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A Handbook of the Boer War

Himself going south with a small commando


It

would have been regarded as the most notable personal exploit of the war if De Wet had not himself twice repeated it under circumstances of even greater difficulty. It must be acknowledged that his daring and resolution deserved success. He did not attain it by the means of followers eager to serve a trusted and beloved leader, for they by no means rose to him. When he reached the Vaal he was careful to throw the burghers' wagons across the river first of all, knowing that their unwillingness to leave the Free State would be overcome by their greater reluctance to sever themselves from their oxen and stuff. He owed his success mainly to the power of a strong will to make weaker wills work for it; and in a less degree to the accuracy of the information which Theron, his chief scout, obtained for him.

It is at least doubtful whether Lord Roberts did not take De Wet too seriously. Was the capture of a _guerilla_ leader worth the withdrawal of so many British troops from the main operations, and would not the sounder strategy have been to ignore him? If he had been severely let alone, he would hardly have done more than that which he did with the strength of an Army Corps against him, and his prestige with his own people would not have been so surely set up.

The escape of De Wet was an incident of war, which, having regard to all the circumstances of the campaign, could not be made impossible. Columns working independently

under directions from Head Quarters cannot be made aware of all that each has or has not done, and must take many things for granted; and the information of the enemy's movements which reaches them from the same source must often be received too late for effective action. If Lord Roberts had listened to Baden-Powell's protest against the evacuation of Rustenburg and Olifant's Nek, De Wet would probably have followed Cronje to St. Helena; but that does not prove that the policy of withdrawing from remote and exposed positions was unsound. All that can be said against it is that it chanced to be carried out a few days too soon.

Steyn and the officials left for Machadodorp. De Wet felt that his own country had a claim upon his services, and desired to return to it without delay. He divided his force, leaving the greater part under Steenekamp north of the Magaliesberg, himself going south with a small commando. The division materially aided his return, for it was not known for certain at Head Quarters with which portion he was marching. While he was in imagination being chased north of Pretoria, he was in fact scaling a rough mountain path, for all the passes had been closed, near Commando Nek, and looking down from the heights upon a British force by which he was not discovered. On August 21, after an absence of sixteen days, he recrossed the Vaal, and entered the Free State. The net result of all the labour, all the efforts, and all the consequent distress and exhaustion to which the British troops had willingly subjected themselves, was to re-establish De Wet as a greater power for mischief than ever.

The Free Staters under Steenekamp joined Grobler of Waterberg, but the combination was hustled to the north out of striking distance of Pretoria by Baden-Powell, whose purely military service in South Africa ceased soon after. He had been selected to raise and to command the South African Constabulary, a semi-military body, which it was hoped the approaching end of the war would ere long permit to take over some of the duties of the troops.


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