CHAPTER 34. THE WINTER CAMPAIGN (APRIL TO SEPTEMBER, 1901).
In all the petty and yet necessary operations of these columns, two incidents demand more than a mere mention. The first was a hard-fought skirmish in which some of Elliot's horsemen were engaged upon June 6th. His column had trekked during the month of May from Kroonstad to Harrismith, and then turning north found itself upon that date near the hamlet of Reitz. Major Sladen with 200 Mounted Infantry, when detached from the main body, came upon the track of a Boer convoy and ran it down. Over a hundred vehicles with forty-five prisoners were the fruits of their enterprise. Well satisfied with his morning's work, the British leader despatched a party of his men to convey the news to De Lisle, who was behind, while he established himself with his loot and his prisoners in a convenient kraal. Thence they had an excellent view of a large body of horsemen approaching them with scouts, flankers, and all military precautions. One warm-hearted officer seems actually to have sallied out to meet his comrades, and it was not till his greeting of them took the extreme form of handing over his rifle that the suspicion of danger entered the heads of his companions. But if there was some lack of wit there was none of heart in Sladen and his men. With forty-five Boers to hold down, and 500 under Fourie, De Wet, and De la Rey around them, the little band made rapid preparation for a desperate resistance: the prisoners were laid upon their faces, the men knocked loopholes in the mud walls of the kraal, and a blunt soldierly answer was returned to the demand for surrender.
But it was a desperate business. The attackers were five to one, and the five were soldiers of De Wet, the hard-bitten veterans of a hundred encounters. The captured wagons in a long double row stretched out over the plain, and under this cover the Dutchmen swarmed up to the kraal. But the men who faced them were veterans also, and the defence made up for the disparity of numbers. With fine courage the Boers made their way up to the village, and established themselves in the outlying huts, but the Mounted Infantry clung desperately to their position. Out of the few officers present Findlay was shot through the head, Moir and Cameron through the heart, and Strong through the stomach. It was a Waggon Hill upon a small scale, two dour lines of skirmishers emptying their rifles into each other at point-blank range. Once more, as at Bothaville, the British Mounted Infantry proved that when it came to a dogged pelting match they could stand punishment longer than their enemy. They suffered terribly. Fifty-one out of the little force were on the ground, and the survivors were not much more numerous than their prisoners. To the 1st Gordons, the 2nd Bedfords, the South Australians, and the New South Welsh men belongs the honour of this magnificent defence. For four hours the fierce battle raged, until at last the parched and powder-stained survivors breathed a prayer of thanks as they saw on the southern horizon the vanguard of De Lisle riding furiously to the rescue. For the last hour, since they had despaired of carrying the kraal, the Boers had busied themselves in removing their convoy; but now, for the second time in one day, the drivers found British rifles pointed at their heads, and the oxen were turned once more and brought back to those who had fought so hard to hold them. Twenty-eight killed and twenty-six wounded were the losses in this desperate affair. Of the Boers seventeen were left dead in front of the kraal, and the forty-five had not escaped from the bulldog grip which held them. There seems for some reason to have been no effective pursuit of the Boers, and the British column held on its way to Kroonstad.
The second incident which stands out amid the dreary chronicle of hustlings and snipings is the surprise visit paid by Broadwood with a small British column to the town of Reitz upon July 11th, which resulted in the capture of nearly every member of the late government of the Free State, save only the one man whom they particularly wanted. The column consisted of 200 yeomen, 200 of the 7th Dragoon Guards, and two guns. Starting at 11 P.M., the raiders rode hard all night and broke with the dawn upon the sleeping village. Racing into the main street, they secured the startled Boers as they rushed from the houses. It is easy to criticise such an operation from a distance, and to overlook the practical difficulties in the way, but on the face of it it seems a pity that the holes had not been stopped before the ferret was sent in. A picket at the farther end of the street would have barred Steyn's escape. As it was, he flung himself upon his horse and galloped half-clad out of the town. Sergeant Cobb of the Dragoons snapped a rifle at close quarters upon him, but the cold of the night had frozen the oil on the striker and the cartridge hung fire. On such trifles do the large events of history turn! Two Boer generals, two commandants, Steyn's brother, his secretary, and several other officials were among the nine-and-twenty prisoners. The treasury was also captured, but it is feared that the Yeomen and Dragoons will not be much the richer from their share of the contents.