CHAPTER 19. PAARDEBERG.
Both arms had concentrated at Ramdam, the cavalry going down by road, and the infantry by rail as far as Belmont or Enslin. On Monday, February 12th, the cavalry had started, and on Tuesday the infantry were pressing hard after them. The first thing was to secure a position upon Cronje's flank, and for that purpose the 6th Division and the 9th (Kelly-Kenny's and Colvile's) pushed swiftly on and arrived on Thursday, February 15th, at Klip Drift on the Modder, which had only been left by the cavalry that same morning. It was obviously impossible to leave Jacobsdal in the hands of the enemy on our left flank, so the 7th Division (Tucker's) turned aside to attack the town. Wavell's brigade carried the place after a sharp skirmish, chiefly remarkable for the fact that the City Imperial Volunteers found themselves under fire for the first time and bore themselves with the gallantry of the old train-bands whose descendants they are. Our loss was two killed and twenty wounded, and we found ourselves for the first time firmly established in one of the enemy's towns. In the excellent German hospital were thirty or forty of our wounded.
On the afternoon of Thursday, February 15th, our cavalry, having left Klip Drift in the morning, were pushing hard for Kimberley. At Klip Drift was Kelly-Kenny's 6th Division. South of Klip Drift at Wegdraai was Colvile's 9th Division, while the 7th Division was approaching Jacobsdal. Altogether the British forces were extended over a line of forty miles. The same evening saw the relief of Kimberley and the taking of Jacobsdal, but it also saw the capture of one of our convoys by the Boers, a dashing exploit which struck us upon what was undoubtedly our vulnerable point.
It has never been cleared up whence the force of Boers came which appeared upon our rear on that occasion. It seems to have been the same body which had already had a skirmish with Hannay's Mounted Infantry as they went up from Orange River to join the rendezvous at Ramdam. The balance of evidence is that they had not come from Colesberg or any distant point, but that they were a force under the command of Piet De Wet, the younger of two famous brothers. Descending to Waterval Drift, the ford over the Riet, they occupied a line of kopjes, which ought, one would have imagined, to have been carefully guarded by us, and opened a brisk fire from rifles and guns upon the convoy as it ascended the northern bank of the river. Numbers of bullocks were soon shot down, and the removal of the hundred and eighty wagons made impossible. The convoy, which contained forage and provisions, had no guard of its own, but the drift was held by Colonel Ridley with one company of Gordons and one hundred and fifty mounted infantry without artillery, which certainly seems an inadequate force to secure the most vital and vulnerable spot in the line of communications of an army of forty thousand men. The Boers numbered at the first some five or six hundred men, but their position was such that they could not be attacked. On the other hand they were not strong enough to leave their shelter in order to drive in the British guard, who, lying in extended order between the wagons and the assailants, were keeping up a steady and effective fire. Captain Head, of the East Lancashire Regiment, a fine natural soldier, commanded the British firing line, and neither he nor any of his men doubted that they could hold off the enemy for an indefinite time. In the course of the afternoon reinforcements arrived for the Boers, but Kitchener's Horse and a field battery came back and restored the balance of power. In the evening the latter swayed altogether in favour of the British, as Tucker appeared upon the scene with the whole of the 14th Brigade; but as the question of an assault was being debated a positive order arrived from Lord Roberts that the convoy should be abandoned and the force return.
If Lord Roberts needed justification for this decision, the future course of events will furnish it. One of Napoleon's maxims in war was to concentrate all one's energies upon one thing at one time. Roberts's aim was to outflank and possibly to capture Cronje's army. If he allowed a brigade to be involved in a rearguard action, his whole swift-moving plan of campaign might be dislocated. It was very annoying to lose a hundred and eighty wagons, but it only meant a temporary inconvenience. The plan of campaign was the essential thing. Therefore he sacrificed his convoy and hurried his troops upon their original mission. It was with heavy hearts and bitter words that those who had fought so long abandoned their charge, but now at least there are probably few of them who do not agree in the wisdom of the sacrifice. Our loss in this affair was between fifty and sixty killed and wounded. The Boers were unable to get rid of the stores, and they were eventually distributed among the local farmers and recovered again as the British forces flowed over the country. Another small disaster occurred to us on the preceding day in the loss of fifty men of E company of Kitchener's Horse, which had been left as a guard to a well in the desert.