enemy's left flank. The Boers then evacuated Hlangwane, which was occupied on the 19th by the British. The positions of the Boers south of the Tugela and east of the bend had thus all fallen, weakening their left flank, at the same moment that Roberts, arriving at Paardeberg, found Cronje hemmed in the bed of the Modder.
Buller's turning movement had now driven the Boers into the mountainous country between Colenso and Ladysmith, west of the bend in the Tugela. Here, when his campaign opened in December, had been the strength of their position. Its general character has been already mentioned, as well as some particular features—Grobler's Kloof, two miles above Colenso, the kopjes behind Fort Wylie commanding the bridge, etc. Between Grobler's and the northerly stretch of the river ran the railroad to Ladysmith, threading a maze of hills which a stay of three months had made intimately familiar to the Boers, both men and officers. The accidents of the ground, and their mutual influence from the military point of view, had been carefully studied and artificially improved, by men whose natural aptitudes for defensive warfare and choice of positions is of the highest. In nothing do they seem to have shown more skill than in the preparation of traps, whereby success, won with just sufficient difficulty to seem plausibly brilliant, turns at the very moment of apparent victory into hopeless disaster, entailing either destruction or retreat.
Into this tangle of obstacles the British forces were now about to enter. Colenso, found to be evacuated on February 19, was occupied on the 20th. A reconnaissance pushed across the bridge showed that the kopjes about Fort Wylie, now rendered untenable by the loss of Hlangwane, were but weakly held and their guns gone. On the morning of February 21, the second day after the occupation of Hlangwane, a pontoon bridge was thrown at a point between that hill and Colenso. By midday of the 22nd nearly five brigades of infantry had crossed, and immediately afterwards the advance began. That day and the two following were marked by extremely severe fighting, attended with alternate success and repulse, but the end was failure after very heavy losses. The series of incidents is instructive as a military lesson on warfare in an intricate mountain region; but to follow it would require care and attention, with elaborate maps, and even so would possess sustained interest only for the professional reader.
On the afternoon of February 20, Buller had telegraphed the fall of Hlangwane, adding, "the enemy seem to be in full retreat, and are apparently only holding a position which they occupy across the Colenso-Ladysmith railway, where it is close to the angle of the Tugela, with a weak rear-guard." The mention of the railroad shows that this impression of retreat concerned the enemy west of the bend and north of the river, but it proved to be entirely mistaken. On the 24th of February, it is true, the Boers packed their wagons and moved them north of Ladysmith. The fact testifies to the vigour of the assault and their consequent anxiety; but in the evening of that same day it had become apparent to the British that the resistance was still so strong that they could not get through by the direction taken, which, speaking generally, was that of the railroad. Sunday the 25th was passed in inaction, removing the wounded and the dead, and on Monday the whole force was withdrawn across the Tugela at Colenso, to try another movement from further down stream, to the north and east of Hlangwane, and again directed against the enemy's left.
This retreat, though not certainly known, was vaguely suspected in Ladysmith, where the silence of Sunday sounded ominous. The spirits of the now famishing garrison sank accordingly. One among them writes: "The ending has been strange. On Monday, February 26, the garrison was sunk in a slough of despondency. On the previous Thursday General Buller had signalled from below in such confident language that the force had been placed upon full rations. Then, day by day, we had watched for some sign of the promised relief. Daily the guns had boomed, and occasionally we had caught a glimpse of the burst of an 'accidental,' but nothing more. Heavy weather had settled upon us and had blinded the little winking reflector on Monte Cristo Hill. On Sunday the relieving force must have been engaged in a night attack, for the sound of volley firing was distinctly audible in Ladysmith. Then came a day of silence. The helio was veiled in cloud, and there were no sounds of war. The spirits of the garrison fell. Grave rumours circulated. Men even said that for the third time the relief column had recrossed the Tugela. Monday brought a wave of hope, for at midday there was a gleam of sunshine, and we learned the news that Cronje had been surrounded in the Free State. Still there was no news from Buller's column. It was evident that the staff were also becoming anxious, for although the following day brought the news that Cronje had surrendered, yet the evening saw the garrison again reduced to quarter rations. This was only a precautionary measure, for Buller had helioed 'everything progressing favourably.' But the man in the street was sceptical. If favourable, why reduce the ration? Thus it was that Tuesday, Majuba Day—although on that date the tide of fortune had turned in our favour—marked the lowest pitch of despondency into which the garrison was ever plunged during the 118 days of its investment."
The end of their sufferings, however, was really at hand. Buller's telegram of February 28 announcing the success of the next operation, states also its character. "Finding that the passage of Langewachte Spruit (the scene of the fighting on the 23rd and 24th) was commanded by strong entrenchments, I reconnoitred for another passage of the Tugela. One was found for me below the cataract by Colonel Sandbach, Royal Engineers.... On the 26th, finding that I could make a practicable approach, I crossed the guns and baggage back to the south side of the Tugela, took up the pontoon bridge on the night of the 26th, and relaid it at the new site.... On the 27th General Barton, with two battalions 6th Brigade and the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, crept about one and a half miles down the banks of the river, and, ascending an almost precipitous cliff of about 500 feet, assaulted and carried the top of Pieter's Hill. This hill to a certain extent turned the enemy's left, and the 4th Brigade, under Colonel Norcott, and the 11th Brigade, under Colonel Kitchener, the whole under General Warren, assailed the enemy's main position, which was magnificently carried by the South Lancashire Regiment about sunset."
This handsome operation, which finally loosed the bonds in which Ladysmith was held, should perhaps be described in more detail than a telegram commonly admits. At the lower end of the northerly stretch of the Tugela, below Colenso, where the river again turns east, the railroad, which has kept close to the west bank, also inclines east for a mile and a half, constrained still to cling to the stream by hills to the northward. The more conspicuous of these had been named Terrace Hill and Railway Hill, and there it was that the British attacks of the 24th had been baffled. After passing them the road leaves the river, runs north, and in another mile reaches Pieter's Station. A mile to the eastward of this is Pieter's Hill, which the river nears by a northerly bend in its course. The Boer position north of this section of the river stretched from Railway Hill, three-quarters of a mile west of the road, to Pieter's Hill. The British occupied the heights on the opposite side, between one and two miles distant, and 200 feet above the bed of the Tugela. Along these crests they mounted heavy guns, a sustained fire from which, as is usual, preceded the attack.
On February 27—Majuba Day—as the troops detailed for the assault were about to step on to the bridge, there was communicated to them the news of Cronje's surrender at an earlier hour of the same day, flashed by the wires around from the Modder by way of the sea. Under this inspiring intelligence they went into action. The crossing was made near the angle of the river, where it turns the second time and resumes its easterly direction. Barton's brigade, which was to carry Pieter's Hill—the enemy's left—crossed first, and inclining to the right kept along the river a mile and a half to its appointed place, followed successively by Kitchener's and Norcott's brigades, which thus, when the line was formed, constituted respectively the centre and left of the British front of assault.
The attack on Pieter's was first made, beginning about 1 P.M. By the capture of this the Boer left was turned, after which by assaults progressing successively from the British right to the left, in continuous mutual support, all the works on Railway and Terrace Hills were carried by sunset, the enemy being, in many cases, driven out at the point of the bayonet. The British entrenched themselves that night in their new gains, but next morning, February 28, the Boers were found to have retreated from all the positions from which they had not been expelled. There was no defensive line remaining south of Ladysmith in which they could make a further stand, and the relief of the place followed as a matter of course. An advance party under Lord Dundonald entered the town that evening, and Buller himself followed the next day, March 1.
In these final operations for the relief of Ladysmith, the British loss in the Official Table of Casualties is given under two heads: 1, Monte Cristo, February 15-18, being those on the Boer left, south of the Tugela, ending in the capture of Hlangwane Hill; 2, Relief of Ladysmith, February 19-27. In the first there were: Killed 14, Wounded 188, Missing 4; Total 206. In the second: Killed 263, Wounded 1621, Missing 12; Total 1896. These losses are most suggestive of thought as to the character of the operations in which they were respectively incurred. The second total exceeds considerably that reported for any other action, or series of actions, during the war. Spion Kop, with 1733, is the nearest approach.
The advance of Lord Roberts to Bloemfontein after Cronje's surrender met with little resistance. The first position taken by the Boers to contest his progress appears to have been four or five miles east of Koodoosrand Drift. In his telegram their line is described as extending four miles north and eleven miles south of the Modder, a length which evidently required a pretty large force to man it. Its extremities, however, received no protection from natural obstacles of ground, and on the 7th of March French's Cavalry Division, passing south, turned their left flank. The Boers then retreated without serious fighting, the British having only fifty casualties. Three days later, at Driefontein, between forty and fifty miles from Bloemfontein, a stand was made which required a severe struggle to overcome. "The enemy opposed us throughout yesterday's march," Roberts telegraphed; "and from their intimate knowledge of the country gave us considerable trouble.... The brunt of the fighting fell upon Kelly-Kenny's division, two battalions of which, the Welsh and the Essex, turned the Boers out of two strong positions at the point of the bayonet." The British here lost 63 killed, 361 wounded. The defenders, contrary to their habit, failed to carry away their dead, of whom the victors buried 127. In the Boer papers their loss was reported to be seven killed and eighteen wounded—a suggestive discrepancy. No further opposition of consequence was encountered, and on March 13 Roberts entered Bloemfontein.
The occupation of Bloemfontein and the relief of Ladysmith closed for a time the British operations, and were followed by a period of suspended advance. This was imposed in part by the fatigue of the soldiery, a cause, however, which would not have lasted more than a few days—except in the case of the hunger-weakened defenders of Ladysmith. A prolonged stop was required for several reasons. The conduct of the war had now reverted to the original plan of an invasion in force through the Free State by the great mass of the British army. To this, all other movements were subsidiary, including those of even such a great corps as that of Buller, upon a line so important as the Natal railroad. But the central mass under the Commander-in-Chief had momentarily exhausted itself, not in organic vitality but in function power of movement, owing to the excessive strain upon the transport service and the expenditure of animal life in the forced marches and severe privations in the past month under conditions always most trying to unacclimated horses. The British Assistant Secretary of War said in Parliament that Lord Roberts arrived at Bloemfontein with his horses wholly starved and his men half-starved. The "wreck of an army," wrote a correspondent present, "lies scattered in and about Bloemfontein." Paralysing as such a condition is under any circumstances it was trebly so in a force which by a sudden rush, a leap rather than a march, had projected itself a hundred miles from any solid base of operations, and had not yet its communications secured. How much more was this true when a great further advance of 250 miles was intended. In short, before moving forward, it was necessary to insure that the connection behind was established, and the provision for transport ahead adequately developed. This involved not only an immense accumulation of animals, to allow for a waste always extreme, but also large reinforcements of troops; for every step forward in an enemy's country requires a detachment left behind to secure it.
"At each remove the lengthening chain" demands its group of guards, and these wisely disposed for quick mutual assistance; for with any enemy, and especially with one so mobile, it is impossible to be everywhere in sufficient force, superior to an unexpected attack. Communications are ever on the defensive, the most embarrassing of military attitudes. To the scattered units of such a system, all that can be provided is power to hold out until succoured. Moreover, there must be not merely a steady stream of supply from some far distant source, but the establishment of intermediate reservoirs—secondary depots—well stored with the manifold requirements of an army in campaign; advanced bases, capable by themselves of supporting for an appreciable time the existence and activity of forces dependent upon them alone. The importance of these to the army make them ever an object of attack to the enemy. Provision against accident or interruption, casual or hostile, has therefore to be elaborate in framework and solid in joint. "Lord Roberts had 45,000 men when he arrived at Bloemfontein, and he increased that number to 75,000 by April 30." Six thousand horses, besides mules, were at the same time sent up. To supply men and animals with daily food, and to accumulate on the spot twenty-five days' provisions and supplies of military stores for the further advance to the Vaal, there had to be brought daily to Bloemfontein, besides the reinforcements of men, 1020 tons by a single-track railroad on which many bridges had been destroyed. And Bloemfontein was 750 miles from Cape Town, and 250 from De Aar, the nearest secondary base so far established.
The good effect of Roberts's advance upon the general fortune of the war, and the correct military principle of the original plan, by him resumed, were clearly and quickly evident. Men from the Boer forces before Ladysmith were assembling already around Paardeberg before Cronje surrendered, seeking to relieve him, and Roberts on his march to Bloemfontein fought not only them but others from Colesberg and Stormberg, and generally from the regions over which French and Gatacre had vainly striven to advance. How far this helped Buller in his actual fighting before Ladysmith cannot certainly be said. The comparative ease with which Hlangwane Hill was carried was probably due chiefly to the correct direction given to the attack, while the heavy loss of the following days, February 22-24, may also be assigned to a frontal assault undertaken under a mistaken impression as to the enemy's force. The Boers did not then fight like men who were merely a rear guard covering a retreat. Nevertheless, there are indications that their numbers had been materially weakened, and the consciousness that Roberts's success would necessitate the abandonment of the siege may have affected the fighting, especially after Cronje's surrender became known.
The effect at Colesberg and in the Stormberg region is less doubtful. The imminence of Roberts's advance, when his purpose became apparent, drew away so many of the enemy to oppose him that the task of Clements and Gatacre became relatively easy and rapid. On March 15, two days after the occupation of Bloemfontein, Clements, whose temporary retirement has been noted, reached and held Norval's Pont, where the line from Naauwport to Bloemfontein crossed the Orange; while Gatacre, so long at a standstill, the same day occupied Bethulie, where the road from East London bridges the river. These two points are only about thirty miles apart, the converging roads meeting thirty miles beyond, at Springfontein. This junction was occupied next day, March 16, by a brigade sent back by Roberts. By the holding of these points, railroad communication was restored, in a military sense, from Bloemfontein to Cape Town and to East London. To assure it in practice as well, there was needed only certain repairs, and adequate guards disposed round these central positions.
Coincidently with the forward movement of Clements and Gatacre, a similar advance upon the latter's right flank, and, in a sense, covering it, was made by a colonial division of 2,000 men under a colonial officer, General Brabant. This took its direction to the eastward of the easternmost railway system, midway between it and the Basutoland boundary, traversing the mountainous region in which lay the districts of Cape Colony, Herschel, Aliwal North, etc., that early in the war had been annexed by proclamation of the President of the Free State. After crossing the Orange, this division continued to skirt the Basuto line by Rouxville and Wepener, thus entering the region south and east of Bloemfontein, which shortly became the scene of the enemy's movements threatening Roberts's communications with Cape Colony—movements characterised by a certain daring in conception and execution, but to which the customary caution of the Boers gave a direction too eccentric to constitute a home-thrust.
From February 11, when Roberts left the Modder, to March 13, when Bloemfontein was occupied, his operations and forward movement had been practically continuous. The subsequent halt, imperative as it was for the reasons stated, gave the Boers breathing time in which to recover themselves. Advance in force by the British main body was not resumed until May 2, but detachments were moved about in various directions on the near front, and on flank and rear, to occupy necessary outposts, to secure the communications, and to insure quiet among the inhabitants. During this prolonged period of recuperation and preparation the enemy resumed activity, scouring the country with their mounted men, seeking to cut off exposed parties, and by menacing the communications, to embarrass and retard the British commander in his new arrangements. In the first of these measures the Boers attained some successes; but in the second, either their numbers were too few for their object, or their habitual caution prevented resort to action in such force and at such risk as is absolutely necessary either seriously to "interrupt" communications—in the military sense of the phrase—or to produce any deterrent impression upon a commander of the experience and sound judgment of the one with whom they were dealing. Not only did they not materially threaten the communications, but it was perfectly evident that, whatever their reasons, they dared not attempt to do so.
As regards the cutting off of British detachments, of which the affairs of Reddersburg and of Koorn Spruit, near Thaba Nchu, were the most conspicuous illustrations, the only thing essential to be remarked is that such reverses on a small scale are always to be expected in war, in even the most successful campaigns. This does not mean that no blame attaches to them. Very probably in most such cases there has been carelessness or miscalculation, for which somebody merits either punishment or censure. But the Commander-in-Chief and the nation concerned have to reckon upon such mishaps; and, without affecting indifference, or neglecting to exact responsibility, they are to be regarded merely as the bruises and the barked limbs that men get in any rough sport. These they are, and usually they are nothing more. The player does not bleed to death in consequence; he simply goes on with the game. Military men, of course, understand this, but nations are too apt to be fretful as though some strange thing had happened to them.
It is not by such affairs that contests are decided—on the playground or in strategy. Lord Roberts proceeded with his preparations undisturbed by the mosquito buzzings about his ears or on his trail. At last, when ready, a second long leap was made. The British army, leaving Bloemfontein on the 2nd of May, was on the 12th at Kroonstad, over 100 miles distant. On the 24th the Vaal was crossed, and on the 31st Roberts entered Johannesburg. Five days later, on the 5th of June, the British flag was hoisted in Pretoria, the capital of the Transvaal, 250 miles from Bloemfontein. The sustained momentum of this advance, achieved in very little over a month, testifies at once to the solidity of the preparations of the British leader, and to the fruitlessness of such disseminated operations, by small bodies, as were conducted by the Boers during the British halt at Bloemfontein, and are now being carried on by Botha and De Wet. Subsidiary to the greater plan of a campaign by massed forces, they have their advantage; as a main dependence, they merely protract the agony of endurance and suffering.
Sir Redvers Buller had to await in Natal the movement of the central mass of the British force in the Orange Free State. Towards the middle of May his advance began, directed against the positions which the Boers had taken upon the Biggarsberg mountains, and on the 15th he reoccupied Dundee and Glencoe. Into the detail of these movements it is not proposed to enter. The retirement of the Boer forces before Roberts, in the Free State, uncovered the flank and endangered the communications of their brethren on the other side of the mountains. There was therefore for these nothing to do but to fall back, abandoning with a show of opposition positions whence otherwise they might have inflicted considerable loss upon the superior force assaulting them.
At the present moment, July 26, the British have communication from Johannesburg and Pretoria to the sea-coast by two routes—to Cape Town and to Durban. The actions of the Boers show that it is not in their power seriously to incommode either the one or the other. The trivial raids performed by their mounted men under De Wet and Botha may protract the sufferings of the war, and add to the close of the struggle a certain lustre of persistent resistance; but, barring events now unforeseen and scarcely to be anticipated, they cannot change the issue, which has become simply a question of endurance between combatants immeasurably unequal in resources.
Footnote 32: "The Cavalry Rush to Kimberley," by Captain Cecil Boyle, additional aide to General French. The Nineteenth Century, June, 1900, p. 907.
Footnote 33: Lord Roberts' telegram.
Footnote 34: London Weekly Times, March 23, 1900, p. ii.; also February 23, p. 114.
Footnote 35: "The Cavalry Rush to Kimberley," p. 909.
Footnote 36: See summary of a letter of Michael Davitt, whose Boer sympathies are well known, from Kroonstadt, March 31, to the Dublin Freeman's Journal, given in the London Times, June 25, 1900.
Footnote 37: "The Cavalry Rush to Kimberley," p. 210.
Footnote 38: London Weekly Times, March 23 and April 6 (p. iii). In the absence of official reports other than telegraphic summaries, the author has based his account chiefly on this authority.
Footnote 39: Bullet's telegram from Ladysmith, March 2.
Footnote 40: London Weekly Times, March 30, 1900.
Footnote 41: These figures are taken from a speech made by the Under Secretary of War in Parliament, June 29, 1900.