PRETORIA had been strongly fortified, and there had been loud boasts that it would cost the British dearly to enter it. Its situation in a basin commanded by rocky heights on every side presents a natural fortress. On Wonderboom, on the north side, a strong fortification had been erected under the direction of Col. Schiel, now a prisoner at St. Helena, and each of the railways converging on the capital was protected by a fort a little way outside the place.
It is a pleasant small burgh, of a normal resident population, recently of 12,000. Its sea elevation is 4,471 feet. It has all the appearance of prosperity, with handsome public erections and commodious villas. The Government Buildings cost £200,000, and are a handsome pile, with a central tower surmounted by a statue of Liberty. Its tropical verdure shows horticultural taste.
Since the war broke out the capital had been in a state gf excitement. In the first place all British subjects, except those specially exempted by the commissioners, were, by proclamation ordered to leave the republic within a few hours, and the American Consul, Mr. Hay, who acted as our intermediary, did what he could to assist the refugees. He also looked after the British soldiers and civilians whose ill-luck it was to be captured by the Boers. These eventually represented a community of 4,000 lodged in corrugated iron huts at Waterval, 13 miles from the town—in a field 100 yards by 700, surrounded by barbed wire. There was a hospital, which was kept fully employed. At one time it was reported that 40 men were delirious from fever. Complaints were made to Lord Roberts as to the rigour of the imprisonment and the poor diet supplied, but the President never admitted any severity or unreasonable treatment in any way.
The Volksraad, which opened its last session at Pretoria, on the 7th of May, was sad and solemn. The members, including the leading commanders, were, as usual, attired in black with white ties, and Kruger was distinguished by a green sash. The consuls wore their uniforms, with the exception of Mr. Adalbert Hay, who was In evening dress. General Lucas Meyer was voted to the chair. In the opening prayer, the chaplain, the Rev. Mr. Bosman, used these words—" It has been said that this will be the last meeting of the Volksraad. O God, we pray Thee avert it."
The address of President Kruger, read by Secretary Reitz, criticised the action of Great Britain. Speaking later in the day, Mr. Kruger declared that from documents discovered on prisoners, it was clear that the British Government decided on the war in 1896, which was a bit of romance. Though Pretoria was invaded, the Boers would still be free, he said. They might be confident that God would defeat the most powerful of Generals.
The senate listened in silence to this oratory, but next day they approved of the opening address, and then in camera considered the prospect and how to meet it. Should they stand to their guns in the capital, or flee into- the inhospitable fastnesses of Lydenberg? On a question of selling some mining concessions, the House disagreed, some speakers accusing Kruger of inconsistency, and it was said he left the chamber in a passion.
With the advance of Lord Roberts from the Orange Free State, preparations for flight were surreptitiously made by the Pretorian Government, the mountainous region of Lydenburg, on the north-east of the republic being given as their destination.
Their departure was deferred to the last moment. Not till Tuesday, May 29th, when affrighted burghers were arriving from Johannesburg and the thunder of the Imperial guns could be heard drawing near, did they use the special train in waiting on the Delagoa line. - Mr. Smuts, the State Attorney, and Mr. de Souza, the Secretary for War, were left in charge of the capital, and the rest of the Executive made for Machododorp, a railway station 161 miles east of Pretoria on the Delagoa line, whence Lydenburg is a hundred miles N.E., whither it was said, enormous stores had been sent to await events.
A touching little incident came off before Oom Paul left the Government House. A telegraphic messenger boy from Philadelphia, U. S. A., who had travelled thence for the purpose, presented him with an affectionate address of sympathy, signed by 30,000 American school children. This was some solace when adult Americans declined assistance solicited by Boer delegates.
Guarded by armed soldiers, six cabs filled with boxes of gold were in the procession to the railway station. The flight, though kept a secret, eked out, and the weeping farewell at the station was pathetic, when the well-paid guardians of the Transvaalers bid adieu to the friends they now left to their fate.
President Kruger was more cautious. He drove twelve miles in a closed carriage to Hatherley station, and there joined the special train, accompanied by a thousand Boers as a body-guard. At Machododorp, Kruger and his secretary Reitz, occupied a private railway carriage in the siding, when a newspaper correspondent visited the fugitives. When asked what he would do now Pretoria was lost, Kruger replied, "The Republican Capital, the seat of Government, is here, in this car," reminding one of Louis XIV's. dictum, " The State, that is me." As to the money he had abstracted, he said he had only taken what was necessary for State purposes.
Before leaving the capital, the Executive handed over the administration to a vigilance committee, and " for fear of trouble from the English prisoners, 23 British officers were deputed to take charge of them 1" Despite this order, a large number of them were removed eastward, under escort, to Nooitgedacht, 176 miles, in the Elands valley.
With the flight of the Ministers of State, the troubles of the burgomaster and constables of Pretoria increased. The excitement and uproar waxed terrific. Among the hundreds of Boers from Johannesburg, bringing in alarming tales of the British forces, was Commandant Ben Viljoen, whose followers, it was said, attempted to loot the Government stores. An order for the issue of £1,000,000
in treasury notes was for a time likely to cause an insurrection, for the Government officials said Kruger-and his friends had taken all the gold they could lay their hands on, and the paper money for wages was useless. A report that all the money in the banks was to be commandeered, also caused their managers and clerks to threaten armed resistance.
Then Generals Louis Botha and Lucas Meyer appeared upon the angry scene, and from the balcony of the Senate House harangued the burghers in heated terms " to fight to the bitter end."
The foreign military attaches, whose presence in the campaign had not been neutral according to report, had taken themselves off, and the trains for Delagoa Bay were frequently laden with refugees.
The respectable burghers were afraid of the foreign mercenaries, who, while offering their sword to "strike for liberty," had often only sordid motives. In fact, Pretoria was a lurking-place for adventurers of all races—fighting men " broke in the wars," looters and receivers of loot, men ripe for any rascality from pitch and toss to murder, spies, betrayers of trust, traitors, dynamitards, wreckers of order in general; most of them in desperate circumstances, and seeking their opportunity in the chaos which may come of panic.
Pretoria was taken charge of by a war council composed of the Commandants, with Botha at their head, whose laagers were pitched just outside the town, and their strength was said to be 10,000, with several guns. But the British advance columns soon seized one or two of the forts, (from which the guns had been removed), and the dynamite factory on the southern road, which was defended by Delarey and Keys.
One of the first objects of the investing force was to get possession of the Delagoa line, and so cut off the retreat of the Boers and their foreign allies. To defend the approaches to the railway three batteries were posted by the Boers in a strong position. President Kruger was still giving his orders by telegram, and we had another reason in this for capturing the wires along the metals.
The fight for Pretoria was fierce, and lasted several days.
On Whit-Monday the main body of our force was in a position to start at daybreak, and marched about ten miles under the enemy's fire, to the Six Mile Spruit, (both banks of which were occupied by Boers), six miles from the capital.
Henry's and Ross's Mounted Infantry, with the West Somerset, Dorset, Bedford, and Suffolk Companies of Yeomanry, had a fine chance of showing their marksmanship, and despite the leaden hail of nail-like bullets from hundreds of Mausers, quickly dislodged the foemen from the south bank, and pursued them northwards for nearly a mile, when they were stopped by guns which the enemy had concealed on a commanding hill.
Our heavy naval guns and the Royal Artillery were hurried forward, as fast as oxen and mules could draw them over the rough and rolling hills, and these were supported by Stephenson's brigade of Pole-Carew's Division. A few rounds silenced the enemy's artillery, and then a large body of Boers tried to turn our left flank. But the Mounted Infantry and Yeomanry, supported by Maxwell's brigade of Tucker's Division, foiled this movement completely, yet not without the aid of Ian Hamilton's troops, who had been three miles off, and closed up smartly.
The line of our advance lay over rugged and stony ridges, and was therefore not easy to negotiate. The enemy's front extended along the hills for a distance of twelve miles, and rifle fire was opened on our mounted infantry directly they appeared, compelling them to fall back for cover.
Our guns, however, were speedily in action. They had previously been moved well to the front in readiness for some such contingency as had now actually arisen. The field batteries rained shell on the opposite ridge, while the heavy naval and siege guns were hurried along the road to a nek commanding the forts and hills.
A terrific bombardment ensued. Shell after shell burst in the forts and emplacements with destructive effect, and others were sent right over the hills with the view of damaging the railway.
It was while the artillery were thus engaged that the Boers, assuming the offensive, made an attempt to turn our right flank. The manoeuvre was frustrated, however, by the Guards' brigade, who deployed into line to meet it. On the left the 14th brigade was also attacked, while the 75th battery shelled at close range a bush-covered ridge which the enemy held in force.
After several hours of long distance firing the whole of the infantry advanced, sweeping across the valley in gallant style, and gaining the crest of the hills overlooking Pretoria in the face of only slight opposition. From there it was possible to see the Boers retreating into the town and passing through it in disorderly crowds.
Further to the west, on our extreme left, General Ian Hamilton had also advanced, sending round the West Australian Mounted Infantry and the New South Wales Lancers, under Col. De Lisle, to turn the Boer right. The men led their horses up a steep and rocky ascent, and down the other side, and then re-mounting galloped straight across the valley towards Pretoria.
In the meantime the Gordon Highlanders and the Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry engaged the enemy from the north, where they were holding the last ridge but one under a heavy rifle fire. But the fear of being surrounded was again too much for the Boers. Seeing Col. De Lisle's men behind them, they turned and fled, leaving Pretoria open before us.
Lord Roberts would have liked to complete the rout, only the light failed with shortening days, and the main British army bivouacked in sight of the capital. The, Guards' brigade was near to the most southern of the five forts, and less than four miles from the town.
Our camp that night was a scene of excitement and exhilaration, though, after twelve hours' marching and fighting, the men were tired as well as the horses and cattle; still they were eager for the dawn of Tuesday to complete their expedition.
General French, with the 3rd and 4th Cavalry brigades and Hutton's Mounted Infantry, were on the alert to prevent the enemy taking either the line or the road to Pietersburg, but were too late. "
On their left was Broadwood's brigade, guarding the roads to the Limpopo river, and the Gordon Highlanders watched the right flank of the main force, being not far from the Irene station, which the enemy had destroyed.
When we counted up the day's cost, the report from the ambulance and medical staff was very satisfactory.
At the time Lord Roberts bivouacked it was unknown to him that Ian Hamilton was following up the Boers in the twilight, and got to within 2,000 yards of the town, through which the Boers hastily retreated northward and eastward.
There appeared to be no reason why the advance squadrons should not follow up their advantage and take the town that night. So Col. De Lisle sent an officer with a flag of truce into Pretoria, demanding its surrender in the name of the Commander-in-Chief.
The result was that shortly before midnight " our Bobs" was awoke in his cart by two officials of the South African Republic, — Sandburg, military secretary to Commandant General Botha, and a general officer of the Boer army, who brought a letter from Botha proposing an armistice for the purpose of settling the terms of surrender. His lordship replied that he would be glad to meet the Commandant General the next morning, but that he was not prepared to discuss any terms of surrender, which must be unconditional, and he asked for a reply by daybreak, as he had ordered the troops to march on the town as soon as it was light.
Botha sent word back at once that he had decided not to defend Pretoria, and that he trusted the women, children, and property would be protected. Three of the principal civil officials afterwards came out with a flag of truce, stating that they wished to surrender the town.
As the sun rose, Lord Roberts and his staff moved slowly forward, visiting the fort en route. General Pole-Carew, in person, with an advance guard of the 2nd Coldstreams, pushed forward, having orders to secure the station. When he arrived in close proximity to the station, a train was perceived on the point of leaving. Immediately, Pole-Carew, with his whole staff, gave chase at full gallop, but the train escaped.
Meanwhile, Major Shute, with the advanced guard, rushed the station. A few shots were fired, and several engines and a quantity of rolling-stock was secured.
In the meantime a huge crowd had thronged the Market Square. It consisted of ladies, armed burghers anxious to surrender their arms, Hollanders, doctors, and townsfolk, All were in a state of great excitement.
Some were dejected and others openly showed their great delight.
Then it became known that our officers who had been prisoners were free. It appeared that the commandant of the Boer prison guard woke them at one o'clock in the morning, and insisted on their making preparations for their departure. He was promptly seized and disarmed. His adjutant next came with the same message, and he was disposed of in the same way.
In the end the prisoners were guarding their own guards. They made their way to the Market Square to meet the incoming troops, and were soon exchanging accounts of their experiences and greeting new-found friends.
The experiences of the prisoners were deeply interesting. Their last prison'was a great iron house, in which there was one vast dormitory, separated from the mess-ing-room. Each officer made himself a cubicle with screens, which they decorated with pictures from the illustrated papers.
The State entry into Pretoria was an historic scene of great excitement.
From the Rand to Six Mile Spruit there had been gentle levels on the open veldt, with no kopjes for possible ambuscades. Now the road declined, some 1,200 feet between Johannesburg and Pretoria, and whereas there had been no points of attack till we got to Six Mile Spruit, where we halted, we found the rest of the way broken and hilly, with a good main road direct into the town.
As we neared the suburbs of neat little bungalows and villas of successful Hollander lawyers and government officials, some people came out to meet us.
A small party, led by Major Maude, went on in front and left sentries at important points.
Lord Roberts was attended by his staff, with drawn swords, and the Guards had the place of honour. It was an imposing spectacle, and while Dutchmen looked sullen and cowed, there were English and American residents to cheer. It was 2 o'clock when Lord Roberts reached the square amid a roar of cheering. The released officers shouted themselves hoarse.
The document of capitulation was handed to, Lord Roberts by the Government Officers, and the British flag was hoisted to the mast over the Government House, with the playing of fifes and a royal salute, followed by the lusty and frantic cheers of military and civilians. Some of the crowd watched the hoisting of the flag, denoting, as it did, the final blow to all their hopes, in dogged silence, but many burghers, even those standing behind the line of Grenadiers, with Mausers in their hands ready to surrender, raised their hats as the flag was run up.
Lord Roberts and his staff lunched outside the town, pending the conclusion of arrangements for the march past of the troops.
The 3rd Battalion Grenadier Guards lined the square for the march past.
The officers of the staff attached to the Guards' Brigade, afterwards paid a visit to the Presidency. They were received by the Dutch clergyman, who explained that Mrs. Kruger was still in residence there.
The clergyman then invited the officers into the porch, where they were shortly afterwards joined by the President's wife.
Mrs. Kruger, who was wearing a black silk dress and a white cap, appeared perfectly composed, and exchanged courtesies with her visitors.
The commanding officer then notified Mrs. Kruger of his intention to replace the burghers' guard of the presidency by a guard of British soldiers. The burghers thereupon placed their pistols and ammunition upon the ashphalted pavement near the Barnato's sculptured lions in the verandah, and our sentries mounted guard.
The banks were being guarded by Hollander corps and attaches, and the place was in a state of alarm. One of our shells had struck the residence of the American consul, whose services to the town had been great.
With Roberts at the Presidency, the capital quickly assumed its normal condition, for which leading citizens expressed their gratitude.
On Wednesday morning General Porter's Cavalry Brigade, 500 strong, with a battery of Royal Horse Artillery, proceeded to Waterval, where the captive private soldiers, together with 20 officers, were penned up in iron huts, under a small guard of about 90. The guard had consisted of 500 men, but desertions had been rapid during the last week, the Boers throwing away their rifles and returning to their farms.
General Porter arrived at Waterval at ten o'clock, when a scene of tremendous excitement ensued.
About eleven o'clock a body of Boers got up on the hills 4,000 yards away, and began shelling the camp and the hospital, in which were 300 sick and wounded men. Luckily, however, the building was not struck.
Col. Carleton, who was in charge of the camp, directed his men to return the shots, and as the firing continued, Col. Porter drew off and engaged the enemy. Thereupon the erstwhile captives, by direction of the officers in charge of them, and without waiting for the trains and transport that were being sent to fetch them, trekked off, arriving tired and weary in the British camp at Pretoria. Their joy was shared by their comrades, who celebrated the rescue with a feast. This added to our force 3,500 men, 2,000 of whom were armed with surrendered Mausers. The sick from the hospital were brought in by the train the next day.
A day or two after the British occupation of the Transvaal capital, a serious break in the line of communication with the Cape by rail took place. To maintain a line of 1,000 miles for supplies was the most difficult part of the campaign, and with such a wily, tricky enemy as the Boers, the wonder is that such a disaster had not occurred before. A force of 2,000 Boers, with six field guns, turned up at Roodeval, 31 miles to the north of Kroonstad, and from Klip Kraal to America Station Spruit, north of Fairfield, and ten miles from Kroonstad, or for about twenty miles, the line was destroyed. Thus the food supplies of our army at Pretoria were apparently endangered, as they took with them on the march only sufficient for a few days.
On June 7th, the day after the wrecking of the line, the 4th Derbyshires, a Militia regiment, about 600 strong, with some other forces, accompanied a railway telegraph and post-office corps to repair the damage, when they were suddenly attacked by the Boers who had done the mischief, and the result was disastrous to us, our men being altogether surprised and outnumbered. We lost two officers and 34 rank and file killed, and 104 wounded. The rest of the men being taken prisoners.
Lord Roberts at once sent Kitchener with such troops as could then be spared, with orders to push south and communicate with Methuen, who had a very compact force in the vicinity of Heilbron. He also despatched a special messenger to Methuen to push on with all speed to the main line of railway.
These two officers met at Vredefort road station on the evening of the 10th, and next day marched to the Rhen-oster River, where Methuen gained a complete victory over De Wet, took possession of his camp, and scattered his troops in all directions. Our loss was one killed and 18 wounded, the latter being taken to the Yeomanry Hospital, which was recaptured from the Boers.
The line and telegraph were restored with remarkable celerity, and to prevent such hindrances more regiments were sent from the Cape and from England to make our communication secure.
These measures were shown to be urgent by what took place on the 14th, when Lord Kitchener reported that the Boers had attacked the reconstruction train early that morning a few miles north of the Rhenoster River. He turned out mounted troops and drove the enemy off before they could do damage. One man was killed and eleven were wounded.
Botha had retired to a place about fifteen miles to the east of Pretoria on the Middleburg road, and his force increasing, it was felt that its presence there would retard the work of disarming burghers and collecting supplies.
Consequently on the 11th of June, Lord Roberts moved out to the attack. With a very strong position on the hills, Botha was able to put his strength into his flanks; but French was sent with Porter's and Dixon's Cavalry Brigades, and Hutton's Mounted Infantry round by our left, while Ian Hamilton, with Broadwood's and Gordon's Cavalry Brigades, Ridley's Mounted Infantry, and Bruce Hamilton's Infantry Brigades moved round by our right.
Both columns met with great opposition, but about three o'clock in the afternoon two of Hamilton's Infantry Battalions advanced to what appeared to be the key of the enemy's defence on their left flank.
This was almost gained before dark, and then Lord Roberts ordered the force to bivouac on the ground they had won.
Among the slain was the Earl of Airlie, the head of the clan of Ogilvys, and laird of Angus: Major the Hon. L. Fortescue: and Lieut, the Hon. C. Cavendish.
The enemy fought with considerable determination, and held our cavalry on both flanks, but Ian Hamilton, assisted by the Guards' Brigade of Pole-Carew's Division pushing forward, took the hill on his front, which caused the enemy to fall back on a second position eastward which is slightly higher than the one we had captured. This was accomplished on the second day, and then the enemy slunk away under cover of the darkness.
Their losses must have been considerable, the Lancers alone killing 23, and the sangers were literally bathed in blood.
Some Boer envoys arrived with a white flag, but as a shell went over their heads they refused to deliver their message to the West Australians at Zwart Kopjes, but insisted on seeing Lord Roberts in person. He received them the same evening, but the negotiations, whatever they were, had no result. They appeared to be merely a subterfuge to gain time.
While the cannonade was in progress two immense white flags were seen to be flying from the enemy's position. Our gunners ceased fire, and eagerly awaited the surrender of the Boer army, but the flags proved to have been displayed by Kaffirs, accompanied by a whole tribe of women.There was one critical moment. In advancing, G Battery Royal Horse Artillery got under a heavy Mauser fire. The Boers, who were probably Zarps, riding forward and firing from horseback, sought to capture the guns, which met them with case. Broadwood then ordered a charge, and the 12th Lancers got home, killing and wounding numbers of the defeated enemy. The charge of the Household Cavalry was stopped by a donga.