CHAPTER 31. THE GUERILLA WARFARE IN THE TRANSVAAL: NOOITGEDACHT.
In the second week of October, General French, with three brigades of cavalry (Dickson's, Gordon's, and Mahon's), started for a cross-country ride from Machadodorp. Three brigades may seem an imposing force, but the actual numbers did not exceed two strong regiments, or about 1500 sabres in all. A wing of the Suffolk Regiment went with them. On October 13th Mahon's brigade met with a sharp resistance, and lost ten killed and twenty-nine wounded. On the 14th the force entered Carolina. On the 16th they lost six killed and twenty wounded, and from the day that they started until they reached Heidelberg on the 27th there was never a day that they could shake themselves clear of their attendant snipers. The total losses of the force were about ninety killed and wounded, but they brought in sixty prisoners and a large quantity of cattle and stores. The march had at least the effect of making it clear that the passage of a column of troops encumbered with baggage through a hostile country is an inefficient means for quelling a popular resistance. Light and mobile parties acting from a central depot were in future to be employed, with greater hopes of success.
Some appreciable proportion of the British losses during this phase of the war arose from railway accidents caused by the persistent tampering with the lines. In the first ten days of October there were four such mishaps, in which two Sappers, twenty-three of the Guards (Coldstreams), and eighteen of the 66th battery were killed or wounded. On the last occasion, which occurred on October 10th near Vlakfontein, the reinforcements who came to aid the sufferers were themselves waylaid, and lost twenty, mostly of the Rifle Brigade, killed, wounded, or prisoners. Hardly a day elapsed that the line was not cut at some point. The bringing of supplies was complicated by the fact that the Boer women and children were coming more and more into refugee camps, where they had to be fed by the British, and the strange spectacle was frequently seen of Boer snipers killing or wounding the drivers and stokers of the very trains which were bringing up food upon which Boer families were dependent for their lives. Considering that these tactics were continued for over a year, and that they resulted in the death or mutilation of many hundreds of British officers and men, it is really inexplicable that the British authorities did not employ the means used by all armies under such circumstances - which is to place hostages upon the trains. A truckload of Boers behind every engine would have stopped the practice for ever. Again and again in this war the British have fought with the gloves when their opponents used their knuckles.
We will pass now to a consideration of the doings of General Paget, who was operating to the north and north-east of Pretoria with a force which consisted of two regiments of infantry, about a thousand horsemen, and twelve guns. His mounted men were under the command of Plumer. In the early part of November this force had been withdrawn from Warm Baths and had fallen back upon Pienaar's River, where it had continual skirmishes with the enemy. Towards the end of November, news having reached Pretoria that the enemy under Erasmus and Viljoen were present in force at a place called Rhenoster Kop, which is about twenty miles north of the Delagoa Railway line and fifty miles north-east of the capital, it was arranged that Paget should attack them from the south, while Lyttelton from Middelburg should endeavour to get behind them. The force with which Paget started upon this enterprise was not a very formidable one. He had for mounted troops some Queensland, South Australian, New Zealand, and Tasmanian Bushmen, together with the York, Montgomery, and Warwick Yeomanry. His infantry were the 1st West Riding regiment and four companies of the Munsters. His guns were the 7th and 38th batteries, with two naval quick-firing twelve-pounders and some smaller pieces. The total could not have exceeded some two thousand men. Here, as at other times, it is noticeable that in spite of the two hundred thousand soldiers whom the British kept in the field, the lines of communication absorbed so many that at the actual point of contact they were seldom superior and often inferior in numbers to the enemy. The opening of the Natal and Delagoa lines though valuable in many ways, had been an additional drain. Where every culvert needs its picket and every bridge its company, the guardianship of many hundreds of miles of rail is no light matter.