Late that evening I heard someone outside the tent asking where the hospital was. It was my father. We had no idea of meeting each other here, as I had parted from him in Johannesburg before the war began, when he had no intention of going to Natal. He himself had been under the impression that I was still at Ladysmith.
He told me he had come to see my young cousin, Johannes, who had been wounded on Spion Kop the day before. We walked over to the hospital. The wounded lad, a frail boy of fifteen, looked terribly exhausted lying there on the floor, his left arm completely shattered.
"We were two together," he said, "myself and another boy. We crept closer and closer to one of the small sangars, firing into it as we crept, until there was only one Englishman left alive in it. He called out 'Water!' and I ran to give him my flask. When I got close to him he pointed his gun at me and fired. I sprang aside, and the bullet ploughed up my arm. My chum then shot him dead. Our doctor was too busy with the English officers to attend to me, so I fear I shall lose my arm."
Poor child! his fear was only too well founded. His arm was amputated, after which he went to his uncle's farm to recuperate. When the British arrived there he would not surrender, but took his gun and went on commando. Three days later he was brought in, shot through the lungs. That is the last I have been able to hear of him.
A few days after the battle of Spion Kop we moved forward and opened another office on our right wing. The British soon after retired from the vicinity, and this wing was withdrawn. The office remained, however, being utilised by scouts and patrols for the transmission of urgent reports.
One day Oberst von Braun called, accompanied by two Boers. I asked him what had become of his lieutenant.
"Ah, poor von B——!" he said. "The fighting on Spion Kop was almost over, and he had just risen and walked forward a few steps, when a chance bullet crashed into his forehead, and he fell a corpse."
This was the same lieutenant who had caused a great sensation in Germany a few years before by killing an unarmed civilian in a moment of provocation. It may seem a just retribution that he should have met with such a tragic fate, but those who knew him in Natal felt nothing but regret for his loss. Oberst von Braun was taken prisoner a few days after, and the British reported that his mind was unhinged. This did not appear improbable to us, for we knew how much he had been affected by the loss of his companion.
I stayed here for three weeks, without much occupation except wasting ammunition on turtle doves and hoping that the next patrol would not be a British instead of a Boer one.
The deserted houses in the neighbourhood had all been visited in turn by both British and Boer patrols, and between the two enormous damage had been wrought. It must be pointed out, however, that the mischief done by our men was in no way authorised—was, in fact, against express orders, whereas the British now burn our houses to the joyful fiddling of the London Times, and with a righteous unction eminently national.
A small but remarkably severe engagement took place about this time, in which a portion of Viljoen's men suffered heavily.
This detachment, about forty in number, was guarding a Nordenfeldt stationed in an advanced position on an isolated hill. One afternoon a large body of the enemy suddenly attacked the hill. Ben Viljoen, who, as usual, was on the spot, is not what may be called an excessively pious man, but he rose to the occasion and inspired his little band by asking them if they did not fear God more than the British. Thus encouraged to stand firm, they bravely held the hill till fully half their number were killed. There was no hoisting of the white flag, however, our men at that time generally preferring almost certain death to surrender. This instance was no exception. Every man got out as best he could, Commandant Viljoen himself racing out with the gun.
Our cannon now shelled the hill furiously. The British ambulance tried to reach our wounded, but the fire was too hot. This bombardment kept on for two days, when the enemy retired, whereupon we again took possession of the hill. Two or three of our wounded were found to be still alive, but with their wounds in a terrible state of putrefaction. Imagine their sufferings during those two awful days of heat, thirst, and exposure, to say nothing of the shells continually exploding around them. They were brought into camp and ultimately recovered. For all I know, they may be fighting still. This little affair is known to the British as the battle of Vaalkrantz.
When they heard that their son had gone safely through the battle of Spion Kop an old Free State farmer and his wife came down to pay him a visit The son then accompanied his mother home, the old man taking his place for a few days. One day some artillerists were engaged in their favourite pastime of burning out unexploded lyddite shells, when one of the shells burst, killing three men. As fate would have it, the old father in question was one of the three.
Another peculiar accident happened on Spion Kop, whilst the rifles of the killed and wounded soldiers were being collected. One of the rifles lay under a corpse. Seizing the weapon by the muzzle, a young Boer attempted to draw it toward him. The charge went off and lodged in his stomach, inflicting a fatal wound. The soldier had been killed in the act of taking aim, and his finger had stiffened round the trigger. The young fellow thus killed by a dead man was the only son of his widowed mother.