The course of the war north of the Vaal after the battle of Diamond Hill up to the date of Lord Roberts' arrival at Belfast seven weeks later was tortuous and difficult. The main Army changed front as soon as Pretoria was reached and faced to the east in the direction of the retreating Transvaal Government. Its line of communication became a prolongation of its front; its left flank towards the north was open; and on its rear was the unsubdued country west of the capital in the direction of Mafeking and Vryburg.
Through this district, which is intersected by ranges running generally east and west, and which contains some towns of importance, the troops set free by the relief of Mafeking advanced in two columns towards Pretoria and Johannesburg. The southern column was Hunter's Xth Division, which after easily occupying Potchefstroom and Krugersdorp, passed through Johannesburg, and on Hunter's being sent into the Free State was broken up at Heidelberg. The northern column, under Baden-Powell, occupied Rustenburg and met with little opposition during the month of June. It was intended by Lord Roberts, if all went well, that this column should eventually take up a position on the Pietersburg railway, north of Pretoria, which was unprotected in that direction.
The inactivity of the Boers seemed to show that they had really lost heart, and that an awakening such as that which came a few weeks after the entry into Bloemfontein was improbable. Earlier in the month of June there had been negotiations for peace, not only between subordinate leaders in the Free State and Natal, but also between the two Commanders-in-Chief in Pretoria; and although they were broken off, the fact that they had occurred made the silence more significant and gave hope that the enemy was reconsidering his position.
The illusion was soon dispelled. Whether owing to the natural resilience of the Boer character after a brief phase of doubt, or to the news of De Wet's successful attacks on the railway in the Free State, the smouldering fires broke out anew early in July. Delarey, who had checked French at Diamond Hill, came out of the east to quicken the west; the baffled burghers of Snyman, released from the siege of Mafeking, were trickling vaguely into the district; a force under Grobler of Waterberg was reported north of Pretoria; an incursion was made across the Vaal from the Free State; and commandos appeared south of the Magaliesberg near Olifant's Nek and Commando Nek, thus threatening the movements of Baden-Powell, who was operating north of the range and who had occupied Commando Nek and the adjacent Zilikat's Nek on July 2, leaving only a small force at Rustenburg. Five days later the Boers failed in an attempt to recapture the town, which was saved by a detachment of the Rhodesian Field Force.
This force, which was under the command of Sir F. Carrington, was composed mainly of mounted contingents from the Colonies. It had been raised a few months before at
the instance of the British South Africa Company to hold the northern frontier of the Transvaal, which after Plumer's departure for the south was unguarded, and to deny Rhodesia to the Boers should they attempt to break out northwards. It was from the first under a sort of dual control which militated against its efficiency. The Company made the arrangements for its enrolment and equipment, while the War Office provided the staff. It was in difficulties from the first. By a somewhat strained interpretation of a treaty between Great Britain and Portugal, and after some weeks of diplomatic discussion and in spite of a protest naturally made by the Transvaal Government, the Rhodesian Field Force was permitted to land on Portuguese territory at Beira in April and to move up country. Its advance was further delayed by a break of gauge on the railway between Beira and Buluwayo; it was pulled hither and thither, and was never able to co-operate effectively with the general operations. It was moved in driblets, and some details did not reach Buluwayo until September. A portion of it came along the Western line, and Rustenburg was saved by the Imperial Bushmen. At the end of the year it was disbanded.
On July 11 three blows were struck by the Boers with success. The attempt on Rustenburg drew back Baden-Powell, whose place at Zilikat's and Commando Neks was taken by a regiment of regular cavalry which happened to be passing that way. As it was required elsewhere, a body of infantry was sent out from Pretoria to take over the Neks, and on the night of July 10 Zilikat's Nek was held by three companies and a squadron. Next day, after a struggle which lasted throughout the day, it was captured by Delarey, and two guns and nearly 200 prisoners of war fell into his hands. The disaster, the first of its kind in the Transvaal, was due to two causes. The British force actually at the Nek was insufficient to hold it; and the main body of the cavalry stood aloof. The latter was no doubt in a dubious position. It was under orders, which were brought by the infantry relief, to meet Smith-Dorrien nearly twenty-five miles away on July 11; and when the enemy was seen occupying a strong position on the Nek, it assumed that assistance would be of no avail, and beyond a short artillery bombardment nothing was done. Even the squadron holding Commando Nek was ordered to retire at midday. A relieving force was sent out from Pretoria, but it arrived too late to avert the disaster.
The cavalry thus delayed was intended to reinforce a column under Smith-Dorrien, who had come up into the Transvaal with Ian Hamilton's column, and who was marching from Krugersdorp to take off the pressure from the south on Baden-Powell at Rustenburg; Olifant's Nek, over which the road to the town passed, being in the possession of the Boers. On July 11, when Smith-Dorrien had marched about ten miles from his starting point, he met a commando at Dwarsvlei, which was so well handled that not only was he compelled to retire on Krugersdorp, but also had much difficulty in bringing away his guns. The failure was chiefly due to the non-appearance of the cavalry, without which he did not feel himself justified in standing up to the enemy.
On the same day another cavalry regiment was in trouble. Onderste Poort, a few miles north of Pretoria, was attacked by Grobler of Waterberg, and while reinforcements were on their way he drove back still nearer to the capital the force which was holding the outpost, and forced one troop to surrender.
The situation was alarming. The districts west and south-west of the capital were infested by energetic commandos which had thwarted all Baden-Powell's and Smith-Dorrien's efforts to suppress them, and Grobler was threatening Pretoria from the north. There were indications that the enemy's plan was to transfer the opposition from the east to the west; and if so, then Lord Roberts' force, whose front after Diamond Hill faced eastwards, would have to conform to the movement. A few weeks previously it had been weakened by the departure of Hunter's strong column for the Free State, and now Lord Roberts was compelled to redress the balance by calling up Methuen's Division from Lindley to Krugersdorp, where it arrived on July 18. French was ordered to operate north of Pretoria with cavalry, and a column under Ian Hamilton49 was also sent up.
Methuen marched at once on Rustenburg, and cleared Olifant's Nek on July 21. The scheme of shutting up the Boers in it failed, as Baden-Powell was unable to close the northern exit, and they escaped with slight loss.
At the beginning of August the situation was, if anything, worse. The events which succeeded the occupation of Bloemfontein were repeating themselves in the Western Transvaal. Methuen had been recalled from the Rustenburg expedition to deal with an outbreak on the line from Johannesburg to Klerksdorp, which fell into the hands of the enemy; 5,000 Boers were reported to be on or near the Magaliesberg; a small British force was besieged in Brakfontein, west of Rustenburg, on the road to Mafeking; De Wet was at large in the Free State, and it seemed probable that he would come up into the Transvaal and add to the trouble.
At the end of July Ian Hamilton's force was diverted from its movement towards the north and ordered westward to relieve and bring away Baden-Powell; and Carrington was instructed to co-operate from Mafeking. Lord Roberts had decided to abandon Rustenburg and Olifant's Nek and the greater part of the Magaliesberg. These detached positions detained more troops than he could spare50 and were difficult to supply. Ian Hamilton's trek lasted only a few days. He recaptured Zilikat's Nek, and on August 5 brought away Baden-Powell, who left Rustenburg most unwillingly and who was ready to sustain another siege in it. Lord Roberts, however, would not heed his repeated protests, and the only section of the Magaliesberg held after the withdrawal from Rustenburg was that lying between Pretoria and Zilikat's and Commando Neks. Rustenburg and Olifant's Nek had called for the diversion of three columns in succession: Smith-Dorrien's, which did not reach them, and then Methuen's and Ian Hamilton's; and the abandonment of them was imperative. From the west Carrington made an attempt to relieve Brakfontein on August 5, but was compelled by the presence of the enemy in superior force to return to Mafeking. The relief was effected ten days later, not from the west, but by Lord Kitchener with a column that had been engaged in the pursuit of De Wet.
Suddenly all the operations were deranged by the news that De Wet had crossed the Vaal at Schoeman's Drift on August 6, and the greater part of the British Army in the Transvaal was either directly or indirectly turned on to the pursuit of one man; Lord Kitchener, as usual when energy and pushing power rather than tactical skill were looked for, being placed in general charge of the operations. The two most determined and unfaltering men in South Africa were now pitted against one another.
De Wet's escape from the Brandwater Basin on July 15 was soon discovered and he was unable to get a good start. Broadwood's and Little's mounted brigades were sent after him, now and then taking long shots at him or worrying his rearguard. His object was to conduct Steyn and the Free State Government officials into the Transvaal, where they could co-operate with Kruger. He chose the route which appeared to him, and rightly so, to be the line of least resistance, namely, towards the Vaal Drifts near Potchefstroom; instead of making for the upper reaches of the river, on the other side of which Buller was established on the Natal railway.
It was soon found impossible to overtake him, even with mounted troops. The only course was to shepherd him into a fold from which he could not escape. The tracery on the map of his movements and of those of his chief scout Theron, intersected by the reticulations of the pursuing columns, resembles a spider's web in disorder.
Finally he was hemmed in on the left bank of the Vaal near Reitzburg. On the right bank Methuen, supported by Smith-Dorrien, was watching the drifts. He did his best, but his force was insufficient for the purpose, and on August 6 De Wet, with it is said no less than 400 wagons, entered the Transvaal at Schoeman's Drift, the greater part of Methuen's force having been sent to hold a drift lower down. Methuen doubled back and fell upon the Boer rearguard, which, though driven out of successive positions, maintained itself long enough to allow the main body to escape unscathed.
De Wet's subsequent movements greatly puzzled his pursuers. He divided his column into two portions which did not always march in the same direction, and it was
therefore difficult to discern the ruling movement of his trek. At one time it appeared that he was about to re-cross into the Free State, and the plans for the northward pursuit were temporarily suspended; to be resumed when he had received an allowance of one day's start. It is probable that his original intention had been to return to his own country as soon as he had put Steyn and the officials into the Transvaal, leaving them with an escort to find their own way to Kruger, and that he was prevented by the appearance of a strong column under Kitchener on the left bank. As a Free Stater, moreover, he would be disinclined to give his services to the Transvaal.
Kitchener crossed the Vaal on August 8, and hung to De Wet's right rear, Methuen hanging on to the left rear; but neither was able to do more than clutch vainly at the skirts of the elusive column. In front of De Wet, Smith-Dorrien was holding the Klerksdorp railway, but again he misled his pursuers, and instead of trekking north after he had crossed the Gatsrand, a movement which Smith-Dorrien anticipated and provided for, he changed direction, and on August 11 passed over the railway at a section which had been left unoccupied on Smith-Dorrien's right flank.
Lord Roberts saw that Methuen's and Kitchener's pursuit would probably fail, and that De Wet would reach the Magaliesberg. Ian Hamilton was instructed to prevent him crossing it, and on August 11 he was specifically ordered to occupy Olifant's Nek. Commando Nek was held by Baden-Powell. There was a third pass, the Magato Nek, a few miles west of Rustenburg, for which De Wet was apparently making, and which seemed to be his only possible way of escape, as it was confidently assumed that the other passes were held by British troops. It was, therefore, only necessary to head him from Magato Nek, and this was done by Methuen. But the movement threw De Wet towards Olifant's Nek, which to his great astonishment was not occupied, and through which he passed with Steyn on August 14 and shook off his pursuers. Ian Hamilton had not been made to understand that the actual closing of Olifant's Nek was an urgent matter; and he, in fact, informed Lord Roberts that he did not propose to do so except indirectly by a movement which would command the approach to it.
In this, the first of the De Wet hunts, nearly 30,000 British troops were directly or indirectly engaged in heading or pursuing over an area of 7,000 square miles. Nine columns blindly zigzagged and divagated to false scents and imperfect information in chase of one man encumbered with a civil government on the run and several hundred wagons. Again and again the fowler's net was cast upon the migrant, who always wriggled through the meshes. In one month he trekked 270 miles from the Brandwater Basin to the north of the Magaliesberg, with British troops continuously to his flanks, his front, and his rear.
It would have been regarded as the most notable personal exploit of the war if De Wet had not himself twice repeated it under circumstances of even greater difficulty. It must be acknowledged that his daring and resolution deserved success. He did not attain it by the means of followers eager to serve a trusted and beloved leader, for they by no means rose to him. When he reached the Vaal he was careful to throw the burghers' wagons across the river first of all, knowing that their unwillingness to leave the Free State would be overcome by their greater reluctance to sever themselves from their oxen and stuff. He owed his success mainly to the power of a strong will to make weaker wills work for it; and in a less degree to the accuracy of the information which Theron, his chief scout, obtained for him.
It is at least doubtful whether Lord Roberts did not take De Wet too seriously. Was the capture of a guerilla leader worth the withdrawal of so many British troops from the main operations, and would not the sounder strategy have been to ignore him? If he had been severely let alone, he would hardly have done more than that which he did with the strength of an Army Corps against him, and his prestige with his own people would not have been so surely set up.
The escape of De Wet was an incident of war, which, having regard to all the circumstances of the campaign, could not be made impossible. Columns working independently under directions from Head Quarters cannot be made aware of all that each has or has not done, and must take many things for granted; and the information of the enemy's movements which reaches them from the same source must often be received too late for effective action. If Lord Roberts had listened to Baden-Powell's protest against the evacuation of Rustenburg and Olifant's Nek, De Wet would probably have followed Cronje to St. Helena; but that does not prove that the policy of withdrawing from remote and exposed positions was unsound. All that can be said against it is that it chanced to be carried out a few days too soon.
Steyn and the officials left for Machadodorp. De Wet felt that his own country had a claim upon his services, and desired to return to it without delay. He divided his force, leaving the greater part under Steenekamp north of the Magaliesberg, himself going south with a small commando. The division materially aided his return, for it was not known for certain at Head Quarters with which portion he was marching. While he was in imagination being chased north of Pretoria, he was in fact scaling a rough mountain path, for all the passes had been closed, near Commando Nek, and looking down from the heights upon a British force by which he was not discovered. On August 21, after an absence of sixteen days, he recrossed the Vaal, and entered the Free State. The net result of all the labour, all the efforts, and all the consequent distress and exhaustion to which the British troops had willingly subjected themselves, was to re-establish De Wet as a greater power for mischief than ever.
The Free Staters under Steenekamp joined Grobler of Waterberg, but the combination was hustled to the north out of striking distance of Pretoria by Baden-Powell, whose purely military service in South Africa ceased soon after. He had been selected to raise and to command the South African Constabulary, a semi-military body, which it was hoped the approaching end of the war would ere long permit to take over some of the duties of the troops.
For some weeks after the escape of De Wet the various columns operating north and west of Pretoria were engaged in patrolling the country. They nowhere encountered serious resistance, but Delarey was neither taken nor crippled.
While these events were occurring in Lord Roberts' rear, he was advancing eastwards from Pretoria. The battle of Diamond Hill was followed by a brief period of quietude in the east as well as the west. The objective of the British Army was the railway from Pretoria to Komati Poort, on which the Transvaal Government, covered by Botha at Balmoral, was now dwelling at Machadodorp. The movements of Lord Roberts were for some time controlled by the situation in the Free State and the Western Transvaal, which called more pressingly for attention than the eastward advance.
Early in July a column under Hutton was sent out to feel towards Botha's left. As he was opposed and made little progress, Lord Roberts a few days later reinforced him with French and a cavalry brigade, and on July 11 the combined columns thrust back the Boers from their positions at Witpoort, a few miles south of Diamond Hill. Botha had arranged with the commandants on the other side of Pretoria for concurrent attacks on the British forces in the vicinity of the capital, and his own was the only operation that was foiled on July 11. French's success, however, could not be followed up. He proposed to raid the railway near Balmoral, but Lord Roberts had been made anxious for the safety of Pretoria by the news of the affairs of Zilikat's Nek and Onderste Poort, and recalled him. Hutton was ordered to remain where he was, about twenty-five miles south-east of the capital, with a reduced force.
There were indications that an attack not only on Pretoria but also on Johannesburg was contemplated by the enemy, in collusion with plots for risings against the British which were hatching in each city. It was no time yet for an eastward advance. The successes north and west of Pretoria stimulated Botha to attack what he supposed would strategically now be the most vulnerable section of the perimeter of defence, namely, the section facing him. If it had not been weakened by the withdrawal of troops to the west, troops would probably have been withdrawn from the west to meet him, and the task of Delarey thereby lightened. Either alternative would forward his policy.
East of Pretoria Pole-Carew with the XIth Division was in touch with Hutton. Botha recalled Grobler of Waterberg from the north, and on July 16 threw himself upon Pole-Carew and Hutton, near Witpoort. The brunt of the attack fell upon the latter, who, though at first pressed back and outflanked on his right, recovered himself and forced the enemy to retire. His immediate opponent was B. Viljoen, a leader who showed great military capacity in his management of the action. Against the XIth Division Botha demonstrated only. The chief incident of the affair was the holding of an outflanked and commanded kopje position by a few companies of the Royal Irish Fusiliers for six hours.
The scheme for the eastward advance, which Lord Roberts did not feel himself justified in initiating until after the affair of July 16, was that French should rejoin Hutton and take charge of the right; with Ian Hamilton, brought down from his northward demonstration against Grobler, on the extreme left north of the railway, while Pole-Carew advanced with Lord Roberts centrally along it.
The advance began on July 23. French, with the natural spirit of a cavalry officer, chafed at being restricted to the slower progress of Pole-Carew's infantry and proposed to push forward boldly and cut the railway east of Middelburg, but Lord Roberts was reluctant to part with the only cavalry he had, and vetoed the movement. Botha was soon frightened out of Balmoral, which had been his Head Quarters since the battle of Diamond Hill, and which was entered by Lord Roberts on July 25. Two days later French rode into Middelburg.
The eastward advance had now gained possession of eighty miles of the Delagoa Bay railway, but the De Wet trouble and the disturbed state of the Western Transvaal made the continuation of the movement unsafe, and Lord Roberts called a halt. It was also advisable to wait until supplies had been collected at Middelburg, and until Buller, who was coming up from the south, was in a position to co-operate. Lord Roberts returned to Pretoria, leaving French in charge. Ian Hamilton, the emergency man, was sent to the west to deal with Delarey and De Wet. Towards the end of August Pole-Carew advanced to near Belfast, where he hoped soon to report himself to Buller.
Nearly three months had now elapsed since the battle of Diamond Hill. The progress of the Transvaal campaign was not very apparent, but it was real. Botha had been driven back along the Delagoa Bay railway, and neither the outbreaks in the Western Transvaal nor the meteoric incursion of De Wet had availed him. Nothing that had occurred elsewhere weakened the western advance to an extent that gave him an opportunity of effectively withstanding it. Buller was approaching, and Lord Roberts was no longer dependent upon one line of communication. The fugitive Free State Government had been driven into asylum with the fugitive Transvaal Government. No commandos were at large which could seriously threaten Bloemfontein, Johannesburg, or Pretoria; and the only organized body which the enemy could bring into the field was confronted by a British Army and had the barrier of the Portuguese frontier behind it. There was good hope that in a few weeks the already undermined fabric of Boerdom would totter to the ground, and that the worst that could happen was that some of the fragments might not fall clear of the British troops.
The arrival of Buller's force from the south gave Lord Roberts, who returned from Pretoria on August 25, the reinforcement justifying the resumption of the eastward advance. He found the troops unfavourably placed for immediate action. Botha was posted on each side of the railway near Belfast; the junction of his right with his left, which had different fronts, forming an obtuse salient angle. The greater part of the British force was south of the line and prevented by the nature of the ground from undertaking an enveloping movement on the enemy's left. Buller had kept the cavalry to heel, and it was lying compressed between him and Pole-Carew, who was entrenched round Belfast.
Lord Roberts' first act was to distribute over a wider front the conglomeration of troops, which were hampering each other's movements. French with his own cavalry, but without Buller's, was sent north of the line to face Botha's right flank and to clear Pole-Carew's left flank, while Buller worked up from the south towards the line.
The movement began on August 26, and by the afternoon French, having made a wide detour, had established himself north of Belfast; thus enabling Pole-Carew to leave the town and extend his division in front of the enemy's right. Buller's movement was at first directly northwards, on account of the soft ground. His march, like that of Pole-Carew on the other flank, was across the enemy's front, but neither of them was seriously checked and the casualties were few.
Buller had proposed to move eastward in the direction of Dalmanutha as soon as the ground permitted, but a cavalry reconnaissance discovered the enemy posted at Bergendal, close to the railway. The position was, in fact, the point of the obtuse angle formed by the two sections of the Boer front, one of which faced S.W. towards Buller, and the other west, towards Pole-Carew; and if it could be carried not only would Botha's line be broken, but Buller would be in a good position to deal with a retreat from either section,
The battle of Bergendal on August 27 was mainly a struggle between less than fourscore Transvaal Police and two battalions and forty guns of Buller's Division. The
"Zarps" held a rocky ridge at the end of a spur, where they were bombarded for three hours, yet when the infantry advanced it was met with a vigorous rifle fire, which was continued almost without intermission until at last the kopje was carried by assault. The defence of the kopje was one of the most conspicuous feats of the war on the Boer side, and it is noteworthy that it was made by a body of regularly disciplined men. Owing partly no doubt to the difficulty of reinforcing such an isolated position, no effective support was given by Botha to the gallant little band, neither did he trouble Buller seriously with artillery fire; and the commandos east and north of the Zarps' kopje did little. He does not seem to have recognized that Bergendal was not a mere strong post, but the key of an unsound position which should at all hazards have been safeguarded. This Buller saw at once, and he moved so as to meet with the least interference from the enemy, who, having two fronts, could not act solidly upon either of them.
The capture of Bergendal dissolved the Boer position. The commandos facing Buller were driven off; and the right, which had been opposing French and Pole-Carew so feebly that neither of them suffered a single casualty, fell away. Buller went in pursuit, but was unable to worry the retreat. Some commandos withdrew eastwards along the line, others broke off towards Lydenburg and Barberton. The Boer Governments retired from Machadodorp to Nelspruit. Buller crossed the railway, and on August 29 Helvetia was taken. Next day the British prisoners of war, whom the Boers had brought away in the scuttle from Pretoria when Lord Roberts entered the city, were released at Noitgedacht by their captors, who were no longer in a position to detain them.
Botha had indeed been forced into retreat, but not cut off, and he escaped with all his guns and his losses were comparatively slight. His burghers were, as usual after a lost battle, demoralized and disheartened for the time being, but not, as was thought by the British Army, scared by their reverses into abject impotence. From the time of the occupation of Bloemfontein guerilla had been gradually taking the place of organized warfare, of which Bergendal was the last act, and which the burghers saw that they could not hope to wage successfully. The history of the previous seven months showed what could be won by guerilla, and what could be lost by pretending to be an Army. The fact that they were no longer able to act as a coherent military body did not permanently discourage them, and the struggle had not yet run more than one-third of its weary course.
It was, however, the general belief not only in Great Britain but also in the Army in South Africa, that the Boers had kicked their last kick at Bergendal. There might be a final wriggle or two; but the end was in sight, and before the first anniversary of the declaration of war, peace would again reign in the land. These not ill-founded hopes justified Lord Roberts' Proclamation of September 1, by which the Transvaal was formally incorporated in the British Empire.
To prevent the enemy escaping to the north or to the south, and to impale him upon the stakes of the Portuguese frontier, Lord Roberts pushed forward three columns; one under Pole-Carew to follow the railway towards Komati Poort, another under French to march towards Barberton, and a third under Buller to occupy the Lydenburg district; to which Botha had gone after the battle of Bergendal, and which if held by him would leave in the possession of the Boers the best line of retreat from the railway to the northern Transvaal.
Ian Hamilton, on his return from the west after the escape of De Wet, was lent to Buller for a few days. The occupation of Lydenburg on September 7, and of Spitz Kop four days later, drove Botha back to the line at Nelspruit. Buller's operations were carried out with success in a country more difficult than any that had yet been entered by the British Army in South Africa. South of the railway, French spread the net, casting it from Carolina to Barberton, which he entered on September 13, and where he not only captured a considerable amount of rolling stock and supplies which the Boers had shoved into the little branch line, but also released a final remnant of about a hundred British prisoners of war, most of whom were officers. He had advanced through a country almost as difficult as that in which Buller was engaged, and although the commandos opposing him had at first been drawn away to the south by the report that he was making for Ermelo, they returned in time to offer some resistance east of Carolina; but he entered Barberton without the discharge of a rifle. Botha had sounded the Cease Fire.
The Boers had found it necessary to consider the situation seriously. They had been driven into a relatively minute area, which was morally congested with a pair of Presidents and their parasites, remnants of Government offices, superfluous commandants, and commandos some of which were eager and some of which were not eager to continue the struggle; and physically by the accumulation of stores, supplies, guns, ammunition, and rolling stock which had been rammed down into the last section of the Delagoa Bay railway.
Kruger was induced to lighten the ship which he had so signally failed to keep on her course. He left Nelspruit on September 11 for Lorenzo Marques, where he was taken under the protection of the Portuguese Government, and where he remained until the eve of the first anniversary of the opening scene of the drama, the battle of Talana Hill. On October 19 another nation offered him asylum, and he sailed for Marseilles in the Guelderland, a cruiser of the Dutch Navy; thus symbolically repatriating the French and Dutch emigrants who had quitted Europe for South Africa in the seventeenth century.
The positions of Buller on the north of the railway, of French at Barberton, and of Pole-Carew ready to advance centrally, made immediate action imperative; but Botha was hampered by the presence of not a few unwilling and unmounted commandos. These he sent under Koetzee to Komati Poort and left to arrange their own destiny; and with the rest, which numbered 4,000 burghers, he broke away in two directions, himself with B. Viljoen leading the northward trek, while T. Smuts endeavoured to escape southward into Swaziland.
Thus when Pole-Carew, who had been joined by Ian Hamilton and whose advance had been delayed to allow French and Buller to get into position on his flanks, reached Komati Poort on September 24, he found himself hitting at vacancy with the wreckage of two lost republics around him, derelict railway stock, disabled guns, abandoned ammunition, and burning stores. Koetzee's men had disappeared, most of them into Portuguese territory, which they had been partly persuaded and partly compelled to enter by the Portuguese authorities, who, although they had regarded the Boer cause with a more than benevolent neutrality during the earlier stages of the war, now saw that a fight near the frontier would be a most embarrassing episode; and, while offering an asylum to the fugitives, threatened to allow Lord Roberts to land troops at Lorenzo Marques if it were not accepted. On the 28th Pole-Carew was engaged not in battle with the Boers, but in celebrating the birthday of the King of Portugal, a singular interlude between the acts of the war drama.
Botha in making for the north hoped to establish his remnant and cultivate the germs somewhere in the Leydsdorp or Pietersburg districts, which were the only portions of the Transvaal not occupied by British troops. Lord Roberts' expectations that they would be denied to the enemy by the Rhodesian Field Force under Carrington were not fulfilled, and he could not spare any of his own troops to occupy them.
Botha, preceded by a few days by Steyn, left the Delagoa Bay line on September 17, and succeeded in scraping past Buller without serious excoriation, but he was compelled to send the greater part of his force under B. Viljoen by a circuitous route through the unhealthy lower veld.
The enemy was now to all appearances chased to the ends of the earth, but throughout October and November roving bodies worried the railway and detained a considerable British force upon it.
Commandos that could not be accounted for by the British Intelligence Staff seemed to spring out of the ground. Trains were de-railed, raids and counter-raids north and south were the order of the day. Lydenburg was prowled upon. Botha and Viljoen, stirred by Steyn, hovered in the north, and Viljoen went south to co-ordinate the several activities. On November 19 he effected a temporary success at Balmoral, capturing a small post and cutting the railway, but it served him little and he soon retired.
Of the force engaged in the Komati Poort advance, the Guards' Brigade, which the hopeful situation would soon, it was thought, allow to be sent home, as well as French's cavalry and other troops, had been withdrawn; and a column under Paget which was operating west of Pretoria had to be called up to expel Viljoen from a position which he afterwards took up twenty miles north of the railway at Rhenosterkop. The affair was the only serious action during October and November.
French did not advance beyond Barberton. Early in October he was ordered to clear the country lying between the Natal and the Delagoa Bay railways. At first opposed by Smuts and subsequently impeded by bad weather, transport difficulties, and constant sniping, his movement resembled a retreat rather than a voluntary advance, and it was so regarded by the commandos. When he reached Heidelberg on October 26, he had lost half his oxen and a third of his wagons.
After the conclusion of the Komati Poort operations Buller returned to England. No general officer serving in South Africa was regarded by the non-commissioned officers and men under his command with greater affection and admiration. The Natal Army was held together in spite of disasters and failures by the personality of its leader. He had made not a few mistakes, but they never lost him the confidence of his troops, who, when he left their camp at Lydenburg, said farewell to him with an extraordinary demonstration of genuine regret.
At the end of November the command of the British Forces in South Africa was taken over by Lord Kitchener from Lord Roberts, who sailed for England in the belief that the war was practically over. He had completed the task which he had set himself when he landed at Capetown ten months before. At that time hardly even a scout had quitted British territory; now almost every mile of railway and every considerable town of the two republics, except Pietersburg, was in the possession of the British Army; the Boer Governments had been expelled; Natal was free; organized resistance had ceased; the remnants of a baffled and bewildered enemy were prowling aimlessly in small bodies. All the precedents indicated a speedy termination of the War.
When Lord Roberts left the shadow of Table Mountain the last word in Strategy and Tactics had been spoken, and the war gradually became a problem in Mechanics. His strategy was freely criticized at first, but it proved to be sound; and the only fault that could be found with his tactics was that like a skilful chess player he always endeavoured to defeat his opponent with the least possible loss on either side.
The organization of a European Army had been found inefficient for dealing with Boer guerilla. The Army Corps fell to pieces as soon as it landed in South Africa; and as time went on the Divisions, the Brigades, and even many of the regimental units were one by one liquidated and re-shuffled into columns.51
Lord Kitchener, who had been General Manager to Lord Roberts, was admirably qualified to succeed him, and to deal with a situation which seemed to call for the exercise of a strong will and of the power of organization rather than for the display of purely professional qualities, in which he was somewhat deficient. It is doubtful whether he would have commanded a large army successfully on the field of battle, but no better man could have been chosen to control the vast area over which the British Forces were distributed.
Not the column with which he had come up to Pretoria with Lord Roberts, and which after his accident had been taken over by Hunter, but a newly-constituted column.
Lord Roberts said that if he had been free to send Ian Hamilton into the Free State instead of to Rustenburg, De Wet must have been surrounded.
After June, 1901, the classification of the South African Army in Divisions and Brigades disappeared from the Army List.