Owing to a sudden flood, which delayed Knox for two days, he was unable to follow De Wet across Zand Drift, but Plumer started from Naauwpoort with two columns, and on February 12 came in touch with De Wet and compelled him to change his course.
The dry ground, now cut up by the horses' hoofs, was turned into dust by the many wheels, great clouds flying all round us, high up in the air, covering everything and everybody with a thick layer of ashy-grey powder. About nine o'clock we reached Zand River, where we found some good water, and stayed till dusk.
During the fighting to relieve Ladysmith, with General Buller's force, Churchill and I had again been together, and later when I joined the Boer army, at the Zand River Battle, the army with which he was a correspondent had chased the army with which I was a correspondent, forty miles.
It was now evident that De Wet's objective was the Zand Drift on the Orange west of Phillipolis. He had had a long start, and the nearest troops available for the pursuit of him were the columns of Knox and Hamilton at Bethulie.
All the time the train rolls through the wilderness, with its myriad ant-hills, its ribbon of empty biscuit tins and dead horses, its broken bridges, its tiny outpost camps, like frail islands in the ocean, its lonely stations of three tin houses, and nothing else beyond, no trees, fields, houses, cattle, signs of human life. We stopped all last night at Zand River.
Next day the passage of the river was effected; but Lord Roberts' hope of getting round and grappling each flank of the enemy, who numbered about 3,000 Transvaalers and 5,000 Free Staters, was not realized, and Botha withdrew without serious loss. That night the Army went into bivouac astride the railway between Zand River and Kroonstad.
Pretorius retired across the Vaal where he joined Potgieter, who, after the failure of his attack on Dingaan in 1838, had gone into Moselekatse's country and had driven him beyond the Limpopo. A Republic was set up beyond the Vaal which the British Government recognized as independent in the Zand River Convention of 1852. Such is in brief the story of the Boers' claim to Natal.
What regiment was there? "Oh, we're all details 'ere," he said, with a gloomy shrug. At Zand River infantry were in trenches expecting attack. A fine bridge had been blown up, and we crossed the river, which runs in a deep ravine, by a temporary bridge built low down, the track to it most ingeniously engineered in a spiral way. An engineer told us they had had hard fighting there a day or two ago.
I proceeded to the west of Doornberg, and only halted when I reached the Zand River. What memories does the name of that river bring back to me! It was on its banks that in 1852 the English Government concluded a Convention with the Transvaal only to break it when Sir Theophilus Shepstone annexed that country on the 12th of April, 1877.
On February 11th De Wet forded the Orange River at Zand Drift, and found himself once more upon British territory. Lyttelton's plan of campaign appears to have been to allow De Wet to come some distance south, and then to hold him in front by De Lisle's force, while a number of small mobile columns under Plumer, Crabbe, Henniker, Bethune, Haig, and Thorneycroft should shepherd him behind.