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Already he had three thousand men, and more were riding in daily. Things were, therefore, shaping better and there was, at any rate, a visible recovery from the deplorable conditions that had held during the retreat through the Free State.
At this stage, remnants of the Natal commandos began to come through. The forces we had left there had been driven out, much as we had been hustled from tile Free State, and had endured the same humiliations. Thousands of the weaker men had surrendered or gone home, and in many cases entire commandos had melted like snow, whilst those that did remain were mere skeleton formations. The remainder, however, were seasoned fighting men, and nearly two thousand of them joined General Botha here, bringing his total force up to five thousand or more.
One evening I saw a Natal contingent approaching over the hills. When they reached us the men turned out to be the remnant of our old Pretoria commando, now dwindled to about one hundred and fifty, amongst whom were many old friends of the Ladysmith days. The burgher-right men had deserted in a body, and the commando had lost heavily in killed and wounded since we had left them. Mr Zeederberg, the Field-Cornet, had broken down in health; and one Max Theunissen, a young fellow of twenty-five, was in command.
Old General Maroola, they said, and his brother Swart Lawaai, had been deposed, but they had remained in the field and were serving as privates with some other commando.
I had got on well enough with von Goldeck and the Germans, but I decided to return to the Pretoria men. My brother Hjalmar preferred to stay where he was, so I said good-bye, and rode away with my roan horse and the little Basuto pony to join my former unit. The morning after we moved off, going south over the plains for two days and then bending round so as to make for the railway line between Pretoria and Johannesburg, as Max Theunissen was under orders to destroy the English communications. There were, however, so many English soldiers guarding the track that we never got within five miles of it, and for the next fortnight we wandered about searching for an opportunity that did not come. The English troops clamped about Pretoria occasionally flung a few long-range shells at us, but otherwise there was nothing of importance.
While we were operating in this quarter I had unexpected word of the A.C.C. We were taking cover one morning in a hill from the shell-fire of a column that had appeared, when two burghers galloped up to sock shelter. They be-longed to the A.C.C., and when I asked after the others they pointed to a farm far out on the plain, where they said Commandant Malan and the rest were off-saddled, so when they rode away I went along with them, partly to see my old companions, and partly to explain to Commandant Malan about my brothers and myself.
To reach the farm we had to ride across the front of the English column, but they let us go in peace, and I was soon shaking hands with Malan and his men. A little later, the English force moved nearer, and began to drop Lyddite shells from a howitzer posted on a distant rise. This caused the worst incident I saw in the war. For a time the shells burst harmlessly on open ground, but as the aim grew truer, Commandant Malan ordered us to take cover, and we distributed ourselves behind the garden wall and behind the wall of a small dam that stood near the dwelling-house.
By the wall of the dam was a huge willow tree, in the rear of which seven men of the A.C.C. took station. Suddenly a shell hit the bole about two feet from the ground and, passing right through the tree, exploded as it emerged on the other side. The result was terrible, for the seven unfortunate men were blown to pieces which strewed the ground for thirty yards beyond. They were so mangled that, when the English gun ceased firing, their remains had to be collected with a shovel, a most sickening spectacle. And a further trial was in store for the A.C.C. After the howitzer had gone, Commandant Malan mounted his horse and with a few men rode up towards the English troops to fire the intervening grass. Half an hour later, as I was returning to the Pretoria commando, I saw by the way in which his men were standing that something was wrong, so I galloped up to find him lying with a rifle bullet in his throat, and he died in a few minutes, and any lingering idea I may have had of rejoining the A.C.C. now vanished, for they seemed under an unlucky star. For another week or to the general military situation remained quiet; British columns came from Pretoria now and then, but they were only on the prowl, and there was no serious fighting.
This spell of calm was invaluable, for it gave the Boer leaders breathing space in which to reorganize their scattered forces, and it gave the men time to recover from the demoralizing effect of the long retreats, with the result that when Lord Roberts resumed operations in the middle of July a far better spirit prevailed.
The British advance started early one morning on a broad front. We of the Pretoria commando took up a position in the nearest kopjes, but before long were so heavily shelled that we withdraw, the other commandos also falling back. The direction in which the English were moving was east along both sides of the Delagoa Bay rail-way line. Up to now this way to the Portuguese port had been open and the Transvaal Government had been importing supplies on a large scale, but apparently Lord Roberts intended to close this final loophole and cut us off completely from the outer world.
Accordingly great numbers of troops, apparently more than thirty thousand, moved to right and left of the railway, sweeping us easily before them. They were spread fanwise over a distance of fifteen miles, and as the usual curtain of scouts approached, followed by shell-fire from the guns moving up behind, we pursued the same methods that we had employed in the Free State, fading back from hill to hill and rise to rise, firing when opportunity offered, but not really fighting. In this manner we retreated for four or five days, by which time the English had pushed us along the railway line through the town of Middelburg, and right up to Belfast village forty miles beyond. On the night we reached this place there was such a press on the road that in the dark I lost the Pretoria men. By next morning they were nowhere to be seen, but, as I was getting accustomed to quick changes of commando, I joined a body of Boksburgers who happened to be passing. They were part of a larger force under that same Commandant Gravett with whom I had gone down to the river the day before Johannesburg was taken.
Boksburg is a small mining village on the Reef, and the Boksburg men for some reason or other were known as 'Gravett's Guinea Fowls' (Gravettse tarantaal-koppe), a title in which they took great pride. Gravett was of English extraction, a fine big man, greatly liked and trusted by all. He was killed a month or two later, and I was with him when he died. In the company of the 'Guinea Fowls' I trekked from Belfast to Dalmanutha, another forty miles up the line. After being marched about for some days over mountainous country, we were allotted a position on the edge of the escarpment near Machadodorp, where General Botha intended making a stand athwart the Delagoa railway.
Along this crest he was going to fight a last pitched battle before taking to guerilla war. All through the retreat we knew that sooner or later it was planned to break away from before the advance and scatter in smaller bands, and this knowledge had kept the men in good heart. Although they had been badly harried, there was no tendency to dissolve as had been the case in the Free State, and when they were called upon to make a final stand they were willing enough. The position General Botha had selected was a natural fortress. Between us and the enemy there stretched a level plain that could be swept by rifle-fire, and immediately behind us the ground fell steeply into a valley, giving excellent cover for men and horses. We were practically on the farthest rim of the high veld, for a few miles back the country drops into the malarial lowlands that lie towards the Portuguese border. The British had come to a temporary halt at Belfast, and for a week there was no sign of them. Towards the end of that time, while I was working on the defences, I saw the Pretoria commando come riding up, and with them were my two elder brothers Hjalmar and Joubert. Needless to say we were all three glad to be together again, and I at once took leave of the Boksburgers in order to join them.
The Pretoria men were given a portion of the line close by, and at sunrise on the next day heavy dust-clouds arose in the distance, and before long masses of British infantry appeared on the skyline.
They were calculated to be thirty-six thousand strong (but it is difficult to count infantry on the march), and within an hour their skirmishers were firing, and their batteries were unlimbering almost within rifle-range of us.
By ten a heavy bombardment was in full swing, although no actual advance was attempted, as they evidently intended first to batter down our works.
This lasted until sunset, but our cover was so good that the casualties were nowhere heavy, and the Pretoria commando went scot-free. By dark it had all died down, and we passed a quiet night lying around our fires. Next day the programme was repeated. We were shelled to such an extent that one dared scarcely look over the edge of the breastworks for the whirring of metal and the whizzing of bullets. Several of our men were wounded, and my brother Hjalmar was shot below the eye. My other brother led him down into the valley, for he was partially blinded, and there placed him on his horse and rode with him for the nearest medical assistance.
This second day of the bombardment was a crowded one. Shortly after my brothers had left there was an earth-quake, the first I had ever experienced. It came with a loud rumbling, and the ground rocked beneath us like a ship, while stone fell from the works, causing much alarm, for disturbances of this kind are practically unknown in South Africa. We thus suffered a bombardment from above and an earthquake from below at one and the same time, and this remained a topic for wondering discussion months afterwards. When it was over, a Lyddite shell from a howitzer dropped almost on top of me. It was like another earthquake. I was stunned for several minutes, and, after that, lay for a while in a semi-conscious state, hardly knowing whether I was dead or alive.
In the afternoon a detachment of infantry came down a defile on our left. We saw them in time to drive them back, killing and wounding about fifteen, but owing to the cross-fire we could not reach the fallen men until some time after dark, when we groped our way to get their rifles and equipment. The night was so cold that we found only three soldiers alive, some wounded, who might otherwise have survived, having died of exposure. We carried the three men back, and laid them by a fire, where one more died before morning.
As soon as it grew light on the third day, the bombardment recommenced more furiously than ever, but, instead of being spread all over our front, it was concentrated on that section held by the Johannesburg Police, a mile to our right. Tremendous gun-fire was poured on them, and from the massing of the infantry columns we knew that a crisis was at hand. The police behaved splendidly. Twice they threw back the attacks, and hung on doggedly under some of the fiercest pounding of the war. While this was going on the rest of us could do little, and for the most part we sat perched on our scanses watching the struggle. By sunset the police were all but annihilated, and in the dusk we saw the English infantry break into their positions. Here and there a hunted man went running down the slope behind, but the majority of the defenders were killed. Our line being broken, we had to give way too, and after dark General Botha ordered a withdrawal. We fetched our horses from the valley below, and fell back for two or three miles before halting for the night.
Next morning we made for Machadodorp, long-range shell-fire accompanying us. We found the village deserted, the movable capital having left the day before for Watervalonder below the berg.
Beyond Machadodorp a single road climbs the last range, and from here one can look down upon the low country. As this was the only avenue of retreat, we soon found ourselves travelling among a medley of burghers, guns, wagons, and a great crowd of civilian refugees fleeing with their flocks and herds and chattels. It was pitiful to see this exodus, for the English brought their guns up with great speed and the road was heavily shelled over at times, as the wagons with women and children came under fire, but on the whole their behaviour was good, and in the end the shelling proved more unpleasant than dangerous.
After a while the Transvaal Artillery managed to get a battery of Creusot guns into action, which held up the advance sufficiently long to enable the non-combatants with their wagons, carts, and animals to get out of range, after which we too moved slowly up the mountain. I had a narrow escape when we halted to rest our horses. I was sitting on an ant-heap reading a book, when someone called to me that my roan horse was in trouble. He was plucking grass some distance off and had got his legs entangled in the reins, so I went to free him. While I was away a shell burst on the ant-heap, blowing holes in my book, and tearing up the mound itself.
We spent the night at Helvetia on the mountain, and next morning rode down the pass to Watervalonder, a drop of two thousand feet in less than three miles. The British appeared above the berg an hour or two later, but did not follow us down, so we wended our way at leisure.
At Watervalonder the railway comes out of a tunnel from the high country, and here, standing beside the line, were my father and my brother Hjalmar. They had come from Machadodorp by train the day before and were halted to let the engine get up steam, after which they were to be hauled farther down with other officials and a number of wounded. Hjalmar had a bloody bandage over his eye like a pirate, but otherwise he made light of his hurt. our remaining two brothers were missing, but we were so continuously losing and finding each other nowadays that their absence caused us no undue anxiety, as we felt they would turn up sooner or later.
After a while the engine-driver ran up to say that he was going off, so my father and brother had to climb on board, and I continued down the road behind the retreat which was crowding the long valley that runs towards the Godwall River.
By dark I caught up with the Pretoria commando, and we spent the night pleasantly encamped beside a stream. Since morning we had at one stride descended from the bleak highlands to the warmer climate of the low country, and I for one spent the first comfortable night for many weeks.
Next day the Boer forces retired still farther down the valley to Nooitgedacht, where about two thousand English prisoners were confined in a camp. They were lining the barbed-wire enclosure beside the railway line to watch us go by, and were in high spirits, for they knew that they were to be liberated that day. They exchanged good-natured banter with us as we passed, although one of them, less amiable than the rest, said to me: 'Call this a retreat? I call it a bloody rout!' I must say it looked like it, for by now the English advance was on our heels once more, and the narrow valley road was thronged with horsemen, wagons and cattle, all moving rearward in chaos. With the Boers, however, appearances are often deceptive - what might seem to be a mob of fugitives one day, might well prove to be a formidable fighting force on the next, and the soldier who spoke to me little thought that the men pouring by in disorderly flight were yet to test the endurance and the patience of Great Britain to its utmost.
We now headed down along the banks of the Godwan River for another twenty-five miles, by which time the pursuit had slackened, and for the next three days we lay in peace amid beautiful surroundings of mountain and forest. The English probably thought that General Botha meant to cross over into Portuguese territory for internment, rather than surrender, so they lay on their arms and rested. But General Botha intended far otherwise. One morning my father came up by special train from Nelspruit, where another temporary capital had been established, and he told us that the Commandant-General was going to strike north into the wilds. He would then make for the mountains beyond Lydenburg where the forces were to be reorganised for the carrying on of guerrilla warfare.
My father had really come up to see how my brothers and I were getting on, but I was the only one there. Hjalmar was at an ambulance recovering from his wound -Joubert had not returned since he had ridden back to the fighting at Dalmanutha, and the youngest was wherever the Russian ambulance wagons had gone, so that at the moment we were a pretty scattered family.
My father remained with me for the day, and then steamed back down the valley. Unfortunately the engine that brought him ran over and killed my poor little Basuto pony. Besides having served me faithfully since the first day of the war, he was an intimate link with our old home life, for he had come with us from the Free State as a foal, and the loss of this loyal companion was a great blow to me. However, there was not much time for repining, as the English resumed their advance early next morning. The commandos fell back at once; some retired down the valley, but others slipped into the mountains. Among the latter was the Pretoria commando, which climbed up to a place called Devil's Kantoor, where we arrived that night. The Pretoria men had for some days been discussing the question of doubling back to the high veld. They felt drawn towards their own part of the world, and wished to return to where they might get occasional word of their families left behind in Pretoria: so they now held a meeting and decided to break away along bridle-paths through the mountains. I refused to accompany them, as my father and brothers were ahead, so I said good-bye, and soon they were riding off into the dark. I did not see them again, but they succeeded in making their way back to their own district, where such of them as were not killed or captured remained in the field to the end of the war. I myself joined a party of burghers whom I found on the mountain, and in their company I rode all night, until dawn found us far down on the plain that runs by Barberton towards Kaap-muiden. Beyond this we got into rugged country and, travelling slowly, reached Hectorspruit in three days' time.
This was the last railway station before the Portuguese border, and here lay nearly five thousand horsemen awaiting General Botha's orders. We had shaken off the English army by fifty or sixty miles, and I found all three of my brothers there before me. Hjalmar's wound was better and Arnt had so far recovered that he could sit a horse, while Joubert was none the worse for his wanderings during the retreat. My father was missing, but he arrived two days later. He had abandoned his railway coach owing to a stoppage on the line, and had come across the difficult area above Crocodilepoort on horseback, so our family was united again for the first time after several months.
General Botha now got everything ready. Surplus guns were destroyed or thrown into the Crocodile River, and the sick and wounded were sent over the Portuguese border, while such stores as had been accumulated were distributed among the men or else burnt. Then, on a morning early an September (1900) he led the way into the uncharted bush to begin a new phase of the war.