CHAPTER 33. THE NORTHERN OPERATIONS FROM JANUARY TO APRIL, 1901.
In each of these instances the attacks by the Boers upon British posts had ended in a repulse to themselves. They were more fortunate, however, in their attempt upon Modderfontein on the Gatsrand at the end of January. The post was held by 200 of the South Wales Borderers, reinforced by the 59th Imperial Yeomanry, who had come in as escort to a convoy from Krugersdorp. The attack, which lasted all day, was carried out by a commando of 2000 Boers under Smuts, who rushed the position upon the following morning. As usual, the Boers, who were unable to retain their prisoners, had little to show for their success. The British casualties, however, were between thirty and forty, mostly wounded.
On January 22nd General Cunninghame left Oliphant's Nek with a small force consisting of the Border and Worcester Regiments, the 6th Mounted Infantry, Kitchener's Horse, 7th Imperial Yeomanry, 8th R.F.A., and P battery R.H.A. It had instructions to move south upon the enemy known to be gathering there. By midday this force was warmly engaged, and found itself surrounded by considerable bodies of De la Rey's burghers. That night they camped at Middelfontein, and were strongly attacked in the early morning. So menacing was the Boer attitude, and so formidable the position, that the force was in some danger. Fortunately they were in heliographic communication with Oliphant's Nek, and learned upon the 23rd that Babington had been ordered to their relief. All day Cunninghame's men were under a long-range fire, but on the 24th Babington appeared, and the British force was successfully extricated, having seventy-five casualties. This action of Middelfontein is interesting as having been begun in Queen Victoria's reign, and ended in that of Edward VII.
Cunninghame's force moved on to Krugersdorp, and there, having heard of the fall of the Modderfontein post as already described, a part of his command moved out to the Gatsrand in pursuit of Smuts. It was found, however, that the Boers had taken up a strong defensive position, and the British were not numerous enough to push the attack. On February 3rd Cunninghame endeavoured to outflank the enemy with his small cavalry force while pushing his infantry up in front, but in neither attempt did he succeed, the cavalry failing to find the flank, while the infantry were met with a fire which made further advance impossible. One company of the Border Regiment found itself in such a position that the greater part of it was killed, wounded, or taken. This check constituted the action of Modderfontein. On the 4th, however, Cunningham, assisted by some of the South African Constabulary, made his way round the flank, and dislodged the enemy, who retreated to the south. A few days later some of Smuts's men made an attempt upon the railway near Bank, but were driven off with twenty-six casualties. It was after this that Smuts moved west and joined De la Rey's commando to make the attack already described upon Lichtenburg. These six attempts represent the chief aggressive movements which the Boers made against British posts in the Transvaal during these months. Attacks upon trains were still common, and every variety of sniping appears to have been rife, from the legitimate ambuscade to something little removed from murder.
It has been described in a previous chapter how Lord Kitchener made an offer to the burghers which amounted to an amnesty, and how a number of those Boers who had come under the influence of the British formed themselves into peace committees, and endeavoured to convey to the fighting commandos some information as to the hopelessness of the struggle, and the lenient mood of the British. Unfortunately these well-meant offers appear to have been mistaken for signs of weakness by the Boer leaders, and encouraged them to harden their hearts. Of the delegates who conveyed the terms to their fellow countrymen two at least were shot, several were condemned to death, and few returned without ill-usage. In no case did they bear back a favourable answer. The only result of the proclamation was to burden the British resources by an enormous crowd of women and children who were kept and fed in refugee camps, while their fathers and husbands continued in most cases to fight.