IT was on Sunday, Feb. 11th, that General French's force rendezvoused at Ramdam. The Cavalry and Mounted Infantry numbered eight thousand, while General Kelly-Kenny's, General Tucker's, and General Chermside's Infantry amounted to twenty thousand men with 72 guns, and the other columns in the district made up the force to 50,000.
Colonel Hannay's brigade was delayed by the fighting at Rooidem, in which he lost sixty men, and did not join the other forces till Tuesday morning. At dawn on Monday, the 12th, the Cavalry and guns advanced to seize the Riet drifts. The Boers opened fire from Pamberg, shelling the officers of the general staff, who had a wonderful escape. Colonel Broadwood held the enemy at Waterval Drift, while the advance was pushed at Dekiel Drift, with much smartness. Hunter and Weston, who pushed skirmishers across, anticipated the Boers occupying a commanding kopje. The passage was forced with the loss of only two men.
On Tuesday the advance was continued by the cavalry and guns across twenty-three miles of waterless desert with a front of three miles in breadth. When the Modder was sighted at four o'clock in the afternoon Colonel Broadwood pushed on very rapidly, and occupied a house and watermill. Then the 12th Lancers dashed for the drift, followed by the Mounted Infantry. The Boer garrison decamped, leaving their laager, ammunition, horses, waggons, stores, and bread hot from the ovens in our hands. The 12th Lancers galloped in pursuit of the enemy, and captured a convoy of thirteen waggons with food. The occupation of the river was invaluable considering the urgent need of water by our troops.
On Wednesday the Boers brought a long-range gun and shelled our camp till they were forced to retire by Burton's battery, having lost their gunners. The enemy drew off to the north-east to bar the road to Bloemfontein.
Our advance was already a brilliant success, the enemy being puzzled as to our intentions, confused by the rapidity of our movement, and greatly disconcerted. Our progress was dependent on getting food for horse and man; and the arrival of a convoy column, piloted by Rimington's Scouts, at dusk, afforded the greatest relief, the horses getting the needed fodder.
Having rested, the advance was continued on Thursday in a northerly direction, the infantry occupying the positions vacated by the cavalry. At 10 o'clock heavy firing opened direct in front from a strong kopje, and the enemy fired with accuracy on our left front from a detached ridge at right angles on the batteries, the latter suffering loss, but steadily replying.
After half-an-hour's work, General French ordered a charge across the nek between the positions. This was a magnificent spectacle, four thousand men galloping obliquely across the Boer front under a heavy fire. Our loss was very slight considering the exposure, and the charge was entirely successful. The Boers not only ran, but offered no further resistance all day. Lieut. Hesketh, of the 16th Lancers, and three men were shot at a few yards' range by the Boers holding Gun Hill, who then hoisted the white flag. The squadron was so close, however, that they charged all of them down.
Kimberley was sighted at about two o'clock. It was still being shelled, but the firing ceased on our advance, the Boers evacuating their positions. The first to enter the town was Colonel Patterson, of Queensland, and his regiment.
The mounted troops and horse artillery in four days had covered a distance of ninety miles, fought two small engagements, and finished by relieving Kimberley.
The whole movement which was conceived by Lord Roberts was made up of different combinations, all of which dovetailed exactly, in spite of several obstacles which it was impossible to foresee. It began on Sunday morning at three o'clock, and on Thursday afternoon Kimberley was relieved, General French leading the way, and the infantry making splendid marches in order to hold the positions seized by him.
Early on the nth the concentration of French's division began, and it was continued on the same day at Ramdam. As the infantry appeared in sight early next morning, General French moved forward and seized two drifts on the Riet. General Tucker's division followed, doing a splendid march, while close behind came Kelly-Kenny's division. Both of these divisions arrived at the Riet before General French left.
Here occurred a scene which will remain for ever engraved on the memory of those who witnessed it. The drift was almost impassable for the transport, which was obliged to park on the south side of the river, but indomitable energy and perseverance overcome all obstacles.
It was found impossible for a team of mules to draw its load up the steep north bank, and it therefore became necessary to run relays of oxen, which were hitched on in addition to the mules, and thus the loads were dragged over all through the night in the midst of a terrible dust-storm. Everybody worked splendidly. At four o'clock next morning the back of the difficulty had been broken, and most of the transport was on the north side of the river.
Lord Kitchener accompanied General Tucker's Division, 7th, which marched to within three miles of Jacobs-dal, being obliged to keep to the river on account of the water.
General French was awaiting the infantry there, and left for Kimberley immediately on the arrival of the Division, while Lord Methuen was opposite Magersfon-tein, and General Tucker held Jacobsdal, with General Colville's Division close at hand, ready to move where-ever required, and General Kelly-Kenny's holding the Klip and Rondaval Drifts on the Modder.
General Cronje had thus been completely out-flanked, and the position of the Boer army became untenable.
On nearing the River Riet, at Waterfals Drift, French found an unexpectedly small force of Boers in position to dispute his passage. He quickly drove them off, and, crossing the drift, marched on towards Jacobsdal, finally bivouacking at one o'clock on Thursday morning, at Wagdraas. During the brief rest General French sent patrols on towards Jacobsdal, and ascertained that the town was not held in force by the enemy, and that a British Infantry Division was well on its way thither.
After a much needed rest for men and horses French resumed his march, taking the Blauwbosch-road and leaving Jacobsdal on his left.
The burning sun was succeeded by terrific tropical rain accompanied by continuous and blinding lightning. The road was soon like a morass, but French plodded doggedly on, and reached the Modder River at Klip Drift just before midnight. The Division had then covered twenty-six miles in twenty-four hours.
Nearing the Modder River French's first care was to take steps for covering the passage of the Division by Klip Drift. To that end orders were given for a twelve-pounder naval gun to be placed at the top of a kopje dominating a ridge and commanding the river. The bluejackets got cheerily to work, but before they had got far with their big gun one of the wheels of the carriage collapsed beyond possibility of quick mending. With little delay the resourceful sailors, with the willing assistance of stalwart troopers, lifted the twelve-pounder bodily from the damaged carriage, and hauled and dragged and carried it over broken and constantly rising ground a distance of two miles to the summit of the kopje. It was a grand performance, and well deserved the warm eulogy and thanks which Lord Kitchener has since conveyed to all concerned in it.
No sooner had the big gun been got to the summit of the kopje than the bluejackets set to work and improvised a platform for it so speedily and cleverly that when the Division in the early morning commenced the passage of the river, the twelve-pounder was able to take effective part in the artillery fire with which the operation was covered. By Wednesday afternoon French was in occupation of both sides of the river, and this work was achieved at a trifling loss in wounded men.
Leaving troops and the naval and other guns to guard the drift, French, with the bulk of the forces, including the Royal Horse Artillery, moved steadily on towards Beaconsfield and Kimberley. As he left the river he was shelled by a Boer battery placed on a towering kopje, but there were enough troops left at the drift to contain the Boers in that vicinity, and French hurried on regardless of the bombardment, which, in truth, did scarcely any damage.
It was more of a rout than a retreat, for about a thousand Boers bolted from their positions, which the twelve-pounder had made too hot for them, and galloping madly across the plain, sought refuge in a distant laager. Our guns rained shells upon them as they fled, and they must have suffered very heavily.
The Cavalry Division heard the first welcoming cheer some miles south of Kimberley. It came from British troops ensconced in an out-lying Boer redoubt, which our men had captured not long previously. The welcome sound increased as French pushed on in the darkness, relieved at intervals by the brightness of the big searchlight at De Beers.
At last the Division was in Kimberley with the delighted townspeople and lately beleaguered and sore-pressed soldiers crowding around and amongst the troopers, cheering and shouting and weeping for joy. The entire town met French in the outskirts, and joined in the triumphal procession through the roads and streets.
The artillery had been engaged between twelve and thirteen hours, and the average number of rounds fired by each battery was over one thousand. Here is a magnificent example of the calm endurance which our artillery displayed. An informal arrangement was made between the enemy and our artillery front under a flag of truce that firing should cease during the collection of the wounded on both sides. A little later, however, about three miles off, the enemy attempted to reach the railway for the purpose of destroying it, but the naval gun promptly shelled them and forced them to retire. The Boers then opened fire from their eastern position. Their range proved perfectly correct, and a heavy bombardment directed at two guns of the 75th Battery Field Artillery followed. They could have easily silenced the Boer gun, but our artillery never moved man or horse, remaining eloquently silent under a heavy and accurate shell fire. This conduct so won the admiration of the enemy that they suddenly ceased firing as a tribute of respect and honour.
Lord Roberts, on reaching South Africa, had decided that the relief of Kimberley should be his first object. Rapid marches in fierce heat and sometimes blinding dust storms, the defeat and rout of the enemy and capture of laagers, ended at length in the joyful message, sent by Lord Roberts from Jacobsdal at 2 a.m. on Friday, the 16th of Feb., which was received in London at 4-30 a.m. The siege had lasted 123 days.
Lord Roberts and General French on entering Kimberley, were enthusiastically received by the people and the authorities, and there was a short public meeting for a little congratulatory speechifying. Food supplies were poured into the place, and at once industry and good order were restored, while the authorities assisted private enterprise in repairing the damaged buildings.