[Footnote 185: See maps Nos. 9 and 16.]

[Sidenote: Schoeman at Norval's Pont Nov. 1st.]

[Sidenote: Colesberg Nov. 14th, is annexed.]

A Boer force seized the passage of the Orange river at Norval's Pont on the 1st November.[186] It consisted of the Philippolis and Edenburg commandos, with a detachment from the Bethulie district and some burghers from the Transvaal, and was commanded by a Transvaaler named Schoeman. Schoeman's subsequent advance was extraordinarily cautious and hesitating, a caution probably more due to the existence amongst the Free State burghers of a strong party opposed on political grounds to the invasion of the colony than to strategical considerations. Although on the withdrawal of the British garrison from Naauwpoort on the 3rd, there was for the moment not a single British post between Port Elizabeth and the frontier, it was not until the 14th that the little town of Colesberg was occupied by the enemy. That this Boer force was not the advance guard of any large army had been shown by the destruction on the 5th of two railway bridges, at Van Zyl and Achtertang, between Colesberg junction and Norval's Pont; on the other hand, the aggressive intention of Schoeman's movement had been demonstrated by the issue on the 9th of a Boer proclamation, declaring the Colesberg district to be Free State territory. The main object of this proclamation, as well as of similar announcements made in the Aliwal, Albert, and Barkly East districts, was to apply the Free State commando laws to British subjects, and under that legal pretext force them to join the invading columns. Nor did this policy at first lack encouragement, for a public meeting held at Colesberg on the day of its occupation passed a resolution in favour of throwing in its lot with the Orange Free State. These facts were duly reported to the Intelligence staff at Cape Town. The strength of Schoeman's column was variously assessed, one report placing it as high as 3,000, but the estimate considered most reliable stated that the Boer commandant had at this time under his orders 1,200 men, two field guns, and a Maxim. On the 17th the Intelligence department was informed that the column intended to occupy Naauwpoort, and there divide into two sections, one pushing across country to the south-west for the purpose of cutting the railway at Richmond Road, and the other moving south on a recruiting mission to Middleburg.

[Footnote 186: See page 198.]

[Sidenote: Danger of the raid. French ordered to check it.]

A series of boldly-conducted raids on the long line of railway from Cape Town to De Aar might at this period have paralysed Lord Methuen's advance on Kimberley, while a Boer column in the central districts of the Colony would have formed a nucleus round which the disaffected and lawless might have rallied, before the loyal farmers could be armed and organised to defend their own homes. It was thus evident that immediate steps must be taken to check the commando at Colesberg, and it was for these reasons that the orders, already mentioned,[187] were issued by Sir R. Buller for the re-occupation of Naauwpoort by a half-battalion of the 2nd Berkshire, a half-battalion of the Black Watch, the New South Wales Lancers (40 all ranks), 25 Cape Police, and a party of Royal Garrison artillery manning two 9-pr. R.M.L. guns, and for the despatch of Lieut.-General French to organise as a combined force these and such further troops as Wauchope could spare, so as to oppose Schoeman's operations.

[Footnote 187: See Chapter XI.]

[Sidenote: French confers with Wauchope Nov. 19th.]

General French, accompanied by Major D. Haig as his Chief Staff Officer, and Captain the Hon. H. A. Lawrence as Intelligence Officer, left Cape Town by train on the evening of the 18th November, reaching on the following night De Aar, where he had been instructed to confer with Major-General Wauchope (at that time commanding the lines of communication from De Aar to Orange River) as regards the plan of campaign and as to the units that could be given him. In telegraphic orders sent to French on the 19th Sir R. Buller laid down his mission in the following terms:--

[Sidenote: French's instructions, Nov. 19th.]

"I shall reinforce you as rapidly as possible; meanwhile do your best to prepare for a flying column, strength say, nearly 3,000 men, with which as soon as I get more troops, I mean you to attack the Boers about Colesberg. I think such an attack should be based on Hanover Road. Do all you can to reconnoitre the country, to obtain guides and information, and to be prepared to start; keep your men in condition, and exercise horses and mules."

[Sidenote: French reports on situation, Nov. 20th.]

As a result of his conference with Wauchope, General French reported to Headquarters on the 20th that Naauwpoort, which had already been re-occupied by the troops above-named, would be a better base than Hanover Road for a movement on Colesberg, considering both the flatness of the country, the fewer wire fences, and the railway and direct road. But for the moment Wauchope could spare no more troops except two companies of M.I. The telegram added that arrangements were being made for the formation at Naauwpoort of a depôt containing thirty days' supplies for 3,000 men, 600 horses, and 500 mules. After the despatch of this report General French, accompanied by his staff, proceeded by train to his destination, and immediately on his arrival issued orders for a reconnaissance on the following day.

[Sidenote: Nov. 21st. French reconnoitres towards Colesberg. He asks for reinforcements.]

On the morning of the 21st, the General Officer commanding pushed forward up the railway with the N.S.W. Lancers, followed by a section of infantry in a train. The line was found to be broken one mile north of Tweedale siding, but the cavalry advanced to within eight miles of Colesberg without meeting the enemy (see map No. 10). On reporting by telegram the result of this reconnaissance, General French added that, on the arrival from De Aar of the two companies M.I., he proposed to occupy a strong position north of Arundel, and that he considered that, with a view to an attack on Colesberg, he should be reinforced by two and a half battalions and a few squadrons of cavalry, "most necessary for reaping fruits of victory in this country." The same afternoon R. battery R.H.A. and an ammunition column reached Naauwpoort by train from Cape Town. The two companies M.I., under Lieut.-Colonel R. J. Tudway, marched in from De Aar, but were found to be so insufficiently trained in their mounted duties that they were as yet unfit to take the field as complete units against the enemy.[188]

[Footnote 188: These two companies were part of the M.I. battalion of the cavalry division, and were composed of sections drawn from various infantry battalions, and trained in different districts in different ways.]

[Sidenote: Steps taken Nov. 22nd and 23rd. Reinforcements arrive.]

On the 22nd, culverts north of Tweedale siding were repaired, and an obstruction on the line was removed. A patrol of the N.S.W. Lancers was pushed on to a kopje north of Arundel, but no sign of the enemy was seen. On the 23rd the other half-battalion Black Watch came in from General Wauchope, and a reconnaissance of New South Wales Lancers and a picked detachment of the M.I., supported by a company of infantry in a train, was despatched up the line towards Arundel, with a view to observing by patrols the vicinity of Colesberg; the kopjes, however, north of Arundel station were found to be now occupied by the Boers in sufficient strength to check further progress. In reporting this to Cape Town by telegraph, General French stated that he did not think that the enemy intended to attack Naauwpoort, but considered that the Boers should be dislodged from Colesberg as soon as possible, as they were obtaining recruits there. Naauwpoort had meantime been placed in a thorough state of defence.

[Sidenote: French's command extended.]

Reconnaissances continued to be made almost daily towards Arundel. Meanwhile General French's sphere of command had been increased by the addition to it of the central line of communication down to Port Elizabeth, volunteer corps, including the Prince Alfred's Guards, of a strength of 900 all ranks, being placed at his disposal. Some difficulty, however, arising as to the movement of these colonial troops north of Cradock, detachments of regulars were sent temporarily from Naauwpoort to hold Rosmead Junction and the railway bridges near it against small rebel parties, which were reported to be under arms in that neighbourhood. The force at Naauwpoort was gradually augmented by the arrival of the 12th Lancers on the 25th, and O. battery R.H.A., and another ammunition column on the 27th. On the other hand, by the 1st December the whole battalion of the Black Watch had been, at the urgent request of Major-General Wauchope, returned to Orange River to replace infantry sent forward to Lord Methuen. The 1st Suffolk regiment arrived at Naauwpoort that afternoon, and on the 2nd December the New Zealand Mounted Rifles, a fine corps 400 strong, and the 26th company R.E., joined General French.

[Sidenote: Nov. 26th to Dec. 7th. The "policy of worry."]

[Sidenote: Arundel occupied, Dec. 7th.]

On the 26th November Sir R. Buller had telegraphed to Sir F. Forestier-Walker: "French should attack Arundel as soon as he feels strong enough, but not before, and he should be sure that he is strong enough. We can now afford to wait;" and on the following day he added: "Tell French to maintain an active defence, not running any risk." On the 30th another despatch from the General Commanding-in-Chief to General Forestier-Walker ran: "suggest to French that a policy of worry, without risking men, might have a good effect on the enemy at Colesberg and keep him occupied." Meanwhile the constant appearance of patrols from Naauwpoort had not only completely chained to the vicinity of Colesberg the main body of the enemy, but had made him nervous for the safety of his advance party on the kopjes north of Arundel station; and on the 29th November a squadron of the 12th Lancers discovered that those kopjes had been evacuated. On this, two days later, two squadrons of that regiment were sent forward to Arundel station to bivouac there that night with a view to a reconnaissance being pushed on to Colesberg on the following morning. But at 10 p.m. the Lieutenant-General received a telegram from the Chief of the Staff ordering the 12th Lancers to join Lord Methuen on the Modder river. The squadrons were, therefore, recalled from Arundel and the regiment entrained for the Modder on the following day, as soon as sufficient rolling-stock could be obtained. Its departure left French for the moment with insufficient mounted men to keep touch with the enemy, but the arrival of the New Zealanders on the 2nd December enabled active operations to be renewed, and on the 5th the Carabiniers, commanded by Colonel T. C. Porter, increased the Naauwpoort force sufficiently to warrant the adoption of the "policy of worry" suggested by Sir R. Buller. Moreover, arrangements had now been completed for the protection of the railway line from Cradock to Rosmead by part of the Port Elizabeth Volunteer Corps. The details of the Suffolk regiment and M.I., which had been guarding these localities, were thereupon recalled to Naauwpoort and rejoined on the afternoon of 5th December. On the 6th orders were issued for the occupation on the following day of a position near Arundel with mounted troops "with the object of pushing forward detachments to observe the enemy, and clear up the situation near Colesberg next day." In pursuance of these orders the New Zealand Mounted Rifles moved out to the ridge to the south of Arundel early on the morning of the 7th, and later in the day the Carabiniers, mounted infantry (less a detachment holding Hanover Road station), the N.S.W. Lancers, a detachment of the R.E. company, and Field Telegraph section were brought out by train from Naauwpoort under the command of Colonel Porter; and, having detrained at Hartebeestfontein farm, covered by the New Zealand Mounted Rifles, advanced with that regiment to Arundel without meeting any opposition. There the force bivouacked for the night, the enemy's piquets watching them from a ridge three miles north of the station.

[Sidenote: Dec. 8th to Dec. 11th, 1899. Schoeman's strength ascertained. French seizes hill north of Arundel.]

At dawn on the 8th, Colonel Porter sent forward his mounted infantry, with some cavalry, and seized a hill three miles north of Arundel. General French, accompanied by his staff and two Berkshire companies, arrived at Arundel by train from Naauwpoort at 6 a.m., and by his orders the reconnaissance was then pushed home. The Boers were found to be now occupying a series of kopjes called Taaiboschlaagte which run in a south-easterly direction from Rensburg, and extend to the westward, across the line. The cavalry was sent round both flanks of the enemy, while the mounted infantry held him in front. This movement caused the Boers to fall back and disclose a second position athwart the railway, with a wide frontage both to the east and west. Artillery fire was opened on the British troops from three points of this new post, and a large gun was seen being dragged into action near Rensburg, which appeared to be the centre of the Boer line. It was estimated that the opposing commando was on this occasion about 2,000 strong. A prisoner was captured, who alleged that he was adjutant to the officer commanding a reinforcement just arrived from Pretoria. He stated that the total force under Schoeman's orders was now 3,000, exclusive of local rebels, that it included four field guns and three smaller pieces, and that Grobelaar's commando of 1,700 men at Burghersdorp would shortly receive a reinforcement of 600 men from the Free State and intended then to co-operate with Schoeman. A telegram, despatched by Major Haig in the evening to Cape Town, reported the above information and the day's operation, adding: "General French desires me to say that in face of attitude of enemy to-day he cannot do more than reconnoitre with forces here." The mounted troops, who had now been joined by R. battery R.H.A., continued in occupation of the kopjes north of Arundel, and on the 11th December, the railway having been repaired, three companies of the Royal Berkshire, under Major McCracken, were moved by train to that station, and a detachment of 50 M.I. was sent to Tweedale to patrol and guard the line; the remainder of the troops continued to garrison Naauwpoort under command of Lieut.-Colonel A. J. Watson, 1st Suffolk regiment.

[Sidenote: French seizes Vaal Kop and repels Boer advance. Dec 11th.]

Two squadrons of the Inniskilling Dragoons reached Naauwpoort on the 10th, and with two squadrons of the 10th Hussars, arriving on the 11th, were sent on to Arundel. Early on the morning of the 11th the British patrols reported that the Boers had seized Vaal Kop, an isolated hill some six miles west of Rensburg, with open ground all round it, and Kuilfontein farm, one and a half miles to the north-west of the kop. By the Lieut.-General's directions a squadron of the 10th Hussars and two Horse artillery guns were sent out against these detached posts, and having forced the enemy back remained in possession of Vaal Kop. Some anxiety was still felt as regards Schoeman's designs on his left side, as it was surmised that his continued occupation of a position so much in advance of Colesberg was probably due to an intention of holding out a hand to Grobelaar in the Burghersdorp district. Colonel Porter was, therefore, ordered to patrol widely to the east and north-east to discover whether any movements were taking place in those quarters. Early on the morning of the 13th his patrols reported that about 1,800 Boers were leaving their laagers in three detachments and pushing southward towards Naauwpoort. By 7 a.m. Colonel Porter had made the following disposition to meet this development--Vaal Kop on his extreme left was still occupied by a squadron and two guns, and the kopjes to the north of Arundel were held by the three companies of the Berkshire and two 9-pr. R.M.L. guns, supported by the M.I. on the right and the New Zealand Mounted Rifles on the left, with the N.S.W. Lancers at the Nek near the railway. The main body of the cavalry (six squadrons) with four guns of R. battery was concentrated on the threatened flank two to three miles to the east of the remainder. In a skirmish which ensued, the enemy brought up two guns, but these were quickly silenced and the Boer commandos were driven back by the cavalry. By 2 p.m. the bulk of the enemy's forces had returned to their old ground; a party, which about that hour occupied Kuilfontein farm on the western flank, was driven away by the shell fire of the two British guns on Vaal Kop, suffering considerable loss. The British casualties during the day were limited to one officer and seven men wounded. A congratulatory telegram, received by General French from Sir R. Buller next day, commented: "You are following the right policy. Worry them." The tactics prescribed by General French at this period can be best realised from the following extract from the instructions issued by his Chief Staff Officer on the 14th to Major-General Brabazon, who, on his arrival on that date, was placed in command at Arundel:--

[Sidenote: French's method.]

"Your task is to prevent the enemy moving from his present positions closer to Naauwpoort, or reaching the railway connecting that place with Arundel. The Lieut.-General Commanding considers that the best method to pursue to attain this end is:

"(a) Hold Arundel as a pivot.

"(b) Using that as a pivot, act energetically with your mounted troops against any of the enemy's detachments which may leave his main position and cross open ground.

"(c) Select and hold certain points (such as Vaal Kop), to retain the enemy and make him fear an offensive movement against his line of retreat; (which is viâ Colesberg wagon bridge)."

[Sidenote: French, because of effect of "Black Week," takes command at Arundel and reorganises. Dec. 16th.]

[Sidenote: Dec. 17th.]

On the 16th, however, notwithstanding these instructions, the officer commanding the detachment on Vaal Kop fell back from that post on its being threatened by distant artillery fire, and the whole of the troops at Arundel were turned out on a false alarm that the enemy was advancing. The defeats at Stormberg, Magersfontein, and Colenso, recorded in later chapters, had meantime darkened the prospect, so that manifestly the utmost care must be taken by all commanders to obviate mistakes which might lead to further misfortunes. General French, therefore, moved his Headquarters to the front, and assumed personal command of the troops at Arundel. He had telegraphed on the previous day offering to despatch all his cavalry to the Modder river, but this suggestion was negatived "on account of scarcity of water." He reorganised the Arundel command into a division as follows, appointing Major-General Brabazon second in command:--

1st Cavalry Brigade (under Colonel T. C. Porter).
  • The Carabiniers.
  • New South Wales Lancers (40 men),
  • 1 company mounted infantry.

2nd Cavalry Brigade (under Lieut.-Colonel R. B. W. Fisher).

  • The Inniskilling Dragoons (2 squadrons),
  • 10th Hussars (2 squadrons),
  • 1 company mounted infantry.

[p. 284] Divisional Troops.

  • Brigade division R.H.A. (under Colonel F. J. W. Eustace).
  • New Zealand Mounted Rifles.
  • R.E. company.
  • Bearer company.
  • Half-battalion Royal Berkshire regiment. under Major F. W. N.
  • 2 guns R.G.A." "
[Sidenote: French pivoting on certain strong points continues "policy of worry." Dec. 16th-17th 1899.]

Major McCracken was directed to fortify the kopjes north of Arundel, and to hold them "at all costs" as a pivot of manoeuvre. The country, for purposes of reconnaissance, was divided into two zones, the railway being taken as the line of demarcation. The 1st brigade was assigned to the western zone, the 2nd to the eastern; the Brigadiers were instructed to occupy certain tactical points towards the front and flanks, and were made responsible that the enemy was not allowed to establish himself unmolested on any kopje south of the Arundel ridge. The Horse artillery and New Zealand Rifles were kept in reserve under the personal orders of the General Officer Commanding. With these arrangements the Lieut.-General felt assured that his position was secure, and hoped to be able to continue to pursue a bold and aggressive policy, a duty to which he was now able to devote his whole attention, as other arrangements had been made for the command of the lines of communication to Port Elizabeth.