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   Chapter 9 No.9

Three Years' War By Christiaan Rudolf De Wet Characters: 11698

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


The Wild Flight from Poplar Grove

The surrender of General Cronje only made me all the more determined to continue the struggle, notwithstanding the fact that many of the burghers appeared to have quite lost heart. I had just been appointed Commander-in-Chief, and at once set my hand to the work before me.

Let me explain how this came about.

As I have already said, General C.J. Wessels had been appointed Commander-in-Chief at Kimberley. In the month of January he was succeeded by Mr. J.S. Ferreira, who at once proceeded to make Kimberley his headquarters. On the relief of that town, one part of the besieging force went to Viertienstroomen, another in the direction of Boshof, while a small party, in which was the Commander-in-Chief himself, set out towards Koedoesrand, above Paardeberg.

It was while I was engaged in my efforts to relieve Cronje, that a gun accident occurred in which General Ferreira was fatally wounded. Not only his own family, but the whole nation, lost in him a man whom they can never forget. I received the sad news the day after his death, and, although the place of his burial was not more than two hours' ride from my camp, I was too much occupied with my own affairs to be able to attend his funeral.

On the following day I received from President Steyn the appointment of Vice-Commander-in-Chief. I had no thought of declining it, but the work which it would involve seemed likely to prove anything but easy. To have the chief command, and at such a time as this! But I had to make the best of it.

I began by concentrating my commandos, to the best of my ability, at Modderrivierpoort (Poplar Grove), ten miles east of the scene of Cronje's surrender. I had plenty of time to effect this, for Lord Roberts remained inactive from the 24th of February to the 7th of March, in order to rest a little after the gigantic task he had performed in capturing Cronje's laager. His thoughts must have been busy during that period with even more serious matters than the care of his weary troops; for, if we had had two hundred killed and wounded, he must have lost as many thousands.

Those few days during which our enemy rested were also of advantage to me in enabling me to dispose of the reinforcements, which I was now receiving every day, and from almost every quarter.

While I was thus engaged, I heard that General Buller had relieved Ladysmith on the 1st of March, that General Gatacre had taken Stormberg on the 5th, and that General Brabant was driving the Boers before him.

These were the first results of General Cronje's surrender.

But that fatal surrender was not only the undoing of our burghers; it also reinforced the enemy, and gave him new courage. This was evident from the reply which Lord Salisbury made to the peace proposals made by our two Presidents on March 5th. But more of this anon.

Our last day at Poplar Grove was signalized by a visit paid to us by President Kruger, the venerable chief of the South African Republic. He had travelled by rail from Pretoria to Bloemfontein; the remaining ninety-six miles of the journey had been accomplished in a horse-waggon-he, whom we all honoured so greatly, had been ready to undergo even this hardship in order to visit us.

The President's arrival was, however, at an unfortunate moment. It was March the 7th, and Lord Roberts was approaching. His force, extending over ten miles of ground, was now preparing to attack my burghers, whom I had posted at various points along some twelve miles of the bank of the Modder River. It did not seem possible for the old President even to outspan, for I had received information that the enemy's right wing was already threatening Petrusburg. But as the waggon had travelled that morning over twelve miles of a heavy rain-soaked road, it was absolutely necessary that the horses should be outspanned for rest. But hardly had the harness been taken off the tired animals when a telegram arrived, saying that Petrusburg was already in the hands of the English. President Kruger was thus compelled to return without a moment's delay. I saw him into his waggon, and then immediately mounted my horse, and rode to the positions where my burghers were stationed.

Again I was confronted with the baleful influence of Cronje's surrender. A panic had seized my men. Before the English had even got near enough to shell our positions to any purpose, the wild flight began. Soon every position was evacuated. There was not even an attempt to hold them, though some of them would have been almost impregnable. It was a flight such as I had never seen before, and shall never see again.

I did all that I could, but neither I nor my officers were able to prevent the burghers from following whither the waggons and guns had already preceded them. I tried every means. I had two of the best horses that a man could wish to possess, and I rode them till they dropped. All was in vain. It was fortunate for us that the advance of the English was not very rapid. Had it been so, everything must have fallen into their hands.

In the evening we came to Abraham's Kraal, a farm belonging to Mr. Charles Ortel, some eighteen miles from Poplar Grove. The enemy were encamped about an hour and a half's ride from us.

The next morning the burghers had but one desire, and that was to get away. It was only with the greatest difficulty that I succeeded in persuading them to go into position. I then hastened to Bloemfontein, in order to take counsel with the Government about our affairs generally, and especially to see what would be the most suitable positions to occupy for the defence of the capital. Judge Hertzog and I went out together to inspect the ground; we placed a hundred men in the forts, with Kaffirs to dig trenches and throw up earthworks.

I was back at Abraham'

s Kraal by nine o'clock on the morning of March the 18th. I found that our forces had been placed in position by Generals De la Rey, Andreas Cronje, Philip Botha, Froneman and Piet de Wet, the last-named having arrived with his commandos from Colesberg a few days before the rout at Poplar Grove.

We had not long to wait before fighting began, fighting confined for the most part to the artillery. The English shells were at first directed against Abraham's Kraal, which was subjected to a terrific bombardment; later on they turned their guns upon Rietfontein, where the Transvaalers and a part of the Free State commandos, under General De la Rey, were posted. The attack upon these positions was fierce and determined; but De la Rey's burghers, though they lost heavily, repulsed it with splendid courage. I will not say more of this. It is understood that General De la Rey will himself describe what he and his men succeeded in accomplishing on that occasion.

From ten in the morning until sunset the fight continued, and still the burghers held their positions. They had offered a magnificent resistance. Their conduct had been beyond all praise, and it was hard to believe that these were the same men who had fled panic-stricken from Poplar Grove. But with the setting of the sun a change came over them. Once more panic seized them; leaving their positions, they retreated in all haste towards Bloemfontein. And now they were only a disorderly crowd of terrified men blindly flying before the enemy.

But it was Bloemfontein that lay before them, and the thought that his capital was in peril might well restore courage in the most disheartened of our burghers. I felt that this would be the case, and a picture arose before me of our men holding out, as they had never done before.

Before going further I must say a few words about the peace proposals which our Presidents made to the English Government on the 5th of March. They called God to witness that it was for the independence of the two Republics, and for that alone, that they fought, and suggested that negotiations might be opened with the recognition of that independence as their basis.

Lord Salisbury replied that the only terms he would accept were unconditional surrender. He asserted, as he did also on many subsequent occasions, that it was our ultimatum that had caused the war. We have always maintained that in making this assertion he misrepresented the facts, to use no stronger term.[24]

Naturally our Government would not consent to such terms, and so the war had to proceed.

It was decided to send a deputation to Europe. This deputation, consisting of Abraham Fissher,[25] Cornelius H. Wessels,[26] and Daniel Wolmarans,[27] sailed from Delagoa Bay.[28]

The reader may ask the object which this deputation had in view. Was it that our Governments relied on foreign intervention? Emphatically, no! They never thought of such a thing. Neither in his harangue to the burghers at Poplar Grove, nor in any of his subsequent speeches, did President Steyn give any hint of such an intention. The deputation was sent in order that the whole world might know the state of affairs in South Africa. It fulfilled its purpose, and was justified by its results. It helped us to win the sympathy of the nations.

But I must return to my narrative.

A few days before the flight from Poplar Grove, I had appointed Danie Theron captain of a scouting party. I now left him and his corps behind, with instructions to keep me informed of Lord Roberts' movements, and proceeded myself to Bloemfontein. There I disposed the available forces for defence, and kept them occupied in throwing up schanzes. These schanzes were erected to the west and south of the town, and at distances of from four to six miles from it.

On the evening of the 12th of March, Lord Roberts appeared, and a few skirmishes ensued south of the town, but no engagement of any importance took place. We awaited the morrow with various forebodings.

For myself, I believed that that 13th of March should see a fight to the finish, cost what it might! for if Bloemfontein was to be taken, it would only be over our dead bodies.

With this before my eyes, I made all necessary arrangements, riding at nightfall from position to position, and speaking both to the officers and to the private burghers. They must play the man, I told them, and save the capital at any cost. An excellent spirit prevailed amongst them; on every face one could read the determination to conquer or to die.

But when, about an hour before midnight, I reached the southern positions, I heard a very different story. They told me there that Commandant Weilbach had deserted his post early in the evening. What was I to do? It was impossible to search for him during the night, and I was compelled to take burghers away from other commandos, and to place them in the abandoned positions. On their arrival there, they discovered that no sooner had Weilbach failed us than the enemy had seized his post-the key to Bloemfontein! We did all that we could, but our situation had been rendered hopeless by the action of a Commandant who ought to have been dismissed out of hand for his conduct at Poplar Grove.

That night I did not close an eye.

* * *

The morning of the 13th of March dawned.

Hardly had the sun risen, when the English in the entrenchments which Commandant Weilbach had deserted, opened a flank fire on our nearest positions.

First one position and then another was abandoned by our burghers, who followed one another's example like sheep; few made any attempt to defend their posts, and in spite of my efforts and those of the officers under me, they retreated to the north.

Thus, without a single shot being fired, Bloemfontein fell into the hands of the English.

* * *

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