CHAPTER 29. THE ADVANCE TO KOMATIPOORT.
Whilst the main army of Botha had been hustled out of their position at Machadodorp and scattered at Lydenburg and at Barberton, a number of other isolated events had occurred at different points of the seat of war, each of which deserves some mention. The chief of these was a sudden revival of the war in the Orange River Colony, where the band of Olivier was still wandering in the north-eastern districts. Hunter, moving northwards after the capitulation of Prinsloo at Fouriesburg, came into contact on August 15th with this force near Heilbron, and had forty casualties, mainly of the Highland Light Infantry, in a brisk engagement. For a time the British seemed to have completely lost touch with Olivier, who suddenly on August 24th struck at a small detachment consisting almost entirely of Queenstown Rifle Volunteers under Colonel Ridley, who were reconnoitring near Winburg. The Colonial troopers made a gallant defence. Throwing themselves into the farmhouse of Helpmakaar, and occupying every post of vantage around it, they held off more than a thousand assailants, in spite of the three guns which the latter brought to bear upon them. A hundred and thirty-two rounds were fired at the house, but the garrison still refused to surrender. Troopers who had been present at Wepener declared that the smaller action was the warmer of the two. Finally on the morning of the third day a relief force arrived upon the scene, and the enemy dispersed. The British losses were thirty-two killed and wounded. Nothing daunted by his failure, Olivier turned upon the town of Winburg and attempted to regain it, but was defeated again and scattered, he and his three sons being taken. The result was due to the gallantry and craft of a handful of the Queenstown Volunteers, who laid an ambuscade in a donga, and disarmed the Boers as they passed, after the pattern of Sanna's Post. By this action one of the most daring and resourceful of the Dutch leaders fell into the hands of the British. It is a pity that his record is stained by his dishonourable conduct in breaking the compact made on the occasion of the capture of Prinsloo. But for British magnanimity a drumhead court-martial should have taken the place of the hospitality of the Ceylon planters.
On September 2nd another commando of Free State Boers under Fourie emerged from the mountain country on the Basuto border, and fell upon Ladybrand, which was held by a feeble garrison consisting of one company of the Worcester regiment and forty-three men of the Wiltshire Yeomanry. The Boers, who had several guns with them, appear to have been the same force which had been repulsed at Winburg. Major White, a gallant marine, whose fighting qualities do not seem to have deteriorated with his distance from salt water, had arranged his defences upon a hill, after the Wepener model, and held his own most stoutly. So great was the disparity of the forces that for days acute anxiety was felt lest another of those humiliating surrenders should interrupt the record of victories, and encourage the Boers to further resistance. The point was distant, and it was some time before relief could reach them. But the dusky chiefs, who from their native mountains looked down on the military drama which was played so close to their frontier, were again, as on the Jammersberg, to see the Boer attack beaten back by the constancy of the British defence. The thin line of soldiers, 150 of them covering a mile and a half of ground, endured a heavy shell and rifle fire with unshaken resolution, repulsed every attempt of the burghers, and held the flag flying until relieved by the forces under White and Bruce Hamilton. In this march to the relief Hamilton's infantry covered eighty miles in four and a half days. Lean and hard, inured to warfare, and far from every temptation of wine or women, the British troops at this stage of the campaign were in such training, and marched so splendidly, that the infantry was often very little slower than the cavalry. Methuen's fine performance in pursuit of De Wet, where Douglas's infantry did sixty-six miles in seventy-five hours, the City Imperial Volunteers covering 224 miles in fourteen days, with a single forced march of thirty miles in seventeen hours, the Shropshires forty-three miles in thirty-two hours, the forty-five miles in twenty-five hours of the Essex Regiment, Bruce Hamilton's march recorded above, and many other fine efforts serve to show the spirit and endurance of the troops.
In spite of the defeat at Winburg and the repulse at Ladybrand, there still remained a fair number of broken and desperate men in the Free State who held out among the difficult country of the east. A party of these came across in the middle of September and endeavoured to cut the railway near Brandfort. They were pursued and broken up by Macdonald, who, much aided in his operations by the band of scouts which Lord Lovat had brought with him from Scotland, took several prisoners and a large number of wagons and of oxen. A party of these Boers attacked a small post of sixteen Yeomanry under Lieutenant Slater at Bultfontein, but were held at bay until relief came from Brandfort.