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A Handbook of the Boer War

He withdrew his own commando towards Koffyfontein


At

midday on February 11 the Cavalry Division under French reached Ramdam, a farm east of Graspan and fronting the drifts of the Riet, where the Army was being concentrated for the advance. Some hours elapsed before Cronje became aware that French had trekked away to the S.E., and to his slow and sullen spirit the movement did not appear to have much significance. He was persuaded that the British never trusted themselves much more than a day's march away from a railway. It was only a demonstration, a reconnaissance. He did, however, take certain precautions which, if they had been devised with a true appreciation of the situation and intelligently carried out, might have seriously checked French.

He assumed that the initial direction of French's march would be continued indefinitely towards Koffyfontein, possibly even that it was a retirement from the Modder River position caused by bad news from the centre, and he sent a commando of observation, under C. de Wet, up the right bank of the Riet. The most adroit and skilful movement of the war had now begun without Cronje's comprehending its object.

But French did not complete his first day's work very auspiciously. His supply column was far behind when he reached Ramdam, and owing to a misunderstanding Hannay's Brigade of Mounted Infantry from Orange River, which was instructed to join him, did not turn up: conflicting orders had resulted as usual, _ordre_, _contr'ordre_,

_d?sordre_. French, however, felt himself strong enough to continue his march without Hannay, who, on his delayed march to Ramdam, engaged a detached body of Boers and thereby strengthened the enemy's conviction that Koffyfontein was the objective.

As French approached the river, Waterval Drift, the lower of the two drifts across the Riet, was found to be occupied by De Wet, and the Division was diverted to De Kiel's Drift, which was reached without much difficulty at midday, February 12. On the right bank were the commando of the Jacobsdaal garrison under Lubbe, and the commando under De Wet and A.P.J. Cronje which had been sent to observe the cavalry movement; about 1,000 men in all. But De Wet could not get the Koffyfontein idea out of his head, and its influence removed many obstructions from the path of the advance. He boldly rode across French's front at De Kiel's Drift, and made S.E. for Winterhoek, closely followed by A.P.J. Cronje; and all French's horses could not find out where they had gone. Next day it was given out in Divisional Orders that the commandos had gone to the Modder River, and four weeks passed by before the Army ceased to suffer from the error.

There was still "one more river to cross" before the diamond men of Kimberley could be relieved; and ere the thirst of the South African summer could be slaked on the banks of the Modder, a tract of twenty-five miles of veld, in which the absence of any homestead having "_fontein_" for its suffix declared the scarcity of water, must be traversed under the sun.

In the forenoon of February 13 the Cavalry Division started northwards from De Kiel's Drift; and at last De Wet, who, unknown to French, was watching the trek from its right flank, partially relieved himself of the Koffyfontein idea. The effort weakened him, and he displayed none of that readiness of resource and promptitude of action with which he subsequently worried the British Army for the space of two years. He withdrew his own commando towards Koffyfontein, and having ordered Lubbe to follow French, reported to Cronje at Magersfontein that the cavalry was making for the Modder.


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