DIETLOF VAN WARMELO
With a Portrait
Methuen & Co. 36 Essex Street W.C. London Colonial Library
This book was written in 1901, while its author was a prisoner at Ahmednagar. It was written in Dutch, and has been put into English by a young lady from what was the Orange Free State.
The author is a friend and relation of mine, son of a clergyman in the Transvaal, and of old Afrikander stock on both sides. His book is the more valuable because of the absence of all literary pretensions, and it may be taken as truly representative of the Afrikander spirit, which has been so much misconceived in England.
FREDERIK VAN EEDEN
WALDEN, N. HOLLAND, July, 1902
I. AT THE BOUNDARY—ENTRANCE INTO NATAL—DUNDEE—LADYSMITH
II. SIEGE OF LADYSMITH—BATTLE OF THE ROOIRANDJES—BLOWING UP OF THE CANNON
III. THE EIGHT-DAY BATTLE OF THE TUGELA—TALK OF INTERVENTION—RELIEF OF LADYSMITH
IV. DEWETSDRIFT—RETURN TO, AND FLIGHT FROM, PRETORIA
V. TREK FROM MIDDELBURG TO RUSTENBURG—BATTLE OF SELIKATSNEK
VI. GUERILLA LIFE ON THE MAGALIES MOUNTAINS—NARROW ESCAPE OF PRESIDENT STEYN AND GENERAL DE WET
VII. WITH PRESIDENT STEYN TO PRESIDENT KRUGER
VIII. WITH PRESIDENT STEYN IN THE BOSCHVELD—LOST
IX. PRACTICAL HINTS—ADVENTURE ON THE SABIE—NORTH OF LYDENBURG
X. FROM ROOSSENEKAL TO PIETERSBURG—WITH GENERAL BEYERS TO THE MAGALIES MOUNTAINS
XI. BATTLE OF NOOITGEDACHT
XII. PAARDEKRAAL DAY—BATTLE IN THE MOAT—ATTACK ON KAALFONTEIN STATION
XIII. COMMANDO SUFFERINGS
XIV. BATTLE OF BOESMANSKOP—FLIGHT OF WOMEN
XV. BATTLE OF CHRISSIESMEER—REUNION WITH GENERAL BEYERS
XVI. CAMPED NEAR TAFELKOP
CONCLUSION: BATTLE OF STOMPIES—IN THE HANDS OF THE ENEMY
MY LIFE ON COMMANDO
Could I have known that the war would last so long, I might from the beginning have taken notes. They would have brought back memories in a way pleasant to me now, and perhaps also to those who have asked me to write down my adventures.
Often it occurred to me to keep a diary, but I was obliged to give up the idea because my clothes were sometimes so thoroughly drenched that the letters in my pocket were not readable. Later on, when clothes were scarce and pockets past mending, I often made the unpleasant discovery that caused the fool, on his journey from the land of Kokanje, to cry to the King: 'We have ridden at such a breakneck pace, see, everything has slipped through this little hole!' Now I am obliged to write down my adventures without any notes, so dates, numbers, and names of places will occasionally be missing. It stands to reason that I—being an exile in a strange country, in the fort of ... in ..., cut off from the world outside and without any official reports—should simply limit myself to my own personal experience. And, lastly, I must apologize to my readers for so often speaking of myself and my friends; but that is inevitable in this tale.
I shall pass rapidly over the first part of my life on commando. If my memory plays me false—which is not very probable, as I still have a lively recollection of the events—I shall be grateful for correction.
AT THE BOUNDARY—ENTRANCE INTO NATAL—DUNDEE—LADYSMITH
When that part of the Pretoria town commando to which my brother Frits and I belonged left for the Natal boundary on September 30, 1899, we were all very enthusiastic, as could be seen from the nice new suits, the new shining guns, and the sleek horses. Many ladies had come to the station to see us off, and we were proud of having the opportunity to fight for our country. Our departure seemed then to us a great occasion, we were inexperienced in war. We had not yet learnt that one could pass unscathed through many a fierce battle. We knew nothing of 'retreating' and we knew all about the enemy with whom we were to come in contact. We imagined that several sharp engagements would take place—that these would be decisive battles in which many of our men would be killed, and therefore the parting with relatives and friends was sad indeed.
Our Field-Cornet, Melt Marais, had told us that we had nothing to see to except provisions for a day or two, as Government would supply us with all necessaries at Zandspruit, where the commandos were to concentrate; so many of us took neither pots, pans, nor mugs.
What a disillusion it was to find on our arrival at Zandspruit that there were no tents, and as yet no provisions of any kind! So we were initiated by having to pass the first nights of our commando life on the open veld with insufficient food. And in the daytime our work was cut out for us, as every other minute our horses disappeared—lost among the thousands of horses that all looked exactly alike in the eyes of an inexperienced townsman. Then it meant a running and seeking, an examining of marks and tokens, until the stupid among us were obliged to tie ribbons to our horses as a means of recognising them. And one, the story goes, even tied a nosebag, with a bundle of forage, to his mount so that it should not run away.
At length the provisions began to arrive, but the pots and pans were still scarce and we could not even drink a cup of coffee till a tin of jam or meat had been emptied.
We were just beginning to feel comfortable, when the time stated in the ultimatum expired, and we had to cross the boundary of Natal. General Erasmus was at the head of our commando. We spent the night near Volksrust in a cold hail storm and rain. Those first days we are not likely to forget. They were wet, cold days, and we were still unaccustomed to preparing our own food and looking after ourselves. Fortunately, we had the opportunity, a few days later, of supplying ourselves with all necessaries at Newcastle.
Before we crossed the boundary General Erasmus had addressed us and told us the news of our first victory—the taking of an armoured train at Kraaipan; at that time we still made a fuss about such a trifle. Also, in those days, we still looked up with respect to our leaders.
Ds. Postma, who accompanied us everywhere, led us in prayer. Not one of the burghers seems to have known where the enemy were. We advanced slowly and carefully, as we expected to meet with the enemy at any moment; but we saw no signs of them until we came to Dundee. After a rest of a few days we undertook the momentous expedition to the mountains of Dundee, to the north of the town.
Towards evening we got the order to 'prepare for three days.' For three days! And we had not even provisions enough for one. But we understood that there could not yet be a proper commissariat, and we fought for our country willingly, convinced of the justice of our cause; so we 'prepared' cheerfully.
Before the commando started, a terrible thunderstorm came on that slowly passed over and was followed by a gentle rain. We rode hard in the dark, through dongas, past farms and houses, zigzagging in a half-circle, to the mountains of Dundee. No sound was to be heard except the dull thud of the hoofs of the galloping horses. Now and again we whispered to each other how delightfully we were going to surprise the enemy. When the horses came to a sudden pause, and an inexperienced rider, owing to a presentiment of evil, involuntarily uttered his wish to 'halt,' we turned upon him angrily and called him 'traitor.' We did not then know that we were far beyond earshot of the enemy. It stopped raining, and towards morning we reached the mountains; and after we had with great difficulty got our horses on to the mountains, we had to await the dawn in the cold, drenched to the skin. A mackintosh is of small service in such a rain. When the day dawned we led our horses higher up. A thick fog had come on. General Lucas Meyer was to begin the attack on the west, and we were to surprise the enemy from the heights.
When the roar of cannon announced the battle, we were full of enthusiasm, but General Erasmus forbade anyone to move on before the fog lifted. It was quite possible that the fog might be only on the mountain-tops, because of their great height, and that we would have clear weather as soon as we began to descend, therefore several of our men begged General Erasmus to be allowed to go on ahead as scouts. But he was very much against it, and said that the enemy might cut off our retreat, and 'if the enemy surround us it is all up with us,' said he. As soon as the roar of the cannon ceased, we withdrew some distance into the mountains to let our horses graze. But we had only just off-saddled, when from all sides came the cry of 'Saddle! saddle!' and from our left, in the valley, came the sound of firing. A detachment of 250 khakies, probably knowing nothing of our whereabouts, and intending to pass round the mountains and attack Lucas Meyer in the rear, was compelled to surrender in a few moments, after first having sought cover in a kraal near a house.
We remained three days on the Dundee mountains, and during all that time there was a steady drizzle, with intervals of hail and wind. Once when it cleared up for a few hours we got the order to attack the town, but it began to rain again, and that night we had to keep our positions in the intense cold, without any covering. Fortunately, the enemy abandoned their camp that night, and when we looked down upon the town next morning the khakies had vanished. We had only the preceding day placed our cannon in a position to command the camp.
When we returned to our saddles, the horses had strayed so far that it took us almost all day to get them back. My uncle, Paul Mare, formerly Volksraad member for Zoutpansberg, treated us to kaboe-mealies (roasted maize), the first we had on commando, and we ate with great relish.
Meanwhile the commando had left. We followed, and entered Dundee, where we helped ourselves hungrily to the good things from the shops placed at the disposal of the commandos.
In an unorganized army looting is a necessary evil. There are always some of the lower classes who are the ringleaders, and when the commandos reach a house or farm that has already been looted, they join in the looting 'because the burghers are on commando, and they must be well supplied with all necessaries, so as to be able to fight well.' So we reasoned, and we joined in the looting. I can affirm, to the honour of our burghers, that it was not our intention to plunder, and in the beginning much was done to prevent it. The lower class Uitlander, who joined us for the sake of booty, and not for love and sympathy towards us, was largely responsible for the bad name we got among right-minded people who did not know the facts of the case. It was the same as regards theft. If anyone missed his horse, he had but to look for it among the 'Irish corps,' or some other Uitlander corps, and unless he knew his beast well he would fail to recognise it, as both mane and tail would have been cut short by the thief. I do not wish to pretend that we were always free from blame. It has happened that the Uitlander got a very poor horse in exchange for his thoroughbred because a Boer had tied the token of recognition to his own horse and made off with the better one. The truth is that very few men are proof against the demoralizing influence of war, and I will not deny that this war has shown up our many faults; but in my tale I shall be able to take up the cudgels for my people in cases where the rest of the world turned from us because they were disappointed in their expectations of us.
After our departure from Dundee the looting went on freely. Then we began to witness the devastation that is the irremediable consequence of war. Here and there a house had been completely plundered. At Glencoe Junction I entered the stationmaster's house, a well-furnished house with beautiful pictures, books, and mirrors. Some massive silver mugs and other articles of value were lying about. The family had only just dined, for the cloth was still laid. I ate of the food on the table, wrote a letter home with pen and ink, and left the house. Later on, when I returned, it had been thoroughly looted and some of the mirrors smashed. There were many of the riff-raff, Kaffirs and coolies in the neighbourhood, and in all probability they had done the mischief.
When our commando left Dundee to move in the direction of Ladysmith, part of the Pretoria town commando was sent to reinforce Lucas Meyer, who was to follow the troops fleeing from Dundee with his commando. My brother and I went with it. A terrible thunderstorm came on just then, and during the whole march to Ladysmith it rained heavily. Every moment we expected to come up with the troops, but they had too great a start, and we did not overtake them at all. We were too late again. An English General has said that 'the Boers are brave, and make good plans, but are always twenty-four hours late.' That can be explained in this way. We were accustomed to fighting against Kaffirs, who hid in woods and mountains, and against whom we had to advance with the utmost precaution, so as to lose as few lives as possible. So we were too cautious in the beginning of the war. We would not make a great sacrifice to win a battle.
On October 30 we were present, under Lucas Meyer, at the battle near Ladysmith, but we did not come into action, as we belonged to a part of the commando that had to hold a position to prevent attack in the rear. The enemy did not attack our position at all, except with a few bombs, because they suffered a great defeat near Modderspruit, and had to retreat hurriedly. From our positions we could see how every time the bombs burst among them the fleeing troops seemed to get 'mazed' for a moment, and then went forward again.
At that time we were often in want of food. One must have suffered hunger to know what it means. In a few linen bags I had some biscuits that had first been reduced to crumbs through the riding, and then to a kind of pap by the rain and perspiration of the horse. Often when I felt the pangs of famine I added some sugar to this mess and ate it with relish.
Some days later we left Lucas Meyer and returned to our commando, which had meanwhile gone to the north of Ladysmith. During our absence Zeederberg had taken the place of Melt Marais as Veld-Cornet.
SIEGE OF LADYSMITH—BATTLE OF THE ROOIRANDJES—BLOWING UP OF THE CANNON
When we surrounded the town and the siege began, all talk of the bananas that we were to eat in the south of Natal came to an end.
Ladysmith ought never to have been besieged. On October 30 we should have made use of our advantage. If we had at once followed the enemy when they fled in disorder, we should in all probability easily have taken those positions that would have involved the immediate surrender of Ladysmith. Many lives would have been sacrificed, but not so many as were sacrificed during the whole siege. And we might have used those men who were necessary to maintain the siege elsewhere as an attacking force. Instead of following up our advantage, we deliberately prepared for a siege. The enemy meanwhile made use of the opportunity to entrench themselves well. Most of our burghers were against our attempting to take the town by assault when once it was thoroughly entrenched.
The Pretoria town commando and that from Krokodil River in the Pretoria district occupied the position nearest to Ladysmith. This was a hill to the north of the town, flat at the top, and surrounded by a stone wall. In all probability the enclosed depression of about 500 paces in circuit had been used as a cattle-kraal. Against that kopje (hill) we gradually put up our tents. From our camp we looked on to a large flat mountain that we called Little Amajuba, because on October 30 the first large capture of prisoners had been made there. In front of our kopje, near the foot, ran a donga, and at a distance of about 1,000 paces, parallel to us, lay another oblong kopje occupied by the enemy. This kopje we called Rooirandjes.
On November 8 we received the order from our General to attack the Rooirandjes the following day. We were about 250 strong, and very willing, as that position had not yet been entrenched. On a mountain to our right a cannon had been placed that was to begin firing on the enemy's position towards dawn. Distinct orders were given that our Veld-Cornet was to be at the foot of Rooirandjes with his men before daybreak. But something went wrong again, and it was already quite light when we reached the donga. We found ourselves at a distance of about 700 paces from the Rooirandjes, and we had to cross an open space if we still wished to storm the position. The enemy's watch already began shooting at us.
The corporals let their men advance in groups of four from the donga to the kopje, using the ant-hills as cover when they lay down. Our turn came last, but meanwhile the enemy had received reinforcements, and the nearest ant-hills were nearly all occupied, so that only three men could go at a time. Such a shower of bullets fell that it was a miracle that we came out of it alive. Fortunately I found a free ant-hill. My brother had to share one with a comrade.
At last the cannon from the mountain fired a few shots, but stopped again almost immediately—why, I do not yet know. So we were obliged to lie in our positions. It was terribly hot, and not a cloud in the sky. We suffered horribly from thirst, and scarcely dared move to get at our water-bags. One of our comrades lay groaning behind me. He was shot through both legs. The bullets kept flying over our heads to the kopje behind us, where some of our burghers lay firing at the enemy. Every now and again a bullet exploded in our neighbourhood with the noise of a pistol-shot. I fancy only Dum-Dums make that peculiar noise. We had already seen many such bullets taken from the enemy by our burghers in the Battle of Modderspruit. Another burgher, Mulder, ran past me with a smile on his lips, threw himself behind an ant-hill, immediately rose again with the intention of joining some of our burghers in the front ranks, who sat calmly smoking behind some rocks under a tree, but had not gone two paces when he was shot in the thigh. There he had to lie groaning until our brave Reineke, who was killed later on at Spion Kop, saw a chance of carrying him away.
Some of us fell asleep from fatigue. One of our men on waking heard the hiss of a bullet over his head at regular intervals, and thought that a khaki had got closer up to him, and was firing at him from the side. When he lifted his head he found that he had rolled away from all cover. One, two, three, back he was again behind his ant-hill, and the scoundrel stopped firing at him. It was lucky for us that the enemy were such bad shots, or not many of us would have lived to tell the tale.
When our cannon at last, towards evening, condescended to bombard the enemy, the firing almost wholly ceased, and we made use of that favourable opportunity to get back to the donga. We had lain nine hours behind those ant-hills, and, strange to say, there were only two wounded on our side. We decided not to run the same risk again. In this way we lost our confidence in men like the brothers Erasmus, General and Commandant, who, in the first place, were incapable of organizing a good plan of attack, and, secondly, never took part in a battle.
The months spent near Ladysmith were to most of us the most tedious of the whole war. We had so little to do, and the heat between the glowing rocks of the kopjes was awful. The little work we had was anything but pleasant; it consisted chiefly in keeping guard either by day or by night. In the beginning a very bad watch was kept. Later on we had to climb the kopje at least every alternate evening to pass the long nights in our positions, while not far behind us stood our empty tents.
When we got back in the morning with our bundles on our backs, dead tired, we simply 'flopped' on to a stone, and sat waiting for our cup of coffee, either gazing at the lovely landscape or at the dirty camp, according to the mood we were in, or exchanging loud jokes with our neighbours. Constantly being on guard and constantly being in danger wears one out. We much prefer active service on patrol or in a skirmish to lying in our positions. It is not in the nature of the Boer to lie inactive far from his home. He soon wants to go 'huis-toe' (home), and very soon the 'leave-plague' broke out in our camp. That plague was one of the causes why the enemy succeeded in breaking through our lines.
Through unfairness on the part of the officers, some burghers often got leave, others never, and the consequence, of course, was a constant quarrelling. Many burghers got leave and never returned—either with or without the knowledge of the officers. No wonder we never had a proper fighting force in the field.
The difficulties we had to contend with through want of organization prevented the Generals from putting their plans into execution.
Fortunately, many burghers were very willing, and if there was to be a fight they always went voluntarily. It was noticeable that those under a capable General fought well, while those under a bad or incapable General were very weak indeed. Sometimes wonders were done at the initiative of some of the burghers. We had a few games in the camp to pass the time, but we were kept busy in a different way also. Sometimes, when we were all just comfortably lazy, the order would be given to 'mount.' That meant a hurried search for our horses and snatching up our guns and bandoliers. But after a while we had had enough of those false alarms, and they failed to make any impression on us. The call of 'The English are coming! saddle, saddle!' became proverbial.
When we did not keep such constant guard, we sat or lay listening of an evening to a most discordant noise caused by the singing of psalms and hymns at the same time at different farms. We sometimes joined in. As a people we are not very musical.
The day-watch we liked best. Then we often got a chance of firing a shot at a careless khaki on the Rooirandjes. To some of our young men there was something very exciting in the idea that they were in constant danger. Every now and again a bomb, too, would come flying over the camp, and the whole commando would make for the rocks amid shouts of laughter.
At that time we still felt rather down when there was a fight in prospect. When, some time after our attack on the Rooirandjes, we went to the west of Ladysmith to attack Platrand, we did not feel at all comfortable, although we went voluntarily. It was a lovely ride in the dark at a flying gallop, but when we found on our arrival at Platrand that the promised number of men was not there, we rode away again quite satisfied that we had not to attempt the attack. For had we not made up our minds not to risk a repetition of the attack on Rooirandjes?
The blowing-up of the cannon at Ladysmith is one of the episodes of the war that we look back upon with a feeling of shame. A few days after a Long Tom had been blown up on Umbulwana Kop, east of Ladysmith, I warned our Field-Cornet that the enemy were busy spying in our neighbourhood at night. While on guard, we could distinctly hear the flapping of the saddles and the neighing of the horses in front of us. I foretold a repetition of what had happened on Umbulwana Kop. The Field-Cornet promised that the guard would be doubled that night. Towards morning those of us who were not on guard were waked out of our sleep by a loud cry of 'Hurrah!' from the throats of a few hundred Englishmen who were blowing up two cannon on a mountain to our right, close to us. We sprang towards our positions, stumbling and falling over stones, not knowing what was going on, and expecting the khakies at any moment. It was the first time that we had heard a fight at night, and it gave us a creepy feeling. We saw the flames of the guns and from the exploding bullets, and heard the rattling of the shots and the shouting, but we could not join in the fight, as we—eight of us—were not allowed to leave our positions. Now and again a bullet fell in our neighbourhood, and the Free State Artillery, who were on the mountains to the right, fired some bombs at the enemy, nearly hitting us in the dark.
When it got lighter we went to look at the dead and wounded, perhaps from a feeling of bravado, perhaps to accustom ourselves to the sight. The enemy had paid dearly for their brave deed. They know the number of their dead and wounded better than we do, for they had opportunity enough to carry them away. On our side only four were killed and a few wounded. Niemeyer, Van Zyl and Villiers were among the killed. Pott was severely wounded. Niemeyer had several bayonet wounds.
After that we were, of course, doubly careful. We have never been able to discover who failed in their duty on guard. Cooper and Tossel were suspected and accused. They were sent to Pretoria under arrest, but the investigation never led to any result. We have every reason to believe that our burghers were guilty of treachery more than once near Ladysmith. Government ought from the start to have taken strict measures against traitors and spies.
Some days after the blowing up of the cannon I sprained my left knee, which I had already hurt before the war began. General Erasmus gave me leave to go home for an unlimited time. On my way home I passed my brother Willem without being aware of it. He had come from Holland, where he was studying, to take part in the war.
What a meeting with relatives and friends! How much there was to tell! Even then we had not experienced very much, and how much more will our burghers have to tell their dear ones on returning from their exile in strange countries! There will, alas! be much sorrow, too; for many of our friends and relatives have been killed in this war, and many more will have yet to give their lives for their country!
THE EIGHT-DAY BATTLE OF THE TUGELA—TALK OF INTERVENTION—RELIEF OF LADYSMITH
Before my knee was quite cured I returned to Ladysmith. The first thing that caught my eye on my return to the camp was the balloon above Ladysmith. It looked just like a large crocodile-eye as it followed all my movements. When I went to look for my horse or to fetch water or wood, there it stood, high up in the sky, and I felt as if it kept its eye specially fixed on me, and as if I might expect a bomb at any moment.
We had never in all our lives seen so many flies as at Ladysmith. We had to hurry over our meals as they made eating almost an impossibility to us. Fortunately, I was only a short time there, as towards the end of January, 1900, part of our commando, including my brother and myself, was sent to the Tugela as reinforcement. We had a distance of four and a half hours to ride, and we had to ride hard, as the enemy were determined to force their way through. We arrived the same day, just two days after the enemy had tried to force their way through to the right of Spion Kop and had been defeated. On nearing the high Tugela mountains we heard more and more distinctly the constant rattling of bullets, interrupted by the roar of the cannon and the bom-bom-bom of our saucy bomb-Maxim, that made our hearts expand and those of the enemy shrink. As we raced on to the foot of the mountains, the bullets that the enemy were sending over the mountains to find the Boers raised the dust around us.
The following morning we went to lie in a trench that had been dug by our men on a rise to the right of Spion Kop. The previous day eight burghers had been wounded there. Red Danie Opperman was Field-Cornet. Not far from us, to our left, stood a few of our cannon, and facing us, to our left, on the long mountain slope, we could see fourteen guns of the enemy's. In front of us was a large wood, and close to that the English camp. We could see the enemy moving in great close square masses. It was a terribly hot day; we had to lie in the trenches, as all day long the enemy fired at us from the smaller positions facing us, at a distance of 15,000 paces; and constantly the bombs burst over our heads. At regular intervals a lyddite bomb—that gave us a shock through our whole body—came from the wood towards the cannon on our left. Once only part of our entrenchment, where, fortunately, no one happened to be, was blown to bits.
Whenever there was a moment's pause, we lifted our heads above the trenches to have a look at the lovely landscape and at the positions of our enemy. That day not one of us was wounded. Only the artillery suffered. If our few cannon ventured to make themselves heard, eight or more bombs followed in quick succession to silence them. Next to me lay a man whose servant, a restless, impatient Bushman, most amicably addressed him as Johnny. The Bushman went to and fro continually to a 'chum' of his who lay hidden behind a rock close to us. Once, on one of his visits to his 'chum,' a bullet struck the ground close to his heels; he stood still, looked slowly and defiantly from his heels to the enemy, and said in a most emphatic tone, 'You confounded Englishman!' and calmly proceeded on his way to his chum.
To the right of this position was an open space, almost level with the immediate surroundings, but ending in a steep decline some 900 paces further on. There we went towards evening with a reinforcement of the Pretoria town commando that had followed us. The Field-Cornet made us stand in rows, and told off forty men to dig a trench that night. The rest of the men would relieve us the following night. My brother and I were in the first shift. Towards morning, while we were still digging at the trenches, fire was opened across the whole line of battle. We imagined that we were being attacked, and jammed ourselves in the narrow trench. But as the attack did not come off, and the bullets flew high over our heads, we went on digging until daybreak. Then we noticed that the enemy were lying in a trench about 800 paces ahead of us. We fired a few shots at them, but saved our ammunition for an eventual storming.
The whole of that day and the two succeeding days there was a constant salvo over our heads. The bullets flew over our heads like finches, and did us no harm, but we had to be on our guard against the sharpshooters, who occasionally fired close to us. That day (January 24), the heroic Battle of Spion Kop took place, where our burghers, after having been surprised in the night by the enemy and driven off the kop, obliged them, after a stubborn fight, to abandon it again. The Pretoria men, who were to have relieved us in the trench, took a great part in that battle. Reineke, Yeppe, Malherbe, De Villiers, and Olivier were killed. Ihrige was severely wounded.
All day long we lay listening to the fighting, for we could not sleep. We had to stay in the trench three days and four nights before we were relieved. Water and food were brought to us, or fetched by our men at night, as we did not venture to leave the trench by day. We were safe enough, for the bombs had not much effect on the sand-walls of our trench, and there was always time to stoop to avoid them. The following morning news was brought to us that the enemy had abandoned the whole line of battle and were retreating in the direction of Chieveley.
The battle of the Tugela had lasted eight days.
I had again hurt my knee, and had to leave Ladysmith for Pretoria, from whence I went to Warmbad at Waterberg to stay for a few weeks with Mrs. Klein-Frikkie Grobler, who received me most kindly. My brother Frits got leave for the first time then, too, and Willem remained at Ladysmith. During my absence the English broke through at Pieter's Heights, where Willem was made prisoner and Luettig, Malherbe and Stuart de Villiers were killed. Meanwhile Frits had gone, with some other Pretoria men, to the Orange Free State, where the enemy had surrounded General Cronje.
Since the beginning of the siege our burghers always thought the town would fall soon. 'The khakies cannot hold out any longer! They have no provisions, and their ammunition must be coming to an end! Buller can never cross the Tugela, our positions are too good! What does it matter if I do go on leave? The khakies cannot get through!' That was the opinion of most of the burghers. And if anyone ventured to point out that the enemy might force their way through because we did not all do our duty, he was either not believed or looked upon as a traitor. Meanwhile enthusiasm was dying out. The burghers lay in their lagers or went home, trusting to the few willing ones, who ultimately proved not strong enough to withstand the overwhelming force that Buller brought to bear upon one point of our positions when he was obliged to force his way through at no matter what cost.
No leave should have been given during the war, and here I may as well mention—although this tale does not pretend to be a history of the war—that it has been carried on with far too great laxity, owing to the ignorance of our Generals and the demoralizing influence of self-interest and nepotism. We should have sent our forces far into the Cape Colony to get help from our brothers in a war that had been forced upon us by England. The Colonial Afrikanders never had the opportunity of standing by us, because we did not supply them with the necessary ammunition or stretch out our hands towards them. Unless they had help from our invading forces, they dared not risk a rising, because of the confiscation of their property in case of failure.
We have had to suffer—to suffer cruelly for our sins. Our enemy forced his way through the dyke that surrounded us, and like a stormy sea he ruined our homes, devastated our fields, and caused us endless suffering. Besides this, the talk of intervention had an enervating effecton the commandos. In our commando, which was largely composed of ignorant men, the strangest stories went round. One was that the Russians had landed somewhere in South Africa with 100 cannon. There was always talk of a great European War having broken out; and the consequence was that the Boers counted on intervention or help from the Powers, instead of depending on their own strength and perseverance. The most sensible among us recognised the improbability of intervention. It was not to the interest of any foreign Power to intervene in South Africa where it had no firm footing, particularly as Chamberlain had, by most cunning artifices, forced us to be the aggressors.
War was inevitable. Sooner or later it had to come. After the Jameson Raid, which was really the beginning of the war, the Transvaal Government recognised the dangerous position in which it stood, as an isolated Republic, and was therefore obliged to arm itself with the most modern of military equipments. Before the Jameson Raid race hatred was dying out rapidly. The consequence of the raid was that the gap between Boer and Englishman widened, the sympathy of the Uitlanders for us grew deeper, and the Afrikander Bond grew stronger. England's prestige in South Africa was threatened, and with it her rank as first Power in the world. She had to maintain her supremacy in South Africa; while for us it had become a question of all or nothing. England has evidently succeeded in keeping up such friendly relations with the other Powers that no intervention seems possible.
The relief of Ladysmith took place on February 28—a Majuba Day—a day that had been marked as a red-letter day in our calendars. For nineteen years the enemy have longed to wipe out the remembrance of that day, and they have done so brilliantly and malignantly. Since that time we have been humiliated and belittled. Our fall was great. For the first time there was a general panic. The two Republics, being forced to venture on war against a powerful kingdom, felt themselves staggering under the heavy blow.
DEWETSDRIFT—RETURN TO, AND FLIGHT FROM, PRETORIA
After the relief of Kimberley and Ladysmith we imagined that the decisive battles would soon follow. Although my knee was not yet cured, I went to Glencoe, whither our commandos had retreated. I was not five days there when I had to leave, being unfit for active service. Again I went to Warmbad for some weeks with Mr. Burgemeester Potgieter and his family, and on my return to Pretoria remained in my office until the beginning of May.
Meanwhile Frits had returned from the Free State, and my knee was cured. We each bought ourselves a sturdy pony, and left, with some other burghers, by train for Klerksdorp, from where we went on to Dewetsdrift, on the Vaal River. General Viljoen was guarding the drift there with some hundreds of burghers. We rode from there some four or five hours into the Free State to spy the movements of the enemy.
From Dewetsdrift we went, under Commandant Boshoff, to Schoemansdrift, Venterskroon, and Lindequidrift. Our division formed part of the escort for the guns. Our route lay through beautiful scenery. The Vaal twists and bends between two high mountains that curve on either side like the roads the khaki makes with his double row of waggons over the hills of the Hoogeveld. In every opening of the mountains lies a farm, a mean little house, but among well-cultivated fields. In nearly every farm the family was grieving for one of its members who had been taken prisoner along with Cronje, and of whose fate they were in ignorance. The people received us very kindly. Everywhere we got milk and biscuits, and we found afterwards that those people were the kindest who had suffered the most from the war.
As the enemy were already on their way to Johannesburg, we had to retreat as rapidly as possible, first to Bank Station, near Potchefstroom, and then by train to Langlaagte. To the north-west of Johannesburg we had a skirmish with the enemy, who attacked us as we were feeding our horses. It appeared that our guard was not on duty. I have never seen horses saddled so quickly. Most of the burghers rode off and left us behind with the guns. One ammunition waggon stuck in the mud, and was left behind, but was brought in safety to Pretoria by Frans Lottering, a comrade of mine, who rode back for it with some gunners when we had fled. Lottering was given a sword by General de la Rey for his brave conduct. Through negligence on the part of our officers we lost on that occasion one gun, several waggons, and some of our men.
Almost all night long we retreated with our guns to Pretoria. We had not lost courage. We all spoke of the thorough way in which our Government would have fortified Pretoria, and of the great battle that would take place there. We had all made up our minds to a stubborn resistance at our capital. What a bitter disappointment it was to find that our Government had decided not to defend the town! The causes that led to such a decision will be brought to light by historians. The consequences were that many of the burghers were discouraged, and rode 'huis-toe,' and nothing came of the great battle that was to have been fought.
Frits and I decided to give our horses a few days' rest in their stables before going to meet the enemy.
On June 4, at about twelve o'clock, while we were at luncheon, a lyddite bomb fell close to the fort, raising a cloud of dust. My mother went outside, and came back quickly to tell us that it was not a shot from the fort, but from the enemy. The bombs followed in quick succession. They flew over Schanskop fort, and fell close to our house at Sunnyside. As the ground was rocky they exploded well. My mother and sister fled with our neighbours to the town, and my brother and I saddled our horses and rode off to Quaggaspoort.
From over the mountains, to the south of the town, the bombs came flying as a gentle warning from the khakies that it would be better to surrender in order to avoid a great calamity.
It was sad to see how few horses there were at the foot of the mountain. Here a group of four, there of ten—a sign that the number of burghers in the positions was very small indeed. When the enemy appeared at Quaggaspoort, we noticed that the burghers from the direction of Krokodil River were retreating, and a moment later they were all in full flight. One of my comrades, a brother of Lottering, was wounded in the arm by a shell as he fled, and had to remain behind in Pretoria. That night my brother and I spent in our own home, but we left the town the following morning in the direction of Silverton, just before the enemy entered.
It would be well to try and understand the condition of our country and the temper of our burghers.
As the capital was in the hands of the enemy, it was easy enough to convince our simple-minded men that our country was irretrievably lost to us. Therefore a period of discouragement and demoralization followed. Many burghers, also, who had all along fought bravely now remained behind in the towns or on their farms, not daring to leave their wives and daughters at the mercy of the soldiers. We may not judge those men, neither need we consider it to our credit that we, either from a sense of duty or from a spirit of adventure, acted differently. There were many also who argued that the Government was corrupt, and that the war should have been prevented, or that the Boers did not want to fight. So they also became unfaithful to the cause, and to those along with whom they began the war. And the name of 'hands-upper' was earned by those burghers who of their own free will surrendered to the enemy. The chaff was divided from the grain; cowards and traitors remained behind, and the willing ones went to the veld, even though it were in a retreating direction. We were still very hopeful. There were still the good positions in the Lydenberg district, and we had heard that De Wet had cut the line of communication behind the enemy. We also still had an intact line to Delagoa Bay.
My brother and I met our old comrade Frans Loitering, and the three of us went in search of General Grobler of Waterberg, who lay with his commando to the east of Pretoria at Franspoort, near Donkerhoek. There we joined his commando. Our camp was put up near a Kaffir location, and as the Kaffirs were clean, we often bought boiled sweet potatoes and crushed maize from them.
Nothing particular happened at Franspoort. To the right and left of us some desperate fighting went on for several days, and at Donkerhoek a fierce battle took place, but we were not attacked.
When the news came that the enemy had broken through our lines at Donkerhoek, and that we had to retreat, my brother and I left Grobler's commando. Thinking that the commandos would fall back upon the positions of Belfast, we went to Middelburg to an uncle of ours, the missionary Jan Mare, in order to give our horses a rest. We had lost sight of our comrade Frans. On our way we bought bread at the farms, or had it given us, cut a piece off an ox that had been slaughtered for the commando, and slept either in a manger or, as was more often the case, in the open air of the cold Hoogeveld. We arrived at Middelburg completely exhausted, and are not likely to forget our uncle's great hospitality.
We accidentally met our former Commandant, Boshoff, who told us that he was on his way with ten men to join General de la Rey, who had gone in the direction of Rustenburg to cut the enemy's line of communication between Mafeking and Pretoria, and we very willingly joined him, after a delightful rest of ten days.
The commando of Commandant Boshoff consisted of nine burghers with an ambulance waggon—that was used for the commissariat and for our bedding—a French doctor, two Kaffirs and two tents. It seemed as if we were going for a picnic. But it was necessary that we should be well provided with all sorts of things, as our journey would be through the Boschland, where fever and horse-sickness play havoc with man and horse in summer. In winter it is endurable for a few months only, so the country is very scarcely populated and almost uncultivated, and in winter the Boers trek there with their cattle from the bare, chill Hoogeveld. I had always longed to see that part of the Transvaal.
TREK FROM MIDDELBURG TO RUSTENBURG—BATTLE OF SELIKATSNEK
Some hours north of Middelburg one suddenly leaves the high plateau of the Boschveld for a difficult road that curves steadily downwards between two high mountains until it reaches a wide, thickly-wooded valley. In the kloof (mountain-pass) a swiftly-flowing river cuts the road that goes along its banks, in several places, before it loses itself in the Olifants River. There the song of many birds, not to be found on the Hoogeveld, can be heard, and there it was delightfully warm, in comparison with the chilly air of the Hoogeveld. Of an evening we made large fires, as there was plenty of dry wood. We sat round the fire, chatting or listening to the comic songs which one of our comrades sang. It was a happy time—away from khaki, far beyond reach of the roar of cannon—a time of rest in preparation for the evil days that awaited us.
Everywhere we saw flocks of sheep and herds of cattle grazing among the bushes—always a sign that we should find a waggon or two with tents close to them, under the nearest trees. Sometimes, near a drift or a good place to uitspan, quite a small lager had been formed of the trek Boers, or, rather, of their wives, for the husbands and sons of many had gone to the war. The Boers who fled with their cattle in that way we called 'Bush-lancers.' We came up with De la Rey's lager near the Elands River, and later on made the acquaintance of Captain Kirsten's scouts, to whom we offered our services. In those days it was very pleasant to belong to the reconnoitring corps. When we went to reconnoitre our horses got plenty of forage on the farms, and as we were few in number and always ahead of the lager, there were always eggs, bread, and milk to be had. We had enough to do, also, as we had to keep a sharp look-out, and we were in constant danger, but not at all afraid of the patrols of khakies, which, being small in number and without their guns, were pretty harmless. We advanced almost parallel to the Magalies Mountains, that stretch from Pretoria to Rustenburg, until we came to the neighbourhood of Selikatsnek. Unless one was well acquainted with the highways and byways of that part of the country, one was in constant danger of losing the way; it is a long stretch of bush, consisting of the well-known thorn-bushes of the Hoogeveld, for a distance of about ten miles deep. The principal passes of the Magalies Mountains were occupied by the enemy—Wonderboompoort, Hornsnek, Selikatsnek, Commandonek, Olifantsnek. General de la Rey had made up his mind to take Selikatsnek, and on July 11 he succeeded, by his strong will and military talent.
While we were reconnoitring with Captain Kirsten's party we got the news that De la Rey had attacked Selikatsnek—about an hour's ride from where we were—and that the battle was still going on. We all rode to the scene of action, but my brother and I, with a few other men, remained behind to wait for Captain Kirsten, who was absent at the time. As soon as he arrived we rode off, and arrived at Selikatsnek at about nine o'clock. Our burghers had already taken two of the enemy's guns.
Selikatsnek (or Moselikatsnek) is a narrow opening in the Magalies Mountains, with high shoulders on either side, that slope gradually to a white kopje in the centre. If an attacking party once occupies the shoulders, it can easily keep the enemy on the kopje or on the two slopes. When we arrived our burghers already occupied the principal positions—both shoulders and the smaller positions to the front of the kopje. The enemy had been obliged to draw in their clipped wings, and to concentrate on and in the neighbourhood of the white kopje.
But as the shoulders of the pass were very steep on the other side, our men could not surround the enemy or attack them in the rear; and as there was not sufficient cover for them to go down the slope without great loss, in order to drive the enemy by force from their positions, the burghers remained 'rock-fast' in their positions, and made no progress at all. Thus, the enemy would either get reinforcements from Pretoria or escape when it got dark. Both our flanks kept up a constant fire on the slopes, and on the white kopje, but the shoulders were too high for a proper aim, and the khakies lay fast behind the boulders and in the clefts of the rocks.
Captain Kirsten, with about ten men, was ordered by General Coetzee to hold a position to the right of the white kopje, and prevent the enemy from taking it. This position consisted of a small rise, from which we could fire at the kopje with a sight of 550 paces. To the right of this rise, at a distance of 80 paces, was a small kloof overgrown with bushes, and on the other side of the kloof ran a reef of rocks in the direction of the white kopje. Here some of the burghers had before our arrival forced eleven khakies to surrender, but they had not succeeded in occupying the position, as some khakies had remained in the kloof, and had shouted to them that they would not surrender. We were therefore warned against that kloof. But while the others were shooting at the enemy on the white kopje, one of our men went by himself to see if there really were any khakies left there. He kept under cover wherever he could—behind the rocks and behind the walls of an old kraal—and came close up to the kloof without being fired at. On the other side, at a distance of fifty paces, he heard a wounded man groaning and begging for water; but, as he was alone, he did not venture to cross the kloof. He returned to his comrades, but they would pay no attention to his request to cross, as they thought the enemy were only waiting until more men came under fire before they began firing.
We continued shooting at the white kopje, from which the enemy were firing at us. The Captain had a good telescope, through which he could distinctly see the faces of the enemy on the kopje. If a khaki showed himself from behind a rock, the Captain pointed him out to one of our marksmen, Alec Boshoff, who studied the position through the telescope, and took such good aim that the Captain declared he could see the blood on the wounded man's face.
The burgher who had gone to the kloof tried to persuade the rest to cross with him to the other side, as he was sure the enemy were not inclined to make any resistance there. At length, after twelve, he went with two others to the opposite side, but first told a few of the best marksmen to keep an eye on the reef. They crossed the kloof very cautiously. It was dangerous work, as a shot might come at any moment from behind one of the numerous shrubs or boulders. But they did not advance in an unbroken line. Every time they sought cover behind a rock, from which they watched to see whether the enemy would make their appearance. They did not all three advance at the same time, either, but first one and then the other. Whenever they had advanced a few steps, they stopped to ask the wounded man, who lay groaning there, whether he was alone. When they reached him they put some grass under his head, and gave him some brandy from a flask that they always carried with them. The poor man lay in a pool of blood on a rock under some shrubs. He had been shot through the leg. His name was Lieutenant Pilkington.
The wounded man took hold of the hands of one of the burghers and begged him to stay with him. He, however, considered it his duty to advance, but first assured the poor man that the burghers who were following could also speak English, and would look after him. Most of our men followed the three. The rocks and boulders on the reef that we were climbing afforded us splendid cover from the enemy on the white kopje.
To our left we found some more wounded. My brother took charge of one with a ghastly wound in his head. We made some prisoners there, who were too cowardly to defend themselves. A few of our comrades took them down. We could notice by the guns and rugs that were lying about that the enemy had fled in a panic, or else we should never have ventured to do what we did later on.
We could fire at the enemy from a much shorter distance now, but were not yet in their rear. It was necessary that we should occupy the next position—a reef running parallel to the reef we were climbing, at a distance of eighty paces. But it was impossible to take that position, as our guns were firing bomb after bomb from the valley at our back, somewhat to the left of us, so that the stones flew up in the air. We also ran the risk of being taken for khakies, as our men knew nothing of our venture. The Captain sent down a message to tell them to stop shelling that position, as we wished to take it. Meanwhile, we kept on firing at the white kopje, and the khakies kept on firing at us.
I went back to the wounded officer, who was being looked after by the Captain. While we were standing talking, he died from loss of blood. Oh the cruel brutality of war! The poor man was not dead five minutes when we sat smoking his cigarettes.
We moved slightly more to the left towards the boulders. Khaki was on the one side, we on the other. Some of our men had a most original and amusing way of getting at the khakies. 'Come out, you rabbits, come out of your holes, else we'll shoot down the lot of you!' Then the poor things answered: 'We're afraid to come out. You'll kill us!' They really thought we would shoot them down if they surrendered. The officers had lost all control over the soldiers. Later on, at Nooit Gedacht, where we had cover as well as the enemy, it was proved that as soon as the officers lose control over the men they remain lying behind the rocks without firing a shot, as they are too frightened to expose themselves. Most of them still had their bandoliers full of cartridges—there, too, when they surrendered.
Before the war the English used to say they would fight us in our own way, from behind rocks; but they forgot that as soon as an officer, having to seek cover himself, fails to keep his eye on his men, they are too cowardly to lift their heads from behind the rocks, as they are not fighting for their independence. On a field like Selikatsnek we are by far the better men.
To get the khakies from behind the rocks, one of our men ran as hard as he could to a rock in their neighbourhood, and aimed at them. Then some of them threw down their guns and put up their hands. Others surrendered more calmly. So he sometimes made five or six of them surrender without their having fired a single shot at him. A shower of bullets always came from the white kopje, but, as his movements were quick and unexpected, they could not take proper aim at him. One of the khakies said as he surrendered: 'It is better to surrender than to be a dead man.' Another: 'Just fancy, in the hands of the Boers! I wonder what poor mother 'll say!'
Meanwhile the gunners had received the Captain's report, and ceased bombarding the reef that we wanted to storm. As it was getting late and there was no other means, one of our men ran forward as hard as he could, making use of every small covering, while the rest kept firing at the white kopje to prevent the enemy from taking a proper aim at him. There were not many khakies behind that reef, neither did they fire at him. The rest of us followed at intervals, while those who arrived at the reef again fired at the white kopje to cover the others.
The few khakies who surrendered at the reef we first disarmed, and then we allowed them to seek cover behind the rocks from the bullets of their friends. From that position we could see the enemy from the rear. In the narrow road, at a distance of about 150 paces from us, stood an ammunition waggon with splendid horses harnessed in it; there was no room for them to turn to draw away the waggon. A few khakies showed themselves next to the waggon, but were immediately shot down. A little further on an ambulance waggon, also inspanned, stood against the kopje; one could distinctly see how the empty litter was carried up and brought down again with some of the wounded. Once a man walked next to the litter as it was carried down; I pointed him out to my brother, as I suspected his motive. I was right. Just by the ambulance waggon he disappeared in a donga leading to the valley. My brother, who was a little higher up the reef than I was, could not hit him, as he appeared again only for a moment. He was most likely a despatch-rider who went to warn the guard at Commandonek to retreat.
Further on there were some horses to be seen, and a little further still the small tents of which the camps consisted. We kept up a constant fire, but the enemy seemed to have sufficient cover on the kopje—and they were very obstinate. For some time the firing from the shoulders of the pass ceased, and in the dark shadow between the high mountains we for a moment had the feeling that we had been deserted by our men—only for a moment, for we knew it could not be! The game was in our hands.
The sun sank lower, and we felt if the enemy were not soon compelled, to surrender they would escape in the dark. There was still one position which must be taken—the last reef, to which most of the enemy had retired from the position we now occupied. One of our men, therefore, let the other six fire a salvo at the kopje, and ran as hard as he could to a rock at a distance of twenty-five paces ahead, about halfway to the last reef. But now both the enemy and our own burghers, under Commandant Coetzee, fired at him so persistently that he was thankful to reach the rock. He lay there as still as possible, with his gaze fixed on the reef—as he lay without cover on that side. It was a most critical moment.
Fortunately he heard, almost at once, one of his comrades, Van Zulch, call out 'Oh, the white flag! Hullo, the white flag!' and he saw them climbing down. He lay still a moment longer to convince himself of the fact, and then calmly went to the last reef, where many khakies surrendered—and he descended with them. Now the rest of the burghers came running along from all directions to disarm the enemy in the dusk—and to take what booty there was to be had. In their eagerness to get as much booty as possible, they allowed an officer, Major Scobel, to escape.
As I arrived rather late on the battlefield, I cannot give any account of the order in which De la Rey placed his men, neither do I know the number of the enemy's dead and wounded, nor how many lives our victory cost us. I have never seen any official report concerning this battle. Field-Cornet Van Zulch, who with Commandant Boshoff, took the officers to Machadodorp, and who is at present a fellow-prisoner, tells me that three officers—Colonel Roberts, Lieutenants Davis and Lyall—and 210 soldiers of the Lincolnshire Regiment were taken prisoners, and that four companies of the Scots Greys had early that morning escaped with two guns. Our loss, both dead and wounded, was not more than thirteen or fourteen men. The enemy had made a stubborn resistance, judging from the number of dead and wounded that were lying on the field. Of the seven of us who forced the enemy to surrender by attacking them in the rear, not one was injured, although we were the attacking party. They say that the khaki prisoners whom we left on the reef remained there all night, and came down the following morning with little white flags made of the bandages that a soldier always carries with him, tied to twigs.
GUERILLA LIFE ON THE MAGALIES MOUNTAINS—NARROW ESCAPE OF PRESIDENT STEYN AND GENERAL DE WET.
Commandant Boshoff had been ordered to take the prisoners to Machadodorp. He left my brother and me with Captain Kirsten, who had to reconnoitre in the direction of Rustenburg along the Magalies Mountains. We first of all passed through Commandonek, and found that deserted by the enemy. We had no adventures on our way to Rustenburg.
The Rustenburgers, who had nearly all laid down their arms and taken the oath of neutrality, took courage when they saw De la Rey's big commando, and joined us one and all.
Then we recognised a great fault in the character of our people. Without the slightest compunction, they first fail in loyalty to their own country, and then break the oath of neutrality, although the enemy had in no single respect violated their part of the contract. Some of them we, in a way, forced to join us, as we took the guns and horses of the unwilling ones or of those who acted at all in a suspicious way. We also called them traitors. But most of the burghers joined us of their own free will. Many had not taken the oath of neutrality, as they had been beyond the reach of the enemy; others had, after Lord Roberts' threatening proclamations, ridden over to the enemy to give up their arms, but had given up their old rifles and kept the Mausers for 'eventualities,' to use the now historical word of Sir Alfred Milner.
A few of the oath-breakers tried to excuse themselves by the Jesuit plea that either they did not mean what they swore or else they had purposely changed the form of the oath. In judging those who broke the oath of neutrality later on, we must remember that the enemy did not keep to their part of the contract, and so our men were justified in considering it as null and void, and, according to William Stead, their forcing us to take the oath of neutrality was against the Geneva Convention. But it is too difficult a question for me to discuss.
When the enemy, a few days later, drove us from Olifantsnek, General de la Rey sent Captain Kirsten with twenty men to the neighbouring kopjes to prevent the enemy from going on a plundering expedition. Then I for the first time saw a farm-house burnt down by the enemy. From a high kopje, by the aid of a telescope, we could distinctly see the movements of the khakies. The bitter feeling that was roused in us in our helplessness is not to be described.
General Baden-Powell was in Rustenburg, and Magatonek was also in possession of the enemy.
It was a most interesting and adventurous time that we spent near the Magalies Mountains. By day we went reconnoitring along the hills near the mountains in the direction of Olifantsnek, and towards evening we withdrew into the thick woods of the kloofs, where it was delightfully warm both for ourselves and for our horses. When a small number of the enemy came in our direction, we fired at them unexpectedly from the hills, and so protected the farm-houses on the mountain-sides. Occasionally the khakies ventured a little nearer, but always had to retreat in disorder.
I once nearly fell into the hands of the enemy. As we were reconnoitring on one of the kopjes, I suggested to a friend that we should go to the farm in front of us, where none of us had been since Olifantsnek was in possession of the enemy. We had to ford a donga closed in by barbed wire. When we got to the farm, we were told that the enemy had not been there, with the exception of a khaki who had lost his way. He had taken six eggs from a nest in a kraal and swallowed them greedily, and had then passed on to the garden without speaking a word to the harmless, inquisitive women of the farm.
For safety's sake I put the boys on guard and had the horses tied. The view was so enclosed on all sides that the enemy could appear most unexpectedly from Olifantsnek. We had been there only a short time, when we were told that the enemy were coming in large numbers from the direction of Rustenburg. We mounted at once and rode back, but could not get back to our comrades on the hills because of the barbed wire in the donga. We had gone only about 250 paces along the drift, when the enemy came riding along. Fortunately, they were intent on plunder and did not see us, as they kept their eyes fixed in the direction of the house. If we had been a few seconds later we should have fallen into their hands. The few burghers on the kopjes began to fire at them, and when I got to the top of one of the kopjes I saw the enemy—about 100 in number—fleeing in great disorder. This expedition cost them several dead and wounded, besides their plunder—meal, fowls, and other things—that they dropped in their flight.
When I went back to the farm later on, I was told that one of the girls had clapped her hands with delight when the enemy fled past them. That must have been the reason why she and her family were so cruelly insulted and plundered by the khakies afterwards. We met with great kindness during our stay in the Magalies Mountains. We always got something to eat, and towards evening we bought some loaves of bread to take back with us to our hiding-place. In those days we could always get forage for our horses, and they were in very good condition.
Meanwhile General de la Rey had gone with a commando to the west of Rustenburg, and had left two Commandants in the Zwartkoppen, to the north-east of Rustenburg.
When we got the tidings that the enemy had taken possession of Selikatsnek, we went as rapidly as we could to the Zwartkoppen. We had many adventures on our way. My brother and I rode on ahead, thinking that the others would follow, but they went a round-about way, and so did not catch us up. When we left the wide tract of wood that stretches along the Magalies Mountains, we noticed that the enemy from Rustenburg had come to meet the column from Selikatsnek. Fortunately, our horses were good, and we escaped the danger by riding back into the wood to a farm that I knew of. While we were giving our horses a rest there, a despatch-rider came along looking for a reconnoitring corps. We rode with him in the track of our comrades, who had taken a great circuit round Rustenburg. We arrived safely at Zwartkoppen, and immediately joined Commandant Boshoff, who had just returned from Machadodorp.
The Commandants now followed General de la Rey. We came up with his commando to the west of Rustenburg, where he had surrounded a party of the enemy. Commandant Boshoff, however, was immediately sent to Olifantsnek, as the enemy had left Rustenburg and the pass was clear. Our men were most changeable in their moods. The slightest favourable tidings raised their spirits, but any unfavourable news made their courage sink into their shoes. There was much talk about the retreating movement of the enemy. Some spoke of intervention; others said the English soldiers had refused to fight any longer, or that the whole of the colony was in rebellion. This talk went the round even among the officers, probably because they did not understand the enemy's movements.
Now we know the meaning of it all. It was De Wet who was being followed. We were not two days at Olifantsnek, when, to our great surprise, De Wet arrived with a commando of 2,800 men, followed by 40,000 English. He had been by treason separated along with Steyn from the chief commando, and had been chased by the enemy a month already.
It was a great lager that advanced through Olifantsnek—the largest commando that we had seen yet, with numerous carts, waggons, beasts of burden, and other belongings. And it was then I made the acquaintance of President Steyn and De Wet. Our Commandant with his men accompanied President Steyn to Machadodorp to President Kruger. We put up our tents for the time being next to those of President Steyn, so that we had time and opportunity enough to learn to know him. When the enemy a few days later broke through at Magatonek, to the west of Rustenburg, General De Wet sent for me one evening and ordered me to take a report to Rustenburg, and gave me some instructions for the Commandants there.
I had to take a message for President Steyn also, that the ambulance of the Orange Free State was to follow the lager in the direction of the Krokodil River.
Late at night I arrived at Rustenburg, only to find that the lagers had already taken flight. The enemy were expected at any moment. But the ambulance was there still, and all night long I led it in the direction the General had told me the lagers would take.
Late the following morning I arrived at De Wet's lager, which had moved a few hours further on to Sterkstroom. The commando left there that afternoon, and went along the Magalies Mountains to Commandonek. That day and that night we had a first experience of the long tiresome marches that enabled De Wet to mislead the enemy.
That night President Steyn made a most favourable impression on us with his talk. He did not try to encourage us with hopes of intervention, but merely pointed out that the war might last a long time still, and that we would have to enter the Colony.
At Commandonek we rested a few hours while De Wet himself went to reconnoitre. He sent a message to the English officer in charge of the pass that he must surrender. The officer replied that he did not quite understand who must surrender—he or De Wet. I think this was merely a dodge on De Wet's part to find out by the signature of the reply who was in charge of the army at the pass, and so to make a guess at the numbers of the enemy.
He decided not to attack the pass, and before daybreak next day we were on the move again. Some time afterwards at Warmbad I heard that an English General had related this dodge of De Wet's, but he thought De Wet had threatened him with a very small force, as his commando must still have been at Olifantsnek. It is an example of the way we misled the enemy by our mobility.
WITH PRESIDENT STEYN TO PRESIDENT KRUGER
Near Krokodil River, on Carlyle's Farm, President Steyn and his attendants separated from De Wet's commando, and went in the direction of Zoutpan to Machadodorp. We were about seventy-five men in all. The little commando consisted of carts, a few trolleys, and horsemen on strong, well-conditioned horses. The Free Staters nearly all had one or two spare horses. Our own commando still always consisted of twelve or thirteen men, and the small ambulance waggon which we used for provisions. The French doctor had remained behind with De la Rey. We moved very fast. At Zoutpan—a sunken kopje like the mouth of a crater, with a pan at the bottom, from which the salt is got—I met some old acquaintances, who pretended to have come there for salt. During our talk my suspicions were roused by their curiosity, and by their knowledge of President Steyn's arrival. I also doubted their tale that their trolley stood behind a kopje, and not at Zoutpan, and I warned the Commandant against them. He became very anxious, and made us move on as rapidly as possible, for once we had crossed the Pienaars River all danger from khaki would be past. It was a good thing that the Commandant made us travel so fast, for we had only just outspanned at Pienaars River the following morning when the khakies' bomb-Maxim began firing at the outposts of General Grobler's Waterberg commando, which was stationed there. We had only just time to inspan and ride off to the Boschveld, towards the Olifants River, where we would be safe, while General Grobler disappeared in the direction of Warmbad.
At Pienaars River I made the acquaintance of General Celliers, who was loudly proclaiming the way in which he would squash khaki if only the burghers would fight. He is the exception to the rule that all braggarts are cowards. Most of the braggarts have gradually disappeared from the scene, but the deeds of this hero were always in accordance with his words.
We heard afterwards that a detachment of the enemy had followed us, but we had had too great a start, and had besides taken a short-cut of which they knew nothing. It would not have been easy for the khakies to overtake a well-mounted commando like President Steyn's.
We were also told that the enemy knew of the arrival of President Steyn, which strengthened my belief that the two suspicious characters at Zoutpan were the informers. Whenever we, as the attacking party, made prisoners, they always declared that they had known all about our plan of attack—probably to discourage us with the thought that through the treachery of our own people the enemy always knew all about our movements.
For a long way we followed the same road that we had taken with Commandant Boshoff to Rustenburg. We arrived safely at Waterval-Boven (President Kruger having already retreated from Machadodorp), where we stayed a few days and heard the famous Battle of Dalmanutha (August 27)—the most awful roar of cannon that I have ever heard.
From Waterval-Boven we went to Nelspruit, to which President Kruger had moved in his railway-home. We gave our horses a week's rest and passed the time fishing and hunting. We were content there, as we got plenty to eat, and our horses, too, were well fed—an important matter to us just then. Circumstances were forcing us to attach much value to all sorts of trifles that we would formerly not even have noticed.
If once one has suffered the pangs of hunger, one learns to value the comfort and luxury of home; and if one has wandered about for weeks without seeing woman or child, one learns to appreciate their gentleness and charm and to understand Schiller's Zuechtige Hausfrau in 'Das Lied von der Glocke.' How often in our wanderings we longed for good literature during our long, tiring, monotonous rides! And how terrible was the thought of the moral hurt we were suffering—voluntarily in a way, yet forced to it by a sense of honour and duty. For in this lay the grievousness of the war, that a powerful nation—influenced by a few unscrupulous leaders—was trying to annihilate a small nation that demanded the right of existence, and was therefore forced to defend that right. It was a happy time for us when we had the opportunity of turning our thoughts towards literature and other things than commando work.
The privations that we had already endured were small indeed in comparison to those which awaited us. It was well with the Uitlander optimist who remained in our country while the Republics could give him the comforts he demanded as his right, but who, as soon as things went wrong, and he saw nothing but misery in the future, left for his own country—there to sit in judgment on our peasant-nation. How I long for the gift of being able to express myself, to give a true account of the self-denial of our burghers and of the misery that we endured! How my heart bleeds when I think of the great sorrow that has come upon my poor people!
When the enemy approached the Delagoa railway-line, President Steyn left with his escort for Hectorspruit. I had to follow with a trolley for which there was no room on the train. Because of the disorder that reigned everywhere I had to wait nearly three days before I could start. I was pretty nearly famished on my arrival at Hectorspruit, and ate greedily of the remains of the porridge left by some burghers, among whom were two sons of State Secretary Reitz. President Steyn's lager had in the meanwhile become 250 men strong, under Commandant Lategan, and was then at Krokodil River.
At Nelspruit I met a couple of old friends, Malherbe and Celliers, with whom I left for the lager. They were both Transvaalers who had been studying in Holland, but had returned before finishing their studies on account of the war. The commando was well supplied with weapons and ammunition, as the Delagoa Bay line brought plenty to our store. What became of the rest I do not know, as President Steyn was in a hurry and our commando left first for the North.
The ford at Krokodil River was about fifty paces wide—made for the occasion and difficult to cross. The trolleys and waggons that had to cross to the lager on the opposite side gave us much trouble, as they sank deep into the sand. We harnessed a double span of oxen to the waggons, undressed ourselves, and had to swim alongside the animals to get them through. Occasionally something dropped from one of the waggons and had to be fished up in a hurry to save it from the strong current. There was much shouting and laughter, and if any crocodile had been in the neighborhood he would have suppressed his hunger until the storm was over.
On the banks of the river there was a constant shooting at fish and game, and even at crocodiles, who showed themselves occasionally. There was game in abundance. It seemed as if all the game of the Transvaal, that is becoming so scarce, had fled to this part.
We were on our way to Pietersburg through the Boschveld of South-East Lydenburg, which might be called a desert in winter. It was a journey difficult even for a trek Boer, and more than difficult for a large commando. A man called Bester was our guide. Some two years before he had made the same journey on a hunting expedition, and now he was able to follow the ruts which the wheels of his waggon had made then, and which would be in all probability deepened by the summer rains. Our means of transport were chiefly carts and trolleys, on which we also put our bedding to lighten the burden of our riding horses.
WITH PRESIDENT STEYN IN THE BOSCHVELD—LOST
On September 12 we left the Krokodil River early in the morning, after first watering our cattle and filling our water-bags. Our guide did not expect to come across any water before the Sabie—a river several days' journey further on. There were several springs on the way, but as that part of the country was so little known, because of its unhealthiness, no one could tell when the last rains had fallen.
The shrubs and bushes had grown high above the ruts made by the waggon two years ago, and were a great hindrance to us. The road we followed twisted and wound rather more than was agreeable, but it was certainly easy to follow for the lagers that came after us. The horsemen rode next to the lagers to shoot bucks. We had no 'slaughter-cattle' with us, so had to live on the game that we shot.
In the neighbourhood of the river we still came across birds and insects, but the further we went the more monotonous and dead Nature became. I could never have pictured such a lifeless wood to myself. No sound of insects was to be heard, no chirp or song of bird; and not even the trail of a serpent was to be seen.
There was a melancholy stillness. Traces of game were in abundance. It seemed as if only those animals lived there which, accustomed to the monotonous silence, withdrew noiselessly from the gaze of the interloper, or, in their ignorant curiosity, stood still until a hunter's bullet warned them or put an end to their lives. To them we must have been strange disturbers of the peace. Shots fell in all directions; sometimes a whole salvo was discharged when we came upon a herd of bucks. There were many thornless trees growing in their stately height far above the usual scrub of the Boschveld. Our horses often grazed on the sweet buffalo grass that always grows under trees. Looked at from a rise, the Boschveld appeared to be nothing but trees—trees as far as the eye could see. One shuddered at the thought of what would become of anyone who lost his way there, since for miles and miles there was no water to be seen and no trail to go by. It made one hurry back to the safety of the lager, trusting to the capability of the guide.
To our great joy, the first spring contained water. It was a large pool surrounded by rocks, where the game was accustomed to drink. We arrived there towards afternoon, rested a few hours, and continued our journey with fresh courage. As the waggons moved too slowly for our liking, we rode on ahead; but the consequence was that, when it got dark and we off-saddled, we had no bedding, for nearly all the waggons were obliged to outspan when darkness set in, as there was no road.
We knee-haltered our horses in case there were lions about, and collected a large quantity of wood to keep the fire going all night. That night our talk, of course, ran upon lion-hunting and shooting expeditions. Then we crept as close to the fire as possible, and were soon in a troubled, or untroubled, sleep, dreaming of lions and other wild animals. But I felt the cold very much, and could not sleep without my rug, and kept turning from side to side to get as much warmth from the fire as possible. If only I had made two fires! In a battle I have been between two fires, and did not find it at all agreeable, but in this case it would have been different.
I lay awake, waiting for the third fire, the red dawn, but not in a poetical mood. There is a time for everything; that I learnt during the war. Rain is lovely, and cold gives energy, but one must be warm to appreciate it. As I lay thus, four mules, tethered together, came closer and closer up to our fire, grazing all the while. I lay still, listening to the peculiar noise made by the biting off of each mouthful of grass. I seemed to expect a joke, and suddenly one of the mules fell on his back. In a moment all our heroes were up and ready to defend themselves against lions or khakies, according to their different dreams. I laughed, and laughed again, so that the hyenas could hear me a mile off, and the startled lion-hunters began to laugh also, so that we woke up the whole camp. This little episode made my blood circulate, so that I very soon also was in the land of dreams.
As the burghers chased all the game on ahead of the lager, the President and Commandant Boshoff agreed to go in advance, so as to have a chance of seeing the numerous kinds of wild buck and larger game. I went with them. Greatly to my distress I forgot to ask our guide what direction we would take that day with regard to the sun. An experienced hunter would not have forgotten it, as he knows from experience that in the excitement of the chase we often leave the beaten track. I had to pay dearly for my forgetfulness. I rode some distance to the left of the President, but took care to keep him in sight. But the Boer is wonderfully disobedient to any authority, and not long after two men made their appearance to my left, and I saw that if I did not look out they would be ahead of me in no time, and chase all the game away from me. As the donga next to which we rode seemed to be a favourite resort for game, I took the same direction as they did, more to the left. The dongas ran into each other with numerous bends and curves, and were sometimes overgrown with high grass, then again quite bare. I paid no attention to the direction we took.
After a while one of the men wounded a buck, and they both rode into the donga after it. I rode on, to cross the donga a little further on, so as not to have to follow in the track of the other two, and saw a red buck on the other side, which I wounded so badly that it seemed unnecessary to fire again, and I rode leisurely towards it. But when I had crossed the donga the buck had disappeared, and I began to seek for the traces of blood, but I soon had to give up the search, not to lose sight of the other two men. They, however, seemed to be a great distance off, as I did not overtake them, and I did not succeed in tracing them in the direction that the wounded buck had led them, as the track in the grass was invisible to my inexperienced eye.
I rode back to the donga, and deliberated on the course to take. In all directions I heard shots, right and left, but I stood irresolute. I had no watch with me to find the four quarters of the wind, but the sun had only just risen, and I made a guess with an imaginary compass. It was lucky for me that I made such a good guess, and had paid great attention to the direction we had taken with regard to the sun. I was certain that I should come upon the traces of the lager if only I kept within the sides of a right angle, unless the lager had at the start taken a sharp turn to the right or left.
But it was possible that in our excitement we might have crossed the waggon track which the lager was to follow; then the lager would be far to the right. Standing thus like the ass between two bundles of hay, I was not in the mood to think lightly of my case, but had to act at once, so I chose the safest and more probable of the two sides of my right angle—namely, the left, as I would then in any case not be moving towards Portuguese territory, and could always turn to the Krokodil River.
I felt pretty certain now, as it was more probable that we had not crossed the old waggon tract, and every moment I expected to hear the switching of the long whips. But when I had gone some distance I was obliged to return to the donga, and retrace my way to the place where we had slept. A clever Boer would have succeeded in finding the way back, but I soon lost my way altogether. I lost the traces of the horse's hoofs, and the dongas looked to me so different that in one place where a donga branched off I did not know which to follow. An intense feeling of desolation took possession of me. Lost in a wilderness without food or water! I thought of the twelve or thirteen men who got lost in this wood on a hunting expedition, and of whom only one was saved. A great fear came upon me. Gradually I became calmer, and tried to form some plan of action. I resolved to keep to the left, where I had already seen a solitary mountain. Perhaps water was to be found there.
My gun was loaded with Dum-Dum bullets, specially prepared for bucks. I had filed through the steel to the lead, so that the bullet would expand at once when it came into contact with bone. I found a buck tame in its very wildness, but I missed it, for the aim of my gun, a fine sporting Mauser, had been bent by the branches of the trees. It was a good thing that I did not come across a lion, or, rather, that a lion did not come across me.
I had to ride under trees, through shrubs and grass, and had to keep a sharp look-out, as the king of beasts sometimes takes the lords of creation unawares. And I had to look out for an opportunity to shoot a buck—the only food within my reach. The nearer I came to the mountain, the surer I was that I had lost my way completely, and the more I became reconciled to my fate. I planned how I should build a large fire in the night for myself and my horse, and how I should defend myself against a lion with a burning piece of wood.
Suddenly my horse went faster and pushed to the left. Greatly to my astonishment, I saw that the attraction was a little stream of water that he had scented in a donga. I off-saddled, and let my horse graze in the luxuriant grass.
Now I was strengthened in my belief that I had taken the wrong direction, for we were all under the impression that we should not soon reach water. I prepared some more Dum-Dum bullets with a small file that I carried in my pocket, and did not let my horse graze long, but hastened to the mountain to find a better shelter for the night. To my great joy, I came upon the wide road about a thousand paces further on. I followed the road along the mountain for half an hour, when I came upon the lager, camped near a stream—probably the same stream at which I and my horse had quenched our thirst.
As we sat round our fires that night we heard shots fired in the distance from the direction that we had come. Some men were sent out immediately, and returned after a while with a man quite exhausted from hunger and thirst, and paralyzed with fear; he had been unable to overtake the lager.
PRACTICAL HINTS—ADVENTURE ON THE SABIE—NORTH OF LYDENBURG
Experience teaches us. The knowledge that we have gained in this war we must pass on to the coming generation. It may be of use in a war of the future, or on some other occasion. Therefore Oom Dietlof will take this opportunity to give his nephews in South Africa some practical hints that may be of use to a burgher in his travels or in a war. If anyone loses his way in the same way that I have just described, he must remember the following way of finding the four quarters of the wind:
The small hand of a watch describes a circle in twelve hours, while the apparent movement of the sun round the earth is in twenty-four hours. The movement of the small hand is therefore twice as fast as that of the sun. If one points the small hand of a horizontal-lying watch to the sun at twelve o'clock, then the hands and the figure XII. lie in the meridian as well as the sun.
In the northern half-circle the sun and the hands move in the same direction. In one hour's time the small hand goes a distance of 360 deg./12 = 30 deg., and the sun goes a distance of 360 deg./24 = 15 deg. If at one o'clock one points the small hand of a horizontal-lying watch to the sun, the line that divides the acute angle between the figures I. and XII. lies in the meridian. So one can always find the meridian.
In the southern half-circle the sun and hands move in opposite directions, therefore one must point the figure XII. to the sun, and then divide the acute angle between the figure XII. and the small hand to find the meridian.
In this way one can at any time find out the direction one has taken. But everyone has not always a good watch, and the sun sometimes hides behind the clouds. Then it is better to have a good compass—but better still not to lose one's way.
Besides such simple articles as a pocket-knife, a water-bag, etc., which are indispensable to a traveller in our country, everyone ought to carry with him a good plaster, a nosebag, and some snake poison; maize (mealies) for his horse, the cheapest and most strengthening food that we know of, can always be carried in the nosebag. Snake poison prepared by a good Kaffir doctor is the only cure for snake-bites or the bite of any poisonous insect. The Kaffirs prepare it from some (to us) unknown shrub, and from the poison of the most venomous snake, which they make into a powder. This powder is used as an antidote by swallowing a small dose—enough to cover the point of a pocket-knife—and also by applying some to the bite, after first having cut an opening into the bitten part with a pocket-knife. Some people protect themselves against the poison of a snake-bite by regularly swallowing some of the poison and vaccinating themselves with it. One can even protect one's self in this way against the bite of the poisonous file-snake of the Boschveld—a snake the shape of a three-cornered file, sometimes from 3 to 4 feet long. It is a fact that the person whose body is proof against the poison of a snake-bite is never bitten, as he is feared by snakes. Formerly I doubted it, but I have myself seen people who have made themselves proof against a bite in this way, and I have also heard it from people in whom I have the utmost faith.
Alcohol is also a good antidote, provided one takes it immediately and in such quantities that it goes to the head. I would recommend everyone always to take a small quantity of brandy with him on commando, if experience had not taught me that some take even a mosquito-bite as an excuse to 'take a drop,' and I am against that on principle.
Often while loading my horse the thought struck me whether the poor brute ever had a wish to protest, 'Surely this is becoming too bad!' and that reminds me that one must be very careful not to overload. The knapsack must not be filled with kaboe mealies (roasted maize) for one's self, while the nosebag of the poor horse remains empty.
More than one prisoner of war has bitterly regretted that he did not take his horse's power of endurance into greater consideration. Now I must take up the thread of my tale.
The following morning the lager would start at three o'clock, and, as my horse was in good condition, the owner of the horse that had been left behind asked me to fetch it before the lager left. He explained to me where I would find it tied to a tree about half an hour's ride from the lager, so I started with a friend at about two o'clock at night. On the way we came across a mule that had wandered away while grazing, ignorant of all the danger he was exposing himself to in the uninhabited Boschveld. The creature gave us much trouble by refusing to be caught and constantly dodging behind a tree, so we lost a great deal of time. On our way back, close to the lager, we heard the whine of the wild-dog, the well-known feared wolf. We thought it very interesting to come across a wild animal of which we had no fear just then. But when we reached the camping-ground of the lager, where only the trolley stood to which the wandering mule belonged, we found to our surprise that both white men and Kaffirs had given up the search for the mule for fear of the wild-dog. They had all congregated round large fires. The wild-dog, however, is harmless by himself; like the khakies, his strength lies in numbers. We had to leave the sick horse to join the bucks of the Boschveld on its recovery, until the horse-sickness came. After a long, tiring, but very interesting ride we arrived at the Sabie, where the rest of the lager was already encamped. The Sabie is about the size of the Krokodil River, and its scenery of woods and valleys formed a sharp contrast to the deadly monotony of the Boschveld that lay behind us. We had crossed the bare desert and were now in a part of the country inhabited by Kaffirs. The following day the lager was removed half an hour further on, and there we remained a few days.
At night four of us were persuaded to go eel-catching in a crocodile-pool that we had discovered a little further on. We made a large fire to entice the eels, and, as we were none of us great lovers of angling, we made a splendid bonfire, as there was plenty of dry wood to be had.
There was something particularly attractive in these large fires on those quiet, dark nights of the wilderness. The glow threw a sombre light on the water that gave one a creepy feeling, as if a crocodile were on the watch for us in the water, and lions at our back between the large trees. What must they have thought of us?
The bank of the river seemed to be about 6 feet high, and not very steep. We made the fire closer and closer to what seemed the bank. I saw someone lift up a huge branch, walk to the bank with it, and plant his left foot firmly on the ground. The reeds gave way beneath him. What seemed a firm bank, by the glow of the fire, proved to be a mass of reeds and grass, and the poor man fell down a height of 6 feet, his fall being hastened by the heavy branch he held. For a moment we stood irresolute. To jump after him into a crocodile-pool! But he called for help, and we had to act immediately. Fortunately, one acts almost instinctively in such cases. One of the others slid down the bank—the thought striking him: 'If only there are not two crocodiles!' Landing on a horizontal branch, he stretched out his hand to the drowning man, someone else took hold of his left hand, and so they were both saved. If a crocodile had been in the neighbourhood, he would probably have stood on the defensive. Such a queer, two-legged animal who led the attack in such a strange but decided way must have roused his respect.
This piece of fun put an end to our eel-fishing. We had caught only one eel—and a man.
The following morning there was parade for President Steyn. His speech to us was touching and to the point, and showed that he believed in a good ending to the war, if the burghers were capable of enduring such hardships as at present. Then he also told us in what a hurry he was to reach his burghers, as he was afraid that the enemy were doing all in their power to make them turn against him. We all liked President Steyn very much.
On our journey through the Selatie Goldfields, past the Marietje River to Pilgrim's Rest, we crossed the steepest mountain that I have ever seen. A double span of oxen was harnessed to each waggon. The oxen were lent us for the occasion by the Boers living on the plateau in front of us. After every few steps upwards we had to put stones under the wheels to prevent the waggons from slipping back. It took our little lager nearly all day to reach the plateau. Then we had a most magnificent view of the Boschveld that lay behind us. In the distance the Lobombo Mountains were visible on the boundary of the Portuguese and Transvaal territory. The first rains had fallen on the plateau, so the green grass was a refreshing change for our eyes. The horses would be able to graze well, and the good feeding would soon make them lose their old coats, and then they would be sleek and glossy again.
From the high plateau we descended, over a 'lumpy' veld, with an oasis here and there in a hole or valley, or on the top of a hill, to Pilgrim's Rest. Some miles before we reached this little town we passed beside the water-works that supply a strong stream of water for the machinery of the gold-mines. We simply stormed the shops, that were still well supplied with provisions, and bought all sorts of luxuries and necessaries for our journey. From Pilgrim's Rest we once more crossed a steep mountain, along a road that for length and height has not its equal. In the neighbourhood of Ohrigstad, a little town that we left to our right, I asked a Boer woman whether the fever did not make one's life impossible there, and I got a very naif reply: 'No; this year the fever was not so bad. We all got ill, but not one of us died.'