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A Handbook of the Boer War

If not already crushed by an enveloping movement on Ermelo


A

force of five columns under the command of French was assembled a few miles east of the Elandsfontein-Pretoria Railway and began its advance on January 28. The general idea was that it should gradually extend its front, like the cone of dispersion of a shrapnel shell, between the diverging Natal and Delagoa Bay Railways, and then sweep eastward towards the Swaziland and Zululand borders; upon which Botha's commandos, if not already crushed by an enveloping movement on Ermelo, would be finally impaled. To assist French when he had traversed about one-half of the area, three columns were detailed to march southwards from the Delagoa Bay Railway on Ermelo. One of these columns was, however, sent away at the last moment under Paget to take part in the operations against De Wet in the Cape Colony. The combined strength of the seven columns against Botha was about 20,000 men, the majority of the combatants being mounted. A break back by Beyers and Kemp, who rejoined Delarey, was the opening incident of French's advance.

The first objective of French's movement was the town of Ermelo, where Botha was acting as a sort of rearguard to cover the retreat of the fugitive burghers, who with their families and their stuff were endeavouring to escape from the Khakis. His contemplated attack on Natal was, at least for the time being, impracticable; and he set himself to the task of inflicting what damage he could on the threatening columns. He ascertained that

Smith-Dorrien's column was approaching Lake Chrissie on February 5, and that the other column operating from the Delagoa Bay Railway under W. Campbell, was too far away to give it effectual support. The gap left by the withdrawal of Paget had not been filled up.

When Smith-Dorrien reached the Lake, Botha had already started to meet him. Early in the morning of February 6 the British Camp was attacked, but although the attempt was furthered by a stampede of Smith-Dorrien's horses, Botha failed. He was compelled to draw off, but with the greater portion of his burghers wriggled round to the rear of the columns.[58] Thus when French reached Ermelo he found that he had nothing to strike at. The Boer commandos had passed away. After a short halt he changed direction half right, and projected his front on to a cross-veld line reaching from the Swaziland border to Amersfort; then bringing round his right he formed up his seven columns on February 18 along the Swaziland border, with an eastward front of nearly forty miles extending southwards from Amsterdam. Dartnell was on the right of the line and Smith-Dorrien on the left.

Most of the fugitive commandos had, however, retired into the S.E. corner of the Transvaal; a movement which Hildyard, who was in charge of the district as well as of the whole of Natal, was not strong enough to check. French was now based on Natal for supplies, and arrangements had been made that two large convoys should be sent to him by way of Utrecht. Bad roads, bad weather, and submerged drifts impeded the progress of the painful trains, the first of which did not reach him until March 2, ten days after it was due. Meanwhile he subsisted on dwindled rations and on what he could pick up on the veld.

When, owing to a change in the routes by which he was supplied, French was able towards the end of March to operate actively, he endeavoured to isolate the S.E. corner of the Transvaal by disposing his force in two lines. One line ran from Piet Retief to Vryheid and acted as the driving force, and the other ran from Piet Retief along the Swaziland border and acted as the stopping force. Within the angle enclosed by these lines were commandos under Grobler of Vryheid, Emmett, and other leaders; but all of them wriggled out with insignificant losses. The line along the Swaziland border was rendered immobile by difficulties of supply, and the driving line was exhausted. The closing incident of French's ten weeks' campaign, the chief harvest of which was the capture, surrender, wounding, or killing of 1,300 Boers, the seizure of a considerable amount of ammunition, and the taking of eleven guns, was the return of Smith-Dorrien to the Delagoa Bay Railway in the middle of April.


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