Our horses needed rest after all the hard trekking. Luckily we were able to grant them this on the farm Rondebosch, which we reached about a week after we had effected the passage at Kalk-krans. There the horses not only got some rest but also forage. This rest, however, did not last long. After two days we heard that the English were again approaching, and, as we had expected, were returning from Harrismith. We had now to give way before the enemy once more. The question was, Whither? And as it was clear to the President that his presence in the districts of Bethlehem and Vrede was largely the cause of the continual reappearance of English columns in those parts, the question arose, whether it would not be better, in order to give these districts, which had latterly been terribly harassed, as well as himself some rest, to leave them and betake himself beyond the railway line to those portions of the Free State which were then enjoying comparative repose.
General de Wet, who was still with the President, approved of the idea, and the plan was carried out.
We saddled our horses with the intention of going to the district of Fauresmith, but it turned out that we landed in the Transvaal.
At sunset on the 5th of March we left Rondebosch. It was a dark night, and the darkness was the cause of some loss to me, for we had hardly commenced to trek when the pack in which my clothes and blankets were, tumbled off. I was riding in front, and did not know that my little Kaffir boy was struggling with the pack; but I soon heard that everything was lost—my Kaffir boy too; for in running after a led horse that had broken loose while he was busy with the pack, he got lost himself, and although we shouted and searched for him we could not find him.
The commando had to proceed, and I had to proceed with it, possessing nothing but what was in my wallets and the clothes I was wearing. I thought it remarkable that while everything had been saved in the dash through Kalk-krans, here, where there was no immediate danger, everything should be lost. But I did not feel unhappy. On the contrary, it was with a feeling of relief that I remembered I should not have the trouble of having to look after worldly possessions, nor the care of the little Kaffir, during the difficult journey that lay before us. He was safer at his kraal, which was not far from the spot where the mishap had occurred, and the "secret of Jesus," as Matthew Arnold calls it, became clearer to me than ever before: that to gain life one must lose it. From that evening up to the end of the war I rode on my pony with a few blankets that I got the next day fastened on a led horse. I was without cares.
The English had approached to within nine miles of us on the following day, and we saw that we should have to bestir ourselves. While hurrying on our way to the Frankfort-Heilbron line of blockhouses we halted for half an hour, while General de Wet, who was about to part from the President, discussed the route that should be taken. He said that it would be best to cross the railway line somewhere between Wolvehoek and Vaal River, "and then," he said to Commandant van Niekerk, "you must"—
"But why should you not go with us?" the President asked.
General de Wet replied that if he did this it would look as if he were fleeing from the enemy.
Judge Hertzog then showed that the presence of the General was urgently required in the western district, and other members of the Executive Council remarked that if he left the north-eastern portions of the State for a while the people there would get some rest, and that, so far from taking it amiss if he went away, they would be glad if he should absent himself for some time. And now a strange thing happened. This inflexible man, who never lost his presence of mind and always knew immediately what course of action to pursue, said, "Well, then, I leave the matter in your hands. You must decide."
Of course everyone took the responsibility upon himself, and General de Wet remained with us. How secure we all felt!
In the afternoon we met with the burghers of Commandant van der Merwe, who had been driven from Parys and Vredefort over the railway line some months before, and who had remained in the Heilbron district since then. The Commandant and his men wanted to get back, and were overjoyed when General de Wet ordered them to accompany him. When it became dark we proceeded on our way in order to break through the Heilbron-Frankfort line of blockhouses to the east of the town of Heilbron.
All went well. In complete silence—no officer has need to enjoin silence when men are marching to blockhouses or the railway—we approached the line. We expected every moment to hear shots; but nothing happened. The foremost men had halted. A burgher cut the wires. Just as one of the wires was cut the reports of two shots fell on the silence of the night in quick succession. They were fired from rifles attached to the wire. We waited a moment. But all was still. No other shot rang out, and we passed through swiftly.
After riding a few hours farther over an apparently endless plain, well named Langverdriet (Long-sorrow), we off-saddled shortly before sunrise on a farm in a hollow, with the blockhouses seven miles behind us.
The morning of the 6th of March had now dawned. After breakfasting we proceeded until twelve o'clock, and then rested till the sunset. We then mounted our horses once more, and at eleven o'clock we were a few thousand yards from the railway at a point somewhere between Wolvehoek (station) and Vaal River. General de Wet did not wish to cross just then, as he was of opinion that the guards on the line would be too wakeful, and he ordered that we should halt there till one o'clock. We thereupon tied our horses to one another and lay down on the ground. I fell asleep immediately. Shortly before one o'clock I was awakened by a sound which I had not heard for months—that of a passing train. What memories mounted in my mind, and how the hot blood surged in my veins at the thought that our railway was in the hands of the enemy! The order was given to mount, and we rode on to about four hundred yards from the line.
A party of Commandant van der Merwe's men went on foot to cut the wires. This was done. The whole commando now rushed to the line. It must have been the tramp of our horses that woke the sentries, for when we had already reached the line a shot rang out. We passed through a ditch and then up a very slight embankment; and I saw again, as I had already seen several times before, the two rails glide under me to the rear. A feeling of relief took possession of me. The half of the commando had crossed when shots from three rifles were heard from a railway cottage in the direction of Wolvehoek, and the foremost men halted till all should have crossed. But soon we heard the rattle of a Maxim, and everyone then hurried on.
We could still occasionally hear the Maxim; but at last it ceased, or else we were too far off to hear its vicious cackling. We off-saddled at sunrise, six miles from the line.
In the course of the day we reached the farm of Salamon Senekal, two and a half hours from the railway and one hour from the town of Parys, grateful to God for His protection.
There was another matter for which we had cause to be grateful: the delicious fruit of the farm. Salamon Senekal had ridden on ahead, and when the President and the General arrived there, he had spread, on a plate of corrugated iron, under the great blue gum-trees, a splendid collection of ripe figs, apples, pears, and great peaches. What a feast had been prepared for the President!
There were several other kinds of fruits in the garden besides these: quinces, prickly pears, pomegranates in such quantities that when we, about 150 men, left the farm, one could not have noticed that a commando had been there. And we had not spared the trees. Whether any had overeaten themselves I leave to the reader to determine.
At the town of Parys, where we arrived on the following day, we found three families, aged men and women and children. One old man had died shortly before. This would have placed the aged survivors in a difficult position if there had not been a young girl, Miss Greef, living in the family in which the death had taken place. While one of the two surviving old men made a coffin, the girl dug a grave in the garden and took upon herself the greater part of the labour of interring the body.
It is a pleasing duty to me, after having had to write so much to the discredit of the English, to be able to relate that the families here in Parys had no complaints to bring in against officers and men who had been quartered here for some time. On the contrary, they declared that the English had treated them with the greatest consideration, and had also provided for all their wants.
It was the intention of General de Wet to remain at Parys, and on the following Sunday, March the 9th, to attend a service in the church. But this was not to be, for the English had appeared behind us. We had therefore to leave Parys on Saturday afternoon. In the evening we reached the village of Vredefort, and I saw in the dusk the walls of the burnt parsonage. I thought of the pleasure I had enjoyed when, seventeen months before, I stayed there for a night. If anybody had said then that the war would last another seventeen months, who would have believed him?
We found the blockhouses from Kopjes Siding to Potchefstroom and those from Kroonstad to Potchefstroom broken up. We rode forward without adventure to a place nine miles from Valsch River, and arrived at the farm of Broekman's on Thursday, 13th March. We had trekked from the district of Heilbron to where we now were in eight days, and during all that time we had been in a completely devastated region. We had met no one on the farms. Every house that we had passed was burnt or destroyed. We had not seen a single horse, ox, or sheep. The veld was in splendid condition—the grass waved in the breeze, but we had seen no cattle to graze on it. We had ridden through a wilderness, excepting that the ruins on the farms showed that the country had once been inhabited. At Broekman's General de Wet learned that there were blockhouses on the left bank of the Valsch River, and at the same time word was brought by the scouts that all the fords of the Vaal were occupied by the English. He thereupon decided to cross through Valsch River and the blockhouse line to the opposite side.
In the evening he crossed the river, while Commandant van der Merwe and Commandant van Niekerk of Kroonstad remained behind to operate in their own districts. We found the river almost too full to cross, but nothing particular happened; and at the blockhouse line all went well, notwithstanding a heavy fire which was opened on us. Only a few horses were left behind. On the following morning we heard that General de la Rey had come in contact with the enemy, and that he had captured a great many waggons and mules.
I must now state how it happened that we went to the Transvaal instead of to the western portions of the Free State as we had intended.
The question had often been considered of late whether we would go to the western portion of our State or through the Vaal River. This was decided at Rietyat by the consideration of various circumstances. President Steyn had been suffering since 20th February from an affection of the eyes which seemed to be getting more and more serious. Would it not be best to go through the Vaal River in order to consult Dr. von Rennenkamff, who had joined the commandos of General de la Rey? If this were done, the opportunity would be offered also of consulting General de la Rey before sending the messenger to Europe. This decided the matter, and we resolved at once to cross into the Transvaal. This, however, could not be done by means of the fords, for they were, as I have said before, guarded by the English. We had therefore to avail ourselves of a fearfully bad bridle-path, which led through the Vaal River a mile and a half above the British guard at Commando Drift.
On Monday, March the 17th, we reached Bosmansrust, and from there the President, General de Wet, and the other members of the Executive Council proceeded to Zendelingsfontein, where they were received with great marks of honour.
The burghers of General de la Rey were delighted to have the Free State leaders in their midst, and presented President Steyn with three addresses.
There I heard the particulars concerning General de la Rey's operations. There had been two battles. The first, at Yzerspruit, had taken place on 25th February, when 2 Armstrong cannon, 1 Maxim-Nordenfeldt, 153 loaded waggons with their teams, 23 Scotch carts, 4 carts, 5 water carts, 460 oxen, 200 horses, and 1500 mules had been taken. There had been 241 prisoners-of-war, of whom 10 were officers. About 200 English had been killed and wounded, and our loss 12 killed and 26 wounded. The second battle had been fought on the 7th of March. Lieutenant-General Lord Methuen had hastened to regain possession of the guns. His force, numbering 1500 men, had been attacked at Klip Drift, Harts River, and had fallen into the hands of General de la Rey. There had been captured 4 Armstrong guns, 75 waggons with their teams, 38 carts, and 518 horses. Besides this there had been 400 killed and wounded and 859 prisoners-of-war. Amongst these was Lord Methuen who was wounded in the leg. He and General de la Rey had been opposed to one another since Magersfontein, and had fought with varying fortune. Here de la Rey triumphed. Our loss had been 9 killed and 25 wounded. The prisoners were released after each of the battles.
General de la Rey, after showing Lord Methuen every attention, allowed him to be taken to Klerksdorp. This act of General de la Rey displeased the burghers. They considered that as the enemy treated our captured Generals in a different manner—the name of General Scheepers in the Cape Colony was mentioned in this connection—the least that General de la Rey should have done was to keep Lord Methuen prisoner.
General de la Rey thereupon laid the matter before the Council of War, and pointed out that, although it would have been his duty to keep an officer who had nothing the matter with him, humanity demanded that every possible help should be given to a wounded man. The other officers agreed, and Lord Methuen, who had been stopped on his way to Klerksdorp when the burghers had demurred, was set at liberty.
To my great joy I met the Rev. J. Strasheim here, and went with him to visit and address the commandos of General Kemp, Commandants de Beer and Potgieter, and General Liebenberg. I was with the commandos of General Liebenberg on Sunday night, 23rd March, when, at eleven o'clock, the loud tramp of horses was heard on the road coming from Klerksdorp.
We immediately saddled our horses and inspanned. It appeared on the following morning that the English had come from Klerksdorp in four divisions, and had been joined by other forces that had advanced from Commando Drift (Vaal River) at the one end and from Vaalbank on the other. When morning dawned, the English had accomplished the remarkable feat of forming an arc in one night from Makwassie to Vaalbank, a distance of seventy-two miles, and General Liebenberg saw that he was in a tremendous kraal, as we called it.
He was driven from Doornpoort to Leeuwfontein, and from there to Limoenfontein. He endeavoured continually to break through towards Vaalbank and in the direction of Schoonspruit, but fresh English troops continually confronted his weary burghers. Near Limoenfontein the English fired on us with shrapnel, and we hurried on to Buysfontein. Two guns and one Maxim-Nordenfeldt had to be abandoned. At Buysfontein General Liebenberg was forced to abandon his laager also, and the commandos escaped by racing helter-skelter over the great stones down the valley of Buysfontein, while the enemy harassed them with cannon and rifle fire. In the evening, after having had our horses under saddle for twenty hours, we rested until half-past eleven. We were apprehensive of the enemy from the Makwassie end of the line; but the forces there had advanced on both sides of us, and General Liebenberg succeeded in passing in the night between two camps without knowing it at the time, and unnoticed also by the English.
On the following day we reached Zendelingsfontein. Thus I had been in a kraal (drive) once more.
On Wednesday, 26th March, we came to Doornkuil, and learnt that other commandos had had very narrow escapes, and that unfortunately General de la Rey's staff had been captured. I was glad, however, to learn that President Steyn and his staff were safe.