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THE BATTLE OF BETHLEHEM  AND THE SURRENDER OF PRINSLOO


The drama in Natal having been concluded, the curtain rose on the last act of the drama in Orange River Colony, the final scenes of which went "on  greased wheels," as it were, owing to the tremendous energy and talent in the field of; first, General Sir Leslie Rundle, who had had all the hard preliminary work to do; second, Generals Clements and Paget, and finally of  the greatest martial performer of all--General Sir Archibald Hunter. It will be remembered that this officer, after the accident to General Ian Hamilton, had taken over his command, but July found him released from the eastern  Transvaal and in act of assisting in the concluding operations in the Orange River Colony. His force now consisted of the 2nd and 3rd Brigades of Mounted Infantry, Kitchener's Horse, Lovat's Scouts, the Composite Regiment of  Cavalry from the Transvaal, the Highland Brigade (minus the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders guarding Heilbron), the Munsters, the Yorkshire Light Infantry, the Scottish Rifles (Militia), and South Staffordshire (Militia),  under the command of General Arthur Faget, the 38th Battery Royal Field Artillery and Battery of the City Imperial Volunteers, the Scottish Yeomanry, under Colonel Burn, the 14th and 15th Imperial Yeomanry, and the Imperial  Australian Regiment. In conjunction with General Brabant and General Rundle, who were in or around Senekal and Hammonia respectively, he moved steadily to the south-east, the main object of the operations being to dislodge the  Boers from Bethlehem and sweep them off from the rich grain country on the eastern side of the Orange River Colony, and prevent them from penetrating lower and disturbing already pacified districts.

Near Lindley, as we are  aware, as a commencement of the combined closing in movement, Generals Clements and Paget had effected a junction. The Boers clustering in the neighbourhood of Winburg and Senekal were known to be yet active, though many of  their number came in at times and surrendered, while others, longing to do likewise, were caught sneaking forth and were sjamboked by their compatriots. In fact, strong guards had to be posted round desertion of Boers of  pacific tendencies. they fought well and tenaciously, and amount of trouble at every turn of the laagers to prevent the Still, when they fought, managed to give a vast the road.

General Paget, on the 3rd, attacked the  Dutchmen in their strong position at Pleisirfontein, driving them off across Leeuw Kop to Broncrifontein. He bivouacked for the night in the position he had secured, not without some fierce fighting, an account of which was  given by one of the Imperial Yeomanry

"We moved from Lindley on the morning of July 2, and by midday were in touch with the enemy, who  had taken up a position on some kopjes over-looking the road on which we had to pass. We opened fire with the 38th Battery Field Artillery 15-pounder, and also with the C.l.V. 12-pounder quick-firing guns. The Boers replied  with two 15-pounders, but we were too much for them, and by 2 P.M. we had driven them off and our Mounted Infantry and Yeomanry had taken the position. It was a miserably cold day with drizzling rain, so you may imagine it was  anything but pleasant.

"We camped that night at a farm which the enemy had occupied all day. They retired some distance, and continued shelling our camp till dark, and though some of their shells fell into our camp and  among the waggons no harm was done. Our casualties were two of our men wounded. Mter we had pitched our camp it came on to rain, so we had to lie down in our wet blankets on the damp veldt. We were, however, able to get plenty  of wood from the farmhouse, so we made a large fire which, with some warm tea, was a comfort. Next day we moved camp at 8 A.M. and proceeded, after the Boers had dropped a few shells into us. Our artillery went on ahead, and  took up a position on a kopje, and shortly after we located the Boer guns on another kopje. To-day we found they had a large gun, a Creusot, which outranged ours. The artillery duel lasted all day till 4 P.M. when general  attack was made by the Infantry and Yeomanry on the kopje. While this was going on a force of Boers dressed in khaki and helmets, the same as those used at Lindley, managed to creep up on the 38th Battery, who had run short of  ammunition, and shot the men down at the guns. The captain and lieutenant were killed, and Major Oldfield was mortally wounded."

As may be imagined  the situation was now verging on disaster. Major Oldfield had received his death-blow, Captain Fitzgerald was helpless with a bullet in the thigh, Lieutenant Belcher was shot at his guns. The gunners and drivers of the guns had  nearly all dropped dead or were disabled-their horses in death agonies strewing the ground. It was impossible, therefore, to remove the guns. The Bushmen had been forced to retire at a critical moment, and it seemed as though  the day were lost. Then up came the C.I.V. Battery, and with the assistance of Captain Budworth-whose wits and gallantry were never better displayed-fired their two guns trail to trail over the heads of the 38th, battered the  triumphantly advancing foe on the left front and, in a word, saved the situation. Off scudded the Boers, after them went the Bushmen, Budworth riding at the head, and finally with the assistance of the Infantry-the Yorkshire  Light Infantry, the Munster Fusiliers, and the Imperial Yeomanry who had rushed up the hills and scattered the remaining Dutchmen at the point of the bayonet-they succeeded in getting the guns limbered up and away! The dashing  work cost forty killed and wounded, besides Captain Dill, 2nd Yorkshire Light Infantry, wounded, and Lieutenant and Adjutant A. F. C. Williams, Indian Staff Corps (Attached Brabant's Horse), dangerously wounded.

On the  following day, 4th, the enemy was pursued as far as Blaauw Kop, fifteen miles north-west of Bethlehem, where Mr. Steyn's. seat of government was now supposed to be. Mr. Steyn had cautiously betaken himseff to Fouriesberg  (between Bethlehem and Ficksburg), leaving De Wet and some 3000 men to await the attack of the British forces. Meanwhile round Ficksburg fierce fighting was taking place, the Boers making a midnight attack with the despairing  idea of reoccupying that town. Their furious effort lasted but an hour, when they found themselves beaten.

On the 5th the position at Doornberg, on the Winburg-Senekal road, which the Dutchman had evacuated, was promptly  taken possession of by General Brabant, who thereby ousted them from a vantage-point whence they could pounce on convoys proceeding to and from the base at Winburg, and secured the line of rail in the vicinity of Zand River,  round which hovering gangs of wreckers had persistently congregated.

To return to the Dutchmen inside Bethlehem. The town, like many other South African towns, is dominated by cliffs or kopjes, two of these being on the  north-west, while another (Wolhunter Kop) rises in the south in a high and solitary peak above the plain, and descends steeply towards the side of the town. Naturally these obstructive eminences were chosen as the stronghold of  the foe, and as naturally the object of the British was now to clear the Boers from them, and to this end General Arthur Paget marched his force to within two miles of his objective, and encamped near the northerly spurs of the  north-western kopjes.

General Clements's column, consisting of the Royal Irish, Worcesters, Wiltshires, a battery of Field Artillery, and two 5 inch guns moved about six miles on the left rear of General Paget's force towards  the east of the town; where, on all the available ridges and cliffs were Boer trenches and gun emplacements, some of these knowingly and skilfully arranged at a right angle with the cliffs and with their backs to the town, in  order that any approaching force could be swept from all directions as they neared the position. General Clements sent to De Wet a flag of truce demanding the surrender of the place, and on receipt of a refusal the  hammer-and-tong process of warfare began.

Both Generals simultaneously attacked from different points, but owing to the crusted and gibbose nature of the ground in this part of the Orange Colony it was impossible for the  Cavalry to attempt any very wide turning movement. The result was that on the dash and daring of the Infantry much was found to depend. and that eventually carried all before it. The Cavalry, the 14th and 15th Imperial  Yeomanry, and Imperial Australian Regiment operated on the right, and made themselves masters of a position on a kopje at the northerly ridge of the eminences held by the Boers. General Clements engaged the foe in his eastern  fastnesses, capturing them on the following day through the gallantry of the Royal Irish Regiment, while the Infantry with General Paget fought with splendid persistence, till their ammunition being exhausted they finally  charged with' the bayonet so gallantly, so effectively, that the Boers were routed, and General Paget at nightfall found himself in possession of a kopje which faced and was the key to the terrific steeps leading to the  precipitous peak of Woihunter's Kop. This charge of the Munsters,was supported by the Yorkshire Light Infantry, was described by one of the officers of the former splendid regiment in glowing terms: "The Royal Munster  Fusiliers had to storm a kopje at the point of the bayonet. For the last 8oo yards my men had not a round of ammunition left. We kept advancing, cheering as we went on, with bayonets fixed. We got within fifty yards, when the  Boers fired their last volley and bolted. The position was won. The G.O.C., in his despatch to Lord Roberts, said the gallantry displayed by the Munsters was beyond all praise. . . . My men behaved excellently. I never want  finer fellows to be with in an attack."

Mr. Blundell, of the Morning Post related a characteristic anecdote which served to show the debonnair spirit, the coolness and aplomb of some of the doughty band: "In the  midst of the rush past some Kaffir kraals a goose waddled out through the line, and a man, not too preoccupied to forget the future, lowered his bayonet, swung the bird over his shoulder in his stride, and took possession of  the captured position with his dinner on his back." The goose was eaten in face of the frowning Wolhunter's Kop, which next day, the 7th, fell into the hands of the British through a series of ingenious martial manoeuvres,  assisted by the brilliant execution of the 38th Battery R.F.A. and the C.I.V. Battery under Major M'Micking. The decisive move in the operations was brought about by the splendid persistence of the Royal Irish, who, extended in  three lines, stormed a formidable kopje amidst cascades of fire, dropping, and sweating, and shouting, yet never halting till they had reached the crest, captured it, and in addition to it a prize-a gun, one of our own lost in  the fatal affair at Stormberg. By midday the enemy was in full retreat, and the town was occupied by the combined forces.

The casualty list on the first day, considering the magnitude of the operations and the strength of the  positions assailed, was not large: Thirty-two men of the Munster Fusiliers were wounded and one man missing; seven men of the Yorkshire Light Infantry wounded; one man of the 58th Company Imperial Yeomanry was killed, and two  men wounded.

The wounded officers were: Lieutenant A. H. D. West, 8th Battery Royal Field Artillery; Captain T. W. Williams, 5th Volunteer  Battalion Liverpool Regiment (attached Royal Irish Regiment) ; Captain G. D. M'Pherson, 1st Munster Fusiliers; Captain W. C. Oates, 1st Munster Fusiliers ; Lieutenant Conway, 1st Munster Fusiliers; Second Lieutenant Boyd  Rochford, 4th Scottish Rifles.

The following casualty occurred on the 7th: Captain J. B. H. Alderson, 1st Royal Irish Rifles, wounded (since dead).

On the morrow, Broadwoods Brigade, preceding General Hunter, arrived.

After this, by systematic and strategic pressure, the Free Staters were being pushed off their impregnable heights to a mountainous place called the  Brandwater Basin, some fifteen miles square, in the region of the Caledon River, leaving us in possession of practically the last of their towns-Lindley, Bethlehem, Bidduiph's Berg, and Senekal. Bethlehem was occupied by  General Paget, Bidduiph's Berg by General Clements, Senekal by General Rundle, and thus a cordon was supposed to be drawn round the wily enemy. Unluckily, on the 15th, between Bethlehem and Ficksbu rg, a small gap existed-a gap  which but for delay in regard to his supplies would have been held by General Paget-and through this loophole, Stabbert's Nek, that very slippery fish De Wet contrived to slide, taking with him 1500 men and five guns. This was  unfortunate, as the escaped enemy threatened to become a serious diversion from the business in hand, particularly as no general advance could be made till the necessary convoys had arrived for the enormous amount of troops  forming the cordon.

Nevertheless while General Hunter, on one side, actively engaged in reconnoitring the positions held by the remainder of De Wet's forces between Bethlehem, Ficksburg, Fouriesburg, Retief's and Stabbert's  Neks, General Little (temporarily commanding the 3rd Brigade) pursued De Wet himself, and the force that had recently broken through the cordon was found to be hovering between Bethlehem and Lindley. A smart contest ensued,  which lasted till dusk, when the Boers broke up into two parties and again vanished, leaving several dead and two wounded upon the field.

On the same day, i9th, General Broadwood, commanding 2nd Cavalry Brigade, who had been  following up the fleeing Boers since the 16th, spent some hours in an animated engagement near Palmietfontein, between Ventersburg and Lindley. The enemy, with swelled numbers, and said to be accompanied by Steyn and one of the  De Wets, had been wheeling round the railway communications as moths circle around a chandelier. Having caught them here General Broadwood made a brisk fight of it, but the Boers under cover of darkness evaded pursuit. On the  following morning it was found that they had doubled back to Paardekraal during the night. The line on the north of Honing Spruit showed signs of their depredations, and on the western side the telegraph wires to Pretoria Via  Potchefstroom were cut. During the fight Major Moore, West Australian Mounted Infantry, was killed, and Lieutenant the Hon. F. Stanley, 10th Hussars, Lieutenant Tooth, Australian Contingent, and fourteen men were wounded.  General Broadwood proceeded to Vaal Krantz, which place was reached on the 22nd.

Meanwhile the desperadoes, routed on all sides, made a rush upon the line near Roodeval, :,tore up the rails, and succeeded in capturing on the  night of the 21st, between Kroonstad and the Vaal, a supply train with two officers and a hundred men of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers. De Wet's force, doubtless well pleased with itself, then moved via Vrede fort in a north  easterly direction, quickly pursued by General Broadwood, who, in his turn, was followed by General Little. The former officer succeeded on the 23rd in capturing some of De Wet's waggons at Vredefort, at which place he halted  till joined by General Little. On the 25th De Wet, ubiquitous, was found posted on some comfortable heights at Reitzburg, some seven miles south of the Vaal, while General Broadwood, like a cat watching a bird, was preparing to  spring. But the bird was too wary, and kept his wings flapping for flight at the first provocation. Indeed, he had dodges at his fingers' end, and tried a new variety every time he was warned of the British approach. One of  these was at a certain place to keep a dozen or so Boer hats, which had previously been strung on a line, continually bobbing over a certain entrenched spot in order to impress the British and lead them astray, while he and his  horde tbok an opposite direction.

While the chase was going forward some fighting took place, in which the Berkshire Yeomanry, the Imperial Bushmen, and the 38th Field Battery took part. They disputed the possession of a high  hill to west of Bethlehem, but as possession makes nine points of the law, the Boers, posted in strength upon the hill, caused the small force to retire. During the retirement one oflicer and nine men were lost. General Bruce  Hamilton also engaged in some active work, which cost him three of the Cameron Highlanders, whose regiment, assisted by 500 Mounted Infantry and the 82nd Battery, succeeded in securing a strong position on Spitzray. Captain  Keith Hamilton, Oxford Light Infantry, was wounded severely, and Captain Brown, Captain A. C. McLean, and Lieutenant Stewart, Cameron Highlanders, Captain E. S. C. Hobson, Mounted Infantry Worcester Regiment, and thirteen  Cameron Highlanders were all more or less severely injured.

Of the terribly hard work done by the 21st Brigade it has been impossible to take due note. Since the 28th of April they had covered on foot some 1200 miles, and had  done more fighting and marching than any brigade at the front. They could count as many as forty-three engagements to their credit, and as one of the Sussex men said, "We have been in several tight corners, but have always  come out on top." The Irish, Scottish, and Colonial Corps had all received their meed of praise, but certain English regiments,. notably the Sussex, the Wiltshire, and the Liverpool Regiments, owing to the fact of their  not being prominently engaged in the "historic" battles, got less than their share of appreciation, though no better and braver and more enduring regiments could be found in the British army.

Operations were now  carried forward with additional vigour, for it was known that Boers, some 6ooo of them, led by Roux and Prinsloo, who had not bolted with De Wet, must still be in the neighbourhood of the Caledon Valley, the river behind them,  the only passes available among the snow-capped mountains, Commando Nek below Fouriesburg, Stabbert's and Retief's Neks near Bethlehem, and Golden Gate, leading out of the valley. But these, it must be remembered, were fairly  far apart, and loopholes of necessity were many. At all these points the British, lynxeyed, furious at being given the slip by De Wet, crouched General Hunter himself observed Retiefs Nek, while General Bruce Hamilton barred  Golden Gate, and Generals Paget and Rundle took up positions watching Stabbert's and Commando Neks respectively.

To appreciate the nicety of the movement a glance at the map is necessary. The geographical nature of the  situation in which the Boers found themselves after the battle of Bethlehem was thus concisely sketched by Mr. Spenser Wilkinson:

"The Boers were holding a great mountain horse-shoe, of which the curved end is at the  north, and the open end or back is on the Caledon River, the inside of the shoe being the basin of the Brandwater. On the right-hand limb of the shoe at the second nail from the end is Fouriesburg, and Retief's Nek is at the  top right-hand nail, the road from Ficksburg to Bethlehem going up the Brandwater valley and over Retief's Nek.

"Outside the horse-shoe to the right, the east, the road from Fouriesburg to Harrismith goes by the Little  Caledon River, which is separated by a long east and west range of hills from the hilly plain of Bethlehem. North of this range is Naauwpoort, and from the Caledon Valley to Naauwpoort the road crosses over Naauwpoort's Nek and  goes on to Harrismith on the north side of the range."

Having blocked the passes to the best of his ability, General Hunter hoped for the best. He knew the Boers might evaporate-as they seemed so magically to do-over the  mountains, but he guessed, and guessed rightly, that it would be to much of a wrench to tear themselves from their effects-horses, oxen, carts, and waggons-and these could never be dragged over the barring acclivities.

The  first attack on Retief's Nek was made on the 23rd by General MacDonald, the Highland Brigade, Lovat's Scouts, Remington's Guides, and a battery and two 5-inch 'cow" -guns. The Boers had previously been thrown off the scent  owing to the British troops having taken a wide detour, and they were somewhat surprised in their rocky caves to find themselves in the thick of lyddite, which growled and crashed and fumed at them. Then the Highland Light  Infantry, with the Sussex to help them, deployed, the former bearing to left, the latter, with the 81st Battery of Field Artillery, to right, the Infantry making brilliant rushes towards the impregnable lair of the enemy,  despite the murderous jets from the rifles of the Dutchmen, which spouted disaster the nearer they approached. Each battalion lost thirty men or so, but brilliant and inexhaustible as they were, found themselves unable, on the  initial day, to push the attack. The Black Watch were more fortunate, however, and gallantly carving their passage with the bayonet, managed before nightfall to secure a foothold on the summit of the hills whence they could now  await the morrow. At that time General Clements's Yeomanry were attempting to force the passage of Stabbert's Nek, gaining ground with difficulty, but clinging to it all night in a perilous position; while on the south-western  fringe General Rundle remonstrated in the region of Commando Nek. The morning brought success all round. Stabbert's Nek was forced by the renewed and sturdy efforts of the Yeomanry and the Royal Irish, and the afternoon of the  24th found the combined columns camped inside the Nek. The Boers, quickly recognising the inconvenience of their position, by noon had stampeded towards the east, hoping to cut through Naauwpoort's Nek and gain the Harrismith  Road, galloping off, however, with the sagacity of purpose for which at all times they had made themselves notable.

The losses so far were sufficiently large, but the importance of the position gained they were looked upon as  insignificant, and General Hunter formally expressed the opinion that it was owing to the excellent work done by Lovat's Scouts, who for days in advance had scouted, stalked, and "spied" over the country, that so few  losses were recorded.

The casualties at Stabbert's Nek were :-

Killed:-ist Royal Irish Regiment~Captain W. Gloster. Wounded:-Royal Field  Artillery Captain H. E. T. Kelly. 2nd Wiltshire Regiment Captain E. Evans. 6th Company Imperial Yeomanry~Lieutenant G. A. Clay. 1st Royal Irish Regiment-Captain E. F. Milner.

Those at Retiefs Nek were

Wounded:-Royal Sussex-Captain E. L. M'Kenzie, Second Lieutenant J.C. W.  Anderson, Second Lieutenant H. G. Montgomerie, Second Lieutenant G.E. Leachman. 2nd Royal Highlanders~Major E. M. Wiltshire (since dead), Lieutenant H. K. Smith. Captain Sir W. G. Barttelot, 2nd Volunteer Battalion, Royal  Sussex Regiment, was killed.

The 25th found Generals Hunter, Clements, and Paget in possession of Brandwater Basin, while Generals MacDonald and Bruce  Hamilton were blocking Inguwooni and Golden Gate. Fouriesburg was occupied by the Eighth Division, and there they found a number of British prisoners and Mrs. Steyn, who was left in charge of the chief of the Commissariat  Department. Generals Hunter and Rundle paid the lady a complimentary visit. On the following day General MacDonald, who had kept an eye on Naauwpoort's Nek and Golden Gate, had a hard day's fighting outside Naauwpoort in the  Bethlehem Hills, but the effect of this doughty rearguard action was the blocking of Naauwpoort's Nek for the Boer waggon traffic, and without their precious carts the Boers were "winged."

Among the wounded were  Lieutenant A. M. Brodie, Lovat's Scouts; and Lieutenant W. E. Campion, Mounted Infantry Company, East Yorkshire Regiment.

On the 28th, Hunter, with Clements's and Paget's Brigades, attacked the Boers, who were posted on two  neks. The first nek, after a vigorous fight, was secured by the Royal Irish, Wiltshire, and Leicester Regiments; the final position; Slaapkrantz, later on and under cover of the dusk, by the brilliant dash of the Scots Guards.  During the operations Lieutenant Hon. R. B. F. Robert son, 1st Battalion Imperial Yeomanry (Machine Gun Section), and Second Lieutenant F. G. Alston, 2nd Scots Guards, were wounded.

The net result of all the combined blockage  of the passes was a demand on Sunday morning, 29th, from Prinsloo, under a flag of truce, for a four days' armistice in order to enter into peace negotiations. As this demand was tantamount to saying, "Hold on while I get  wind for another bout," General Hunter sent a message refusing to enter into any negotiations, and saying that the only terms he could accept was unconditional surrender. Until these were complied with, hostilities could  not cease. This settled the matter. Prinsloo, knowing it was impossible to get his guns and waggons over the mountains, forthwith handed himself over-arms, ammunition, and the rest of his warlike impedimenta to the conqueror.  With him were Villiers and Crowther and about 1000 men, but other Boer leaders, Olivier among them, who had succeeded in slipping to the farther side of the hills, refused to abide their chief's ruling, and declined to submit.  Hostilities in respect to these malcontents had consesequently to be resumed, but the surrender of Prinsloo, and with him the Ficksburg commando of some 550 men and the Ladybrand commando, about 450 strong, together with 1500  horses, three guns, two of which were our own, lost at Koorn Spruit, 50 waggons and 50 carts, may be considered as the closing scene of the Free Stater's resistance.

The finale at Fouriesburg was an impressive affair. The  Generals, their staffs, Sir Godfrey and Lady Lagden from Basutoland, grouped on horseback, were surrounded by the troops drawn up in two lines on the hills overlooking the valley. Between the lines thus made rode Prinsloo,  tall, fair-even prepossessing. He handed up his rifle to the General, setting the example to his followers, an agriculturalist rabble, motley of mien as of habit, who, on their small, nimble ponies, galloped up, throwing down  rifle and bandolier with a certain effort at swagger, though seemingly nothing loth to finish their fighting career. In cart and waggon they came, too, with all their curious nomadic luggage and blankets, cook-pots and the  like, some laughing, and some chafling as they gave up arms and ammunition, and then moved on to the camp of Brabant's Colonials, with whom they soon got on the best of terms. The formalities occupied three days, the haul of  cattle that were hidden in the neighbouring gorges being enormous. The condition of the captured Boer horses contrasted strangely with that of the dilapidated hacks which now remained to the British force, and, as may be  imagined, remounts were more than acceptable.

July ended with a triumphant flourish of trumpets in honour of the united labours of; first, General Sir Leslie Rundle, who may claim the east of the Orange Colony as his military  perquisite, and finally General Sir Archibald Hunter. Prinsloo's surrender was followed by that of 1200 more Free Staters, and the Commandants. Roux and Fonternel. To General Bruce Hamilton came Commandants Deploy, Potgieter,  and Joubert, and Lieutenant Alderson, a Danish officer of Staats Artillery, and with them 1200 rifles, 650 ponies, and an Armstrong gun.

The Free State army was therefore only represented by De Wet and his followers-some  1500-who were hovering in the neighbourhood of the Vaal, and Olivier, who, having refused to consider himself bound by Prinsloo's actions, had taken up a position in the direction of Harrismith, where he was being tracked by  General Rundle.