CHAPTER 36. THE SPRING CAMPAIGN (SEPTEMBER TO DECEMBER, 1901).
The history of the war during the African winter of 1901 has now been sketched, and some account given of the course of events in the Transvaal, the Orange River Colony, and the Cape Colony. The hope of the British that they might stamp out resistance before the grass should restore mobility to the larger bodies of Boers was destined to be disappointed. By the middle of September the veld had turned from drab to green, and the great drama was fated to last for one more act, however anxious all the British and the majority of the Boers might be to ring down the curtain. Exasperating as this senseless prolongation of a hopeless struggle might be, there was still some consolation in the reflection that those who drank this bitter cup to the very lees would be less likely to thirst for it again.
September 15th was the date which brought into force the British Proclamation announcing the banishment of those Boer leaders who continued in arms. It must be confessed that this step may appear harsh and unchivalrous to the impartial observer, so long as those leaders were guilty of no practices which are foreign to the laws of civilised warfare. The imposition of personal penalties upon the officers of an opposing army is a step for which it is difficult to quote a precedent, nor is it wise to officially rule your enemy outside the pale of ordinary warfare, since it is equally open to him to take the same step against you. The only justification for such a course would be its complete success, as this would suggest that the Intelligence Department were aware that the leaders desired some strong excuse for coming in - such an excuse as the Proclamation would afford. The result proved that nothing of the kind was needed, and the whole proceeding must appear to be injudicious and high-handed. In honourable war you conquer your adversary by superior courage, strength, or wit, but you do not terrorise him by particular penalties aimed at individuals. The burghers of the Transvaal and of the late Orange Free State were legitimate belligerents, and to be treated as such - a statement which does not, of course, extend to the Afrikander rebels who were their allies.
The tendency of the British had been to treat their antagonists as a broken and disorganised banditti, but with the breaking of the spring they were sharply reminded that the burghers were still capable of a formidable and coherent effort. The very date which put them beyond the pale as belligerents was that which they seem to have chosen in order to prove what active and valiant soldiers they still remained. A quick succession of encounters occurred at various parts of the seat of war, the general tendency of which was not entirely in favour of the British arms, though the weekly export of prisoners reassured all who noted it as to the sapping and decay of the Boer strength. These incidents must now be set down in the order of their occurrence, with their relation to each other so far as it is possible to trace it.
General Louis Botha, with the double intention of making an offensive move and of distracting the wavering burghers from a close examination of Lord Kitchener's proclamation, assembled his forces in the second week of September in the Ermelo district. Thence he moved them rapidly towards Natal, with the result that the volunteers of that colony had once more to grasp their rifles and hasten to the frontier. The whole situation bore for an instant an absurd resemblance to that of two years before - Botha playing the part of Joubert, and Lyttelton, who commanded on the frontier, that of White. It only remained, to make the parallel complete, that some one should represent Penn Symons, and this perilous role fell to a gallant officer, Major Gough, commanding a detached force which thought itself strong enough to hold its own, and only learned by actual experiment that it was not.