The Tide Turns
February - March 1900
General French's cavalry charge towards Kimberley
With the arrival of Roberts and Kitchener in the Cape on January 10, 1900, the momentum of the war changed. Roberts left Buller to continue his attempts to break the siege of Ladysmith whilst he focused on relieving Kimberley and advancing on the capital of the Orange Free State, Bloemfontein. Roberts had five divisions - about forty thousand men-including one hundred guns and a whole division of cavalry commanded by Lieutenant-General John French. Roberts also had Rimington's Guides-one hundred Uitlanders and colonials who would be his vanguard.
Kimberly relieved and Cronje surrendersIt was French's cavalry that would be given the task of liberating Kimberley with the last great cavalry charge in history. Shortly after midnight on 11 February, Roberts' forces moved out from their positions. There were 25,000 infantry, nearly 8,000 cavalry and Mounted Infantry (MI), more than 100 guns and thousands of supply wagons. French had moved off first, unseen by the Boers as French's cavalry of 6,000 left their tents standing. French managed to cross the Modder on 13 February thereby outflanking General Cronje's army of 5,000. French then on 15 Febuary managed to force his way between two ridges held by the Boers and reach the open country behind. Kimberley was now in reach, just twenty miles away and French rode into the town towards evening of the same day although in the haste to reach the besieged town 500 horses had perished in just one day's work.
To avoid being surrounded Cronje began to abandon the Magersfontein Hills and headed east. He had about 5,000 men, with many wives and children, 400 wagons and several thousand horses. On 17 Febuary Cronje got to the Modder and prepared to cross but before he could do so a salvo of shells burst into the camp signalling the arrival of French's forces (of just 1,500), having come from Kimberley. A forced march by Kitchener's infantry bought up reinforcements which surrounded Cronje and forced his army of 5,000 to surrender after a day's fighting.
Cronje found himself penned into his laager surrounded by 300 casualties and the corpses of many oxen hit by artillery. He had no doctors to tend his wounded and had women and children to worry about as well as his own situation. The British settled in for a siege of Cronje's position with two attempts made on 26 and 27 February to storm the laager with the troops getting to within 250 yards of their objective. On 27 February Cronje accepted defeat and raised the white flag whereupon Roberts ordered a ceasefire.
Meanwhile at the Tugela, Buller, now with 20,000 men, at the fourth attempt was successful at driving 2,000 Boers off the hills guarding Ladysmith. Boer morale sagged and many left for home. Kruger's rallying cry managed to persuade many to remain but the momentum lay with Buller. Having taken Hlangwane which controlled the eastern banks of the Tugela, Buller launched a textbook infantry attack on the hills just north of Colenso guarding the railway line. This time the infantry had adequate support from the artillery who provided a creeping barrage as they advanced. For the first time Buller was to use his whole force at the same time against the full Boer force. Deneys Reitz describes well the attack on Pieter's Hill where the East Surreys distinguished themselves so well. Coordinated infantry attacks with the bayonet broke the back of Boer resistance and on 28 February, British cavalry entered Ladysmith and the siege of 119 days was over.
The surrender of Cronje
Following the surrender of Cronje's army it was only a matter of time before the capital of the OFS lay before the British forces. There was an attempt to hold up the British advance on 7 March at Poplar Grove where General De Wet's 6,000 Boers vainly tried to stop Robert's force of 30,000. French's outflanking movement forced the Boers to retire but the state of French's horses didn't allow any kind of pursuit. Had they been able to follow the Boers it is quite possible that they would have captured both Steyn and Kruger who were both part of the Boer forces.
On 13 March Roberts entered Bloemfontein, after French had captured Brand Hill which overlooked the town. The men had just five days rations left and so Roberts decided to remain for a few weeks to allow his tired troops to recover. Many of the troops had been on half rations - the result of De Wet capturing a supply convoy of 200 ox wagons. Many of the troops arriving in Bloemfontein came with enteric fever - the result of drinking infected water from the Modder and being weakened by being on short rations. Because of the inadequacy of the supply arrangements, troops were only given a half bottle of water a day. Given they were sometimes marching 20-25 miles in blazing heat, across a dusty terrain, this was insufficient and the men drank what water they came across, often found in murky pools. To deal with typhoid they needed decent sanitary arrangements and a proper diet but both were missing from Bloemfontein. As a result 50 men a day were dying from enteric.
On 15 March Roberts issued a proclamation asking for Boers to lay down their arms and 8,000 Free Staters did so. This would be the first of many such proclamations which Roberts imagined would be complied with by what he imagined was a defeated army.
The poor conditions in the hospitals
With the population of Bloemfontein increasing from 4,000 to 40,000 the sanitary arrangements were insufficient to cope. Moreover the hospitals provided to care for the ill were totally inadequate in terms of the numbers of doctors and nurses available and the provision of shelter and food available. There were insufficient nurses to tender to ill men and a lack of beds for them so many had to lay on the ground. Roberts took little interest in the suffering of these men and whilst he was quite happy to quickly sack an incompetent general, he left incompetent men in charge of the hospitals. The RAMC had only been formed in 1898 and it was very much evolving and would continue to do so throughout the Boer War.
With the infantry recovering from their forced marches to Bloemfontein, the army was getting ready for the forthcoming march to Pretoria and Johannesburg. Roberts had come to realise that he needed an army as mobile as possible. He wanted up to 30,000 mounted infantry to make his army every bit as mobile as the Boers but problems in getting the horses and supplying them with fodder meant that he was always going to be short of his target even if he could have trained the men, many of whom were totally unfamiliar with horses.
French's cavalry had brought success in relieving Kimberley but he had lost 1,500 horses in the relief of Kimberley. The single track, narrow gauge railway from Cape Town to Bloemfontein was simply insufficient to bring up all the requirements of an army of 100,000 men let alone the fodder required for a mounted force. A familiar sight to be seen wherever the army went was the hundreds of dead horses that littered the wayside.
Using militia and the volunteers
Steps were being taken to deal with these inadequacies as well as to strength the army. Volunteers were being called up as was the militia. By the beginning of 1900 virtually all the regular army that was in Britain had been sent to Britain. Following the despatch of Buller's corps of three divisions in October 1899, two more divisions were sent on 11 November and 2 December, and then after the debacle of Black Week, two more divisions were sent either side of the New Year. By this time there were no more regular troops in Britain. The cupboard was bare and the government now had to allow the militia (and yeomanry) and the volunteers to be called up.
One of the most famous volunteer groups to be sent to the war was the City Imperial Volunteers (CIV). The idea for the CIV came from the black mood that followed Black Week. It was the brainchild of the Mayor of London, Sir Alfred Newton who assisted by Colonel Boxall of the Sussex Volunteer Artillery, produced a force that was financed entirely by the City and well wishers. Senior officers and NCOs were provided by the regular army as was the arms and ammunition but uniforms and equipment (including an artillery battery) were provided from the money raised. The volunteers were even granted the freedom of the City of London. The CIV were raised quickly between 16 December and 6 January and became part of the 21st Brigade with the Royal Sussex Regiment. They were quickly sent to South Africa and were part of Robert's advance to Pretoria.
City Imperial Volunteers on theri way to South Africa
As well as the volunteers from Britain, there were also contingents from the colonies in Canada, Australia and New Zealand although requests of help from India were turned down as this was supposed to be a White Man's War. Indians did though become stretcher bearers and Gandhi was one of them.
Whilst Roberts waited for his army to rebuild its strength he issued an amnesty call to all OFS men calling on them to return to their homes and take an oath of loyalty. He confidently expected that the majority of fighting Boers would lay down their weapons. Whilst many did (the 'hensuppers'), the majority remained out in the veld ready to continue fighting . They believed that they were fighting for the very existence of the Boer nation and Salisbury himself had virtually confirmed this when in a reply to a telegram sent by Steyn, he said that Britain was not prepared to recognise either republic.