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AT POPLAR GROVE


Before going  on, it must be noted that on the 19th Lord Roberts had issued a proclamation to the Burghers of the Free State in English and Dutch. He said that the British having entered the Free State, he felt it his duty to make known the  cause, and to do his utmost to end the war. Should the Free Staters continue fighting, they would do so in full knowledge of their responsibility for the lives lost in the campaign. Before the war, the Imperial Government desired  the friendship of the Free State, and solemnly assured President Steyn that if he remained neutral the Free State territory would not be invaded and its independence would be respected. Nevertheless, the Free Staters had wantonly  and unjustifiably invaded British territory, though the Imperial Government believed that the Free State Government was wholly responsible, under mischievous outside influence, for this invasion.

The Imperial Government bore the  people no illwill, and was anxious to preserve them from the evils which the action of their Government had caused. Lord Roberts warned the Burghers to desist from further hostilities, and he undertook that Burghers so desisting  should not suffer in their persons or property. Requisitions of food, forage, fuel, and shelter must be complied with. Everything would be paid for on the spot, and if supplies were refused they would be taken, a receipt being  given. Should the inhabitants consider that they had been unjustly treated, and should their complaint on inquiry be substantiated, redress would be given. In conclusion, Lord Roberts stated that British soldiers were prohibited  from entering houses or molesting the civil population.

By the terms of this proclamation it was necessary to abide, though, by degrees, as will be seen, it began to be discovered that generous concessions made to our enemies  were misinterpreted arid taken advantage of in ways which tended to prolong the wan

Lords Roberts and Kitchener paid a flying visit to Kimberley on the 1st of March, and attended a crowded meeting in the Town Hall. Lord Roberts,  with his usual grace, dwelt on the courage, endurance, and heroism exhibited by the troops and residents, not only in Kimberley, but, in the other besieged towns.

Cronje's fate being sealed, the Field Marshal shifted his  head-quarters to Osfontein, seven miles up the Modder from Paardeberg. Near here it was rumored that such Boers as had failed to come to the succor of Cronje had flocked. These, numbering some 10,000 had gathered at the summons of  their chief from the regions round Stormberg, Colesberg, and Ladysmith, and were now busily entrenching a position some fifteen miles long. Of this the flanks rested on kopjes to the south of the river on a group called Seven  Sisters, and to the north across the river on a flat-topped kopje, behind which were further fortified kopjes, forming a formidable position at Poplar Grove, a place so called because of a sparse display of poplar and Australian  gum-trees in the vicinity.

At this time the two Presidents of the Republics, finding things getting too hot to be comfortable, made magnanimous proposals The peace. The following is the text of their dispatch.

"BLOEMFONTEIN, March 5, 1900.

"The blood and the tears of the thousands who have suffered by this war, and the prospect of all the moral and economic ruin with which South Africa is now threatened, make it necessary for  both belligerents to ask themselves dispassionately, and as in the sight of the Triune God, for what they are fighting, and whether the aim of each justifies all this appalling misery and devastation.

"With this object, and  in view of the assertions of various British statesmen, to the effect that this war was begun and is being carried on with the set purpose of undermining Her Majesty's authority in South Africa, and of setting up an Administration  over all South Africa independent of Her Majesty's Government, we consider it our duty solemnly to declare that this war was undertaken solely as a defensive measure to safeguard the threatened independence of the South African  Republic, and is only continued in order to secure and safeguard the incontestable independence of both Republics as sovereign international States, and to obtain the assurance that those of Her Majesty's subjects who have taken  part with us in this war shall suffer no harm whatsoever in person or property.

"On these conditions, but on these conditions alone, are we now, as in the past, desirous of seeing peace re-established in South Africa, and of  putting an end to the evils now reigning over South Africa; while, if Her Majesty's Government is determined to destroy the independence of the Republics, there is nothing left to us and to our people but to persevere to the end in  the course already begun, in spite of the overwhelming pre-eminence of the British Empire, confident that that God who lighted the unextinguishable fire of the love of freedom in the hearts of ourselves and of our fathers will not  forsake us, but will accomplish His work in us and in our descendants.

"We hesitated to make this declaration earlier to your Excellency, as we feared that as long as the advantage was always on our side, and as long as our  forces held defensive positions far in Her Majesty's Colonies, such a declaration might hurt the feelings of honour of the British people; but now that the prestige of the British Empire may be considered to be assured by the  capture of one of our forces by Her Majesty's troops, and that we are thereby forced to evacuate other positions which our forces had occupied, that difficulty is over, and we can no longer hesitate clearly to inform your  Government and people, in the sight of the whole civilised world, why we are fighting, and on what conditions we are ready to restore peace."

The answer to this effusion, addressed by Lord Salisbury on behalf of Her  Majesty's Government to the Presidents, ran: -"FOREIGN OFFICE, Affairs 11, 1900.

"I have the honour to acknowledge your Honours' telegram, dated March 5, From Bloemfontein, of which the purport is principally to demand  that Her Majesty's Government shall recognise the 'incontestable independence' of the South African Republic and Orange Free State as 'sovereign international States,' and to offer, on those terms, to bring the war to a conclusion.

"In the beginning of October last, peace existed between Her Majesty and the two Republics under the Conventions which then were in existence. A discussion had been proceeding for some months between Her Majesty's  Government and the South African Republic, of which the object was to obtain redress for certain very serious grievances under which British residents in the South African Republic were suffering. In the course of these  negotiations, the South African Republic had, to the knowledge of Her Majesty's Government, made considerable armaments, and the latter had, consequently, taken steps to provide corresponding reinforcements to the British garrisons  of Cape Town and Natal. No infringement of the rights guaranteed by the Conventions had, up to that point, taken place on the British side. Suddenly, at two days' notice, the South African Republic, after issuing an insulting  ultimatum, declared war upon Her Majesty; and the Orange Free State, with whom there had not even been any discussion, took a similar step. Pier Majesty's dominions were immediately invaded by the two Republics, siege was laid to  three towns within the British frontier, a large portion of the two Colonies was overrun, with great destruction to property and life, and the Republics claimed to treat the inhabitants of extensive portions of Her Majesty's  dominions as if those dominions had been annexed to one or other of them. In anticipation of these operations the South African Republic had been accumulating for many years past military stores on an enormous scale, which, by  their character, could only have been intended for use against Great Britain.

"Your Honours make some observations of a negative character upon the object with which these preparations were made. I do not think it necessary  to discuss the questions you have raised. But the result of these preparations, carried on with great secrecy, has been that the British Empire has been compelled to confront an invasion, which has entailed upon the Empire a costly  war and the loss of thousands of precious lives. This great calamity has been the penalty, which Great Britain has suffered for having in recent years acquiered in the existence of the two Republics.

"In view of the use to  which the two Republics have put the position which ~vas given to them, and the calamities which their unprovoked- attack has inflicted upon Her Majesty's dominions, Her Majesty's Government can only answer your Honours' telegram  by saying that they are not prepared to assent to the independence either of the South African Republic or of the Orange Free State."

To return to Osfontein. There was now a short and much-needed interval of repose, in which  men and horses tried to recuperate. It was, however, necessary for the cavalry to be continually scouring the country to ascertain the whereabouts of the enemy.

On the 6th of March Lord Roberts welcomed the Ceylon Mounted  Infantry, and sent the following telegram to Sir \Vest Ridgeway, Governor of Ceylon: -" I have just ridden out to meet Ceylon Mounted Infantry, and welcome them to this force. They look most workmanlike, and are a valuable  addition to Her Majesty the Queen's army in South Africa." These troops were in excellent condition, so also were their handy Burma ponies, smart, knowing, and game little beasts, warranted to turn on a sixpence and stand any  amount of wear and tear

On the same day the Colonials had a smart set-to with the Dutchmen, who were endeavoring to locate themselves in the vicinity, and the New Zealanders and Australians made themselves more than a match for  the Boers, losing themselves only six wounded, while they put ten of the enemy out of action. The rest of the gang disappeared; on the principle of those who fight and run away live to fight another day. In fact, they moved to some  strong eminences that commanded either side of the river, the centre of the position being at Poplar Grove Farm. Here the Federals thought to embarrass the British advance, but Lord Roberts decided to undeceive them. The  Field-Marshal's plan was now to turn their left flank with the cavalry division,' and then to meet their line of defence with the infantry divisions, and thus enclose them as Cronje had been enclosed.

Accordingly the troops got  themselves into battle array. The Naval Brigade brought their 4.7 guns four miles northeast of Osfontein, while the cavalry prepared to turn the Boer left, and started before daybreak of the 7th to accomplish this feat. On the  north bank was left the Ninth Division with some handy Colonials and guns. Moving to the east were the Sixth and Seventh Divisions, with the Guards Brigade in the centre.

The dawn grew. The Boers in the golden rays of morning  were disclosed massed in the far front, and later was seen the glorious mass of 'French's cavalry sweeping south-a martial broom which the Boers began to know meant business.

At eight o'clock the music of battle started, the  Naval guns on one side and the batteries of General French on the other. Lyddite and shrapnel bounced and spluttered over all the small kopjes wherein the Dutchmen had made a lodgment. It was sufficient. The Boer guns spat  impotently the puling cry of dismay-then, knowingly, the Federals made preparations for a stampede. They saw in the distance the Sixth Division advancing, the Colonials cleaving the columns of dust, the Highland Brigade coming on  and on, their dark kilts cutting a thin line across the atmosphere-they saw enough! To east they flew, speeding towards Bloemfontein-guns, wagons, horsemen-as arrows from the bow, and leaving behind them their well-constructed  trenches, their ammunition, tents, and supplies. After them went the Colonials and City Imperial Volunteers, all keen sportsmen, exhilarated with the heat of the chase, but the Boers were uncatchable. No one has yet beaten them in  the art of running away. Nevertheless, Lord Roberts was left in undisturbed possession of Poplar Grove. In the early afternoon the Boers certainly endear\Toured to make one futile, feeble stand, but their effort was unavailing and  by sunset they were careering into space, while the cavalry vainly endeavoured to hem them in. Horseflesh had come to the end of its tether; poor food and much galloping had reduced the noble steeds to helpless wrecks, and  unfortunately the maneuvers of Paardeberg could not be repeated. Curiously enough, though no Boers were caught, the military net was full of strange fish, a Russian, a Hollander, a German all being left in the lurch. It was a  humorous episode. While the Boers were making off as fast as legs

-The mounts of some had been shot-and horses could carry them, a dilapidated country cart, surmounted by a red flag, and was seen to be approaching. From this cart  presently emerged several forlorn personages, looking very sorry for themselves indeed. They accounted for their plight by saying that 'while the final fight was taking place their mule-wagon had broken down. The mules having been  unloosed, promptly stampeded, and left them between two fires, that of the Boers (to whom they were attached) and the British. The name of one foreigner, in dark blue uniform, was Colonel Prince Gourko, of the Russian army; 'the  other, attired in plain clothes, was Lieutenant Thomson, of the Netherlands (Military Attaché' of the Boers). With them was a German servant in attendance on the Russian prince. Finding themselves in an uncomfortable quandary, one  from which there was no escape, they decided to join the British. They were introduced to Lord Kitchener, and thereupon presented to the Commander-in-Chief; who received them with his usual courtesy.

Lord Roberts, telegraphing home in the afternoon, thus described the day's work

"OSFONTEIN, March 7 (4.30) PM

"March 7. Our operations today promise to be a great success.

"The enemy occupied a position four miles north and eleven miles south of Modder River

"I placed Colvile's division on north bank; Kelly-Kenny's and Tucker's, with cavalry division, on south bank.

"The cavalry  division succeeded in turning the left flank, opening the road for 6th Division, which is advancing without having been obliged to fire a shot up to present time (twelve noon).

"Enemy are in full retreat toward north and  east, being closely followed by cavalry, horse-artillery, and mounted infantry, while the 7th (Tucker's) and

9th (Colvile's) divisions, and Guards Brigade, under Pole-Carew, are making their way across the river at Poplar's  Drift, where I propose to place my headquarters this evening."

Later on the Commander-in-Chief wired from the said headquarters

"POPLAR GROVE, March 7 (7.33 P.M.).

"We have had a very successful day and completely routed the enemy, who are in full retreat.

"The position they occupied was extremely strong, and cunningly arranged with a second line of entrenchments, which would have  caused us heavy loss had a direct attack been made.

"The turning movement was necessarily wide owing to the nature of the ground, and the cavalry and horse-artillery horses are much done up.

"The fighting was  practically confined to the cavalry division, which, as usual, did exceedingly well, and French reports that the horse-artillery batteries did a great deal of execution amongst the enemy.

"Our casualties number about fifty.

"I regret to say that Lieutenant Keswick, 12th Lancers, was killed, and Lieutenant Bailey, of the same regiment, severely wounded. Lieutenant De Crespigny, 2nd Life Guards, also severely wounded."

Though the state of  the cavalry was deplorable, it was thanks to the splendid execution of General French that the Boers showed so little fight, and there were so few casualties. The enemy saw the cavalry menacing their line of retreat, and pelted off  from kopje to kopje, now and then sniping at the leading squadrons, and occasionally plumping a shell or two into the British midst. With the Dutchmen, Presidents Steyn and Kruger were said to be, and these worthies made a  desperate attempt to rally the forces, but without success. Some say they even shed tears to encourage their countrymen, which tears had evidently a damping effect, for the Boers-some 14,000 of them-retreated all the faster. They  were absolutely demoralised by Lord Roberts' tactics, and felt seriously injured that the trenches, which had been prepared against a frontal attack, should have been ignored. They had been so accustomed to be attacked in front  that they began to look upon the Commander-in-Chief's " roundabout way of doing things" as distinctly unfair. 'They took themselves off, and when General French, who advanced ten miles ahead of the main body, scoured the  front, he reported that not a Boer was to be seen. A vast amount of ammunition was left behind, and this, including several boxes of explosive bullets, labelled "Manufactured for the British Government," was promptly  destroyed.

Good news now arrived. The A and B squadrons of Kitchener's Horse, reported missing suddenly returned to camp at Paardeberg. They, with E squadron, were cut off on the 13Th of February, and given up for lost. Though E  squadron was captured by the enemy, A and B squadrons succeeded in escaping, and, after losing their bearings on the veldt, and enduring three weeks' somewhat unpleasant experiences, found their way into safety.

Quantities of the  Transvaalers disbanded and returned to their farms. In other quarters, too, progress was announced General Gatacre occupied Burghersdorp and General Clements had reached Norval's Pont, and thus the sporadic rebellion in Cape Colony  was slowly beginning to die out.

The army advanced and formed a fresh camp beyond Poplar Grove, where on the 8th and 9th more of the troops concentrated. The force was now moving through a fine grassy country, made additionally  green and refreshing by plentiful rains, and the horses were improving in condition and spirits, while the men were in first-rate fettle.

On the 10th of March the army proceeded onwards. By this time the Boers had posted  themselves on the kopjes eight miles south of Abraham's Drift. It was imagined that they would be able to offer little resistance to the advancing force, but they, however, made a very determined stand.