The Great Retreat

The tide began to turn for the Boer fortune when Field Marshal Frederick Roberts arrived to take over supreme command of the British forces in South Africa, from his rival, General Sir Redvers Bullers.

Roberts brought with him vast numbers of men, horses, artillery and a great amount of war materials. His approach could be hindered in some places, but across the open plains of the Karoo, the Free State and the central highveld of Transvaal, his enormous army was unstoppable.

One by one the Boer forces lost their positions as Roberts simply kept on extending his flanks of cavalry and mounted infantry until the much thinner Boer positions were outflanked. This tactic was as old as the hills, and it worked every time. In order to prevent being outflanked, the Boer army had to stretch itself until it was too thin to provide effective resistance in the centre. This necessitated a large-scale withdrawal if the flanks and centre wanted to prevent being surrounded and annihilated.

In the Free State, the capital city of Bloemfontein fell, followed by Winburg and Kroonstad. The Boer commandos dug in wherever they could and fought back gallantly, but the fight was becoming a disheartening one, and many burghers could not see the point of resisting any longer. Some surrendered to the enemy, others just gave up and went back to their farms to await eventualities. Many remained, however, and fought back doggedly. Everywhere they sniped at the advancing columns, and left behind them a train of devastation: sabotaged communications installations, blown up bridges, culverts, water tanks at railway sidings, and dynamited tracks. These measures certainly retarded the advance of the enemy, but the British engineers performed fantastic work and as fast as the Boers destroyed infrastructure, they repaired it again. Eventually Johannesburg and Pretoria followed by also yielding before the advance. In great haste the government of the Transvaal packed everything they could and joined the Free Staters in becoming a roving government without a capital.

Mr. Dorfling, the last conductor on the "Gold Train"--the last to leave Pretoria.

State Secretary Jan Christiaan Smuts was among the very last of the government members to vacate Pretoria. The last train left the capital when the British artillery shells were already screaming across the town. On the train was a priceless treasure of gold bar, coins and bullion which Jan Smuts had removed from the State Mint and the local banks. He also had with him the government cash reserves in regular bank notes, as well as other documents of state. On the train was also a large amount of gold, which had been taken from mines in Johannesburg. With this train the legend of the so-called "Kruger Millions" was born. Many swear to this that day that a major part of this treasure—or one like it—had been secretly hidden by the ZAR government, and that this treasure has yet to be found.

President Kruger

At this point, the government of the Transvaal kept on moving further east along the Delagoabay Railway line. First it paused at Witbank, then at Waterval-Boven and when the cold became too much for the aged old president, they relocated to Waterval-Onder. President Kruger was only in his seventies, but he had lived a life of constant battles and hardship and he was showing his age. Plagued by rheumatism and eye complaints, the old man remained steady as a rock to give support and encouragement to all, but in the lack of faith and the spirit of defeatism that enveloped many of his burghers, he could already see the handwriting on the wall. To many he looked old and tired in his lonely state railway carriage where his grey figure could often be seen, sitting at the window. His familiar chin beard became replaced by a full beard for the first time in many years--as if even the effort of shaving was too much for him.

Just outside Pretoria the Boer army, under the leadership of Commandant-general Louis Botha, dug in their heels and gave battle to Lord Roberts' army. The battle was fought valiantly by both sides, but without the ability to stop outflanking movements over an enormously big battle arena, there was no option but to fall back. With the British supply and communication lines now stretched dangerously thin, and the Boer army in a reasonable state of disarray, the commandos kept moving further and further east.

At Bergendal, also known as Dalmanutha, General Botha chose another line of hills--the last that would separate the open plains of the highveld from the vast jumble of mountains and valleys that formed the slopes of the escarpment as it dips towards the lowveld. He still felt confident that the combined remnants of the Transvaal and Free State armies could possibly halt the advance. But that was not to be. The terrain around Bergendal was open and clear for many miles. It was the kind of terrain that the British army had been reared upon and they were in their element. Both Lord Roberts and General Botha recognized a small knoll in the centre of the great amphitheatre as the key to the entire Boer defence line. It was here the General Botha stationed some of his most iron-hard en battle-tested men--the ZARPS or old South African Police Force. They had long since converted from a regular police force to becoming a military fighting unit. Lord Roberts, however, combined the firepower of most of his artillery batteries upon this solitary position and rained death upon it for many hours on end. By this time Sir Redvers Buller had also finally linked up with Roberts' army, so that the force that spread itself out across the great plains of Bergendal was now the greatest combined army of European descent that Africa had ever known south of the Sahara. When the bombardment finally ceased and the smoke drifted away, the ZARPS did not longer exist. From the mangled remains of what had once been a proud fighting force, only a handful of bloody survivors stumbled--wounded, maimed and shell-shocked.

Across the rest of the battle lines the fight raged on, but without the ZARP koppie, there could be no further effective defence. One by one the Boer positions crumbled, until the order to withdraw was given. It was in the dead of winter and the nights were freezing cold as the burghers began to stream across the mountains into the wild territory of the lowveld. The government train with its gold steamed on to Nelspruit, and from there to Komatipoort, right on the border of Mozambique. Here they awaited news, and dispatched whatever instructions and encouragement they could. All hope of a further resistance was gone, however. In the rugged terrain the commandos lost contact with one-another, much war material had to be left behind, and there could be no organized form of command. Fortunately for the Boers the British lines were now so stretched out that they were in no position to risk a full-scale pursuit into the dangerous terrain which clearly favoured Boer defence heavily. This gave the Boers time to move as much of their war supplies as possible to Komatipoort, while the British advance units cautiously probed the valleys, snaking down Long Tom pass to Sabie, even as the great Boer guns drilled holes into their ranks from miles away.

At Komatipoort followed one of the greatest orgies of military destruction that South Africa had ever known. Unwilling to allow such vast quantities of war materials to fall into enemy hands, the employees of the NZASM or Dutch South African Railway Company, were ordered to open up steam and crash entire trains into one another at full speed. The enormous government supply stores were thrown open to anyone who wanted anything at all, before being set alight. According to some witnesses, the last of the gold from the gold train was then packed into dynamite crates and sent away towards the mountains by a detachment of the Transvaal State Artillery.

As for the old president, it had been decided that rather than risk his fallen into enemy hands, he should leave the country at once. Knowing full well that he would never see his country, his beloved wife, his children or many grandchildren ever again, the old man bade a last emotional farewell to the country and the burghers whom he had served for the biggest part of his life. Then his train disappeared away like a lonely millipede on its way to the coast. At Delagoa bay, president Kruger was received with frigid civility by the Portuguese officials who had been his country's friends and neighbours for so many decades. Bound by the old Anglo-Portuguese treaty, and being sufficiently intimidated by the great show of military aggression at its back door, the Portuguese governor was not about to show any favouritism towards Kruger and his small entourage. Fortunately, the young Dutch Queen Wilhelmina had sent a Dutch warship to provide passage to the old president--and after a very nerve-wracking time in Delagoa bay, he was able to take ship and sail away from his homeland forever.

The military fort and some ships at anchor in Delagoa bay.

Delagoa bay in times of old. It had always been a fever-ridden, steam and unhealthy coastal port town.

Meanwhile, back at the border, the Boer commandos began to filter away and simply disappear into the wilderness of Swaziland and the present-day Kruger National Park. For a few days and weeks they became lost to the British army. Everywhere papers announced the joyful news: "The war was over!" British war correspondents packed away their pens and paper, military attachés finalized their last reports and return to their countries of origin, and many soldiers were sent home to England or India after months of hard service. Even Lord Roberts handed over what he imagined to be a mopping up operation to his successor, General Horatio Kitchener, and returned to Great Britain with what would have been the crowning honour and glory of his entire long and distinguished military career. But nobody could have foreseen that far from being over, the War would last for many long and bloody months yet.

Soon, General De Wet struck a hard blow at the British army at Sannaspos, and other battles began to show that the Boers had simply filtered through the enemy advance, reformed at their rear, and decided to continue the war. Lord Roberts' triumphal exit proved to be merely the dismal entry to a phase which would be the most depressing period in Kitchener's whole career. It was the closing of a chapter, and the beginning of a new one. Nobody would have known at the time, that no matter what the horrors had been until then, by far the worst was yet to come. 

This was the beginning of the Guerilla Phase of the war.