On the following day the President and General de Wet addressed the burghers, and informed them that they were to go to the Cape Colony.
On that same afternoon, the 15th of November, the march thither commenced. It was touching to see, however contrary to the desire of many Free Staters it was, how eager the colonists among us were to start. One of them sitting on his horse, said to a friend of his seated on a cart drawn by two mules, "Yes, John, though it be only with mules, still, every step is a step nearer!"
The intention was to go that evening to a store at Brand's Drift, but on the way we heard that the English were there, and we spent the night on a ridge to the left of the road. On the next day we proceeded, and passed the store without any mishap; for the English had either gone away, or had not been there. In some heavy showers of rain we continued our journey to Newberry's Mill, and there we halted for some hours.
The weather cleared up in the afternoon, and we saddled our horses shortly before sunset, with the object of passing through Sprinkhaans Nek that same night. But General de Wet knew that the English had forts there, and that in all probability this could not be done without coming into contact with the enemy. He therefore sent the burgher Frank van Reenen with a white flag to the fort nearest to the route we should have to take, with a message that if it did not surrender we should have to take more drastic measures. As was to be expected, the English refused this demand, and the fort was thereupon bombarded.
Darkness fell, and while General Botha with a number of men was attacking the fort, the rest of the commando with the carts and waggons passed through to the eastward. The bullets from the fort whistled over those passing by, and Assistant Commandant Meyer, who sat in a cart, was again wounded. But beyond this, except that some horses were hit, we passed through without any loss. The object not being to take the fort, but to get through the nek, General Botha was called back as soon as the commando was safely through. We encamped a short distance from Zwartlapberg.
Mr. Pontsma of the Netherlands Ambulance in the Transvaal joined us in the nek, and I was glad to hand over the wounded to his care.
Early the following morning we went forward. We passed through what was formerly Maroko's territory. Here we had no trouble from wire en-closures or gates. What peaceable people the Barolong Kaffirs must be not to require that peace-maker "Barbed wire."
Our road now led us across the sources of the Modder River, and on Sunday, the 18th November, we rested, and held service about six miles from De Wet's Dorp, while General Botha went to reconnoitre the forts of the English garrison stationed at that town.
During the following two days we went from farm to farm, but remained in the neighbourhood of the town, and on Tuesday night the General commenced the attack from three sides. He ordered General Botha to take possession of a high hill on the southwest of the town, while Commandant Lategun was told to approach from the west. He himself with Commandant de Vos took the ridge on the north of the town. Early the following morning the outlying forts were bombarded by our cannon, as well as harassed by our rifles. A few burghers were wounded early in the fight and brought to the laager.
On the day after, the attack was proceeded with, and we had the pleasure of seeing several important forts taken. But the chief work was done on the following day, Friday, 23rd November. Nearer and nearer our men approached, steadily drawing the cordon round the British closer, and it was a very great satisfaction to General de Wet to see that he had men under him who carried out his plans. No attack certainly was better planned or better carried out than this during the whole war.
In the course of the day Commandant de Vos and Field-Cornet Baljon took a fort, in which a lieutenant with twenty men had to surrender. But the grandest work was done by Field-Cornet (afterwards General) Wessel Wessels, who was under General Botha,—to him the honour must be accorded of taking most of the forts.
His method of attack was as follows. He gave his men orders to direct a heavy fire on the loopholes of a fort he wished to take. This rendered it impossible for the defenders to fire, and gave him the opportunity of rushing swiftly with a few men to the fort. There he lay down under the loopholes, out of the fire. From this point of vantage he called out "Hands up!" and in this manner he took all the forts that fell to his share.
From position to position the British were driven, until at last the town was in our possession!
In the afternoon there were only three forts still held by them. These had now to be taken, and the danger to our burghers was very great, especially in the storming of one of them! Field-Cornet Wessels was ordered to attack it from the town side, and he began, when the sun was already rapidly sinking in the west, to approach it from a donga. We should undoubtedly have lost very heavily here if the English had opposed us any longer, for the ravine along which Field-Cornet Wessels approached afforded little or no shelter, but just as the sun was setting the white flag was hoisted. De Wet's Dorp was taken.
The loss of the English was 20 killed and 85 wounded. Eight officers and 400 men were taken prisoners, and we captured two Armstrong guns, one Maxim-Nordenfeldt, and a great deal of ammunition and provisions. Our loss was seven killed and fourteen wounded.
The English said that it was an overwhelming number of Boers that compelled this garrison to surrender; but it is certain that not more than 500 men took part in the attack. For, in the first place, all the burghers were not taken from the laager; but patrols also had to be sent in all directions to see if the enemy were not sending reinforcements. How ready the English always were to magnify our numbers when they suffered defeat.
We were generally, according to their reports, "small, roving, sniping bands"; but when anything happened to them, like the taking of a town, we were transformed as if by magic into "overwhelming numbers"!
We were all greatly elated, and the President was of opinion that we ought to hold a thanksgiving service. It was agreed that this should take place on the following Sunday in the church, but we were hindered in this through the arrival of a hostile reinforcement from Edenburg, which immediately occupied the attention of General De Wet.
The laager then trekked to Plat Kop, taking the prisoners along with it. We remained there, while a considerable number of burghers went to meet the enemy. As, however, it was not our purpose to fight in the Free State, but to invade the Cape Colony, the reinforcements were left where they were, while the laager and all the men trekked on Monday far into the night in the direction of Breipaal and Klein-Bloemfontein.
That night the prisoners complained that they were made to march too far, but General De Wet reminded them some marches of Lord Roberts were still longer.
It was a most dreary trek across wide plains, and we were not in a particularly happy mood when we arose the following morning, none too early.
We were still busy with our breakfasts when we heard a cry that the English were at our heels. And such indeed was the case. There was only one ridge between us and the enemy. Presently the bullets were dropping into the laager. Confusion followed, and the majority wanted to do nothing but flee. It was only with great trouble that the officers managed to get the men into position. There was also trouble with the prisoners. They thought that they would now be relieved. They shouted, Hurrah! refused to go on, and sought shelter from the bullets of their friends behind a stone wall. But the stern bearing of our officers and the determination of their guards compelled them to continue the march.
The laager got away, and we went on to Hex River Berg and across the sources of Riet River, still in the direction of Breipaal.
In the night we passed Treur Kop, and halted on Mr. Heper's farm. In the meanwhile the English had left us, and had gone towards Smithfield. The country through which we now travelled presented a dreary appearance on account of the prevailing drought. The veld was yellow and scorched by the sun, and when we halted for a while on the farm I have just mentioned, the west wind sang a mournful ditty over the parched country. I remarked upon the cheerless aspect of our surroundings, and Mr. Louw Wepener remarked that it must surely have been on such a day that the hill, which we had passed during the night, was named "Treur Kop" (Hill of mourning).
On the following day we reached Klein-Bloemfontein, and remained there the following day also.
Here a Council of War was held for the purpose of trying a man named Van der Berg and a number of Kaffirs who had been captured at De Wet's Dorp. Van der Berg was sentenced to death, and the Kaffirs were set at liberty with a message to Lorothodi, their chief, that as we were not at war with him, and as we wished to remain on good terms with him and his people, we sent his men back as proof of our friendship: that we hoped besides that he would remain strictly neutral, and prove this by advising his men not to enter into the service of the British.
I discovered that the court had not been unanimous in sentencing Van der Berg to death, and I therefore deemed it my duty to ask the President to order a revision of the matter. He was willing to do so, and the Council of War again took the matter into consideration, with the result, however, that the death sentence was confirmed by a majority of one vote.
The papers were handed to the Government for final decision. The sentence was not carried out.
The veld yielded very little pasturage here for our horses. A long time had elapsed since it had last rained, and the grass was withered. Our horses and mules had therefore to live almost exclusively on the forage which we could get on the farms. They had still some on the 1st of December, but after that they had nothing but a little chaff for five days. They had therefore to subsist on the herbage which grew between the tufts of grass. It was marvellous to see the effect of this pasture on the sheep of these parts. Their flesh was almost too fat to eat; but our horses, not being used to this kind of veld, could not live on the shrubs which fattened the sheep.
On Sunday, 2nd December, we trekked to Tafel Kop, not far from Bethulie. There we would have held divine service had it been possible, but we could not, as there was a small English laager on the farm Goede Hoop, and a number of burghers set out for the purpose of taking it. They did not, however, succeed, and had to remain on the ridges to the north-east, while the rest of the commando trekked through Slikspruit.
The fight was continued the following day, when an adjutant of General de Wet, whose name was also de Wet, was killed. At two o'clock we were ordered to proceed to the Caledon River. It was not a moment too soon, for another English force was approaching from the west, and their shrapnels dropped a little way behind the trekking laager. We continued till dark, and then we waited, our horses saddled, and the mules in harness, until all the burghers were able to leave the positions.
It had rained a little in the afternoon, and while we waited there, dark clouds lowered, and it seemed as if the drought had come to an end. Presently some showers fell, and we expected to have a wet night. And so it turned out, for shortly after we had resumed our march the darkness became more intense, and the rain descended in heavy showers.
The light of morning ushered in a clouded sky, and we had the cheerless prospect of a soaking day and a difficult march. In the rain we passed the beautiful farm Carmel, belonging to Mr. Wessels, and proceeded without a halt until we had crossed the Caledon River at the farm of old Mr. du Plessis. Here also there was no forage. Mr. du Plessis said that the English had passed there twice and had with a lavish hand used up the forage. Our horses already began to suffer from hunger, and our rapid march was exhausting them greatly.
At two o'clock General de Wet ordered us to resume our journey, and this was done in the rain. Unfortunately the horses of the Krupp gun had knocked up, and it was left behind at the river. When General de Wet heard this on the following day he was very angry; for the gun should have been brought on at any cost.
In the evening the vanguard of the commando had reached a range of hills about two miles from the drift across the Orange River at Odendalstroom.
A Field-Cornet was ordered in the evening to go forward, to open up the road into the Cape Colony. But the heavy travelling in the wet weather had detained us so, that the darkness setting in as we approached the drift made this impossible. We therefore had to halt at the hills above referred to. I broke off some twigs from the shrubs, spread the ox-skin upon them, and thus on the soaking ground I lay down to rest. It rained softly almost the whole night, and on the following morning the bedding of almost all the men was wet through. Our horses looked miserably worn, after the rain and the forced marches. Those who accompany General de Wet must be prepared for such things.
From the ridges on which we were we could see some tents. They belonged to the English guard, and stood on the opposite side of the river, not three miles away. The 400 prisoners-of-war were released here (5th December), but the officers were still retained. Towards ten o'clock we advanced, but—it was not to cross the Orange River, for it was in flood and a passage was impossible. And we could not remain where we were until the river became passable, for the English were pursuing us very closely. There remained therefore no other way for General de Wet than, for the present, to turn his back upon the Cape Colony. His disappointment must have been great.
We now turned our faces northward towards the town of Smithfield. I thought with sympathy of the colonists who were with us. No doubt many of them had seen, on the other side, natural objects well known to them, and now they had to be content with the sight of them only. For them every step now was not nearer, but farther away.