These operations the English called "The Great Sweep of February, 1901."
Commandant-General Botha sent word that he was in a bad plight on the "Hoogeveld," the enemy having concentrated all his available troops upon him. I was asked to divert their attention as much as possible by repeated attacks on the railway line, and to worry them everywhere.
To attack the fortified entrenchments in these parts, where we had only just been taking the offensive, causing the enemy to be on his guard, would not have been advisable. I therefore decided to make a feint attack on Belfast.
One night we moved with all the burghers who had horses, about 15 carts, waggons, and other vehicles, guns and pom-pom, to a high "bult," near the "Pannetjes." When the sun rose the next morning we were in full sight of the enemy at Belfast, from which we were about ten miles away.
Here our commando was split into two parts, and the mounted men spread about in groups of fifty men each, with carts scattered everywhere among the ranks. We slowly approached Belfast in this order. Our commando numbered about 800 men, and considering the way we were distributed, this would look three times as many. We halted several times, and the heliographers, who were posted everywhere in sight of the enemy, made as much fuss as possible. Scouts were riding about everywhere, making a great display by dashing about all over the place, from one group of burghers to another. After we had waited again for some little time we moved on, and thus the comedy lasted till sunset; in fact, we had got within range of the enemy's guns. We had received information from Belfast to the effect that General French had taken all the guns with him to Belfast, leaving only a few of small calibre, which could not reach us until we were at about 4,000 yards from the fort. Our pom-pom and our 15-pounder were divided between the two divisions, and the officers had orders to fire a few shots on Belfast at sunset. We could see all day long how the English near Monument Hill were making ditches round the village and putting up barbed wire fences.
Trains were running backwards and forwards between Belfast and the nearest stations, probably to bring up reinforcements.
At twilight we were still marching, and by the light of the last rays of the sun we fired our two valuable field-pieces simultaneously, as arranged. I could not see where the shells were falling, but we heard them bursting, and consoled ourselves with the idea that they must have struck in near the enemy. Each piece sent half a dozen shells, and some volleys were fired from a few rifles at intervals. We thought the enemy would be sure to take this last movement for a general attack. What he really did think, there is no saying. As the burghers put it, "We are trying to make them frightened, but the thing to know is, did they get frightened?" For this concluded our programme for the day, and we retired for the night, leaving the enemy in doubt as to whether we meant to give him any further trouble, yet without any apology for having disturbed his rest.
The result of this bloodless fight was nil in wounded and killed on both sides.
On the 12th of February, 1901, the first death-sentence on a traitor on our side was about to be carried out, when suddenly our outposts round Belfast were attacked by a strong British column under General Walter Kitchener. When the report was brought to our laager, all the burghers went to the rescue, in order to keep the enemy as far from the laager as possible, and beat them back. Meanwhile the outposts retired fighting all the while. We took up the most favourable positions we could and waited. The enemy did not come up close to us that evening, but camped out on a round hill between Dullstroom and Belfast and we could distinctly see how the soldiers were all busy digging ditches and trenches round the camp and putting up barbed wire enclosures. They were very likely afraid of a night attack and did not forget the old saying about being "wise in time."
Near the spot where their camp was situated were several roads leading in different directions which left us in doubt as to which way they intended to go, and whether they wanted to attack us, or were on their way to Witpoort-Lydenburg.
The next morning, at sunset, the enemy broke up his camp and made a stir. First came a dense mass of mounted men, who after having gone about a few hundred paces, split up into two divisions. One portion moved in a westerly direction, the other to the north, slowly followed by a long file, or as they say in Afrikander "gedermte" (gut) of waggons and carts which, of course, formed the convoy. Companies of infantry, with guns, marched between the vehicles.
I came to the conclusion that they intended to attack from two sides, and therefore ordered the ranks to scatter. General Muller, with part of the burghers, went in advance of the enemy's left flank and, as the English spread out their ranks, we did the same.
At about 9 a.m. our outposts near the right flank of the English were already in touch with the enemy, and rifle-fire was heard at intervals.
I still had the old 15-pounder, but the stock of ammunition had gone down considerably and the same may be said of the pom-pom of Rhenosterkop fame. We fired some shots from the 15-pounder at a division of cavalry at the foot of a kopje. Our worthy artillery sergeant swore he had hit them right in the centre, but even with my strong spy-glass I could not see the shells burst, although I admit the enemy showed a little respect for them, which may be concluded from the fact that they at once mounted their horses and looked for cover.
A British soldier is much more in awe of a shell than a Boer is, and the enemy's movements are therefore not always a criterion of our getting the range. We had, moreover, only some ordinary grenades left, some of which would not burst, as the "schokbuizen" were defective, and we could not be sure of their doing any harm.
The other side had some howitzers, which began to spit about lyddite indiscriminately. They also had some quick-firing guns of a small calibre, which, however, did not carry particularly far. But they were a great nuisance, as they would go for isolated burghers without being at all economical with their ammunition.
Meanwhile, the enemy's left reached right up to Schoonpoort, where some burghers, who held good positions, were able to fight them. This caused continual collisions with our outposts. Here, also, the assailants had two 15-pounder Armstrong's, which fired at any moving target, and hardly ever desisted, now on one or two burghers who showed themselves, then on a tree, or an anthill, or a protruding rock. They thus succeeded in keeping up a deafening cannonade, which would have made one think there was a terrific fight going on, instead of which it was a very harmless bombardment.
It did no more harm than at the English manœuvres, although it was no doubt a brilliant demonstration, a sort of performance to show the British Lion's prowess. I could not see the practical use of it, though.
It was only on the enemy's right wing that we got near enough to feel some of the effect of the artillery's gigantic efforts, which here forced us to some sharp but innocent little fights between the outposts. At about 4 o'clock in the afternoon, the British cavalry stormed our left, which was in command of General Muller. We soon repulsed them, however. Half an hour after we saw the enemy's carts go back.
I sent a heliographic message to General Muller, with whom I had kept in close contact, to the effect that they were moving away their carts and that we ought to try and charge them on all points as well as we could.
"All right," he answered; "shall we start at once?" I flashed back "Yes," and ordered a general charge.
The burghers now appeared all along the extended fighting line.
The enemy's guns, which were just ready to be moved, were again placed in position and opened fire, but our men charged everywhere, a sort of action which General Kitchener did not seem to like, for his soldiers began to flee with their guns, and a general confusion ensued. Some of these guns were still being fired at the Boers but the latter stormed away determinedly. The British lost many killed and wounded.
The cavalry fled in such a hurry as to leave the infantry as the only protection of the guns, and although these men also beat a retreat they, at least, did it while fighting.
I do not think I overstate the case by declaring that General Walter Kitchener owed it to the stubborn defence of his infantry that his carts were not captured by us that day.
Their ambulance, in charge of Dr. Mathews and four assistants, and some wounded fell into our hands, and were afterwards sent back.
We pursued the enemy as well as we could, but about nine miles from Belfast, towards which the retreating enemy was marching, the forts opened fire on us from a 4•7 naval gun and they got the range so well that lyddite shells were soon bursting about our ears.
We were now in the open, quite exposed and in sight of the Belfast forts. Two of our burghers were wounded here.
Field-Cornet Jaapie Kriege, who was afterwards killed, with about 35 burghers, was trying to cut off the enemy from a "spruit"-drift; the attack was a very brave one, but our men ventured too far, and would all have been captured had not the other side been so much in a hurry to get away from us. Luckily, too, another field-cornet realised the situation, and kept the enemy well under fire, thus attracting Kriege's attention, who now got out of this scrape.
When night fell we left the enemy alone, and went back to our laager. The next morning the outposts reported that the would-be assailants were all gone.
How much this farce had cost General Kitchener we could not tell with certainty. An English officer told me afterwards he had been in the fight, and that their loss there had been 52 dead and wounded, including some officers. He also informed me that their object that day had been to dislodge us. If that is so, I pity the soldiers who were told to do this work.
Our losses were two burghers wounded, as already stated.