Sunday, the 29th July 1900, must stand on record as the saddest day in the history of our struggle. It was on that day that General Marthinus Prinsloo unconditionally surrendered the whole of the forces under him to General Hunter, notwithstanding the fact that at that moment he was not Chief-Commandant according to law. But let me relate in due order what I experienced.
After having held a short service for the men of Harrismith early in the morning of that Sunday, General de Villiers and Piet Maré, member of the Volksraad, addressed them, and General Froneman, who happened to be present, also said a few words. We then passed through the nek to the north of the dwelling of Mr. Salamon Raath, for the purpose of taking up positions against the forces of the enemy under General MacDonald, with whom we had been engaged on the other side of the Roodebergen on the previous Thursday. Those forces had meanwhile moved round by "Davelsrust," with the object of preventing the commandos from escaping at Oldenburg or Witzieshoek.
General de Villiers rode to the house of Mr. Jan Raath to be present at a meeting of officers who had still to vote for the election of a Chief-Commandant. After they had voted, it appeared (so we learnt in the evening) that General Roux had finally been elected Chief-Commandant!
When General de Villiers, with his Field-Cornet, left for the meeting, he ordered his men to occupy a high hill near the residence of Mr. Jan Raath, and left one of the burghers in command during his absence. His burghers thereupon rode along a ditch on the way to the position, but before reaching it they turned off to the right and eventually halted near the house of Assistant Field-Cornet Jan Jacobsz. Here they slaughtered two oxen and ate and drank, preferring to avoid the enemy to fighting him! I saw how things would go. From the ridge behind us I had seen Platberg in the distance, at the foot of which Harrismith lies, and pointing in the direction of their homes I remarked to someone: "Next Sunday all these burghers will be on their farms."
A peremptory command was sent to the burghers to occupy their positions, but they got no farther than a gully; for the enemy was already in possession of the hill which we should have occupied in the morning, and all we could do now was to fire shrapnel at them. At night there was nothing left for us but to retire to the nek. We little knew then what General Prinsloo had been doing that day.
The following day I was up early, and accompanied Mr. Frans Papenfus to the house of A. Cilliers. There I drank a cup of coffee, and then rode on to Mr. Salamon Raath's. On the way thither a Harrismith burgher asked me if it was true that General Prinsloo had surrendered the whole of our force to the English. This was the first word I heard about the matter. I could, however, not believe that Prinsloo would do such a thing, and laughingly replied that the report was certainly incorrect. But very soon it became evident that what the burgher had heard was only too true. General Marthinus Prinsloo had indeed surrendered unconditionally to the enemy. A copy of a letter from General Hunter was handed round, in which he gave the assurance, subject to ratification by Lord Roberts, that no private property or personal belongings of the burghers should be touched, and that each burgher would be provided with a horse to the place where he had to give up his arms.
The greatest excitement prevailed. Many abused Prinsloo, and declared that he ought to be shot. This surprised me, not only because I knew what the resolution of the Council of War on the Friday night had been with regard to the surrender, but also because I had been an eye-witness of the state of despondency of the burghers and of their unwillingness to fight. If Prinsloo should be shot, surely other officers deserved the same fate, and many of the burghers as well. So I thought on that sad Monday morning. Later on, however, it became plain to me that, after all, General Prinsloo had to bear the blame. If there had been a victory he would have claimed the honour. Now, the disgrace of the surrender must for ever be associated with his name. Was he not Chief-Commandant, or at least did he not act as such? And is it not the duty of a Chief to instil courage, where such courage is on the wane, and to lead on where no one else would advance of his own accord? The Chief, indeed, should be the best, the most courageous, and the bravest burgher, else anyone might take upon himself the command of an army. Ah! if ever a leader was wanted, the perplexed multitude, shut up as they were within the mountains behind Nauwpoort, had need of one.
Most of the burghers thought they were bound by the resolution of General Prinsloo to submit and to lay down their arms. I thought so too. Why did we have a Commander if, under certain circumstances, we had to decide for ourselves without recognising him? Unfortunate are the people that in such a case have to decide for themselves. It was my impression that all was lost, at least as far as we who were behind Nauwpoort were concerned. There were, however, others who instinctively judged otherwise about the matter. The shame of surrender while there was a chance of escape by a route running past the dwelling of Salamon Raath seemed to be too great to them, and they declared that they would not lay down their arms.
On the other hand, there were others who, while they did not mind the loss of their independence so much, could simply not bear the thought of being captured, and I heard many say: "I shall not allow myself to be caught by an Englishman." There were also others who were already out of the defiles, and they could not think of returning. And so it happened that a number of burghers under Generals Kolbe and Froneman, and Commandants Olivier, Hasebroek, Visser, van Tonder, Truter, and others, with six guns and some Maxims, immediately moved away in the direction of Harrismith.
In the meanwhile it was said that some persons had been seen with a white flag on the nek to the north of Mr. Salamon Raath's house. General de Villiers went thither, but on the way he was told that they had disappeared.
On his return to his waggons he heard that these persons had been seen at another place.
Two burghers whom he sent to bring them to the laager failed to find them. Instead of returning at once, these two burghers, quite on their own responsibility and without orders, went straight to the English force under General MacDonald, who was then near the house of Jan Raath. The English General received them with the distrust of one who finds men from the army of the enemy coming into his camp without credentials; but eventually believing their statement, that they had missed meeting his messengers with the white flag, he sent them back with a letter to General de Villiers informing him that General Prinsloo had surrendered together with the whole of the Boer force. He asked General de Villiers to abide by what General Prinsloo had done, and warned him that any movement on his part would be regarded as an "act of war."
While this was taking place, another messenger had been sent in the opposite direction to General Hunter, to obtain further information regarding the surrender. This messenger was met by Commandant Visser, who immediately sent him back with the assurance that General Prinsloo, not being Chief-Commandant, had in this whole matter acted without authority, that the surrender was illegal, and that no one was to consider himself bound by it. General Fourie, who had not yet reached the farm of Salamon Raath, also sent a despatch to the officers requesting that their men should take up positions.
When the men of Harrismith who had not gone out with Commandant Truter heard this, their joy was boundless, for they had been in great doubt as to what they should do; especially after General de Villiers had said during the course of the day that he, being included under the surrender of General Prinsloo, was not an officer any longer, and therefore left it to each burgher to act as he might think fit. Now, however, he again took the command, and ordered the burghers to go into the positions.
With shouts of joy, and singing the "Volkslied," they rode out to occupy the nek. But they got no farther than the house of Salamon Raath, for it appeared that no one else wanted to fight any more. Meanwhile a meeting was held by the officers present, and at that meeting there were Field-Cornets who said that neither they nor their men would fight any longer, declaring at the same time that the leaders, if they continued the struggle, would be guilty of needless bloodshed.
And so the positions remained unoccupied.
This made everybody there hopeless again, and now it appeared that there was nothing left but to remain there and surrender. General de Villiers called his burghers together, and thanked them for the services they had rendered to the State and for the attachment and kindness shown to his person. I also spoke a few words and declared amongst other things, that I could not believe that it was all over with our South African Cause, but if it were so, then it would be owing to our unwillingness. God would have wished to establish for us our independence, but we should have refused to earn it.
In the course of the day General Roux had ridden in the greatest haste to General Hunter to protest against the surrender of Prinsloo, on the ground of its being illegal: first, because he, and not Prinsloo, was the commanding officer; and secondly, because Prinsloo had in any case not acted in accordance with the resolution taken by the Council of War on Friday night. General Roux, as might have been expected, did not return.
The only two Generals who were beyond the circle of mountains which surround Oldenberg, and who could have proceeded onward, were Generals P. Fourie and C. T. de Villiers. They agreed to remain where they were for that night, not far from the house of Mr. Salamon Raath, in order to ascertain on the following day what General Roux had been able to do; but before dawn of the following day, General de Villiers heard that General Fourie had gone away without saying a word about it Great was the indignation of General de Villiers. He immediately ordered his men to inspan and saddle their horses. We hurried away, and I arrived at Harrismith in the evening, after two of the saddest weeks of my life. How dejected I felt. How sad was my wife. How dark the future seemed to be.