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A Handbook of the Boer War

And cut off his retreat to Bloemfontein


The

tenacity and resolution of De Wet were never more conspicuous than during the disheartening days which followed his retirement from Kitchener's Kopje. Neither Cronje's surrender, nor the news of the relief of Ladysmith and of the British working steadily towards the Orange River bridges, nor the despondency of his own men, diverted him from his purpose of interposing between Lord Roberts and the Free State capital. President Steyn came over from Bloemfontein to stimulate the discouraged, and President Kruger was brought round from Joubert's Head Quarters in Natal, where he had been successful in persuading the burghers dismayed by the relief of Ladysmith to hold on to the Biggarsberg positions. After a conference with Steyn, he went on to Poplar Grove, arriving there in time to hear the opening shots of the battle of March 7.

[Illustration: Map.]

De Wet's force at Poplar Grove was at first sufficient for the occupation of a position on the left bank of the Modder only, but subsequent reinforcements brought it up to a number which was estimated by the British Intelligence not to exceed 14,000 and which was probably much less. The position was then prolonged across the river, the front being divided into two unequal portions by the Drift at Poplar Grove.

To drive away De Wet, and to entangle him as Cronje had been fatally entangled in the Drifts of the Modder River, and cut off

his retreat to Bloemfontein, was the tactical scheme of Lord Roberts, who had twice as many men, and at least five times as many guns, as his opponent.

In his method of communicating his plan to the officers concerned Lord Roberts made an innovation. Instead of issuing written Battle Orders he read a memorandum at a council of war, and afterwards circulated copies of it. Thus he was able to explain the situation and expound his plan in greater detail than is possible in the bald and sterilized paragraphs of Orders; but he omitted to give in it definite times at which certain movements were to be begun, or to be completed, and the oral instructions on these points given subsequently were not clearly understood.

In brief, Lord Roberts' plan for Poplar Grove was as follows. When French's cavalry had made a wide circuit of seventeen miles south of the Modder, out of reach of De Wet's left flank, and had placed itself in rear of the Boer position, the VIth Division was to make a flank attack on the Boer left on the Seven Kopjes, and endeavour to roll it up towards the river, by way of Table Mountain. The enemy's centre was to be threatened by the VIIth Division along the line of the Modder, and his right on the north bank of the river by the IXth Division. With his great superiority in men and guns, Lord Roberts might reasonably expect to capture the whole Boer force, although he had no longer a Cronje but a De Wet to deal with.

The day's operations began at 3 a.m., when the cavalry marched out of Osfontein; but soon the absence of precise staff arrangements gave trouble. The VIth Division, which was ordered to follow French, who it was understood would leave camp at 2 a.m., was headed off by the cavalry, and had to be halted until he was clear of the infantry front. Neither Kelly-Kenny nor French seems to have mastered the scheme of attack. At daylight, when the cavalry should have been well in rear of the Boer position, it was in fact not far from the VIth Division, about two miles south of the Boer left flank on Seven Kopjes and in full view of the enemy.


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