CHAPTER 31. THE GUERILLA WARFARE IN THE TRANSVAAL: NOOITGEDACHT.
In the early morning of November 29th Paget's men came in contact with the enemy, who were in some force upon an admirable position. A ridge for their centre, a flanking kopje for their cross fire, and a grass glacis for the approach - it was an ideal Boer battlefield. The colonials and the yeomanry under Plumer on the left, and Hickman on the right, pushed in upon them, until it was evident that they meant to hold their ground. Their advance being checked by a very severe fire, the horsemen dismounted and took such cover as they could. Paget's original idea had been a turning movement, but the Boers were the more numerous body, and it was impossible for the smaller British force to find their flanks, for they extended over at least seven miles. The infantry were moved up into the centre, therefore, between the wings of dismounted horsemen, and the guns were brought up to cover the advance. The country was ill-suited, however, to the use of artillery, and it was only possible to use an indirect fire from under a curve of the grass land. The guns made good practice, however, one section of the 38th battery being in action all day within 800 yards of the Boer line, and putting themselves out of action after 300 rounds by the destruction of their own rifling. Once over the curve every yard of the veld was commanded by the hidden riflemen. The infantry advanced, but could make no headway against the deadly fire which met them. By short rushes the attack managed to get within 300 yards of the enemy, and there it stuck. On the right the Munsters carried a detached kopje which was in front of them, but could do little to aid the main attack. Nothing could have exceeded the tenacity of the Yorkshiremen and the New Zealanders, who were immediately to their left. Though unable to advance they refused to retire, and indeed they were in a position from which a retirement would have been a serious operation. Colonel Lloyd of the West Ridings was hit in three places and killed. Five out of six officers of the New Zealand corps were struck down. There were no reserves to give a fresh impetus to the attack, and the thin scattered line, behind bullet-spotted stones or anthills, could but hold its own while the sun sank slowly upon a day which will not be forgotten by those who endured it. The Boers were reinforced in the afternoon, and the pressure became so severe that the field guns were retired with much difficulty. Many of the infantry had shot away all their cartridges and were helpless. Just one year before British soldiers had lain under similar circumstances on the plain which leads to Modder River, and now on a smaller scale the very same drama was being enacted. Gradually the violet haze of evening deepened into darkness, and the incessant rattle of the rifle fire died away on either side. Again, as at Modder River, the British infantry still lay in their position, determined to take no backward step, and again the Boers stole away in the night, leaving the ridge which they had defended so well. A hundred killed and wounded was the price paid by the British for that line of rock studded hills - a heavier proportion of losses than had befallen Lord Methuen in the corresponding action. Of the Boer losses there was as usual no means of judging, but several grave-mounds, newly dug, showed that they also had something to deplore. Their retreat, however, was not due to exhaustion, but to the demonstration which Lyttelton had been able to make in their rear. The gunners and the infantry had all done well in a most trying action, but by common consent it was with the men from New Zealand that the honours lay. It was no empty compliment when Sir Alfred Milner telegraphed to the Premier of New Zealand his congratulations upon the distinguished behaviour of his fellow countrymen.
From this time onwards there was nothing of importance in this part of the seat of war.
It is necessary now to turn from the north-east to the north-west of Pretoria, where the presence of De la Rey and the cover afforded by the Magaliesberg mountains had kept alive the Boer resistance. Very rugged lines of hill, alternating with fertile valleys, afforded a succession of forts and of granaries to the army which held them. To General Clements' column had been committed the task of clearing this difficult piece of country. His force fluctuated in numbers, but does not appear at any time to have consisted of more than three thousand men, which comprised the Border Regiment, the Yorkshire Light Infantry, the second Northumberland Fusiliers, mounted infantry, yeomanry, the 8th R.F.A., P battery R.H.A., and one heavy gun. With this small army he moved about the district, breaking up Boer bands, capturing supplies, and bringing in refugees. On November 13th he was at Krugersdorp, the southern extremity of his beat. On the 24th he was moving north again, and found himself as he approached the hills in the presence of a force of Boers with cannon. This was the redoubtable De la Rey, who sometimes operated in Methuen's country to the north of the Magaliesberg, and sometimes to the south. He had now apparently fixed upon Clements as his definite opponent. De la Rey was numerically inferior, and Clements had no difficulty in this first encounter in forcing him back with some loss. On November 26th Clements was back at Krugersdorp again with cattle and prisoners. In the early days of December he was moving northwards once more, where a serious disaster awaited him. Before narrating the circumstances connected with the Battle of Nooitgedacht there is one incident which occurred in this same region which should be recounted.