It was decided to invest Ladysmith, and the Free State burghers were ordered to occupy positions towards the north-west, west, and south of the town. The Transvaalers took the opposite ridges and hills.
Why did not the Boers make an onslaught on the town after the fight at Rietfontein—why did not they do so after Nicholson's Nek?—or failing this, why did they besiege Ladysmith? Why did they not leave an opening on the south for the English to retire by?
Such questions have been repeatedly put after all was past, and it was seen what might have been done. But the people who put these questions assume circumstances which did not exist. For instance, it was altogether impossible in the as yet unorganised state of the commandos of the two States to venture on a united assault on Ladysmith, after either Rietfontein or Nicholson's Nek. And it is quite dubious whether the English wished to retire southwards. In fact the contrary appears to be the case, for they might have evacuated the town, if they had wished, before the 2nd of November,—eight days after Rietfontein,—on which date the Boers had completed the investment of the town. The British had, in point of fact, during those eight days not only shown no signs of any desire to leave the town, but they had made a sortie, which had resulted in the fiasco at Nicholson's Nek on the 30th of November.
It appears thus, when everything is taken into consideration, that no General would have acted otherwise than General Joubert did; and nobody, indeed, did think, during the siege of Ladysmith, that it was a mistake to be doing so. It was only later that all manner of mistakes were discovered in the besieging of Ladysmith, and not only of Ladysmith, but also of Mafeking and Kimberley.
The town was besieged. That is a fact. I have only to do with that fact now, and I am going to relate how the Free State commandos did their part of the work.
On the day after Nicholson's Nek, certain Free State Commandants were told by General A. P. Cronje, who had arrived on the 24th October and assumed his command, to march their burghers to the south of Ladysmith, and take up positions somewhere near or on the farm, Fouries Kraal. These burghers consisted of portions of the commandos of Harrismith, under Commandant C. J. de Villiers; Vrede, Commandant Anthony Lombaard; and Heilbron, Commandant L. Steenekamp. General Cronje was in command of the whole force.
Mr. Jan Wessels of Harrismith was appointed as guide, and the force began to move as soon as it got dark. This was my first experience of about a hundred night marches in which I took part during the war, and I must confess that it was one of the worst I was ever in. I learned to know the Africander in one of his weak points—his impatience of discipline. I saw how he rebelled against what was the legitimate authority under which he should have submitted.—How different it became later in the war! As I write now nearly three years have passed since that night march, and if I compare it with the night trek, for instance, of the 23rd of February 1902 (of which I shall give an account later), it is well-nigh impossible to believe that the strong, obedient burgher of 1902 is the same man as the almost unbridled one of the end of 1899.
Everything was in chaotic confusion. One would have imagined that the burghers stood under no orders whatever, and yet orders had been issued. They were openly disregarded. It had been ordered, for instance, that there should be no smoking, and yet all along the route—we were going from the rear to the van—little flashes of light could be seen of matches, with which the men lighted their pipes. Nobody bothered his head about the question as to whether these lights could show our whereabouts to the enemy. Then the men had been told to proceed in absolute silence, and yet there was not even an attempt to do so. Besides a dreadful din which was raised by the drivers of the mules that were inspanned in the gun-carriages, the burghers conversed quite loudly, cracked jokes, and laughed in explosive guffaws—for all the world as if they were on some errand which involved no danger. In my immediate vicinity there was a young burgher of the name of Adriaan Venter—he was nicknamed Dapperman because of his gallant behaviour at Rietfontein. Well, this young fellow never wearied of saying funny things; and I heard him use now for the first time his favourite expression, "Jij is laat" (you are too late). This expression was soon adopted by everybody in the field, and was used whenever anybody had missed what he had had in view. Dapperman kept himself and all about him in the best of spirits from the beginning to the end of that night march, and it never entered his mind that scouts of the enemy might be a hundred yards from us. Nothing struck me more than the entire thoughtlessness of the burghers.
Just after we had begun to march, the clouds lowered, and it became very dark. We could not see one another. The jokes of Dapperman only told me that he was still near. Then it began to rain, and the road became slippery. We progressed more and more slowly until at length we almost came to a standstill. This was caused through the difficulty which was encountered in taking the cannons through Sand River. The road at the drift had become so slippery that it was next to impossible for the mules to stand.
And meanwhile the darkness became thicker. I wondered whether I should be able to see my hand if I held it before my eyes. Yes I could, so what had been said of darkness so dense that you could not see your hand before your eyes was not applicable here. Still, it was so dark that you could not see the man you touched next you.
How provoking our slow progress was. We went twenty yards, and then we halted for five or ten minutes. Then off we went again, and came to a dead stop after we had progressed not more than twenty or twenty-five yards. What were they doing in front, we were wondering; and the answer came: "The guns can't get on."
Thus it went on until midnight. The General saw then that he could not proceed, and ordered us to stop. We halted just where we were on either side of the road we were travelling along.
Did the English know anything about us? I asked myself. There was nothing to prevent it. Not only was it so dark that English scouts could have been moving about among us, but we had shown them where we were with our matches, and the noise we had made had revealed the direction of our march. What, thought I, if they sent a shower of shells on us as soon as it became light But this did not happen. The enemy had not yet recovered from what they had suffered at Nicholson's Nek, and a few days would elapse before a sortie from Ladysmith was again undertaken.
The morning broke dark and damp. Clouds hung low in the sky and it looked like rain. This was not encouraging. Nor was it encouraging when we saw how little we had got on in the night. We were not more than two or three miles from where we had begun. But we had to go on now—daylight or not, whether we were seen or not.
The whole force came into motion. It was a beautiful sight to see the commandos together. I looked back from the van. The force was riding over a great level space. There were at least two thousand together. An insignificant number—but for us, the troops of two poor little republics, it was large.
The clouds did not deceive us. We had hardly begun to march when several heavy showers fell, and the prospect of a wet day was not pleasant. But to the relief of all the weather cleared up before nine o'clock, and the beautiful spring day followed: one of those days of unclouded sky which are so rousing and vivifying in South Africa. After a short morning trek we halted for breakfast, and then continued our march.
And now it began to be interesting.
A small body of Harrismith burghers had been told off to ride some miles in advance, while the main body came on behind. Nobody could know what might happen behind the ridges and kopjes which we were constantly approaching and passing. The utmost care was observed. We halted frequently until from time to time the reconnaissance of the country in front was satisfactorily completed. Now and then we saw living objects in the distance, and we could not know, of course, whether they were not scouts of the enemy; but after Marthinus Potgieter had observed the ridge or kopje through his long telescope and declared that the figures were Kaffir women, and after our scouts had passed without adventure, we knew that all was well, and went on.
We arrived at the house of an English missionary about twelve o'clock, and Commandant de Villiers turned aside to see him. The missionary showed signs of anxiety, and seemed to fear that harm would be done to him. Commandant de Villiers assured him that nothing would happen, if he put a white flag on the gable of his house as a sign that he was a non-combatant. I accompanied the Commandant, and enjoyed a cup of tea which the good wife of the missionary gave us. While we were drinking the tea I heard children's voices in another part of the house, and I was affected by them. A child always touches what is most tender in me. And here I remember that I was especially moved by the sharp contrast between those sweet children's voices and the harsh voices which I had heard during the last few days of men talking about nothing but the war.
We hastened forward, and had scarcely reached the main body when we saw in the distance some of our scouts galloping back. Field-Cornet Jan Lyon thereupon set spurs to his horse, and dashed forward with a small body of burghers. Soon we learned that, while a portion of our scouts were proceeding along a cutting near Onderbroek Spruit, they were fired upon by some Irish Fusiliers, who had concealed themselves behind huge boulders on the roadside. Isaac du Plessis was wounded in the thigh. The other portion of our advance party had gone over the hill, west of the road, and had fired on the Irish Fusiliers, with the result that they were driven off.
Isaac du Plessis was my first case. I bandaged him as well as I could, and he was sent away for proper medical treatment.
We passed by the spot where the incident had occurred, and I saw the corpse of a soldier lying on the roadside. He had been shot by our men from the hill. He lay on his back, and had been covered by our burghers with grass. How well I remember the emotion that passed through me when I saw there for the first time the corpse of a man killed in action. How many it would be my lot to see and—bury.
Nothing further happened, until we arrived late in the afternoon at a spot on the high ranges of hills between Colenso and Ladysmith, about three miles east of the main road. I went with two others over the range, and they pointed out to me the tents of the English garrison, on the left bank of the Tugela, near the village of Colenso. The view was grand. A vast plain lay stretched out before us, and through it the greatest river of Natal was cutting its way, and swiftly descending to a series of rapids and falls into precipitous abysses. We stayed and looked upon the great scene until the fast falling shades of night warned us to return to the laager. Soon we were wrapped in deep and restoring sleep, for we were very tired.