CHAPTER 37. THE CAMPAIGN OF JANUARY TO APRIL, 1902.
At the opening of the year 1902 it was evident to every observer that the Boer resistance, spirited as it was, must be nearing its close. By a long succession of captures their forces were much reduced in numbers. They were isolated from the world, and had no means save precarious smuggling of renewing their supplies of ammunition. It was known also that their mobility, which had been their great strength, was decreasing, and that in spite of their admirable horsemastership their supply of remounts was becoming exhausted. An increasing number of the burghers were volunteering for service against their own people, and it was found that all fears as to this delicate experiment were misplaced, and that in the whole army there were no keener and more loyal soldiers.
The chief factor, however, in bringing the Boers to their knees was the elaborate and wonderful blockhouse system, which had been strung across the whole of the enemy's country. The original blockhouses had been far apart, and were a hindrance and an annoyance rather than an absolute barrier to the burghers. The new models, however, were only six hundred yards apart, and were connected by such impenetrable strands of wire that a Boer pithily described it by saying that if one's hat blew over the line anywhere between Ermelo and Standerton one had to walk round Ermelo to fetch it. Use was made of such barriers by the Spaniards in Cuba, but an application of them on such a scale over such an enormous tract of country is one of the curiosities of warfare, and will remain one of several novelties which will make the South African campaign for ever interesting to students of military history.
The spines of this great system were always the railway lines, which were guarded on either side, and down which, as down a road, went flocks, herds, pedestrians, and everything which wished to travel in safety. From these long central cords the lines branched out to right and left, cutting up the great country into manageable districts. A category of them would but weary the reader, but suffice it that by the beginning of the year the south-east of the Transvaal and the north-east of the Orange River Colony, the haunts of Botha and De Wet, had been so intersected that it was obvious that the situation must soon be impossible for both of them. Only on the west of the Transvaal was there a clear run for De la Rey and Kemp. Hence it was expected, as actually occurred, that in this quarter the most stirring events of the close of the campaign would happen.
General Bruce Hamilton in the Eastern Transvaal had continued the energetic tactics which had given such good results in the past. With the new year his number of prisoners fell, but he had taken so many, and had hustled the remainder to such an extent, that the fight seemed to have gone out of the Boers in this district. On January 1st be presented the first-fruits of the year in the shape of twenty-two of Grobler's burghers. On the 3rd he captured forty-nine, while Wing, co-operating with him, took twenty more. Among these was General Erasmus, who had helped, or failed to help, General Lucas Meyer at Talana Hill. On the 10th Colonel Wing's column, which was part of Hamilton's force, struck out again and took forty-two prisoners, including the two Wolmarans. Only two days later Hamilton returned to the same spot, and was rewarded with thirty-two more captures. On the 18th he took twenty-seven, on the 24th twelve, and on the 26th no fewer than ninety. So severe were these blows, and so difficult was it for the Boers to know how to get away from an antagonist who was ready to ride thirty miles in a night in order to fall upon their laager, that the enemy became much scattered and too demoralised for offensive operations. Finding that they had grown too shy in this much shot over district, Hamilton moved farther south, and early in March took a cast round the Vryheid district, where he made some captures, notably General Cherry Emmett, a descendant of the famous Irish rebel, and brother-in-law of Louis Botha. For all these repeated successes it was to the Intelligence Department, so admirably controlled by Colonel Wools-Sampson, that thanks are mainly due.
Whilst Bruce Hamilton was operating so successfully in the Ermelo district, several British columns under Plumer, Spens, and Colville were stationed some fifty miles south to prevent the fugitives from getting away into the mountainous country which lies to the north of Wakkerstroom. On January 3rd a small force of Plumer's New Zealanders had a brisk skirmish with a party of Boers, whose cattle they captured, though at some loss to themselves. These Boers were strongly reinforced, however, and when on the following day Major Vallentin pursued them with fifty men he found himself at Onverwacht in the presence of several hundred of the enemy, led by Oppermann and Christian Botha. Vallentin was killed and almost all of his small force were hit before British reinforcements, under Colonel Pulteney, drove the Boers off. Nineteen killed and twenty-three wounded were our losses in this most sanguinary little skirmish. Nine dead Boers, with Oppermann himself, were left upon the field of battle. His loss was a serious one to the enemy, as he was one of their most experienced Generals.
From that time until the end these columns, together with Mackenzie's column to the north of Ermelo, continued to break up all combinations, and to send in their share of prisoners to swell Lord Kitchener's weekly list. A final drive, organised on April 11th against the Standerton line, resulted in 134 prisoners.