We had heard from General de Wet. This was the reason for the meeting of officers two days after the taking of Ladybrand. General de Wet had ordered that the Harrismith Commando should proceed between Kroonstad and Rhenoster River, and should be employed along the railway line in interrupting the communications of the enemy, whilst the burghers of Vrede were to go to him—but without encumbering themselves with their waggons, and that the other commandos were to proceed farther west, everywhere taking the towns and appointing magistrates.
On Saturday, the 8th of September, we separated. From Commandant Hasebroek we parted at Korannaberg, whilst General Fourie hastened forward with 100 men to interview General de Wet personally. The order of General de Wet was not carried out by the men of Vrede and Harrismith. They considered that they could not do away with their waggons; but nevertheless resolved to proceed to the Chief-Commandant, and then, when they should arrive where he was, to act according to circumstances.
It was one of the most monotonous journeys imaginable. We were under the command of General Hattingh as Acting Chief-Commandant, and from the 8th to the 18th of September we did nothing but trek some distance every evening. We never travelled so late into the night as when we were going to Korannaberg, and, excepting that nothing occurred to afford an agreeable variety, the life was not an unpleasant one. One can understand that every excuse was seized for the enjoyment of some diversity, and so it happened that a most decided breach of discipline took place of firing shots contrary to the established rule of the commandos. The temptation came in the shape of "wilde beests" (gnus). One afternoon we reached a part of the country where that kind of game still existed in considerable numbers, and the temptation was more than some could resist. Wilde beests! those were animals about which our fathers had so often told us, and which the majority of us had never seen! Regardless, therefore, of the safety of the commando on the march some of the burghers fired at the game. The reports of the rifles frightened the horses, which had by now become frisky after the rest at Korannaberg, and the young grass they had eaten. Some of them broke loose, and bolted across the broad level plains, whither the owners pursued them like madmen. How angry they were with the delinquents! But it probably gave them some satisfaction when the officers, some days after, punished this transgression with a fine.
Proceeding on our way, we first heard that the enemy had hemmed in Commandant Hasebroek at Doornberg, and afterwards that he had escaped with the loss of nearly all his waggons and his field-guns. We heard later on that the enemy had been in strong force under General Hector MacDonald, and that Commandant Hasebroek escaped with all his men, but that General MacDonald had captured sixteen of his waggons at Vet River on the 13th, and eighteen at Doornberg on the 17th of September. The cannon, however, did not fall into the hands of the enemy. Commandant Hasebroek concealed them in a dam so as not to have the trouble of dragging about with him guns for which he had no ammunition. On Sunday, the 16th of September, we were not far south-west of Senekal. From there we trekked nearer to the town and then northwards; we crossed through Sand River and camped at Bretsberg. On the previous day several of the burghers had gone to the town, and many others intended doing so next day, in order to purchase what they required. But before they could do so, we heard that the English had entered the town from the direction of Zuringkrans, so suddenly that no one was aware of their approach. The men who were there escaped at the opposite end of the town just in the nick of time, and reported to us what had occurred. The laager had now to inspan hurriedly and trek, while a number of burghers hastened away in the direction of the town to oppose the English should they advance. The British fired from the forts at Senekal, and their shells burst on a ridge along which the laager was trekking out of town.
Great was the indignation at the want of vigilance displayed by the scouting corps in allowing the enemy to approach and take Senekal without being noticed; but after the captain had given an explanation, the council of war was satisfied and acquitted the corps of all blame. The enemy did no more than hurl shells at us, and we went our way unharmed.
On the 18th of September we had advanced to Modderfontein, where we were just twenty-four miles from Senekal, Ventersburg, Kroonstad, and Lindley respectively. An unpleasant surprise awaited us here. Early the following morning we heard rifle firing and the dud—dud—dud of a Maxim-Nordenfeldt, both directed against the scouting corps. The laager again trekked in great haste, while the burghers went to meet the enemy. Unfortunately the issue was not favourable as far as our losses were concerned, for two of our men were killed and three were wounded. The advance of the enemy was, however, stopped, and several of them were killed, wounded, and captured.
We now proceeded on our way in peace—unmolested by the English. We again crossed Valsch River, but this time somewhat farther up the stream. Leaving Lindley to the east, we passed through Rhenoster River by the same ford through which we had passed a little more than a month before when going south. The nearer we approached to where we hoped to meet General de Wet somewhere in the Heilbron district, the more fervently we longed to see him. Everybody thought that the Chief-Commandant would put everything right, and the days that intervened before we should see him seemed to pass all too slowly. At last (22nd September, Saturday) Vecht Kop came into view. In passing we gazed at it with varied emotions, for we seemed to see the laager of Sarel Celliers there, surrounded by Moselekatze's hordes. We seemed to hear their battle-cry and their fierce assault; we witnessed their repulse and the deliverance of the little laager. Then Vecht Kop disappeared behind us, and other thoughts swayed us as we rode over the positions where the fight of August 14 had taken place.
In the evening we outspanned on the farm of Petrus Schoeman and halted for the night, expecting to hear from General de Wet every moment. The following day was passed as usual, and at three o'clock the General rode into the laager. At five o'clock the burghers assembled to be addressed by the man whom all had longed so much to see since the unfortunate affairs at Nauwpoort. The officers presented him with an address, with which, however, he was not particularly pleased, saying that he was not very partial to addresses.
He then spoke to the burghers in his pleasant, clear, and pithy manner. He said that it was his firm conviction that God would help us, and would not allow us to disappear as a nation. But this belief should not make us careless; on the contrary, this conviction should be a spur to every man to do his share of the work. Every man should do his duty, which consisted in this, that each one should be prepared to sacrifice his all on the altar of Liberty: money, goods, comfort, life! As we were weak and our adversaries strong, the best way of fulfilling our duty would be to keep harassing them. This we should do by making provisions at Pretoria and Johannesburg dear, through continually interrupting their communications. Further, the waggons should be done away with—done away with immediately, and the burghers were to form separate mounted commandos. He then related to us some of his experiences when he was pursued by large British columns from Slabbert's Nek up to the bush veld, and how matters stood in the Transvaal, and what had taken place at the battle of Machadodorp. This address was listened to with rapt attention, but it soon became apparent that most of the men had not heard what they had wanted to hear.
On the following day a Council of War was held, General de Wet presiding, and his proposition concerning the abolition of the waggons, and of commandos acting independently, was accepted. In the afternoon the Commandants called their men together and made known to them what had been decided upon, at the same time commanding the burghers to free themselves from the encumbrance of their waggons immediately; and as to the Harrismith men—we, together with the Kroonstad burghers, were told to employ ourselves by breaking up the railroad and to interrupt the trains between Rhenoster and Sand River, our commanding officer was to be General Philip R. Botha.
One could immediately perceive by the grumbling in the laager with what dissatisfaction the commands of General de Wet had been received. It could not be done, many declared, and the burghers of one ward of a commando went the length of riding away immediately—not to lay down arms to the enemy, oh no, but to procure fresh horses in their own district, and to continue the war there. They had imagined De Wet to be quite a different sort of man, and that he would save the cause in quite another manner. They had thought that, like a deus ex machina, he would put all things right in a wonderful—a magical way. Instead of this we had in him a man whose motto appeared to be not "all will come right," but "all must be made right." Instead of lulling us to sleep to the tune of "Peace, Peace, live as comfortably as you can!" we had in him a leader who demanded much work and great sacrifices from us. We had not heard a lullaby, but a reveille sounding in our ears. And this was something so strange, after having fought for a year with no discipline to speak of, that at first many could not bear it. There were therefore those who were dissatisfied, and who said that these commands were impracticable, and a few even went the length of riding away from the laager, as I have already noted. The reason of all this is, that our poor Africander people could never, since the days of Piet Retief, recognise or follow a hero when he arose amongst us. But Christian de Wet was a strong man, and what he willed came to pass. On the following day most of the burghers packed their things, and prepared themselves to exist in the future as mounted commandos; while a small number, with weak and thin horses, separated from the others and formed a laager—which was immediately dubbed by the inventive faculty of the Africander mind, Ma'er Lager (Lean Laager). My son and I put what we thought most necessary into a corn-bag and wallets, tied our blankets in front of our saddles, and were ready to go with the mounted commando. The waggons disappeared over a rise with a rumbling noise, and we rode away in an opposite direction, the blue expanse overhead our only covering. I must admit that I was not in a very optimistic mood.