I purpose to chronicle in the following pages my experiences of the war between the Boers and the English. It is my object to record what I went through on commando, and to give the reader an idea, according to my own observation, of the struggles and sufferings of a small nation against the overwhelming odds of an Empire—nay, against the world itself.
For was it not against the world that the little nation fought?
Think of it. Not only did England have 240,000 men in the field against 45,000 of the two South African Republics; not only did she have more guns than the two little States, much more ammunition, a much greater amount of supplies, a great many more horses, much more money—but she had the world also on her side. The world looked on the strife without putting forth a hand to help the weak against the strong: nay, it helped the strong. The United States of North America sold horses and wheat and meat to the mighty Empire, that was carrying on a war of extermination against the two small States in South Africa; the Republics of South America gave mules; Austria and Russia supplied horses. I do not forget, when I say this, the large sympathy which the world showed us. I should be guilty of the most heinous ingratitude if I did not acknowledge that the world, and especially Holland, went out of its way in liberally supplying clothing and large sums of money to our women and children in the concentration camps, and to the prisoners of war on the islands. But England had the advantage of a market almost wherever she wished to buy; and she closed up every avenue through which we might have been aided. And so the little nation stood alone, while its great adversary was assisted from the four corners of the earth.
Now I purpose to put on record my experiences in this strife. I will do so as well as I can. What I have to relate, however, will by no means be a history of the war.—We shall not have a history of the war until our children write it.—No, I am not going to write a history: I am going to record my limited experiences. You will not find here, for instance, anything about the events which happened at Stormberg or Magersfontein, or about the taking of Bloemfontein or Pretoria. I was not present at those events. Only on that of which I was an eye-witness, or on what took place in the commando to which I belonged at the time, or what came to my notice shortly after its occurrence—only on that will I report in these pages.
But let me tell you before I proceed, that I accompanied the burghers only as a minister of the Dutch Reformed Church. I was never armed. I never took part in a fight as a soldier. I never meddled with military matters. All that, I felt, lay outside of my province. And yet, as will appear in what follows, I fought in the great fight. I was often in action, and if I carried no arms, I carried a pouch of bandages. My presence in a fight gave heart to some and eased the pain of others. I fought, too, in another way: I encouraged the burghers in every service I held, just as every chaplain ought to do, and admonished them to persevere in the great fight. But I never forgot that I was a minister of religion. Every Sunday, and whenever I had an opportunity in the week, I conducted divine service, taking, as a rule, my text from the Old Testament. Besides this I devoted myself to ambulance work, without, however, ever wearing a Red Cross on my sleeve.
I need not say that I was heart and soul one with the great cause of the Republics. Nothing lay nearer to my heart than their welfare; and when it appeared that war was imminent, and that it would be disastrous to my people, it weighed upon my mind like lead.
War?—Ay, war! I feared a collision with England from the moment that Sir Alfred Milner proved at the Bloemfontein Conference that nothing could satisfy him. I became convinced then of what I had all along suspected, but would not believe, that the object of England was not to see that the Uitlander should obtain his rights, but that the two Republics should be annihilated, and that the map of South Africa should, as Rhodes had put it, be painted red.
These suspicions of mine soon proved not to have been unfounded.
President Kruger had consented, at last, to grant the franchise to Uitlanders, after a residence of five years in the country; and everybody thought now that war was averted, and that there would be a peaceful adjustment of the differences between England and the South African Republic. But England did not want that. England wanted the Transvaal. Contrary to the expectations of everyone, the British Government did not accept the proposal of President Kruger, and said that it would dictate its own terms. It was speedily seen that England intended to do this by force of arms, for numbers of British troops had begun to mass on the boundaries of the two Republics.
At last England got what it had been seeking—a palpable causa belli, in the Ultimatum which the Transvaal Government, wearied to death, at last issued.
Both Boers and Britishers have declared that it was a fatal mistake on the part of the Transvaal to issue the Ultimatum. The Boers said that President Kruger should have waited until England had begun hostilities; and the English protested that there would have been no war, if there had been no Ultimatum. Lord Salisbury, especially, has never wearied in his attempt to make the world believe that England went to war with the Republics solely because of the insult offered by the Ultimatum; and that the two States themselves had by that act made it impossible for the British Government to permit them to retain their independence.
But the world knows better.
The world knows that it was England, not the Republics, that began the quarrel, when, contrary to the terms of the Convention of 1884, she interfered with the internal affairs of the South African Republic; when later on she would listen to no proposal of the Transvaal Government, and when she began sending troops to the boundaries of the two States. The world can comprehend also that the Republics could not wait until England had completed the massing of her troops on the borders, to wake up one morning and find themselves invaded from every side. The world, too, knows what must be said of the blow which falls in a manner mechanically, after unendurable provocation. And posterity, sitting in judgment, will pass its verdict on the Ultimatum. It will say that it was a protest against wrong and oppression. It will hear a little people speaking through that Ultimatum to a great nation: "Thou art great and mighty, and thou wouldst set thy foot upon my neck; but I declare here before the whole world that Might is not Right; and I defy thee!"
I cannot enter into a discussion here of the question whether the South African Republic wronged the Uitlanders. But if this had been the case, was England then the knight-errant among the nations of the earth, to rush to the succour of such as might be oppressed by the one or the other Power?—And if she considered that this was her mission, why did she never attempt to teach Turkey, Russia, even the United States of America, what their duty was?
Nothing was further removed from the thoughts of England than such disinterestedness. But she imagined that she had a chance with this little people; and when she wished to beat the dog, she found a stick in the grievances of the Uitlanders.
Poor Transvaal, thou wert not perfect—far from that! But thou hadst had no time to become so. Thou hadst had no time to develop into what thou wouldst have become in the course of years. Thy great neighbour, arrived at maturity through centuries of imperfections, found thee a child, and, counting it a crime in thee to be a child, made a murderous assault on thee!
The negotiations between England and the South African Republic were still progressing when England sent troops, not only to the Transvaal, but also the Free State borders. What else but undisguised hostility could the Governments of the two Republics see in this action of England? They were compelled by it to prepare themselves for any emergency; and enjoined, in consequence, the landdrosts to instruct the commandants of all the districts of the two States to commandeer the burghers. This commandeering took place on 2nd of October 1899. It was on Sunday, and many a Boer had gathered his household around him, and was sitting with his Bible open before him, while he was conducting his Sunday family worship, when the field-cornet, or other person sent in his stead, came and told him that he had to appear at a certain place, with his horse, saddle and bridle, rifle and thirty rounds of ammunition, and rations for eight days.
The Harrismith Commando was ordered to muster on the farm—The Oaks; and most of the burghers composing it arrived there next day. We proceeded thence to Tantjesberg, and approached in the course of a few days the boundary between the Orange Free State and Natal, on the grand range of the Drakensberg. To this border other Free State commandos numbering in all about 8000 men came, while a like number were sent to the western boundary, and a small force to the Basutoland line.
The southern border of the district of Harrismith was the line which had to be guarded, between the Orange Free State and Natal. The commandos, therefore, which had come from other places to this boundary, had to pass somewhere through the district of Harrismith. This happened in due course. During the week all the commandos passed east or west of, or through the town. The Bethlehem burghers pitched their laager on the south-west near Binghamsberg, a precipitous mountain which Erasmus Smit, the missionary who accompanied the Voortrekkers, called Kerkenberg (Church Hill) in his Journal. This he did because a great cleft of a tremendous rock at the foot of the mountain, in which the name of Piet Retief is written in green paint, afforded ample space for conducting divine worship. The Heilbron Commando went to Bezuidenhout's Pass, and the Kroonstad to Tintwa. The burghers of Winburg marched past on the east of Platberg, and pitched their camp at Van Reenen, near the line of railway; while the men of the Harrismith and Vrede Commandos went farther east to Botha's Pass, and formed the connection with the line of the Transvaal forces on the west of Majuba.
It rained a great deal when these Boer forces hastened to the Drakensberg. I remember very well how the Heilbron and Kroonstad burghers rode through the town of Harrismith in the rain. Notwithstanding the depressing nature of the weather, everybody was cheerful, and all looked with boundless trust in God into the future. The Heilbron burghers did not remain in the town, but the men of Kroonstad waited at the church until their greatcoats and blankets, which they hung on the railings, were dry. Meanwhile our women poured out warm coffee for the men, and began thus to take their share in the great strife, which had begun.
I must here make mention of the manner in which the Government took the interests to heart of such as had been deprived of their employment through the new state of things. It appointed a commission in every town, whose duty it was to inquire into the condition of the needy and to distribute flour and mealie meal, wherever they found that there was great want. The Government also afforded facilities to the poor of earning money. It supplied the material for shirts and trousers, to be made for such burghers on commando as were in need, and paid a small sum for every garment that was made. The wives of the landdrosts and ministers were intrusted with this department. Besides this, the women of the towns were asked to bake biscuits—the Government supplying the flour for the commandos. It was beautiful to see how willingly the women undertook this hard labour. Some of them baked as much as a bag of flour in a day; and I have seen at the Harrismith Station truck loads of biscuits ready to be carried to the forces in Natal.
This baking of biscuits was one of the first proofs of the devotion and self-sacrifice of our women.
But I have anticipated a little.
At five o'clock on the 11th October 1899 the forty-eight hours, which were given by the Transvaal to England to decide whether she would withdraw her troops from the borders of the Republics, had elapsed. England had not withdrawn her troops, and it was now clear to everyone that she desired war. Everyone knew also now that from that hour we were in a state of war.
It was now the interest of every chief-commandant (Hoofd-commandant) to occupy the best positions, if possible before the English could do so. With this in view, orders were given that all commandos should be sent forward with the utmost speed, and take positions on the Drakensberg. This was done, and by the 13th of October all the passes on the great mountain range were guarded by our forces.
On the same day a meeting of Free State officers was held in the tent of General Marthinus Prinsloo, and the question was there discussed whether a flying column should not, without delay, proceed west of Ladysmith and blow up the railway bridge over the Tugela at Colenso. Most of the officers were opposed to this idea, but it was resolved instead that portions of the commandos of Heilbron, Winburg, Kroonstad, and Harrismith should descend into Natal that very night, under the command of Commandant C. J. de Villiers, who was temporarily appointed General in the place of General A. P. Cronje. This force would have to co-operate with the Transvaal commandos and endeavour to cut off the retreat of the English at Dundee.
I was present when the Harrismith men were ready to go. How well I remember the command given by the brave and never-to-be-forgotten Field-Cornet Jan Lyon—
I see him in my mind's eye now, while I write, placing himself, every inch a soldier, at the head of his men and riding away.
After him came Field-Cornet Z. J. de Beer with the Harrismith town burghers. They rode past in splendid form, with the Free State flag bravely fluttering in the breeze. Something thrilled through my being when I saw these men, all of whom I knew, ride away into the great unknown. I knew that some of them would never tread Free State soil again.
And it happened sooner than I thought.
Next day Field-Cornet de Beer collided with the Carbineers not far from Bester's Station, and the first burgher of the Harrismith Commando was killed. To the best of my knowledge he was the first victim of the war: his name was Jonson.
The Carbineers had attacked the men of Field-Cornet de Beer on a ridge, and bombarded them with a Maxim. Our burghers held their ground until Field-Cornet Lyon arrived with a reinforcement and charged the Carbineers on their right wing. The English could not resist this onslaught and betook themselves to flight, never resting until they arrived out of breath at Ladysmith. One of their officers, Lieutenant Galway, was taken prisoner, and sent to Harrismith. The camp of the Carbineers also fell into our hands, and the burghers were immensely pleased with the little light green tents they found. These were very portable, and went far and wide with the burghers in later stages of the war.
After addressing the Winburg men, I had returned to Harrismith on the morning of the 18th, and was an eye-witness of the intense excitement of the town during the next few days, when news of battles fought in the north of Natal arrived. We heard of the fight at Glencoe on the 20th October, at Elandslaagte on the 21st, and at Rietfontein (Modderspruit) on the 24th. In the first two the Transvaalers had been engaged, in the last the Free Staters.
I was very strongly affected, and felt after the news of Rietfontein came that I could not remain at Harrismith. I therefore decided to go to Natal without delay and join the Harrismith Commando. On Friday the 27th October I took leave of my wife and children, and arrived in the afternoon at the headquarters of General Marthinus Prinsloo. He was very kind, and provided a cart for my journey and that of Dr. Cilliers who also wished to go into Natal. Next day I arrived at Bester's Station, and had the opportunity of visiting the burghers who had been wounded in the fight at Rietfontein. I was especially glad to see Mr. Jacobus de Jager of Loskop. As he was temporarily hors de combat, he offered me a horse and his own saddle for a time. I was of course very grateful and accepted his offer with alacrity.
After breakfast, next morning, I set out with the object of finding the Harrismith Commando, and soon came to Smith's Crossing. There I saw what a farm looked like where looting had taken place. Some of our burghers had destroyed everything there that was not firmly built on, or planted in the ground. The windows were smashed, the doors torn off, and everything that was of value or use was carried away. Presses and chests of drawers had been broken open, furniture dashed to pieces, pillows and mattresses cut open, and everywhere about there were lying scattered in dreadful confusion, feathers of pillows and beds, pieces of furniture, torn books, photographs, plates, pots, pans, even articles of female attire.
The sight of this affected me very unfavourably, as I found it did many others too. Several remarked that we were not fighting for booty, but for the sacred cause of our independence. But the foreigners fighting among us against England laughed at our scruples. Destruction of property, they said, was a part of the war, and England would destroy our farms worse when once she began.
None of us would believe this assertion of the foreigners then. We know now how true it was. It is nearly three years now since I looked at the destruction at Smith's Crossing, and what have I not seen since of the destruction carried out by England? Everything done by the Boers is as dust in the balance, when compared with the devastation carried out by the British soldiers.
Now English officers, when taxed with the barbarity with which they devastated the farms in the two Republics, have been accustomed to retort that it was we who began the game. To this it can be replied that the Boers destroyed the houses of those only who had fled from their farms, and had thus shown that they were hostile to us; that even this was not done by order of the Boer Generals, nay, was done contrary to the express orders forbidding the destruction of farms, and that it was never carried out so ruthlessly as it was later by the English troops. The houses were never committed to the flames by the Boers, nor did they blow up any farmstead with dynamite. But the steadings in the Free State and Transvaal were destroyed by fire or dynamite by order of a British Field-Marshal, and later of a British Commander-in-Chief. And there were hundreds of cases where this took place over the heads of women and children, who were immediately after the destruction exposed to the wet weather in summer and the cold of winter. Nothing approaching such barbarity was ever done by the Boers. If, therefore, the English were making reprisals in burning the farms, they avenged themselves not as Cain seven times, but as Lamech seventy times seven.
I did not have to go far from Smith's Crossing. I found the Harrismith burghers three miles to the west of Ladysmith, near the homestead of Mr. Gert Potgieter. They consisted of what was called a horse-commando, they were encumbered with no convoy, and only two or three waggons (one of them carrying ammunition) stood about. The difference between the camp here and the great laagers on the Drakensberg, with their walls of encircling waggons, struck me. Here there was nothing besides the little brown canvas Free State tents, and the beautiful little green tents taken from the Carbineers on the 18th. One would be much in want of many things, I thought, in a horse-commando, and life in it would be in the utmost degree repulsive, to a person especially with studious predilections, to whom the four walls of a study were more attractive than the wide, wide plains under the great blue vault above. I thought so then, but the time was coming when we should not have even little Carbineer tents.
However inhospitable a "horse-commando" appeared, the burghers were not so. They were mostly members of my congregation, and received me with the utmost cordiality. They gave me something to eat—just what they had ready—Kaboemielies, (boiled maize). What better—what more nutritious food could they have given me than mealies? Many a Boer poet has sung the praises of the mealies, but the inspiration of each has failed.
The day after I arrived in the laager, the 30th October, the battle of Nicholson's Nek was fought. It was in this fight that Christian de Wet made his first appearance. He was then an acting Commandant, and led about 200 men up the hill, where he captured 800 British troops. The Transvaal burghers were also engaged that day and took 400 soldiers prisoners, so that we captured 1200 in all. I was not present. I only saw from a great distance our shells exploding on the battlefield, and I can therefore give no description of what took place.
I met the Rev. P. Roux, who was subsequently appointed General, next day. He told me that he came on the scene just when the fight was over. He had been struck, he said, by the distress of the wounded. It was terrible to see what they were suffering in the broiling sun. He had also spoken to several English officers. One had said in a surly tone of voice: "This is only a beginning." Mr. Roux had replied: "Yes, and we are quite satisfied with it."