WHEN our forces reached Thaba N'chu on Friday, April 27, they found the enemy in full retreat, by order of Commandant Botha, who had visited De Wet's Dorp on Monday, and President Steyn (who was hardly recognisable minus his beard) had been at Slingfontein the same day.
The Boers had sent on their heavy waggons, to the number of 750, to Kroonstad, and were now using light vehicles lent from local farms.
It was a general flight under De Wet, General Grobler having 6,000 men, and 2,000 acting on " parade commando," with a week's rations in their saddle-bags; at the end of the week being relieved by another regiment of burghers. These men acted between the British lines and the Boer main force, as scouts.
Colonel Alderson's Mounted Infantry came up with Carew's troops on the Thursday. Crossing the Modder at Vaalbank, to the south-east of Bloemfontein, General Rundle arrived from the south-east, and just missed capturing the foe, who defended their rear with pompoms; but French's cavalry went in hot pursuit to Smit's Berg, on the east, with Ian Hamilton. Thaba N'Chu was once the capital of the little republic of Baralong, with several thousand inhabitants. It is 32 .miles east of Bloemfontein, and French made it his base for a time.
After passing Thaba N'Chu our advance columns had a whole day's artillery dispute with the occupants of Ejester Nek, in three positions, and at night the Boers dispersed with their waggons to the north and east.
It was stated that hundreds of the farmers of the district who had taken the oath of allegiance to the Queen were among the enemy, but that some of them now returned to their farms when they got the chance. General Pole-Carew, who had returned to Bloemfontein at the end of the week, found some Dutchmen in a farm armed; he took them prisoners, seized their cattle, and what stores he could not remove he burnt, telling the women-folk that they would be provided for by the English. Such stringent measures were rendered necessary owing to the duplicity of these men, who, however, pleaded in some cases that they had been pressed into service against their will. In the south of the State there were still several bodies of raiders to put down. In some cases tried at Bloemfontein, as at Ladysmith, for the concealment of arms and ammunition, Boers were sentenced to terms of imprisonment as well as confiscation of property. When it was found that the seizure of arms and the oath of neutrality were not sufficient to prevent Boers resuming hostilities, their ponies were taken, and this was found efficacious.
The design of our northward movement, was, while relieving Wepener, to clear that corner of the Free State of the Boers and so open communication for an advance to the Transvaal. It was found that the enemy held an entrenched position, about 4,000 strong, with six guns, covering the De Wets Dorp country, like the Sussex Downs on a large scale. Generals Rundle and Chermside occupied an almost identical ridge on the opposite side of the valley. It was hoped that they would hold the enemy till General French, moving on the Modder Drifts and General Hamilton on Thaba N'chu, should be astride their lines of retreat.
The enemy had a detached force under Lammer to protect their right flank, whom General Pole-Carew engaged on Sunday and Monday. Botha arrived on the latter day and at once detached a commando under Fourie to oppose French's cavalry, which had passed Carew's infantry division, and immediately the enemy commenced a strategical withdrawal upon Leenw River and Ladybrand, covering this retreat with a fire on General Rundle's lines. On Tuesday, French drove in Fourie's containing force at Roode Kop, ten miles from the main body of the enemy, and consequently could only attack the rear-guard the next day, as they disappeared in the hills. Hamilton, with his mounted infantry, at the same time struck the enemy's flank containing force in the vicinity of Thaba N'Chu. We had been forestalled by Botha by twenty-four hours, and yet overtook his rear.
General Tucker's division held the front from Karle Siding to Krantz Kraal, with outpost affairs from Brandfort patrols, when Nesbitt's Horse emptied some Boer saddles.
General de Wet, however, still remained in the eastern hills of Thaba N'Chu, and made a well-conceived effort to turn French's eastern flank, but was foiled by our dashing cavalry, on the 29th. The Federals from Dewetsdorp and Wepener had then reached Brandfort.
On the last day of April, Hamilton, with a body of mounted infantry and Smith-Dorrien's brigade of the Seventh Division reached Houtney, 43 miles from the town of Thaba N'Chu, and encountered Botha, who occupied the hills for several miles and challenged the British with seven guns. Rundle was able to assist, and French was ordered up also.
There was a sharp encounter and we lost 45 killed and wounded, while the enemy suffered severely by venturing into the plain. This time they used black powder and were marshalled in military order. Three kopjes were taken by the Gordon Highlanders and Shropshire Light Infantry. The Boers were re-inforced, and it was only when Maxwell's, Hamilton's, and Col. Henry's forces arrived that Gen. Tucker, who commanded, cleared the eastern hills. x
The southern portion of the Free State was now divided into districts under military administrators with 9 free hand, to effect its pacification, and the same policy was commenced towards the north and east, to ensure our lines of communication.
On Sunday, April 29th, the Boers attacked with guns a convoy of 50 waggons on the De Wets Dorp road, which was repulsed by a timely arrival of troops, but it showed the necessity of sweeping a wide range of country as we progressed towards the Vaal. There were inroads within eight miles of Sanna Post, and the patrols of the Johannesburg Police reached the Modder to attempt a surprise for Tucker's army of some i8,oco men, while the main body of Boers were trekking towards Winburg.
When reviewing Robert's Horse and Carew's Division in the Market Place of Bloemfortein, on May-Day, the Commander-in-Chief, who was accompanied by his wife and daughter, spoke hopefully of leading the Colonials into Pretoria before long.—Gen. White predicted that the war would be over in three months—by the end of July.
The sketcher of this famous advance needed to be up in a balloon so as to take in the simultaneous movements of the British line, extending from west to east some 160 miles, and consisting of about 100,000 combatants—artillery, cavalry, infantry, and engineers, with the field hospital and ambulance corps in the rear, and immediately behind on two railways—the Midland and Western —heavily crowded and stocked construction trains. To feed the multitude of khaki warriors 40 trains of supplies were leaving Bloemfontein daily at the beginning of May.
All along this line the field-glass would reveal, at varying spaces of a few miles, the long rows of white tents of the camp at the nightly halt.
Sometimes the reveille or "wake-up" notes of the bugle sounded at 3 a.m., and the slumbering Tommy, who had turned in late from the camp-fire concert or canteen, after a long day's march, was reluctant to arise. Crawling to the mouth of the tent he saw in the softly-dappled sky the silver moon and the " Southern Cross," it may be; and the quiet of the arid wastes of veldt and scrub, with cloudy mountains in the distance, is soon turned into the dull and heavy tramp of regiments and the grinding of the ordnance and store waggons over the stony plain, the rear covered by a cloud of dust. Then a light is seen for a moment on a hill some three miles away, and a report startles the birds and shows that the enemy is awake too. Thence forward the artillery dispute for mastery, until soon after dawn the enemy's guns are silenced, and our troops charge at full gallop in the face of volleys of bullets, which empty saddles and make work for the doctors. On one occasion, for instance, 32 wounded men lay in front of the field hospital, some of the men moaning and crying in agony, and others smoking with a grim grin as if indifferent to the broken limb or the bullet in the chest.
The daily advance was more exciting than a steeplechase.
Gen. Ian Hamilton on May 2nd, rested at Jacobsrust for a day, having been fighting seven out of ten days. Broadwood's brigade of cavalry and Bruce Hamilton's brigade of infantry came up, and routed the "foreign legion," a French regiment in khaki, as well as some Yankee Irish.
Early on May 3rd the Eleventh Division and the Guards' brigade, left Karee Siding and advanced on Brandfort village, (36 miles N. of Bloemfontein) supported by Chermside. The centre column had a skirmish, the enemy disclosing three guns. We entered the place about noon, unopposed, while Gen. Hutton chased the retreaters towards Winburg. In the local hospital were some British who had been wounded on Monday. The wrecked railway and culverts were repaired by the engineers in thirty hours, material arriving by train. A Boer commander, returning for the telegraph apparatus, was captured. The American-Irish only left a quarter of an hour before our arrival, and the residents received our advent with pleasure.
Lord Roberts, who from a kopje had signalled the manoeuvres on the 3rd, arrived with Pole-Carew's division at Vet River the next day, Wavell's and Maxwell's brigades being two miles to the rear and right respectively. After three hours' work with the guns Gen. Hutton forced the river under heavy shell and musketry fire. Gen. Ian Hamilton did good service in preventing the juncture of the Boer forces, when the Household Cavalry, the 12th Lancers, and Kitchener's Horse assisted, on the previous day. The Boers left their dead and wounded for us to care for. At another point Macdonald's Highlanders dislodged the Boers under cover of the naval guns, in which the Black Watch distinguished themselves. Hamilton then advanced to a difficult drift over the Klein Vet River, about twenty miles further—a place called Welkom, and captured Winburg on Saturday—which finished a good week's work—a fighting drive of 58 miles from Bloemfontein in four days. The position of the other columns was Brabant at Devvetsdorp, Hart at Smithfield and Rouxville, Hunter at Windsorton, and Paget's militia at Warrenton supporting guns fighting at Fourteen Streams, in which direction Methuen was clearing the road for the relief of Mafeking; and Barton's brigade was at Rooidam.
Captain Balfour met Commandant Philip Botha in Winburg as the latter was about leaving. The captain, as envoy, had gone forward under the protection of the white flag, to demand the surrender of the place. The Boer leader, misunderstanding Balfour's words, raised his rifle to shoot him, but the Llandrost or Mayor, seeing the position of things, capitulated, and Botha hastened from danger. In the town were stores of ammunition and forage.
At the Vet River the Gordons put a large commando to flight, and the 8th Hussars cut them off, killing over 70.
On Sunday, May 6, Lord Roberts crossed the Vet and encamped at Smaldeel Junction, a town on the Free State railway, midway between Bloemfontein and Kroonstad, and 22 miles from Winburg. Pretoria is 227 miles off.
The twenty miles' march from Brandfort showed that the farmers had absconded from the district, and presumably were with the retreating pony-men, with whom Carew came in contact at the Vet drift. When Hutton's Mounted Infantry brigade came up the Boers crossed the river, and then ensued a fierce artillery contest for several hours, till the nth and 7th Divisions crossed, capturing a Maxim and 25 prisoners, among them a commandant with important papers. The Canadians, New South Wales Rifles, New Zealand Rifles, and Queensland Mounted Infantry, vied with each other in their determination to close with the enemy. Two 12-pounder naval guns and the artillery made excellent practice, particularly two 5-inch siege guns used for the first time with this force. The foreign legion destroyed the railway bridges, but our engineers set to work to complete a deviation line on the Modder. This for a time stopped supplies.
Twenty-six detached West Australians, on their own initiative, took a kopje at the point of the bayonet.
To the west flank of the British, where Hutton took the drift, the Boers were reported to have lost 40 killed, but our casualties were slight.
Simultaneously Rundle's Division occupied Thaba N'Chu front, whence thousands of Boers, with immense herds of cattle, trekked Ficksburg way, on the border of Basutoland. Brabant's column joined Rundle's on May 7th.
The enemy was found in force at Zand river, but retreated before General Hutton's brigade of mounted infantry, who crossed over and marched two miles. A Boer convoy waggon and a train, with steam up, were seen just ahead, and for fear of being captured, the enemy opened a tremendous fire with eight guns.
The New South Wales rifles ventured to a ridge abreast of Virginia siding, close to the river, and a Long-Tom on a railway truck with other guns, made the place untenable. After two hours the enemy came into the plain, though raked by the Australians, and the New Zealanders and Canadians had to advance to let the New South Wales riflemen retire. The brigade retired to Welgelegen, and the enemy, after demolishing bridges and culverts, continued their retreat.
Hutton, who was now reinforced by French's strong cavalry, followed the next day, along the railway, which was wrecked.
Under a strict press censorship the plan of campaign had very properly been kept secret. Now, however, simultaneously with Hunter's advance on rhe^ extreme west, we heard of General Buller advancing'with strong battalions upon the Biggarsberg (the Boers withdrawing) to join in the invasion of the Transvaal.
The Free Staters were beginning to realise that their game was up, and a first instalment of 30 of them surrendered Mausers and horses to Lord Roberts, who allowed them to proceed to their farms.
The burghers who had trekked from Thaba N'Chu found themselves cut off by the rapid advance, and the roads between Wepener and Clocolan became blocked with a stream of waggons and cattle. After giving them a rosy romance of Russian help via Delagoa Bay, the fugitive Steyn bolted northward, leaving them to their fate in the Korannaberg hills.
After a two days' halt to allow of railway repairs and the arrival of transport, Lord Roberts, on Wednesday, May 6th, resumed progress with a skirmish at the Zand river. The Boer line extended twenty miles, but was thin. Our line far out-stretching them, their flank was continually in danger.
Roberts on Thursday telegraphed from Rietspruit, eight miles north of the river, that the enemy had been driven from point to point, and the advance guard was at Ventersberg road railway station, four miles further, the casualties being still small. The drifts were difficult and.the fighting varied at different points. The east Lancashires and Sussex took a couple of kopjes at the -point of the bayonet, when the Boers made a halt.
Eight Boer commandants had been in front, including De Wet and Delarey, under Botha, but they became separated in their flight from the Zand.The twenty miles advance on Thursday was succeeded by a similar progress next day. Broadwood's Brigade overtook part of the enemy's convoy at Potgieter laager, south-east of Ventersburg. Prisoners increased, as well as deserters from the Boer ranks, and there were dissensions between their leaders.