I had felt very much discouraged on the farm of Mr. Salamon Raath. There I had thought that all was lost—at any rate as far as the commandos behind Nauwpoort were concerned. There is no doubt that the burghers noticed it in my behaviour, and inferred it from my language.
There was indeed much to cause this melancholy state of mind: the disposition of the burghers to retreat, the discouraging words of some officers, the expressive silence of others; and when we heard at last that matters had reached a climax in the unconditional surrender of General Prinsloo, the coup de grâce, so to speak, was given to my hopes.
I of course attached no importance to the braggadocio of those who loudly declared that Prinsloo ought to be shot, while they themselves were the most unwilling to go into positions, or deserted those positions on the bursting of the first shells there. They could not rectify matters by boasting, nor did it give me any assurance of a brighter future. But on the morning after I awoke at Harrismith I felt more sanguine; and it grieved me that I, who had always spoken words of encouragement, should have shown signs of despondency; and I felt now that I ought to stand by those who wanted to continue the struggle, and remain with them till the end, come what may. I recalled also what I had written to the President not long before, namely, that it was my intention to attach myself to those who would rally round him at the last, if it became necessary. Now, as Olivier, Hasebroek, and others had decided to go to the President and General de Wet in order to be reorganised, I decided to go too. If the struggle had to be given up, let our Government give it up.
In order to carry out this resolution, I rode away from Harrismith early next morning, in order to proceed to Zwart Klip, the farm of General de Villiers, and with him to accompany the commandos that had escaped, in their search for the President and General de Wet. That morning I reached the farm of Mr. Matheus Maré. As, however, the English did not on that day arrive at Harrismith, I returned in the evening to spend another night with my family. But this could not be, for I found there were straggling bands from the commandos in town who were taking horses out of the stables, whether they belonged to friend or enemy; and I saw that if I wanted to make sure of a horse to ride, it would be better not to trust to the chance of finding my horses in the stable at daybreak. Therefore, when de Villiers and some others resolved to leave Harrismith immediately, I determined to do the same and accompany them. So at midnight between the 1st and 2nd of August 1900, I parted from my wife and children, and proceeded to the farm of Mr. Stephanus Schoeman. On the following day I obtained from Mr. Schoeman the loan of a strong pony (on the previous day I had got an excellent horse from Mr. Adriaan Dolebout); and we rode away.
On the way to Zwart Klip we passed the commandos, and heard that English officers had followed the burghers with a white flag, and advised them to surrender. These messengers were sent back with the answer that the burghers had no intention whatever of doing any such thing. On the way I met two of our principal men, who had hitherto been amongst the warmest supporters of our cause, but whose names I shall not here record. They were in no very hopeful mood, and it seemed to me that very little was needed to induce them to go and lay down their arms.
This did not tend to cheer me; but I was encouraged somewhat when later in the day I spoke to Jan Jacobsz, Louw Wepener, and others, and noticed how firmly resolved they were to continue the struggle.
On the following day a meeting of Harrismith burghers was held at Molen River bridge. At that meeting it was resolved to send the English Generals a letter informing them that it was our opinion that, for the reasons already stated, we regarded the action of General Marthinus Prinsloo in surrendering himself with the whole of the force as illegal; also that it was our firm resolve to continue the struggle. Further, General de Villiers was enjoined to commandeer the Harrismith burghers anew. This he did that same afternoon, and sent one "commandeer list" with Mr. Jacob van Reenen to Field-Cornet Gert Pretorius, and another with Piet Grabe to Assistant Field-Cornet Johannas Loots. In the evening we heard that the enemy were at Glen Lennie on their way to Harrismith, and that a patrol had already reached the town commonage. We then knew that before the sun would set once more our town would be in possession of the English. There remained, therefore, nothing for us to do but to make the last preparations for taking our departure. Everything was made ready that same evening, and early next morning we proceeded to join the other commandos.
Here it must be noted that there were many in the district of Harrismith who regarded these commandos with the greatest contempt, and who indulged in very strong language regarding them. These commandos were—so they said—very uncontrolled, taking everywhere what they wanted from shops and farms.
It was further alleged that they thought of nothing but running away; and it was argued that this was proved not only by the fact that they had retreated from Nauwpoort, but also by their contriving to avoid the enemy even after they had escaped from the mountains.
This was the excuse which many of the burghers of Harrismith gave for surrendering a few days later. They were, they declared, unwilling to accompany and act with a band of robbers; and thought it better to lay down their arms immediately than to carry, and not fight with them.
The answer to this is not far to seek. That the commandos were demoralised was evident; no one with his eyes open could doubt this. But now they went to their President and Commander-in-Chief! Why? Was it not for the sole and only purpose of getting breathing-time?—to get reorganised? And was it not therefore the duty of everyone to join those who were going to the Government for that purpose? Surely no burgher had the right to turn his back upon his Government, whilst it was still in existence, and whilst the road by which to reach it remained open.—By not doing this they made themselves guilty of desertion.
This weighed heavily with me, and although I saw much in the burghers that I most strongly disapproved of, and although I had myself not yet wholly regained my former hopefulness, I could not regard the matter from any other point of view than that, so long as the President had not surrendered, I could not do so either, and that it was my duty to stay with those who did not intend doing so. And thus it occurred that I began a journey, which was to last twenty-one months, on Saturday, the 4th of August 1900.
I was one of a small company of which General de Villiers was the chief person. He did not at that juncture enjoy a very high reputation, because there was no lack of persons who declared that he had not acted in good faith at Nauwpoort, and that he had been in league with the enemy. I was convinced of the contrary, and remained in his company. I had enjoyed his hospitality when all went well with him, and now I would not desert him when his sky had become clouded.
We reached the commandos at Gwarri Kop, near Cornelius River, and we learnt there that messengers from the British had again come to insist upon our surrender.
How much trouble did the Generals to whom Prinsloo had surrendered not take to induce us to desert! What noble work it was for warriors to do! If the English had succeeded in this the war would have been brought to an end, without their having the trouble of fighting any more. But what would Lord Roberts have thought of it if our positions could have been reversed, and if we had sent messenger upon messenger to his discouraged and weary subordinates and soldiers to persuade them to be unfaithful to their country and their flag? Our leaders were steadfast, and sent the English officers back with the message, that not only had we no intention of surrendering, but that we also did not wish to receive any more messengers with similar proposals.
The following day, being Sunday, I held a service in the house of Mr. David de Villiers, at Holspruit, and then rode to the commando to see if I could be of any use there. But that faithful Free Stater, the student MacDonald, was just busy holding service. I was greatly edified and comforted by his interpretation of the words, "I will lift mine eyes to the hills from whence cometh my help!"
During the week we heard from our President. His letter was in answer to a report, despatched immediately after the Nauwpoort affair, informing him of the state of affairs. He expressed himself deeply grieved at the surrender, and appointed General P. Fourie as Acting Chief-Commandant. He also mentioned that many burghers had taken up arms again, and urged us to come to him as speedily as possible. A few days after this, Judge Hertzog came to us. He said that he had been sent to lead us to the President and the Chief-Commandant, and brought us the latest news from the Transvaal.
We now travelled a long distance every night, halting during the day. Our way of "trekking" was to begin at nightfall and to continue till about midnight or two o'clock in the morning, and then to tie the oxen to the yokes and hobble the horses. This "trekking" was not pleasant; for the weather continued bitterly cold, and to remain in the saddle almost the whole night with icy cold feet was certainly not enjoyable. But it had to be done, and no one grumbled.
Our laager was by no means perfect, as may well be imagined. We consisted of small numbers from almost every district of the Orange Free State, and were not used to each other. Moreover, there were too many officers. There were generals without commandants, and commandants with hardly any men. Under these circumstances one can well understand that there existed but little cohesion amongst us, and that the burghers committed excesses of which they would not have been guilty had the laager consisted solely of burghers from one district. It thus happened that some wasted their ammunition by firing it away at game, and through carelessness the veld was set on fire almost daily. This continued until by stringent measures and heavy fines the delinquents were deterred. One instance of a sad veld fire occurred on the 11th of August. It began at a spot where a camp-fire had been lit, and might have resulted in the destruction of a large portion of the laager. It was quite calm when we rose that morning, but soon the wind began to blow. The storm raged more and more fiercely, and somebody said that if no order were given to put out all fires in the laager there was danger for the veld. This had hardly been said when someone shouted, "The veld is on fire!" Everything was now in commotion to leeward of the wind. Tents were pulled down, and the burghers hurriedly removed their saddles, bedding, and whatever they could, across the road to a place of safety. Some dragged the waggons by hand out of danger, and others ran about with sacks to extinguish the fire; but all did not assist in the attempt to extinguish the flames—only those who were in danger—the others looked on at the fire with colossal indifference, and went on roasting their meat or doing whatever they were busy with, as if there was no danger at the other end of the laager. But how great was the danger there! Each burgher redoubled his energies and did his utmost. All, however, would have been in vain, and a portion of the laager would inevitably have been destroyed if there had not fortunately been a narrow road between us and the fire. Besides, by a lucky chance there was the hide of an ox which had been slaughtered that morning. This was dragged across the fire, and wherever it was drawn it extinguished the flames; and in this way the laager was saved from destruction. But it was just as impossible to stop the conflagration as it is to stem the strong current of a river in flood. The flames sped onward, and soon all the veld to the east was black. Subsequently we heard of great damage done by this fire, and that lives had even been lost. What mischief had we not done by our unpardonable carelessness,—and we had always taken it so much amiss when the British troops had set fire to the veld!
The wind continued blowing all day, but died away in the evening. We then inspanned according to custom, and "trekked" onward to the banks of the spruit named Klip River, six miles east of Heilbron.
We now hoped to reach the laager of General de Wet shortly, as it had been in the vicinity of this town when Judge Hertzog had left it.
The following day, being Sunday, Mr. MacDonald and I held religious services in different parts of the laager.
We learnt in the course of the day that a considerable force of British was barring our way. This forced us to draw back some distance. We proceeded far into the night, and on Monday morning we were just as far south of Heilbron as we had been east the day before. It then began to seem doubtful if we should meet the President and General de Wet as speedily as we had hoped, not only because the English were in our front, but also because our scouts told us that we might expect a British force in our rear, coming with the road from Bethlehem towards Heilbron. Messages were, however, sent to General de Wet, and from him also tidings were received from time to time.
On the following day, Tuesday, 14th of August, it appeared that we should come in contact with the enemy. The force which was marching along the road from Bethlehem to Heilbron was coming nearer and nearer, and we came in collision with it not far from Vecht Kop of "voortrekker" fame, where Sarel Celliers had frustrated the Matabeles in 1837 in their attempt to take his laager.
The British trekked along between the ridges, where our men had taken up positions, and this kop. At twelve o'clock our guns opened fire on the enemy, which was fiercely responded to by the English cannon. Our burghers held the positions they occupied till late in the afternoon; but when the enemy's infantry advanced in strong force from the front, and the burghers, who held a position on a pointed hillock to the right, gave way, the men who fought in the centre were forced to retire. They did this under a hail of bullets, and it is a miracle that many were not killed. Only one was wounded there; but altogether we lost three dead and seven wounded on that day.
We were not elated over this result, but according to what we heard a month later, the loss of the English was greater than ours. It appeared that the enemy's purpose was to reach Heilbron, for we were not pursued, and after dark we proceeded in a south-westerly direction.
It now speedily became evident that we should not reach the President for some time. Word had come that he and General de Wet had taken refuge in the Transvaal, and that they were being pursued by an enormous force.
Our officers decided to act according to circumstances: to oppose the enemy wherever it was practicable, or to retire whenever we were forced to do so; but in all cases steadfastly to remain under arms. We had done our utmost to reach our President and Chief-Commandant, and had failed. But the short time of respite which had elapsed since the affair at Nauwpoort had exerted a beneficial influence on all, for we were now more and more convinced that, whether we reached the Chief of our State or not, surrender was not to be thought of as long as our Government existed.