THREE YEARS' WAR
CHRISTIAAN RUDOLF DE WET
Frontispiece by John S. Sargent, R.A.
Four Plans and a Map
[Illustration: (signature) C. R. de Wet
New York Charles Scribner's Sons 1902 Copyright, 1902, by Charles Scribner's Sons All rights reserved Published, December, 1902 Trow Directory Printing and Bookbinding Company New York
TO MY FELLOW SUBJECTS OF THE BRITISH EMPIRE
By way of introduction to my work I wish, dear reader, to say only this short word: "I am no book-writer."—But I felt that the story of this struggle, in which a small people fought for liberty and right, is rightly said, throughout the civilized world, to be unknown, and that it was my duty to record my personal experiences in this war, for the present and for the future generations, not only for the Afrikander people, but for the whole world.
Not only did I consider this my duty, but I was encouraged to write by the urgings of prominent men among my people, of men of various nationalities and even of several British officers.
Well, dear reader, I hope that you will not feel disappointed in reading these experiences, as it is not in me, as is perhaps sometimes the case with historical authors, to conjure up thrilling pictures—imaginary things—and put them together merely to make up a book or to make a name for themselves. That be far from me! In publishing my book (although it is written in simple style) I had one object only, viz., to give to the world a story which, although it does not contain the whole of the truth, as regards this wondrous war, yet contains nothing but the truth.
The original has been written by me in Dutch, and I can therefore not be answerable for its translation into other languages.
C. R. DE WET.
I. I GO ON COMMANDO AS A PRIVATE BURGHER 3
II. NICHOLSON'S NEK 13
III. LADYSMITH BESIEGED 19
IV. I AM APPOINTED VECHTGENERAAL 22
V. THE OVERWHELMING FORCES OF LORD ROBERTS 26
VI. PAARDEBERG 39
VII. THE WILD FLIGHT FROM POPLAR GROVE 49
VIII. THE BURGHERS RECEIVE PERMISSION TO RETURN TO THEIR HOMES 56
IX. SANNA'S POST 61
X. FOUR HUNDRED AND SEVENTY ENGLISH TAKEN PRISONER AT REDDERSBURG 71
XI. AN UNSUCCESSFUL SIEGE 77
XII. THE ENGLISH SWARM OVER OUR COUNTRY 82
XIII. OUR POSITION AT THE END OF MAY, 1900 92
XIV. ROODEWAL 96
XV. I MAKE LORD KITCHENER'S ACQUAINTANCE 108
XVI. BETHLEHEM IS CAPTURED BY THE ENGLISH 117
XVII. THE SURRENDER OF PRINSLOO 123
XVIII. I AM DRIVEN INTO THE TRANSVAAL 129
XIX. I RETURN TO THE FREE STATE 144
XX. THE OATH OF NEUTRALITY 156
XXI. FREDERIKSSTAD AND BOTHAVILLE 161
XXII. MY MARCH TO THE SOUTH 172
XXIII. I FAIL TO ENTER CAPE COLONY 180
XXIV. WHEREIN SOMETHING IS FOUND ABOUT WAR AGAINST WOMEN 191
XXV. I AGAIN ATTEMPT TO ENTER CAPE COLONY 197
XXVI. DARKNESS PROVES MY SALVATION 215
XXVII. WAS OURS A GUERILLA WAR? 225
XXVIII. NEGOTIATIONS WITH THE ENEMY 230
XXIX. PRESIDENT STEYN'S NARROW ESCAPE 242
XXX. THE LAST PROCLAMATION 246
XXXI. BLOCKHOUSES AND NIGHT ATTACKS 260
XXXII. MY COMMANDO OF SEVEN HUNDRED MEN 267
XXXIII. A SUCCESS AT TWEEFONTEIN 275
XXXIV. I CUT MY WAY THROUGH SIXTY THOUSAND TROOPS 284
XXXV. I GO TO THE TRANSVAAL WITH PRESIDENT STEYN 298
XXXVI. PEACE NEGOTIATIONS 305
XXXVII. THE END OF THE WAR 319
A.—REPORT OF THE MEETING OF THE GENERAL REPRESENTATIVES HELD AT VEREENIGING IN THE SOUTH AFRICAN REPUBLIC ON THE 15TH OF MAY, 1902, AND THE FOLLOWING DAYS 333
B.—THE CONFERENCE AT PRETORIA BETWEEN THE COMMISSION OF THE NATIONAL REPRESENTATIVES AND LORDS KITCHENER AND MILNER (MAY 19TH-MAY 28TH, 1902) 365
C.—MINUTES OF THE MEETING OF THE SPECIAL NATIONAL REPRESENTATIVES AT VEREENIGING, SOUTH AFRICAN REPUBLIC, THURSDAY, THE 29TH OF MAY, 1902, AND THE FOLLOWING DAYS 397
MAP At end of volume
THREE YEARS WAR
I Go on Commando as a Private Burgher
In the month of September, 1899, the burghers of the Orange Free State were notified, under the Commando Law, to hold themselves in readiness to go on active service at the shortest possible notice.
Before proceeding any further I should like to explain that portion of the Commando Law which dealt with commandeering. It stipulated that every burgher between the ages of sixteen and sixty must be prepared to fight for his country at any moment; and that, if required for active service, he must provide himself with a riding-horse, saddle and bridle, with a rifle and thirty cartridges—or, if he were unable to obtain a rifle, he must bring with him thirty bullets, thirty caps, and half a pound of powder—in addition he must be provisioned for eight days. That there should have been an alternative to the rifle was due to the fact that the law was made at a time when only a few burghers possessed breech-loading rifles—achterlaaiers, as we call them.
With reference to the provisions the law did not specify their quality or quantity, but there was an unwritten but strictly observed rule amongst the burghers that they should consist of meat cut in strips, salted, peppered, and dried, or else of sausages and "Boer biscuits." With regard to quantity, each burgher had to make his own estimate of the amount he would require for eight days.
It was not long after they were notified to hold themselves ready that the burghers were called up for active service. On the 2nd of October, 1899, the order came. On that day the Veldtcornets, or their lieutenants, visited every farm and commandeered the men.
Amongst the commandeered was I; and thus, as a private burgher, I entered on the campaign. With me were my three sons—Kootie, Isaac, and Christiaan.
The following day the men of the sub-district of Krom Ellenborg, in the district of Heilbron—to which I belonged—mustered at Elandslaagte Farm. The Veldtcornet of this sub-district was Mr. Marthinus Els, and the Commandant of the whole contingent Mr. Lucas Steenekamp. It soon became known that the War Commission had decided that our commando was to proceed as rapidly as possible to the Natal frontier, and that with us were to go the troops from Vrede and Harrismith, as well as some from Bethlehem, Winburg, and Kroonstad. Carrying out these orders, we all arrived at Harrismith six days later.
Commando life now began in real earnest.
The eight days during which the burghers had to feed themselves were soon over, and now it was the duty of the Government to provide for them.
It may be interesting to mention here that the British commissariat differed greatly from ours. Rations were served out daily to their troops. Each soldier received the same quantity and the same quality as his comrade. Our methods were very different, except as regards flour, coffee, sugar, and other articles of that nature. The British soldier, for instance, received his meat ready cooked in the form of bully-beef (blikkiescost we called it), whilst the burgher received his meat raw, and had to cook it as best he could.
Before I leave this subject I may be forgiven if I describe the method of distributing meat to the burghers. After it had been cut up, the Vleeschkorporaal handed out the pieces—a sufficiently responsible task, as it proved, for, as the portions differed much in quality, it became of the first importance that the Vleeschkorporaal should be a man whose impartiality was above suspicion. To avoid any temptations to favouritism, this useful personage used to turn his back on the burghers, and as the men came up in turn he would pick up the piece of meat which lay nearest to hand and, without looking round, give it to the man who was waiting behind him to receive it.
This arrangement should have been satisfactory to all, but it sometimes happened that some burgher, whom fortune had not favoured, made no effort to conceal his discontent, and thus squabbles frequently occurred. Then the Vleeschkorporaal, fully convinced of his own uprightness, would let his tongue go, and the burgher who had complained was a man to be pitied. But such quarrels only occurred early in the campaign. By the time that the Vleeschkorporaal had been a few weeks at his work he had gained a considerable knowledge of human nature, and the injustice of his fellows no longer troubled him. Accordingly he allowed the complaints of the men to go in at one ear and at once to come out at the other. The burghers, too, soon became convinced of the foolishness of their conduct, and learnt the lesson of content and forbearance.
As I have already stated, the burgher had to boil or roast his own meat. The roasting was done on a spit cut in the shape of a fork, the wood being obtained from a branch of the nearest tree. A more ambitious fork was manufactured from fencing wire, and had sometimes even as many as four prongs. A skillful man would so arrange the meat on his spit as to have alternate pieces of fat and of lean, and thus get what we used to call a bout span.
The burghers utilized the flour supplied to them in making cakes; these they cooked in boiling fat, and called them stormjagers or maagbommen.
Later on, the British, finding that by looting our cattle they could get fresh meat for nothing, were no longer forced to be content with bully-beef. They then, like ourselves, killed oxen and sheep; but, unlike us, were very wasteful with it. Often, in the camping places they had vacated, we found the remains of half-eaten oxen, sheep, pigs, and poultry.
But I shall not go further into this matter. I leave it to other pens to describe how the British looted our property, wantonly killed our cattle, and devastated our farms. In the course of this narrative my intention is to mention only those cases which I saw with my own eyes. The reader, perusing them, may well pause in surprise and cry out, "Can such things be possible?" To such a question I have only one answer—"They actually occurred, and so my only course is to record them."
But enough of these digressions. Let me return to my proper subject—the story of my own experiences and doings in the great struggle which took place between Boer and Briton.
As I have already said, I had been commandeered, and, together with the other burghers of the Heilbron commando, had just reached Harrismith, on the road to the south-eastern frontier.
During our stay there the other commandos, in obedience to Commando Law, joined us, and we proceeded to elect a Commander-in-Chief. The Commandants present were Steenekamp, of Heilbron; Anthonie Lombaard, of Vrede; C.J. De Villiers, of Harrismith; Hans Nande, of Bethlehem; Marthinus Prinsloo, of Winburg; and C. Nel, of Kroonstad. The result of the voting was that Prinsloo was chosen for the supreme command.
Then the burghers of Winburg selected Mr. Theunissen as their Commandant. He fulfilled his duties admirably, until he was made a prisoner of war. This happened when he was leading a courageous attack at Paardeberg in order to relieve General Piet Cronje.
From Harrismith our commando advanced to within six miles of the Natal-Free State frontier, and camped not far from Bezuidenhoutspas, in the Drakensberg. This imposing range of mountains, which then formed the dividing line between Boer and British territory, slopes down gently into the Free State, but on the Natal side is very steep and precipitous.
The day after we had elected our Commander-in-Chief I was sent by Commandant Steenekamp, with a small detachment of burghers, to the Natal frontier. I saw nothing of the English there, for they had abandoned all their positions on the frontier shortly before the beginning of the war. When I returned in the evening I found that the burghers had chosen me, in my absence, as Vice-Commandant under Commandant Steenekamp.
It was at five o'clock on the afternoon of that day—the 11th of October, 1899—that the time, which the ultimatum allowed to England, expired. The British had not complied with the terms which the South African Republic demanded—the time for negotiations had passed, and war had actually broken out.
On this very day martial law was proclaimed by the Governments of the two Republics, and orders were given to occupy the passes on the Drakensberg. Commander-in-Chief Prinsloo despatched Steenekamp that night to Bezuidenhoutspas. Eastwards from there the following commandos were to hold the passes:—Bothaspas was to be occupied by the commando from Vrede; Van Reenen's Pass by the commandos from Harrismith and Winburg; and Tintwaspas by the commando from Kroonstad. Westwards, the burghers from Bethlehem were to guard Oliviershoekpas.
Commandant Steenekamp was very ill that night, and was unable to set out; he accordingly ordered me to take his place and to proceed forward with six hundred burghers.
Although I had only to cover six miles, it cost me considerable thought to arrange everything satisfactorily. This was due to the fact that real discipline did not exist among the burghers. As the war proceeded, however, a great improvement manifested itself in this matter, although as long as the struggle lasted our discipline was always far from perfect. I do not intend to imply that the burghers were unwilling or unruly; it was only that they were quite unaccustomed to being under orders. When I look back upon the campaign I realize how gigantic a task I performed in regulating everything in accordance with my wishes.
It did not take me long to get everything arranged, and we made an early start.
It was impossible to say what might lie before us. In spite of the fact that I had visited the spot the day before, I had not been able to cross the frontier. The English might have been on the precipitous side of the mountains under the ridge without my being any the wiser. Perhaps on our arrival we should find them in possession of the pass, occupying good positions and quite prepared for our coming.
Everything went well with us, however, and no untoward incident occurred. When the sun rose the following morning the whole country, as far as the eye could reach, lay before us calm and peaceful.
I sent a full report of my doings to Commandant Steenekamp, and that evening he himself, although still far from well, appeared with the remaining part of the commando. He brought the news that war had started in grim earnest. General De la Rey had attacked and captured an armoured train at Kraaipan.
Some days after this a war council was held at Van Reenen's Pass under Commander-in-Chief Marthinus Prinsloo. As Commandant Steenekamp, owing to his illness, was unable to be present, I attended the council in his place. It was decided that a force of two thousand burghers, under Commandant C.J. De Villiers, of Harrismith, as Vice-Vechtgeneraal, should go down into Natal, and that the remaining forces should guard the passes on the Drakensberg.
Let me say, in parenthesis, that the laws of the Orange Free State make no allusion to the post of Vechtgeneraal. But shortly before the war began the Volksraad had given the President the power to appoint such an officer. At the same session the President was allowed the veto on all laws dealing with war.
As Commandant Steenekamp was still prevented by his health from going to the front, I was ordered, as Vice-Commandant of the Heilbron commando, to proceed with five hundred men to Natal.
It soon became apparent that we had been sent to Natal with the object of cutting off the English who were stationed at Dundee and Elandslaagte. We were to be aided in our task by the Transvaalers who were coming from Volksrust and by a party of burghers from Vrede, all under the command of General Roch.
We did not arrive in time to be successful in this plan. That there had been some bungling was not open to question. Yet I am unable to assert to whom our failure was due—whether to the Commandants of the South African Republic, or to Commander-in-Chief Prinsloo, or to Vechtgeneraal De Villiers. For then I was merely a Vice-Commandant, who had not to give orders, but to obey them. But whoever was to blame, it is certainly true that when, early in the morning of the 23rd of October, I cut the line near Dundee, I discovered that the English had retreated to Ladysmith. It was General Yule who had led them, and he gained great praise in British circles for the exploit.
If we had only reached our destination a little sooner we should have cut off their retreating troops and given them a very warm time. But now that they had joined their comrades at Ladysmith, we had to be prepared for an attack from their combined forces, and that before the Transvaalers, who were still at Dundee, could reinforce us.
The British did not keep us long in anxiety.
At eight o'clock the following morning—the 24th of October—they came out of Ladysmith, and the battle of Modder Spruit began. With the sole exception of the skirmish between the Harrismith burghers and the Carabineers at Bester Station on the 18th of October, when Jonson, a burgher of Harrismith, was killed—the earliest victim in our fight for freedom—this was the first fighting the Free-Staters had seen.
We occupied kopjes which formed a large semicircle to the west of the railway between Ladysmith and Dundee. Our only gun was placed on the side of a high kop on our western wing. Our men did not number more than a thousand—the other burghers had remained behind as a rear-guard at Bester Station.
With three batteries of guns the English marched to the attack, the troops leading the way, the guns some distance behind. A deafening cannonade was opened on us by the enemy's artillery, at a range of about 4,500 yards. Our gun fired a few shots in return, but was soon silenced, and we had to remove it from its position. Small arms were our only weapons for the remainder of the contest.
The English at once began as usual to attack our flanks, but they did not attempt to get round our wings. Their object appeared to be to keep us in small parties, so that we should be unable to concentrate a large force anywhere.
Meanwhile the troops which were making the attack pushed on closer and closer to us. The country was of such a nature that they were able to get quite near to us without coming under our fire, for small kloofs and other inequalities of the ground afforded them excellent cover. But when they did show themselves they were met by such a frightful and unceasing fire that they could not approach nearer than two hundred paces from our lines.
The brunt of the attack was borne by the burghers from Kroonstad, who, under Commandant Nel, formed our western wing. More to the east, where I myself was, our men had less to endure. But every burgher, wherever he might be, fought with the greatest courage. Although there were some who fell killed or wounded, there was no sign of yielding throughout the whole battle, and every one of our positions we successfully held.
Till three o'clock in the afternoon we kept up our rifle fire on the English, and then we ceased, for the enemy, realizing the impossibility of driving us out of our positions, withdrew to Ladysmith. Shortly afterwards we were able to go over the battlefield. There were not many dead or wounded to be seen; but burghers who had been stationed on the high kop previously mentioned had seen the English remove their wounded during the engagement.
We ourselves had eleven men killed and twenty-one wounded, of whom two subsequently died. This loss touched us deeply, yet it was encouraging to notice that it had not the effect of disheartening a single officer or burgher.
Just as the battle began Mr. A.P. Cronje arrived on the scene. He had been nominated by the President as Vechtgeneraal, and had taken over the command from Vice-General C.J. De Villiers. He was most useful in this engagement. When it was over I agreed with him in thinking that our forces were too weak to pursue the retreating English troops. As soon as I was able to leave my position it gave me great pleasure to shake hands with him, for he was an old friend and fellow-member of the Volksraad. It was pleasant to greet him as Vechtgeneraal—he was the son of a valiant officer who had fought in the Basuto war of 1865 and 1866. He had reached the age of sixty-six years, an age when it is very hard for a man to have to stand the strain which the duties of a Vechtgeneraal necessarily entail.
[Footnote 1: Small loaves manufactured of flour, with fermented raisins instead of yeast, and twice baked.]
[Footnote 2: Officer in charge of the meat—literally, Flesh-corporal.]
[Footnote 3: Literally, a team of oxen which are not all of the same colour.]
[Footnote 4: Storm-hunters; so-called from being rapidly cooked.]
[Footnote 5: Stomach-bombs—a reflection on their wholesomeness.]
[Footnote 6: A Vice-Commandant has no duties to fulfil so long as the Commandant is himself in camp and fit for work.]
[Footnote 7: Fighting general.]
[Footnote 8: Sometimes referred to as the battle of Rietfontein.]
[Footnote 9: Water-courses.]
Until the 29th of October we retained our positions at Rietfontein. On that date General Joubert joined us with a portion of the Transvaal commandos. On his arrival it was settled that the Transvaalers should proceed to the north of Ladysmith and occupy positions on the east of Nicholson's Nek, whilst the Free-Staters were to go to the west and north-west of that town.
A party of burghers, under Commandant Nel, of Kroonstad, were ordered to station themselves on a kop with a flat top, called Swartbooiskop, an hour and a half to the south of Nicholson's Nek. After the battle which was fought on the 30th of November this kop was christened by us Little Majuba.
Just after sunrise on the 30th of November the roaring of cannon came to our ears. The sound came from the extreme end of our position, where the Transvaalers were stationed. No sooner did we hear it than the order to off-saddle was given. I myself asked Commandant Steenekamp, who had arrived the previous day from Bezuidenhoutspas, to go to General Croup's laager, about two miles distant, and to request him to advance to where the firing was taking place. To this request General Croup acceded, and Commandant Steenekamp went there with three hundred men, of whom I was one. Our way led past the kop to the south of Nicholson's Nek. What a sight met our gaze on our arrival there!
The kop was occupied by the English.
This must be ascribed to the negligence of Commandant Nel, who had orders to guard the kop. He excused himself by assuring us that he had been under the impression that one of his Veldtcornets and a number of burghers were occupying the hill.
What could we do now?
Commandant Steenekamp and I decided that we must storm the hill with the three hundred men whom we had at our disposal. And this we did, and were sufficiently fortunate to capture the northern point of the kop.
On reaching the summit we discovered that the British troops occupied positions extending from the southern point to the middle of the mountain.
The enemy, the moment we appeared on the ridge, opened a heavy rifle fire upon us. We answered with as severe a fusillade as theirs. Whilst we were shooting, twenty of Commandant Nel's men joined us and helped us to hold our ground. When we had been engaged in this way for some time we saw that the only possible course was to fight our way from position to position towards the English lines.
I now observed that the mountain top was of an oblong shape, extending from north to south for about a thousand paces. At the northern end, where we were, the surface was smooth, but somewhat further south it became rough and stony, affording very good cover. In our present situation we were thus almost completely exposed to the enemy's fire. The English, on the other hand, had excellent positions. There were a number of ruined Kaffir kraals scattered about from the middle of the mountain to its southern end, and these the enemy had occupied, thus securing a great advantage.
Our bullets hailed on the English, and very shortly they retreated to the southernmost point of the mountain. This gave us the chance for which we had been waiting, for now we could take the splendid positions they had left.
Whilst this was going on an amusing incident occurred. A Jew came up to a burgher who was lying behind a stone, on a piece of ground where boulders were scarce.
"Sell me that stone for half-a-crown," whined the Jew.
"Loop!" the Boer cried; "I want it myself."
"I will give you fifteen shillings," insisted the Jew.
Although the Boer had never before possessed anything that had risen in value with such surprising rapidity, at that moment he was anything but ready to drive a bargain with the Jew, and without any hesitation he positively declined to do business.
In the positions from which the English had retired we found several dead and wounded men, and succeeded in capturing some prisoners.
The enemy were now very strongly posted at the south end of the mountain, for there were in their neighbourhood many Kaffir kraals and huge boulders to protect them from our marksmen. Their fire on us became still more severe and unceasing, and their bullets whistled and sang above our heads, or flattened themselves against the stones. We gave at least as good as we got, and this was so little to their liking that very soon a few white flags appeared in the kraals on their left wing, and from that quarter the firing stopped suddenly.
I immediately gave the order to cease fire and to advance towards the enemy. All at once the English blazed away at us again. On our part, we replied with vigour. But that did not continue long. In a very short time white flags fluttered above every kraal—the victory was ours.
I have no wish to say that a misuse of the white flag had taken place. I was told when the battle was over that the firing had continued, because the men on our eastern wing had not observed what their comrades on their left had done. And this explanation I willingly accept.
Our force in this engagement consisted only of three hundred men from Heilbron, twenty from Kroonstad, and forty or fifty from the Johannesburg Police, these latter under Captain Van Dam. The Police had arrived on the battlefield during the fighting, and had behaved in a most praiseworthy manner.
But I overestimate our numbers, for it was not the whole of the Heilbron contingent that reached the firing line. We had to leave some of them behind with the horses at the foot of the kop, and there were others who remained at the first safe position they reached—a frequent occurrence at that period.
I took careful note of our numbers when the battle was over, and I can state with certainty that there were not more than two hundred burghers actually engaged.
Our losses amounted to four killed and five wounded. As to the losses of the English, I myself counted two hundred and three dead and wounded, and there may have been many whom I did not see. In regard to our prisoners, as they marched past me four deep I counted eight hundred and seventeen.
In addition to the prisoners we also captured two Maxim and two mountain guns. They, however, were out of order, and had not been used by the English. The prisoners told us that parts of their big guns had been lost in the night, owing to a stampede of the mules which carried them, and consequently that the guns were incomplete when they reached the mountain. Shortly afterwards we found the mules with the missing parts of the guns.
It was very lucky for us that the English were deprived of the use of their guns, for it placed them on the same footing as ourselves, as it compelled them to rely entirely on their rifles. Still they had the advantage of position, not to mention the fact that they out-numbered us by four to one.
The guns did not comprise the whole of our capture: we also seized a thousand Lee-Metford rifles, twenty cases of cartridges, and some baggage mules and horses.
The fighting had continued without intermission from nine o'clock in the morning until two in the afternoon. The day was exceedingly hot, and as there was no water to be obtained nearer than a mile from the berg, we suffered greatly from thirst. The condition of the wounded touched my heart deeply. It was pitiable to hear them cry, "Water! water!"
I ordered my burghers to carry these unfortunate creatures to some thorn-bushes, which afforded shelter from the scorching rays of the sun, and where their doctors could attend to them. Other burghers I told off to fetch water from our prisoners' canteens, to supply our own wounded.
As soon as the wounded were safe under the shelter of the trees I despatched a message to Sir George White asking him to send his ambulance to fetch them, and also to make arrangements for the burial of his dead. For some unexplained reason, the English ambulance did not arrive till the following morning.
We stayed on the mountain until sunset, and then went down to the laager. I ordered my brother, Piet de Wet, with fifty men of the Bethlehem commando, to remain behind and guard the kop.
We reached camp at eight o'clock, and as the men had been without food during the whole day it can be imagined with what delight each watched his bout span frizzling on the spit. This, with a couple of stormjagers and a tin of coffee, made up the meal, and speedily restored them. They were exempted from sentry duty that night, and greatly enjoyed their well-earned rest.
To complete my narrative of the day's work, I have only to add that the Transvaal burghers were engaged at various points some eight miles from Nicholson's Nek, and succeeded in taking four hundred prisoners.
We placed our sentries that evening with the greatest care. They were stationed not only at a distance from the camp, as Brandwachten, but also close round the laager itself. We were especially careful, as it was rumoured that the English had armed the Zulus of Natal. Had this been true, it would have been necessary to exercise the utmost vigilance to guard against these barbarians.
Since the very beginning of our existence as a nation—in 1836—our people had been acquainted with black races, and bitter had been their experience. All that our voortrekkers had suffered was indelibly stamped on our memory. We well knew what the Zulus could do under cover of darkness—their sanguinary night attacks were not easily forgotten. Their name of "night-wolves" had been well earned. Also we Free-Staters had endured much from the Basutos, in the wars of 1865 and 1867.
History had thus taught us to place Brandwachten round our laagers at night, and to reconnoitre during the hours of darkness as well as in the day-time.
Perhaps I shall be able to give later on a fuller account in these pages—or, it may be, in another book—of the way we were accustomed to reconnoitre, and of the reasons why the scouting of the British so frequently ended in disaster. But I cannot resist saying here that the English only learnt the art of scouting during the latter part of the war, when they made use of the Boer deserters—the "Hands-uppers."
These deserters were our undoing. I shall have a good deal more to say about them before I finally lay down my pen, and I shall not hesitate to call them by their true name—the name with which they will be for ever branded before all the nations of the world.
[Footnote 10: About nine miles: distance reckoned by average pace of ridden horse—six miles an hour.]
[Footnote 11: Clear off.]
[Footnote 12: Hill.]
[Footnote 13: Literally, watch-fire men. They were the furthest outposts, whose duty it was to signal by means of their fires.]
[Footnote 14: Pioneers.]
The Orange Free State and the South African Republic held a joint council of war on the 1st of November, and it was then decided to lay siege to Ladysmith.
We also agreed to send out a horse-commando in the direction of Estcourt. This commando, under Vice-General Louis Botha, had several skirmishes with the enemy. On the 15th of November he engaged an armoured train, capturing a hundred of the British troops. This was General Botha's chief exploit, and shortly afterwards he returned to camp. But I must not anticipate.
On the night of the council of war, General Piet Cronje was sent to occupy positions to the south and south-west of Ladysmith. He had with him the Heilbron burghers, a part of the commandos from Winburg and Harrismith, and two Krupp guns. On the following day a brush took place with the enemy, who, however, speedily fell back on Ladysmith. On the 3rd, a few of their infantry regiments, with a thousand or fifteen hundred mounted troops, and two batteries of 15 and 12-pound Armstrong guns, marched out of the town in a south-westerly direction.
The English brought these two guns into position at such a distance from us that we could not reach them with the Mauser; nor would it have been safe for us to advance upon them, for between them and us lay an open plain, which would have afforded no cover. One of our guns, which was placed exactly in front of the enemy, did indeed begin to fire; but after a shot or two, it received so much attention from the English artillery that we were compelled—just as at Rietfontein—to desist.
The British infantry and cavalry did not show any excessive eagerness to tackle us; and we, on our side, were as disinclined to come to close quarters with them. Nevertheless, the enemy's infantry, backed up by the thunder of twelve guns, did make an attempt to reach us; but though they advanced repeatedly, they were for the most part careful to keep out of range of our rifles. When they neglected this precaution, they soon found themselves compelled to retire with loss.
Our second gun, which had been placed on a tafel-kop to the east of the ground where the engagement was taking place, did excellent work. It effectually baulked the enemy's mounted troops in their repeated efforts to outflank us on that side, and also made it impossible for the English to bring their guns farther east, so as to command the tafel-kop. They did, indeed, make an attempt to place some guns between us and Platrand, which lay to the north of our eastern position, but it was unsuccessful, for our Krupp on the tafel-kop brought such a heavy fire to bear on the troops and gunners, that they were forced to retire.
We, on our part, as I have already said, found it equally impossible to storm the English positions. To advance would have been to expose ourselves to the fire of their heavy guns, whereas an attack to the south would have involved exposure to a cross-fire from the guns on Platrand.
Altogether it was a most unsatisfactory engagement for us both. Nothing decisive was effected; and, as is always the case in such battles, little was done except by the big guns, which kept up a perpetual roar from ten in the morning until five in the afternoon. At that hour the British fell back on Ladysmith.
Our loss was one killed and six wounded, among the latter being Veldtcornet Marthinus Els, of Heilbron.
It was evident that the English did not escape without loss, but we were unable to ascertain its extent. My own opinion is that they did not lose very heavily.
From that day nothing of importance happened until I left Natal; though both the Transvaalers and Free State burghers had a few slight brushes with the enemy.
During the night of December the 7th, "Long Tom," the big Transvaal gun, which had been placed on Bulwana Hill, had been so seriously damaged by dynamite, that it had to remain out of action for some time. We all admitted that the English on that occasion acted with great skill and prudence, and that the courage of their leaders deserved every praise. Yet, if we had only been on our guard, we might have beaten off the storming party; but they had caught us unawares. Nevertheless, the mishap taught us a useful lesson: henceforth the Transvaal Commandants were more strict, and their increased severity had an excellent effect both on the burghers and gunners.
General Sir Redvers Buller had landed at Cape Town early in November. We were now expecting every day to hear that he had assumed the chief command over the English army encamped between Estcourt and Colenso. The number of troops there was continually increasing owing to the reinforcements which kept pouring in from over the ocean.
Great things were expected of Sir Redvers Buller, to whom the Boers, by a play of words, had given a somewhat disrespectful nick-name. He had not been long in Natal before his chance came. I must, however, be silent about his successes and his failures, for, as I left Natal on the 9th of December, I had no personal experience of his methods. But this I will say, that whatever his own people have to say to his discredit, Sir Redvers Buller had to operate against stronger positions than any other English general in South Africa.
[Footnote 15: A table-shaped mountain.]
I am Appointed Vechtgeneraal
Up to the 9th of December I had only been a Vice-Commandant, but on the morning of that day I received a telegram from States-President Steyn, asking me to go to the Western frontier as Vechtgeneraal.
This came as a great surprise to me, and I telegraphed back to the President asking for time to think the matter over. To tell the truth, I should have much preferred to go through the campaign as a private burgher.
Almost immediately after this there came another telegram—this time from Mr. A. Fisscher, a member of the Executive Council, and a man whom I respected greatly on account of his official position. He urged me not to decline the appointment, but to proceed at once to the Western borders. I did not know what to do. However, after deliberating for a short time, and with great difficulty overcoming my disinclination to leave my present associates, I decided to accept the post offered to me. Commandant Steenekamp was kind enough to allow me to take with me fourteen men, with whom I had been on especially friendly terms; and, after a few parting words to the Heilbron burghers, in which I thanked them for all the pleasant times I had passed in their company, I left the laager.
It was heart-breaking to tear myself away from my commando: that 9th of December was a day which I shall never forget.
The following morning I arrived, with my staff, at Elandslaagte Station, on our way to Bloemfontein. A special train, provided by the Transvaal authorities, at the request of my Government, was waiting for us, and we started without a moment's delay. As we journeyed on, the conductor would sometimes ask me whether I should like to stop at such and such a station, but my answer was always:
"No! no! hurry on!"
But when we got as far as Viljoen's Drift, there was an end to my "special train!" In spite of the Government's orders that I was to be sent forward without delay, I had to wait six hours, and then be content to travel as an ordinary passenger.
At Bloemfontein we found everything ready for us, and at once started on our journey of sixty or seventy miles to Magersfontein, where we arrived on December the 16th.
During the time I had spent in travelling, three important engagements had taken place, namely those of Colenso, Magersfontein and Stormberg. At Colenso, the English had suffered heavy losses, and ten guns had fallen into our hands. Magersfontein also had cost them dear, and there General Wauchope had met his fate; while at Stormberg seven hundred of them had been taken prisoners, and three of their big guns had been captured by us.
At Magersfontein were six or seven thousand Transvaal burghers under General Piet Cronje, with General De la Rey as second in command. Thus it fell to my lot to take over the command of the Free-Staters. The Commander-in-Chief of these Free State burghers, as well as of those who were camped round Kimberley, was Mr. C.J. Wessels; Mr. E.R. Grobler commanded at Colesberg, and Mr. J.H. Olivier at Stormberg.
I spent my first few days at Magersfontein in organizing the Free State burghers. When this task had been accomplished, General De la Rey and I asked General Cronje's permission to take fifteen hundred men, and carry on operations in the direction of Hopetown and De Aar with the intention of breaking Lord Methuen's railway communications. But Cronje would hear nothing of the scheme. Say what we would, there was no moving him. He absolutely refused to allow fifteen hundred of his men to leave their positions at Magersfontein, unless the Government found it impossible to procure that number of burghers from elsewhere. Thus our plan came to nothing.
Shortly afterwards De la Rey was sent to the commandos at Colesberg, and I succeeded him in the command of the Transvaalers at Magersfontein. The Government then put General Wessels in sole command at Kimberley, and gave General Cronje the chief command over the Free State burghers at Magersfontein. Thus it was that I, as Vechtgeneraal, had to receive my orders from Cronje. I had the following Commandants under me: Du Preez, of Hoopstad; Grobler, of Fauresmith; D. Lubbe, of Jacobsdal; Piet Fourie, of Bloemfontein; J. Kok and Jordaan, of Winburg; Ignatius Ferreira, of Ladybrand; Paul De Villiers, of Ficksburg; Du Plessis, and, subsequently, Commandant Diederiks, of Boshof.
* * * * *
The English had entrenched themselves at the Modder River, we at Magersfontein. There was little or nothing for us to do, and yet I never had a more troublesome time in my life. I had all the Transvaalers under my orders, in addition to the burghers of the Free State, and the positions which I had to inspect every day extended over a distance of fifteen miles from end to end. I had to listen to constant complaints; one of the officers would say that he could not hold out against an attack if it were delivered at such and such a point; another, that he had not sufficient troops with him, not to mention other remarks which were nonsensical in the extreme.
In the meantime, the enemy was shelling our positions unceasingly. Not a day passed but two of their Lyddite guns dropped shells amongst us. Sometimes not more than four or five reached us in the twenty-four hours; at other times from fifty to two hundred, and once as many as four hundred and thirty-six.
In spite of this, we had but few mishaps. Indeed, I can only remember three instances of any one being hurt by the shells. A young burgher, while riding behind a ridge and thus quite hidden from the enemy, was hit by a bomb, and both he and his horse were blown to atoms. This youth was a son of Mr. Gideon van Tonder, a member of the Executive Council. Another Lyddite shell so severely wounded two brothers, named Wolfaard, Potchefstroom burghers, that we almost despaired of their lives. Nevertheless, they recovered. I do not want to imply that the British Artillery were poor shots. Far from it. Their range was very good, and, as they had plenty of practice every day, shot after shot went home. I ascribe our comparative immunity to a Higher Power, which averted misfortune from us.
I had not been long at Magersfontein before I became convinced that Lord Methuen was most unlikely to make another attack on our extensive positions. I said nothing of this to any of the burghers, but on more than one occasion, I told General Cronje what I thought about the matter.
"The enemy," I repeated to him over and over again, "will not attack us here. He will flank us." But Cronje would not listen to me.
The presence of women in our laager was a great hindrance to me in my work. Indeed, I opened a correspondence with the Government on the matter, and begged them to forbid it. But here again my efforts were unavailing. Later on, we shall see in what a predicament the Republican laagers were placed through the toleration of this irregularity.
Meanwhile, the inevitable results of Cronje's policy became more and more apparent to me, and before long we had to suffer for his obstinacy in keeping us to our trenches and schanzes.
[Footnote 16: A shelter-mound of earth and boulders.]
The Overwhelming Forces of Lord Roberts
I speedily discovered the object which the English had in view in taking such advanced positions and in bombarding Magersfontein. They wished to give us the impression that they were able to attack us at any moment and so to keep us tied to our positions. In the meantime they were making preparations in another direction, for the movement which was really intended—namely, the advance of Lord Roberts with his overwhelming force.
The Commander-in-Chief, Piet de Wet (and before him Commandant H. Schorman), had plenty of work given them by the English. But General De la Rey had been so successful that he had prevented Lord Roberts, notwithstanding the enormous numbers he commanded, from crossing the Orange River at Norvalspont, and had thus forced him to take the Modder River route.
Lord Roberts would have found it more convenient to have crossed the Orange River, for the railway runs through Norvalspont. Yet had he attempted it, he would have fared as badly as Sir Redvers Buller did in Natal. Our positions at Colesberg, and to the north of the river, were exceedingly strong. He was wise, therefore, in his decision to march over the unbroken plains.
It was now, as I had foreseen, that the English renewed their flanking tactics.
On the 11th of February, 1900, a strong contingent of mounted troops, under General French, issued from the camps at Modder River and Koedoesberg. This latter was a kop on the Riet River, about twelve miles to the east of their main camp.
At ten o'clock in the morning, General French started. Immediately I received orders from General Cronje to proceed with three hundred and fifty men to check the advancing troops. As I stood on the ridges of Magersfontein, I was able to look down upon the English camps, and I saw that it would be sheer madness to pit three hundred and fifty men against General French's large force. Accordingly I asked that one hundred and fifty more burghers and two guns might be placed at my disposal. This request, however, was refused, and so I had to proceed without them.
When we arrived at Koedoesberg that afternoon, we found that the English had already taken possession of the hill. They were stationed at its southern end, and had nearly completed a stone wall across the hill from east to west. Their camp was situated on the Riet River, which flows beside the southern slopes of the berg. The enemy also held strong positions on hillocks to the east of the mountain, whilst on the west they occupied a ravine, which descended from the mountain to the river.
Commandant Froneman and I determined to storm the berg without a moment's delay. We reached the foot of the mountain in safety, and here we were out of sight of the English. But it was impossible to remain in this situation, and I gave orders that my men should climb the mountain. We succeeded in reaching the summit, but were unable to get within seven hundred paces of the enemy, owing to the severity of their fire from behind the stone wall. And so we remained where we were until it became quite dark, and then very quietly went back to the spot where we had left our horses.
As General French was in possession of the river, we had to ride about four miles before we could obtain any water.
Early the following morning we again occupied the positions we had held on the previous evening. Although under a severe rifle fire, we then rushed from position to position, and at last were only three hundred paces from the enemy. And now I was forced to rest content with the ground we had gained, for with only three hundred and fifty men I dare not risk a further advance, owing to the strength of the enemy's position.
The previous day I had asked General Cronje to send me reinforcements, and I had to delay the advance until their arrival. In a very short time a small party of burghers made their appearance. They had two field-pieces with them, and were under the command of Major Albrecht. We placed the guns in position and trained them on the English.
With the second shot we had found our range, while the third found its mark in the wall, so that it was not long before the enemy had to abandon that shelter. To find safe cover they were forced to retreat some hundred paces. But we gained little by this, for the new positions of the English were quite as good as those from which we had driven them, and, moreover, were almost out of range of our guns. And we were unable to bring our field-pieces any nearer because our gunners would have been exposed to the enemy's rifle fire.
Our Krupps made good practice on the four English guns which had been stationed on the river bank to the south. Up till now these had kept up a terrific fire on our guns, but we soon drove them across the river, to seek protection behind the mountain. I despatched General Froneman to hold the river bank, and the sluit which descended to the river from the north. While carrying out this order he was exposed to a heavy fire from the enemy's western wing, which was located in the above-mentioned ravine, but he succeeded in reaching the river under cover of the guns. Once there, the enemy's artillery made it impossible for him to move.
And now a curious incident occurred! A falcon, hovering over the heads of our burghers in the sluit, was hit by a bullet from one of the shrapnel shells and fell dead to the ground in the midst of the men. It was already half-past four, and we began to ask ourselves how the affair would end. At this juncture I received a report from a burgher, whom I had placed on the eastern side of the mountain to watch the movements of the English at the Modder River. He told me that a mountain corps, eight hundred to a thousand men strong, was approaching us with two guns, with the intention, as it appeared, of outflanking us. I also learnt that eighty of my men had retreated. I had stationed them that morning on a hillock three miles to the east of the mountain, my object being to prevent General French from surrounding us.
It now became necessary to check the advance of this mountain corps. But how? There were only thirty-six men at my disposal. The other burghers were in positions closer to the enemy, and I could not withdraw them without exposing them too seriously to the bullets of the English. There was nothing for it, but that I with my thirty-six burghers should attack the force which threatened us.
We rushed down the mountain and jumping on our horses, galloped against the enemy. When we arrived at the precipice which falls sheer from the mountain, the English were already so near that our only course was to charge them.
In front of us there was a plain which extended for some twelve hundred paces to the foot of an abrupt rise in the ground. This we fortunately reached before the English, although we were exposed all the way to the fire of their guns. But even when we gained the rise we were little better off, as it was too low to give us cover. The English were scarcely more than four hundred paces from us. They dismounted and opened a heavy fire. For ten or fifteen minutes we successfully kept them back. Then the sun went down! and to my great relief the enemy moved away in the direction of their comrades on the mountain. I ordered all my men from their positions, and withdrew to the spot where we had encamped the previous night. The burghers were exhausted by hunger and thirst, for they had had nothing to eat except the provisions which they had brought in their saddle-bags from the laager.
That evening Andreas Cronje—- the General's brother—joined us with two hundred and fifty men and a Maxim-Nordenfeldt.
When the sun rose on the following day, the veldt was clear of the enemy. General French had during the night retreated to headquarters. What losses he had suffered I am unable to say; ours amounted to seven wounded and two killed.
Our task here was now ended, and so we returned to Magersfontein.
The following morning a large force again left the English camp and took the direction of the Koffiefontein diamond mine. General Cronje immediately ordered me to take a force of four hundred and fifty men with a Krupp and a Maxim-Nordenfeldt, and to drive back the enemy. At my request, Commandants Andreas Cronje, Piet Fourie, Scholten and Lubbe joined me, and that evening we camped quite close to the spot where the English force was stationed!
Early the next day, before the enemy had made any movement, we started for Blauwbank, and, having arrived there, we took up our positions. Shortly afterwards the fight began; it was confined entirely to the artillery.
We soon saw that we should have to deal with the whole of Lord Roberts' force, for there it was, advancing in the direction of Paardenberg's Drift. It was thus clear that Lord Roberts had not sent his troops to Koffiefontein with the intention of proceeding by that route to Bloemfontein, but that his object had been to divide our forces, so as to march via Paardenberg's Drift to the Capital.
I accordingly withdrew with three hundred and fifty of the burghers in the direction of Koffiefontein, and then hid my commando as best I could. The remainder of the men—about a hundred in number—I placed under Commandant Lubbe, giving him orders to proceed in a direction parallel to the advance of the English, who now were nearing Paardenberg's Drift, and to keep a keen eye on their movements. It was a large force that Lubbe had to watch. It consisted chiefly of mounted troops; but there were also nine or ten batteries and a convoy of light mule waggons.
I thought that as General Cronje was opposing them in front, my duty was to keep myself in hiding and to reconnoitre.
I wished to communicate with General Cronje before the English troops came up to him, and with this object I sent out a despatch rider. The man I chose for the mission was Commandant G.J. Scheepers—whose name later in the war was on every man's lips for his exploits in Cape Colony, but who then was only the head of our heliograph corps. I informed General Cronje in my message that the English, who had been stationed at Blauwbank, had made a move in the direction of Paardenberg's Drift; and I advised him to get out of their road as quickly as he could, for they numbered, according to my computation, forty or fifty thousand men.
I thought it wise to give Cronje this advice, on account of the women and children in our camps, who might easily prove the cause of disaster. When Scheepers returned he told me what reply General Cronje had made. It is from no lack of respect for the General, whom I hold in the highest honour as a hero incapable of fear, that I set down what he said. It is rather from a wish to give a proof of his undaunted courage that I quote his words.
"Are you afraid of things like that?" he asked, when Scheepers had given my message. "Just you go and shoot them down, and catch them when they run."
At Paardenberg's Drift there were some Free-Staters' camps that stood apart from the others. In these camps there were a class of burghers who were not much use in actual fighting. These men, called by us "water draggers," correspond to the English "non-combatants." I ordered these burghers to withdraw to a spot two hours' trek from there, where there was more grass. But before all had obeyed this order, a small camp, consisting of twenty or thirty waggons, was surprised and taken.
In the meantime, keeping my little commando entirely concealed, I spied out the enemy's movements.
On the 16th of February, I thought I saw a chance of dealing an effective blow at Lord Roberts. Some provision waggons, escorted by a large convoy, were passing by, following in the wake of the British troops. I asked myself whether it was possible for me to capture it then and there, and came to the conclusion that it was out of the question. With so many of the enemy's troops in the neighbourhood, the risk would have been too great. I, therefore, still kept in hiding with my three hundred and fifty burghers.
I remained where I was throughout the next day; but in the evening I saw the convoy camping near Blauwbank, just to the west of the Riet River. I also observed that the greater part of the troops had gone forward with Lord Roberts.
On the 18th I still kept hidden, for the English army had not yet moved out of camp. The troops, as I learnt afterwards, were awaiting the arrival of columns from Belmont Station.
On the following day I attacked the convoy on the flank. The three or four hundred troops who were guarding it offered a stout resistance, although they were without any guns.
After fighting for two hours the English received a reinforcement of cavalry, with four Armstrong guns, and redoubled their efforts to drive us from the positions we had taken up under cover of the mule waggons. As I knew that it would be a serious blow to Lord Roberts to lose the provisions he was expecting, I was firmly resolved to capture them, unless the force of numbers rendered the task quite impossible. I accordingly resisted the enemy's attack with all the power I could.
The battle raged until it became dark; and I think we were justified in being satisfied with what we had achieved. We had captured sixteen hundred oxen and forty prisoners; whilst General Fourie, whom I had ordered to attack the camp on the south, had taken several prisoners and a few water-carts.
We remained that night in our positions. The small number of burghers I had at my disposal made it impossible for me to surround the English camp.
To our great surprise, the following morning, we saw that the English had gone. About twenty soldiers had, however, remained behind; we found them hidden along the banks of the Riet River at a short distance from the convoy. We also discovered thirty-six Kaffirs on a ridge about three miles away. As to the enemy's camp, it was entirely deserted. Our booty was enormous, and consisted of two hundred heavily-laden waggons, and eleven or twelve water-carts and trollies. On some of the waggons we found klinkers, jam, milk, sardines, salmon, cases of corned beef, and other such provisions in great variety. Other waggons were loaded with rum; and still others contained oats and horse provender pressed into bales. In addition to these stores, we took one field-piece, which the English had left behind. It was, indeed, a gigantic capture; the only question was what to do with it.
Our prisoners told us that columns from Belmont might be expected at any moment. Had these arrived we should have been unable to hold out against them.
By some means or other it was necessary to get the provisions away, not that we were then in any great need of them ourselves, but because we knew that Lord Roberts would be put in a grave difficulty if he lost all this food. I did not lose a moment's time, but at once ordered the burghers to load up the waggons as speedily as possible, and to inspan. It was necessary to reload the waggons, for the English troops had made use of the contents to build schanzes; and excellent ones the provisions had made.
The loading of the waggons was simple enough, but when it came to inspanning it was another matter. The Kaffir drivers alone knew where each span had to be placed, and there were only thirty-six Kaffirs left. But here the fact that every Boer is himself a handy conductor and driver of waggons told in our favour. Consequently we did not find it beyond our power to get the waggons on the move. It was, however, very tedious work, for how could any of us be sure that we were not placing the after-oxen in front and the fore-oxen behind? There was nothing left for it but to turn out the best spans of sixteen oxen that we could, and then to arrange them in the way that struck us as being most suitable. It was all done in the most hurried manner, for our one idea was to be off as quickly as possible.
Even when we had started our troubles were not at an end. The waggons would have been a hard pull for sixteen oxen properly arranged; so that it is not surprising that our ill-sorted teams found the work almost beyond their strength. Thus it happened that we took a very long time to cover the first few miles, as we had constantly to be stopping to re-arrange the oxen. But under the supervision of Commandant Piet Fourie, whom I appointed Conductor-in-Chief, matters improved from hour to hour.
After a short time I issued orders that the convoy should proceed over Koffiefontein to Edenberg. I then divided my burghers into two parties; the first, consisting of two hundred men with the Krupp gun, I ordered to proceed with the convoy; the second, consisting of a hundred and fifty men with the Maxim-Nordenfeldt, I took under my own command, and set out with them in the direction of Paardenberg's Drift.
My spies had informed me that there were some fifty or sixty English troops posted about eight miles from the spot where we had captured the convoy. We made our way towards them, and when we were at a distance of about three thousand yards, I sent a little note to their officer, asking him to surrender. It was impossible for his troops to escape, for they found themselves threatened on three sides.
The sun had just gone down when my despatch-rider reached the English camp; and the officer in command was not long in sending him his reply, accompanied by an orderly.
"Are you General De Wet?" the orderly asked me.
"I am," replied I.
"My officer in command," he said in a polite but determined voice, "wishes me to tell you that we are a good hundred men strong, that we are well provided with food and ammunition, and that we hold a strong position in some houses and kraals. Every moment we are expecting ten thousand men from Belmont, and we are waiting here with the sole purpose of conducting them to Lord Roberts."
I allowed him to speak without interrupting him; but when he had finished, I answered him in quite as determined a voice as he had used to me.
"I will give you just enough time to get back and to tell your officer in command that, if he does not surrender at once, I shall shell him and storm his position. He will be allowed exactly ten minutes to make up his mind—then the white flag must appear."
"But where is your gun?" the orderly asked. In reply I pointed to the Maxim-Nordenfeldt, which stood a few hundred paces behind us, surrounded by some burghers.
"Will you give us your word of honour," he asked me when he caught sight of the gun, "not to stir from your position till we have got ten miles away? That is the only condition on which we will abandon our positions."
I again allowed him to finish, although his demand filled me with the utmost astonishment. I asked myself what sort of men this English officer imagined the Boer Generals to be.
"I demand unconditional surrender," I then said. "I give you ten minutes from the moment you dismount on arriving at your camp; when those ten minutes have passed I fire."
He slung round, and galloped back to his camp, the stones flying from his horse's hoofs.
He had hardly dismounted before the white flag appeared. It did not take us long to reach the camp, and there we found fifty-eight mounted men. These prisoners I despatched that evening to join the convoy.
I then advanced with my commando another six miles, with the object of watching Lord Roberts' movements, in case he should send a force back to retake the convoy he could so ill spare. But the following day we saw nothing except a single scouting party coming from the direction of Paardenberg's Drift. This proved to consist of the hundred burghers whom I had sent with Commandant Lubbe to General Cronje's assistance. I heard from Lubbe that General French had broken through, and had in all probability relieved Kimberley; and that General Cronje was retreating before Lord Roberts towards Paardeberg. I may say here that I was not at all pleased that Commandant Lubbe should have returned.
On account of Lubbe's information, I decided to advance at once in the direction of Paardenberg's Drift, and was on the point of doing so when I received a report from President Steyn. He informed me that I should find at a certain spot that evening, close to Koffiefontein, Mr. Philip Botha with a reinforcement of one hundred and fifty men. This report convinced me that the convoy I had captured would reach Edenberg Station without mishap, and accordingly I went after it to fetch back the gun which would no longer be needed. I found the convoy encamped about six miles from Koffiefontein. Immediately after my arrival, General Jacobs, of Fauresmith, and Commandant Hertzog, of Philippolis, brought the news to me that troops were marching on us from Belmont Station. I told Jacobs and Hertzog to return with their men, two or three hundred in number to meet the approaching English.
We were so well supplied with forage that our horses got as much as they could eat. I had, therefore, no hesitation in ordering my men to up-saddle at midnight, and by half-past two we had joined Vice-Vechtgeneraal Philip Botha. I had sent him word to be ready to move, so that we were able to hasten at once to General Cronje's assistance. Our combined force amounted to three hundred men all told.
[Footnote 17: A ravine or water-course.]
[Footnote 18: In the district of Jacobsdal.]
[Footnote 19: Biscuits.]
[Footnote 20: Mr. Philip Botha had just been appointed Vice-Vechtgeneraal.]
[Footnote 21: Brother to Judge Hertzog.]
An hour after sunrise we off-saddled, and heard, from the direction of Paardeberg, the indescribable thunder of bombardment. That sound gave us all the more reason for haste. We allowed our horses the shortest possible time for rest, partook of the most hurried of breakfasts, and at once were again on the move, with the frightful roar of the guns always in our ears.
About half-past four that afternoon, we reached a point some six miles to the east of Paardeberg, and saw, on the right bank of the Modder River, four miles to the north-east of the mountain, General Cronje's laager. It was surrounded completely by the enemy, as a careful inspection through our field-glasses showed.
Immediately in front of us were the buildings and kraals of Stinkfontein, and there on the opposite bank of the river stood Paardeberg. To the left and to the right of it were khaki-coloured groups dotted everywhere about—General Cronje was hemmed in on all sides, he and his burghers—a mere handful compared with the encircling multitude.
What a spectacle we saw! All round the laager were the guns of the English, belching forth death and destruction, while from within it at every moment, as each successive shell tore up the ground, there rose a cloud—a dark red cloud of dust.
It was necessary to act—but how?
We decided to make an immediate attack upon the nearest of Lord Roberts' troops, those which were stationed in the vicinity of Stinkfontein, and to seize some ridges which lay about two and a half miles south-east of the laager.
Stinkfontein was about a thousand paces to the north of these ridges, and perhaps a few hundred paces farther from where Cronje was stationed.
We rode towards the ridges, and when we were from twelve to fourteen hundred paces from Stinkfontein, we saw that the place was occupied by a strong force of British troops.
General Botha and I then arranged that he should storm the houses, kraals and garden walls of Stinkfontein, whilst I charged the ridges. And this we did, nothing daunted by the tremendous rifle fire which burst upon us. Cronje's pitiable condition confronted us, and we had but one thought—could we relieve him?
We succeeded in driving the English out of Stinkfontein, and took sixty of them prisoners.
The enemy's fire played on us unceasingly, and notwithstanding the fact that we occupied good positions, we lost two men, and had several of our horses killed and wounded.
We remained there for two and a half days—from the 22nd to the 25th of February—and then were forced to retire. While evacuating our positions, three of my burghers were killed, seven wounded, and fourteen taken prisoner.
But the reader will justly demand more details as to the surrender of Cronje, an event which forms one of the most important chapters in the history of the two Republics. I am able to give the following particulars.
After we had captured the positions referred to above, I gave orders that the Krupp and the Maxim-Nordenfeldt should be brought up. For with our hurried advance, the oxen attached to the big guns, as well as some of the burghers' horses, had become so fatigued, that the guns and a number of the burghers had been left behind. The ridges were so thickly strewn with boulders, that even on the arrival of the guns, it was impossible to place them in position until we had first cleared a path for them. I made up my mind to turn these boulders to account by using them to build schanzes, for I knew that a tremendous bombardment would be opened upon our poor Krupp and Maxim-Nordenfeldt as soon as they made themselves heard.
During the night we built these schanzes, and before the sun rose the following morning, the guns were placed in position.
By daybreak the English had crept up to within a short distance of our lines. It was the Krupp and the Maxim-Nordenfeldt that gave our answer.
But we had to be very sparing of our ammunition, for it was almost exhausted, and it would take at least five days to get a fresh supply from Bloemfontein.
Our arrival on the previous day had made a way of escape for General Cronje. It is true that he would have been obliged to leave everything behind him, but he and his burghers would have got away in safety. The British had retreated before our advance, thus opening a road between us and the laager. That road was made yet wider by the fire from our guns.
But General Cronje would not move. Had he done so, his losses would not have been heavy. His determination to remain in that ill-fated laager cost him dearly.
The world will honour that great general and his brave burghers; and if I presume to criticize his conduct on this occasion, it is only because I believe that he ought to have sacrificed his own ideas for the good of the nation, and that he should have not been courageous at the expense of his country's independence, to which he was as fiercely attached as I.
Some of the burghers in the laager made their escape, for, on the second day, when our guns had cleared a wide path, Commandants Froneman and Potgieter (of Wolmaranstadt), with twenty men, came galloping out of the laager towards us.
Although we were only a few in number, the British had their work cut out to dislodge us. First they tried their favourite strategy of a flanking movement, sending out strong columns of cavalry, with heavy guns to surround us. It was necessary to prevent the fulfilment of this project. I, therefore, removed the Krupp and the Maxim-Nordenfeldt from their positions, and divided our little force into three portions. I ordered the first to remain in their position, the second was to proceed with the Krupp round our left wing, while I despatched the third party to hold back the left wing of the British. I had no wish to share General Cronje's unenviable position.
We succeeded in checking the advance of the enemy's wings; and when he saw that we were not to be outflanked he changed his tactics, and while still retaining his wings where they were, in order to keep our men occupied, he delivered at mid-day, on the 20th, an attack on our centre with a strong force of infantry.
The result of this was that the British gained one of our positions, that, namely, which was held by Veldtcornet Meyer, an officer under Commandant Spruit. Meyer was entirely unable to beat off the attack, and, at nightfall, was compelled to retire about two or three hundred paces, to a little ridge, which he held effectively.
As the English took up the abandoned position, they raised a cheer, and Commandant Spruit, who was ignorant of its meaning, and believed that his men were still in possession, went there alone.
"Hoe gaat het?" he called out.
"Hands up!" was the reply he received.
There was nothing left for the Commandant to do but to give himself up. The soldiers led him over a ridge, and struck a light to discover his identity. Finding papers in his pocket which showed that their prisoner was an important personage, they raised cheer upon cheer.
I heard them cheering, and thought that the enemy were about to attempt another attack, and so gave orders that whatever happened our positions must be held, for they were the key to General Cronje's escape. However, no attack was delivered.
Nobody could have foreseen that two thousand infantry would give up the attack on positions which they had so nearly captured, and we all expected a sanguinary engagement on the following morning. We had made up our minds to stand firm, for we knew that if General Cronje failed to make his way out, it would be a real calamity to our great cause.
Fully expecting an attack, we remained all that night at our posts. Not a man of us slept, but just before dawn we heard this order from the English lines:
"What can be the meaning of this?" we ask one another.
Lying, sitting or standing, each of us is now at his post, and staring out into the darkness, expecting an attack every moment. We hold our breath and listen. Is there no sound of approaching footsteps? And now the light increases. Is it possible? Yes, our eyes do not deceive us. The enemy is gone.
Surprise and joy are on every face. One hears on all sides the exclamation, "If only Cronje would make the attempt now." It was the morning of the 25th of February.
But the enemy were not to leave us alone for long. By nine o'clock they were advancing upon us again, with both right and left wing reinforced. I had only a few shots left for the Krupp, and thirty for the Maxim-Nordenfeldt, and this last ammunition must now be expended on the wings. One gun I despatched to the right, the other to the left, and the English were checked in their advance. I had ordered the gunners, as soon as they had fired their last round to bring their guns into safe positions in the direction of Petrusberg. Very soon I observed that this order was being executed, and thus learnt that the ammunition had run out.
The burghers who, with their rifles, had attempted to hold back the wings, now having no longer any support from the big guns, were unable to stand their ground against the overpowering forces of the enemy, and shortly after the guns were removed, I saw them retreat.
What was I to do? I was being bombarded incessantly, and since the morning had been severely harassed by small-arm fire. All this, however, I could have borne, but now the enemy began to surround me. It was a hard thing to be thus forced to abandon the key to General Cronje's escape.
In all haste I ordered my men to retire. They had seen throughout that this was unavoidable, and had even said to me:
"If we remain here, General, we shall be surrounded with General Cronje."
All made good their retreat, with the exception of Veldtcornet Speller, of Wepener, who, to my great regret, was taken prisoner there with fourteen men. That occurred owing to my adjutant forgetting, in the general confusion, to give them my orders to retreat. When Speller found that he, with his fourteen men, was left behind, he defended himself, as I heard later, with great valour, until at last he was captured by overpowering numbers. It cost the English a good many dead and wounded to get him out of his schanzes.
Although I had foreseen that our escape would be a very difficult and lengthy business, I had not thought that we should have been in such danger of being made prisoners. But the English had very speedily taken up positions to the right and left, with guns and Maxims, and for a good nine miles of our retreat we were under their fire. Notwithstanding the fact that during the whole of this time we were also harassed by small-arm fire, we lost—incredible as it may appear—not more than one killed and one wounded, and a few horses besides. The positions which we had abandoned the British now occupied, hemming in General Cronje so closely that he had not the slightest chance of breaking through their lines.
No sooner had we got out of range of the enemy's fire, than the first of the reinforcements, which we had expected from Bloemfontein, arrived, under the command of Vechtgeneraal Andreas Cronje. With him were Commandants Thewnissen, of Winburg, and Vilonel, of Senekal.
A council was at once held as to the best method of effecting the release of General Cronje. It was decided to recapture the positions which I had abandoned. But now the situation was so changed that there were three positions which it was necessary for us to take. We agreed that the attack should be made by three separate parties, that General Philip Botha, with Commandant Thewnissen, should retake the positions which we had abandoned at Stinkfontein, General Froneman the position immediately to the north of these, and I, with General Andreas Cronje, others still further north.
The attack was made on the following morning. General Botha's attempt failed, chiefly owing to the fact that day dawned before he reached his position; a hot fight ensued, resulting in the capture of Commandant Thewnissen and about one hundred men. As I was so placed as to be unable to see how affairs were developing, it is difficult for me to hazard an opinion as to whether Commandant Thewnissen was lacking in caution, or whether he was insufficiently supported by General Botha. The burghers who were present at the engagement accused General Botha, while he declared that Thewnissen had been imprudent. However that may be, we had failed in our essay. The position had not been taken, and Commandant Thewnissen, with a hundred whom we could ill spare, were in the hands of the enemy, And to make matters still worse, our men were already seized with panic, arising from the now hopeless plight of General Cronje and his large force.
I, however, was not prepared to abandon all hope as yet. Danie Theron, that famous captain of despatch-riders, had arrived on the previous day with reinforcements. I asked him if he would take a verbal message to General Cronje—I dare not send a written one, lest it should fall into the hands of the English. Proud and distinct the answer came at once—the only answer which such a hero as Danie Theron could have given:
"Yes, General, I will go."
The risk which I was asking him to run could not have been surpassed throughout the whole of our sanguinary struggle.
I took him aside, and told him that he must go and tell General Cronje that our fate depended upon the escape of himself and of the thousands with him, and that, if he should fall into the enemy's hands, it would be the death-blow to all our hopes. Theron was to urge Cronje to abandon the laager, and everything contained in it, to fight his way out by night, and to meet me at two named places, where I would protect him from the pursuit of the English.
Danie Theron undertook to pass the enemy's lines, and to deliver my message. He started on his errand on the night of the 25th of February.
The following evening I went to the place of meeting, but to my great disappointment General Cronje did not appear.
On the morning of the 27th of February Theron returned. He had performed an exploit unequalled in the war. Both in going and returning he had crawled past the British sentries, tearing his trousers to rags during the process. The blood was running from his knees, where the skin had been scraped off. He told me that he had seen the General, who had said that he did not think that the plan which I had proposed had any good chance of success.
At ten o'clock that day, General Cronje surrendered. Bitter was my disappointment. Alas! my last attempt had been all in vain. The stubborn General would not listen to good advice.
I must repeat here what I have said before, that as far as my personal knowledge of General Cronje goes, it is evident to me that his obstinacy in maintaining his position must be ascribed to the fact that it was too much to ask him—intrepid hero that he was—to abandon the laager. His view was that he must stand or fall with it, nor did he consider the certain consequences of his capture. He never realized that it would be the cause of the death of many burghers, and of indescribable panic throughout not only all the laagers on the veldt, but even those of Colesberg, Stormberg and Ladysmith. If the famous Cronje were captured, how could any ordinary burgher be expected to continue his resistance?
It may be that it was the will of God, who rules the destinies of all nations, to fill thus to the brim the cup which we had to empty, but this consideration does not excuse General Cronje's conduct. Had he but taken my advice, and attempted a night attack, he might have avoided capture altogether.
I have heard men say that as the General's horses had all been killed, the attempt which I urged him to make must have failed—that at all events he would have been pursued and overtaken by Lord Roberts' forces. The answer to this is not far to seek. The English at that time did not employ as scouts Kaffirs and Hottentots, who could lead them by night as well as by day. Moreover, with the reinforcements I had received, I had about sixteen hundred men under me, and they would have been very useful in holding back the enemy, until Cronje had made his escape.
No words can describe my feelings when I saw that Cronje had surrendered, and noticed the result which this had on the burghers. Depression and discouragement were written on every face. The effects of this blow, it is not too much to say, made themselves apparent to the very end of the war.
[Footnote 22: "How is it with you?"]
[Footnote 23: Eleven or twelve days after, Commandant Spruit was again with us. When he appeared, he seemed to us like one risen from the dead. We all rejoiced, not only because he was a God-fearing man, but also because he was of a lovable disposition. I heard from his own mouth how he had escaped. He told me that the day after his capture, he was sent, under a strong escort, from Lord Roberts' Headquarters to the railway station at Modder River, and that he started from there, with a guard of six men on his road to Cape Town. During the night as they drew near De Aar, his guards fell asleep, and our brave Commandant prepared to leave the train. He seized a favourable opportunity when the engine was climbing a steep gradient and jumped off. But the pace was fast enough to throw him to the ground, though fortunately he only sustained slight injury. When daylight came he hid himself. Having made out his bearings he began to make his way back on the following night. He passed a house, but dared not seek admission, for he did not know who its occupants might be. As he had no food with him, his sufferings from hunger were great, but still he persevered, concealing himself during the day, and only walking during the hours of darkness. At last he reached the railway line to the north of Colesberg, and from there was carried to Bloemfontein, where he enjoyed a well-earned rest. In the second week of March he returned to his commando, to the great delight of everybody.]
The Wild Flight from Poplar Grove
The surrender of General Cronje only made me all the more determined to continue the struggle, notwithstanding the fact that many of the burghers appeared to have quite lost heart. I had just been appointed Commander-in-Chief, and at once set my hand to the work before me.
Let me explain how this came about.
As I have already said, General C.J. Wessels had been appointed Commander-in-Chief at Kimberley. In the month of January he was succeeded by Mr. J.S. Ferreira, who at once proceeded to make Kimberley his headquarters. On the relief of that town, one part of the besieging force went to Viertienstroomen, another in the direction of Boshof, while a small party, in which was the Commander-in-Chief himself, set out towards Koedoesrand, above Paardeberg.
It was while I was engaged in my efforts to relieve Cronje, that a gun accident occurred in which General Ferreira was fatally wounded. Not only his own family, but the whole nation, lost in him a man whom they can never forget. I received the sad news the day after his death, and, although the place of his burial was not more than two hours' ride from my camp, I was too much occupied with my own affairs to be able to attend his funeral.
On the following day I received from President Steyn the appointment of Vice-Commander-in-Chief. I had no thought of declining it, but the work which it would involve seemed likely to prove anything but easy. To have the chief command, and at such a time as this! But I had to make the best of it.
I began by concentrating my commandos, to the best of my ability, at Modderrivierpoort (Poplar Grove), ten miles east of the scene of Cronje's surrender. I had plenty of time to effect this, for Lord Roberts remained inactive from the 24th of February to the 7th of March, in order to rest a little after the gigantic task he had performed in capturing Cronje's laager. His thoughts must have been busy during that period with even more serious matters than the care of his weary troops; for, if we had had two hundred killed and wounded, he must have lost as many thousands.
Those few days during which our enemy rested were also of advantage to me in enabling me to dispose of the reinforcements, which I was now receiving every day, and from almost every quarter.
While I was thus engaged, I heard that General Buller had relieved Ladysmith on the 1st of March, that General Gatacre had taken Stormberg on the 5th, and that General Brabant was driving the Boers before him.
These were the first results of General Cronje's surrender.
But that fatal surrender was not only the undoing of our burghers; it also reinforced the enemy, and gave him new courage. This was evident from the reply which Lord Salisbury made to the peace proposals made by our two Presidents on March 5th. But more of this anon.
Our last day at Poplar Grove was signalized by a visit paid to us by President Kruger, the venerable chief of the South African Republic. He had travelled by rail from Pretoria to Bloemfontein; the remaining ninety-six miles of the journey had been accomplished in a horse-waggon—he, whom we all honoured so greatly, had been ready to undergo even this hardship in order to visit us.
The President's arrival was, however, at an unfortunate moment. It was March the 7th, and Lord Roberts was approaching. His force, extending over ten miles of ground, was now preparing to attack my burghers, whom I had posted at various points along some twelve miles of the bank of the Modder River. It did not seem possible for the old President even to outspan, for I had received information that the enemy's right wing was already threatening Petrusburg. But as the waggon had travelled that morning over twelve miles of a heavy rain-soaked road, it was absolutely necessary that the horses should be outspanned for rest. But hardly had the harness been taken off the tired animals when a telegram arrived, saying that Petrusburg was already in the hands of the English. President Kruger was thus compelled to return without a moment's delay. I saw him into his waggon, and then immediately mounted my horse, and rode to the positions where my burghers were stationed.
Again I was confronted with the baleful influence of Cronje's surrender. A panic had seized my men. Before the English had even got near enough to shell our positions to any purpose, the wild flight began. Soon every position was evacuated. There was not even an attempt to hold them, though some of them would have been almost impregnable. It was a flight such as I had never seen before, and shall never see again.
I did all that I could, but neither I nor my officers were able to prevent the burghers from following whither the waggons and guns had already preceded them. I tried every means. I had two of the best horses that a man could wish to possess, and I rode them till they dropped. All was in vain. It was fortunate for us that the advance of the English was not very rapid. Had it been so, everything must have fallen into their hands.
In the evening we came to Abraham's Kraal, a farm belonging to Mr. Charles Ortel, some eighteen miles from Poplar Grove. The enemy were encamped about an hour and a half's ride from us.
The next morning the burghers had but one desire, and that was to get away. It was only with the greatest difficulty that I succeeded in persuading them to go into position. I then hastened to Bloemfontein, in order to take counsel with the Government about our affairs generally, and especially to see what would be the most suitable positions to occupy for the defence of the capital. Judge Hertzog and I went out together to inspect the ground; we placed a hundred men in the forts, with Kaffirs to dig trenches and throw up earthworks.
I was back at Abraham's Kraal by nine o'clock on the morning of March the 18th. I found that our forces had been placed in position by Generals De la Rey, Andreas Cronje, Philip Botha, Froneman and Piet de Wet, the last-named having arrived with his commandos from Colesberg a few days before the rout at Poplar Grove.
We had not long to wait before fighting began, fighting confined for the most part to the artillery. The English shells were at first directed against Abraham's Kraal, which was subjected to a terrific bombardment; later on they turned their guns upon Rietfontein, where the Transvaalers and a part of the Free State commandos, under General De la Rey, were posted. The attack upon these positions was fierce and determined; but De la Rey's burghers, though they lost heavily, repulsed it with splendid courage. I will not say more of this. It is understood that General De la Rey will himself describe what he and his men succeeded in accomplishing on that occasion.
From ten in the morning until sunset the fight continued, and still the burghers held their positions. They had offered a magnificent resistance. Their conduct had been beyond all praise, and it was hard to believe that these were the same men who had fled panic-stricken from Poplar Grove. But with the setting of the sun a change came over them. Once more panic seized them; leaving their positions, they retreated in all haste towards Bloemfontein. And now they were only a disorderly crowd of terrified men blindly flying before the enemy.
But it was Bloemfontein that lay before them, and the thought that his capital was in peril might well restore courage in the most disheartened of our burghers. I felt that this would be the case, and a picture arose before me of our men holding out, as they had never done before.
Before going further I must say a few words about the peace proposals which our Presidents made to the English Government on the 5th of March. They called God to witness that it was for the independence of the two Republics, and for that alone, that they fought, and suggested that negotiations might be opened with the recognition of that independence as their basis.
Lord Salisbury replied that the only terms he would accept were unconditional surrender. He asserted, as he did also on many subsequent occasions, that it was our ultimatum that had caused the war. We have always maintained that in making this assertion he misrepresented the facts, to use no stronger term.
Naturally our Government would not consent to such terms, and so the war had to proceed.
It was decided to send a deputation to Europe. This deputation, consisting of Abraham Fissher, Cornelius H. Wessels, and Daniel Wolmarans, sailed from Delagoa Bay.
The reader may ask the object which this deputation had in view. Was it that our Governments relied on foreign intervention? Emphatically, no! They never thought of such a thing. Neither in his harangue to the burghers at Poplar Grove, nor in any of his subsequent speeches, did President Steyn give any hint of such an intention. The deputation was sent in order that the whole world might know the state of affairs in South Africa. It fulfilled its purpose, and was justified by its results. It helped us to win the sympathy of the nations.