It was in the beginning of December that we returned to the plains, and on the 3rd and 4th the President visited the great flying commando at Lindley. On the second day he addressed the men.
Here we met Judge Hertzog, who had come from the western districts to discuss some important matters with President Steyn. He remained with the President, while he awaited an answer to a letter written to the Transvaal with relation to his visit there.
A service was to be held in the town on Sunday, the 8th of December. Instead of this a fight took place there. The English were seen early on that day advancing from Valsch River bridge.
General de Wet gave orders that one portion of the burghers should take up positions on either side of the Kroonstad road, and the others a position to the east of it, near the Plat Kopje. I witnessed the whole affair. The enemy were in overwhelming force, and slowly advanced in widely extended order. It was impossible for our men to hold their positions. The burghers on the Kroonstad road were the first to give way. They took up positions on the kopjes where, more than a year before, the Yeomanry had surrendered. Shortly after the men on the right flank at the Plat Kop had also to retire. I then saw large numbers of the English come out over the ridges. How few our little groups of burghers seemed in comparison to the large numbers that made their appearance there. Everything was now in the power of the English. They could bombard the Yeomanry kopjes, and our burghers had to desert them also. It was not long before the whole commando was in full retreat towards Elandsfontein.
During the next couple of days the English did as they liked, without any resistance being offered them. They went about everywhere in the neighbourhood, devastated the farms, and took away the cattle with which our people had not fled.
When the President returned there on the 16th of December, after the departure of the English, I heard from the women how sadly things had gone. They were, it is true, not taken away, but they were driven out of their houses, and had to see their dwellings burnt down or destroyed before their very eyes. Could inhumanity go further? If the English did not wish to exterminate us, what then did they mean by driving weak women and children out of doors and destroying the houses? All the food of the women was carried away or scattered upon the ground; and it was only through the kind-heartedness of here and there a more humane officer, or of some simple "Tommy," that a dish of flour was secretly left behind for the housewife. What made everything still more sad was the great service rendered by traitorous Africanders as guides to the enemy.
Mrs. Gert van Niekerk of Windbult told me what had happened to her before the eyes of one of these, Ex-General Piet de Wet. Alas! that I should have to record it, but—
"'Tis true, 'tis pity, And pity 'tis, 'tis true."
These Africanders made it possible for the English to travel long distances at night, and, acquainted as they were with the habits of their countrymen, they enabled the English to capture Boers, and to seize cattle, where otherwise they would have been unable to do so, or at least could not have done so without infinitely more trouble. How must every noble sentiment have been stifled in these men! It is impossible to comprehend how they could have endured listening to the constant abuse which in the camps was heaped on their own race—incomprehensible how they could constantly, from one farm to another, look on the misery which they were helping to bring upon women and children—who were their own flesh and blood.
From Mrs. Niekerk, then, I heard how she had fared. The English came to the farm Windbult about ten o'clock on the 10th of December, and immediately began to strike the doors, windows, and furniture with axes and hammers, smashing and demolishing everything. If Mrs. van Niekerk attempted to save anything it was snatched from her hands and broken to atoms. But her daughter, helped by an Africander serving under the English, succeeded in carrying out some beds, chairs, and smaller articles.
Meanwhile ex-General de Wet carried on a conversation with Mrs. van Niekerk, whom he had formerly, as her neighbour, known very intimately. This conversation ran nearly as follows:—
P. de Wet. Do tell the burghers that it is a lost cause. Try to persuade them that they are blindly going astray.
Mrs. v. Niekerk. I will do no such thing.
P. de Wet. It is against the Bible to continue the war; for we read that a king must consider if with ten thousand men he is able to meet his opponent who is coming against him with twenty thousand.
Mrs. v. Niekerk. But, Piet, you were a Commandant yourself; what did you think of our small numbers against our mighty foe then?
P. de Wet. My eyes were opened later. I have seen my mistake.... But it is just Christian de Wet and old Steyn who keep the thing going by telling lies to the burghers.
Mrs. van Niekerk had meanwhile kept her eyes constantly fixed on the soldiers who were destroying her property. Pointing at the ruins, she appealed to such sense of right as she thought might still be left in the man, for whom in happier days she had had much respect, and asked: "Are you not ashamed, Piet? See how you are ruining us."
And what was his reply?—What? I do not know how to describe it, so feeble it was,—this: "And why do you ruin England so?"
The conversation continued as follows:—
P. de Wet. The country is lost.
Mrs. v. Niekerk. No, the country is not lost. You are masters for the moment wherever your camps stand. Elsewhere the burghers do what they like and go wherever they choose.
P. de Wet. Wait a bit, till the 200,000 men who are still to come from England are here, and the blockhouses which are to be built from town to town are completed.—Aunt, do tell the burghers what I now tell to you—All is lost. Do tell the burghers so.
Mrs. v. Niekerk. I will not do so. Besides, it would be in vain.
Involuntarily she thought of days gone by, when the man who now stood before her came to her house under conditions so entirely different. "Oh Piet," she said, "have we not prayed together, you and I, in our prayer-meetings, in this very house, that is now being turned into a heap of ruins? Alas! the image which I then saw in you, I see no more. You have forsaken God."
"No," he said; "all of you have done that. And as regards prayer-meetings, every Sunday we do that.... But the consciences of the burghers who are still fighting have become seared."
The house was destroyed; where the doors and windows were, yawning openings gaped. The beams were sawn down, a partition wall thrown down, and the roof fell in,—all this in the presence of Mrs. van Niekerk and Piet de Wet.
The poor woman then went to an outer storehouse, but the English would not allow her to remain there, and she took refuge in a miserable hut used for storing dry cow-dung for fuel.
But on the following day she had to move out of there too, as the enemy said they needed the place to fire from. And so she and her daughter were now stranded on her own premises without the least protection from wind or weather.
But this did not last long. The English ordered her and her daughter to get into a waggon, saying that they would take her to Kroonstad. This, however, they did not do; but informed her on the road, that they would leave her with a woman, and in the afternoon made her alight at the house of Field-Cornet Thys de Beer.
This building was in flames, and Mrs. de Beer was outside with her children, one of whom was a sick baby. The women and children spent that night in a small lean-to, which luckily had not been burnt down.
When Mrs. van Niekerk's son, Jurie, rode to their house on the same day, to see how his mother was doing, some English were concealed in the hut where the fuel was kept. They allowed him to approach, and one of the soldiers called out, "Hands up!" "Hands up, you!" said Jurie van Niekerk, and fired his revolver at them. But there were too many ready for him, and he immediately fell, mortally wounded, by three bullets.
The day after, his father, Gert van Niekerk, returned to his house. He was quite alone, and viewed the ruin of his home. But who shall describe his thoughts when he—standing there all alone—found the still unburied corpse of his son! The English returned, after having killed a great many sheep and taken much cattle. Still, great numbers of cattle were saved by the burghers at night.
Dingaan's Day with its memories of happy rejoicings once more arrived. I had ridden to be with the commando on that day, but wherever I came I always found that it had moved away before me, so that I could celebrate the day with but a small number of people.
On the 17th of December the President was on the left bank of Tijger Kloof, and it was there that the news of Commandant Hasebroek's death reached him. A few days later we learnt that on the 16th of December he unexpectedly encountered a number of English, and that, while galloping away from them, he received a bullet through his head. So he too had given his life for his country's freedom!
Posterity will keep the memory of the gallant Commandant Green. He was a man of noble character. Opposed to all hypocrisy, he was frank and open-hearted, and never hesitated to express his opinions fearlessly to anyone, whoever he might be. He was the idol of his men, and looked after their wants as if they were his children. He was ever the first to enter a position—the last to leave it. He was a tower of strength to our cause; when nearly everyone was discouraged at Nauwpoort, his courage never wavered. If it had not been for him and a mere handful of others like him, who knew not what it was to despair, our whole fighting force would have surrendered to the enemy like cowards. Brave, resolute Commandant, I reverently lay a wreath upon your grave!
Before I bring this chapter to a close, I must add that when President Steyn was retiring from Lindley he had received a letter from Lord Kitchener (in consequence of a letter from Vice-President Schalk Burger to Lord Salisbury, in which he complained about the removal and ill-treatment of our women and the bad treatment they received in the camps). Lord Kitchener wrote on the 1st December 1901 to the two Presidents, and said, amongst other things, that as the Presidents complained of the treatment of women and children, and as they must therefore be able to look after them, he had the honour to inform them that all women and children at present in his camps who were willing to leave, would be sent to the Presidents. Lord Kitchener said he would be pleased to hear where the Presidents desired the women and children to be handed to them.
President Steyn answered that he could not receive them, especially as Lord Kitchener had not only had all the houses destroyed, but also the bedding of the women and children.