CHAPTER 33. THE NORTHERN OPERATIONS FROM JANUARY TO APRIL, 1901.
The British position at this stage of the war was strengthened by a greater centralisation. Garrisons of outlying towns were withdrawn so that fewer convoys became necessary. The population was removed also and placed near the railway lines, where they could be more easily fed. In this way the scene of action was cleared and the Boer and British forces left face to face. Convinced of the failure of the peace policy, and morally strengthened by having tried it, Lord Kitchener set himself to finish the war by a series of vigorous operations which should sweep the country from end to end. For this purpose mounted troops were essential, and an appeal from him for reinforcements was most nobly answered. Five thousand horsemen were despatched from the colonies, and twenty thousand cavalry, mounted infantry, and Yeomanry were sent from home. Ten thousand mounted men had already been raised in Great Britain, South Africa, and Canada for the Constabulary force which was being organised by Baden-Powell. Altogether the reinforcements of horsemen amounted to more than thirty-five thousand men, all of whom had arrived in South Africa before the end of April. With the remains of his old regiments Lord Kitchener had under him at this final period of the war between fifty and sixty thousand cavalry - such a force as no British General in his happiest dream had ever thought of commanding, and no British war minister in his darkest nightmare had ever imagined himself called upon to supply.
Long before his reinforcements had come to hand, while his Yeomanry was still gathering in long queues upon the London pavement to wait their turn at the recruiting office, Lord Kitchener had dealt the enemy several shrewd blows which materially weakened their resources in men and material. The chief of these was the great drive down the Eastern Transvaal undertaken by seven columns under the command of French. Before considering this, however, a few words must be devoted to the doings of Methuen in the south-west.
This hard-working General, having garrisoned Zeerust and Lichtenburg, had left his old district and journeyed with a force which consisted largely of Bushmen and Yeomanry to the disturbed parts of Bechuanaland which had been invaded by De Villiers. Here he cleared the country as far as Vryburg, which he had reached in the middle of January, working round to Kuruman and thence to Taungs. From Taungs his force crossed the Transvaal border and made for Klerksdorp, working through an area which had never been traversed and which contained the difficult Masakani hills. He left Taungs upon February 2nd, fighting skirmishes at Uitval's Kop, Paardefontein and Lilliefontein, in each of which the enemy was brushed aside. Passing through Wolmaranstad, Methuen turned to the north, where at Haartebeestefontein, on February 19th, he fought a brisk engagement with a considerable force of Boers under De Villiers and Liebenberg. On the day before the fight he successfully outwitted the Boers, for, learning that they had left their laager in order to take up a position for battle, he pounced upon the laager and captured 10,000 head of cattle, forty-three wagons, and forty prisoners. Stimulated by this success, he attacked the Boers next day, and after five hours of hard fighting forced the pass which they were holding against him. As Methuen had but 1500 men, and was attacking a force which was as large as his own in a formidable position, the success was a very creditable one. The Yeomanry all did well, especially the 5th and 10th battalions. So also did the Australians and the Loyal North Lancashires. The British casualties amounted to sixteen killed and thirty-four wounded, while the Boers left eighteen of their dead upon the position which they had abandoned. Lord Methuen's little force returned to Klerksdorp, having deserved right well of their country. From Klerksdorp Methuen struck back westwards to the south of his former route, and on March 14th he was reported at Warrenton. Here also in April came Erroll's small column, bringing with it the garrison and inhabitants of Hoopstad, a post which it had been determined, in accordance with Lord Kitchener's policy of centralisation, to abandon.
In the month of January, 1901, there had been a considerable concentration of the Transvaal Boers into that large triangle which is bounded by the Delagoa railway line upon the north, the Natal railway line upon the south, and the Swazi and Zulu frontiers upon the east. The bushveld is at this season of the year unhealthy both for man and beast, so that for the sake of their herds, their families, and themselves the burghers were constrained to descend into the open veld. There seemed the less objection to their doing so since this tract of country, though traversed once both by Buller and by French, had still remained a stronghold of the Boers and a storehouse of supplies. Within its borders are to be found Carolina, Ermelo, Vryheid, and other storm centres. Its possession offers peculiar strategical advantages, as a force lying there can always attack either railway, and might even make, as was indeed intended, a descent into Natal. For these mingled reasons of health and of strategy a considerable number of burghers united in this district under the command of the Bothas and of Smuts.