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A Handbook of the Boer War

Sent by Gatacre to garrison Dewetsdorp


After

the occupation of Bloemfontein, the columns operating south of the Orange River were drawn into the Free State. Clements crossed at Norval's Pont, and Gatacre at Bethulie on March 15; Brabant, who commanded the colonial troops of the latter's Division, having reached Aliwal North four days previously. Clements' force advanced in a peaceful procession through the districts west of the railway, meeting with no opposition, and receiving what, under the circumstances, was almost a welcome from the inhabitants. Early in April he joined Lord Roberts at Bloemfontein.

Not so with Gatacre and Brabant, who were soon seriously involved. Lord Roberts' view of the situation, which although mistaken was not unwarranted, was that the majority of the Boers were inclined to submit, and would do so but for the malign influence of a small belligerent party; and in order to encourage the waverers to assert themselves, and to give protection to them when they took the oath of neutrality and returned to their homes, he sent out flying columns in various directions to register names, take over arms, and make known the conditions on which surrenders would be accepted.

The story of the Thabanchu column has already been told. Other columns were detached from Gatacre's and Brabant's commands, and Smithfield, Wepener, and Dewetsdorp, and smaller towns were occupied. Lord Roberts' orders for the occupation of Dewetsdorp were conditional

on Gatacre's having enough troops for the purpose at his disposal. So little was it expected that the columns would meet with serious resistance that they were unaccompanied by guns, and all Gatacre's artillery was sent to Bloemfontein.

De Wet, a soldier possessed of more power of initiative than many of his opponents, took "upon himself the responsibility of varying the instructions" he had received from the Kroonstad Krijgsraad. The chance of snapping up isolated garrisons allured him from the less brilliant but more practically useful work of hacking at the railway upon which Lord Roberts depended for his communications, and his wonderful and unexpected success at Sannah's Post encouraged him to persevere. He became aware that small columns were scouring the country, administering lightly taken oaths and giving receipts for arms handed in by burghers who protested that they were "sick of the war"; and he determined to deal promptly with these ominous signs.

Between Sannah's Post and Reddersburg he in one day persuaded more than a hundred sworn burghers to break their oaths of neutrality and join him. Whether the energy and resource which he displayed would not have been more profitably expended in a vigorous effort to shrivel up the line between Bloemfontein and the Orange is a matter for speculation. Kruger watched his proceedings with misgiving, and proposed that he should retire northwards, as soon as he had cut the railway, or even without doing so.

Korn Spruit opened Lord Roberts' eyes. He became alarmed for the safety of the railway, and ordered Gatacre to evacuate Dewetsdorp and to concentrate the weak pacificatory columns wandering helplessly over the country. The column of 550 men without guns, sent by Gatacre to garrison Dewetsdorp, had not been there many hours before it was ordered to retire on Reddersburg, and at daybreak on April 2 was again on the march, and soon De Wet was in touch with it. On the following morning he was close to it. In his own account of the affair he says that there was a sort of a race, which was won by the British column, for a ridge near Reddersburg, named Mostert's Hoek. He had with him 2,000 men with four guns, but an invitation to surrender was promptly declined by the defenders, who all that day were beaten on by bullet and by shell. After sunset the last drop of water was served out. Next morning De Wet rushed the western spur of the ridge, which now became untenable, and at 9 a.m. on April 4 the column surrendered and was swept into his net.


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