LORD ROBERTS' advance movements were characterised with much celerity, and many surprises for the enemy. He had the assistance of Generals French, Methuen, Gatacre, and Clements, scouring different districts, on the east, west, and south borders; while Lord Kitchener of Khartoum looked after rebel subjects.
De Aar, a junction on the line between Capetown and Fauresmith on the Orange Free State border, and distant from the border 55 miles, became an important depot in October, under Major Haking and Colonel Barter afterwards. Then came General Wood, who prepared defences. The district was, of course, under martial law, and curfew sounded at 6 p.m.
From Estcourt and the Mooi River to Frere; from Colesberg to Naauwport, and then on to Arundel, we moved. The Orange Free Staters commenced their invasion on the 1st of November, chosing as the scene of operations the Colesberg district, the centre of Afrikander disaffection, after concentrating at Bethulie and Spring-fontein, and crossing the frontier at Norvals Pont. A small squad of police in charge at once surrendered.
A short delay in Gatacre's and French's movements was caused by the rising of Dutch farmers at the end of November, which led to some skirmishes with them. Many of the traitors joined the invaders; and Sir Alfred Milner, as High Commissioner, issued a proclamation to remove false impressions as to the intentions of the British Government, and to warn the disloyal of the consequences of rebellion. The rebels, it was reckoned, numbered two thousand, who seemed full of religious enthusiasm, declaring God was their guide.
The official details of the defence of Kuruman, show that the mission station, which was formerly the centre of Dr. Moffat's long work among the natives of that part of Africa, was a point of resistance to the Boer attack. When the Boer commandant notified the magistrate of his intention to occupy the place, the latter replied that he had orders to defend it, and forthwith collected twenty natives and thirty half-castes, with whose aid he barricaded the mission chapel, and they resisted the attack of 500 Boers for six days and nights. The Boers then abandoned the attack, having lost thirty killed and wounded.
The burghers appeared on the hills at Arundel about 2000 strong, and a patrol of Carabiniers at night drew their fire at a farmhouse. We shelled the ridges next day.
Gatacre reached Molteno on Dec. 10, with 2,500 men, by train, and after a tramp of 16 miles during the night reached the Boer position at Stormberg at 4 a.m., falling back to Bushman's Hoek after a skirmish, having lost 23 killed and 62 wounded—an unfortunate affair. A party with a Geneva Red Cross flag was allowed next day to bury the dead, and tend some wounded then found on the battlefield. What a night of pain and anxiety they must have had.
Slow progress was now made owing to lack of reinforcements, till Colonels Pilcher and Page Henderson rendered assistance; meanwhile Lord Methuen's column reached the vicinity of the Modder river, and found the enemy strongly entrenched on hills which were like a veritable Gibraltar.
The defeat of Cronje was not effected till many of the fighters on both sides were laid low. At the end of the year and at the beginning of 1900 General French was still struggling with the Boers at Colesberg, assisted by Col. Watson.
Before the famous encounter at Modder, came the battle of Kaffir's Kop, ten miles east of Belmont, on Nov. 23, when the Grenadier^, supported by the Northumberland Fusiliers, took a kopje in a storm of shot and shell. Three of our officers and 50 men were killed, and 25 commissioned officers were wounded and 220 men. We captured 50 prisoners, including a German commandant and six field cornets. A hundred horses, large numbers of cattle, and ammunition fell into our hands.
The first effective blow consequent upon the forward movement upon the western frontier was delivered on Nov. 23, at Graspan, six miles from Belmont.
Lord Methuen gave orders for a night march, and before dawn our forces were close upon the enemy. The main attack was delivered by the Guards' brigade, the Northamptons being in support, and the 2nd Yorkshire and the 1st Northumberlands on the flank.
The Boer position was a formidable one on a series of hills, each hill being entrenched, besides offering splendid natural cover for the enemy.
It was not yet light when the order to advance was given. There was no preliminary shelling, nor did the infantry open fire until the enemy poured out a deadly fire at short range. Then with a burst of cheering the Guards bounded up the steep hill from cover to cover, until they were right into the Boer lines. The enemy did not relish the bayonet, and fell back upon his second line.
The Boers now were fully alive, the men in the rear had hurried to the front, and the hill became a line of fire. The Northumberlands on the right suffered severely. The Guards again pressed forward in face of the terrible fire.
It was almost like climbing a precipice, but, resistless, they swept on, and so the Boers who had not sought safety in flight had to face the British bayonets. Then the field guns spoke and made good practice. The back of the Boer resistance was broken, but the enemy still lined the third ridge and maintained a hot fire. A brief breathing spell, and once more, with a wild cheer, the Guards started to storm the heights, and with the same magnificent result as before.
Then it was seen that the Boers were in full retreat. Their camp was well filled with stores, much of which was abandoned. The mounted infantry and cavalry were unsuccessful in their attempt to cut off the retreating Boers, and it was not deemed wise for such a small force to pursue them far.
The behaviour of the British troops was magnificent. That any soldiers in the world could charge such almost inaccessible positions, defended by proved 'sharpshooters armed with magazine rifles, and clear them out at the point of the bayonet, is almost incredible.
After the last charge Major Dashwood, of the Fusiliers, who advanced upon seeing the Boers hoist a white flag, was treacherously shot down.
On the 25th November the Kimberley Relief Column advanced to Enslin, five miles to the north, where the Naval brigade and the Yorkshire Light Infantry distinguished themselves at a row of five kopjes connected by neks. We won the day, but many a boulder was dashed with gore, and we lost four officers and 16 men killed, and five officers and 160 men wounded.
Thence to Klopfontein for a halt; and then six miles to Modder river on Nov. 28, when, after two hours' fighting, Gen. Pole-Carew got a small party across the river, after which the Royal Engineers threw over the water a temporary bridge.
The enemy was now in great strength at Magersfontein, to the north-east, with trenches planned by a German expert, Albrecht.
Lord Methuen's column, both at Belmont and Enslin, had a sharp encounter with the foe on Saturday, Nov. 25th.
Most of the kopjes were over 200ft. in height. They were furrowed with trenches, and the ground had been carefully measured to find the ranges.
At Enslin the armoured train advanced slowly in front of the column and was already in action when the troops reached the battlefield.
Lord Methuen deployed the cavalry on the flanks, while the artillery took up positions to shell the Boer trenches. At the same time the Ninth brigade was sent forward in skirmishing order.
At six o'clock in the morning an artillery duel began. The enemy's guns were splendidly posted, and they had the range to a nicety. Shell after shell burst right over our batteries, but our men stuck to their guns. One shell struck the armoured train.
Subsequently our guns withdrew a distance of one thousand yards. This affected the enemy's marksmanship, but our artillery continued to make splendid practice, the Boers only replying at intervals.
Meanwhile the infantry were moving forward in preparation for the attack. The Northamptons worked from the left to the right, where they were joined by the Yorkshires and the Northumberlands.
After three hours of the artillery duel Lord Methuen ordered the general advance, and our infantry swarmed forward in magnificent style in face of a scathing fire. As they advanced the troops, taking cover, returned the Boer fire, and, forging steadily ahead, compelled the enemy to abandon their first position. Our cavalry charged two hundred Boers who were retreating across the plain, and succeeded in catching up the enemy's rear close to a kopje where they were sheltering.
The Lancers found the kopje alive with Boers, and were consequently forced to retire. .The capture of the second line of kopjes—everyone of them—was only accomplished after very severe fighting, but nothing could resist the impetuous advance of the British infantry, who continued steadily onward to the last of the enemy's positions.
Here the fighting was fearful, and the brunt of it was borne by the Marines. Though their officers were falling on all sides, the men clambered undauntedly up and over the boulders. Nothing could stop their rush.
The remnant of Boers fled to the plain, where the 9th Lancers were unable to follow them, their horses being exhausted.
The detachment of New South Wales Lancers, however, intercepted one party of the enemy attempting to retreat, and charging, forced them back to their former position.
Lord Methuen left Enslin with the knowledge that another and much more severe battle would have to be fought at Modder River as the Boers were in strong force on both sides of the river, and would dispute our passage to the last extremity.
His forces rested on Monday night the 27th of Nov. at Wilte Kops; a few miles from the river, but were on the march again before dawn, one brigade far on the right and another well on the left.
Soon after five o'clock we came into touch with the enemy 25 miles from Kimberley, and our artillery opened fire upon them at long range, while the naval contingent came into action with their guns from the armoured train, which accompanied the advance.
After an hour and a-halfs shelling, the 9th Lancers and the Mounted Infantry were sent forward to reconnoitre the enemy's positions on the river bank. They found the Boers at a farm and in some hotel grounds and pleasure grounds, but apparently not in force.
General Pole-Carew's brigade on the left were sent forward to make a feint attack, in the hope that they would draw the enemy away, while the Guards brigade forced the passage of the river.
All this time a terrific artillery and rifle fire was in progress. It was like the thunder of a mine explosion mingled with the whiz of countless rockets and the jab-jab of the Maxims.
About nine o'clock the Lancers became engaged with the enemy, and as they retired, the Guards brigade were pushed forward to the buildings mentioned.
Little signs of life could be seen until the Guards had got within 150yds. of the low walls. Then a murderous and appalling fire was opened upon our men. The walls of the farmhouse and its outbuildings vomited continuous torrents of lead. It was practically an ambush.
The Grenadiers, the leading regiment, appeared almost to be cleared off the ground by the storm of bullets.
The Guards fell back, and took what cover they could, and all the time the Boers played upon them with several Hotchkiss guns, which, however, were, fortunately, fired too high to do much execution.
Our artillery played upon the hotel and farm buildings which were held by the Boers. Scores of shell went right through the buildings and the walls were soon riddled. At one time the farmhouse was on fire, but through it all the Boers held to their positions with grim tenacity.
Several attempts had already been made to get across the river, but it was not until late in the afternoon that part of Pole-Carew's brigade managed to cross far down on the left. At sunset the enemy retired upon their entrenchments to the north, and the battle was won.
Our losses were heavy, including Colonel Northcott, who was killed. Methuen had a " graze."
It was a desperate battle and lasted twelve hours. The ambulance waggons were several times driven back by the bullets, which were dum-dums.
The enemy occupied a very strong position extending five miles. Their trenches were built in front of trees. They lost heavily. Their strength was estimated at 11,000.
During the night the enemy evacuated and left us in possession of the Modder River. The -plain was strewn with dead horses (prey of the vultures) and with bullets. This was the first occasion on which the Boers had ventured to defend an open position. In the afternoon, the 62nd battery arrived, having done the journey from Orange River in 24 hours, and then went straight into the fray.
The scene on the Boer side of the river was fearful. In a few houses dead Boers were found, and some other buildings were filled with wounded. No effort had been made to dress their wounds.
In their haste to flee from such castigators the Boers left their ambulance behind in care of some doctors. They had been led by General Cronje and by Commandant Delarey, whose eldest son was killed.
The Boers retreated in the Jacobsdal direction, while some went towards the Langeberg. They buried a lot of dead where they fell.Our casualties included eighteen officers. Among our 50 dead was Colonel Stopford, of the 2nd Coldstreams.