I went to Witzieshoek to visit my friend Mr. J. J. Ross. What an Elim the place was to me during the week I stayed there. The surroundings seemed to transport me two years back into the past. His children reminded me of my own!
And the books in the study! I read—no, I tasted—here a line from this author, there a page from another, which is wrong!—oh, I know that! But still it satisfies a person of my temperament and tastes no less than, though perhaps more ethereally, it does the reader—yes, the reader—to devour every book, word for word, that he attacks.
I skimmed—not that I always do this with books: no, generally I too read; but now I merely skimmed—here a little and there a little. Besides, I had no time for reading. But I had experienced enough to know now, after having had so many months of the war, where to seek the greatest minds.
I saw that the man who dips his pen in ink is greater than he who stains his sword with blood. The man who, out of sight and unaffected by the world's turmoil, gives his life to the thoughts which are born in travail, and which, whatever men may say, do rule the world—that man is greater than he who, in the great world outside, is made a hero of by a senseless rabble, because he leads a hundred thousand men. This man leads an army; that man leads the world.
When I was at Witzieshoek, the English passed through Harrismith to Bethlehem, as they were in the habit of doing almost every week. This time they had an extract from a proclamation by Lord Kitchener, which they left behind in their camps, on the buttresses of the bridge over Elands River, and elsewhere. It was not long before the full text of the proclamation appeared, and this was not only sent to the Governments, but officers came out with flags of truce to the different commandos.
This proclamation made known that the officers and members of the Government would be banished from South Africa if they did not surrender before the 15th of September 1901; and that the cost of support of the families of all burghers who were still under arms on that date would be claimable against such burghers, and would be a charge upon their properties, movable as well as immovable. The English had therefore again issued a proclamation. And how was this received by our burghers?
Many people declared that this proclamation was a sign of weakness; others spoke of it with the utmost contempt; the majority ignored it, and everyone looked forward to the 15th September, to see if it would actually be the case, as everyone expected that this proclamation would have no effect.
Meanwhile there was, as very frequently was the case, a great deal of talk about peace. Peace would, it was said, come on the 20th of September. But the 20th of September came and went, and there was no peace. After that I never again heard that a day and date had been fixed on which there would come an end to the war.
From Witzieshoek I went to look for the President, but with the poor horses that I had I could not reach the place where he was. Meanwhile I held services wherever I could, both on week-days and Sundays, and where opportunity offered I noted down my experiences on commando. In this work I had to cope with peculiar difficulties. Sometimes I wrote at a table, whilst at other times a window-sill served me as writing-desk; but the greatest portion of my book was written on the seat of my cart, whilst I sat crouched on the bottom. I did not always have good ink, and the first pages of my notes are written in various shades; I had even to use "Nastagal" ink, made by our women. This ink was to me a new example of how inventive the Africanders are. Speaking of this gives me the opportunity of saying something about the many ways in which our people managed to lighten their burden of misery.
Our boots wore out, and men were appointed to tan hides and make boots; even women occupied themselves in this kind of work. The war had not been going for fifteen months when there was a great scarcity of soap. Then our mothers and sisters boiled a very serviceable article with the help of the ashes of mealie-cobs and of various weeds. The English destroyed the mills everywhere; but mills were mounted on waggons and carried off when the English approached. One such mill ground more than fifty bags of corn in twenty-four hours. Our corn was done before we had been fighting a year; but peas, mealies, kaffir-corn, rye, acorns, and dried peaches were used as substitutes. Through dire necessity a fine old handicraft of our great grandmothers was revived: the spinning of wool, which was still plentiful in spite of the devastation of the enemy. Our mothers and wives and daughters span wool beautifully, considering the nature of their spinning machines. Spinning-wheels were fabricated in various ways from old sewing-machines, fruit-peelers, and so forth. I have seen socks knitted of yarn spun by these primitive machines, as fine and certainly stronger than those that can be bought in shops. Our salt was at last quite exhausted, and this was a cause of great anxiety, especially in districts such as Harrismith, where there were no salt-pans; but here again our distress was relieved, for wells were dug in the pans, where no one would have thought of digging before, and salt water was found. "Everything," it was often remarked, "was scarce; but nothing completely lacking."
We toiled or plodded along, suffering in silence, where there was no help for it, but we generally managed to find a way out of the difficulty. No suffering was too severe, no sacrifice too great but was gladly undergone or made for the realisation of the great ideal we were striving for.
What particularly struck me during this period was the boundless wealth of the Orange Free State. Where all the cattle came from after the immense devastation by the enemy was beyond my comprehension. We never were in want of grain, notwithstanding the tens of thousands of tons of wheat and maize destroyed or rendered unfit for consumption by the British. And when on a few farms in the grain districts and elsewhere there was still some wheat over, the fields were again waving, and at the harvest time they stood yellow for reaping. The problem of clothing was also solved. I saw several overcoats made from sheepskins, which answered well. Some burghers wore complete suits made of leather. When one's clothes wore out they were mended with patches of leather, and then the garments were called "armoured" coats or pairs of trousers. Besides this, money was taken to Basutoland, and great quantities of clothing were bought and secretly brought to the Free State. This was constantly done notwithstanding the strict vigilance of the enemy.
And then there was the "shaking out" of soldiers; that is, when a soldier was captured his clothes were taken from him and worn by such burghers as needed them.
Who will condemn this action?
The enemy had not only cut off all our means of import, so that we were completely isolated, but had done their utmost to burn our clothes wherever they could. Whenever, then, a soldier fell into our hands, the English supplied us with a suit of clothes.
They provided us in the same way with ammunition. Since the commencement of 1901 the scarcity of ammunition had caused us much anxiety. Many who were loyal began to ask with misgivings whether this would not ultimately force us to surrender. But our enemy supplied us. In the later stages of the war we had scarcely any ammunition at all, except what we got from England. We were completely dependent on Great Britain, who took care that we should never be wholly in need. As President Steyn wrote to the Transvaal Government: "After every fight we had enough ammunition to commence another with." Towards the end of the war one seldom saw burghers armed with Mausers. The enemy were fought with their own rifles and their own ammunition. Has this often happened in the history of the world? Sunday, 15th of September, was the day fixed by Lord Kitchener on which the officers and men were given a last opportunity to lay down their arms without detriment to themselves. The day came, and who had surrendered? I only heard of two cases in the districts of Vrede and Harrismith. Besides these, General Brand reported that about twenty men from his districts had gone to the enemy. I also heard of one or two cases in other parts of our country. The proclamation thus was of little effect. There had been a time when the Boers fell like ripe grain before the scythe of British proclamations. That time was passed, and the big words and threats of Lord Kitchener were now of no effect.
This must be attributed partly to the fact that Lord Roberts had not acted in good faith in relation to what he had promised in his proclamations; but the chief cause of the firmness of the burghers now was owing, as General de Wet used to say, to the men having been "sifted": the chaff was gone, the wheat had remained. The winds of destruction and the rain-torrents of devastation had finished their work of attrition on the mountain of Africanderdom. The soft loose soil had been washed away, only the bed-rock remained.
And what shall I say of those—our own flesh and blood—who went over to the enemy?
Renegades!—What can I say?
That most of them gave up their arms to the enemy in moments of despondency I can understand, for I, too, know what dejection is; but that there were others who drew sword for the English and against us is hard to understand.
But the traitor, God will punish. It must not, however, be forgotten that it is not unprecedented in an unformed nation for the faint-hearted to desert to the enemy. Such a nation still lacks the powerful esprit de corps which is born of the traditions of the past. There were thousands of deserters, traitors, and renegades amongst the Americans during their great struggle.
But the fierce flame of this war has welded us together. The war with England towers in our past as something mighty and heroic. The future must always be influenced by it, and our children, looking back, will realise how close the ties are between themselves and their fathers, and thereby they will be drawn together into one united people.