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Viljoen: chapter 29 - A Dismal "Happy New Year."

This is the 31st of December, 1900, two days after the victory gained by our burghers over the English troops at Helvetia, at the same time the last day of the year, or, as they call it, "New Year's Eve"; which is celebrated in our country with great enjoyment. The members of each family used to meet on that day, sometimes coming from all parts of the country. If this could not be done they would invite their most intimate friends to come and see the Old Year out—to "ring out the old, and ring in the new," for "Auld Lang Syne." This was one of the most festive days for everybody in South Africa. On the 31st of December, 1899, we had had to give up our time-honoured custom, there being no chance of joining in the friendly gathering at home, most of us having been at the front since the beginning of October, 1899, while our commandos were still in the very centre of Natal or in the northern part of Cape Colony; Ladysmith, Kimberley, and Mafeking were still besieged, and on the 15th of December the great victory of Colenso over the English Army had been won.

It is true that even then we were far from our beloved friends, but those who had not been made prisoners were still in direct communication with those who were near and dear to them. And although we were unable to pass the great day in the family circle, yet we could send our best wishes by letter or by wire. We had then hoped it would be the last time we should have to spend the last day of the year under such distressing circumstances, trusting the war would soon be over.

Now 365 days had gone by—long, dreary, weary days of incessant struggle; and again our expectations had not been realised, and our hopes were deferred. We were not to have the privilege of celebrating "the Old and the New" with our people as we had so fervently wished the previous year on the Tugela.

The day would pass under far more depressing circumstances. In many homes the members of the family we left behind would be prevented from being in a festive mood, thinking as they were of the country's position, while mourning the dead, and pre-occupied with the fate of the wounded, of those who were missing, or known to be prisoners-of-war.

It was night-time, and everybody was under the depression of the present serious situation. Is it necessary to say that we were all absorbed in our thoughts, reviewing the incidents of the past year? Need we say that everyone of us was thinking with sadness of our many defeats, of the misery suffered on the battlefields, of our dead and wounded and imprisoned comrades; how we had been compelled to give up Ladysmith, Kimberley, and Mafeking, and how the principal towns of our Republics, Bloemfontein and Pretoria, where our beloved flag had been flying for so many long years, over an independent people, were now in the hands of the enemy? Need we say we were thinking that night more than ever of our many relatives who had sacrificed their blood  and treasure in this melancholy War for the good Cause; of our wives and children, who did not know what had become of us, and whom most of us had not seen for the last eight months. Were they still alive? Should we ever see them alive? Such were the terrible thoughts passing through our minds as we silently sat round the fires that evening.

Nor did anything tend to relieve the sombre monotony. This time we should not have a chance of receiving some little things to cheer us up and remind us that our dearest friends had thought of us. Our fare would that day be the eternal meat and mealies—mealies and meat.

But why call to mind all these sombre memories of the past? Sufficient unto the day it seems was the evil thereof. Why sum up the misery of a whole year's struggles? And thus we "celebrated" New Year's Eve of 1900, till we found our consolation in that greatest of blessings to a tired-out man—a refreshing sleep.

But no sooner had we risen next morning  than the cheerful compliments: "A Happy New Year!" or "My best wishes for the New Year" rang in our ears. We were all obviously trying to lay stress on the possible blessings of the future, so as to make each other forget the past, but I am afraid we did not expect the fulfilment of half of what we wished.

For well we knew how bad things were all round, how many dark clouds were hanging over our heads, and how very few bright spots were visible on the political horizon.

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