The March to Pretoria - British Empire 1815-1914

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The March to Pretoria


British troops resting on the way to Pretoria
100,000 men on the march
By the beginning of April, Roberts was ready to lead his troops out of Bloemfontein. He was convinced that with the fall of Pretoria, the capital of the Transvaal-an important railway centre and an important symbol for the Boer nation, the war would be ended. These seemed to be little chance that the Boers could stop them for Roberts had now 200,000 men in the country and he proposed to use 100,000 of them in his advance. (The Boers had about 30,000 men scattered across the two republics) The rest of Robert's force would be left to garrison captured towns and to guard the lines of communication, particularly the railway line from Cape Town. Roberts intended to lead the advance himself at the head of three columns totalling 38,000 troops and with 100 guns. The column marched out of Bloemfontein at 5am on 3 May with the troops signing ''We are marching to Pretoria''. There would be little the Boers could do except hold up the advance for a few hours or days here and there as at Sand River and Doorn Kop where the Royal Sussex was involved in heavy fighting. The Boers could always be outflanked in any face to face engagement so all they could do was to harry the advancing force and snipe at it from the security of any hills that offered security.
In column on the way to Pretoria
On 12 May the army reached Kroonstadt where it rested for ten days before continuing the advance to Johannesburg and Pretoria. Leaving Kroonstadt on 24 May French's cavalry reached the Vaal River just as Roberts was announcing the annexation of what was to be termed the Orange River Colony. Botha's forces were retreating in the face of Robert' force and Boers were beginning to leave in large numbers. This was the Queen's birthday and the day had begun with the band playing 'God Save the Queen' for the Royal Sussex.
General Botha
At the Klip River
Botha managed to hold up the British advance for two days at the Klip River, with his 3,000 men  but he couldn't stop Roberts marching into Johannesburg on 31 May. This caused panic in Pretoria where there was a mass exodus to the east. Botha proposed that the Transvaal should surrender but de la Rey would not accept this and swore he would fight to the bitter end. Botha did decide though that Pretoria was defensible and he withdrew his forces allowing Roberts to enter the capital on 5 June. There was a two hour march past by troops who had come 300 miles in 34 days, half of which had been spent at rest. Of the 38,000 men, 1/4 did not reach Pretoria because of disease, casualties, loss of horses etc.
The Boers trapped but not defeated
One last major operation before the onset of guerrilla operations was the capture in July 1900 in the north east of the Orange Free State of 4,000 men under the command of General Prinsloo together with 4,000 sheep and 6,000 horses. 9,000 Boers had found themselves trapped in the Brandwater basin with mountains all around them with the British defending the passes. Two columns of Boers under the commands of De Wet and Steyn managed to escape the 16,000 British troops but the last column under Prinsloo was not so lucky.

It might have appeared that Roberts was a very successful general in South Africa but in fact he had had only two outright victories - the captures of Cronje and Prinsloo. He pushed the Boers back but he did not defeat them. He believed that by controlling the railways he would control the country but this could not have been further from the truth.
The March to Pretoria
The Boers did not rely on the railway-they were more used to a wagon and oxen for their transport needs. His policy of proclamations and punishment was based on what he had done in Afghanistan and did not work in south Africa-he helped cement a Boer patriotism which did not exist before the war. Roberts never really understood what he was fighting. He thought he was fighting an army, then rebels but he was in fact fighting a nation.

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