CHAPTER 34. THE WINTER CAMPAIGN (APRIL TO SEPTEMBER, 1901).
It was determined that Plumer's advance upon Pietersburg should not be a mere raid, but that steps should be taken to secure all that he had gained, and to hold the lines of communication. With this object the 2nd Gordon Highlanders and the 2nd Wiltshires were pushed up along the railroad, followed by Kitchener's Fighting Scouts. These troops garrisoned Pietersburg and took possession of Chunies Poort, and other strategic positions. They also furnished escorts for the convoys which supplied Plumer on the Oliphant River, and they carried out some spirited operations themselves in the neighbourhood of Pietersburg. Grenfell, who commanded the force, broke up several laagers, and captured a number of prisoners, operations in which he was much assisted by Colenbrander and his men. Finally the last of the great Creusot guns, the formidable Long Toms, was found mounted near Haenertsburg. It was the same piece which had in succession scourged Mafeking and Kimberley. The huge gun, driven to bay, showed its powers by opening an effective fire at ten thousand yards. The British galloped in upon it, the Boer riflemen were driven off, and the gun was blown up by its faithful gunners. So by suicide died the last of that iron brood, the four sinister brothers who had wrought much mischief in South Africa. They and their lesson will live in the history of modern artillery.
The sweeping of the Roos-Senekal district being over, Plumer left his post upon the River of the Elephants, a name which, like Rhenoster, Zeekoe, Kameelfontein, Leeuw Kop, Tigerfontein, Elands River, and so many more, serves as a memorial to the great mammals which once covered the land. On April 28th the force turned south, and on May 4th they had reached the railroad at Eerstefabrieken close to Pretoria. They had come in touch with a small Boer force upon the way, and the indefatigable Vialls hounded them for eighty miles, and tore away the tail of their convoy with thirty prisoners. The main force had left Pretoria on horseback on March 28th, and found themselves back once again upon foot on May 5th. They had something to show, however, for the loss of their horses, since they had covered a circular march of 400 miles, had captured some hundreds of the enemy, and had broken up their last organised capital. From first to last it was a most useful and well-managed expedition.
It is the more to be regretted that General Blood was recalled from his northern trek before it had attained its full results, because those operations to which he turned did not offer him any great opportunities for success. Withdrawing from the north of the railway with his columns, he at once started upon a sweep of that portion of the country which forms an angle between the Delagoa line and the Swazi frontier - the Barberton district. But again the two big fish, Viljoen and Botha, had slipped away, and the usual collection of sprats was left in the net. The sprats count also, however, and every week now telegrams were reaching England from Lord Kitchener which showed that from three to five hundred more burghers had fallen into our hands. Although the public might begin to look upon the war as interminable, it had become evident to the thoughtful observer that it was now a mathematical question, and that a date could already be predicted by which the whole Boer population would have passed into the power of the British.
Among the numerous small British columns which were at work in different parts of the country, in the latter half of May, there was one under General Dixon which was operating in the neighbourhood of the Magaliesberg Range. This locality has never been a fortunate one for the British arms. The country is peculiarly mountainous and broken, and it was held by the veteran De la Rey and a numerous body of irreconcilable Boers. Here in July we had encountered a check at Uitval's Nek, in December Clements had met a more severe one at Nooitgedacht, while shortly afterwards Cunningham had been repulsed at Middelfontein, and the Light Horse cut up at Naauwpoort. After such experiences one would have thought that no column which was not of overmastering strength would have been sent into this dangerous region, but General Dixon had as a matter of fact by no means a strong force with him. With 1600 men and a battery he was despatched upon a quest after some hidden guns which were said to have been buried in those parts.
On May 26th Dixon's force, consisting of Derbyshires, King's Own Scottish Borderers, Imperial Yeomanry, Scottish Horse, and six guns (four of 8th R.F.A. and two of 28th R.F.A.), broke camp at Naauwpoort and moved to the west. On the 28th they found themselves at a place called Vlakfontein, immediately south of Oliphant's Nek. On that day there were indications that there were a good many Boers in the neighbourhood. Dixon left a guard over his camp and then sallied out in search of the buried guns. His force was divided into three parts, the left column under Major Chance consisting of two guns of the 28th R.F.A., 230 of the Yeomanry, and one company of the Derbys. The centre comprised two guns (8th R.F. A.), one howitzer, two companies of the Scottish Borderers and one of the Derbys; while the right was made up of two guns (8th R.F.A. ), 200 Scottish Horse, and two companies of Borderers. Having ascertained that the guns were not there, the force about midday was returning to the camp, when the storm broke suddenly and fiercely upon the rearguard.