CHAPTER 35. THE GUERILLA OPERATIONS IN CAPE COLONY.
In the account which has been given in a preceding chapter of the invasion of Cape Colony by the Boer forces, it was shown that the Western bands were almost entirely expelled, or at least that they withdrew, at the time when De Wet was driven across the Orange River. This was at the beginning of March 1901. It was also mentioned that though the Boers evacuated the barren and unprofitable desert of the Karoo, the Eastern bands which had come with Kritzinger did not follow the same course, but continued to infest the mountainous districts of the Central Colony, whence they struck again and again at the railway lines, the small towns, British patrols, or any other quarry which was within their reach and strength. From the surrounding country they gathered a fair number of recruits, and they were able through the sympathy and help of the Dutch farmers to keep themselves well mounted and supplied. In small wandering bands they spread themselves over a vast extent of country, and there were few isolated farmhouses from the Orange River to the Oudtshoorn Mountains, and from the Cape Town railroad in the west to the Fish River in the east, which were not visited by their active and enterprising scouts. The object of the whole movement was, no doubt, to stimulate a general revolt in the Colony; and it must be acknowledged that if the powder did not all explode it was not for want of the match being thoroughly applied.
It might at first sight seem the simplest of military operations to hunt down these scattered and insignificant bands; but as a matter of fact nothing could be more difficult. Operating in a country which was both vast and difficult, with excellent horses, the best of information and supplies ready for them everywhere, it was impossible for the slow-moving British columns with their guns and their wagons to overtake them. Formidable even in flight, the Boers were always ready to turn upon any force which exposed itself too rashly to retaliation, and so amid the mountain passes the British chiefs had to use an amount of caution which was incompatible with extreme speed. Only when a commando was exactly localised so that two or three converging British forces could be brought to bear upon it, was there a reasonable chance of forcing a fight. Still, with all these heavy odds against them, the various little columns continued month after month to play hide-and-seek with the commandos, and the game was by no means always on the one side. The varied fortunes of this scrambling campaign can only be briefly indicated in these pages.
It has already been shown that Kritzinger's original force broke into many bands, which were recruited partly from the Cape rebels and partly from fresh bodies which passed over from the Orange River Colony. The more severe the pressure in the north, the greater reason was there for a trek to this land of plenty. The total number of Boers who were wandering over the eastern and midland districts may have been about two thousand, who were divided into bands which varied from fifty to three hundred. The chief leaders of separate commandos were Kritzinger, Scheepers, Malan, Myburgh, Fouche, Lotter, Smuts, Van Reenen, Lategan, Maritz, and Conroy, the two latter operating on the western side of the country. To hunt down these numerous and active bodies the British were compelled to put many similar detachments into the field, known as the columns of Gorringe, Crabbe, Henniker, Scobell, Doran, Kavanagh, Alexander, and others. These two sets of miniature armies performed an intricate devil's dance over the Colony, the main lines of which are indicated by the red lines upon the map. The Zuurberg mountains to the north of Steynsburg, the Sneeuwberg range to the south of Middelburg, the Oudtshoorn Mountains in the south, the Cradock district, the Murraysburg district, and the Graaf-Reinet district - these were the chief centres of Boer activity.
In April Kritzinger made his way north to the Orange River Colony, for the purpose of consulting with De Wet, but he returned with a following of 200 men about the end of May. Continual brushes occurred during this month between the various columns, and much hard marching was done upon either side, but there was nothing which could be claimed as a positive success.
Early in May two passengers sailed for Europe, the journey of each being in its way historical. The first was the weary and overworked Pro-Consul who had the foresight to distinguish the danger and the courage to meet it. Milner's worn face and prematurely grizzled hair told of the crushing weight which had rested upon him during three eventful years. A gentle scholar, he might have seemed more fitted for a life of academic calm than for the stormy part which the discernment of Mr. Chamberlain had assigned to him. The fine flower of an English university, low-voiced and urbane, it was difficult to imagine what impression he would produce upon those rugged types of which South Africa is so peculiarly prolific. But behind the reserve of a gentleman there lay within him a lofty sense of duty, a singular clearness of vision, and a moral courage which would brace him to follow whither his reason pointed. His visit to England for three months' rest was the occasion for a striking manifestation of loyalty and regard from his fellow-countrymen. He returned in August as Lord Milner to the scene of his labours, with the construction of a united and loyal commonwealth of South Africa as the task of his life.
The second traveller who sailed within a few days of the Governor was Mrs. Botha, the wife of the Boer General, who visited Europe for private as well as political reasons. She bore to Kruger an exact account of the state of the country and of the desperate condition of the burghers. Her mission had no immediate or visible effect, and the weary war, exhausting for the British but fatal for the Boers, went steadily on.