Meanwhile in the Western Transvaal Delarey had remained undisturbed save by the building of blockhouse lines. The situation elsewhere had not suffered active measures to be taken in the district controlled by him, which extended from the corner between the Vaal and the Western Railway almost to the Magaliesberg, and for which on the British side Methuen and Kekewich were the commanders chiefly responsible. During the earlier summer months some small incidents occurred which were usually favourable to the British cause.
In February, however, the tide of fortune turned. Delarey came down from the north, apparently to watch his chance of intervening on behalf of De Wet in the Orange River Colony, and heard from Liebenberg that a convoy was on its way from Wolmaranstad to Klerksdorp. On February 25 the convoy, which was escorted by 700 men and two guns, was near Yzer Spruit within a day's march of its destination, when it was ambushed in the dawn and captured by Delarey, Kemp, and Liebenberg, who thus easily obtained what they were most in need of, namely transport animals, guns, and ammunition to the amount of half a million rounds.62 The capture was effected within hearing not only of Klerksdorp, but also of a small column on the march from Klerksdorp to Hartebeestfontein. Kekewich, who was near Klerksdorp, then left for Wolmaranstad and sent a column under Grenfell in pursuit of Delarey; but the column failed to find Delarey.
Methuen at Vryburg promptly set himself to work, with such tools as he could lay his hands on, to avenge the disaster. He put together a column of which about one-third was regular infantry with four field guns, and the remainder samples of almost every irregular corps that had been raised during the previous twelve months; and he set out at the head of it to intercept Delarey, who was reported to be making for the Marico River. He ordered Kekewich to co-operate with him from Klerksdorp.
Grenfell's column was accordingly ordered to meet Methuen at Roirantjesfontein seventeen miles south of Lichtenburg. He arrived there on March 7; Methuen, who was delayed by the difficulty of finding water, having reached Tweebosch on the previous day.
It was now incumbent on Delarey, who was marching up from the south with 1,100 burghers, to attack either Methuen or Grenfell before they could join hands. He chose the former's heterogeneous host as the easier prey, and fell first upon his rearguard soon after he left Tweebosch at dawn on March 7, and then upon his right flank. The mounted troops, which were promptly disposed as a screen, failed ignominiously, the greater part of them leaving the field in disorder. The regular infantry stood fast with the guns, but were soon overwhelmed. Grenfell was unable to intervene, but he strengthened Lichtenburg in case Delarey should come that way. Delarey, however, went to the south to meet De Wet and Steyn, whom he cheered with the news of the capture of four British field guns and of 600 prisoners of war, among whom was Methuen, severely wounded. Steyn remained with Delarey; De Wet returned to the Orange River Colony.
Yzer Spruit and Tweebosch introduced the Drive into the Western Transvaal. Troops from all quarters reinforced Kekewich at Klerksdorp, and soon a force 14,000 strong was assembled there and elsewhere. The difficulty of the task before it was enhanced by the absence of a network of blockhouse lines, which had only been laid out along the Schoon Spruit and thence to Lichtenburg and Mafeking, and also along the Vaal.
The troops had to begin operations from a faulty strategical base, as they were aligned along or near the Schoon Spruit blockhouse line, and between the Boers and that line. To drive Delarey on to it, they must rapidly place themselves west of him; and this could be done only by a night march of mounted men darting through his commandos and then pressing him on to the Schoon Spruit in the opposite direction.
The operation, which was of spirited and ingenious conception, was carried out on March 23. In proportion to the effort—the force engaged in it numbered 11,000 mounted men—the results were paltry. A few score prisoners and three guns were taken. As in the earlier drives in the Orange River Colony, the meshes of the net were spacious and fragile. Delarey, Kemp, and Steyn escaped; and even Liebenberg, when about to suffer the peine forte et dure upon the Schoon Spruit blockhouse line, found a discontinuity through which he wriggled at midnight. Delarey mustered his burghers to the number of over 2,000 on the Hart's River.
To deal with the embarrassing situation the British columns were again marched to the west, with instructions to form a line of three entrenched camps distant one or two days' march from the Schoon Spruit.
The centre column under the command of W. Kitchener having reached its destination, made a reconnaissance in force still further to the west on March 31. Cookson, who was in charge of the expedition, at the end of a march of thirty-five miles, during which he had pushed back small parties of the enemy, halted at Boschbult, where two farms lay on the banks of the Brak River.
Cookson soon found himself in presence of 2,500 Boers with four field guns, his own strength being 1,800 with the same number of guns. The position was a bad one as the ground rose on each side of the river; the bush offered cover to the attack, and the only cover available to the defence was the almost dry bed of the river. He threw out screens and proceeded to entrench and form a laager; while the screens faced in the open the fire of the enemy under cover in the bush on the high ground. Liebenberg made one attempt from the south to charge the main position, but was driven back by the southern screen which had been brought into the river bank; and after a second unsuccessful attempt, this time from the east, withdrew to the high ground on the north.
When the work at the laager at the farms, which was impeded by artillery fire from the S.W., was sufficiently advanced, the northern screen was withdrawn. Some confusion ensued, as the Boers in the bush immediately fell upon it, but their attempt to get at the main position on the river, though supported by artillery, failed. It never attained the crisis of an assault; and late in the afternoon it was called off by Delarey, who arrived from his Head Quarters near Hart's River.
Meanwhile the sound of the action had reached the ears of W. Kitchener, who twenty miles away was laying out his entrenched camp. He hurried to the rescue, but the cessation of the firing and the reports of stragglers led him to the conclusion that Cookson had been annihilated. He reported to that effect to his brother, Lord Kitchener, and returned to camp. Next day he again went out, and found to his satisfaction that Cookson was still a military asset.
Kekewich, meanwhile, was searching for Delarey elsewhere. He had bespoken at Head Quarters W. Kitchener's co-operation in the quest and was relying on it; but a column commander on trek in partibus Boerum is hard to find, and no instructions reached Kitchener.
The need of a General Manager on the spot to co-ordinate the activities of the syndicate of column commanders who had so signally failed to bring Delarey to book was now manifest; and Ian Hamilton, who had greatly distinguished himself in two of the early combats of the war, was now chosen to bring it to an end. On April 8 he joined Kekewich at Middelbult.
Ian Hamilton quickly formulated a plan of using the three columns, 11,000 strong, of Kekewich, W. Kitchener and Rawlinson, who had lately been in pursuit of De Wet in the Orange River Colony, as a scythe to sweep over the country with a swing at first grazing Hart's River, then the Vaal, and finally coming to rest at Klerksdorp. Only four days were allotted to the movement, which began on April 10 and called for a daily march of more than forty miles. Delarey had been summoned to take part in the negotiations for peace, and Kemp was in charge of the Boer commandos, which numbered about 2,600 burghers.
It happened that Kekewich, whose force was detailed as the right of the advance, bore too much to the left on the first day's march, and found himself in rear of Rawlinson. Kemp was observing the movement, and assumed that he had located the British right, whereas Kekewich had partly regained his position by moving towards Roodeval, where Kemp was hovering for a chance to fall on the rear or the flank of Ian Hamilton's columns.
Kekewich reached Roodeval early on April 11, and at once pressed forward to Hart's River. His advanced guard almost immediately discovered a large body of mounted men on the left front, who, until they opened fire, were by some strange misconception taken to be a portion of Rawlinson's column. They were in fact more than a thousand Boers under Potgieter, who as soon as he had disposed of the advanced guard, made for the main body, which was not yet formed up, and by which Potgieter's men were again mistaken for a portion of Rawlinson's column. The error was discovered, but not too late. The Boer attack, which for sheer reckless bravery could hardly be surpassed, and which has been compared to the Dervish charge at Omdurman, was made in the open against a considerable force, was repelled; and Potgieter fell dead at the head of his commandos. Rawlinson hurried up to the sound of the firing and drove away the enemy, who retired, but not in disorder, to the south. A remnant, however, broke back and even sniped the main body. In less than three hours after the first shot had been fired by Potgieter, Kekewich and Rawlinson started in pursuit. Kemp, however, saved himself, and escaped with what was, under the circumstances, the inconsiderable loss of the two field guns which Delarey had taken from Methuen at Tweebosch.
The two Hamiltons rang down the curtain of the War Tragedy. While Bruce Hamilton was driving for the last time through the Orange River Colony, Ian Hamilton with Kekewich, W. Kitchener, and Rawlinson, assisted by a column from the Vaal under Rochfort, began a westward drive in the Transvaal, with 17,000 men. Kemp followed the usual practice of Boer commandants when hard pressed by the enemy, and scattered his commandos; thus when Ian Hamilton's 17,000 crossed the border and reached the Western Railway on May 11, they found less than 400 Boers, among whom Kemp was not, impaled upon the barrier of blockhouses and armoured trains.
It is not easy to understand why an empty convoy on the march, not from, but to a base of supplies, should have taken over 700 rounds per man.