This second part of my notes, like the first, is not cast in the form of a journal. The reason is that my diary was lost on the 6th of June 1901 at Graspan, near Reitz, where I was captured by the English and remained in their hands for seven hours. I escaped with nothing more than the clothes on my back. When, some days after, I arrived at Fouriesburg I began to rewrite what I could recollect, and succeeded in this better than might have been expected. I prepared a calendar of the Sundays, and this helped me to recall to memory, for every day of the week, almost everything I had noted down. It became evident, however, that I could not now write a journal, but a narrative. This, as I knew, would be less attractive for the future historian, to whom a chronicle, however dry, is of more importance, but it would be, in regard to form, more pleasing to the general reader.
Girding myself to the task, I discovered when I began to write that what I was recording afresh was perfectly reliable. I succeeded better than I expected. Entire pages appeared almost word for word. This was no doubt due to my having written my journal over several times at Zwart Klip, in the months of January and February 1901.
I shall now proceed to relate what I witnessed during the war subsequent to the events which had happened when I made my last notes in Natal.
When the burghers of the Free State had to retire from Natal, a large number of them were ordered to go as reinforcements to our forces who were endeavouring to prevent Lord Roberts with his immense army from penetrating farther into our country. The burghers, however, of Harrismith, Vrede, and Heilbron, under Chief-Commandant Marthinus Prinsloo, were to remain on the Drakensberg to guard the border. They lay along those mountains from Oliviershoek on the west as far as De Beer's Pass to the east. Subsequently the burghers of Heilbron were also called away; and when General Prinsloo shortly after went away to our commandos in the neighbourhood of Lindley and Senekal, Commandant Hattingh of Vrede was elected Chief-Commandant.
I spent nearly the half of my time in visiting these burghers. On Sundays I held divine service in the church at Harrismith, and on week-days I was in one or other of the laagers on the Drakensberg.
It was very irksome for our burghers to lie there inactive, without ever coming into contact with the enemy; for from Natal the English made no advance.
Our men stood guard day and night, and now and then a patrol went down the mountain; but further than this nothing was done. The spare time was employed in building sod-stables for the horses, and making "yoke-skeys" and handsome walking-sticks from the wood of beautiful trees which were ruthlessly felled in the large forests which grow on the Natal side of the Drakensberg mountains. For the rest the younger men amused themselves with swimming, cricket, football, and quoits, and so summer glided away into autumn, and autumn into winter.
Sad waste of energy and time, one might say, whilst the other burghers were engaged in a life-and-death struggle in the middle of the State. Undoubtedly so! But the order had been given: Guard the frontier! And as in obeying this command the burghers of Vrede and Harrismith had also the advantage of protecting their own districts, it was by no means against their will that they thus lay inactive from month to month along the border.
But there came a change in this condition of things when, towards the middle of July 1900, an order was issued by the President that all the forces on the Drakensberg mountains should proceed to Nauwpoort. The border guard immediately raised the objection that it was not advisable to remove all the forces from the frontier, and thus leave the only two districts in the Free State—Vrede and Harrismith—that had not yet been devastated, open to invasion from the side of Natal, and unprotected against Kaffir "raids," and they asked the President if he would not change his decision in this matter. After some correspondence, the President agreed that a small body of men should be left as a guard along the border under Mr. Jan Meyer, who for this purpose was appointed Acting Chief-Commandant; but at the same time gave very strict orders that all the other burghers should without delay proceed to Nauwpoort.
In accordance with these orders the burghers who had since the month of February been stationed on the Drakensberg, left their positions there on the 16th of July 1900, and two days later, after having made some necessary arrangements at their farms, encamped for the night near Mont Paul, about three miles from Elands River. This force consisted of burghers from Harrismith and Vrede, with one Armstrong and two Krupp guns under command of Chief-Commandant Hattingh, with Mr. C. J. de Villiers as General. Early the following morning they crossed Elands River, and the officers held a council of war on the left bank, during a short halt of the laager, when it was decided to requisition slaughter-cattle and horses from the burghers remaining behind, and some of the men were immediately sent to carry out this resolution. That night we encamped at Klerkespruit, not far from the dwelling of the late M. Jacobsz.
On the following day things began to take a more lively turn. The waggons were inspanned early, and had proceeded to the farm Sebastopol, where, about five o'clock in the afternoon, a report-rider from a position of the Bethlehem Commando at Spits Kop came riding into our laager with the request that reinforcements should immediately be sent by us to Spits Kop, to oppose an English force that had marched out of Bethlehem with the apparent intention of going to Harrismith. General de Villiers was in the vanguard, and immediately sent notice to the Assistant Chief-Commandant, at the same time requesting him to send the guns forward. Hurried preparations were now made to proceed without delay with a body of mounted men, and from time to time other despatch riders arrived, urgently asking that there should be no delay.
At ten o'clock everything was ready, and the men rode out in the raw winter night. We progressed slowly, for the cannon remained far behind, and from time to time we were obliged to wait for them to come up. Everywhere along the road grass fires could be seen, which had been lit by the burghers to warm their feet by whilst they were waiting for the guns to arrive. At last they halted by a hill to the west of Groendraai, and slept there until the moon rose. We proceeded then to near Davelsrust, and whilst the burghers were filling their kettles there, and partaking of an early breakfast, another messenger arrived with the same request as before. The men ate their breakfast hurriedly, and we were soon in the saddle again marching forward with various expectations. When we drew near to the positions of the Bethlehem men, General de Villiers sent forward the Armstrong under Acting Commandant Streydom (Vrede) to Field-Cornet Gideon Blignaut, who was at Spits Kop, whilst he himself with the two Krupp guns went eastwards, against a force of the English on the left bank of Liebenberg's Vlei, on the hills opposite Langberg. When we approached the enemy we occasionally heard the whistle of a bullet, with the peculiar sensation which that sound is apt to cause. But how suddenly did that pass when the roar of our own guns fell on our ears. The fire of our Krupps made the English, at whom they were aimed, scatter; but our gunners had, in their turn, to seek safety behind a ridge, when the little shells of an English Maxim-Nordenfeldt (pom-pom) began bursting rather unpleasantly around them, and driving terror into the artillery horses. They took up a position at the edge of the ridge, opposite the English, not far from the house of Mr. Nicholas Kruger, a little to the east of a small body of Bethlehem men, and from there kept up a desultory rifle fire until the evening.
The following day was Sunday, the 22nd of July. When we awoke it appeared that the enemy had disappeared from the ridge, and about ten o'clock a portion of the burghers were ordered to occupy the deserted positions.
The men were soon there, and a desultory fire was opened from the edge of the ridge to the north-west. After a short time the firing became more severe. The English also brought a Maxim into play, and it seemed as if the fight was going to be a sharper one than that on the previous day. Nothing in the world was the matter; everything, on the contrary, was going satisfactorily, when some officers came riding back from the position to General de Villiers, who was directing the fight from the positions which we had occupied the day before, and told him that the place where the burghers were fighting was untenable. Thereupon the General ordered that they should retire slowly. The burghers who were fighting at the edge of the ridge heard this with much astonishment and disapproval, as they saw no reason for drawing back; but when they noticed that the men on their left were all riding away from their position, they were also obliged to give way. At two o'clock we were back in the positions of the previous day, and the burghers thronged together at a point of vantage to gaze at the positions which had thus been forsaken, filled with dissatisfaction at the desertion.
When they were standing there crowded together, the sound of an approaching shell was heard. It flew just too high, fortunately, over the heads of the throng of burghers, and burst in the kloof behind them. Had it been a little lower it would have worked dreadful havoc. The men dispersed quicker than they had come together, and sought shelter behind the large boulders; and then shell upon shell kept falling till the evening, without, however, doing any damage to man or beast. It had been quite unnecessary to leave those positions, and it struck me as a bad sign that the burghers were so ready to give way. That evening when we turned in the weather was beautifully mild, but this was the harbinger of calamity! Hardly had we lain down to rest before a drizzling rain set in. At midnight I heard a peculiar sound, as of something soft falling upon the blankets. It was snow! Soon it lay two inches thick upon our blankets. After two hours the rain and the snow ceased, but most of us were wet to the skin; and when on the following day we dried our clothes by the fire, we could speak from experience of having had to sleep in the open air in a snowstorm.
After breakfast General de Villiers crossed Liebenberg's Vlei to reconnoitre the positions of the English from Langberg. On arriving there he saw that the enemy was drawing off in the direction of Spits Kop, whereupon he immediately returned. He then ordered the whole of our force to march in the same direction, to support Assistant Commandant Streydom and Field-Cornet Blignaut. He had just given this order when a report arrived from the latter officer, stating that the enemy had occupied Spits Kop, and asking for reinforcements.
After dark we began marching thither; we proceeded with the utmost silence. No fire was lit along the road; smoking was forbidden. Before daylight we were near the position held by Field-Cornet Blignaut, near the so-called "Schurve Kopje" (rugged hillock). It was then resolved that we should go to the hill between the homesteads of Hans and David Naudé, where we arrived shortly before sunrise. We had not long been there before General Hattingh arrived. He ordered Commandant Truter, with a number of burghers, to return to Liebenberg's Vlei, and to remain there in order to oppose the enemy should they return thither. In the afternoon we saw a large force of the English approaching along the road that leads over Suiherbosch Plaat. This force was under the command of General Sir H. MacDonald, and had, as we ascertained later on, come from Retief's Nek. The enemy pitched their camp about three or four miles from us, and immediately began to throw out scouts in our direction.
On the following day a council of war was held, and it was resolved to station the burghers as follows:—
The Bethlehem men, under Field-Cornet Blignaut, at Liebenberg's Vlei; the men of Vrede, under Acting Commandant Streydom, at the "Schurve Kopje"; one Field-Cornet at the hill, where the Harrismith men were; and the burghers of Harrismith in the nek of Nauwpoort.
On that same afternoon General de Villiers received a letter from General Roux requesting him to hold Nauwpoort, as it was the intention of the commandos who were on the other side to come through this Pass. The burghers of the various commandos occupied these positions accordingly, and I went to Nauwpoort with the Harrismith burghers.
Next morning General de Villiers expected an attack, and as it was clear to him that the Field-Cornet at the hill between the homesteads of Hans and David Naudé would not be strong enough to stop the English, he sent Field-Cornet Pretorius and Assistant Field-Cornet Jan Jacobsz thither with a number of men, whilst he posted Commandant Truter on a fine ridge on the west of the Pass near the house of Abraham Naudé. He remained at Nauwpoort with the intention of going to the hill himself later on.
We had hardly reached the hill when it became evident that the enemy had some serious intention in mind. They began to move forward, and marched straight for the hill with two field batteries and one lyddite gun. The force which had taken Spits Kop began at the same time to advance with their guns to "Schurve Kopje."
This had just happened when we saw that the men of the Vrede Commando on the Schurve Kopje were leaving their positions. They certainly had no chance of holding out against the great odds that were advancing on them.
It was now clear to us that we should be in danger of being attacked on our right, if the English who were advancing from Spits Kop should reach the Schurve Kopje, and the prospect was not very cheering. The enemy now began to bombard our positions. The infantry were approaching in extended order. Nearer and nearer they advanced in front as well as on our left.
Our guns, under Sergeant Oosthuizen, did good work, and gave the troops who were advancing on the left a warm reception. Louder and louder roared the English guns, and their shells burst everywhere on and beyond the kop.
General de Villiers rode over to us at one o'clock—just as the fight was at the fiercest. Matters then stood thus: some of the English had already approached so near to our left wing that we were exposed to a cross fire, and others in front were already below the rocky ledges, under cover of which they could get to our rear; moreover, we were in danger of being at any moment bombarded by the guns on the Schurve Kopje, which the enemy had already taken.
For another hour the burghers held their position, and a sharp rifle fire was maintained against the troops on our left flank, especially by Field-Cornet Jan Jacobsz. But when at last it became evident that we should be surrounded if we remained there any longer, the order was given at two o'clock to leave the position. We retired to the west of Mr. Hans Naudé's house, and halted on the banks of a donga not far from the foot of the Roodebergen.
If we had had no cannon with us, we could immediately have crossed the dongas near the mountains and have gone to the Pass. But there were the guns. They could travel along the waggon road only; and this was now impossible because of the proximity of the enemy. Our plan, therefore, was to remain where we were until it became dark, and then, under cover of the night, to trek to Nauwpoort.
But we had not calculated the probability that the enemy would immediately follow up the advantage they had gained. That is just what they did.
We had not been off-saddled at the donga three-quarters of an hour before our pickets came in to say that the English were following us up. At all costs now we had to push on to the Pass.
Most of the burghers sprang on their horses and rode away without troubling themselves about the guns. They had to be stopped; and General de Villiers asked me to ride forward and try to stop them, whilst he would drag forward the guns as best he could. I succeeded in inducing the men to halt at another ravine, and when the guns arrived there, many of them helped the gunners to get the ordnance across. It was an ugly defile through which vehicles never passed, and we were obliged first to drag across the fore portion of the gun-carriage, and then to fetch the hinder part. This caused great delay, and meanwhile the enemy fired at us with Maxims, though luckily their shots fell short. The one cannon was already across, and the second one nearly saved, when the shrill shriek of the English shrapnel was heard.
And now there was no longer any chance to stop the men. Each went his own way. To add to our troubles, the carriage of the second gun upset and had to be left behind. The gunners removed the breach and rode away.
It was now a case of Sauve qui peut. Some took shelter behind the large rocks, others climbed the mountain, whilst others hurried on to the Pass; but all became conspicuous targets before the Roodebergen and the setting sun shining upon them.
I rode towards Nauwpoort, and saw how shell upon shell was fired after our cannon and the swiftly retreating burghers.
Once during the retreat Sergeant Oosthuizen halted, directed his gun, and fired three rounds of shrapnel at the enemy, hitched his horses to again and drove on.
To add to our uneasiness, we saw on approaching the Pass, that the English were advancing on our flank, with the object of cutting us off from the nek; but they were hotly bombarded there by the burghers of Commandant Truter from the ridge on which he was posted, and by a Maxim of Commandant Hasebroek, who had in the meanwhile entered the Pass. This prevented them from attaining their object of heading us off.
When the sun set the majority of those who had retreated in the direction of that Pass had reached Nauwpoort; likewise our rescued gun; and from there it opened fire heavily upon the English. Then the enemy fired some lyddite shells at long range upon us in the Pass. I have never heard anything more awe-inspiring than when those great shells exploded there. Awakening the thousand echoes of the precipitous rocks on both sides of the Pass, they resounded through the narrow defiles of the mountains like mighty thunder-claps. The shades of night fell now, and all was still. Then the gunners, reinforced by a number of burghers, went and fetched the abandoned gun.
And what had we to record as to our loss on the following day after this terrible bombardment? There had been no loss at all—this was the most marvellous of all that had happened—no loss! This is the strangest of all—no loss of man or beast! Nobody had even been wounded! All—officers and men, were mustered without loss before midday.