CHAPTER 38. DE LA REY'S CAMPAIGN OF 1902.
IT will be remembered that at the close of 1901 Lord Methuen and Colonel Kekewich had both come across to the eastern side of their district and made their base at the railway line in the Klerksdorp section. Their position was strengthened by the fact that a blockhouse cordon now ran from Klerksdorp to Ventersdorp, and from Ventersdorp to Potchefstroom, so that this triangle could be effectively controlled. There remained, however, a huge tract of difficult country which was practically in the occupation of the enemy. Several thousand stalwarts were known to be riding with De la Rey and his energetic lieutenant Kemp. The strenuous operations of the British in the Eastern Transvaal and in the Orange River Colony had caused this district to be comparatively neglected, and so everything was in favour of an aggressive movement of the Boers. There was a long lull after the unsuccessful attack upon Kekewich's camp at Moedwill, but close observers of the war distrusted this ominous calm and expected a storm to follow.
The new year found the British connecting Ventersdorp with Tafelkop by a blockhouse line. The latter place had been a centre of Boer activity. Colonel Hickie's column covered this operation. Meanwhile Methuen had struck across through Wolmaranstad as far as Vryburg. In these operations, which resulted in constant small captures, he was assisted by a column under Major Paris working from Kimberley. From Vryburg Lord Methuen made his way in the middle of January to Lichtenburg, meeting with a small rebuff in the neighbourhood of that town, for a detachment of Yeomanry was overwhelmed by General Celliers, who killed eight, wounded fifteen, and captured forty. From Lichtenburg Lord Methuen continued his enormous trek, and arrived on February 1st at Klerksdorp once more. Little rest was given to his hard-worked troops, and they were sent off again within the week under the command of Von Donop, with the result that on February 8th, near Wolmaranstad, they captured Potgieter's laager with forty Boer prisoners. Von Donop remained at Wolmaranstad until late in February; On the 23rd he despatched an empty convoy back to Klerksdorp, the fate of which will be afterwards narrated.
Kekewich and Hickie had combined their forces at the beginning of February. On February 4th an attempt was made by them to surprise General De la Rey. The mounted troops who were despatched under Major Leader failed in this enterprise, but they found and overwhelmed the laager of Sarel Alberts, capturing 132 prisoners. By stampeding the horses the Boer retreat was cut off, and the attack was so furiously driven home, especially by the admirable Scottish Horse, that few of the enemy got away. Alberts himself with all his officers were among the prisoners. From this time until the end of February this column was not seriously engaged.
It has been stated above that on February 23rd Von Donop sent in an empty convoy from Wolmaranstad to Klerksdorp, a distance of about fifty miles. Nothing had been heard for some time of De la Rey, but he had called together his men and was waiting to bring off some coup. The convoy gave him the very opportunity for which he sought.
The escort of the convoy consisted of the 5th Imperial Yeomanry, sixty of Paget's Horse, three companies of the ubiquitous Northumberland Fusiliers, two guns of the 4th R.F.A., and a pom-pom, amounting in all to 630 men. Colonel Anderson was in command. On the morning of Tuesday, February 25th, the convoy was within ten miles of its destination, and the sentries on the kopjes round the town could see the gleam of the long line of white-tilted wagons. Their hazardous voyage was nearly over, and yet they were destined to most complete and fatal wreck within sight of port. So confident were they that the detachment of Paget's Horse was permitted to ride on the night before into the town. It was as well, for such a handful would have shared and could not have averted the disaster.
The night had been dark and wet, and the Boers under cover of it had crept between the sleeping convoy and the town. Some bushes which afford excellent cover lie within a few hundred yards of the road, and here the main ambush was laid. In the first grey of the morning the long line of the convoy, 130 wagons in all, came trailing past - guns and Yeomanry in front, Fusiliers upon the flanks and rear. Suddenly the black bank of scrub was outlined in flame, and a furious rifle fire was opened upon the head of the column. The troops behaved admirably under most difficult circumstances. A counter-attack by the Fusiliers and some of the Yeomanry, under cover of shrapnel from the guns, drove the enemy out of the scrub and silenced his fire at this point. It was evident, however, that he was present in force, for firing soon broke out along the whole left flank, and the rearguard found itself as warmly attacked as the van. Again, however, the assailants were driven off. It was now broad daylight, and the wagons, which had got into great confusion in the first turmoil of battle, had been remarshalled and arranged. It was Colonel Anderson's hope that he might be able to send them on into safety while he with the escort covered their retreat. His plan was certainly the best one, and if it did not succeed it was due to nothing which he could avert, but to the nature of the ground and the gallantry of the enemy.