At last we meet General Olivier's troops, marching to the north-west. They appear to know nothing of the battle. Scarcely have we gone 100 metres with them before we are stopped by a battery, which opens fire upon us. The English form a semicircle round us. The situation is serious. We make off across the Veldt, towards the east, till far on in the night. We sleep on the ground, keeping a sharp look-out.
On the next day, Tuesday, at dawn, we set out again, describing a wide circle, first to the east, then to the north, and finally to the west. It proved lucky for us that we had done so, for we were behind the English columns marching on Brandfort and Winburg.
Finally, always making our way across the Veldt, we arrived at Brandfort on the 4th about eight o'clock in the morning.
Oh, how thankful we were to be in our camp and in our tents again! What a tub we had! what a breakfast! and what a sleep we look forward to when night comes!
While waiting for the preparation of a serious meal, we set to work to grill a few chops. They have scarcely been on the embers more than two minutes, when we hear Pom! pom! pom!
There is no time for breakfast. To horse! We swallow our raw cutlets, and gallop off.
Four men stay behind to strike the camp, and we take up a position to the south-east of Brandfort, on the kopjes that command the plain.
In the distance, about eight kilometres off, we see the English convoys already making for Brandfort. They are pretty confident.
To the right, a battery, of which we can distinguish the escort, silences the cannon nearest us by killing the gunners. Then a second battery advances at a trot on the left in the plain, and crosses the fire of the first.
The Boers watch this manoeuvre with great interest, discussing it and giving their opinions on it. Then, as the battery halts and takes up a position, slowly but surely, they all make for their horses.
Scarcely are the first shells fired before they are in their saddles, decamping at full speed.
Our two 75-millimetre guns come up, and throw a few shells from a distance, with no result.
It is always the same. They watch the enemy's operations without interfering, and when they want to act, it is too late.
It is two o'clock. Our waggons went off long ago, but the road is encumbered with a long string of vehicles.
The roads to Smaldeel and Winburg are cut off. There is an indescribable throng on the Veldt; each person is going in his own direction. The confusion is complete.
C---- and I go off to try and find our baggage, for since the 1st we have had no news of the trolley, which is with Michel and a few comrades. The rest of the carts may very well have been captured, like so many others, either near Winburg or near Smaldeel.
My friend, always full of foresight, had taken the precaution of putting a pot of peach jam in his pocket when we started in the morning. On this we dined without a scrap of biscuit.
Late in the evening we arrived at a farm, from whence we were shown the English outposts on a kopje opposite. During the night the owners of the farm went off in a cart. Kaffirs kept watch to warn us should any attempt be made on our refuge. We slipped away at daybreak, and arrived at Smaldeel towards noon on the 5th.
The retreat continued. Each day was marked by a skirmish, though no serious engagement took place except at Zand River on the 9th. There the fighting was pretty hot. The Boers of our right wing were driven back, while the Germans, who were in front, held the bed of the river, which makes an angle at this point. The English column advanced, greatly outnumbering the Germans, who were very nearly taken. They ordered the Boers to stand firm to allow them to disengage themselves, but the panic-stricken Burghers would not stop. Then, without receiving any orders, the Germans, moved by a feeling of deep and legitimate anger, once more summoned the fugitives to fight, and on their refusal, poured a volley into them at a distance of about 200 metres. Several fell; the rest, cowed by this prompt action, returned to their positions, held the English column in check for a few moments, and gave the Germans time to disengage themselves.
On the 12th French had arrived first at Kroonstad by one of his usual outflanking movements. The surprise had been complete. Fortunately our carts had left the day before.
Since the 8th Heilbron had become the seat of government of the Free State.
The Irish Brigade,[#] nearly all of whom were drunk after the sacking of the stores, had been made prisoners for the most part.
[#] A certain number of Irish, commanded by Colonel Blake, had taken service with the Boers under the name of the Irish Brigade.
The railway-station, which served as a commissariat store, had been burnt to the ground with all the provisions, which there had been no time to save.
Everyone was worn out. Lorentz had been shot in two places at Zand River; Wrangel too was wounded. Everywhere where resistance had been necessary the Boers had not stood against a dozen shells.
The retreat continued to Vereeniging; we arrived there on the 14th. The most contradictory rumours were freely circulated. On the 12th, Mafeking was said to have been taken by the Boers; on the 13th the news was confirmed; on the 14th it was denied.
The town, it appeared, had very nearly been taken by a hundred foreigners; but getting no support from the Boers, they had failed in their attempt, and seventy-two of them had been killed.
On the morning of the 17th we were said to have captured eighteen guns at Mafeking. The following telegram, signed by General Snyman, had even been published:
'This morning I had the good fortune to take prisoner Baden-Powell and his 900 men.'
In the evening it was reported that we had suffered a check, and had lost ten guns.
The last report was, unhappily, the only true one.
Baden-Powell, whom Lord Roberts had asked in April to hold on till May 18, had been relieved on the 17th, after a siege of 118 days.
The last few days, it seems, had been very hard ones, for on April 22 the ration had been reduced to 120 grammes of meat and 240 grammes of bread a day.
The little garrison had been greatly tried, losing more than half of its numbers during this siege, the longest in modern times after those of Khartoum (341 days) and Sebastopol (327 days), though a trifling affair as compared with the ten years of Troy, or the twenty-nine years of Azoth recorded by Herodotus.
We found our waggons awaiting us at Vereeniging on the 15th; we were thoroughly disgusted, as may be supposed. We had been retreating and retreating continuously, without a struggle, without an effort, offering no resistance.
However, we found that a Long Tom had been brought up, mounted on a truck. It was protected by a steel shield and a rampart of sandbags. A second truck, also casemated with logs and sandbags, served as a magazine for powder and shell. But the kind of armoured train thus formed remained idle in the railway-station.
I inquired whether we were to attempt an attack and push forward. The answer was that we could not venture to cross the Vaal with the gun, because it was feared that the Free State Boers, who were displeased at the war, might blow up the railway bridge while the 'armoured train' was in the Orange territory, and thus deliver it into the hands of the English. Such was the spirit of confidence that reigned!
In spite of all this, we wished to try once more to organize an effective foreign legion. De Malzan, a former officer in the German army, was appointed Adjutant of the Uitlanders' Corps under Blignault, by the Government of Pretoria; his commission was signed by Reitz and Souza. He went, his jaw still bandaged for a wound received at Platrand, to confer with General Botha. He was very badly received.
'I do not recognise anyone's right to make appointments. Blignault is not a General, and you are nothing at all. The Europeans can all go back to their own countries. I don't want them. My Burghers are quite enough for me'--a remark he might have spared the European legion, which, out of about 280, had in the last two months lost fifteen killed, nineteen prisoners and eighty-seven wounded on the battlefields of Boshof, Taba N'chu, Brandfort and Zand River.
Anxious to clear up the question definitively, I left my camp on the other side of the Vaal, and made for Pretoria on the evening of the 18th in a coal-truck.
On the 19th I found Lorentz there. He had been made a Colonel. We held a council of war--Lorentz, still lame from his two wounds; Wrangel, with his arm in a sling; Rittmeister Illich, the Austro-Hungarian, and myself. It was decided that we should lay before the President a scheme of organization, from which I will quote a passage, as it shows the state of mind in which we all were:
'We earnestly hope that on the lines we have laid down, and with the active support of the Government--which no one has yet obtained--a good result may be achieved.
'This plan, taking into account the rapidity with which events are following one upon another, depends for its success on the swiftness with which it is carried out. But we much fear that a fresh rebuff from the Government, after so many others, would irrevocably discourage its well-wishers.'
* * * * *
We obtained an interview with De Korte, who had influence. He approved the plan, but feared to see it fail, like so many others. Our representations became more and more pressing.
On the 24th I went to Johannesburg to see Dr. Krause, who is also influential. He was very amiable, but irresolute, and did not know what to say.
* * * * *
The English continued to advance. A despatch-rider came to tell me that my convoy had arrived. It joined me, indeed, at Johannesburg on the 26th, without any 'boys,' all of them having deserted; the waggons battered and broken by fording the rivers, the beasts dead or exhausted by a journey without rest or food, the men worn out by continual vigilance, and by their double duties as 'boys' and combatants, disgusted at the retreat and the disorder.
Many of them laid down their arms, and found work at the cartridge-factory and in the mines at from twenty-five to thirty shillings a day. One, more desperate than the rest, left his arms with us, and went off to the English lines to surrender. Only a very few remained, waiting for the President's decision as a last resource.
The Landdrost allots a piece of waste ground to the twenty mules, twenty-one oxen, thirty-two horses and two 'boys,' which constitute the debris of our convoy. The men find lodging where they can.
On Sunday, the 27th, one of my men arrived from Pretoria with a letter from Lorentz, dated Saturday morning. The scheme had been signed and approved. Afterwards he handed me a proclamation by Lorentz, dated the evening of the same day. At two o'clock everything was retracted and refused. Furious and despairing, Colonel Lorentz adjured all the foreigners to lay down their arms:
'As the honourable Government of the Z.A.R. cannot accede to our modest but just demands, we, the foreigners of various nationalities, being without means of livelihood, are no longer in a position to sacrifice our lives for the maintenance of the Federated Republics.
'I, the under-signed, hitherto commandant of the international corps, hereby invite all persons who voluntarily joined me to lay down their arms on Tuesday, May 29, 1900, at ten o'clock in the morning, at the Old Union Club at Pretoria, or at any other place where they may happen to be.
'(Signed) C. LORENTZ. 'HAUPTMANN v. L.'
I hesitated to show the proclamation to my companions, they were already so depressed.
On the morning of Monday, the 28th, a policeman, furnished with an order from the Landdrost, requisitioned our beasts at the grazing-ground without even giving us notice. I believe he sold them. I had almost certain proof of this later on. We never found them again.
In the night three of our waggons out of the five were pillaged in spite of the man on guard. Such behaviour to Europeans who were being cut up into mincemeat for them! ... It was too much! The cup was full. I handed Lorentz's proclamation to the men. It did not raise a regret; they were all sick of the business.
Those in authority had refused them a few shillings, scarcely the pay of a Kaffir, of which they were sorely in need, for they were utterly destitute, and had not the means to escape from the English and return to their countries.
And now the authorities were taking advantage of our exhaustion to steal our horses--under a pretext of legality--to give, or, rather, to sell them to Boers who were going back quietly to their farms. For if a few thousand still stood their ground, the majority had lost heart, and had returned to their homes, only leaving them when their wives, more patriotic than themselves, drove them back to the front.
It was generally the old men, those who had taken part in the 'Great Treks,' who set the example of resistance. These men have inherited the virtues of their ignorant and rustic ancestors. If they can read at all, the Bible is their only book; and even if they cannot read it, they know its grand pages, and try to live up to its precepts.
Many Burghers of the younger generation, on the other hand, have inhabited towns; they have become greedy of gain, very English in their habits and customs, and have lost the principal virtues of their race, substituting for them the faults, often much aggravated, of those who have given them the shady civilization of South African cities.
In the army of Natal, round about Amajuba, there were seven guns and about 200 men. Of these just six were Burghers, the rest were Afrikanders and foreigners. And while former officers and non-commissioned officers of the European artillery were begging for cannon, two of these seven guns were idle for want of men to serve them.
They prefer to leave them thus rather than to give them over to foreigners. I was told this by a Burgher, an artilleryman of twenty, who was going to his post. I travelled with him from Pretoria to Elandsfontein on the morning of May 24. He himself did not conceal his indignation at this method of proceeding.
At Pretoria the Government had given up all pretence of action. A general panic seemed to reign. Rumour reported that influential persons were mainly occupied in dividing the public money among themselves.
It is a fact that none of the tradespeople, whether they were hotel-keepers who had lodged and fed troops on presentation of requisition warrants, or dealers in clothes and provisions, had been paid. They all now declined to lodge persons or provide goods for the State.
A woman, Mrs. S. D., who had had a contract for saddles, was obliged, after many fruitless appeals, to enter the Government offices horsewhip in hand, like Louis XIV. when he intimidated his Parliament.
Thanks to this vigorous proceeding, she received a credit-note, on which a certain number of bars of gold were given her, for the national bank-notes had fallen to about two-thirds of their nominal value. But this was an exceptional case, and most of the trades-people were less fortunate.
What became of the gold that for eight months was taken out of seven mines working for the State? No one knows!
It is true that, from the highest functionary to the humblest Burgher, all were intent on the most shameless pillage. I saw army contractors, on whom no sort of check existed, charged with the provision of every kind of necessary, food, clothing, horses, oxen, etc., and making fine fortunes in no time; while the honest and worthy Boer received from the State horses and harness which he afterwards sold to it again with the utmost coolness.
I know, too, that very large sums were devoted to a press propaganda in favour of the South African Republics. And how many skilful middlemen, by means of round sums judiciously distributed, secured orders for the most expensive and useless commodities!
In all countries and in all ages it is notorious that out of ten army contractors nine are thieves and one is a rogue, especially in war-time. Their depredations date back to the institution of armies, and the Boer contractors had only to follow on a path already clearly marked out for them by their European confreres. But few of these have displayed such a degree of proficiency in their calling.
I might quote the case of a famous Parisian firm of balloonists, to which nearly 10,000 francs were paid in ready money for waterproof silk, cord, and various utensils for the construction of a balloon. An aeronaut was also engaged at a salary of 2,000 francs a month, all expenses paid, and when he arrived at Machadodorp, where the President was at the time, he was greeted with:
'A balloon? What for?'
After awaiting a solution for three weeks, the aeronaut returned to France, noting on his return journey a number of stray packages on the quay at Lourenco Marques. They contained the silk and the rest of the apparatus.
It was by a scientific application of these Boer principles that Mrs. S. D. came by the very pretty sum we have seen her collecting with her horsewhip!
She had engaged to deliver 500 saddles a week at L10 each; but a good many of the Burghers to whom the saddles were distributed sold them back to the worthy lady's agents for L4 or L5, and she then sold them again to the State, after changing the more conspicuous of them a little. So that these wretched saddles were always reappearing on the scene, as in a review at the Chatelet; but each of their migrations brought in a solid sum to Mrs. D----.
It is not difficult to see why there was no money for the combatants.