Of the four Generals set to stem the tide of war until the arrival of Lord Roberts, French alone did not restrict himself to restraining its flow. A policy of “worry without risk” had been recommended to him by Buller, and he carried it out with good effect. He thrust Schoeman out of Arundel and Rensburg, and occupied a commanding position outside Colesberg, which he maintained until he was summoned on January 29 to confer with Lord Roberts at Capetown, where he was confidentially informed of the plan of campaign. Clements, who a few weeks before had reinforced him with a brigade of the recently landed VIth Division under Kelly-Kenny, took over the command of the troops before Colesberg. But the force which he had to his hand had been considerably reduced by the withdrawal of the cavalry and nearly half the infantry to serve elsewhere, while Schoeman and Delarey, who had come from Magersfontein, had been strongly reinforced.
The Boers doubted not that the positions taken up by Gatacre and French indicated that the impending advance of the British Army into the Free State would be by way of Bethulie and Norval’s Pont, and were accordingly disposing all their available men, one commando even being sent to Colesberg from Natal; but fortunately they were at first unaware that Clements had been almost simultaneously weakened. He soon found that he was not strong enough to hold on to the Colesberg positions and on February 14 retired to Arundel; losing on the way two companies of infantry which had been mislaid and forgotten and which after a gallant running fight of three miles were captured.
But now ominous reports of Lord Roberts’ movements in the West began to come in, and the Boers realized that they had misinterpreted the signs which had been so ostentatiously displayed. They hesitated and wavered, and on February 20 hurried away from Colesberg to succour Cronje and the threatened capital of the Free State.
[Footnote 19: Buller aroused a “now-we-shan’t-be-long” feeling. He would certainly be in Pretoria by Christmas. It is said that a large number of plum-puddings intended for the soldiers’ dinners on December 25 were addressed to Pretoria “to await arrival,” by their good friends at home.]
[Footnote 20: The history of the war showed, however, that generally the Boers fought more strenuously and effectively when the tide was against them than when it was flowing with them.]
[Footnote 21: The two chief authorities on the events of the day are not in agreement as to which of the iron bridges was meant; and in the absence of information of what was in the mind of the staff officer who drew up the battle orders the question cannot be answered. The context and certain expressions in other paragraphs seem to show that the railway bridge was indicated. It was, indeed, broken but there were drifts used by the natives above and below it. Probably the river had not been carefully reconnoitred and the two bridges were confused, or one only was believed to exist.]