History of the War in South Africa 1899-1902 Part 6

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[Sidenote: For Kimberley.]

The capture of Kimberley and the duty of holding in check the British troops at the Orange River station were a.s.signed to Free State levies composed of the Fauresmith, Jacobsdal, Bloemfontein, Ladybrand, Boshof and Hoopstad commandos, the first two of these corps being a.s.sembled at Boshof and the remainder at Jacobsdal. Their total strength was probably about 7,500; a Transvaal detachment, about 1,700 strong, composed of the Fordsburg and Bloemhof commandos, was concentrated at Fourteen Streams, ready to join hands with the Free Staters.

[Sidenote: For other points.]

The Philippolis, Bethulie, Rouxville, and Caledon commandos, under the orders of Commandants Grobelaar, Olivier and Swanepoel, were a.s.sembling at Donkerpoort, Bethulie, and a little to the north of Aliwal North for the protection, or possibly destruction, of the Norval's Pont, Bethulie, and Aliwal bridges. These four commandos had an approximate strength of 2,500 burghers. Detachments, amounting in all to about 1,000 men, were watching the Basuto border; on the extreme north of the Transvaal about 2,000 Waterberg and Zoutpansberg burghers were piqueting the drifts across the Limpopo river. A small guard had been placed at Komati Poort to protect the vulnerable portion of the railway to Delagoa Bay, while the Lydenburg and Carolina commandos, about 1,600 strong, under Schalk Burger, watched the native population of Swaziland. Thus, including the police and a few other detachments left to guard Johannesburg, about 48,000 burghers were under arms at the outbreak of war.

[Sidenote: Large influence of Baden-Powell on them.]

The most remarkable feature of the Boer dispositions is the influence on them of Baden-Powell's contingent. His two little corps, each numbering barely 500 men, had drawn away nearly 8,000 of the best burghers. Mafeking was in itself a place of no strategic value, and, had the enemy been content to watch, and hold with equal numbers, Lt.-Cols. H.C.O. Plumer's and C.O. h.o.r.e's regiments and the police and volunteers a.s.sisting them, a contingent of 5,000 Transvaalers might have been added to the army invading Natal, thus adding greatly to the difficulties of Sir George White's defence. Alternatively it might have ensured the capture of Kimberley, or might have marched as a recruiting column from the Orange river through the disaffected districts and have gradually occupied the whole of the British lines of communication down to the coast.

[Sidenote: Anxiety of British Situation.]

The general distribution, therefore, of the Queen's troops in South Africa at the outbreak of war appears, with the exception of the division of the field force in Natal, to have been the best that could have been devised, having due regard to the advantage of the initiative possessed by the enemy, and to the supreme importance of preventing, or at any rate r.e.t.a.r.ding, any rising of the disloyal in Cape Colony. Nevertheless, the situation was one of grave anxiety. The reinforcements which would form the field army were not due for some weeks. Meanwhile, in the eastern theatre of operations, the Boers would have made their supreme effort with all the advantages of superior numbers, greater mobility, and a _terrain_ admirably suited to their methods of fighting. A considerable portion of the British troops under Sir G. White were, moreover, mere units, lacking war organisation except on paper, unknown to their leaders and staff, unacquainted with the country, and with both horses and men out of condition after their sea voyage. In the western theatre, the safety of Kimberley and Mafeking mainly depended on the untried fighting qualities of recently enlisted colonial corps, volunteers, and hastily organised town-guards; detachments of regular troops dotted along the northern frontier of Cape Colony were without hope of support either from the coast or each other, and would be cut off and crushed in detail in the case of serious attack or of a rising in their rear.

Thus, the initiative lay absolutely with the enemy, and, so far as could be foreseen, must remain in his hands until the British army corps and cavalry division should be ready to take the field about the middle of December.

[Sidenote: Actual movement of Boers begins.]

According to the terms of the ultimatum of October 9th, a state of war ensued at 5 p.m. on the 11th. The advance of the Boer forces destined for the attack of Mafeking and Kimberley began on the following day, and by the 14th both places were cut off from Cape Colony. On the 17th the enemy occupied Belmont railway station. To meet these movements the 9th Lancers, the squadrons of which disembarked at Cape Town from India on the 14th, 15th, and 18th, were sent up to Orange River station immediately on their arrival. The 1st battalion Northumberland Fusiliers were also moved by train on the 15th from De Aar to Orange River, being replaced at the former station by a half-battalion of the 2nd battalion King's Own Yorks.h.i.+re Light Infantry, which reached Cape Town on the 14th, having been brought with extraordinary swiftness from Mauritius by H.M.S. _Powerful_. The Orange River bridge garrison was further strengthened by two 12-pr. B.L. guns manned by Prince Alfred's Own Cape artillery. The first field artillery to land in Cape Colony, the 62nd and half 75th batteries, were, on the evening of their disembarkation, the 25th, entrained at once for Orange River.

The 1st Border regiment, which arrived from Malta on the 22nd, was despatched immediately to De Aar, but subsequently, at the urgent request of Sir George White, was sent by train to East London and re-embarked for Natal. Steps were taken to make the Orange River railway bridge pa.s.sable by artillery and cavalry, by planking the s.p.a.ce between the rails. Meanwhile, on the advice of the local magistrate, Colonel Money, who was in command at Orange River, destroyed Hopetown road bridge, eleven miles to the westward, as it was feared the enemy's guns might cross the river at that point.

Raiding parties of the Boers had overrun Bechua.n.a.land and Griqualand West and spread proclamations annexing the former district to the Transvaal and the latter to the Free State. On the eastern side of the colony the enemy made no move, but still hung back on the north bank of the Orange River. The British garrison of Stormberg was reinforced by two naval 12-pr. 8-cwt. guns, accompanied by 357 officers and men of the Royal Navy and Marines, lent from Simon's Town by the Naval commander-in-chief. In the opinion of General Forestier-Walker, this reinforcement made this important railway junction, for the moment, reasonably secure. Three months' supplies had been stored at all the advanced posts.

[Sidenote: Cape volunteers called out.]

Two thousand of the Cape volunteer forces[60] were called out by the Governor on the 16th October and placed at the disposal of the General Officer Commanding the regular troops, on the understanding that they were to be paid and rationed from Imperial funds. These corps were at first employed as garrisons for Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, East London, Queenstown, and King William's Town; detachments of the Kaffrarian Rifles being also stationed at Barkly East, Cathcart, Molteno, and Indwe; but by the end of October the Colonial volunteers were drawn upon to furnish military posts on the three lines of railway from the coast, viz.: Touw's River, Fraserburg Road, and Beaufort West, on the western system; at Cookhouse and Witmoss on the central, and at Molteno and Sterkstroom, on the eastern. Arrangements were made for patrolling the line between these posts by railway employes. Having regard, however, to the great length of these lines, it was obvious that protection of this description, although useful in checking individual attempts to obstruct trains, or destroy bridges and culverts, would be of no value against any armed bodies of the enemy or of rebels.

[Footnote 60: The corps mobilised were Prince Alfred's Own Cape Field artillery, the Cape Garrison Artillery, the Kaffrarian Mounted Rifles, Prince Alfred's Volunteer Guard, the Duke of Edinburgh's Volunteer Rifles, and the Cape Town Highlanders. The Kimberley and Mafeking corps had been called out before the commencement of the war. Subsequently the Uitenhage Rifles and the Komgha Mounted Rifles were called out on the 10th of November, the Cape Medical Staff Corps was mobilised on the 16th of November, and the Frontier Mounted Rifles on the 24th of November, 1899.]

[Sidenote: General success of policy of bluff.]

Thus, in the western theatre of war, although the investment of Kimberley, and, in a lesser degree, the attack on Mafeking, were causes of grave alarm to the loyalists of Cape Colony, yet, from a larger point of view, the forward policy of frontier defence successfully tided over the dangerous weeks previous to the arrival of the first units of the army corps from home.

CHAPTER III.

THE THEATRE OF WAR.[61]

[Footnote 61: See general map of South Africa, Relief map, No. 2, and map, No. 3.]

[Sidenote: Three chapters dealing with the ground and the two armies engaged.]

When the challenge to war, recorded in the first chapter, startled the British people, it met with an immediate response alike in the home islands, and in the Colonies, in India, or elsewhere, wherever they happened to be. In order to understand the problems of no small complexity confronting the statesmen at home and the generals who in the field had to carry out the will of the nation by taking up the gauntlet so thrown down, it is necessary, first, that the characteristics of the vast area which was about to become the scene of operations should be realised; secondly, that the strength of the forces on which the challenger relied for making good his words should be estimated; and, thirdly, that certain peculiarities in the const.i.tution of our own army, which materially affected the nature of the task which lay before both Ministers and soldiers, whether in London or in South Africa, should be recognised. The next three chapters will deal in succession with each of these subjects. The attempt which is here made to portray in a few pages the mountains, the rolling prairies, and the rivers of the sub-continent must be aided by an examination of the map which has been specially prepared in order to make the description intelligible.

[Sidenote: General aspect of area.]

The tableland of South Africa is some 1,360,000 square miles in extent, and of a mean alt.i.tude of 3,000 to 5,000 feet above sea level.

To the Indian Ocean on the east it shows a face of scarped mountains.

Following the coast-line at a distance inland of from 70 to 100 miles, these sweep round from north to south: then stretch straight across the extreme south-west of the continent through Cape Colony, dwindling as they once more turn northward into the sand-hills of Namaqualand, and rising again to the eminences above Mossamedes in Portuguese territory. The rampart, however, though continuous for a distance of more than 1,200 miles, scarcely anywhere presents an abrupt wall to the seaboard, but on the contrary descends to it in some parts in one gigantic step, in others in a series of steps, or terraces.

[Sidenote: Cape Colony: the Karroos.]

Of the States within it, Cape Colony first claims consideration. In the central section the step or terrace formation is so marked, and the flats, which intervene between the rises, are of such extent, and of a nature so curious, that they form one of the most remarkable features of South Africa. They are known as "the Karroos," vast plains stretching northward, firstly as the Little Karroo from the lower coast ranges to the more elevated Zwarte Bergen, thence as the Great Karroo to the still loftier Nieuwveld Mountains. In the rainless season they present an aspect indescribably desolate, and at the same time a formidable military obstacle to any invasion of Cape Colony on a large scale from the north. They are then mere wastes of sand and dead scrub, lifeless and waterless. The first fall of rain produces a transformation as rapid as any effected by nature. The vegetable life of the Karroos, which has only been suspended, not extinguished, is then released; the arid watercourses are filled in a few hours, and the great desert tract becomes within that brief time a garden of flowers. Even then, from the scarcity of buildings and inhabitants, and hence of supplies, the Karroos still form a barrier not to be lightly attempted, unless by an army fully equipped, and carrying its own magazines; or, on the other hand, by a band of partisans so insignificant as to be able to subsist on the scanty resources available, and to disappear when these are exhausted, or the enemy approaches in strength.

[Sidenote: Hills above Karroos.]

The first noticeable feature of the hill systems which bind these steppes is their regularity of disposition, and the second, their steadily increasing alt.i.tude northwards to that mountain group which, running roughly along the 32nd parallel of lat.i.tude, culminates in the Sneeuw Bergen, where the Compa.s.s Peak (8,500 feet) stands above the plains of Graaf Reinet. North of these heights, only the low Karree Bergen, about 150 miles distant, and the slightly higher Hartzogsrand, occur to break the monotonous fall of the ground towards the bed of the Orange. All the geographical and strategical interest lies to the north and east of the Compa.s.s Peak, where with the Zuurbergen commences the great range, known to the natives as Quathlamba,[62] but to the Voortrekkers, peopling its mysterious fastnesses with monsters of their imagination, as the Drakensberg.[63] Throwing out spurs over the length and breadth of Basutoland, this granite series, here rising to lofty mountains, there dwindling to rounded downs, runs northward to the Limpopo river, still clinging to the coast, that is to say, for a distance of over 1,250 miles. The Zuurbergen, the western extremity, are of no great elevation. They form a downward step from the Compa.s.s and the Great Winterberg to the Orange river, whose waters they part from those of the Great Fish and Great Kei rivers. The Stormbergen, on the other hand, which sweep in a bold curve round to the north-east until, on the borders of Basutoland, they merge into the central ma.s.s, are high, rugged, and pierced by exceedingly few roads, forming a strong line of defence.

[Footnote 62: "Piled up and rugged."]

[Footnote 63: "Mountains of the Dragons."]

[Sidenote: Pa.s.ses.]

It may be said generally of the Cape highlands that the only pa.s.ses really practicable for armies are those through which, in 1899, the railways wound upwards to the greater alt.i.tudes. These lines of approach to the Free State frontier were as follows:--

1.--THE CAPE COLONY--DE AAR line.

2.--THE PORT ELIZABETH--NORVAL'S PONT line.

3.--THE EAST LONDON--BETHULIE AND ALIWAL NORTH lines.

These were connected by two transverse branches; elsewhere throughout their length they were not only almost completely isolated, but divided by great tracts of pathless mountains and barren plains, rendering, except at the points mentioned, or by way of the sea, the transfer of troops from one to the other a difficult process. Therefore the branch lines (I. De Aar--Naauwpoort; 2. Stormberg--Rosmead) had a significance hardly inferior to that of the three ports, Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, and East London. These varied greatly in the facilities they afforded.

Table Bay, with its docks, wharves and store-houses, took rank among the great commercial harbours of the world. Port Elizabeth, 430 miles eastward, had no true harbour. Its open roadstead, although frequented by the mercantile marine, was exposed to the dangerous south-east gales prevalent on that coast. At East London, 140 miles yet further eastwards, there was a small although excellent harbour. Its deep basin allowed ocean steamers to moor alongside the railway wharf, but the water area was limited and a sandbank at the mouth of the river Buffalo, which flows in here, barred the approach of vessels exceeding 4,000 tons in burden. On the east coast, Durban, at a distance of 300 miles from East London and 830 miles from Cape Town, formed a satisfactory base.

The difficulties of a bar at the entrance to the harbour, similar to that at East London, had been overcome by the energy and enterprise of the colonial authorities. There was no direct communication by land between these four ports, but this was of little consequence to a power holding command at sea.

[Sidenote: The northern Drakensberg.]

North of the Stormbergen the Drakensberg range maintains its north-easterly trend continuously until it breaks up in the valley of the Limpopo. Along the eastern Basuto border, from the Natal to the Free State frontiers, its characteristics, which have been always grand, become magnificent. Here it is joined by the Maluti Mountains, a range which, bisecting the domains of the Basuto, and traversing them with its great spurs, has earned for the little state the t.i.tle of the South African Switzerland. At the junction of the Basutoland, Free State, and Natal frontiers stands Potong, an imposing table-shaped ma.s.s, called by the French missionaries Mont Aux Sources, from the fact that it forms the chief water parting between the numerous streams flowing west and east. Further south tower Cathkin (or Champagne Castle), Giants Castle, and Mount Hamilton, the latter within the Basuto border. All these and many lesser peaks are joined by ridge after ridge of rugged grandeur.

[Sidenote: Drakensberg pa.s.ses.]

Between the Basuto border and Laing's Nek lies the chief strategic interest of the Drakensberg. Of less elevation than the lofty giants which lie behind it to the southward, this portion still preserves, with a mean alt.i.tude of 8,000 feet, the peculiar scenic beauty of the system. From the Basuto border northwards the mountains formed the frontier between Natal and the Orange Free State. They are pierced by a number of pa.s.ses of which none are easy, with the exception of Laing's Nek, leading into the Transvaal. The best known, starting from the southern extremity of this frontier section, are Olivier's Hoek, Bezuidenhout, and Tintwa Pa.s.ses at the head-stream of the Tugela river; Van Reenen's, a steep tortuous gap over which the railway from Ladysmith to Harrismith, and a broad highway, wind upwards through a strange profusion of sudden peaks and flat-topped heights; De Beers, Cundycleugh, and Sunday's River Pa.s.ses giving access by rough bridle paths from the Free State into Natal, abreast of the Dundee coalfields; Muller's and Botha's Pa.s.ses debouching on Newcastle and Ingogo; and finally Laing's Nek, the widest and most important of all, by which a fair road over a rounded saddle crosses the Drakensberg, the Transvaal frontier lying four miles to the north of its summit.

Some of the eastern spurs thrown off from this section of the Drakensberg completely traverse, and form formidable barriers across, Natal. Such are the Biggarsberg, a range of lofty downs running from Cundycleugh Pa.s.s across the apex of Natal to Dundee, and pierced by the railway from Waschbank to Glencoe. Further to the south, Mount Tintwa throws south-eastward down to the river Tugela a long, irregular spur, of which the chief features are the eminences of Tabanyama and Spion Kop. This spur, indeed, after a brief subsidence below the last-named Kop, continues to flank the whole of the northern bank of the Tugela as far as the railway, culminating there in the heights of Pieters, and the lofty downs of Grobelaars Kloof, both of which overhang the river. East of the railway another series of heights prolongs the barrier, and joins hands with the lower slopes of the Biggarsberg, which descends to the Tugela between Sunday's and Buffalo rivers. Further south still, broad spurs from Cathkin and Giants Castle strike out through Estcourt and Highlands, and connect the Drakensberg with Zululand.

[Sidenote: Spurs of Drakensberg.]

North of Basutoland, the western spurs of the Drakensberg, jutting out on to the Orange Free State uplands, are far less numerous and p.r.o.nounced than those in Natal, where the mountains dip steeply down towards the sea; but the Versamelberg, the Witteberg, and the Koranaberg further south, although of no great height, are strategical features of importance.

[Sidenote: Drakensberg and Lobombo ranges.]

Beyond Laing's Nek, the Drakensberg, no longer a watershed, and losing much both of its continuity and splendour, still preserves its north-easterly trend, dropping still further to a mean alt.i.tude of between 5,000 and 6,000 feet, and pa.s.sing under many local appellations, through the eastern Transvaal, until near Lydenburg, it again rises in the Mauch Berg. Along its eastern edge the Drakensberg here descends in the ruggedest slopes and precipices to the plains which divide it from the Lobombo Mountains, a range which, commencing at the Pongola river opposite Lake St. Lucia, runs parallel to the Drakensberg, the two systems inclining inward to coalesce at the Limpopo. South of that river the Lobombo formed throughout its length the eastern frontier of the Transvaal State.

[Sidenote: The rands.]

North of the Oliphant river, which pierces both the Drakensberg and Lobombo, the character of the Drakensberg becomes still more fragmentary. Here its most important features are the transverse ridges, or _rands_, thrown off from it in a direction generally south-westerly. Chief amongst these are the Murchison and Zoutpansberg Mountains, which, covering more than 350 miles of the country, unite in the Witfontein Berg in the Rustenburg district. These ridges, though of an elevation of over 4,000 feet above the sea level, rise nowhere more than, and seldom as much as, 1,500 feet above the terrain, and do little to relieve the monotony of the great prairies they traverse and surround. The same type is preserved by the various low ridges running parallel to and south of them towards the Orange Free State border. One of these is the famous Wit.w.a.ters Rand, extending from Krugersdorp to Springs, and another the Magaliesberg, a chain of more imposing character, connecting Pretoria and Rustenburg to the north-east, and disappearing in the fertile Marico valley.

North of the Limpopo the Drakensberg, though becoming more broken and complicated, still presents a bold front where the great sub-continental plateau descends suddenly northwards to the Zambesi, and eastwards to Portuguese territory, _i.e._, on the northern and eastern frontiers of Mashonaland. Almost at the junction of these boundaries it is joined by the Matoppo Hills, which rise from the north-eastern limits of Khama's Country, bisect obliquely the region between the Zambesi and the Limpopo, and culminate in Mount Hampden (5,000 feet), near Salisbury.

History of the War in South Africa 1899-1902 Part 6

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