The burghers soon recovered their spirits after the affair at Platrand. Their dejection disappeared, and gave place to an activity which showed itself in their willingness to perform any duty laid upon them. They dug new trenches everywhere, on the top and along the sides of the hill occupied by us, and built new "schanzes" (breastworks). There was also more vigilance, Commandant de Villiers sent more burghers on guard every night, and they went willingly. Then, too, a better spirit took possession of the men. There was a greater sense of comradeship amongst friends than formerly; there was no brawling, and swearing was seldom heard. It seemed, too, as if the burghers felt the need of religion more; for a request was made, emanating from them, that prayer-meetings should be held in the laager, in small groups, every Sunday afternoon.
Shortly after the Platrand battle, a rumour went round that it was the intention of General Buller to break through within seventy-two hours and relieve Ladysmith. Very little belief was attached to this particular rumour, although we were convinced that the English intended soon to make a new and powerful attempt to relieve their besieged comrades. But soon there seemed to be some truth in the rumour after all; for, from about the 10th of January, great numbers of troops were seen moving from Frère to Springfield, a place about twelve miles west of Colenso, on the right bank of the Tugela. We could thus surmise that General Buller intended breaking through in that vicinity.
As I have already mentioned, General A. P. Cronje had marched up along the Tugela with a number of Free Staters some time before. He had kept to the north side, and was stationed not very far from Potgieter's Drift. He now went towards the cluster of hills of which Spion Kop is the highest peak.
These hills form a sort of a range running from north to south, on the left bank of the Tugela, about ten miles west of Ladysmith. Standing on the summit one sees the beautiful Tugela, monarch of Natal rivers, majestically winding and cutting its way through the plain. South yonder, to the left, the main road can be seen passing through the river at Potgieter's Drift, and leading towards Ladysmith at the foot, eastwards of Spion Kop. There is another road passing through the river higher up at Trichaard's Drift, which to the north joins the road from Acton Homes to Ladysmith. This road climbs the mountain two or three miles north of Spion Kop. Now, if General Buller intended fording the Tugela from Springfield, at either Potgieter's or Trichaard's Drift, to go to Ladysmith, he would have to bring his troops along one or both of these roads.
Our Generals, therefore, took up positions all along the range. General A. P. Cronje posted his men on the hill to the north-west of Spion Kop and guarded the road from Acton Homes. During the battle Commandant de Villiers stationed himself on Cronje's right, to the west of the Acton Homes road. The Vrede burghers were placed by General Cronje on his left, south-west of the road from Potgieter's Drift. And everywhere between the Free State positions lay the Transvaalers, who had hurried to Spion Kop immediately the intentions of the English became evident. Thus, for example, to mention no others, General Burger occupied positions in the immediate vicinity of Spion Kop.
While the British were massing at Springfield, the Boers did everything in their power to strengthen their positions. They threw up splendid breastworks everywhere on the hill, from the south-west of the Potgieter's Drift road, up to the north of the other road. They sought out the best places for cannon, and constructed forts wherever necessary.
The movements of the English were most narrowly watched. No act of theirs escaped our notice.—Where in the world can be found better scouting than among the Boers?—And so it was seen that the English were placing guns on Swart Kop, a wooded hill on the south bank of the Tugela, somewhat to the east of Potgieter's Drift.
It was now clear to all that the enemy would attempt to break through somewhere in the mountains of Spion Kop. We did not have to wait long. On the 16th it was seen that troops and heavy guns were being brought through the river at Potgieter's Drift. At the same time large numbers of troops were proceeding through Trichaard's Drift, and everybody knew that matters would soon come to a head. And so it proved.
Early on the following morning, 17th January, the cannon—great naval guns—began to roar from Swart Kop, and the eight days' battle of Spion Kop had commenced.
Soon now the troops passed by the road from Trichaard's Drift through Venterspruit and slowly commenced to climb the hills.
A number of their mounted men detached themselves from their left wing and hurried on in the direction of Acton Homes. It was clear that they must be stopped, and some of our men were immediately sent to oppose them. These men came in contact with the English on the following day, and fell into an ambush.
Believing the English to be still ahead, they found themselves attacked in front and on their flank. They hastily took up position on a kopje and defended themselves for a time with unparalleled gallantry. There were some of them who wanted to hoist the white flag when they found themselves in a fearful cross fire; but the others declared that they would shoot the first man who did so. Field-Cornet Mentz—better known by his nom de plume of Mordecai—fought like a lion. But he received a mortal wound and sank to the earth to rise no more. After this our men, overpowered by superior numbers, were forced to yield. Several more had been killed and others wounded, and the enemy took twenty-four prisoners.
The English did not advance any farther from that point. They were prevented from doing so by the presence of numbers of Free Staters and Transvaalers in the road from Acton Homes to Ladysmith, but no fighting occurred there. The other forces, those that were advancing from Venterspruit, stormed the centre of the ranges in great numbers. They came on in two divisions, occupied some hills opposite our positions, and placed cannon on them.
Meanwhile the English cannon had crashed and thundered unceasingly since the preceding morning. The entire range was subjected to a terrible bombardment, from the Vrede positions, east of the road from Potgieter's Drift, up to our right wing on the Acton Homes road. Shells of every sort and size fell fast and thick on our positions. I saw the huge projectiles of the naval guns striking the earth, and how great clouds of dust and smoke arose whenever one of these huge shells came in contact with the earth. The ground was torn and ploughed up when the lyddite shells burst with a terrific crash, and their yellow smoke gave the burghers headaches and made the water in their flasks bitter. The bombardment was fearful. Never for eight days long was there a pause. Clouds of smoke constantly rose from the earth, where the shells burst, and one could continually see the hundreds of vanishing cloudlets in the air where the shrapnels burst over the positions.
Our cannon, although greatly outnumbered, were terribly destructive. The gunners had the inborn talent of the Boer, alike of accurate aim and of judging distances, and to this was added the advantage of military training received at Pretoria or at Bloemfontein. So they did not fire at random, and their missiles always seemed to burst just where they were intended to. Our French quick-firing and Krupp guns often demoralised the advancing troops. Our Maxim-Nordenfeldts were the especial aversion of the British soldiers. We heard from some who were taken prisoners at Spion Kop that "Hell clock" was the name they gave our Pom-pom.
I visited the battlefield just in the middle of the eight days' battle, on Sunday, January 21, when the bombardment was at its fiercest. I found that it had often been so intolerable that the burghers were driven out of the earthworks and compelled to seek shelter behind the hill slopes. But they had always returned and kept up a continuous fire on the advancing soldiers. I found, too, that the English had as yet always been driven back, but that their repeated attacks had not had quite a satisfactory moral effect on the burghers. The direction of affairs was, however, in the hands of Commandant General Louis Botha, than whom there was no man better qualified to encourage the burghers. Just as at Colenso, so here he rode from position to position, and whenever burghers—as I have related—were losing heart and on the point of giving way under the awful bombardment, he would appear as if from nowhere and contrive to get them back into the positions by "gentle persuasion," as he expressed it, or by other means.
A case in point happened on 21st January, while I was there. A few of our forts near the Acton Homes road were evacuated, and the English would certainly have taken possession of them—and thus been nearer to the attainment of their object—had not three Transvaalers remained there, and by firing rapidly, made such a demonstration that the British thought that the forts were still manned, while two others went to acquaint General Botha with the state of affairs.
It was then that General Botha once more persuaded the burghers to return to their positions; and the English did not approach any nearer there.
On the following day, when riding back to the laager, I was struck by the way the burghers were pouring in from all directions as reinforcements. I saw persons of every age going to the positions. There were amongst them boys and middle-aged men; there were even grey-beards. And the most remarkable thing about this was that all these men had not been ordered to the battle. They came of their own accord. I thought of a text in the Bible which, when separated from its context, was applicable here, "Thy people shall be willing" (Ps. cx. 3).
Amongst them was a youth of fifteen or sixteen, who was met by Commandant de Villiers. He was riding a chestnut pony and looked very shabby. Poor lad!
"Oom," he said to Commandant de Villiers, "I hear they are at it up here." He used the untranslatable word "spook."
"Yes," answered Commandant de Villiers. "And you? Where are you going to?"
"I am going to 'spook' too," said the boy, and rode off on his lean pony.
On the following day Commandant de Villiers met him again; but how changed he was. Instead of his dilapidated hat, a helmet of one of the soldiers adorned his head; and he, or rather his poor little chestnut, groaned under the equipment of two or three soldiers. He had three Lee-Metford rifles, several water-flasks were slung from his shoulders, and a number of bayonets hung at his horse's side and rattled whenever the animal moved. Besides this, he had also several of the small spades with which the English soldiers are provided; he had got his head through three or four cartridge belts.
"He had 'spooked' indeed!" thought Commandant de Villiers.
The attack from Venterspruit lasted for four days. It was fearful to witness what havoc our guns wrought amongst the English—especially the Maxim-Nordenfeldt.
But the British allowed nothing to baffle them. They were repeatedly driven back, and one constantly saw them carrying off their dead, and constantly they reappeared with new reinforcements. They built small entrenchments of stone and lay firing from behind them, and the shells exploded and our Mauser bullets rained upon these small fortifications. But there was no sign of retreat. The number of our dead and wounded had already reached nearly a hundred. We began to tremble as to how matters might turn out. How long would it last, we asked when the fourth day had passed and our burghers continued to suffer terribly under the bombardment.
How long, we asked ourselves, would our burghers be able to hold out?
At last the shades of the night of the 23rd of January closed in upon the horrible scene, and many anxiously questioned what the morrow would bring forth.
The night was dark and rainy, and this did not help to dispel the depression which prevailed; but the burghers were not discouraged; neither the four days' attack, nor the six days of shelling, nor the depression caused by the drizzling rain, could quench the quiet determination and courage of our men. They entered upon the night firmly resolved that, when the light of morning dawned, they would once more begin their schanzes and again face the fire of the guns, and beat back the ever-returning odds.
On the following day everything looked dark. The mountain was enveloped in a dense mist, and for a long time the men lay behind their schanzes waiting for what would happen when the vapours were dispelled.
After some time the weather cleared, and what was the surprise of all to see that there were English on the summit of Spion Kop! They had climbed the mountain under cover of the dark night. And there were some who said that all was over with us now. The battle was lost.
But the burghers who were in the vicinity of the Kop were not of this opinion. General Burger reported to General Botha how matters stood, and he himself gave orders to Commandant Prinsloo of the Carolina Commando to storm the Kop. This was carried out splendidly by Prinsloo and his Carolina burghers, at the cost of 55 killed and wounded out of the gallant 88. The burghers of Lydenburg and Heidelberg also took part in the onslaught. And when General Botha soon afterwards stormed the Kop from another direction, no one doubted but that the attack would succeed. In the meanwhile matters had gone hard with the English on Spion Kop. From the moment that our gunners had discovered them, they had bombarded them fiercely. The English perceived too, when it was too late, that they had not been able in the darkness to find the best shelter, and that they were now insufficiently protected from our shells. These caused such slaughter amongst them that when our storming-party reached the top, before ten o'clock, they met with very little opposition. The English were driven to the other side of the Kop, and the fight was carried on at very close quarters. Boer and Briton were often but fifty yards apart.
And now something happened about which we had heard complaints before, but of which I will now speak for the first and last time: the abuse of the white flag.
When the English had been some time under the withering fire, they hoisted the white flag and held up their hands. Our burghers thereupon ran up to them; but to their intense indignation and abhorrence, when they approached the English they were suddenly subjected to a hot fire.
This so incensed them that when the white flag was hoisted again shortly after, they refused to believe that no treachery was intended, and continued firing for a while even after they saw the white flag flying. But, convinced at last that a genuine surrender was now meant, they ceased their fire and took 187 prisoners.
During this fierce fighting on the Kop, reinforcements were continually being sent up from below to help the British. But these were subjected to a merciless bombardment, at one point especially, where they were particularly exposed. They were cut to pieces by the shells of the quick-firing guns, and mown down by the tiny projectiles of the Maxim-Nordenfeldt.
At the end of this long day darkness closed in, to the relief of all. All except a small number left the top of the Kop, and spent the night against the slopes of the hill with the intention of renewing the bitter contest at the first signs of daylight.
The burghers rose very early the next morning. They were soon in the positions of the former day. But why was all so still? Not an Englishman was to be seen—not even a rifle barrel protruded over the entrenchments of the enemy. Cautiously our men proceeded to the other side of the Kop. The mountain was deserted!
Down below, the entire force of the enemy could be seen retiring towards the Tugela.
The great battle of Spion Kop had been fought. The English had made a second attempt to relieve the besieged at Ladysmith and had a second time been beaten back.
We could not accurately estimate their loss, but hundreds of dead lay on the battlefield.
General Buller obtained leave from General Botha to bury his dead; and it was heartrending to see how many there were. Many of them were flung into the long trenches that had served as breastworks, and so great was the number that the earth did not sufficiently cover them all. Some even remained unburied. We did not know what the exact number was, but we saw the dead lying in heaps.
It is unnecessary for me to say here at what number the Boers estimated the strength of the English. The reader can learn the number for himself from British sources when he is perusing these pages.
It is sufficient to state here that their numbers far exceeded those of our men. For we did not have more than 5000 men there at the utmost, and of these all did not take part in the battle; at the same time our loss was great.
On the day after the battle General Burger telegraphed: "Our loss is not exactly known, but must amount to about 120 dead and wounded." The number afterwards proved to be 55 killed, 170 wounded.
We had now a short period of rest, and I got the opportunity of visiting the Rev. H. F. Schoon, minister of Ladysmith, in Intombi Camp, in which the English had placed the non-combatants, the women, and the sick and wounded. An arrangement had been made with Sir George White to allow burghers, who had leave from their Commandants, to enter this camp to see their friends.
Strange, is it not? It was impossible for such a thing to happen in the later phases of the war. Well, I got leave from Commandant de Villiers to go, and had the pleasure of visiting my friend and his family, and of comforting them in their trouble. They looked pale and weak. I learnt that they got enough to eat, but that the meat was very lean and bad,—other rations were dealt out to them in small doles. I found Mr. Schoon and his family were very quiet and resigned. We could not converse as we should have wished, for a magistrate was present; but I could hear enough to gather that the besieged were in a piteous plight.
On my way to this camp I visited the dam which the Transvaalers were constructing across the stream of the Klip River with the intention of inundating Ladysmith. I saw a great number of Kaffirs there filling thousands of bags with sand, with which to make the dam, which was already level with the surface of the water.
On the 12th of February, General Buller commenced his third attempt to break through. On this occasion he advanced along the Potgieter's Drift road, and tried to force his way through to the south of that road. It was marvellous to see how rapidly the burghers got into position everywhere to oppose the English. The Johannesburg Police suffered very heavy losses. Their position was subjected to such severe bombardment that they could not endure it, and were forced to evacuate it, leaving behind their dead. The English then took possession of it, but were in turn shelled by our guns, especially by one of the Long Toms; and they speedily relinquished the advantage they had gained.
Here again General Buller's effort was a failure, and he retired south of the Tugela with his whole force.
The following week I went to Harrismith to spend a week with my family, so that I was not on commando when the English broke through at Pieter's Heights and at last relieved Ladysmith. I can therefore say nothing of that, to us, ill-fated battle. I can only say in passing, that the great mistake there seems to have been that General Botha was not in command. When he arrived on the scene at the commencement of the battle, he strongly disapproved of no measures having been taken to prevent the English from taking Klanwane—the wooded ridge to the east of Colenso. "If the English once get on that hill—we have no chance," he said. And what he had said proved true.
The English took the kop and placed their naval guns on it, and they then had the key to Ladysmith. It was then all over with us! From Klanwane they could direct a terrific bombardment on all the Boer positions. And the Boers were overpowered by the overwhelming odds of cannon as well as men.
After besieging Ladysmith for four months, the siege was given up and our forces retired to the north.
The commandos trekked with all speed through the mud—for the weather was rainy: the Transvaalers to the Biggarsberg and the Free Staters to the Drakensberg.
I visited the Harrismith burghers a few days after they had pitched their camp on the great mountain range. What thoughts passed through my heart on thinking how different was our position four months ago when we had descended from those towering mountains into Natal. During the four that had elapsed we had been very successful, except during the last month, when we began to have disaster on disaster. Cronje had surrendered at Paardeberg. Kimberley, Ladysmith, and Mafeking had been relieved; and just after I arrived in the laager, the report came that Lord Roberts had occupied Bloemfontein without firing a shot. Was this the beginning of the end? I asked myself.
Those were dark days! And yet no one was utterly cast down. "Matters will take a turn," so everyone said; and notwithstanding all that had happened, we looked forward hopefully.
And how much help, too, did not the men receive from their wives. Those who obtained leave to go home for a few days, found their wives as courageous as ever. They found, too, that their womenfolk had performed the labour of men on the farms, while they had been in Natal. They had seen that the fields were ploughed by the Kaffirs, and in many cases they had themselves scattered the seed in the furrows; and now the men would commence to reap what the women had sown, to reap so plentifully that man and beast would live for months upon the harvest.
What noble women are the wives of the Boers! They are the very embodiment of the love of liberty. They have ever been ready to stand by the sides of their husbands, in the holy cause of freedom. In former days they moulded bullets for their husbands, while these were repulsing a fierce onslaught of Kaffirs; and now they had managed the entire farm-work, while the men were absent, fighting for their country. And in the future—alas! that such a future should lie before them—they will have to suffer inexpressible sorrows, because they will choose to be the true-hearted mothers of a free nation. Because of their steadfastness they will have to suffer as the women of no civilised nation have ever suffered at the hands of the soldiers of another civilised nation. They will refuse to call back their husbands from the heroic strife; and for that they will have to submit to humiliation and insult; for that they will be driven from their homes like cattle; for that they will have to yield their lives in concentration camps; they will have to see their homes burnt, and the food taken out of the mouths of their children, and all this because they have held their Liberty dearer than anything. We knew not then, during those dark days on the Drakensberg, that such a future lay before our women. But we saw enough of their indomitable courage, to know that with such heroines for mothers, wives, sisters, daughters—it was impossible for us to give up the struggle at the first sign of adversity. That was a source of consolation to us in the sorrowful days of March 1900.