CHAPTER 34. THE WINTER CAMPAIGN (APRIL TO SEPTEMBER, 1901).
Before Viljoen's force made its way over the line it had its revenge for the long harrying it had undergone by a well-managed night attack, in which it surprised and defeated a portion of Colonel Beatson's column at a place called Wilmansrust, due south of Middelburg, and between that town and Bethel. Beatson had divided his force, and this section consisted of 850 of the 5th Victorian Mounted Rifles, with thirty gunners and two pom-poms, the whole under the command of Major Morris. Viljoen's force trekking north towards the line came upon this detachment upon June 12th. The British were aware of the presence of the enemy, but do not appear to have posted any extra outposts or taken any special precautions. Long months of commando chasing had imbued them too much with the idea that these were fugitive sheep, and not fierce and wily wolves, whom they were endeavouring to catch. It is said that 700 yards separated the four pickets. With that fine eye for detail which the Boer leaders possess, they had started a veld fire upon the west of the camp and then attacked from the east, so that they were themselves invisible while their enemies were silhouetted against the light. Creeping up between the pickets, the Boers were not seen until they opened fire at point-blank range upon the sleeping men. The rifles were stacked - another noxious military tradition - and many of the troopers were shot down while they rushed for their weapons. Surprised out of their sleep and unable to distinguish their antagonists, the brave Australians did as well as any troops could have done who were placed in so impossible a position. Captain Watson, the officer in charge of the pom-poms, was shot down, and it proved to be impossible to bring the guns into action. Within five minutes the Victorians had lost twenty killed and forty wounded, when the survivors surrendered. It is pleasant to add that they were very well treated by the victors, but the high-spirited colonials felt their reverse most bitterly. 'It is the worst thing that ever happened to Australia!' says one in the letter in which he describes it. The actual number of Boers who rushed the camp was only 180, but 400 more had formed a cordon round it. To Viljoen and his lieutenant Muller great credit must be given for this well-managed affair, which gave them a fresh supply of stores and clothing at a time when they were hard pressed for both. These same Boer officers had led the attack upon Helvetia where the 4.7 gun was taken. The victors succeeded in getting away with all their trophies, and having temporarily taken one of the blockhouses on the railway near Brugspruit, they crossed the line in safety and returned, as already said, to their old quarters in the north, which had been harried but not denuded by the operations of General Blood.
It would take a volume to catalogue, and a library to entirely describe the movements and doings of the very large number of British columns which operated over the Transvaal and the Orange River Colony during this cold-weather campaign. If the same columns and the same leaders were consistently working in the same districts, some system of narrative might enable the reader to follow their fortunes, but they were, as a matter of fact, rapidly transferred from one side of the field of action to another in accordance with the concentrations of the enemy. The total number of columns amounted to at least sixty, which varied in number from two hundred to two thousand, and seldom hunted alone. Could their movements be marked in red upon a chart, the whole of that huge district would be criss-crossed, from Taungs to Komati and from Touws River to Pietersburg, with the track of our weary but indomitable soldiers.
Without attempting to enter into details which would be unbecoming to the modesty of a single volume, one may indicate what the other more important groupings were during the course of these months, and which were the columns that took part in them. Of French's drive in the south-east, and of Blood's incursion into the Roos-Senekal district some account has been given, and of his subsequent sweeping of the south. At the same period Babington, Dixon, and Rawlinson were co-operating in the Klerksdorp district, though the former officer transferred his services suddenly to Blood's combination, and afterwards to Elliot's column in the north of Orange River Colony. Williams and Fetherstonhaugh came later to strengthen this Klerksdorp district, in which, after the clearing of the Magaliesberg, De la Rey had united his forces to those of Smuts. This very important work of getting a firm hold upon the Magaliesberg was accomplished in July by Barton, Allenby, Kekewich, and Lord Basing, who penetrated into the wild country and established blockhouses and small forts in very much the same way as Cumberland and Wade in 1746 held down the Highlands. The British position was much strengthened by the firm grip obtained of this formidable stronghold of the enemy, which was dangerous not only on account of its extreme strength, but also of its proximity to the centres of population and of wealth.