CHAPTER 33. THE NORTHERN OPERATIONS FROM JANUARY TO APRIL, 1901.
Three consecutive chapters have now given some account of the campaign of De Wet, of the operations in the Transvaal up to the end of the year 1900, and of the invasion of Cape Colony up to April 1901. The present chapter will deal with the events in the Transvaal from the beginning of the new century. The military operations in that country, though extending over a very large area, may be roughly divided into two categories: the attacks by the Boers upon British posts, and the aggressive sweeping movements of British columns. Under the first heading come the attacks on Belfast, on Zuurfontein, on Kaalfontein, on Zeerust, on Modderfontein, and on Lichtenburg, besides many minor affairs. The latter comprises the operations of Babington and of Cunningham to the west and south-west of Pretoria, those of Methuen still further to the south-west, and the large movement of French in the south-east. In no direction did the British forces in the field meet with much active resistance. So long as they moved the gnats did not settle; it was only when quiet that they buzzed about and occasionally stung.
The early days of January 1901 were not fortunate for the British arms, as the check in which Kitchener's Bodyguard was so roughly handled, near Lindley, was closely followed by a brisk action at Naauwpoort or Zandfontein, near the Magaliesberg, in which De la Rey left his mark upon the Imperial Light Horse. The Boer commandos, having been driven into the mountains by French and Clements in the latter part of December, were still on the look-out to strike a blow at any British force which might expose itself. Several mounted columns had been formed to scour the country, one under Kekewich, one under Gordon, and one under Babington. The two latter, meeting in a mist upon the morning of January 5th, actually turned their rifles upon each other, but fortunately without any casualties resulting. A more deadly rencontre was, however, awaiting them.
A force of Boers were observed, as the mist cleared, making for a ridge which would command the road along which the convoy and guns were moving. Two squadrons (B and C) of the Light Horse were instantly detached to seize the point. They do not appear to have realised that they were in the immediate presence of the enemy, and they imagined that the ground over which they were passing had been already reconnoitred by a troop of the 14th Hussars. It is true that four scouts were thrown forward, but as both squadrons were cantering there was no time for these to get ahead. Presently C squadron, which was behind, was ordered to close up upon the left of B squadron, and the 150 horsemen in one long line swept over a low grassy ridge. Some hundreds of De la Rey's men were lying in the long grass upon the further side, and their first volley, fired at a fifty-yard range, emptied a score of saddles. It would have been wiser, if less gallant, to retire at once in the presence of a numerous and invisible enemy, but the survivors were ordered to dismount and return the fire. This was done, but the hail of bullets was terrific and the casualties were numerous. Captain Norman, of C squadron, then retired his men, who withdrew in good order. B squadron having lost Yockney, its brave leader, heard no order, so they held their ground until few of them had escaped the driving sleet of lead. Many of the men were struck three and four times. There was no surrender, and the extermination of B company added another laurel, even at a moment of defeat, to the regiment whose reputation was so grimly upheld. The Boer victors walked in among the litter of stricken men and horses. 'Practically all of them were dressed in khaki and had the water-bottles and haversacks of our soldiers. One of them snatched a bayonet from a dead man, and was about to despatch one of our wounded when he was stopped in the nick of time by a man in a black suit, who, I afterwards heard, was De la Rey himself. . .The feature of the action was the incomparable heroism of our dear old Colonel Wools-Sampson.' So wrote a survivor of B company, himself shot through the body. It was four hours before a fresh British advance reoccupied the ridge, and by that time the Boers had disappeared. Some seventy killed and wounded, many of them terribly mutilated, were found on the scene of the disaster. It is certainly a singular coincidence that at distant points of the seat of war two of the crack irregular corps should have suffered so severely within three days of each other. In each case, however, their prestige was enhanced rather than lowered by the result. These incidents tend, however, to shake the belief that scouting is better performed in the Colonial than in the regular forces.
Of the Boer attacks upon British posts to which allusion has been made, that upon Belfast, in the early morning of January 7th, appears to have been very gallantly and even desperately pushed. On the same date a number of smaller attacks, which may have been meant simply as diversions, were made upon Wonderfontein, Nooitgedacht, Wildfontein, Pan, Dalmanutha, and Machadodorp. These seven separate attacks, occurring simultaneously over sixty miles, show that the Boer forces were still organised and under one effective control. The general object of the operations was undoubtedly to cut Lord Roberts's communications upon that side and to destroy a considerable section of the railway.