The new De Wet hunt was soon in cry. When Knox was set on the trail, he was in the Free State and De Wet was in the Transvaal. Two days later the positions were reversed, for they had crossed the river in opposite directions. The situation now developed itself favourably for De Wet's methods. For a purely military operation he had never shown much aptitude. He had failed against Barton at Fredrikstad, but he was not discouraged by the repulse, which he unjustly attributed to want of co-operation on the part of Liebenberg. He had put the Vaal between himself and Knox, who was on the right bank blindly nosing the drifts. He knew from recent experience that his pursuers, with their imperfect methods of acquiring information, would hunt by sight and not by scent, and he had the mobility of a hare as well as the instinct of a fox. He lay perdu for some days near the left bank of the Vaal, while a net with spacious meshes was being cast to ensnare him. Again he crossed and re-crossed the river in order to bring Steyn away from Ventersdorp, whom two months previously he had conducted into the Transvaal, and who had in the meantime worked round the British Army to Machadodorp and back; and who after conferences with Kruger and L. Botha, now returned with him unscathed into their own land with schemes for the future.
Pom-pom batteries and mounted infantry, the latest fashions of war, were sent after him by Knox. On November 6 he was surprised in laager near Bothaville, but escaped with Steyn and the greater portion of his command on the first alarm. The gallant Le Gallais was killed and the laager itself captured after a stout resistance some hours later, and with it all De Wet's field guns, wagons, a considerable quantity of ammunition and horse equipment, and more than 100 prisoners of war.
Most men would have succumbed to the disaster, but it only spurred De Wet. He had signally failed in his late attempt on the Transvaal, and he had just lost almost everything at Bothaville, but he resolved to make a raid in the opposite direction on the northern districts of Cape Colony. To reach his new objective, he must traverse the whole length of the Free State, which, having been in the occupation of the British Army for several months, should have offered the line of greatestresistance to his movement.
The Brandwater Basin disaster of July 30 had, however, by no means crushed Free State Boerdom, which, after having been heavily hurled to the ground, where it lay for a time apparently unconscious, began to show signs of returning animation, and in a few weeks was again on its legs; thanks to the restoratives freely administered by De Wet on his return from his first incursion into the Transvaal. Into each district he sent irreconcilable men after his own heart to stimulate the wavering and animate the discouraged; and barely a month elapsed before the burghers were besieging Ladybrand, which, however, they failed to take, and were hacking at the railway into the Transvaal. In October every village in the S.W. district of the Orange River Colony in the possession of a British garrison was attacked, all but one of them without success.
Lord Roberts had already taken measures to curb the new activities. His plan was to occupy certain places strongly as bases from which mobile columns could constantly move to and fro, eating up the intervening country and rendering it incapable of supporting the enemy. Its operation was mainly confined to the northern districts of the Free State, in which lay the centre of disturbance, and the troops engaged could not be readily employed outside them. It was so far successful, in that it drove De Wet into the Transvaal in October, but it failed to restrain his subsequent movements. It probably was the best that could have been devised for dealing with local guerilla, but its action being centrifugal and not circumferential, it was powerless to deal with a meteoric raid of well-mounted men. Although the British troops greatly outnumbered the Boers, yet in practice only the mounted details, which included no regular cavalry and were relatively weak, were directly effective against the enemy, and the movements of the divagating columns were sluggish.
When De Wet left Bothaville on November 6, his arm was, metaphorically speaking, in a sling, and he was footsore; but ten days later he had brought together in the Doornberg a force of 1,500 men, with whom he proposed to cut his way into the Cape Colony. His movement south may be compared to that of a small swift steamer endeavouring to escape from a blockaded seaport. Ahead of him and on each beam were the slow-moving vessels of the blockading squadron, most of them hull down and with banked fires.
He made at once for the scene of his April successes, the country lying between Bloemfontein and the Basuto border. The chief obstacles in his way were a line of posts running eastwards from Bloemfontein, and the town of Dewetsdorp, which was held by 500 British troops. The latter he might have avoided had he chosen to do so, but he seems to have been attracted to it because it was the home of his childhood, which it was incumbent upon him to redeem from bondage.
The phenomenon of a Boer column marching through the heart of a country supposed to be effectively in the possession of the British Army was again witnessed. To borrow another metaphor, this time from Astronomy, De Wet throughout the greater part of his career was a telescopic star, invisible to the naked eye. General Officers and column commanders helplessly watched his course through the telescopes of the Intelligence Staff, and seemed to have as little power of influencing it as an observer at Greenwich has of changing the orbit of a planet. The astronomer can at least forecast with certainty the path which it will follow in the heavens, but there were no observations available from which the course of De Wet could be predicted for more than a few hours. He seemed to defy the laws of gravitation.
On November 16, he easily rushed the Bloemfontein-Thabanchu line of posts at Springhaan's Nek, and three days later invested Dewetsdorp. Meanwhile the alarm had been given. Knox's force, which had been sent after him into the Transvaal, was now sent after him to Bloemfontein, and mobile columns were detailed. Dewetsdorp was doomed from the first unless assistance arrived from outside. The position could not be held effectively by a small force, One by one the scattered posts fell into the hands of De Wet, but the defence was maintained until the 23rd, when the white flag was hoisted. On the previous day two relieving columns had started from Edenburg, but they were checked near Dewetsdorp on the 24th by De Wet, who shook himself free of them and was soon on his way to the south with 500 prisoners of war; and Knox with a third relieving column was marching from Edenburg.
Thus almost within sight of Sannah's Post and Mostert's Hoek and after six months of apparently successful activity by the British Army, De Wet snatched away another garrison. After a repulse at Fredrikstad, soon followed by a severe mauling at Bothaville, from which he broke out as a fugitive, he placidly and confidently trekked southwards unopposed for 150 miles, magnetically attracting to himself a force sufficient to blot out Dewetsdorp in the presence of a bewildered enemy, who, though in overwhelming numbers, was feebly strung out in lengths without breadth. The British Army had still to learn, not only in the Free State, but also elsewhere, the elemental fact in geometry that neither one straight line nor two, nor under certain conditions even three, can enclose an area.
It was evident that De Wet was making for the Cape Colony, the disaffected northern districts of which were again giving cause for anxiety, and which at all hazards he must be prevented from entering. Lord Kitchener came down from the Transvaal to direct the operations; the Brigade of Guards on its way to Capetown and home, was de-trained to hold the line of the Orange; Knox's columns hurried forward. De Wet, after a slight encounter with Knox, who was marching south, turned adroitly to the west and did not resume the original direction of his march until he had put a considerable distance between himself and the columns, which were "running heel" and pursuing him almost in the opposite direction. Near Bethulie he was reinforced by Hertzog and other leaders, but by this time he had been headed by Knox at Bethulie and was compelled to draw off eastwards into the angle between the Orange and the Caledon. He left Hertzog with instructions to make his way across the river west of Norval's Pont, intending to cross with his own force higher up. He was, however, prevented by the forces of nature from carrying out the raid which the British military forces would probably have been unable to prohibit. Heavy rains had fallen in the Basuto Mountains, and the sudden rise of the Caledon and the Orange to flood level obliterated most of the drifts and entrapped him between them. He made one dash for the Orange at Odendaal, but found the drift in the possession of the enemy.
De Wet now saw that he was not destined to enter the Cape Colony on this occasion, and that he would have much difficulty in saving himself. On December 6 he determined to retreat by the way he came. He did not, however, wholly abandon the scheme of a Cape Colony raid, for he detached Kritzinger and Scheepers with instructions to hover and watch their opportunity of breaking into it. The opportune falling of the Caledon opened to him a postern towards the north, and on December 7 he crossed the river and made for Helvetia, where again he was entangled. The line of least resistance seemed to run westwards towards the railway, and he put himself upon it, soon to find that Kitchener's dispositions had obstructed it. He doubled back, and trailing Knox after him in a night march, shook himself free. Knox, confident that the Bloemfontein-Ladybrand line of posts would be an effectual barrier to De Wet's retreat, had waited to pull his straggling columns together. De Wet, reinforced by a commando under Michael Prinsloo, who had been with him in his first Transvaal incursion when Steyn was put over the border, rushed at the blockhouse line and again cut it at Springhaan's Nek, for although it had been attended to recently, there was an aneurism in it which yielded at the critical moment, and on December 14 De Wet passed freely through the lesion. He arrived by way of Ficksburg at Tafelberg, S.E. of Senekal, on December 25.
The failure of the raid was almost as disconcerting to the British plan of campaign as its success would have been. It showed that the troops were unable to prevent a mobile and well-led commando from traversing the Free State from end to end; it put new spirit into the burghers, and destroyed the hopes of peace which the operations of Lord Roberts in the Transvaal had kindled. De Wet was still at large, and although he had not accomplished all that he intended, he had good reason to be satisfied, and was stimulated for fresh efforts. He could boast that he was beaten not by columns but by two rivers in spate. His movements were so little obstructed that after reaching the Senekal district he was able to pay a flying visit to the railway at Roodeval, where he recovered the Lee-Metford ammunition which he had buried in June, and with which he hoped soon to have an opportunity of charging the rifles captured at Dewetsdorp.
When De Wet, Hertzog, and Kritzinger parted company near the Orange early in December, their tracks formed the letter Y inverted. De Wet marched along the stem towards the N.E.; Kritzinger struck in the direction of the midland districts of the Cape Colony; Hertzog made for the west. Martial law was at last proclaimed in the Colony, the greater part of which was, in spite of innumerable columns slipped at them, traversed by Hertzog and Kritzinger. The former, after an adventurous march of over 400 miles, reached Lambert's Bay on the shore of the Atlantic, and gave to most of his men their first sight of the sea; and to all of them a unique experience in the war, for they were shelled by a British cruiser at anchor in the haven.53
While Hertzog was watching the setting of the sun upon an Atlantic horizon, Kritzinger was at Willowmore, almost within sight of the Indian Ocean, having in spite of all the columns pushed his way from Rouxville down into the S.E. districts of the Cape Colony. Neither Kritzinger nor Hertzog, however, effected much by their raids except to show in the Colony what De Wet had already shown in the Transvaal and the Free State, the impotence of even the best-laid schemes of pursuit, and they returned towards the centre in February. De Wet and Hertzog had between them in the course of a few months succeeded in ploughing, through the heart of the country occupied by the British Army, a lonely furrow which stretched from the northward slopes of the Magaliesberg in the Transvaal through the Free State to a haven on the South Atlantic Ocean.
Meanwhile De Wet was waiting until the moment should come for him to take part in the wide-reaching plan of campaign which had been devised by the Boer Governments. They saw the uselessness of attempting to withstand the British forces in the Republics, and they determined to bring the war back into the Cape Colony and Natal. The general idea was that L. Botha should march on Pietermaritzburg from the Eastern Transvaal, while De Wet followed Hertzog and Kritzinger across the Orange, and then, having effected a junction with them, should advance on Capetown. The scheme was not so extravagant and quixotic as it might appear to be, as recent events had shown the difficulty of restraining the movements of a Boer leader of dash and enterprise; and there was no reason why De Wet should not be as successful in eluding pursuit in the future as he had been in the past.
Again the Doornberg, although within sight of the railway between Bloemfontein and Kroonstad, was available as a meeting place. Here on November 16, 1900, he had assembled his burghers for his first attempt on the Cape Colony; and here on January 25, 1901, he brought them together for his second. Steyn was with him, and all the available Free State commandants with more than 2,000 men mustered on the mountain unmolested. His intentions were not unknown to the British Intelligence Staff, and when he quitted the rendezvous he had a column under B. Hamilton on his right rear and a column under C. Knox on his left front.
The situation was not novel, and he dealt with it with his customary good luck and success. He passed across Knox's front, who fortunately for him had been ordered not to act before Hamilton came up, and reached the Tabaksberg, between Winburg and Brandfort, next day. On the following morning he shook off an attack made by a portion of Knox's column, and went for the Bloemfontein Thabanchu line of posts, which he had already twice cut. Hamilton, distanced in the chase, had been put on the railway and sent to Bloemfontein to strengthen the line, but he arrived too late to prevent De Wet crossing it on January 30 at Israel's Poort. The sorely-tried pale had again failed.54
De Wet, having shaken off the columns which had been pursuing him from the Doornberg, had now a free course of 100 miles to the next obstacle, the Orange. It was evident that the speed of the columns must be increased and Knox was put upon the railway for the first time and Hamilton for the second and dispatched to Bethulie. The energy of a considerable portion of the British Army was devoted to an attempt to make the barrier of the Orange impassable.
North of the river was De Wet; south of it Hertzog and Kritzinger were waiting for him. There was every reason to fear that should he succeed in joining either of them, the smouldering embers of rebellion would again break out in the Cape Colony. Troops were hurried by train from the Transvaal, from Kimberley, and from Capetown. Lyttelton was brought down from the Delagoa Bay line to Naauwpoort to take general charge of the operations, and to build as rapidly as possible a wall that could not be scaled or breached.
For some reason which is not apparent De Wet, although he had an open country in front of him in which not a single British column was operating, moved slowly, and thereby gave more time for the carrying out of Lyttelton's arrangements. Possibly he may have been delayed by trouble with his Free State commandos, some of which a few days later refused to cross with him into the Colony. On January 31 he passed through Dewetsdorp, gratified no doubt to find that since his capture of it in November his enemies had not ventured to set foot again in it. At that time he had not made up his mind whether to cross the Orange east or west of Norval's Pont. If the former, he would soon be able to join Kritzinger, who after the Willowmore raid had returned to the Zuurberg, between Stormberg and Naauwpoort; if the latter, he would be able to call up Hertzog, who had returned from the shores of the Atlantic and was hovering in the Carnarvon district west of De Aar.
De Wet had from time to time to time been in communication with Kritzinger and Hertzog during their raids. His advanced patrols soon discovered that the section of the Orange lying eastward of Norval's Pont was very strongly held. The dispositions of Lyttelton's troops seem to have been made on the assumption that De Wet would
endeavour to join Kritzinger, who was little more than one day's march from the left bank, rather than Hertzog, who was 150 miles away. The river section westward of Norval's Pont was therefore held lightly by a line of outposts at the drifts, thrown out from the main barrier based on Naauwpoort, nearly forty miles south of the river. Of this De Wet was at the time unaware. His information was that the eastward section was impassable. The westward section might possibly not be so, and he determined to make for it.
He spread a report that he intended to cross the river at Odendaalstroom or Aliwal North, and paused to allow it time to reach the ears of Knox, who seems to have given some credence to it. A column was sent out to reconnoitre in the direction of Smithfield. When half-way between that town and Dewetsdorp, De Wet suddenly changed direction and made for Phillipolis, detaching a portion of his force under Froeneman, who on February 5 captured and burnt a train a few miles south of Edenburg and crossed the railway. On the following night, De Wet crossed it with the main body near Springfontein, while Knox was hunting for him near Bethulie.
It was now evident that De Wet's objective was the Zand Drift on the Orange west of Phillipolis. He had had a long start, and the nearest troops available for the pursuit of him were the columns of Knox and Hamilton at Bethulie. Here the river bends round to the south, forming an arc through Norval's Pont towards Zand Drift; and the columns therefore crossed to the right bank and marched eighty miles along the chord, only to find when they reached the Drift on February 12 that De Wet had two days previously crossed by it into the Cape Colony.
The operations of the next sixteen days were confined to a comparatively small rectangle of about 6,000 square miles lying on the left bank of the Orange, which bounded it from Norval's Pont to Douglas and thence to near Prieska. The S.E. side and half the S.W. side, namely from Norval's Pont to Naauwpoort and thence to De Aar, were formed by the railways, the remaining portion of the S.W. side being the river Brak, which flows into the Orange a few miles above Prieska.
Owing to a sudden flood, which delayed Knox for two days, he was unable to follow De Wet across Zand Drift, but Plumer started from Naauwpoort with two columns, and on February 12 came in touch with De Wet and compelled him to change his course. Two days later De Wet crossed the railway between De Aar and Hopetown, after a rearguard action with Plumer, into whose hands fell next morning the transport which De Wet had been compelled by bad weather to leave behind him.
De Wet now proposed to fetch a compass towards Prieska, where he hoped to effect a junction with Hertzog, but the driving power of the raid was slowly exhausting itself. The motive energy was stored up in accumulators, and when these were discharged in succession, there was no means of re-charging them. Hertzog and Kritzinger, who had been relied on for this purpose, were not at hand; more than a third of the force with which De Wet had originally left the Doornberg had declined to leave the Free State; and the transport had been lost.
Plumer also was exhausted and unable to continue the pursuit, but fortunately Knox was close behind him. He doubled back towards Hopetown for supplies, leaving Knox to follow the trail. De Wet was now driven into the western corner of the rectangle where the Brak falls into the Orange, and where he found himself in a dilemma similar to that which in his first raid had cornered him between the Orange and the Caledon. The Brak was in spate, and he could not cross it to Prieska. All hope of joining Hertzog and of a successful raid into the Cape Colony was at an end; there was nothing to be done but make the best of his way back to the Free State. He reversed his course and made for the confluence of the Orange and the Vaal. His change of direction was not known to Knox, who, assuming that De Wet must have crossed the Brak, which fell as suddenly as it had risen, threw his columns across it and trekked for twenty miles towards the S.W. Hertzog was reported to be a day's march higher up the Brak.
Up to this time the whole of the stress of the pursuit had fallen upon Knox and Plumer. As soon as the news of De Wet's entry into the Cape Colony reached Lord Kitchener, he hurried down from the Transvaal to De Aar to superintend the casting of the nets. His first dispositions were made with the object of preventing De Wet and Hertzog breaking away into the districts lying west of the railway to Capetown, and an ingenious and elaborate scheme of columns springing out from the line in succession from the north, was arranged. It was not, however, put into action, for Knox and Plumer had headed back De Wet, and for the time being had prevented a junction between him and Hertzog. It was no longer a case of a stern chase, but of the fencing in of a comparatively limited area, into which more than a dozen columns were thrown, and which by February 24 was reduced to the district bounded on three sides by the railways and on the fourth by the Orange.
When on February 21 Plumer was able to resume the pursuit, Knox having discovered his mistake was recrossing the Brak, and De Wet on the left bank of the Orange was unsuccessfully searching for practicable drifts. He succeeded, however, in transferring a few of his men to the right bank in a boat at Makow's Drift, but was overtaken by Plumer before he could complete the movement, and forced to hurry on towards Hopetown. In the course of one week he had marched in the direction of almost every point in the compass, and was now heading E.S.E.
When within fifteen miles of Hopetown he lost two guns, and on the same day ran up against a new obstacle, a column under Paris, which had come down from Kimberley and which had extended itself westward from Hopetown. He succeeded in wriggling through the line without detection during the night; while Paris, unaware of what had occurred and thinking that De Wet was still in front of him, pushed on next morning and came into action, not with De Wet, but with Plumer, who was pursuing De Wet in the opposite direction. On February 24 De Wet crossed the railway eastwards a few miles south of Orange River Station.
As soon as Hertzog in the Carnarvon district heard of the approach of De Wet he trekked up towards the Brak to meet him, having first detached a portion of his command under Brand to make a circuit through Britstown. Brand was followed by B. Hamilton, who had been set on to his trail, but regained touch with his leader on February 20, when the news came that De Wet was in difficulties and that the raid must be abandoned.
Hertzog and Brand joined forces across the river and trekked to the east, having thrown Plumer off the scent for a day. On February 25 Hertzog crossed the railway. Three Boer leaders were now groping for each other in the Fog of War: De Wet, Hertzog, and Fourie, who had been left behind to do what he could to extricate the transport which De Wet had been compelled to abandon when he crossed the railway westwards on February 16, and who had been lost sight of by the British columns. The forces of gravitation are, however, irresistible, and as Hertzog and Brand could not be long kept apart, so also De Wet, Hertzog, and Fourie soon came together.
De Wet trekked along the left bank of the Orange for nearly sixty miles, but found every drift impassable. On February 26 he reached Zand Drift. A fortnight previously a sudden flood had checked his pursuers, now another flood was checking his retreat from them at the same spot, and he was hemmed in by a swollen river and a dozen active columns. Most men would have yielded to the situation, but his tenacity of purpose never faltered. Early on the morning of February 27 Hertzog, who had picked up Fourie a few hours before, joined him.
After crossing the railway Hertzog made for Petrusville, where he heard that De Wet had passed through the town on his way south, and followed him. About twenty miles away on Hertzog's right flank a column under Hickman was marching on Zand Drift, and had it not been suddenly diverted northwards by orders from Lyttelton, it must have forestalled him at the Drift, as it was working on interior lines. The change of direction was made before Hertzog's presence in the vicinity became known to Hickman, who on sighting a Boer column on February 26 again changed direction to pursue it. A second column was soon descried, and later in the day, about the time that De Wet reached the Drift, a considerable Boer force was sighted. It was composed of the two columns already seen under Hertzog and Brand, reinforced by Fourie, who had emerged from the Fog. Hickman's pursuit failed to prevent the three commandants joining De Wet at the Drift during the night.
The disjecta membra of the raid were now assembled, but the task of the British columns was, apparently, greatly facilitated. Instead of having to chase evasive and elusive commandos now in this direction and now in that, the leaders had but to pin De Wet down to the left bank of the Orange at Zand Drift and to leave him to gaze longingly at the further shore. Nothing could now save him but a sudden fall of the swollen river. Before De Wet's arrival at Zand Drift Lyttelton had put troops in motion, some of them from considerable distances, to enclose the area, but of the columns detailed three only had come up. Hickman was on the spot, Crabbe from Hopetown was in touch with him, and Byng, who had been hurried up from Victoria West, was at hand. None of the other columns were in position, owing mainly to delays on the railway. Thus the only effective force for the capture of De Wet was the three columns with Hickman, who was out of communication with Lyttelton.
The troops had been disposed with the object of driving De Wet back into the Free State rather than of capturing him, and they were unable to concentrate themselves upon him. Norval's Pont, from which the line of the Orange might, perhaps, have been blocked in the direction of Zand Drift, was unoccupied. On February 27 Hickman pushed De Wet away from the Drift. Two columns were behind the Boer leader, but in front of him was a weak and thinly extended force under Byng, which De Wet cut through without difficulty, and next morning reached Botha's Drift. It was fordable, and after eighteen days' absence he re-entered his own country. He had not succeeded in raiding very far into the Cape Colony, but he had baffled and outwitted the most strenuous military effort of the war.
Plumer, who had been ordered round from Orange River Station to Colesberg, arrived there too late. He was immediately sent on to continue the pursuit in the Free State in co-operation with a column under Bethune, which marched directly across the veld to Fauresmith. Bethune was soon compelled to fall out, but Plumer held on for five days more without, however, lessening the distance between him and his quarry. On March 11, after a trek of more than 800 miles, De Wet, having dismissed on his way up most of the commandos to their several districts, entered Senekal with Steyn, and returned to within a few miles of the Doornberg place of assembly which they had quitted forty-four days before.
The lessons to be derived from the history of the three De Wet hunts are mainly of a moral character, and have only an indirect bearing upon the principles which guide the conduct of military operations in general. No such episodes could ever occur in a European War. Yet the Power which holds Hindustan cannot afford to forget them. Who can say that in the not distant future, which all the signs of the times seem to show will be marked by turbulence and disorder in India, a De Wet may not come forth out of the thousands of Sikhs, Ghoorkas, Pathans and Rajputs who have learnt the Art of War in the Native Army? The arena of the struggle, with its long lines of communication, all its chief towns held by British troops and its vast plains inhabited by a disaffected population, would be strikingly similar to that on which the Boer War was fought.
De Wet says that he went at the request of Liebenberg, who was in charge of the commandos operating between the Vaal and the Magaliesberg, and who had previously been engaged in the Bechuanaland rebellion.
Twenty-three centuries previously, a Greek Army, after a march of many weeks, reached the sea. The emotion of the men at the sight has been thus described by their leader in a well-known passage which Hertzog might well have in substance incorporated in his reports to De Wet: "No sooner had the men in front caught sight of the sea than a great cry arose, and Xenophon with the rearguard, catching the sound of it, conjectured that another set of enemies must surely be attacking the front. But as the shout became louder and nearer, and those who from time to time came up began racing at the top of their speed towards the shouters and the shouting continually recommenced with yet greater volume as the numbers increased, Xenophon settled in his mind that something extraordinary must have happened, and mounted his horse and taking with him Lycius and the cavalry, galloped on. And presently they could hear the soldiers shouting and passing on the joyful word [Greek: Thalatta, Thalatta]"—Anabasis, IV, 7.
De Wet ascribes his success to a feint which he made in the direction of Springhaan's Nek, and which he asserts threw the columns off the scent; but it is improbable that the feint had anything to do with it. At the time of De Wet's crossing at Israel's Poort Hamilton had only reached Sannah's Post, nor was Knox marching on the Nek.