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A Handbook of the Boer War

The commandos which had been opposed to Gatacre


Boers recognized that the British strategy had been astonishingly successful, and that they could not hope to compete with it. But they believed, not without justification, that in minor tactics and the smaller operations of war they were the equals of their enemy and in war-craft his superior. The power of a slender, well-led, and resolute force was shown at Nicholson's Nek, Waterval Drift, and elsewhere, and it began to dawn upon their lethargic minds that the individual efforts of handy commandos acting to a great extent independently offered them the best chance of resisting the invader.[39] The new method was almost immediately put on trial and, with certain notable exceptions, continued throughout the war, which mainly by its use was prolonged for twenty-six months against an enemy daily increasing in numbers. Not that the Boers were not at first greatly discouraged by the victories on the Modder, which admitted Lord Roberts to Bloemfontein, and by the tranquillity which suddenly brooded upon the arena of war. Even the Prieska rebellion, from which so much was hoped owing to its proximity to the line of communication with Capetown, was dying away under the vigorous hands of Kitchener, who had been detached from Head Quarters to deal with it.

Many of the burghers availed themselves of a proclamation issued by Lord Roberts on March 15, under which, after taking an oath of neutrality, they were allowed to return to their farms, and there remain

during good behaviour. Others took furlough, with or without permission, or fled to Kroonstad. When Joubert remonstrated with De Wet for acquiescing in the exodus, the latter replied that he could not help it. The burghers were not accustomed to discipline and could not be coerced, but they would return with renewed courage by and by.

The demoralization was, however, confined to the burghers who had been fighting on the Modder River. The commandos which had been opposed to Gatacre, Clements, and Brabant in the Cape Colony retired across the Orange in good order under Olivier, Lemmer, and E.R. Grobler; and although encumbered by lengthy trains of ox-wagons, marched up the right bank of the Caledon along the Basuto Border, and established themselves with a strength of 6,000 burghers on Lord Roberts' right flank near Ladybrand and Clocolan: a daring exploit which was justified by its success, as the left flank throughout the trek was exposed to a raid from Bloemfontein or Edenburg. A mounted force 1,800 strong under French was indeed sent eastward to show the flag, detach the waverers, and if possible, intercept the retreat; but the information at Head Quarters was imperfect and the strength of the commandos was greatly underestimated. It was assumed that they had been subject to the disintegration which obliterated the Modder River commandos; but a small reconnoitring column, detached under Pilcher by French from Thabanchu, found itself in presence of a force which outnumbered it thirty times, and was recalled.

The presence of a considerable body of the enemy organized on the flank, the necessity of accumulating a large stock of supplies and stores, and a serious epidemic of fever among the troops, postponed the advance on the Transvaal many weeks beyond the end of March, when Lord Roberts had hoped to set out for the north. The apparent pacification of the country and the alacrity displayed by the burghers in submitting to the generous conditions of the proclamation of neutrality, had encouraged him in the belief that prompt action before the enemy had time to take breath would finally crush the dwindling opposition; but he soon became aware that it was but a lull in the storm, of which the mutterings were almost immediately renewed.

Pole-Carew, who shortly after the occupation was sent south with a brigade to establish touch with Gatacre and Clements and open up the railway, heard of the Boer movement along the Basuto Border and at once reported it to Lord Roberts, whom he rejoined at Bloemfontein on March 17. Before the end of the month the line was cleared and trains were passing to and fro between Capetown and the capital of the Free State, which had lately been renamed the Orange River Colony. From that time forward the enemy succeeded on one occasion only, and then but for a few hours, in cutting the Springfontein-Bloemfontein railway; and the hazardous advance along the Modder River, which involved the possibility of the Army being left in the air at Bloemfontein, was fully justified.

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