In the Shadow of Death
GENERAL P.H. KRITZINGER
MR. R.D. MCDONALD
ILLUSTRATED WITH PORTRAITS AND DIAGRAMS
PRINTED FOR PRIVATE CIRCULATION 1904
LONDON: PRINTED BY WILLIAM CLOWES AND SONS, LIMITED, DUKE STREET, STAMFORD STREET, S.E., AND GREAT WINDMILL STREET, W.
Several excellent works have already been written about the Anglo-Boer War of the beginning of the twentieth century; but the field of operations was so extensive, the duration of the war so long, and the leaders, on the Boer side, were necessarily so independent of one another in the operations that were conducted with one common aim, that something of interest may well remain to be said. We have not here chronicled our experiences and adventures in the form of a diary, but have rather grouped together events and observations. We write as Boers, frankly regretting the loss of that independence for which we took the field; but also as those who wish to give no offence to any honourable opponent. Our aim has been to do equal justice to both sides in the war; to unite and reconcile, not to separate and embitter, two Christian peoples destined to live together in one land.
"In the Shadow of Death" is a title the reader will hardly consider inappropriate by the time he reaches the end of this little book. Outnumbered on the battlefield, often exposed to the enemy's fire, and one of us wounded and laid low on a bed of intense suffering, and then charged before a Military Court with the greatest of crimes, we did not dare to hope that we should live to write these pages.
And here let our cordial thanks be given to Advocate F.G. Gardiner for his inestimable services in the hour of need, and for kindly submitting to us the "papers" bearing on the trial.
I. ANTECEDENTS 1
II. DARK DAYS 5
III. ENGAGEMENTS 21
IV. IN TIGHT CORNERS 43
V. TO THE CAPE COLONY 56
VI. WOUNDED 70
VII. COURT-MARTIALLED 81
VIII. WHY WE SURRENDERED 102
IX. THE BOER AS SEEN IN THE LIGHT OF THE WAR 118
X. THE RISING IN THE CAPE COLONY 149
XI. WAR INCIDENTS 170
"In the Shadow of Death."
The child is father to the man; And I could wish my days to be Bound each to each by natural piety.
A few preliminary pages of personal history I offer to those who followed me either in thought or deed during the Anglo-Boer War.
My ancestors were Germans; my grandfather was born in the South. About the year 1820 he, along with two brothers, bade farewell to the land of his nativity and emigrated to South Africa. They found a home for themselves in the neighbourhood of Port Elizabeth, and there they settled as farmers. Two of the brothers married women of Dutch extraction; one died a bachelor. A small village, Humansdorp, situated near to Port Elizabeth, was the birth-place of my father. There he spent the greater part of his life. He, too, married a Dutch lady; and we children adopted the language of our mother, and spoke Dutch rather than German.
My father took an active part in several of the early Kaffir Wars, and rendered assistance to the Colonial forces in subjugating the native tribes in the Eastern Province of the Cape Colony. With rapt attention and enthusiasm we children would listen to him as he told the tale of those early native wars. I then thought that there was nothing so sublime and glorious as war. My imagination was inflamed, and I longed intensely to participate in such exciting adventures. My experience of recent years has corrected my views. I think differently now. Peace is better than war. War is brutal and damnable. It is indeed "hell let loose."
On the 20th of April, 1870, the arrival of a little Kritzinger was announced on the farm Wildeman's-Kraal, Port Elizabeth District. That little fellow happened to be myself. I do not recollect much of the days of my youth—save that I was of a very lively disposition, with a fondness for all sorts of fun, and often of mischief, which landed me occasionally in great trouble. My parents obeyed the injunctions of Holy Writ in diligently applying the rod when they thought it necessary. As a child, I could but dimly understand, and scarcely believe, that love was at the root of every chastisement.
At the age of five I met with a serious accident. While gathering shells on the beach at Port Elizabeth, the receding waves drew me seaward with irresistible power. But for the pluck and courage of my little playfellow, a lassie of some twelve summers, I was lost. She came to the rescue. I was saved at the last moment: a few seconds more and I must have perished in the deep.
In 1882 my parents, leaving Cape Colony in search of a new home in the Orange Free State, settled down in the district of Ladybrand. It was, however, decided that I should remain behind with an uncle. This uncle was my godfather, and had promised to provide for my education. Having no children, he made me his adopted son. However excellent these arrangements might be, I resolved that I too should go to the Orange Free State. I succeeded in persuading my brother, who had charge of the waggons, to let me follow him on horseback under cover of darkness. I left my uncle's home alone and at dusk on the third evening after my brother's departure. How I felt, and in what condition I was, after riding thirty-five miles on the bare back of a horse, I shall not describe. My parents, who had gone ahead of the waggons, were not a little astonished, and yet they were not angry, at the unexpected appearance of the boy that was left behind.
On my arrival in the Free State it so happened that there was then a dispute as to headship between two Barolong chiefs. This quarrel called forth the intervention of the Free State Government. The burghers were commandoed in the event of resistance on the part of the native chiefs; and I, though a mere boy, at once offered my services to the nearest Field Cornet. He declined to accept them on the score that I was too young. Like David, I was loth to go back home. I borrowed an old gun, got a horse, and off I stole to the Boer commando. The dispute was amicably settled. Some thirty Barolongs, however, offered resistance. Most eagerly I thus fired my first shot upon a human being. I did not know then that it would not be the last; that I should live to hear the mountains and hills of South Africa reverberate with the sound of exploding shells, that the whizz of bullets would assail my ears like the humming of bees; that a bullet would penetrate my own lungs, leaving me a mass of bleeding clay on the battle-field. I did not know that South Africa's plains would yet be drenched with the blood of Boer and Briton until the very rivers ran crimson.
At the early age of seventeen I left the parental roof to earn for myself an independent living. I went to the district of Rouxville, where I occupied a farm situated on the Basutoland border. Several of the Basuto chiefs I got to know well. They allowed me to purchase all I desired from their subjects. Occupied thus with my private affairs while years sped by, I unconsciously drifted on to the disastrous war.
My mind was never absorbed nor disturbed by the many political controversies and problems of South Africa, not that I was indifferent to the welfare of my people and country, for, once war was declared by the leaders, my services were ready. I attached myself to the Rouxville Commando, under Commandant J. Olivier, as a private burgher. When Prinsloo surrendered, late in 1900, I was appointed Assistant-Commandant over that portion of the Rouxville Commando which had refused to lay down arms on Prinsloo's authority. This was my first commission in the Boer Army. On more than one occasion I had been requested to accept appointments; but, realising the great responsibility involved in leadership, I preferred to fight as a private. But events pushed onward; and on the 26th of August, 1900, when Commandant Olivier made an unsuccessful attack on Winburg, which resulted in his capture, I was elected in his stead, and so became Commandant of the Rouxville Commando.
On December 16th, 1900, carrying out instructions of General De Wet, I crossed the Orange River at a point near Odendaal's Stroom, with about 270 burghers. General De Wet was to follow me, but he was prevented. The enemy, determined to drive me back or effect my capture, concentrated numerous forces on my small commando. For months I was dreadfully harassed, and had no rest day or night. But I was resolved neither to retrace my steps nor to capitulate. How I escaped from time to time I now tell. The Cape Colonist Boers began to come in, and my forces increased rather than decreased. The burghers I had at my disposal I subdivided into smaller commandos, to give employment to the enemy, so that they could not concentrate all their forces on me. Thus, as the Colonists rose in arms, the commandos began to multiply more and more, until it was impossible for the British forces to expel the invaders from the Cape Colony.
At the beginning of August, 1901, General French once more fixed his attention on me. I was hard pressed by large forces, and had to fall back on the Orange Free State, where I then operated till the 15th of December. Again, and now for the last time, I forded the Orange River at midnight, and set foot on British territory. The following day I was wounded while crossing the railway line near Hanover Road. For about a month I was laid up in the British hospital at Naauwpoort, whence I was removed to Graaf Reinet gaol, and there I was confined as a criminal until the 10th of March, 1902, when after a five days' trial for murder I was acquitted. After my acquittal I was advanced to the honour (?) of P.O.W. (Prisoner of War), and so remained till the cessation of hostilities.
Oft expectation fails, and most oft there where most it promises.
Up to the 27th February, 1900, the Republican arms were on the whole successful. The Boers fought well and many a brilliant victory crowned their efforts, and encouraged them to continue their struggle for freedom. True, they had to sacrifice many noble lives, but that was a sacrifice they were prepared to make for their country. Fortune smiled on them; as yet they had met with no very serious reverses. Magersfontein, Stormberg, Colenso, Spion Kop, were so many offerings of scarce vanquished Boers to the veiled Goddess Liberty. But towards the end of February, 1900, clouds gathered over the Republics. The tide of fortune was turned; disaster after disaster courted the Boer forces; blow after blow struck them with bewildering force. Then came the news of Cronje's capture. No sooner had we crossed the Orange River during the retreat from Stormberg than we learnt that stunning news of the disaster at Paardeberg on the 27th of February—the anniversary of Amajuba. Cronje captured—the General in whom we had placed such implicit confidence and on whom we relied for the future! Cronje captured—the man who had successfully checked the advance of the English forces on Kimberley at Magersfontein; the hero of many a battle; the man who knew no fear! His men captured—the flower and pick of the Boer forces, with all their guns, and brave Major Albrecht as well!
Many a burgher who up to that fatal day had fought hopefully and courageously lost hope and courage then. Some, we regret to say, were so disconsolate that they renounced their faith in that Supreme Being in whose hands are the destinies of nations. Their reliance on their country's God ended with Cronje's capture, as though their deliverance depended solely upon him. This, however, does not appear so strange when one recollects that the Boers could not afford to lose so many of their best men at a time when all were precious for their country's safety. As to the siege itself, we, not having been in it, cannot enter into its details. One of the besieged, who, in spite of a terrific bombardment and repeated attacks by the enemy, kept a diary of the events of each day, gives this striking description on the 10th and last day:
"Bombardment heavier than usual. The burghers are recalcitrant and in consequence the General's authority wanes rapidly. There is hardly any food, the remaining bags of biscuits are yellow from the lyddite fumes, so is everything, damp and yellow. The stench of the decomposed horses and oxen is awful. The water of the rivers is putrid with carrion. A party of men caught three stray sheep early on the morning of the 10th. In haste they killed them and started to skin them desperately; but they had half done when a lyddite shell bursting close to them turned the mutton yellow with its fumes and it had to be abandoned reluctantly. The sufferings of the wounded are heartrending. Little children huddled together in bomb-proof excavations are restless, hungry and crying. The women are adding their sobs to the plaintive exhortations of the wounded. All the time the shelling never abates. The arena of the defenders is veneered. Nearly every man, woman and child is lyddite-stained. The muddy stream is yellow. The night was an awful one. For two days the men are without food, but worse still are the pestiferous air, the loathsome water, and the suffering of the wounded. It is too much for flesh and blood. The morning of the 27th February saw the first white flag hoisted by a Boer general. It was a woeful sight when 3600 Boers, undisciplined peasants, reluctantly threw down their rifles among the wreck of the shells and ambled past the English lines. They had withstood the onslaught of 80,000 British troops with modern death-dealing implements of war, and, towards the end of the siege, about 1000 guns were brought to bear upon them."
How far this disaster can be attributed to General Cronje is difficult to say. The following considerations may, however, throw some light on its causes.
During the early part of the war we hardly realised the great value and necessity of good scouting. It was only after General Cronje and his men had fallen into the hands of the enemy that a regular scouting corps was organised and placed under the control of the brave Danie Therou.
Lord Roberts's forces were almost on Cronje's laager before they were perceived, and unfortunately they were even then entirely under-estimated and consequently thought light of. Flushed by the victory at Magersfontein, the General did not contemplate the possibility of such a bitter reverse. He was going to strike another hard blow at the enemy—he did strike it, but at too great a cost. Had he realised his position the first or second day after the siege was begun, he might still have escaped. The convoy would have been captured, but the men would have been saved. The old gentleman was determined to hold all, and consequently lost all.
So far the General deserves censure and is accountable for the disaster which had such a far-reaching and bad moral effect on the rest of the burghers. The only sweet drop contained in the bitter cup extended to us was the fact that Cronje and his burghers surrendered as men, and not as cowards. Once surrounded and brought to bay they resisted every attack with admirable fortitude and valour. Surrounded along the banks of the Modder River, at a spot where they had no cover at all, exposed to a terrific cannonade and charged by thousands of the enemy from time to time, these farmers fearlessly repelled every onslaught. It was one thing to surround them, another thing to capture them. They were not to be taken with cold hands. The enemy, especially the Canadians, had to pay a great price before the white flag announced Cronje's unconditional surrender.
During the siege attempts were made by General De Wet to relieve Cronje, but none succeeded. Several of the relieving forces, including the pick of the Winburg Commando with Commandant Theunissen, were themselves surrounded and captured in trying to break through the lines of the besiegers.
To intensify the gloom, Ladysmith, which was daily expected to fall, was relieved on the day of Cronje's surrender. For certain reasons the late Commandant-General P. Joubert had evacuated the positions round Ladysmith and retreated to the Biggar's Range. General Louis Botha, who was engaging Buller's relieving forces at Colenso, was then also compelled to retreat.
After Cronje's capture the way to Bloemfontein and Pretoria lay open. The Boers made one more stand at Abraham's Kraal, where the enemy suffered heavily, but carried the day by their overwhelming numbers. After the British occupied Bloemfontein the Transvaal burghers became reluctant to offer battle in the Free State, on the ground that there were no positions from which they could successfully check the ever-advancing foe. Many of the Free Staters were discouraged and hopeless; but rest renewed their strength and zeal, and they shortly returned to the struggles.
The second disaster which befell the two Republics was the ignominious and cowardly surrender of Prinsloo, which took place on the 1st of August, 1900. For various reasons this surrender was more keenly felt by the Boers than that of Cronje. The one, though he might have blundered, nevertheless acted the part of a brave, though obstinate, man; the other that of a coward.
Some six weeks after the occupation of Bloemfontein the British troops resumed their northward march, and so quickly did they advance, almost day and night, that Pretoria was soon occupied. What this rapid movement meant, we could not quite understand. Did Lord Roberts think that the occupation of Pretoria would terminate hostilities? The British forces in their swift march to the Transvaal capital left Free State burghers behind them as they advanced. These men rallied again under General De Wet and seriously threatened the English line of communications, capturing seven hundred of the British at Roode Wal.
Large forces under Hector MacDonald and Bruce Hamilton recrossed the Vaal in order to crush the Free Staters. Then Prinsloo surrendered. Having accompanied the commandos that surrendered under him, we will relate the story of that most sad incident of the War.
On the occupation of Bethlehem by the British in the beginning of July, 1900, the Boer commandos, under General De Wet, retreated to the Wittebergen, a mountain range to the south-east of Bethlehem, forming a semi-circle round Fouriesburg, a small village on the Basutoland border. This range, with its towering peaks and steep slopes, formed an impregnable stronghold. The burghers thought that, once behind those heaven-high mountains, with all the passes in their possession, with abundant war supplies, and all the necessaries of life, they would resist successfully every attack. The camps were pitched at the base of the mountains. The burghers began at once to make turf-bulwarks for the guns, and trenches for themselves, in the various passes.
General De Wet, who did not seem quite at ease in this enclosure or kraal, for such it was, organised the Bethlehem-Heilbron burghers into a commando 2500 strong and left with these in the direction of Heilbron. General Roux from Senekal was instructed to organise another commando, 1000 or 1200 strong, and advance with that in the direction of Bloemfontein. For some reason or other, General Roux's departure was delayed, and so he with all his men fell into Prinsloo's meshes.
On Monday, 23rd July, the enemy made a general attack on all the Boer positions, except Naauwpoort Pass. These attacks, though very determined, were unsuccessful. From sunrise to sunset the firing never ceased. The burghers in Slabberts Nek, where we happened to be, were subjected to a dreadful cannon fire. This pass was guarded by Captain Smith with two Krupp guns and Lieutenant Carlblom with a pom-pom. Upon these guns the English directed two Howitzers and six Armstrongs. Here, just before sunset, the gallant Captain Rautenbagh was blown to pieces by a lyddite shell, which exploded in front of him.
Thus repulsed by day, the enemy succeeded in scaling the heights to the left of the Boers at Slabberts Nek by an unguarded footpath during the night. As soon as the crimson light of a July dawn had exposed the frost-covered ridges, the dark overcoats on the left of the Boer positions revealed the unwelcome fact that the enemy had gained their object of the day before, and had outflanked the Boers.
Not only at Slabberts Nek, but also at Reliefs Nek the Boers were outflanked the same night. At the latter pass a number of Highlanders had occupied the rocky heights during the stillness of the night, so that when the Boer pickets discovered them the next morning they found the enemy commanding a position higher than their own, which they forthwith abandoned. The enemy, now in possession of two mountain passes, forced the Boers to evacuate all the other passes, by threatening an attack on our rear and surrounding us. So on Tuesday morning, at about 9 A.M., the commandos quitted the mountains and fell back on Fouriesburg.
Our situation was becoming hourly more and more embarrassing. There was just one thing to be done, and that was to move as quickly as possible all along the base of the mountain range, and to seize a pass called Naauwpoort Nek farther northwards. That pass was not yet occupied by the enemy, and there it was possible to secure a safe exit; and higher up the mountain range, at the farm of Salmon Raads, was another pass which could be reached in due time.
If Prinsloo had, in his heart, desired to save his commandos, he could have done so easily. But no sooner had we left the mountains than we noticed that strange whispers were passed from man to man; we heard it said that a further prolongation of the war was absolutely useless; that many of the officers and burghers were tired of it, and would like to go home. In short, we saw what was coming, and anticipated the surrender.
When the commandos arrived at Naauwpoort Pass they found their exit cut off there by the enemy. Instead of hastening on to the next pass, the officers held a council of war to discuss the situation, or, more correctly, to deliberate on a surrender. The meeting lasted almost all night. Some of the officers were deadly opposed to a surrender; others—and they were the majority—were in favour of it. Nothing, however, was decided at that meeting, for a Hoofd Commandant had first to be elected before any steps could be taken.
A second meeting of officers for the purpose of electing a Chief Commandant was next held. In that meeting Prinsloo was elected Chief Commandant, but, as not all the officers were present, some of them being still in the positions, it was beforehand agreed that the man elected by that meeting should have no authority before the votes of the absent officers were taken, and when their votes came in it was found that General Roux, and not Prinsloo, was elected.
The latter, however, entered into negotiations with the enemy before this question as to whom was to be Chief Commandant was settled. He first asked for an armistice, which was refused. Then he asked for terms, to which General Hunter replied: "Unconditional surrender is demanded." Prinsloo, well aware that the burghers would not surrender unconditionally, pleaded and insisted on terms.
At this juncture Vilonel, the deserter, who had been sentenced for five years' imprisonment for high treason, but who was, unfortunately, released, appeared on the scene. He came from the British lines, met Prinsloo, and officiated as intermediary between Generals Hunter and Prinsloo. Something in the shape of terms was drawn up, but these terms, if tested and analysed, amounted to unconditional surrender. As soon as Prinsloo was in possession of these conditions, he forwarded a report to the different commandants that he had been successful in obtaining good terms from the English, and that they must evacuate their positions so as to arrange for a surrender. This report was sent on to Commandant Potgieter of Smithfield with instructions to forward it to the next commandant.
General Roux, on learning of Prinsloo's doings, at once dispatched a report to the different commandos notifying to them that Prinsloo had no right to negotiate with the enemy, to ask for or accept terms for a surrender. Also, that the burghers must on no account abandon their positions. He, so the report ran, would personally go to protest against the illegal surrender. The General went, but did not return. Why he went himself, and did not send one of his adjutants with a written protest, seems still very strange to us. He was warned not to go. General Fourie's last words to him were: "Good-bye, General; I greet you, never to see you again in the Boer ranks." He did not heed the warning, and so we lost one of our bravest and best leaders.
Unfortunately, General Roux's report fell into the hands of Commandant Potgieter, who, siding with Prinsloo on the question of a surrender, had it destroyed whilst Prinsloo's was forwarded. This settled the whole affair. The positions were evacuated, and in part occupied by the enemy. Still, at the eleventh hour, there was a possibility of escape. The long trail of waggons would have been captured, but most, if not all, the burghers could have found their way out. But no, they were to be duped by a set of unscrupulous officers. They were told they could get all they desired, except their independence. All could go home, each would get a horse-saddle and bridle, their private property would not be confiscated, and they would be allowed to follow their agricultural and pastoral pursuits undisturbed. And the poor officers—well for them that there were no extenuating terms, no mercy. So, at least, said Commandant Polly de Villiers, of the Ficksburg Commando. He, when posing as a martyr, announced these conditions to the burghers, who, after such long separation from their families, found it impossible to withstand such charming terms. Sorrowfully were they disillusioned after they had laid down their arms.
To make the surrender a complete success, all sorts of rumours were freely circulated. The burghers were told that all who did not surrender would be shot as rebels when captured, that the pass, higher up the mountains, was guarded by twenty-five lyddite guns, so that every exit was cut off by the enemy. When these reports were brought to bear on men already depressed and discouraged it did not require great pressure to effect their surrender. Still, if these men had not been misled, if they had known that Ceylon and India would be the final destination of many of them, they never would have surrendered, and very few of them would have been captured there and then. All this they found out when it was too late.
These unfortunate burghers we do not wish to criticise too severely. The officers were to blame. Many of them certainly fell into the hands of the enemy through no fault of their own. There were, however, some who were only too ready to lay down their arms, and these were the majority. They did not act the part of men; for they deserted shamefully those who still struggled bravely for freedom. Nor am I willing to judge these. Let conscience speak to such as these.
Some officers, animated by a truer love of their country, protested strongly against such an illegal and shameful surrender. One of these, General Olivier of the Rouxville Commando, called his burghers together and told them plainly what he thought. He warned them not to place too much credence in British promises, and promised that those who would follow him he would lead out safely. Of his whole commando—about four hundred strong—scarcely seventy followed him. The others surrendered.
Besides attending to his men, General Olivier also took charge of most of the Boer guns, which were to have formed no mean part of the booty, for Prinsloo had promised the British some thirteen guns, one pom-pom, and a few maxims with all their ammunition. In the pass at Salmon Raads, General Hector MacDonald met Olivier with the guns. He at once ordered him to go no farther, as he was a surrendered man. Olivier tarried as long as it pleased him, and then proceeded, taking the guns along with him.
Of all the Boer forces concentrated in the Wittebergen, only about six hundred did not surrender. To secure these also every means were resorted to. No fewer than three times were messengers sent to them with reports from the enemy. At first we were courteously invited to return and surrender. To prove to us the validity of the surrender, all the papers bearing on the negotiation from first to last were forwarded to us. The excellent conditions granted to the surrendered burghers were also transmitted to us. In these conditions we observed that the surrendered burghers would each be provided with a horse to ride to their destination, which would be Winburg, till further orders. We saw also that they would be kept as prisoners-of-war until the war was over, which meant, though they did not suspect it then, two years longer. Their private property was to be respected. How the last condition was violated is well known.
Olivier and his men were, however, not to be easily ensnared. He politely rejected the proffered terms, stating at the same time that Prinsloo's surrender was illegal. A few days later, and lo! in the distance we beheld another flag-of-truce, a second report. The polite request had failed, intimidation must now be tried—that might succeed better. We were admonished urgently to come back at once, and surrender without further delay. Failing that, we must not expect to receive such generous and lenient treatment as would be extended to those surrendered already. All our goods would be confiscated, etc.
On receiving this report, Olivier sent back the somewhat curt and abrupt reply: "That if the British wanted his rifle they would have to capture him as a man, for he would not surrender like an old woman. And he would receive no more white flags on this matter." Consequently the third messenger was sent back without being interviewed.
So much for the Prinsloo disaster. It was a sad one for those still struggling against overwhelming odds. Many a heart beat low, and many a sigh was heaved. That was an "unkind cut," which wounded the hearts of thousands. Many a one, even of those who stood to the last day, never recovered from the effects of that shock. They fought bravely, and did their duty towards their country, but hope for an ultimate victory was dead within them.
And those who surrendered, what lessons they had to learn! Even to-day, a year after the close of the war, some of them have not reached their homes, but are on lonely islands, and in distant India, while many have passed away to the unseen world on those foreign shores. Those that came back, what did they find? A country strewn with ruins, their homes destroyed and burnt, and their sheep and cattle stabbed and shot lying in heaps upon the ground. What a sad sight did greet their eyes! How many of their beloved families were missing, having died in the Concentration Camps. But when they reflect on the past the saddest thought should be their vanished freedom.
The next ordeal through which the Republicans had to pass began with the denudation of the two States. As arms alone could not subdue the Boers, some other expedient had to be tried—the starvation process was resorted to; all food-stuff had to be destroyed or removed, so that the burghers should not obtain sustenance. The country had to be cleared of cattle and sheep—in fact, of everything which could keep the Boers alive. This was considered the most feasible way of defeating the so-called marauding bands of armed Boers.
But what about the women-folk, if the country is to be cleared? Well, these must go to Concentration Camps, from which so many never returned. We do not wish to dwell on the sufferings of Boer women and children; but what we are proud to note is that when military operations were conducted against the weak and defenceless, the burgher was touched to the centre of his heart. Call a Boer by what name you please, but of this be assured—he is a man who, above all, loves his family, and has pride and pleasure in his home, be it never so humble. When, therefore, a destructive policy was adopted, who shall realise fully what passed through the minds of these as they stood watching the lurid flames of their burning homes, and heard how in the camps their families were dying in scores? Cronje's capture, Prinsloo's surrender, and all the hard fighting they had to do, seemed but trifles as compared to this, by far the saddest, phase of the South African War.
Another dark day, and the curtain drops. We refer to that day when the documents were signed and peace was concluded. Then, indeed, the darkness seemed tangible Who shall number the tears shed on that day—tears of men, women, and even children? Tears of men who had fought for almost three years, who had sacrificed their all, who had but one object in view, one ideal to pursue; who loved liberty and independence, with an amazing love. Tears of women, who had spent many months either in camps, or in the open veldt; women whose husbands and sons had fallen in the war, whose infants were laid low in many a graveyard. Tears of children, who had lost their parents, children who never more would know the love of a mother, the protection of a father. With one voice the whole people lamented the loss of their beloved Fatherland.
And how did the officers who had to subscribe to these terms of peace feel? Let one[A] who was present speak:
"Never shall I forget what I witnessed there. General De Wet showed that there was no chance any longer of continuing the struggle ... I see him yet, that unyielding man, with his piercing eyes, his strong mouth and chin—I see him there still, like a lion fallen into a snare. He will not, he cannot, but he must give up the struggle! I still see the stern faces of the officers, who up to that moment had been so unbending. I see them staring as if into empty space. I see engraved upon their faces an indescribable expression, an expression that seemed to ask: 'Is this the bitter end of our sufferings and our sorrows, of our faith and our strong crying to God?' How great was their emotion! I saw the lips of men quiver who had never trembled before a foe. I saw tears brimming in eyes that had been dry when they had seen their dearest laid in the grave....
"Everything was as silent as death when acting President Burger took the pen in his hand. I looked at my watch; it was five minutes past eleven on the 31st day of May in the year 1902.
"President Burger signed. President Steyn was not there. Our hearts bled at the thought that he had been seized by a dangerous malady; and yet it seemed to me that something was owed to that malady, since it prevented the President of the Orange Free State from doing what would have caused him the greatest pain in the world. He had said once: 'To set my hand to a paper to sign away the Independence of my people—that I shall never do.' Sad circumstances, which he might then almost have called fortunate, had brought it about that what he would not do, that he could not do. The document was signed! All were silent in that room where so much had been spoken."
We quote the terms of peace in full:—
"His Excellency General Lord Kitchener, and His Excellency Lord Milner, on behalf of the British Government, and Messrs. M.T. Steyn, J. Brebner, General C.R. De Wet, General C. Olivier, and Judge J.B.M. Hertzog, acting as the Government of the Orange Free State, and Messrs. S.W. Burger, F.W. Reitz, Generals Louis Botha, J.H. de la Rey, Lucas Meyer, and C. Krogh, acting as the Government of the South African Republic, on behalf of their respective burghers, desirous to terminate the present hostilities, agree on the following articles:—
"I. The burgher forces in the field will forthwith lay down their arms, handing over all guns, rifles, and munitions of war in their possession or under their control, and desist from any further resistance to the authority of His Majesty King Edward VII., whom they recognise as their lawful Sovereign. The manner and details of this surrender will be arranged between Lord Kitchener and Commandant-General Botha, Assistant Commandant-General Delarey, and Chief Commandant De Wet.
"2. All burghers in the field outside the limits of the Transvaal or Orange River Colony, and all prisoners of war at present outside South Africa, who are burghers, will, on duly declaring their acceptance of the position of subjects of His Majesty King Edward VII., be gradually brought back to their homes as soon as transport can be provided and their means of subsistence ensured.
"3. The burghers so surrendering or so returning will not be deprived of their personal liberty or their property.
"4. No proceedings, civil or criminal, will be taken against any of the burghers so surrendering or so returning for any acts in connection with the prosecution of the war. The benefit of this clause will not extend to certain acts contrary to the usage of war which have been notified by the Commander-in-Chief to the Boer Generals and which shall be tried by court-martial immediately after the close of hostilities.
"5. The Dutch language will be taught in public schools in the Transvaal and Orange River Colony where the parents of the children desire it, and will be allowed in courts of law when necessary for the better and more effectual administration of justice.
"6. The possession of rifles will be allowed in the Transvaal and Orange River Colony to persons requiring them for their protection, on taking out a licence according to law.
"7. Military administration in the Transvaal and Orange River Colony will at the earliest possible date be succeeded by Civil Government, and, as soon as circumstances permit, representative institutions, leading up to self-government, will be introduced.
"8. The question of granting the franchise to natives will not be decided until after the introduction of self-government.
"9. No special tax will be imposed on landed property in the Transvaal and Orange River Colony to defray the expenses of the War.
"10. As soon as conditions permit, a Commission, on which the local inhabitants will be represented, will be appointed in each district of the Transvaal and Orange River Colony, under the presidency of a Magistrate or other official, for the purpose of assisting the restoration of the people to their homes, and supplying those who, owing to war losses, are unable to provide for themselves, with food, shelter, and the necessary amount of seed, stock, implements, etc., indispensable to the resumption of their normal occupations. His Majesty's Government will place at the disposal of these Commissions a sum of three million pounds sterling for the above purposes, and will allow all notes issued under Law No. I, of 1900, of the South African Republic, and all receipts given by officers in the field of the late Republics, or under their orders, to be presented to a Judicial Commission, which will be appointed by the Government; and if such notes and receipts are found by this Commission to have been duly issued in return for valuable considerations, they will be received by the first named Commissions as evidence of war losses suffered by the persons to whom they were originally given. In addition to the above named free grant of three million pounds, His Majesty's Government will be prepared to make advances on loan for the same purposes, free of interest for two years, and afterwards repayable over a period of three years with three per cent. interest. No foreigner or rebel will be entitled to the benefit of this clause."
Statement read by Lord Milner to the Boer delegates:—
"His Majesty's Government must place it on record that the treatment of Cape and Natal Colonists who have been in rebellion, and who now surrender, will, if they return to their Colonies, be determined by the Colonial Governments, and in accordance with the laws of the Colonies, and that any British subjects who have joined the enemy will be liable to trial under the law of that part of the British Empire to which they belong.
"His Majesty's Government are informed by the Cape Government that the following are their views as to the terms which should be granted to British subjects of Cape Colony who are now in the field, or who have surrendered, or have been captured since the 12th of April, 1901: With regard to rank and file, that they should all, upon surrender, after giving up their arms, sign a document before the Resident Magistrate of the District in which the surrender takes place, acknowledging themselves guilty of High Treason, and that the punishment to be awarded to them, provided they shall not have been guilty of murder, or other acts contrary to the usages of civilised warfare, should be that they shall not be entitled for life to be registered as voters, or to vote at any Parliamentary Divisional Council, or Municipal election.
"With reference to Justices of the Peace and Field Cornets of the Cape Colony, and all other persons holding an official position under the Government of the Cape Colony, or who may occupy the position of Commandant of rebel or burgher forces, they should be tried for High Treason before the ordinary court of the country, or such special court as may be hereafter constituted by Law, the punishment for their offence to be left to the discretion of the Court, with this proviso, that in no case shall the penalty of Death be inflicted.
"The Natal Government are of opinion that rebels should be dealt with according to the Law of the Colony."
To the Boer, although he had been suffering the manifold miseries of the battlefield for over two years, such terms made peace a tragedy. Bitterness was mixed with his cup of happiness when he found himself once more united to his family.
[Footnote A: Rev. Kestell, 'Through Shot and Flames.']
And in the hope of freedom they possess All that the contest calls for,—spirit, strength, The scorn of danger, and united hearts.
With the exception of the Stormberg engagement we do not intend to dwell on the battles of the first part of the campaign. They have already been described by able hands, by men who participated in them, or were in a position to ascertain their true history. By this we do not infer that all accounts are correct, for it requires many eyes to see one battle in all its aspects. Besides, some writers are unconsciously influenced and prejudiced by their national sentiments, and thus fail to do justice to the parties concerned. We shall confine ourselves to the engagements in which we personally took part, and shall record only the more remarkable among them.
BATTLE OF STORMBERG.
In the beginning of November, 1899, the commandoes of Rouxville, Smithfield, and Bethulie entered the Cape Colony at different points. Having occupied several villages in the Eastern Province, they concentrated towards the end of the month in the Stormbergen. Our tents were pitched on the northern slopes of this mountain range, which runs from east to west, six miles to the north of Molteno. Here we were to have our first lesson in actual fighting; for up to that time we had not encountered any resistance on the part of the enemy.
On the 9th of December, the night fixed on by General Gatacre to strike a blow at the Boer forces at Stormberg, Assistant Chief Commandant Grobler left that place with about nine hundred burghers, intending to occupy Steynsburg. The enemy, having heard of their departure, and knowing that our positions were in consequence so much weaker, left that same evening, fully resolved to surprise us, and, if possible, reoccupy the Stormbergen, which were abandoned at the first approach of our commandoes.
The object of the British was to attack us on our right flank before dawn, seize our positions and force us to surrender or retreat. On paper this plan presented no difficulties, but its accomplishment was not quite so easy, and proved a dangerous operation. The English general, as we afterwards learnt, had started for the Boer positions at too late an hour to reach them in due time; and, moreover, had lost his way in the darkness of the night, so that the first rays of the rising sun were lighting the majestic mountain tops before he was in position.
The "brandwachten"—night pickets—of the Rouxville Commando were already on their way back to the camp, when one of them, who had by chance returned to the top of the mountain, saw, in the shadow of the valley, and on the slopes of the mountain, human forms moving silently onward. One glance of his keen eye assured him that those forms were enemies. Bang! went the first rifle report. The other pickets all rushed back and opened fire as swiftly as they could handle their Mausers. This brought the enemy to a standstill, for they, too, were surprised.
In the Boer camp below some of us were still peacefully sleeping, while others were enjoying their first cup of coffee. With the rifle reports came wakefulness and bustle. It did not take us a moment to realise that speed would be our only means of salvation. Should the enemy reach the summit first, disaster and defeat would be our lot. For some minutes it was a scene of confusion. The horses, saddles, bridles, rifles and bandoliers, where were they? Some knew, and had their equipments ready in a moment; others, less careful, did not know, and sought almost frantically for theirs. We made for the mountain and scaled it as swiftly as our feet could carry us. Exhausted and breathless we reached the summit before the enemy.
Gatacre's men were now exposed to a somewhat confused fire, which greatly embarrassed them. Subjected to this fire from the summit, some concealed themselves behind the rocks, while others retreated for shelter to a donga not far off.
The English battery was then brought into action, and opened a terrific fire on our positions, commanded by only two Krupp guns. So unceasing and accurate was the enemy's fire, that our guns were soon silenced. In a short time some of our burghers fell wounded and a few killed. One of the enemy's guns was taken by mistake too near to our positions, with the result that, in a few minutes, all its horses and most of the gunners were disabled, and the gun passed into our hands.
Although exposed to a violent bombardment, we held our ground and repelled the repeated attacks of Gatacre's men, who began to realise that, should their guns not speedily dislodge us, the attack was bound to collapse.
After the engagement had lasted an hour and a half we noticed that the enemy began to waver, and was planning a retreat. To their dismay General Grobler now made his appearance with reinforcements. He had encamped that night some nine miles from Stormberg, and on hearing the report of the guns, returned with Commandant du Plooy of Bethulie to assist the Stormberg defenders.
On his arrival the enemy, exposed to a cross-fire, ran the risk of being surrounded and captured. There was but one way out of a wretched position—one loophole out of the net. Fortunately for them, Commandant Zwanepoel of Smithfield, who had just given orders to guard this way of escape, was badly wounded while rising to lead on his men. Owing to this mishap his burghers failed to carry out his instructions, thus leaving the way open.
Gatacre, seeing that it was a hopeless struggle, abandoned the project of reoccupying Stormberg and sounded the retreat. He was followed up for some distance by Commandant du Plooy, who made a few prisoners and took two ammunition waggons. Weary and thirsty, the English forces re-entered Molteno that evening. They had been baffled in a determined attack. Their losses amounted to about 700, captured, wounded and killed. Those who had taken shelter behind the rocks and in the donga were all made prisoners. They remained there till the rest had retreated, and then hoisted the white flag. One English writer says that they were shamefully forgotten by General Gatacre, who was thus responsible for their loss. Indeed a questionable explanation! Among the wounded were a few officers and some privates, who were seriously injured by their own guns as they tried to seize the Boer positions. Colonel Eagar, one of the wounded, was removed to our hospital, where he breathed his last. In addition to the number of prisoners we also captured two big guns. Our losses amounted to 6 killed and 27 wounded.
The attack on the Stormberg positions, if it was boldly conceived, was badly carried out. The English general should have postponed the attack when it dawned upon him that he would not reach the enemy's positions before daybreak; and he should have used the knowledge, common to most soldiers, that it is best to attack a foe's weakest side. This was not done at Stormberg. We, too, suffered from ill-advised action—or rather, inaction. For we had had the opportunity of capturing, if not all, most of Gatacre's men, with all their guns, and we neglected it! The victory would have been complete if we had only followed up our advantage. In those early days, however, some of our leaders regarded it as rather sinful to harass a retreating enemy.
On the occupation of Bloemfontein some of the burghers, discouraged and despondent, left for their homes. Lord Roberts's proclamation, promising protection to all who should lay down their arms and settle quietly on their farms, enticed many to remain at home. Most, however, changed their minds after a few weeks' rest and returned to their commandoes.
It was then, after they had rallied again, that General De Wet, on the eve of the 28th of March, left Brandfort with a commando 1500 strong and moved in the direction of Winburg. De Wet had made up his mind to surprise the English garrison which guarded the Bloemfontein Waterworks at Sanna's Post, and so cut off the water supply of Bloemfontein.
With that object in view he made his movements thither by night, so as to keep the enemy in the dark as to his plans. Neither were these disclosed to the burghers, who were naturally anxious to know where they were going and what they were to do next.
On his way De Wet learnt that General Broadwood, dreading an attack of Commandant Olivier, had quitted Ladybrand and was marching on Bloemfontein with a strong force. This information was rather disconcerting, for now he had not only to reckon with the garrison, but to be ready for an engagement with a column 2000 strong, which might come to the relief of the garrison at any moment. In case of such an emergency, De Wet divided his forces into two parts. He placed one division—1050 strong with four guns—under the control of Generals Cronje, Froneman, Wessels, and Piet De Wet, with instructions to occupy the positions east of the Modder River and directly opposite the Waterworks, so as to check Broadwood, should he come to the rescue of the garrison.
Taking the remaining 350 burghers he set out to Koorn Spruit, a brook which flows into the Modder River. Arrived there, he carefully concealed his horses and men at a point where the road from the Waterworks to Bloemfontein passes through the brook. The other generals were to shell the garrison at daybreak, while he would fall on the troops if they tried to escape to Bloemfontein via Koorn Spruit.
As the Boer forces were getting into their different positions during the night, Broadwood, who had left Thaba 'Nchu at nightfall, arrived that very night at Sanna's Post. But we were each unconscious of the other's presence.
The next morning at daybreak we saw a waggon and a large number of cattle and sheep not far off the brook. The Kaffir drivers informed us that the British column had just arrived at Sanna's Post. As soon as we could see some distance ahead, we observed the enemy now hardly 3000 paces off. A few minutes later our guns began to play upon the unsuspecting British forces. What a scene of confusion! Broadwood had fallen into a trap and was between two fires. The whole column, with guns, waggons and carts, made hurriedly for the drift where De Wet and his men lay hidden. Nearer they came. At length a cart entered the drift. The occupants, husband and wife, looked bewildered on seeing armed Boers all around them in the bed of the brook. De Wet immediately ordered two of his adjutants to mount the cart and drive on. Then in quick succession followed a number of carts and vehicles, all driven by Englishmen from Thaba 'Nchu. These were ordered to proceed ahead and warned not to make any signals to the enemy. So well was everything arranged, that the first batch of troops that entered the drift had not the slightest suspicion that there was something wrong. Absolutely abashed were they on finding themselves among us; the men raised their hands in surrender at the cry of "Hands up!"
In this way we disarmed 200 without wasting a bullet. But this was not to go on for long; there came an officer from the rear who was determined to upset our plans and disturb our peace seriously. He, at least, was not going to surrender in this fashion. On being asked for his rifle he said, with marked resoluteness, "Be d——d! I won't," and called on his men to fire. He drew his sword, but before he could use it he was no more among the living.
The battle had begun. Scarcely 100 paces from the banks of the brook stood five of the enemy's guns and more than 100 waggons. Some 400 paces from these two more guns had stopped. The enemy had withdrawn for cover about 1300 yards to the station on the Dewetsdorp-Bloemfontein railway.
It was while they were retreating to this station that the greatest havoc was wrought among them. Across the open plain, with no cover at all, they had to retreat, and before they reached the place of shelter the ground between the brook and the station was thickly strewn with their dead and wounded. It was, indeed, a ghastly scene. The burghers stood erect and fired on the retreating foe as though they were so much game. So quickly did the waggons and guns wheel round that many were overturned. To remove them was impossible. In vain did the English try to save the guns. They succeeded, however, in getting two to the station house, where they had rallied. With these they bombarded us for some time; but owing to our sheltered positions only two men were wounded.
The Boer forces on the east of the Modder River had in the meanwhile been doing their best to come to the assistance of General De Wet. But their progress was much retarded by the uneven veldt and dongas through which they had to ride. After three hours, spent in fruitless attempts, they forded the river, attacked the enemy with great energy, and succeeded in putting them to flight, and this brought the battle to an end.
We made 480 captives. What their losses in wounded and killed were is difficult to estimate. In the evening, when all was over, we went to the house where the wounded were gathered, and there counted in one room alone 96 cases. Their own report made their losses 350 dead and wounded. Besides, 7 guns and 117 waggons fell into our hands. Our loss consisted in 3 killed and 5 wounded.
On looking at the bodies of the dead and listening to the groanings of the wounded, one was forced to say what a pity that the trap was discovered, that one brave man, through his very bravery, prevented the bloodless capture of his column and his general.
The victory at Sanna's Post was soon followed up by another success over the British arms. On the evening of the eventful day at the Waterworks De Wet handed the command over to Generals A. Cronje and Piet De Wet, and, having taken three of his staff, he went in the direction of Dewetsdorp on a reconnoitring expedition.
The following day he learnt that a party of the enemy had occupied Dewetsdorp. On receiving the report his mind was made up: these too must be captured. He was then thirty miles away from the commandoes, but instantly despatched a report to us to come post-haste so as to attack the enemy at Dewetsdorp or intercept them, should they try to join the main body, which was advancing under Gatacre on Reddersburg.
In the meanwhile the burghers of that district, who had gone to their farms on the fall of Bloemfontein, were commandeered. With these, some 120, who were almost all unarmed, De Wet started for Dewetsdorp to watch the movements of the British.
Early on the 2nd of April the enemy left Dewetsdorp, and resumed their march to Reddersburg. While marching De Wet kept them all the while under surveillance. He was moving on one of their flanks, parallel to them with an intervening distance of six miles. They were evidently not aware that he was so close to them. As soon as we received the report concerning the British, we left Sanna's Post in haste. We required no urging on. For were we not encouraged by our recent success, and was there not every chance of achieving another? We left Sanna's Post a little before sunset, and that whole night we rode on without off-saddling once. We did not halt save for a few minutes to rest our horses.
Early the following morning a third report, pressing us to increase our speed and leave behind those whose horses were too tired to proceed rapidly, reached us. De Wet was most anxious to occupy a ridge in front of the enemy, between the farms Mostert's Hoek and Sterkfontein. The road leading to Reddersburg from Dewetsdorp traverses this ridge. Hence it was absolutely necessary to seize it before the enemy if we were to intercept them.
So on we went, leaving the weary and exhausted behind to follow on as soon as possible. About 9 A.M. Generals Froneman and De Villiers, with 350 men, met De Wet, who was still moving parallel to the British column, obscured from their view by a rising of the ground.
The ridge referred to already loomed now in the distance. We were all fiercely anxious to seize it before the enemy. For it was a question of life and death who was to be first there. But our horses were too tired, and began to fall out rapidly. We were still four miles from the ridge when the English began to occupy the eastern extremity of it. We moved on to the western extremity, and reached it in time.
The enemy, however, had the advantage of the best positions, but was fortunately cut off from the water. We were resolved to hem them in completely, for we knew that, if no relieving forces arrived, they would be compelled by thirst alone, if nothing else, to surrender.
Before commencing the fight, De Wet, anxious as usual to avoid unnecessary bloodshed, sent the following note to the commanding officer:—
"SIR,—I am here with 500 men, and am every moment expecting reinforcements with three Krupps, against which you will not be able to hold out. I therefore advise you, in order to prevent bloodshed, to surrender."
The messenger returned under a storm of bullets, for no sooner had he left the English lines than they opened fire on him. How he was missed seemed inexplicable. The answer he brought back was: "I am d——d if I surrender." On receiving this reply firing at once commenced. Positions nearer to the enemy were gradually occupied.
Towards sunset our guns arrived, and were brought to bear upon the enemy. But darkness soon set in, and firing ceased on both sides. To make sure that the enemy would not escape during the night, we occupied positions all round them, and in the darkness of the night silently stole as near to their positions as was possible.
The next morning, as soon as the glimmer of dawn revealed the Mauser sights to our eyes, the firing started with renewed vigour. We had drawn so close to the enemy that when our guns were brought in action we could, under cover of these, storm their positions. The men boldly rushed up to the enemy's skanzes, and some burghers even seized their rifles by the barrels, as they presented these over the bulwarks, calling out, "Hands up! hands up!"
At 11 A.M. the white flag was hoisted. The commanding officer, who had refused to surrender, was mortally wounded. Three hundred and seventy were sent to the Transvaal as prisoners-of-war, while their wounded and killed numbered 92.
Among the English we found five Boer prisoners-of-war, who were likewise exposed to our firing. Imagine their joy in being released! They greeted us with the ejaculation: "Thank God we are free!" We mourned the death of Veldt Cornet du Plessis of Kroonstad, who fell after the white flag had been hoisted. That such mistakes should occur! Six or seven burghers were wounded.
Towards the end of July, 1900, Prinsloo's surrender took place. Those of us who escaped the trap laid left for Heilbron with the hope of meeting De Wet's commando there. Near Heilbron we heard the dismal news that he was forced over the Vaal and was being driven northward by some 40,000 troops. This, led us to change our course and move in the direction of Winburg.
On the morning of the 27th of August we made an unsuccessful attack on Winburg. Olivier, with 27 men, got captured. The burden and responsibility of leading others was then first placed upon my shoulders. I was elected commandant.
Frustrated in our attempt to seize Winburg, we resolved to attack Ladybrand, which was not strongly garrisoned. Having encamped at Koeranerberg—a mountain 30 miles west of Ladybrand—we mustered our forces, took three guns and about 800 burghers, and left for the village.
It was a bitterly cold night—one of those nights which one can hardly forget. We rode till sunrise without off-saddling once. At 9 P.M. we halted to prepare a hasty supper. How we enjoyed that! A few days before, the enemy had unwillingly provided us with sugar, coffee, milk, butter and cheese. Owing to the intense cold the men that had no overcoats wrapped themselves up in their blankets, in which they appeared before the village just as the sun was rising.
Commandant Hertzog, on our arrival, despatched a messenger under a flag of truce to demand the surrender of the garrison. In reply he received a message to the effect that it would be much better if he would come in himself and lay down arms; that would put an end to the business much quicker. On receiving this answer we at once began to bombard the forts of the enemy, with the result that almost all their horses took to flight and fell into our hands, while some of them were wounded and killed.
General Fourie, Commandant Nieuwhoudt and myself, with a number of daring volunteers, made for the village. We reached a few houses safely, and under cover of these we succeeded in forcing the enemy to retreat to their forts and skanzes at the foot of Platrand—a mountain to the south-east of the village and very near to it. Gradually we occupied more and more of the village, and before sunset we were in possession of the whole of it.
The enemy was, however, so strongly entrenched that, in spite of their small numbers, it was impossible to compel them to capitulate without incurring the risk of sustaining heavy losses. For at the base of the mountain are natural forts and grottoes, against which lyddite shells would spend their force in vain. All we could do was to keep the foe in their haunts by directing such a fire against them that they could not venture even to peep out. In doing this the commandoes could requisition—loot, as some would say—what they required.
During the night the enemy shifted and occupied other positions. At daybreak they took vengeance on us from these positions. It did not take a long time to silence them for the rest of the day.
The following two days we remained in the village, keeping the enemy at bay. We had hoped that eventually their rations would run short, and thus bring about their surrender. Unfortunately our hopes were not to be realised; they were only too well provided. Then, again, we thought that thirst might prove an irresistible force in our favour; but in this, too, we erred, for in their grottoes was abundant water.
On the second day of the attack we placed one of our guns in the centre of the village, whence we shelled the enemy's forts, but all to no purpose. On the evening of the third day we heard that relieving forces were at hand, and as we had received a message from De Wet to meet him in Bothaville district, we left Ladybrand at dusk.
During the three days' fighting only a few burghers were wounded. As the enemy fired at random into the village, some of the inhabitants were also injured. A young man was mortally wounded, while a bullet shattered the arm of a woman.
Our efforts were rewarded by the seizure of the enemy's horses, which we valued even more than their persons. The horses we could keep and use, the men we had to dismiss again. We returned to the laager well supplied with clothes and foodstuffs. But for some traitors, who assisted the enemy, the garrison would in all probability have fallen. These, dreading the results of a capitulation, held out until relieved.
As this was our first visit to Ladybrand since its occupation, the joy of the Boer families in meeting relatives and burghers was indeed great. They welcomed them with open arms, and during their short stay it was their delight to minister unto them. We shall ever gratefully remember the hearty reception which was extended to us by the Ladybrand Africanders. Were they not prosecuted after our departure for welcoming and receiving their kith and kin?
Compelled to abandon the Cape Colony in August, we went to Gastron District, a Free State village situated on the Basutoland border. There we intended to rest our horses for a time; but no sooner had we entered the district than the English column came pouring into it like so many birds of prey. They had concentrated in that district and in the adjoining ones to clear them, i.e., to remove or destroy whatever could be removed or destroyed.
During this time we often came in conflict with the enemy. It was impossible to avoid that; they were on every side. For miles and miles it was one column on the other. We could hardly engage any of these columns successfully during the day, for no sooner had the fight begun than reinforcements would come from all directions, making our position quite untenable.
It was in such circumstances that we planned a night attack on one of the English camps nine miles east of Gastron. We had engaged the enemy on several occasions without desirable results. Our limited supply of ammunition was gradually exhausted. Come what would, we were bound to strike a blow at the enemy, so as to fill our bandoliers once more. The night was the only time we could hope to succeed. Reinforcements would not then scatter us before we had achieved our object.
At 11 P.M. on the 19th of September, 1901, after a day's hard fighting from early morn till sunset, we started, 70 men in all, with the intention of attacking a column encamped at the foot of a hill. It was a very cold night, and the moon, casting her pale light across the frosty plains, was sinking in the west. The column was about eight miles off. As we approached it, deep silence reigned. Not a word, not a whisper was heard. Ah! if we could but succeed in passing the enemy's pickets unobserved, the victory would be ours, the battle half won. So we held our breath and our tongues as well, and moved onward. Indeed, we have succeeded! We are past the pickets, and that unnoticed! The hill, where the slumbering foe is encamped, is in our possession.
Having dismounted, the burghers were arranged in fighting order. Commandant Louis Wessels was placed on one flank, Commandant De Bruijn on the other. Before commencing the work of destruction, we briefly admonished and encouraged the men to be true to each other and to fight as befits men. We pointed out to them that our success would depend entirely upon our united efforts. For a long address there was no time, so we proceeded to the camp.
The moon has set. Down below the enemy is fast asleep. Soon, too soon, their midnight slumbers will be sadly disturbed. Many of them will not see the dawn of another day. They are enjoying their last sleep.
Silently we moved on to the British column, which gave no signs whatever that our approach was suspected. As it was very dark, the men were ordered not to advance ahead of one another, for fear of accidents, and also, if possible, to march right through the camp, so as to make sure of all.
Commandant L. Wessels, famous for his dauntlessness, was the first to open fire by lodging a shot in one of the enemy's tents. The rest followed, and then a shower of bullets, thick and fast, poured in upon the surprised and embarrassed foe. The men aimed low and fired with deadly precision. The flashes of the rifles leapt forth like lightning freaks in the darkness. Never before had I witnessed such a scene.
In a quarter of an hour all was over and the whole camp taken. Two Maxims were destroyed and an Armstrong was taken along with us. What havoc was played in that brief quarter of an hour! The wounded mules, horses and men lay groaning side by side. Colonel Murray, Captain Murray, and almost all the other officers, fell in the action, and several privates passed into the unseen world that fatal night. So terrific was the firing that entire teams of mules were shot down where they stood tied to the ropes.
As the veldt was strewn with the many wounded and the dead, we could not put the waggons on fire, lest the grass should catch fire and consume the fallen in battle. We took what we could remove and left the camp—not exactly as we found it, but a little poorer.
The enemy, though attacked off their guard, defended themselves bravely. We shall not forget the gallant conduct of the officer who had charge of the Maxim. Distinctly we could hear him say, "Get the Maxim into action. Don't be afraid, boys. Go for them! Go for them!" Brave man! He, too, fell by the side of his Maxim, which was charged and seized by Commandant Wessels.
As to the conduct of the burghers, we need only remark that their good behaviour pleased us exceedingly. There was no reason to urge them on; not one retreated. Though only a handful as compared to the enemy, they fought well till the foe was vanquished. One of them, young Liebenberg (familiarly known by the name of Matie) from Murraysburg, was shot through the head and succumbed at once. Another, young Hugo from Smithfield, was wounded in the foot. We had no other casualties.
The attack on Murray's column was to a great extent incidental. Near his was another very much smaller camp. When I left that night it was with the intention to attack this smaller camp, for I had only 65 men at my disposal. In the darkness I lost my way, and so lighted on Murray's column. It was unfortunate for them, but for ourselves we could have wished for no better accident.
In the Colonel's letter-bag we found a letter addressed to his wife, dated 19th September, 1901, and written the very day before his death. We purposed to forward that letter, but the following day the bag was retaken. Not only was it taken, but also the gun, while 20 burghers were captured and one—Myburgh—was killed. We were again surprised. Inconstant are the fortunes of war.
The villages in possession of the enemy were at length so thoroughly fortified that it was well-nigh impossible to seize them without sustaining great losses. Though they seemed impregnable, yet we were sometimes compelled by sheer necessity to attack them. Beyond expectation we now and again succeeded in inducing the garrison to surrender. Such was the case at James Town, a village in the Eastern Province of the Cape Colony.
Late one afternoon in the month of July, 1901, I set out to this village to reconnoitre it in person. Unobserved, I reached the summit of a small hill, about a mile from it. Through my field-glasses I carefully noted the various forts, and there and then planned an attack. The next morning I knew exactly what to do.
At 2 A.M. Commandant Myburgh, Commandant Loetter, and myself, with some 60 men, were in the saddle and on our way to James Town. What will be the issue? Shall we succeed? Can we surprise the enemy? Such questions we put to ourselves as we rode on in the darkness and silence of the night to accomplish the work of destruction.
The spot we had in view was a kopje, situated to the north of the village. Here the enemy's camp was located. As this kopje was the key to the village, it was necessarily very strongly fortified. We knew that if we could only occupy that hill, the rest would be easy work. Before dawn we were close to the camp. A few minutes more and we shall grimly salute our sleeping brethren. Silently we approach them. We are keenly on the alert for the pickets, whom, least of all, we wished to disturb. Behold! something in the darkness—what may that be? To be sure, two human forms! Hush! they are slumbering. Noiselessly we draw nearer, reach them, seize their rifles, and then—wake them. They are our first prisoners; our way to the camp is open, safe and sure.
On we moved until stopped, not by a sentinel—it was much too cold that night to expect an attack—but by a network of barbed wires, by which the hill and camp were fenced in. Quickly the wires were cut. That done, some of the burghers charged the tents, while the rest made for the enemy's trenches on top of the hill.
How awful a surprise! Taken unawares, the foe ran to their strongholds, but only to meet death there, for these were already in possession of our men. Myburgh, a Gastron burgher, so very brave, was the first and only one to receive a mortal wound—other men were slightly wounded in that hand-to-hand struggle. At dawn the hill and the camp were in our possession, for the enemy, after a loss of 9 killed and wounded, thought it best to resist no longer.
With the occupation of the hill it was possible to reach the village. The British allowed the burghers to pass their skanzes without shooting at them. But no sooner had they entered the village than a heavy fire from the forts was directed against them. They were not slow to respond to this reception, and that so effectively that the commanding officer was soon willing to entrust himself with his 130 men to our keeping. All was over.
At 3 P.M. we departed. The English commandant and his men accompanied us for some distance, and then we dismissed them after their having promised that they would remain strictly neutral.
CAPTAIN SPANDOW SURPRISED.
While operating in the Cradock district I learnt that a certain Captain Spandow, with about ninety men, was on the track of a small party of Boers. Only ninety! The small number tempted us to try to effect their capture, which, as a rule, was not a very difficult nor dangerous operation. Taking forty burghers I started at midnight, and at dawn found myself still six miles from the enemy. Lest they should escape I took twelve men with the best animals, and with these proceeded ahead, so as to engage the enemy until the rest, whose horses were very tired, should come to our assistance.
About half an hour after sunrise we unexpectedly lighted on the pickets of the enemy, who camped for the night in the Waterkloof valley, twenty miles from Cradock. The pickets were charged and captured, and we seized a position hardly 200 yards from the English, who had off-saddled at a wall.
A brisk firing from both sides then ensued. The wall served the enemy in good stead. From there they could fire volley after volley on us. But gradually we crept nearer, until at last a few of the burghers had passed the wall, and were now on the side of the enemy, so that the wall could afford them no cover. While the men were trying to get on the other side of the wall, one of my adjutants—Hugo, a lad of thirteen summers—was killed, and two others wounded. But the British, now exposed to a cross-fire, suffered heavily. Several of them dropped down, either dead or wounded.
When I saw how untenable their position was becoming I sent in a flag of truce, asking them to surrender, so as to avoid unnecessary bloodshed. One of the officers sent word that, seeing Captain Spandow had already fallen, and their losses were so great, he considered further resistance useless.
We found that 15, including the captain, were killed, and 14 wounded. Six of the wounded died soon after their surrender. One of their men was at once sent to Cradock for an ambulance. Our losses were 1 killed and 2 wounded.
The men I had left behind had off-saddled, and so only arrived after the enemy had surrendered. The officer, on inquiring where our men were, and who had engaged them, only shook his head when I told him that we were but 13, and that 3 of these had been put out of action almost at the beginning of the engagement. The British numbered 84 in all. We were again provided with a good supply of ammunition, and 105 horses in excellent condition.
Some months later Major Warn's column was attacked at the same place by Commandant L. Wessels. Several of the enemy's horses were shot down, while a number of men were wounded. So suddenly had they to turn back, that many a helmet dropped down and the owner had no inclination to pick it up. The English had fallen once more into an awkward trap from which they had to extricate themselves with the utmost speed.
On another occasion Commandant Fouche awaited the enemy at the same spot and made about 150 prisoners. Long Kloof Valley has thus become a noted place. The traveller passing through that valley will always be reminded of the South African War on seeing the fourteen graves alongside the road, and near to the stone wall.
SPRAGGE'S COLUMN CAPTURED.
The following report, bearing on Colonel Spragge's surrender, has been submitted to me by my military secretary, R.D. McDonald.
"On the 27th of May, 1900, Spragge entered Lindley. Our commando was then stationed at a farm eight miles to the north of the village. General Colvile, whom Spragge was to have joined here, left early on the morning of the 27th. What urged him on we could not guess. Had he waited another day, Spragge would not have been captured. We followed him up for some miles, and inflicted slight losses on his rear.
"At noon the burghers returned to the laager. About an hour before sunset our scouts returned with the news that the English had reoccupied Lindley, and that it was but a small column without guns. When the burghers heard that the column was only 500 strong, and had no guns, they required no other inducements, but started immediately for Lindley. Our men are, as a rule, more daring if they discover that the enemy has no cannons at their disposal; the big, monstrous guns they do not like. We had thus decided that this detached column would receive every attention from us.
"The British, being warned by the dust in the distance that our commando was coming, considered it wiser to quit the village, fall back on Valsch River and occupy positions on the right bank of it. Darkness had now set in, and we could do no more than place our pickets round the column. We had, however, not enough men that night to make sure that should the enemy try to escape they would not succeed. Forsooth, we were greatly surprised to find them still there the following morning. It seemed to us a little over-bold on their part to stay on with only two Maxims at their command. We did not know then that it would take us three and a half days, and some precious lives, before the white flag would be hoisted. The next day we surrounded them completely and thus knew that unless reinforced they would have to surrender.
"Early in the morning firing commenced; but the enemy had occupied during the night such strong positions—the hills and ridges on the river banks—that they were quite secure. We had the bed of the river, from whence we could not inflict such losses as would compel the enemy to capitulate. They held the key of the positions, and unless we could seize that stronghold, all our efforts would be useless. The question was, how to take it. Without the assistance of guns it was a dangerous and risky undertaking to charge that particular position—a hill on the right bank of the river. Our men, in charging it, would be exposed to a rifle and Maxim fire for at least 800 yards. Under cover of guns, however, it was possible to reach the hill. A gun was immediately sent for, and on the evening of the third day of the siege it arrived at Lindley.
"That night the gun was placed in position, and at dawn the hill was shelled. I stood watching the shells, as one after the other exploded on the hill. Not a living object was visible, none stirred, and so still (I shall not say at ease) did the English lie in the skanzes that I remarked to Prinsloo: 'General, it seems the enemy has abandoned the hill during the night, else we must already have seen some signs of them.'
"After we had bombarded the hill for some time, a number of burghers charged it. Breathlessly we stood watching these gallant chargers. Arrived at the foot of the hill, they dismounted, and began climbing it. For some time all went well, when lo! a fire was directed against them from the summit. Being quite coverless on the slopes of the hill, they were forced to retreat. As they retreated the enemy rose to their feet and fired as briskly as they could at them. When we saw the English on top of the hill we mistook them for Boers, and began to clap hands and cheer, thinking that the hill had been taken by our men. We were soon disillusioned.
"As the burghers retreated, something strange and inexplicable occurred, which really decided the fate of the enemy. It was this: the burghers had hardly gone 300 yards, when the British abandoned en masse the hill, and retreated, almost as fast as the former, in the opposite direction. Whether they feared another and more determined onslaught, or whether there was the usual misunderstanding, I wot not. Be it as it may, the position we so coveted was abandoned; it was for us to seize it at once. With a little encouragement the charge was repeated, the hill taken, and in less than twenty minutes the white flag announced the surrender of Spragge's column.
"Between 60 and 70 of the enemy were wounded and killed, while the rest were made prisoners. It was their first interview with the Boers. After a four days' siege a bath and a good meal must have been welcome.