CHAPTER 23. THE CLEARING OF THE SOUTH-EAST.
Lord Roberts never showed his self-command and fixed purpose more clearly than during his six weeks' halt at Bloemfontein. De Wet, the most enterprising and aggressive of the Boer commanders, was attacking his eastern posts and menacing his line of communications. A fussy or nervous general would have harassed his men and worn out his horses by endeavouring to pursue a number of will-of-the-wisp commandos. Roberts contented himself by building up his strength at the capital, and by spreading nearly twenty thousand men along his line of rail from Bloemfontein to Bethulie. When the time came he would strike, but until then he rested. His army was not only being rehorsed and reshod, but in some respects was being reorganised. One powerful weapon which was forged during those weeks was the collection of the mounted infantry of the central army into one division, which was placed under the command of Ian Hamilton, with Hutton and Ridley as brigadiers. Hutton's brigade contained the Canadians, New South Wales men, West Australians, Queenslanders, New Zealanders, Victorians, South Australians, and Tasmanians, with four battalions of Imperial Mounted Infantry, and several light batteries. Ridley's brigade contained the South African irregular regiments of cavalry, with some imperial troops. The strength of the whole division came to over ten thousand rifles, and in its ranks there rode the hardiest and best from every corner of the earth over which the old flag is flying.
A word as to the general distribution of the troops at this instant while Roberts was gathering himself for his spring. Eleven divisions of infantry were in the field. Of these the 1st (Methuen's) and half the 10th (Hunter's) were at Kimberley, forming really the hundred-mile-distant left wing of Lord Roberts's army. On that side also was a considerable force of Yeomanry, as General Villebois discovered. In the centre with Roberts was the 6th division (Kelly-Kenny's) at Bloemfontein, the 7th (Tucker's) at Karee, twenty miles north, the 9th (Colvile's) and the 11th (Pole-Carew's) near Bloemfontein. French's cavalry division was also in the centre. As one descended the line towards the Cape one came on the 3rd division (Chermside's, late Gatacre's), which had now moved up to Reddersberg, and then, further south, the 8th (Rundle's), near Rouxville. To the south and east was the other half of Hunter's division (Hart's brigade), and Brabant's Colonial division, half of which was shut up in Wepener and the rest at Aliwal. These were the troops operating in the Free State, with the addition of the division of mounted infantry in process of formation.
There remained the three divisions in Natal, the 2nd (Clery's), the 4th (Lyttelton's), and the 5th (Hildyard's, late Warren's), with the cavalry brigades of Burn-Murdoch, Dundonald, and Brocklehurst. These, with numerous militia and unbrigaded regiments along the lines of communication, formed the British army in South Africa. At Mafeking some 900 irregulars stood at bay, with another force about as large under Plumer a little to the north, endeavouring to relieve them. At Beira, a Portuguese port through which we have treaty rights by which we may pass troops, a curious mixed force of Australians, New Zealanders and others was being disembarked and pushed through to Rhodesia, so as to cut off any trek which the Boers might make in that direction. Carrington, a fierce old soldier with a large experience of South African warfare, was in command of this picturesque force, which moved amid tropical forests over crocodile-haunted streams, while their comrades were shivering in the cold southerly winds of a Cape winter. Neither our Government, our people, nor the world understood at the beginning of this campaign how grave was the task which we had undertaken, but, having once realised it, it must be acknowledged that it was carried through in no half-hearted way. So vast was the scene of operations that the Canadian might almost find his native climate at one end of it and the Queenslander at the other.
To follow in close detail the movements of the Boers and the counter movements of the British in the southeast portion of the Free State during this period would tax the industry of the historian and the patience of the reader. Let it be told with as much general truth and as little geographical detail as possible. The narrative which is interrupted by an eternal reference to the map is a narrative spoiled.
The main force of the Freestaters had assembled in the north-eastern corner of their State, and from this they made their sally southwards, attacking or avoiding at their pleasure the eastern line of British outposts. Their first engagement, that of Sanna's Post, was a great and deserved success. Three days later they secured the five companies at Reddersberg. Warned in time, the other small British bodies closed in upon their supports, and the railway line, that nourishing artery which was necessary for the very existence of the army, was held too strongly for attack. The Bethulie Bridge was a particularly important point; but though the Boers approached it, and even went the length of announcing officially that they had destroyed it, it was not actually attacked. At Wepener, however, on the Basutoland border, they found an isolated force, and proceeded at once, according to their custom, to hem it in and to bombard it, until one of their three great allies, want of food, want of water, or want of cartridges, should compel a surrender.