New Boer tactics--The column goes to relieve Lean--A brush with the enemy--Camp at Rietput--Brand appears at dawn--Start of the column--De Put Ridges--Held by Ackerman--Engagement--The position finally turned--Brand effects nothing--Casualties--The Boer version.
As has been said, the Boers to the south and east of Bloemfontein had at this time adopted new tactics. Hitherto they had roved the hills in small bands, and even in twos and threes, and the British forces had accordingly been split up into a number of small columns, in order the more easily to sweep the country. It occurred to Commandant Brand of Edenburg that, if he collected the scattered local commandos, he would be sufficiently strong to deal with the average British column; he therefore combined the Boers under Koetzee, Joubert, Ackerman and others, and found himself with a force of 600 men and more at his disposal. The first fruits of this policy was the capture of the two guns at Vlakfontein: since then, Brand had surrounded and captured a patrol of fifty yeomen at Snyman's Post: and on the 24th of October he attacked Col. Lean at Klein Zevenfontein, about 20 miles S.E. of Ventershoek. On the evening of the 24th Col. Rochfort ordered all available columns to go to Col. Lean's relief--the latter being considerably outnumbered.
Col. du Moulin started at once from Ventershoek with Captain Montrésor's 200 men and the maxim, sending a runner to Major Gilbert with orders to join him on the march. The two forces met soon after midnight at Koetzee's Post, halting there till dawn. With the first light they marched towards Klein Zevenfontein. In all they numbered about 400 fighting men.
The plains to the south of Ventershoek are divided by a lofty ridge (the Ospoort Ridge) covered with large rocks and bushes, that runs generally north and south. Of this Ridge the southern four miles form a horse shoe, from the Dam Plaats Pass to De Put farm. Between these two points there is no means of crossing the Ridge, except by the very rough and stony track at Ospoort, where a narrow Kloof runs through the hill. Through this it is just possible to lead a horse.
At De Put a series of low foot hills meets the main Ridge. A road from the south approaches the Ridge, and then divides, one branch crossing these foot hills by De Put farm, the other running north-east, parallel to the Ridge.
At sunrise on the 25th of October, the Sussex column was moving south parallel to the Ospoort Ridge and about 5 miles to the east of it. Captain Montrésor, in charge of the advanced guard, saw at a farm on the right front (Twyfelfontein) a group of horsemen in Khaki, with blue cavalry cloaks and white haversacks. They appeared to be men of the South African Constabulary who were expected in the neighbourhood, and Montrésor rode over with four men and a signaller to speak to them. Two of his men and the signaller (Sergt. Skeat) were on ahead, and passed over a rise; they were immediately disarmed by Boers waiting on the other side. As Montrésor rode up the rise, three men came into view less than thirty yards off, and shouted "Hands up." Montrésor and the two with him turned and galloped for it. A bullet through Montrésor's helmet and a flesh wound in one of the horses was all the damage done.
Firing now broke out, and two companies were sent to line the high ground on the right, while the pom-pom came into action against the farm.
The Boers, however, had no intention of joining issue with the column that day. Their main body, several hundred strong, retreated along the foot of the Ospoort Ridge towards De Put; and the column proceeded in the direction of Klein Zevenfontein. The three captured men returned without their equipment: in Sergt. Skeat's case the Boers took, besides his heliograph, a pair of presentation field glasses, which he subsequently recovered in the successful raid of Christmas Eve in another part of the country.
Col. du Moulin camped that night at Rietput, having ascertained that Klein Zevenfontein was untenanted. The graves of four men (two Boers and two British) were found there.
Early on the morning of the 26th of October Commandant Brand with about 300 men (including those under Joubert) and a machine gun worked round the Sussex camp, expecting the column to continue its march in the same direction as on the day before. If he had any intention of attacking the camp, a very heavy rain storm put it out of the question. The piquets opened fire on some of his men, and Major Gilbert with his company was sent to investigate matters. He first met Brand's advanced guard, driving them back: one Boer was wounded, but rescued by a comrade, and some horses were captured. Then some 200 Boers came in sight. Major Gilbert occupied a ridge behind the camp until the column had moved off, when he retired, to successive positions. Brand did not attack, but moved after the column on its right rear, Major Gilbert moving parallel to him.
There was no object now in going to Klein Zevenfontein, and Col. du Moulin had decided to retrace his steps towards Ospoort, where the Boers had been met the day before. Ten miles across the plain the blue Ridge lay quiet in the sun, and for the Southern end of this the advanced guard (H. Company) was ordered to make. A screen of ten double files was spread out over a front of about two miles. Nearer and nearer they drew to the Ridge, which showed no signs of life. Then, as they reached the very foot of it, a heavy burst of firing broke out on the right. The time was about 11 o'clock.
A few horsemen had been seen through the Ospoort Kloof on the far side of the Ridge, and Col. du Moulin had sent Lieut. Gouldsmith with C company to reconnoitre the pass. He arrived there at the same time as the right flankers of the advanced guard, who had been collected together for the same purpose. White, the Intelligence Agent, had galloped on in front of all with a few boys, and rode first into the Kloof. Not a shot had then been fired from the Ridge.
A large number of Boers under Ackerman were, however, waiting among the stones on the hillside, and, as soon as White got far enough in to the gully to see them, they were forced to open fire. When they did so, Gouldsmith with some men of his company and of the advanced guard had just come through a wire fence, and were within 100 yards of the ridge. White was mortally wounded (he died the next day). Farrant of H company was shot through the heart, and one or two horses were hit; but the range was too short for the Boers, and the others got back over the wire and took cover without further casualties. The pom-pom and maxim were brought into action; in a short time the fire from the Ridge died down, and the column moved on, working round towards De Put with a view to crossing the foot hills there. The road runs over the latter close under the western extension of the main Ridge.
Meanwhile all had been quiet on the left. The left flankers and centre of the advanced guard, who were holding some low rises facing the western extremity of the Ridge, had not been fired upon, when Colonel du Moulin joined them. A solitary post stuck up prominently on the sky-line: and this was constantly being reported as a Boer. "The next man who tells me of that," said the Colonel, "will have to go up and have a closer look at it." No Boers were in fact to be seen among the rocks and bushes of the lofty crest.
The Colonel now sent on the advanced guard, and Captain Montrésor with the "Raiders," to seize the foot hills at different points, first searching them with the pom-pom. During the process, the baggage was closing up on the left of the troops at what appeared to be a safe distance from the Ridge.
The advanced guard went off first, and galloped for a point some little distance from the main Ridge. A stone wall ran along the crest of the low hills, but the Boers had not had time to get round and hold it: and, somewhat to their surprise, this party reached the wall without opposition. Leaving a piquet there, they descended on the other side.
As Montrésor, who was sent along the road, neared the foot hills, a very heavy fire broke out from the crest of the Ridge above him. The road runs by the side of a dam, and the water of this was lashed as if by a hail storm. The baggage, which was really within 1,200 yards of the Ridge, at once stampeded, the black drivers bolted, and for a few minutes all was confusion. The Boers did not make good practice, however, and the wagons were collected again at a safe distance, after some mules had been killed and a few of the escort and drivers wounded.
The pom-pom now came into action in the open against the crest line of the Ridge at about 800 yards, and continued firing there for three quarters of an hour--a feat which much impressed the Boers. "Three times," they said afterwards, "we drove the gunners away from the gun, and three times they came back." The companies who had not been otherwise employed scattered and lay down in the open by the pom-pom, and along the rising ground: and soon a heavy rifle fire was developed, the horses having been sent back under cover. The Colonel had already arranged for the supply of ammunition from the reserve in the wagons to the men in the firing line, and this arrived before they began to run short. He himself remained near the pom-pom.
The pom-pom shield was hit in ten places, and Captain Montgomery was wounded in the knee. He had the gun (which was steaming like a kettle) moved back under cover of a hillock, and fired thence for another half hour. He found that the greatest effect was produced by firing one or two shots at a time--then pausing--then firing one or two more. This kept the Boers behind their rocks.
Captain Montrésor, with Lieut. Woodruffe and 2nd Lieuts. Paget and Thorne, had safely reached the low hill above the dam: but he was here too close under the end of the main Ridge (now held by the Boers) to effect much. It was impossible to stir without attracting a shower of bullets. One or two of his men were wounded there, Sergt. Finucane being shot through the shoulder.
The men of the advanced guard who had crossed the low hills turned and rode towards the Boer position over the open; but they were met and stopped by a heavy fire. There were only five or six of them, and they waited in a donga for reinforcements. Meantime an attempt by the Boers at Ospoort to work up the bed of a spruit in rear of the column had been checked. Major Gilbert, with Brand on his right, had closed up. Brand, finding no troops left between himself and the Ospoort Ridge (the whole column having by now been moved to its left), turned northwards to Twyfelfontein. Major Gilbert left his men as rearguard, and went to find Col. du Moulin. It had been the Colonel's idea to turn the rear of the Boers, but this had not yet been done; and he sent Major Gilbert forward to try and accomplish it.
The Major rode over the low hills in front, where the advanced guard had already gone, and picked up some of G company by the way. With these and the party in the donga he went on, making for the rear of the Boer position, and keeping out of range of the Ridge.
The ground in rear of the Ridge rises and falls in long swelling mounds. As soon as the Boers realised that the British were making for one of these, Field Cornet du Toit with 25 men left the Ridge and raced for it. The Field Cornet and his men could not be seen by the advancing soldiers; the latter, however, were galloping for all they were worth, not knowing whether the mound were held or not. The two or three whose horses were freshest drew ahead, and neared the top: at last they got high enough to see over the crest. There, within 300 yards, was a bearded Boer, galloping towards them; beyond him another two, and behind them others again.
The British jumped off their horses and lay down behind ant-heaps. The nearest Boer raised his hand in signal to the others that the rise was held; they stopped, fired from their saddles, turned their horses' heads and galloped off, while their friends behind blazed away to cover their retreat. The Field Cornet had lost.
By this burst of firing one of the horses of those upon the rise was killed, but no other damage was done. The rest of Major Gilbert's party were coming up through it, and soon the rise was lined. The retreating Boers were, however, quickly out of range.
Ackerman and his men were now taken in rear. Not liking this, they abandoned the whole position, and those on the rise watched them streaming away through the Dam Plaats Pass. Ackerman had with him between two and three hundred Boers.
It was now 4.30 p.m. The baggage had been successfully passed over the low hills, and the column moved forward to Wilgefontein, camping there for the night. Major Gilbert and the men with him returned over the west end of the Boer position. On the crest lay a man, hit in the head by a pom-pom shell; a notice was pinned to his coat: "This is ---- of ----; please let his father know that he is killed."
To return to Commandant Brand: he had so far played a singularly ineffective part in the day's proceedings. With a considerable force of Boers under him, he had been out-manoeuvred and kept at a distance in rear by Major Gilbert and his company, although the resources of the column were fully employed against the Ridge in front, and, till that Ridge was forced, a dashing charge of two or three hundred Boers from the rear would have been at least a serious matter.
It appears that Brand had not left Ackerman any orders to hold the Ridge, as he did not expect the column to go that way. When firing broke out in that direction, he did not know how many Boers were involved, or which side was on the Ridge. He, therefore, sent round two men to find out what was happening, and to tell Ackerman (if it was he) to hold the Ridge as long as he could, and he (Brand) would attack the British in rear.
Ackerman got this message, and held on (which he had not intended to do), momentarily expecting Brand to turn up: Brand waited for an answer from Ackerman, which Ackerman omitted to send. So Brand lay, checked and ineffective, until the Ridge was forced and the chance had gone.
The retreating Ackerman became involved with a small column of S.A.C. under Captain Malcolm. His Khaki clad Boers again deceived a squadron, who rode up to them thinking they were Malcolm's main body. The Boers opened fire at forty yards; luckily, however, the gun on the south piquet at Ventershoek opened fire at the same time upon the real main body of the British, driving them down upon the scene of action. The forces became considerably mixed, but were eventually disentangled without many casualties.
After the fighting at De Put was over, two men with white flags left the Ridge and came to surrender with their rifles. They said that they were tired of fighting (one of them had a bullet through his hat): that they were Transvaalers, and had only promised to fight for two years, which were up: and that the camp was to be attacked that night. The column accordingly lay ready and waiting; but the Boers thought better of it.
The report of the action spread by the Boers was that they, with 150 men and a machine gun, had surprised and routed a column of 400, with pom-pom and maxim. The British losses they put at 150--in actual fact they were two killed and nine wounded (including four natives). It was said that the Boers had three killed and six wounded; but the man who lay upon the hillside provided the only certain piece of information.
The pom-pom fired 900 rounds; while over 30,000 rounds of small arm ammunition were expended.
Civil-Surgeon Leach did very well during the action, riding with a large red cross flag through heavy fire to assist the wounded.
 Killed: Intelligence Agent White; Pte. J. Farrant, H Co.
Wounded: Sgt. Finucane, H Co.; Cpl. E. Manning, Vol.; Pte. F. Webb, C Co.; Pte. C. Dymock, F Co.; Pte. M. Hunt, G Co.
 The bulk of this ammunition was fired at the jagged crest-line of the Ridge, and kept the Boers down under cover, checking their fire. The Boers themselves remained invisible.