CHAPTER 33. THE NORTHERN OPERATIONS FROM JANUARY TO APRIL, 1901.
If the Light Horse had a few bad hours on March 22nd at the hands of the Boers, they and their colonial comrades were soon able to return the same with interest. On March 23rd Babington moved forward through Kafir Kraal, the enemy falling back before him. Next morning the British again advanced, and as the New Zealanders and Bushmen, who formed the vanguard under Colonel Gray, emerged from a pass they saw upon the plain in front of them the Boer force with all its guns moving towards them. Whether this was done of set purpose or whether the Boers imagined that the British had turned and were intending to pursue them cannot now be determined, but whatever the cause it is certain that for almost the first time in the campaign a considerable force of each side found themselves in the open and face to face.
It was a glorious moment. Setting spurs to their horses, officers and men with a yell dashed forward at the enemy. One of the Boer guns unlimbered and attempted to open fire, but was overwhelmed by the wave of horsemen. The Boer riders broke and fled, leaving their artillery to escape as best it might. The guns dashed over the veld in a mad gallop, but wilder still was the rush of the fiery cavalry behind them. For once the brave and cool-headed Dutchmen were fairly panic-stricken. Hardly a shot was fired at the pursuers, and the riflemen seem to have been only too happy to save their own skins. Two field guns, one pom-pom, six maxims, fifty-six wagons and 140 prisoners were the fruits of that one magnificent charge, while fifty-four stricken Boers were picked up after the action. The pursuit was reluctantly abandoned when the spent horses could go no farther.
While the vanguard had thus scattered the main body of the enemy a detachment of riflemen had ridden round to attack the British rear and convoy. A few volleys from the escort drove them off, however, with some loss. Altogether, what with the loss of nine guns and of at least 200 men, the rout of Haartebeestefontein was a severe blow to the Boer cause. A week or two later Sir H. Rawlinson's column, acting with Babington, rushed Smuts's laager at daylight and effected a further capture of two guns and thirty prisoners. Taken in conjunction with French's successes in the east and Plumer's in the north, these successive blows might have seemed fatal to the Boer cause, but the weary struggle was still destined to go on until it seemed that it must be annihilation rather than incorporation which would at last bring a tragic peace to those unhappy lands.
All over the country small British columns had been operating during these months - operations which were destined to increase in scope and energy as the cold weather drew in. The weekly tale of prisoners and captures, though small for any one column, gave the aggregate result of a considerable victory. In these scattered and obscure actions there was much good work which can have no reward save the knowledge of duty done. Among many successful raids and skirmishes may be mentioned two by Colonel Park from Lydenburg, which resulted between them in the capture of nearly 100 of the enemy, including Abel Erasmus of sinister reputation. Nor would any summary of these events be complete without a reference to the very gallant defence of Mahlabatini in Zululand, which was successfully held by a handful of police and civilians against an irruption of the Boers. With the advent of winter and of reinforcements the British operations became very energetic in every part of the country, and some account of them will now be added.