CHAPTER 34. THE WINTER CAMPAIGN (APRIL TO SEPTEMBER, 1901).
There had been some sniping during the whole morning, but no indications of the determined attack which was about to be delivered. The force in retiring upon the camp had become divided, and the rearguard consisted of the small column under Major Chance which had originally formed the left wing. A veld fire was raging on one flank of this rearguard, and through the veil of smoke a body of five hundred Boers charged suddenly home with magnificent gallantry upon the guns. We have few records of a more dashing or of a more successful action in the whole course of the war. So rapid was it that hardly any time elapsed between the glimpse of the first dark figures galloping through the haze and the thunder of their hoofs as they dashed in among the gunners. The Yeomanry were driven back and many of them shot down. The charge of the mounted Boers was supported by a very heavy fire from a covering party, and the gun-detachments were killed or wounded almost to a man. The lieutenant in charge and the sergeant were both upon the ground. So far as it is possible to reconstruct the action from the confused accounts of excited eye-witnesses and from the exceedingly obscure official report of General Dixon, there was no longer any resistance round the guns, which were at once turned by their captors upon the nearest British detachment.
The company of infantry which had helped to escort the guns proved however to be worthy representatives of that historic branch of the British service. They were northerners, men of Derbyshire and Nottingham, the same counties which had furnished the brave militia who had taken their punishment so gamely at Roodeval. Though hustled and broken they re-formed and clung doggedly to their task, firing at the groups of Boers who surrounded the guns. At the same time word had been sent of their pressing need to the Scotch Borderers and the Scottish Horse, who came swarming across the valley to the succour of their comrades. Dixon had brought two guns and a howitzer into action, which subdued the fire of the two captured pieces, and the infantry, Derbys and Borderers, swept over the position, retaking the two guns and shooting down those of the enemy who tried to stand. The greater number vanished into the smoke, which veiled their retreat as it had their advance. Forty-one of them were left dead upon the ground. Six officers and fifty men killed with about a hundred and twenty wounded made up the British losses, to which two guns would certainly have been added but for the gallant counter-attack of the infantry. With Dargai and Vlakfontein to their credit the Derbys have green laurels upon their war-worn colours. They share them on this occasion with the Scottish Borderers, whose volunteer company carried itself as stoutly as the regulars.
How is such an action to be summed up? To Kemp, the young Boer leader, and his men belongs the credit of the capture of the guns; to the British that of their recapture and of the final possession of the field. The British loss was probably somewhat higher than that of the Boers, but upon the other hand there could be no question as to which side could afford loss the better. The Briton could be replaced, but there were no reserves behind the fighting line of the Boers.
There is one subject which cannot be ignored in discussing this battle, however repugnant it may be. That is the shooting of some of the British wounded who lay round the guns. There is no question at all about the fact, which is attested by many independent witnesses. There is reason to hope that some of the murderers paid for their crimes with their lives before the battle was over. It is pleasant to add that there is at least one witness to the fact that Boer officers interfered with threats to prevent some of these outrages. It is unfair to tarnish the whole Boer nation and cause on account of a few irresponsible villains, who would be disowned by their own decent comrades. Very many - too many - British soldiers have known by experience what it is to fall into the hands of the enemy, and it must be confessed that on the whole they have been dealt with in no ungenerous spirit, while the British treatment of the Boers has been unexampled in all military history for its generosity and humanity. That so fair a tale should be darkened by such ruffianly outrages is indeed deplorable, but the incident is too well authenticated to be left unrecorded in any detailed account of the campaign. General Dixon, finding the Boers very numerous all round him, and being hampered by his wounded, fell back upon Naauwpoort, which he reached on June 1st.
In May, Sir Bindon Blood, having returned to the line to refit, made yet another cast through that thrice-harried belt of country which contains Ermelo, Bethel, and Carolina, in which Botha, Viljoen, and the fighting Boers had now concentrated. Working over the blackened veld he swung round in the Barberton direction, and afterwards made a westerly drive in conjunction with small columns commanded by Walter Kitchener, Douglas, and Campbell of the Rifles, while Colville, Garnett, and Bullock co-operated from the Natal line. Again the results were disappointing when compared with the power of the instrument employed. On July 5th he reached Springs, near Johannesburg, with a considerable amount of stock, but with no great number of prisoners. The elusive Botha had slipped away to the south and was reported upon the Zululand border, while Viljoen had succeeded in crossing the Delagoa line and winning back to his old lair in the district north of Middelburg, from which he had been evicted in April. The commandos were like those pertinacious flies which buzz upwards when a hand approaches them, but only to settle again in the same place. One could but try to make the place less attractive than before.