For some time after I arrived at Zwart Klip matters were fairly quiet in the Free State. I was surprised at this, and considered that the English were, from their point of view, guilty of neglect of duty.
Their inactivity in the Free State must be accounted for by the fact that they were occupied by General de Wet on the northern border of the Cape Colony, and by Generals Hertzog and Kritzinger, who had both penetrated far into British territory, in the south.
This quiet was very opportune to me. I made use of it to write over my diary; and on Sundays I held divine service on some farm or other.
During this period the burghers who had returned were stationed all about as outposts. Two scouting corps—one under Commandant Botha, and another under his brother, Captain Botha—had already been operating for some time in the districts of Vrede and Harrismith, and had done much towards putting a stop to the small police patrols of the enemy who used to wander about all over the country. And now small bodies of burghers were stationed as guards near the towns. In the district of Harrismith there was one guard at Mont Paul, another at Broedersdal, and another at Groothoek. In the Vrede there was one near Mullerspas in the Drakensberg, and at various points around the town. In the same manner matters were regulated all through the country.
The Government also provided for the appointment of landdrosts (magistrates) and justices of the peace for criminal cases in each district. The guards, of which I have spoken, had very little to do during this quiet time. Each day they rode out to reconnoitre, and if a force of English marched from one town to another they harassed their flanks.
This period of comparative rest continued until about the middle of May, when the enemy began to become active in every part of the country. In the districts of Harrismith and Vrede the English approached from the direction of Heilbron and Frankfort, and marched to Tafel Kop in the district of Vrede. Others advanced from the Transvaal, and whether or not they had been guilty, from their standpoint, of neglect of duty, they now began to do their work thoroughly—or rather, I should say, in a thoroughly cruel and heartless manner.
It seemed as if they wanted now literally to annihilate us. They made use of any expedient. The farms were laid waste, the houses burnt down or damaged in such a manner as to render them uninhabitable, and grain and forage were given as a prey to the flames. Cattle were looted and sheep killed in tens of thousands.
Our women, it is true, were not killed out of hand, but they were taken by force, against their wish or will, and shut up in camps. There they were exposed to fevers and other camp diseases, and many succumbed. So it came about that, although, as I have said, it is true that they were not directly killed, it was nevertheless through the environment into which they were forced that they were destroyed by thousands.
But I am anticipating.
The hostile forces of which I spoke marched up in the eastern part of district Vrede, along both banks of Klip River, and before their dreaded advance there was a general flight on the part of the inhabitants of the farms towards Wilge River. Waggons loaded with furniture, bedding, and provisions; carts and spiders with women and children; great troops of horses and cattle—all fled before the English as before Goths and Vandals. And all this in winter! How I pitied the misery of the women and children.
As they passed along, the English looted much cattle—but an incredible number, especially horses and cattle, were saved by the fugitives.
The enemy's forces went in the direction of the Drakensberg. They marched over Roode Nek and Vlak Nek, and we began to think that they would disappear into Natal; and many of the fugitives returned to their homes; but they had to take to flight again immediately, when they learnt that only a portion of the enemy had descended into Natal through Botha's Pass—undoubtedly to bring away the captured cattle. The other portion suddenly turned back, came through Geershoogte to the Witkoppen, and continued their work of destruction west of these hills, down Cornelis River to Verky kers Kop. Towards the 23rd of May the English had returned from Natal and joined the others west of the Witkoppen.
About four days after this the English had drawn a line of camps from Tafel Kop (district Vrede) up to Cornelis River, and then moved forward every day towards Wilge River, devastating and looting on a large scale. It is wonderful how the fugitives fared, and scarcely credible that they did not fall into the hands of the British. Some succeeded in getting round either wing of the cordon by night, others again passed through it close to the camps. What this means can only fully be realised when it is known that the fugitives consisted mostly of women and children, and that (although they were directed how to trek by the fighting burghers) the women in most cases had to drive the carts, and in some cases even the ox waggons, themselves. Notwithstanding all these difficulties most escaped. Here and there a small laager was captured, but the majority baffled the enemy. A laager of women, however, in which I was by chance, was not so fortunate.
On Saturday, 25th of May, I had gone to Frankfort to hold divine service. I remained there till Monday the 3rd of June, and then news was brought to the town that the great cordon of the English, of which I have spoken above, was swiftly advancing. The inhabitants of the town, mostly women and children, left the town on Monday morning and trekked across the bridge, while I went on to the farm of Mr. Christiaan de Beer. On Wednesday the laager came there too, and as it was their intention to trek all through the night, in order to pass round the south wing of the English, I joined them, hoping to be behind the British the next morning.
The Frankfort laager had increased considerably since Monday, a number of Transvaal women having joined it, and now consisted of about seventy waggons. Some of these Transvaal women had been trekking about for a year, and, as may be expected, presented a very worn appearance. The sun had just set when the laager reached the farm of Christiaan de Beer, and shortly after passed it, and continued in the dark until the moon rose.
It was a long night passed under particularly sad circumstances. Whatever I had gone through in night marches during this war, this night added what I had not experienced before. This was the most miserable of all, on account of the presence of weak women and tender babes. If anyone wishes to witness real misery, let him go to a large women's laager.
In this laager there were girls who rode on horseback all through the night, and that on men's saddles, which had been so arranged that a girl could ride on it. I saw a little maiden take the riem and lead the team of oxen before the waggon. And then the poor little children! They moaned and cried at the bitter cold of the winter nights of June—poor mites in thin linen or cotton garments. Boys of ten and twelve had to drive on the cattle, and the parents had perforce to speak harshly to them, in order to help them in their bitter task.
How my soul rose up with indignation at the merciless force that had caused such scenes of misery—that exposed babes to the cold of the long winter nights, and drove women, who refused to be captured, into the wilderness.
The Basutos in our war with them robbed our cattle, burnt our houses, and killed our men, but they left our women and children unmolested. It was reserved for the British Empire, at the height of its power, its civilisation, and its enlightenment to make war on women and children. And yet, it was astonishing to see that the poor women, in spite of all this, were not utterly discouraged. How admirable they were. Whatever may have been the feeling deep down in their hearts, suppressed and stifled there, outwardly they were full of courage, and even to some extent cheerful. One of them even baked dampers at midnight, when we halted to give the weary oxen a rest. That, however, we ought not to have allowed, for not only did it cause delay, but our fires showed the enemy where we were.
After waiting for two hours we went on again. We made considerable progress until we came near to the farm of Mr. Gert Oosthuizen. There a waggon got stuck in the mud. This caused delay, and after the waggon had been extricated, day quickly began to dawn. Again we proceeded, and shortly before sunrise we had reached Concordia, the farm of Mr. Abraham Strauss. Here we learned that the English were approaching from Steil Drift. The waggons immediately went south-westward in the direction of Reitz over a ridge, and fifty men mounted their horses and hurried away. I also left the laager and hastened as fast as the mules could drag the spider.
After driving some distance I looked round and saw that the English had gained the ridge which we had just crossed. Everywhere on the horizon the ground seemed covered with horsemen. It began to be plain that there could be no escape for me, but still the animals were urged to go on as hard as they could. I was nearly a mile away from the laager, which meanwhile had fallen into the hands of the enemy, and almost out of danger when some troops came up. They were indignant that I had not remained with the laager, and ordered me with curses and indescribably foul language to halt. I did so, and surrendered myself.
"Outspan them horses!" a soldier shouted to me [they were mules].
"I am your prisoner, not your servant," I said.
That was foolish on my part, for I was completely in their power, as I also later on admitted to an officer, but I was unaccustomed to being addressed in this way by common soldiers. The rage of my captors now rose to a climax. Two of them stuck cartridges into their rifles and an officer levelled his revolver at me. I then thought that, there being no question of principle here, it would be senseless to allow myself to be shot for a matter of this sort, and began with my son to unharness the mules.
Had they struck me then I should have understood that it was done under provocation; but that I should be struck in cold blood shortly after is another matter.
Everything was quiet, and I was busy obeying the orders of the soldiers, when an officer of higher rank than the one who wanted to shoot me came up, and in learning that there had been a dispute, and that I had made some objections, he struck me from behind on my head with the metal head of his horse-whip. I have forgiven him. Probably also he is dead from the effects of a dangerous wound he received shortly after.
We had then to inspan again, and were ordered to go to a Kaffir kraal at Graspan, in the vicinity. Thither also the laager and forty-three captured burghers were brought.
Some women visited the men there, amongst whom they had husbands and sons, and brought food and coffee. It was a sad sight to behold; the women wept and loudly expressed their fears that they would be separated from their husbands. I tried to encourage them, and besought them not to shed tears before the enemy.
With what contempt did the English look down upon us. Not some of them merely, but all. The lowest soldier vented his scorn in foul language, and even the highest officer there forgot that he should be a gentleman, and did not refrain from insulting language. As he rode past and cast his eye over the women, he exclaimed: "What! have we a Japanese show here?"
And it was in the presence of such men that our women shed tears.
Shortly after we had been captured three or four horsemen appeared on the same ridge over which we had come, but a volley from the soldiers soon caused them to disappear.
Meanwhile some officers came and asked me whether it was I who, in the fight on Platrand (Waggon Hill) on the 6th of January 1900, had bandaged an English officer, and when I had replied in the affirmative they were very friendly to me. And now followed some conversation with the soldiers. We learned that the force consisted of 200 men, who had left Steil Drift at two o'clock in the morning to capture us. Their column was advancing, and might be expected at any moment. My son also spoke to the soldiers and officers.
"What," he asked one of the latter, "do you think of a rescue?"
"Oh!" was the reply, "a couple of volleys will send it flying like the Boers we just fired at."
A soldier also said to his comrade that they had to keep an eye on my son, adding: "I bet my bottom sixpence the little beggar will get away yet."
And that is what did happen! We also learned that we were to be taken to Kroonstad, and this pleased me, for I did not wish to be marched into Harrismith as a prisoner-of-war. The time passed slowly till two o'clock in the afternoon. Then horsemen appeared on the ridge to the north-west.
The English thought this might be their column, and feared lest, not knowing that the laager had been captured, their troops might begin bombarding it. The officers placed themselves in a row, and made signals to the horsemen to come to the laager. They also sent out one of their men to give notice of the state of affairs. But he did not return, and when those on the ridge, after riding hither and thither as if undecided what to do, at last rushed forward towards the laager, and some others from the south and east came out on the flanks, there was no longer any doubt that they were Boers.
Orders were hastily given to resist the attack of the burghers. The soldiers caught their horses, and firing at once commenced, whilst we who had been captured were placed out of immediate danger behind a sod wall. The rifle fire now became very severe. The bullets flew in all directions. Many of us thought of what might now happen to the women and children. Soon we prisoners-of-war were being fired at by the burghers who were storming the laager from the south-east side, and our guards allowed us to seek refuge in one of the huts.
Hardly had we entered it, when we heard the English saying that our burghers who had attacked from the eastern side had retaken the laager. This was about twenty minutes after the fight had commenced. The English now sought shelter. Some ran into two or three huts; others into a cattle kraal between the huts. There they loopholed the walls and defended themselves bravely. In the turmoil two wounded soldiers were carried to the door of the hut in which the prisoners were, and I went out to help the doctor. Whilst I was thus engaged a bullet whistled past my ear, and I saw with surprise that it came from our burghers who had taken the laager from the east side. Ten of them had taken up a position near a hut and fired thence, a distance of about twenty yards, at the English in the cattle kraal, and at the same distance also at us.
"We are Boers!" shouted the prisoners. But this did not help, for they continued shooting. From the hut near which they were firing from, they saw two or three of the English guards amongst us, and thought probably that we were acting as guides to the English. Then I also ran forward and declared that we were Boers.
"If you are Boers, then come out," they cried.
My son and I with one or two more then ran swiftly out, and lay down behind the sod-wall from which we had gone into the hut. Here I saw how one of our burghers coming from the laager to the sod-wall was struck in the right breast and fell down. He called to a comrade. As he was coming I saw a bullet strike him too. I heard him exclaim as he sank down, "I am killed too." He died immediately, resting his head on my son's shoulder. A couple of yards behind us an English soldier was wounded. He cried aloud for water, and there was no one to give it him. Everywhere around men, as well as many oxen and horses, were being shot.
At the hut from which the Boers were firing at the English in the kraal I saw Commandant Davel. I noticed too that he was in command there, and concluded that he had led the charge. That was the case. It was he who, with his burghers, had stormed the laager from the east. I also saw Ex-General P. Fourie. My heart leapt with joy when I saw that brave old man, and I thought that the charge against him could not have been of a very serious nature if he were thus again permitted to carry arms.
Shortly after we had got to the sod-wall Commandant Davel sent a white flag to the kraal to tell the English to surrender. I made use of this opportunity to go—it was only six or seven yards off to the position held by our burghers at the hut. There lay three burghers and one Englishman dead. My son armed himself again with the rifle of one of the dead men.
As was to be expected, the enemy refused to surrender, and the firing recommenced.
Meanwhile the waggons which were able to do so had begun to retire, and fifty of them reached a hollow out of range.
It would now certainly not have been long before we should have won the day completely, had not some scouts of General de Wet ridden up in haste and reported that a very large reinforcement of the enemy was swiftly approaching.
Before, therefore, the few that still remained in the huts and in the kraal could be forced to surrender, the burghers were ordered to retire. The hut where I was, was deserted.
Then my son said to me that it was time for us also, and asked whether I would follow him if he went out first. Yes. He thereupon led the way, and I followed him. But we could not get to our spider. The mules were unharnessed, and the vehicle moreover stood in the line of fire; but we were rescued from this difficulty. The cart of Mr. Christiaan de Beer stood ready inspanned, and whilst my son drove away with it, with Miss de Beer, who was wounded through the arm, I led Mrs. de Beer and her daughter out.
It was a brave deed was that done by our burghers at Graspan. From the bare ridge on the one side and the open plain on the other they had stormed the laager. Eventually they were firing at the enemy at such short range as from one Kaffir hut to the other, and were between the waggons often face to face with the troops. They consisted merely of the bodyguard of the President under Commandant Davel and those of General de Wet. There was also a small number of Transvaalers, who had accompanied General de la Rey on his journey to the President and the Chief-Commandant. Together they numbered between seventy and eighty men. But although fewer in number than the enemy, they had again given proof that it is not possible for 200 Englishmen to move five miles away from their cannon, and then to be met without disaster by a handful of our burghers. And this I say not because I wish to convey that the English are not brave. I have never seen greater courage than that displayed by them at Graspan. But it remains a fact that, as regards mobility and the handling of a rifle, they are no match for the Boers; and that when they have no cannon or have not the odds greatly in their favour, they must yield to the Boers. It is only by brute force that they could overpower us.
Dearly was Graspan paid for! Not only were the waggons that had escaped retaken by the reinforcement, but thirteen of our burghers were killed and about fourteen seriously wounded.
And what did the English say about the laager that they had taken? They said that it was a convoy of General de Wet. This is one of the cases of the untruthfulness of their reports. It was a women's laager and nothing else, with not a hundred men in it, of whom some were non-combatants and others very old men. There was not a single officer amongst them, to lead those who were armed; and so it came about that there was no resistance whatever when the laager was attacked.
I left the laager when the reinforcement approached, and went to Reitz. In the evening I left the town and got to the farm of Mr. Piet de Jager, near Rout Kop, at about ten o'clock, whence, however, the people had fled in fear of the advancing English.
The large force of the English now proceeded in the direction of Heilbron and Kroonstad; but first buried their and our dead at Reitz. Two days after, our burghers came and reburied our dead (thirteen bodies) there better than the enemy had in their haste been able to do.
Before closing this chapter I must still mention that the worst that had yet befallen us took place towards the middle of July. Other troops arrived, this time from Platrand Station, Transvaal, following the track of the columns that had already traversed the country. They destroyed over again what had already been destroyed. Large flocks of sheep were collected everywhere and stabbed to death at different centres, in heaps of thousands upon thousands. In the town of Vrede there was a great slaughter, and in order to make it impossible for our people to live there the dead sheep were carried into the houses and left to rot.
Not only in the districts of Vrede and Harrismith did this occur, but everywhere throughout the State. When I was in the neighbourhood of Senekal it took place there also. I have myself seen places where the skeletons of the sheep lay, and could hardly imagine anything sadder than to see them lying dead in heaps. The destroyers also frequently drove large herds of young horses or such as were unfit for service into kraals, or crowded them into ditches, and shot them there by tens, fifties, or hundreds, and the air was charged with pestilential odours. The troops completely destroyed the houses. Where the stables and waggon-houses were not burnt down, the dwelling-houses were devoted to the flames; and where these were not burnt down, they were so utterly ruined as to become wholly uninhabitable. The floors were broken up, the panes of glass smashed with the sashes and all, the doors broken to pieces, the doorposts and the window-sills torn out. And if it was not too terrible to permit of its being so described, one might say that the work of these men was sometimes childish—as, for instance, when on one occasion they hanged the cats in a barn, and on another shot a horse inside a house, and then covered it up with a table.
To escape from the troops the women sometimes took refuge in mountainous parts of the country in caves and grottos. Often they escaped; but on other occasions the soldiers discovered them in these places of refuge. An officer found two women with their children in a cave, and expressed himself very strongly as to what he saw there, saying that he would send a photograph of the scene to the Graphic, as if the picture of such misery could do credit to himself and his nation! He wrote the following letter, and handed it to one of the women to deliver to her husband:—
"To Mr. M. LOURENS.
"Sir,—I am leaving your wife and Mrs. Uys in the wretched place they have to live in. If you had any compassion on your women you would surrender to superior force and not prolong a hopeless struggle.
"R. B. Firman, Lieutenant-Colonel."
As one of these women was indisposed the officer left them there; but he took the little servant-girls away.
To such acts as these the officers of the British columns had fallen. They were made the persecutors of defenceless women and children. They carried the work of incendiaries throughout the whole State. They became the butchers of thousands of horses and tens of thousands of sheep. How despicable it must have been in their own eyes to perpetrate such acts! When I think of all this, and look to the far future, then I ask myself: What will be said of this war when the history of it shall be written and read by the coming generations?