One result of Black Week (10-17 December 1899) was the appointment of Field Marshal Lord Roberts to command the British forces in South Africa. Roberts arrived in Cape Town on 10 January. His plan was not that much different from Sir Redvers Buller’s original plan when he had arrived – to strike into the Orange Free State from the north east Cape Colony, capture the capital at Bloemfontein, and then move north east along the railway to Pretoria. Buller had allowed himself to be distracted by the problems further east, in Natal, while the siege of Kimberley had dominated proceedings in the west, largely due to the presence of Cecil Rhodes in the besieged town.
Roberts decided to ignore the main Boer position at Magersfontein, where Lord Methuen had come to grief on 11 December 1899 during Black Week. Instead, he would launch his army east, and head directly for Bloemfontein. The cavalry, under General Sir John French, would accompany the infantry for a short distance, then cross the Modder River and ride to the relief of Kimberley. Roberts expected the Boers at Magersfontein and around Kimberley to withdraw east once it became clear that Bloemfontein was threatened.
In order to achieve this plan, Roberts drew in troops from all across Cape Colony. His most urgent need was for more cavalry. He only had one brigade of cavalry, and eight batteries of horse artillery. His solution was to create two brigades of mounted infantry, which gave French the numbers he would need if he ran into any serious opposition.
The relieving of Kimberley was a fine example of a cavalry flanking movement. The plan was for the cavalry to assemble at Ramdam on February 11, make a rapid dash around the Boer left at Magersfontein, some 72 kilometres from Ramdam, and enter Kimberley (about 32 kilometres beyond Magersfontein) from the east. To conceal this plan, a feint attack by a separate force was made on the right of the Magersfontein position, causing General Cronje to move more of his strength to that flank.
Major Rimington and his Guides were entrusted with the task of guiding French's force. After the concentration of the main body at Ramdam the plan was successfully carried out. When, on the second day's march, Dekiel's Drift was taken and a crossing effected, the supply waggons got into difficulties, the column of transport becoming completely disorganised. After assembly on the north bank, the cavalry parted with their transport waggons, many of which were not seen again until Paardeberg.
On February 13 Lord Roberts visited the troops and witnessed their departure at 09:00 hours The column marched all that day in scorching heat without stopping or watering, until, towards evening, green bushes in the distance marked the line of the river, and longed-for water. The column, by now a vast, straggling mass of mixed units, made for Klip Drift, the spearhead driving the Boer commando from the further bank as the remainder came up. The Royal Horse Artillery shelled the Boer positions and the order was for any who could cross to do so. Several Lancers got across and joined in the rush of the l2th Lancers and M.I. In spite of the fact that as the column reassembled on the other side many men were on foot, their horses having dropped, brigades, regiments and small units formed in remarkably quick time. Large quantities of provisions and some sheep were taken.
After 24 hours' badly needed rest, General French continued his daring rush across the Boer flank and lines of communication.
"Kimberley was now only 32 kilometres distant," writes Trooper Vernon*, "and all were keyed up to effect the relief though many knew they would have to 'foot it' and carry their arms. The advance in early morning led along a valley about three kilometres wide with Boers and guns on the hills on each flank. It was here our carbines, sighted only to 800 metres, did telling execution at from 1,200 to 1,500 metres, as the firers got good observation of strike on the dusty ground. We continually moved parties of Boers about for an hour. The British had the same Martini-Enfield carbine as we had, except that theirs had magazines.
"The 9th and l6th Lancers charged up the valley, five metres between files, and we followed, passing many bodies from which the lance had not been extricated. But it cleared all opposition, and from then on I never saw a position held if the intention of a lance charge was shown."
The division reformed slowly on the forward march, watered at Roodekalkfontein, and met no further important resistance until close to Kimberley. Here the besieging forces were soon silenced, having been taken by surprise. The townspeople had at first feared that the helio messages of the relieving force were wiles of the Dutchmen, as news of the approach seemed incredible. But by sunset the British troops had appeared.
The march had been fast for the condition of the horses, and they as well as the men were mad with thirst. It is not surprising, therefore, that notwithstanding Captain Cox's prudent and forceful command to leave untouched the water in a dam in the compound which formed the cavalry camp, many drank. In the morning the dam was found to be covered with green slime and full of dead and cut-up cattle, a condition that probably accounts for many men going down with enteric at the same time, when in Bloemfontein. In spite of the fact at there was no food, the exhausted troops slept.
Australian Units involved:
Reference: Rickard, J (2 March 2007), Relief of Kimberley, 11-15 February 1900
* Trooper later Colonel HV Vernon of the New South Wales Lancers.
© National Boer War Memorial Association Inc ABN 29 293 433 202