Here at Tafel Kop, after the chief officers had held a council of war, the commandos separated. We of Harrismith, together with burghers of other districts, were now again under the command of General Philip Botha. The rest were to go under Generals Fourie and Froneman.
General de Wet shortly afterwards fitted out a second expedition to invade Cape Colony, which, however, did not get farther than Brak River. I did not accompany it (during January and February 1901), and have therefore nothing to relate about it. It is, however, well known that General de Wet, in this second attempt to make an inroad into British territory south of the Orange River, underwent still greater hardships than in the first. But although he was prevented by heavy rains from gaining his object, and had to turn back, he was not altogether dissatisfied; for on his return he declared, when addressing the burghers, that he had gained what he wanted. He had certainly succeeded in forcing the English to march long distances, and to concentrate large forces at points where at that time it was not convenient for them to do so.
But let me revert to my own experiences. On the 26th of December, when darkness had fallen, we left Tafel Kop, and camped for the night to the north of Wit Kop. There were, when we got to the neighbourhood of Senekal, no English in that town; but after we had been at Wit Kop for a day news was brought that a body of the enemy had again entered it. General Botha therefore sent a number of burghers to take up a position along the road from Senekal to Bethlehem, whilst the laager remained at Wit Kop. The object of this was to allow time for about ten waggons, which had been sent to Ficksburg to fetch meal, to return. Before, however, these waggons reached Ficksburg the English had again occupied that town, and with regretful eyes we saw the long train of waggons returning without having accomplished their purpose.
On Friday, the 28th of December, we went on to Zuringtrans, and early on the following morning we started from there towards Kaffir Kop, while General Botha with a number of burghers took up positions. We were outspanned, and quite at our ease, when a report came that the enemy was advancing from Wit Kop. At first we did not believe this, but soon it proved to be true enough, and then there was again a hurried inspanning. The Maxim-Nordenfeldt was dangerously near, and we had to hasten away with the greatest speed. We passed the Sand River and Kaffir Kop to the left, and at night we encamped not far from that kop.
The following day, Sunday, we could hold no service. The burghers had to take up positions against the advancing foe at Kaffir Kop, while the waggons and carts went forward during the whole of the day to Elandsfontein, not far from Lindley.
How unfortunate was the lot of our burghers when, without cannon, they had to hold a position. Before they could get a chance of firing a single shot the position was shelled, and the English, far beyond the reach of rifles, moved round the flanks in large numbers. If, then, our men wished to avoid being surrounded they had to retreat. This now at Kaffir Kop. The frequent withdrawal of our burghers from their positions made the enemy taunt them with being unwilling to fight, and with running away. But since the English as a rule kept our men at a distance of five thousand yards with their cannon, and kept themselves also at a safe distance, how could our people get a chance of fighting?
If the Boers, then, had no chance of fighting, they should not keep the war going: they should not attack the English when few in numbers and when they had a fair chance of firing at the enemy's troops on their flanks. So the English kept on saying; yet, oh mine enemy, what right had'st thou to prescribe to us how we should fight? Did not thine own great hero, Wellington, declare that a nation has the right to adopt every means to resist a foe that is invading its country?
We went on a little farther that night, and the sun rose on us on the 1st of January 1901 not far from Liebenberg's Vlei. We proceeded a short distance farther, and held service to celebrate the day in the garden of a farm where we had halted. I addressed the burghers on the subject of "the Old and the New."
In the evening we proceeded in the direction of Reitz, and camped at the confluence of Liebenberg's Vlei and Tyger Kloof; for it was General Botha's object to give the burghers some rest somewhere in the neighbourhood of that village.
We remained here for some days to look for a suitable spot, and the General went himself with Commandant Erwee to reconnoitre the forts of the English at Reitz. Meanwhile we enjoyed the great privilege of being able to bathe in the river; but we also experienced some discomfort from rain. At midnight on the second day heavy showers fell, and many burghers who had off-saddled in low-lying places were inundated. They had hurriedly to jump up and carry their bedding to higher ground. This they did laughing and joking, which certainly was a fine proof of the good spirit that prevailed among them, and of the cheerfulness with which they were ready to make any sacrifice for the sake of the great cause.
It appeared that we could not remain in the neighbourhood of Reitz, for on Thursday, the 3rd of January, our attention was called to an English force marching from Senekal towards Heilbron. In a fight that day with this force we unfortunately lost several dead and wounded. On the following day another engagement took place with another body of English going in the same direction. General Botha drove the infantry some distance, but had to give it up when reinforcements with two cannon and a Maxim-Nordenfeldt belonging to the English who had passed the day before made its appearance. Whilst the General was engaged in this fight some of our men halted the ambulance waggons of the enemy, which had gone on in advance, and found in them a considerable number of the English who had been wounded on the previous day. There was also one of our burghers, but he was too weak to be removed.
Meanwhile we had from day to day gone farther and farther from Reitz, and on Sunday, 6th January, we crossed Liebenberg's Vlei and remained that night on the bank of that river not far from Leeuw Kop. Here we remained till the following morning. We then proceeded east of Leeuw Kop.
From a high ridge there, over which we passed, I saw in the distance Platberg, at the foot of which Harrismith lies. I had not seen the mountain for five months. A thrill of emotion went through me when I saw it, but I had no desire to go to the town at its foot, for no one dear to me was there now. And when I thought how the enemy had taken possession of the town, and of all the vulgarity connected with a military occupation, I felt a sort of aversion to the place.
Whither were we going now, now that we could not rest in the neighbourhood of Reitz?
There was a rumour that picked men from each commando were to go with General de Wet to the colony, and that the rest of the men were to return to their own districts to be employed there as circumstances might require. And now that we were "trekking" in the direction of Harrismith it seemed as if this would be the case, at any rate as far as the Harrismith burghers were concerned; but greatly to the disappointment of most of us, we had to go back on Tuesday night, and reached Bronkhorstfontein on Wednesday morning early, not far from Valsch River.
On the following morning we trekked to Valsch River, not far from the mill, and on Friday, 11th January, all the Harrismith men got leave to go to their districts, upon the understanding that they should come together again on the 22nd at Doornberg.
Afterwards leave was given to those burghers who had accompanied the Chief-Commandant to Odendalstroom to remain in their own district, while those who had not gone with him were now to accompany him on his second expedition to the Cape Colony. There were some, however, of those who had gone the first time who now went again, among whom were General Wessel Wessels, Commandant Jan Jacobsz, and some men.
I set off towards Harrismith without the slightest delay. On Saturday night I was on the farm of Jan Labuschagne, and on the following afternoon, at sunset, I arrived at Zwart Klip, together with General C. J. de Villiers.
It was pleasant to be there once more, and to see the trees, which were leafless when I had last seen them, now clad in all the pride of summer. Everything was calm and peaceful here, and although the English, eighteen miles away, had our town in their possession, we could with difficulty persuade ourselves that there peace had not been restored. We were naturally glad to see one another again, and had much to tell and much to listen to. What was particularly gratifying to us was to hear the particulars in regard to the quasi civil administration of the English, of which we had already heard some account. Since the middle of October the function of District Commissioner had ceased also in this district. The patrols of five or six mounted police could no more ride about in safety, and if the English wished to go from one town to another this could not be accomplished unless they were in large numbers and under the protection of cannon. But the burghers went about in small numbers—north or south, east or west—wherever they listed. It became clearer to us than ever, that whatever the English might have, they were not yet in possession of our country, and that they could do nothing unless they did it with overwhelming odds and under shelter of cannon.
We felt that this could not but be humiliating to such officers of the British army as were capable of judging the merits of the case without prejudice.