CHAPTER 35. THE GUERILLA OPERATIONS IN CAPE COLONY.
On the same day a more serious engagement occurred near Tarkastad, a place which lies to the east of Cradock, a notorious centre of disaffection in the midland district. Smuts's commando, some hundreds strong, was marked down in this part, and several forces converged upon it. One of the outlets, Elands River Poort, was guarded by a single squadron of the 17th Lancers. Upon this the Boers made a sudden and very fierce attack, their approach being facilitated partly by the mist and partly by the use of khaki, a trick which seems never to have grown too stale for successful use. The result was that they were able to ride up to the British camp before any preparations had been made for resistance, and to shoot down a number of the Lancers before they could reach their horses. So terrible was the fire that the single squadron lost thirty-four killed and thirty-six wounded. But the regiment may console itself for the disaster by the fact that the sorely stricken detachment remained true to the spirited motto of the corps, and that no prisoners appear to have been lost.
After this one sharp engagement there ensued several weeks during which the absence of historical events, or the presence of the military censor, caused a singular lull in the account of the operations. With so many small commandos and so many pursuing columns it is extraordinary that there should not have been a constant succession of actions. That there was not must indicate a sluggishness upon the part of the pursuers, and this sluggishness can only be explained by the condition of their horses. Every train of thought brings the critic back always to the great horse question, and encourages the conclusion that there, at all seasons of the war and in all scenes of it, is to be found the most damning indictment against British foresight, common-sense, and power of organisation. That the third year of the war should dawn without the British forces having yet got the legs of the Boers, after having penetrated every portion of their country and having the horses of the world on which to draw, is the most amazingly inexplicable point in the whole of this strange campaign. From the telegram 'Infantry preferred' addressed to a nation of rough-riders, down to the failure to secure the excellent horses on the spot, while importing them unfit for use from the ends of the earth, there has been nothing but one long series of blunders in this, the most vital question of all. Even up to the end, in the Colony the obvious lesson had not yet been learnt that it is better to give 1000 men two horses each, and to let them reach the enemy, than give 2000 men one horse each, with which they can never attain their object. The chase during two years of the man with two horses by the man with one horse, has been a sight painful to ourselves and ludicrous to others.
In connection with this account of operations within the Colony, there is one episode which occurred in the extreme north-west which will not fit in with this connected narrative, but which will justify the distraction of the reader's intelligence, for few finer deeds of arms are recorded in the war. This was the heroic defence of a convoy by the 14th Company of Irish Imperial Yeomanry. The convoy was taking food to Griquatown, on the Kimberley side of the seat of war. The town had been long invested by Conroy, and the inhabitants were in such straits that it was highly necessary to relieve them. To this end a convoy, two miles long, was despatched under Major Humby of the Irish Yeomanry. The escort consisted of seventy-five Northumberland Fusiliers, twenty-four local troops, and 100 of the 74th Irish Yeomanry. Fifteen miles from Griquatown, at a place called Rooikopjes, the convoy was attacked by the enemy several hundred in number. Two companies of the Irishmen seized the ridge, however, which commanded the wagons, and held it until they were almost exterminated. The position was covered with bush, and the two parties came to the closest of quarters, the Yeomen refusing to take a backward step, though it was clear that they were vastly outnumbered. Encouraged by the example of Madan and Ford, their gallant young leaders, they deliberately sacrificed their lives in order to give time for the guns to come up and for the convoy to pass. Oliffe, Bonynge, and Maclean, who had been children together, were shot side by side on the ridge, and afterwards buried in one grave. Of forty-three men in action, fourteen were killed and twenty severely wounded. Their sacrifice was not in vain, however. The Boers were beaten back, and the convoy, as well as Griquatown, was saved. Some thirty or forty Boers were killed or wounded in the skirmish, and Conroy, their leader, declared that it was the stiffest fight of his life.
In the autumn and winter of 1901 General French had steadily pursued the system of clearing certain districts, one at a time, and endeavouring by his blockhouses and by the arrangement of his forces to hold in strict quarantine those sections of the country which were still infested by the commandos. In this manner he succeeded by the November of this year in confining the active forces of the enemy to the extreme north-east and to the south-west of the peninsula. It is doubtful if the whole Boer force, three-quarters of whom were colonial rebels, amounted to more than fifteen hundred men. When we learn that at this period of the war they were indifferently armed, and that many of them were mounted upon donkeys, it is impossible, after making every allowance for the passive assistance of the farmers, and the difficulties of the country, to believe that the pursuit was always pushed with the spirit and vigour which was needful.