Vlakfontein--A circular tour--Northwards--Boshof--Baas Berg--A pom-pom exhibition--A night march--The Boers overtaken--Action at Scheer Pan--Charging the Ridge--Hoopstadt--Commando Drift--A Delarey drive--Klerksdorp--The Drift again--The column broken up--Last stage--Peace--India.
Major Gilbert and the column left Abraham's Kraal at 8.30 on the morning of the fight. Before that, a white flag had come in with a request for an ambulance to bring in a wounded Boer. It appeared that several of the enemy had been hit.
Half of the men being dismounted, the column made slow progress; the Boers, however, had no intention of attacking by daylight, and Jagersfontein Drift was reached after a trek of 30 miles.
Several of the Kaffir drivers had bolted at the first alarm that morning, two of them with nothing on at all. They had made a bee-line through barbed wire, cactus hedges, and mud holes; and, during the march, sorry figures came limping back to the column, and rejoined the wagons. One Kaffir got right through to Vlakfontein, doing the 45 miles in ten hours, and said the column had been wiped out. The garrison there had an anxious time till runners arrived from Major Gilbert on the following morning.
The column reached Vlakfontein on the 29th, three of the wounded British and the wounded Boer having died on the way.
A convoy from Edenburg arrived on the 1st of February, bringing a few remounts with it; and on the 4th Major Gilbert moved out with a force consisting of 150 mounted men of the Sussex and the 90th I. Y., with the pom-pom. A tour was made in the direction of Philippolis, but the Boers were not met with. At Alwyn's Kop some Kaffir scouts from the Orange River reported the column as a Boer commando; this piece of intelligence was sent on to Vlakfontein, and Major Gilbert was stopped on the return journey and sent, together with Major Driscoll and his Scouts, to chase himself.
As might have been expected, nothing resulted, and the column returned to Vlakfontein on the 17th of February. A terrific hailstorm had done a great deal of damage here a few days before, stampeding the horses. Some dashed into the house, while others got away altogether, and were never seen again.
On the afternoon of the 21st Major Gilbert started again (the Yeomen had been transferred to Col. Western), with supplies for Col. Rochfort, who was on his way north. Calabas Bridge over the Riet River was reached shortly before midnight, after a trek of 27 miles. Joining Col. Rochfort the next day, the column took part in a general move to the north. They marched 26 miles that night, and crossed the Modder River near Paardeberg in the early morning.
Boshof was reached on the 26th of February. It stood in the middle of vast plains, covered with deep grass that reached up to the horses' shoulders. An occasional kopje sticking up darkly here and there only served to mark the great distances.
The local commandos, under Commandants Badenhorst, Jacobs and Erasmus, had been having things very much their own way in this district; Boshof itself was garrisoned by the Scottish Rifles Militia, but they had practically no mounted troops. The country had never been effectively cleared; it contained plenty of stock and crops, and many of the farms were occupied.
Before reaching Boshof, Major Driscoll and his scouts had found and rushed Jacob's laager, capturing six men, five wagons, and nine Cape carts. Driscoll's men were many of them Boers (it was said that more Dutch than English was to be heard in passing through his lines), and one of the first to rush the laager was greeted by his grandmother with a magnificent flow of abuse.
The Boers were believed to be to the north of Boshof, and Col. Rochfort's columns accordingly surrounded and attacked at dawn on the 1st of March a large hill, the Baas Berg, said to be their stronghold. The Boers had, however, moved away, and, though they could be seen, it was hopeless to chase them.
On the night of the 1st a party of fifty Driscoll's scouts, who had been sent to surround a farm, got entangled with 350 Boers; and half the Sussex, with the rest of Driscoll's and the pom-pom, were sent out to relieve them. The Boers retired, and the force returned, bringing with it 150 sheep. As they reached camp, three men with five horses appeared about a mile away, making for a farm. At first they were taken for British scouts, but, when it was realised that they were dressed in black, this seemed unlikely. A pom-pom shell was put over them, and they immediately scattered, and made in the direction of the Boers. They had mistaken the troops for a commando.
They had two miles of open ground to cover, and the pom-pom made beautiful practice. Shells burst just behind them, just in front, just beyond and even (as it seemed) right under them, but they got away and behind a ridge, uninjured. The effect of a pom-pom is more moral than material.
During the next few days several laagers were captured by the other columns, and 6,000 sheep and 300 horses taken, besides some cattle. On the evening of the 5th Col. Rochfort organized a night march of all columns to the north in the hope of catching up the Boers, who had retired in that direction. The Sussex column and Driscoll's Scouts were now working together, and Col. Rochfort accompanied them.
The horses were not saddled nor the wagons inspanned till after dusk. Great fires were left burning in the camp when the combined column moved out. During the night a Boer Hospital was met. The sick Boers had got wind of the column's approach, and had not waited for it. After a trek of 20 miles a halt was made at Scheerpan. The wagons were out-spanned, hidden in the garden of the farm, and the men were allowed to snatch two hours' sleep.
The farm at Scheerpan looks across an open plain to a long ridge about 2 miles off. This ridge (known as Busch Kop) is crossed at the right end of it (as you look from the farm) by a road from the north-east. To the left of the road the ridge is covered with very thick bush for some distance. A sugar-loaf hill and a small kopje stand in front of the ridge at about the centre. At the extreme left end a spur runs out from the ridge into the plain.
Behind Scheerpan farmhouse is a rocky hill, and on this Col. Rochfort, Major Gilbert, and Major Driscoll waited for sunrise.
All seemed quiet. As the light grew stronger, nothing could be seen moving on the ridge opposite. Then twenty men came round the corner of the ridge and down the road, and more behind them.
Were they Boers or British? It was difficult to tell. Touch had been got with Col. Western's column on the right; it seemed more likely that they were a patrol of his.--They saw the wagons in the garden and turned back.
Even that was not conclusive; a patrol might well have done the same. Major Driscoll went down and took out a few men to reconnoitre. From the top of the kopje he could be seen going out; then a dozen men left the ridge and went across to the sugar-loaf hill, opening fire from there. The Scouts dismounted and returned their fire from the open. At the same time thirty or forty men appeared round the extreme left end of the ridge, working round to cut Driscoll off; and it was clear that he could not see them. It was an anxious moment for those watching on the kopje.
There was no doubt now as to who was holding the ridge. Two squadrons of Driscoll's were sent to clear the sugar-loaf hill. Driscoll's attention was at length drawn to the men beyond him, and he retired on the camp. The Boers followed him up, and, occupying a hillock, opened fire on the camp at less than a mile. Capt. Griffin with his company was sent to charge the hillock, and the pom-pom opened upon it. The Boers were cleared off. Major Gilbert went out and took charge of this flank.
Meanwhile the two squadrons had occupied the sugar-loaf hill and the small kopje, which were about 1,000 yards from the main ridge. It was thought that there were no Boers upon the left end of the latter, as the heavy fire which had been opened came from its right end only. Col. Rochfort and Major Driscoll had come up, and it was decided to charge the ridge with a company of the Sussex and the two squadrons.
A few men were left on the sugar-loaf hill to fire at the crest opposite; the squadrons and the Sussex men were drawn up in lines under cover.
"Trot till you get into the open and then gallop," shouted Driscoll, and off went the lines. The first line charged towards the centre of the ridge, the second line (consisting largely of Sussex) followed 500 yards behind, and rather to the left.
As soon as the men got into the open, a heavy fire broke out from the spur of the main ridge, at the foot of which the left hand men were riding. At the same time the rest of the Boers (there were about 200 of them among the bushes) turned their fire upon the charging lines. The ridge is about 1½ miles long.
Bullets fell very fast, and kicked up the dust among the horses' feet; but the men were moving at a good pace, and very little damage was done. One man of Driscoll's was killed and two were wounded.
The first line reached the ridge at about the centre; the second line turned to the left and charged up the spur, which was occupied by about fifty Boers. These did not wait for the attack, and, as the leading men reached the top, they saw the last Boer disappearing into the thick bush 500 yards down the other side. The British followed, but were soon recalled, as pursuit would have been useless.
The first line made their position good on the centre of the ridge; the pom-pom was brought into action against the right half of it, and the Boers evacuated the whole position, leaving one prisoner behind them. They could be seen streaming away in batches northwards and westwards, and they were followed with long range rifle fire, which, however, only made them move a little quicker.
During the next few days the other columns came into line, but the Boers were not heard of again.
The movement was continued northwards, and Major Gilbert with the Sussex column, Driscoll's, and 100 I. Y., marched on Hoopstadt by a circuitous route to the west. Two nights were spent in trekking, the column lying up in farms in the daytime.
At the end of the second night, Bornemansfontein was reached, a well-wooded farm with stone-walled paddocks, in which the men were disposed. Soon after dawn, some mounted men were seen bearing down upon the camp at a gallop. As they came nearer cries of "Hands up!" were heard, and it became evident that they were executing a gallant though quite hopeless charge. The stone walls were lined, and a few shots fired, killing one of the advancing horses. By this time it had been realised that the men were South African Constabulary. The troops were well hidden, and they had mistaken the encampment for a small Boer family laager.
Major Davis of Driscoll's very pluckily rode between the lines, blowing his whistle. Firing ceased, and explanations followed.
The farm was inhabited, and the wife of the owner said that her husband was on commando, but that she had not seen him or the commando for two months. Her little boy, however, was more communicative, and said he had been there two nights before with five horses.
Hoopstadt was reached on the 11th of March. It was a small town, the inhabitants of which had been removed. The church was used as a hospital, and most of the houses were occupied by troops, for the place was one of the S. A. C. Headquarters. The only water supply was from the Vet River, which ran a rich thick brown. It was said that, if a spoon was placed upright in the middle of a cup of tea, it would stand there.
In the past five weeks some of the horses of the column had done 500 miles, practically trekking every day.
The great combined movements in the north-east of the Orange River Colony had at this time finally broken the power of De Wet, and he crossed the railway line south of the Vaal on March 5th, with President Steyn and about 200 men.
Delarey was in considerable strength in the Western Transvaal, and it was thought that he and De Wet might attempt to effect a combination. A line was therefore held running along the Vaal and Valsch Rivers, and the column, composed of the Sussex and Driscoll's Scouts under Major Gilbert, moved on the 12th of March from Hoopstadt for Commando Drift. After a mid-day halt at Wegdraai, an attempt was made to march on in the evening; rain, however, fell in torrents, and the night was pitch-dark. Having gone a few miles with the greatest difficulty, half the transport (following in rear of the mounted troops) led off on to a wrong road, and progress became impossible. Thoroughly wet and uncomfortable, the column halted for the night, and before morning the lost wagons returned. Commando Drift was reached on the 14th, and here the news was made known of Delarey's successes: first, the capture of Col. Von Donop's convoy, and then the taking of Lord Methuen and a number of men. The column proceeded to Strydfontein, a drift 3 miles above Commando Drift (which was occupied by S. A. C.), and held it during the following week. It had been expected that Delarey with his successful commandos might attempt to break south and join De Wet. The latter, however, slipped across the Vaal with President Steyn by a little known bridle drift on the night of the 15th, and joined Delarey.
Meantime the troops that had been operating in the east were being brought across the line, and by the 23rd of March there were collected at Commando Drift under Colonel Rochfort the columns of Lord Basing and of Cols. Bulfin, Sitwell, and Western, besides a force of South African Constabulary. Major Gilbert and Major Driscoll having moved down to Commando Drift, Col. Rochfort crossed into the Transvaal during the evening of the 23rd with 3,000 men. No wheeled vehicle or gun was taken, every man carrying two days' rations for himself and his horse. Before starting, Lord Kitchener's message had been read out to the troops, in which he said that the operations would tax their endurance, but that he relied upon their using every effort, working with the greatest dash and spirit, and utterly defeating any enemy they might meet.
The scheme provided that Col. Rochfort should come up at night from the south, and get touch with the large bodies of troops that would be sent westward from Klerksdorp, and that the whole should turn eastwards in the morning, forming a gigantic net which would be drawn in upon the Schoonspruit blockhouse line, specially reinforced.
The moon was full, and Col. Rochfort's men marched through the night, making Wolmaranstad by 3.30 a.m. There the black masses of troops closed up and dismounted, till the whole slope by the townlet was covered with horses and men. Then the columns separated out to take up their positions in the line.
Major Gilbert and Major Driscoll again worked together. At dawn, Driscoll's, who were leading, captured twelve Boers asleep round their wagons; they were an outpost of Delarey's, and they had no idea that any British could be in the vicinity. They said that a commando of Delarey's was ten miles ahead. This commando, however, managed to slip through between two columns. Through the day the net was drawn tighter, and by the evening of the 23rd Major Gilbert and his men had ridden over 60 miles in twenty-one hours. At six o'clock they bivouacked in the rain in some scrub at Matjespruit. There had been a heavy hailstorm during the afternoon.
On the next afternoon Klerksdorp was reached. Some hundreds of Boers had been caught altogether, besides three 15-pounders, two pom-poms, and a quantity of ammunition. Perhaps the greatest effect produced, however, was upon the nerves of the Boers. They got into a state of "nervous tension," as they never knew when or where the British would turn up next. A district miles away from the nearest troops in the evening was swarming with columns in the morning. The absolute abandonment of transport by the British had been the key to the situation.
On the evening of the following day Col. Rochfort's columns started to return to Commando Drift. They marched 30 miles during the night, and got to the Drift the next evening, having covered 150 miles in four days. The lights of the camps that stretched along the river for a mile or more shone through the trees like the lights of a town.
On the way in, two Africander guides of the Intelligence Department had ridden on ahead of the columns, and, coming up to a farm, were taken by the woman there for Boers. She gave them seven rounds of ammunition (all she had, she said) and told them they must not stay, as there were thousands and thousands of Khakis on the river--more than she had ever seen--with Lord Roberts and Lord Kitchener. Asked how she knew Lord Roberts was there, she produced a photograph of him out of a packet of cheap cigarettes, and said she recognised him as he rode through.
On the 29th of March the Sussex column was finally broken up. It had been ten months in existence not counting the months of convoy work; it had covered thousands of miles. It had had its days of success, and it had come through its black hour of tribulation. For some months it had been dwindling in numbers, more and more men becoming dismounted and being left at the various bases. The column had done its work.
The remaining mounted men were turned into an M. I. Company under Captain Montrésor, and attached to Col. Western's column, of which Major Gilbert was made second in command. The dismounted men were sent to Hoopstadt, at which place the officers, men and stores left behind at Vlakfontein had arrived.
From this time until the declaration of peace on June 1st, the dismounted men worked between Hoopstadt, Bloemhof and the line, sometimes as escort to convoys, sometimes as stops for drives. The mounted company joined in the latter, of which the most important took place on the 9th of June and following days. Col. Rochfort's columns moved to Schweizer Renecke, where they surprised some Boers, capturing sixty. They then formed, in conjunction with Gen. Ian Hamilton's columns from the north, a line in single rank 50 miles long. For the next three days this line moved west, the men sleeping in their positions at nightfall. The sight, when an extended view could be got, was a strange one. As far as the eye could reach the line of mounted men stretched away, here dipping into a valley, there topping a rise. There were some 21,000 troops driving.
The Kimberley railway was reached on the 11th of May. Nearly 400 Boers were captured, and a great deal of stock. Severe sniping was experienced on the way back to Bloemhof--several mules and horses, and one or two men being hit.
News of the declaration of peace was received on June 1st amidst general rejoicings, and the scattered regiment was gradually collected at Bloemfontein, to which place Headquarters moved up from Bethulie. From Bloemfontein the time-expired men, the volunteers, and the reservists (regular and militia), were sent home, leaving only a skeleton Battalion, due for India, where fresh drafts would await it.