The year 1901 was drawing to its close, and the three chief Boer leaders were still at large. Delarey was lurking in the difficult kloofs of the Western Transvaal; Botha was on watch in the high veld of the Eastern Transvaal, just outside the "protected area"; and De Wet was awaiting his opportunity in the N.E. of the Orange River Colony.
De Wet, who had been lying low for some months, was roused by a certain communication from Botha as well as by action taken against him by Lord Kitchener. A carefully devised and accurately carried out centripetal drive of fourteen columns converging, like meridian lines on the Pole, on a certain point ten miles N.E. of Reitz, was abortive. When the columns reached it on November 12 they found that the enemy had wriggled through the intervals, leaving scarcely a burgher at the place of meeting; and while they were blankly staring at each other, De Wet at Blijdschap, only twenty miles away, was in conference with Steyn and discussing with him a suggestion made by Botha that peace negotiations with Lord Kitchener should be opened.
To this an answer similar to that which had been given to Botha in May was returned.
De Wet and Steyn scouted the idea of reconciliation with the enemy. A Council of War was summoned and a concentration of burghers ordered. By the end of November De Wet had collected at Blijdschap a force of 1,000 men undetected by Elliott's columns, which, having taken part in the centripetal failure, were again on the move after a brief rest at Harrismith. Elliott, while on the march to Kroonstad, actually brushed past De Wet.
A column under Rimington then came upon the scene. He had heard of the Council of War from a captured Boer, who probably with intent refrained from reporting the concentration. Thus when Rimington expected that the easy task before him was the capture of De Wet and Steyn and the units of a Council of War, he suddenly found himself opposed by a considerable force, a detachment of which passed by him and attacked his train in rear. After an encounter in which a gallant young cavalry subaltern,61 who but a few weeks before had joined the Inniskilling Dragoons from the Militia, laid down his life for his country, Rimington extricated his convoy, but refrained from attacking De Wet's main body, which was reported to be strong.
Each side thereupon withdrew, Rimington to Heilbron and De Wet to Lindley, from which he found it advisable to retire on coming into contact with a column forming part of another Elliott drive, the second of the series, suggested by Rimington on his return to Heilbron. De Wet then trekked towards Bethlehem, halting at Kaffir Kop, where, nine days later, he foiled a third Elliott drive by promptly dispersing his burghers, who soon reassembled on a range of hills beyond Bethlehem.
Elliott's units then returned to their respective bases to refit. A column under Dartnell at Bethlehem, which had recently been reinforced from Rundle's command by a strong detachment under Barrington Campbell, was on the point of returning to Harrismith, when it was informed that De Wet's re-united commandos were lying in wait at a spruit about twenty miles out on the road to Harrismith. Dartnell marched on and maintained himself without much difficulty when he arrived at the spruit. Campbell came up, and De Wet's commandos withdrew without orders; but no attempt was made to convert their retirement into a rout. Dartnell continued his march to Harrismith.
After the affair at the spruit De Wet again dispersed his burghers, with orders to hold themselves in readiness to muster at short notice. He had not long to wait before he saw another opportunity of employing them.
A small force, less than 1,000 strong, was covering, half-way between Harrismith and Bethlehem, the construction of the main blockhouse line to Kroonstad, under the personal superintendence of Rundle. The force was broken up into three detachments, which were too far apart to render each other effective support in case of a sudden attack.
The strongest detachment, consisting, however, entirely of Yeomanry, was posted on Groen Kop, three miles distant from Rundle's Head Quarters. The position is fairly strong, and resembles a wedge lying on the veld, with a gentle ascent from the east to a plateau to which the normal level rises steeply on three sides. A mile or two to the S. E. it is commanded by a higher eminence, from which a party of Boers had already been expelled. It was not, however, occupied, and De Wet promptly made use of it as an observation post, for which it was admirably adapted, as it looks down into the British position on Groen Kop. Moreover, the customary movements for protection, such as the relief of outposts, were carried out with such extraordinary laxity and neglect that De Wet was soon able to acquaint himself with almost every detail of the defence. Even the emplacements of a field gun and a pom-pom were disclosed by shots casually fired for range-finding purposes.
On Christmas Eve De Wet saw that he had before him a prey that would fall into his hands as easily as Sannah's Post or Waterval Drift, and he resolved to clutch it at once. His burghers, though dispersed, were within call, and a force of over 1,000 was quickly assembled. With unerring instinct he selected the steep N.W. corner of the Groen Kop wedge as the point of attack, reasoning that the defenders would think themselves adequately protected in that direction by the nature of the ground. On Christmas morning, soon after midnight, over 1,000 Boers were in position under the broad end of the wedge. They were not discovered, as no patrols had been sent to watch the ground beneath, and the sentries on the crest gave no sign.
The pioneers of the storming party attained the crest at 2 a.m.; and not until then was the alarm given to the dormant camp. The position, after a struggle which lasted but an hour and a quarter, was captured by De Wet, who, ere the midsummer sun had risen, was hurrying away with British prisoners of war, guns and wagons, which neglect of the ordinary precautions by a body of unprofessional troops had delivered into his hands.
At Rundle's Head Quarters, only three miles away, the sound of the firing had attracted attention, and a weak body of Mounted Infantry, the only mounted force at his disposal, was sent out to see what was the matter. It was unable to intervene with effect, and returned to report the situation.
The remaining detachment of Rundle's force, consisting of two companies of slow-moving Infantry only, was still further from his Head Quarters; but thirteen miles away in the direction of Harrismith lay a force of Colonial Horse. When a telegram from Rundle to summon them to the rescue miscarried, his staff-officer galloped away in the dawn and put them on the trail of De Wet; but he had had a long start and escaped into the hills near Bethlehem. Here he remained for a few hours, and then went towards Reitz.
During a temporary absence for the purpose of conferring with Steyn he left his commandos in charge of Michael Prinsloo, who on December 28 was engaged in a rearguard action with Elliott, who was conducting yet another drive and whom he easily evaded.
On the last day of the year De Wet disbanded his commandos a few miles from the spot on which he had assembled them at the end of November. In the interval he had evaded all the Elliott drives; he had captured a strong British post; he had marched without damage along the sides of a triangle on which lay the towns of Reitz, Lindley, and Bethlehem, each of which was from time to time in the possession of his enemy; and had never been more than thirty miles distant from the central point of the triangle. The captured guns were sent away beyond the Wilge River under Mears.
No blame can be imputed to Rundle for the unsatisfactory issue of the operations. He had little reason to suspect that any considerable force of the enemy was in his vicinity. He was engaged in mechanical work, the laying out of a blockhouse line. It was the immediate task before him, and to the best of his ability he used the untrustworthy and meagre instruments at hand. It would, however, have been more in accordance with military principles if he had employed his mounted troops in duties more suited to their arm, instead of holding with them the infantry position of Groen Kop.
Only a few days before, a similar misadventure had attended the construction of the Heilbron-Vrede blockhouse line. Rimington and Damant had hardly returned to Heilbron after Elliott's third drive when they were ordered out beyond Frankfort, to the assistance of the blockhouse builders, who were being worried by a commando under Wessels, which De Wet had sent out after the Council of War. Near the Wilge River they acted on a front too extended; and a portion of Damant's force was deceived by the slim tricks of a party of Boers working in cavalry formations and many of them dressed in khaki uniforms. In order to keep up the illusion they fired at detached parties of their own side, and in the end Damant was overwhelmed on a hill, with a loss of nearly 90 per cent. of casualties, before the rest of his command came up and drove away the assailants. Rimington was too far away either to prevent or to retrieve the disaster.
When the "drives" were renewed in the northeastern districts of the Orange River Colony at the end of January, 1902, the experience of the last few months had shown that they must be conducted on new methods. Hitherto the typical "drive" had been a net or nets cast too often hastily and at random, the meshes of which were large, irregular, and easily cut. The new "drive" was a bar of steel pushed steadily forward by simultaneous action throughout its length, and with its ends resting on the two completed blockhouse lines running eastward from Heilbron and Kroonstad.
The Drive, Mark II, was inaugurated on February 3. De Wet, who on January 10 had had a hurried interview with Steyn near Reitz, was lying at Elandskop between Heilbron and Reitz, and again concentrating his scattered burghers and planning an escape with them to the south across the Kroonstad-Bethlehem blockhouse line. Mears, on his way to rejoin De Wet, ran into a column under Byng, to whom he lost the guns captured by De Wet at Groen Kop.
On February 5 a force of 9,000 men under Elliott, Rawlinson, Byng, and Rimington formed up on a line stretching from Frankfort to Kaffir Kop. The composition of this force showed the altered conditions of warfare. It included very few field guns, but no less than 2,200 horse and field gunners acting as Mounted Riflemen.
Next day the first impulse was given to the Bar, the blockhouse lines north and south, as well as the railway, having been strengthened. The whereabouts of De Wet were approximately known.
The first drive of the new pattern lasted three days, the columns reaching the railway on February 8. It was so far effective that none of the enemy broke back through the advancing line, which was vigorously maintained in continuity of pickets by night and of scouts by day; but De Wet was not on the roll of nearly 300 Boer casualties. Although hampered with live stock from which his followers refused to be parted, and in spite of two hovering columns which were acting in support of the southern blockhouse line, he not only broke through it owing to its want of vigilance, but even succeeded in dragging the cattle across it after him. He then retired as usual to the Doornberg. Other parties of Boers broke through the northern blockhouse line; and thus the first of the new drives ended with poor results. As soon as the trouble was over De Wet with his followers again crossed the southern blockhouse line and quietly returned to Elandskop, where he dispersed them.
A second drive to sweep those districts which had not been touched by the first drive was soon put in hand. It was to be performed in two movements by two sets of columns. A force under the Driver-in-Chief Elliott starting eastwards from Kroonstad and the Doornberg would advance in line, resting its right first on Lindley and then on Harrismith, in the vicinity of which it was proposed that it should meet the other set of columns, under Rawlinson, Byng, and Rimington. These, starting on an extended front which ran from near Johannesburg to within a few miles of Heilbron with their centre astride the Vaal and their right touching the Natal Railway, would advance S.E. to near Vrede; then wheeling to the right march southwards with their left on the Drakensberg; finally, in conjunction with Elliott, pushing the fugitives on to the eastern section of the Harrismith blockhouse line. The operation may be likened to the sweep of two brooms, one acting with a semicircular and the other with a forward movement.
It was begun by Elliott, who started on February 13, and after an abortive attempt to snap up De Wet reached Wilge River on February 22 and awaited the arrival of the other columns; his left being near Tafelkop.
Rawlinson and Byng meanwhile were advancing. On February 19 they wheeled to the right and with their centre near Vrede were now wholly within the Orange River Colony. The two forces were now disposed at right angles to each other, one of the lines containing the angle being the Wilge River, which Elliott was unable to hold in sufficient strength as his front was widely extended. In the vicinity of Harrismith the southern blockhouse line was reinforced by Brook, who succeeded Rundle in the command of the district.
The northern blockhouse line was unable to stem the tide of fugitives flying before Rawlinson and Byng, whose columns were now strung out on a much wider front than that on which they had begun their march. The advance of Elliott had also driven various Boer details into the right angle, in which were now conglomerated not only combatants, but women, children, stock, and transport. Included among the fugitives from Elliott were De Wet and Steyn, who had again come together. With Elliott at their heels, their only chance of escape was to break through the attenuated line of Rawlinson's columns. De Wet's good fortune did not fail him, and with Steyn and a few hundred burghers he severed it at Langverwacht at midnight on February 23 and was again at large. The remnant of the commandos was left behind within the pale with their women, children, cattle, and stuff; and these, augmented by the Harrismith commando, were the prisoners of Elliott and Rawlinson when the drive, in which 30,000 British troops were directly or indirectly engaged, completed its task.
Yet another drive, the third of the new series, ensued. It had, of course, for its objective the capture of De Wet, as well as the "tidying up" of the district, in which certain commandos, which had not been netted in former drives, still lurked. It was composed, like the second drive, of two sets of converging columns and traversed the terrain of the first drive.
It happened that the point of convergence lay near the spot, not far from Reitz, where De Wet and Steyn were in hiding. The propinquity of the columns drove them out of their retreat, and taking a circuitous route past Heilbron and thence along the left bank of the Vaal they crossed the river near Commando Drift, and on March 17 joined Delarey near Wolmaranstad in the Transvaal. Little was done after the junction of the two sets of columns, and they returned to the railway on March 11, with a stray commando in front of them, which easily rushed the blockhouse line near Heilbron. A portion of the troops was hastily withdrawn to deal with the crisis in the Transvaal.
Hardly had the dust raised by the trampling of the third drive settled down upon the veld when the fourth drive was in progress, and 14,000 men on a front which stretched from one blockhouse line to the other were plodding eastward to the Drakensberg. It was held up for a time by two rivers in spate, the Wilge and the Liebenberg's, and when released it trudged on to the mountain range, where on April 5 its components were dissolved, having disposed of less than 100 of the enemy.
Yet one more drive, the fifth and last of the series, was called for. Early in May Bruce Hamilton swooped down from the Eastern Transvaal upon the harassed land, and in co-operation with Elliott worried it for the space of ten days. Many small parties of Boers broke through—the last wriggle in the Orange River Colony.
L.M.O. Requiescat in pace.