The new De Wet hunt was soon in cry. When Knox was set on the trail, he was in the Free State and De Wet was in the Transvaal. Two days later the positions were reversed, for they had crossed the river in opposite directions. The situation now developed itself favourably for De Wet’s methods. For a purely military operation he had never shown much aptitude. He had failed against Barton at Fredrikstad, but he was not discouraged by the repulse, which he unjustly attributed to want of co-operation on the part of Liebenberg. He had put the Vaal between himself and Knox, who was on the right bank blindly nosing the drifts. He knew from recent experience that his pursuers, with their imperfect methods of acquiring information, would hunt by sight and not by scent, and he had the mobility of a hare as well as the instinct of a fox. He lay perdu for some days near the left bank of the Vaal, while a net with spacious meshes was being cast to ensnare him. Again he crossed and re-crossed the river in order to bring Steyn away from Ventersdorp, whom two months previously he had conducted into the Transvaal, and who had in the meantime worked round the British Army to Machadodorp and back; and who after conferences with Kruger and L. Botha, now returned with him unscathed into their own land with schemes for the future.
[Sidenote: Map, p. 260.]
Pom-pom batteries and mounted infantry, the latest fashions of war, were sent after him by Knox. On November 6 he was surprised in laager near Bothaville, but escaped with Steyn and the greater portion of his command on the first alarm. The gallant Le Gallais was killed and the laager itself captured after a stout resistance some hours later, and with it all De Wet’s field guns, wagons, a considerable quantity of ammunition and horse equipment, and more than 100 prisoners of war.
Most men would have succumbed to the disaster, but it only spurred De Wet. He had signally failed in his late attempt on the Transvaal, and he had just lost almost everything at Bothaville, but he resolved to make a raid in the opposite direction on the northern districts of Cape Colony. To reach his new objective, he must traverse the whole length of the Free State, which, having been in the occupation of the British Army for several months, should have offered the line of greatest resistance to his movement.
The Brandwater Basin disaster of July 30 had, however, by no means crushed Free State Boerdom, which, after having been heavily hurled to the ground, where it lay for a time apparently unconscious, began to show signs of returning animation, and in a few weeks was again on its legs; thanks to the restoratives freely administered by De Wet on his return from his first incursion into the Transvaal. Into each district he sent irreconcilable men after his own heart to stimulate the wavering and animate the discouraged; and barely a month elapsed before the burghers were besieging Ladybrand, which, however, they failed to take, and were hacking at the railway into the Transvaal. In October every village in the S.W. district of the Orange River Colony in the possession of a British garrison was attacked, all but one of them without success.