On Friday afternoon, the 5th of January 1900, I was back in the laager of Commandant de Villiers once more.
In the evening I sent a letter to my wife in which inter alia these words appeared: "And now I have no time to write anything more, but, as the post leaves to-morrow, I wish you to know as soon as possible of my safe arrival." I wrote nothing that could cause uneasiness, and yet there was much that would have made her anxious if I had written about it. Would this letter be the last I should write her? I asked of myself; for we were on the eve of attacking Platrand (Waggon Hill).
As I have said in a former chapter, it had from time to time been insisted on that Platrand, as being the key to Ladysmith, must be taken. This had constantly been insisted on. General Prinsloo had declared that the hill ought to be taken, and that he could do it with 100 men. President Steyn had also telegraphed, saying that it was desirable to have Platrand in our possession. Not a day passed without regret being expressed that the rand had not been taken when, on former occasions, attempts had been partially made, and now more than ever it was thought that this should be done. This string had been so continuously harped upon that the combined War Councils of the Transvaal and Free State once more decided that an attempt to gain possession of Platrand should be made. After I had held evening service for the first time since my return, Commandant de Villiers made known to the burghers that men from every commando would proceed to the hill that same night.
This famous hill, named Waggon Hill by the English, lies about three miles south of Ladysmith, between the residence of Mr. Willem Bester and the town. It runs from east to west. The ascent is very steep and its slopes are partially covered with mimosa. On the summit the hill is level, and round about its crest runs a cornice, to use an architectural term, of great rocks, which we call a "krantz" in the Africander language.
The British forts were built immediately above this "krantz." The idea was that about 4000 men should make the attack. It was decided that the Free Staters should scale the rand from the west and south-west, and the Transvaalers from the south-west and south sides.
The Free Staters were drawn from the Kroonstad, Heilbron, Harrismith and Winburg Commandos; and the Transvaalers from the commandos of Vryheid, Utrecht, Wakkerstroom, Standerton, and Heidelberg.
The understanding was, that, after the storming party had taken the hill, reinforcements would come from all sides to support them, and thus carry out the attack. At about ten o'clock we, Harrismith burghers, left the laager, in order to climb the hill at half-past two, in accordance with the arrangement that had been made. We soon reached the Neutral Hill. Here we halted a while, and those who could slept till one o'clock on Saturday morning, the 6th of January 1900.
From there the burghers proceeded on foot. It was very dark, and all was still as death. We walked forward slowly and spoke only in whispers; and yet our progress was not so silent but that we feared we should be heard. In the silence of the night, the slightest rustle of tree or shrub sounded loud in our ears, and the thud of our feet on the loose stones seemed to me like the tramp of a troop of horses.
The enemy, thought I, would certainly become aware of our approach long before we could even begin to climb the hill. But it seems after all that I was mistaken, and that the sentry did not discover us until we had approached very close. At three o'clock we reached the deep dongas at the foot of the hill, and the foremost men passed through. In about twenty minutes we had climbed almost two-thirds of the hill, when we heard a beautiful voice ringing out on the morning air: "Halt! who goes there?"
No answer came from us. We continued climbing.
A moment passed, and then the silence was broken by the crash of a volley. Then another and another. Everywhere above in front of us the flashes of the rifles leapt forth into the darkness, and the sharp reports followed in such swift succession as to give the impression of Maxims firing. All of a sudden I saw a great long jet of flame, and instantly the thunder of a cannon broke upon the startled air, and presently behind us I could hear the shrapnel bullets falling on the ground.
Then many of those who had not yet begun to climb the hill turned and fled; but others rushed upwards and rapidly approached the cornice of rocks whence the heavy firing issued. Silence was now unnecessary; and voices were heard everywhere encouraging the men.
Field-Cornet Lyon and Zacharias de Jager in particular were of great assistance to the Commandant; and one constantly heard, "Come along, burghers! come along! forward!" At half-past three we reached the reef of rocks and boulders, and presently I heard that two burghers had already been wounded, while another lay motionless, but it was as yet too dark to see who it was. It soon transpired that it was Assistant Field-Cornet Jan van Wijk.
Before long it became light, and some of the burghers charged the forts that were just above the ledge of rocks. They overpowered the soldiers there, and took them prisoners, but were forced to fall back to the escarpment of rocks immediately, on account of the heavy fire directed on them from the other forts. And now the roar of the cannons and rifles became terrific. This was especially the case with the ceaseless rattle of small arms. One could with difficulty distinguish separate reports. All sounded together like one continuous roar, and awoke an echo from the Neutral Hill that sounded like the surging of a mighty wind.
We found ourselves under a cross cannon-fire. The shells from one of our guns flew over our heads and exploded just in front of us on the forts, so that we were often in fear of being struck by our own shells; and the projectiles of the English were hurled in an opposite direction on our cannon-forts and on the burghers on Neutral Hill.
Gradually we began to see in what a terrible position we were. We found that we were a mere handful. Of all the Free Staters who had been ordered to scale the hill there, only about 100 Harrismith men, 50 Heilbroners, and a few of the Kroonstad Commando, had obeyed the order. The arrangement had not been carried out. As we learned afterwards, the Winburgers had remained behind in a ridge at the foot of the hill, and the rest were all crowded behind Neutral Hill, while most of the Kroonstad burghers had not even got as far as that.
Of course we did not fully know then how matters stood, and expected that reinforcements would come later on, which was impossible while daylight lasted, for every approach to our position was exposed to a terrible fire from above. It set us, however, somewhat at ease to know that there were burghers behind the Neutral Hill. They guarded our rear and left flank, and would beat back reinforcements attacking us there.
How terrible the firing was! It never ceased for a moment, for if the burghers did not rush out, from time to time, to assail the forts, the English charged us. This alternate charging of each other was taking place every now and then, and it was during these attacks that the pick of our men fell. Whenever a sangar was attacked a destructive fire was directed on our men, and then some gallant fellows would always remain behind struck down. In this manner Field-Cornet Celliers of Heilbron, and of the Harrismith Commando: Kootze Odendaal, Marthinus Potgieter, Gert Wessels, Zacharias de Jager, Jacob de Villiers, and Piet Minny, were killed; and Hermanus Wessels and others mortally wounded. They were mostly hit in the head, for the English as well as the Boers were on the watch, and whenever anyone put out his head from behind a stone or a fort, he was immediately fired at.
It was a fearful day—a day that no one who was there will ever forget. The heat too was unbearable. The sun shot down his pitiless rays upon us, and the higher he rose the hotter it became. It was terrible to see the dead lying uncovered in the scorching rays; and our poor wounded suffered indescribable tortures from thirst.
How glad I was that I could do something for the wounded. I bandaged those within reach. I also rendered the first help to the British wounded; one Tommy said to me, after I had bandaged him: "I feel easier now." And a sergeant of the Imperial Light Horse, who had discovered that I was a minister, remarked: "You are preaching a good sermon to-day."
How the wounded suffered from thirst! And there was nothing to give them—only a little whisky which I had got from an English officer who had been taken prisoner. I gave a little of that, only a few drops, to every wounded man. Not only the wounded—all of us, suffered from thirst. Long before midday there was not a drop of water left in our flasks. So intolerable was the thirst, that there were burghers who went down to the dongas below in search of water, where there was none, and where they knew that almost certain death awaited them.
How slowly too the time dragged! "What o'clock is it?" someone asked. It was then only ten o'clock, and it seemed as if we had been fighting more than a day, for up to that moment the firing had continued unabated; and the Neutral Hill still sent back to us the echo of the firing—the echo as of a mighty soughing.
Twelve o'clock passed, one o'clock, two o'clock—and still the fire was kept up; and still the burning rays of the sun were scorching us. Clouds! But they threw no shadow over us. Everywhere small patches of shade checkered the hills and valleys; but they seemed to avoid us.
But a black mass of cloud is rising in the west, and we know now that everything will soon be wrapped in shadow. Nearer and nearer to the zenith the clouds are rising. What is that deep rumbling in the distance? Thunder! Nearer and nearer it sounds, and presently we hear it overhead above the din of the musketry and the boom of the cannon. How insignificant the crash of the cannons sounds now. It is as the crackle of fireworks when compared with the mighty voice of God!
We got more than shadow from the clouds. At five o'clock great drops splash on the rocks. Presently the rain fell in torrents, and I could wash the blood of the wounded from my hands in it.
It was now, just when the rain was descending in sheets of water and the thunder-claps were shaking the hill, that the enemy redoubled their efforts to drive us off the ledge, and our men had to do their utmost to repel the determined onslaught. Had they been driven down to the plain below, every burgher fleeing for his life would have formed a target for the enemy. The fight was now fiercer than at any time during the day. It is fearful to hear the roar of the thunder up above, and the crash of the rifles below. But the enemy did not succeed in driving us off. We remained there two and a half hours longer. Meanwhile we had been able to quench our thirsts. We had made folds in our mackintoshes in which we caught the rain, and then sucked it up. Streams of water too dashed down through the rocks, and we drank our fill. These streams of water came from the forts a few yards above us, and were red in colour. Was it red earth, or was it the blood of friend and foe that coloured the water? Whatever the cause, we were so thirsty that nothing would have kept us from drinking. After the English had done their utmost to drive us from the hill, and been baffled in their attempts, they returned to their forts, and the firing subsided for a short time. It was quieter now than it had been during the whole day, and the burghers had time to think how wet they had got. Those who had no overcoats were drenched to the skin, and many who an hour before did not know where to find shelter from the heat, could now scarcely endure the cold. A keen wind, too, blew on our damp clothes, and strong men stood shivering in the biting breeze.
It was now asked, "Where is Field-Cornet Jan Lyon?" Commandant de Villiers had known for more than an hour that that brave man had fallen; but he spoke to no one about it, for fear that the burghers should be discouraged. It could not, however, remain a secret. Soon everyone knew what had happened, and every countenance fell.
At last the sun set, and as it was clear to Commandant de Villiers that no reinforcements would come, and as he had already lost at least a third of his men, killed and wounded, he saw that it was impossible to remain there. He therefore told me that he would continue there a little while longer and withdraw when it became dark.
This took place at half-past seven. We had been on the hill for sixteen hours under a most severe fire, and now we retired; but we were not driven off by the Devons with levelled bayonets as I have read in an English book. We were not driven off the hill. We held it as long as it was light, and when twilight fell, Commandant de Villiers considered it useless to remain there. He stopped there till the last man had gone, then fired some shots, not, however, at Devons advancing with fixed bayonets, but in the air, in order to make the English think that we were still all in our positions. We then tramped through the water, till we reached our horses, and then rode to the laager, depressed in spirits, for we had left very dear ones behind us.
Of the Harrismith Commando there were 15 killed and 20 wounded; Heilbron, 4 killed and 13 wounded; Kroonstad, 3 killed and 2 wounded; Winburg, 1 wounded. Altogether 22 killed and 36 wounded. Including the Transvaalers, we had lost 68 killed and 135 wounded.
I can give no description of how the Transvaalers had fared, as I was not on their side of the hill; but there was the same lack of co-operation amongst them. Only the men of one commando had scaled the hill, and they, too, had to retire for want of support. Where were the 4000 who had been ordered to take the hill? Shamefully and criminally had they left their comrades in the lurch. In the highest circles, too, there was great mismanagement. One of the Long Toms, which had to take an important part in the battle, had three charges! Another gun, too, should have been posted at a certain spot; but it never turned up. One felt embittered on hearing of such disgraceful mismanagement.
The next morning dawned, and inexpressible emotion surged through me when in a moment I lived again through the events of the preceding day. I thought of Jan Lyon and the other brave fellows who had fallen; and when I knew that I should see them no more, my heart became as lead within me.
It was a beautiful morning after the storm. The sun rose in glittering splendour over the refreshed earth; and soulless nature smiled regardless of the grief which tore the heart. It seemed as if the heat and the burden of the day could not be borne; but it had to be borne!
In answer to a request from Commandant de Villiers, Colonel Ian Hamilton had sent him a few lines giving us permission to fetch our killed and wounded.
I accompanied a party of twelve, who went for that purpose. Our dead were brought down from the hill by soldiers and laid in a row,—nineteen dead! We placed our dead in a waggon, and conveyed them to the laager.
The Heilbron Commando buried their own dead. Zacharias de Jager, Marthinus Potgieter, and Jacob de Villiers were taken to Harrismith, and there laid to rest. The other burghers, with their Field-Cornet Jan Lyon at the head, were buried in separate graves, alongside of one another, about a mile from the laager.
It was my sad duty to address the men. I could have wept, as I saw others do, especially at the thought of those amongst the slain who had been my personal friends; but I felt that I had to restrain my feelings there. It was my duty to encourage the men and turn their minds to God. And God helped me to accomplish this; and, however bitter the sorrow of everyone was before those graves were filled, we returned from that sacred spot to the laager encouraged and hopeful.