It happened that the point of convergence lay near the spot, not far from Reitz, where De Wet and Steyn were in hiding. The propinquity of the columns drove them out of their retreat, and taking a circuitous route past Heilbron and thence along the left bank of the Vaal they crossed the river near Commando Drift, and on March 17 joined Delarey near Wolmaranstad in the Transvaal. Little was done after the junction of the two sets of columns, and they returned to the railway on March 11, with a stray commando in front of them, which easily rushed the blockhouse line near Heilbron. A portion of the troops was hastily withdrawn to deal with the crisis in the Transvaal.
Hardly had the dust raised by the trampling of the third drive settled down upon the veld when the fourth drive was in progress, and 14,000 men on a front which stretched from one blockhouse line to the other were plodding eastward to the Drakensberg. It was held up for a time by two rivers in spate, the Wilge and the Liebenberg’s, and when released it trudged on to the mountain range, where on April 5 its components were dissolved, having disposed of less than 100 of the enemy.
Yet one more drive, the fifth and last of the series, was called for. Early in May Bruce Hamilton swooped down from the Eastern Transvaal upon the harassed land, and in co-operation with Elliott worried it for the space of ten days. Many small parties of Boers broke through—the last wriggle in the Orange River Colony.
II. EASTERN TRANSVAAL
[Sidenote: Map p. 292]
The episode of Bakenlaagte called for vigorous measures to be taken against Botha and the men of the high veld in the Eastern Transvaal; and in November, 1901, a second and revised edition of French’s programme at the beginning of the year was issued.
The new campaign was placed in charge of Bruce Hamilton, and the general idea, at least in its earlier movement, was the same as that furnished to French, namely the outward sweep of columns having for its object the rounding-up, pursuit towards the Swaziland border, and capture of the various guerilla commandos, which with the Transvaal Government in their midst haunted the Ermelo and Bethal districts.
Bruce Hamilton, with 15,000 men in twelve columns, either under his immediate command or co-operating with him, started on November 16, his immediate objective being the same as French’s ten months before, namely, Botha on the high veld. He advanced the Constabulary posts fifteen miles, so that the line now ran between Brugspruit and Waterval; and proceeded to carry out a movement on Ermelo, in which he was supported on either flank by columns acting from the Natal and Delagoa Bay Railways. Botha, however, had had warning of his approach, and having conducted the Transvaal Government out of the area of immediate danger and dispatched it to its old seat at Paardeplatz, returned to deal with Bruce Hamilton, who, on reaching Ermelo on December 3, found, as French had found in February, that he had nothing to strike at. The Transvaal Government had vanished, and Botha and his chief lieutenant, P. Viljoen, instead of being on the run towards Swaziland, had broken back and were now behind him.