Dark Period Of The War - President Kruger Forced To Leave For Holland - Lord Roberts' Attempted Attack On Boer Women And Children - Long Trek Through Bush Veldt - English Fortify - Battle Of Rhinoster Kop - Kitchener Orders All Farms Destroyed - English Savagery
We now arrive at what I call the dark period of the war. For the first time I really felt that our situation was serious. The Boers were discouraged in spirit and much scattered, and several hundred of them deliberately rode into the English lines and surrendered. At one time it looked as if there would be a general surrender, but President Kruger was firm and said the war must go on.
President Steyn had arrived from the Free State. He, together with all the Transvaal officers and officials, concentrated their influence on President Kruger to persuade him to go to Holland, as he was very feeble and it required so many men to guard his safety. He positively refused to go, saying that he could not leave his people and that he would look after himself. His idea was to go to Pilgrims' Rest, but that little town was far away and it required many days of hard travel through the fever stricken bush-veldt to reach it. In the end President Kruger was practically forced to take the train for Delagoa Bay en route to Holland, and as the train moved off the staunch old patriot's eyes filled with tears and he sank down broken hearted. He handed to General Botha 40,000 sovereigns, ($200,000) for the use of the burghers. This was his own money. He had no government money in his possession and the few thousand dollars that he carried to Holland belonged to him. All the burghers felt very sad at the good old man's departure and such was their love for him that they one and all resolved to fight harder than ever and bring back their great friend and patriot.
On hearing of the old hero's departure, Lord Roberts found a good opportunity to use his pen again. In effect he cabled the news that Ex-President Kruger had deserted his wife, his people and land, and gone to Holland, taking with him a very large amount of gold belonging to the people. He also had some abusive opinions to express about the good old man.
When Lord Roberts wrote and sent those cablegrams, he knew that he wilfully, maliciously and deliberately lied and I would be exceedingly happy to tell him so to his face.
Of course, Robert's idea in sending such a slanderous statement was to deceive the Boers throughout the land, and lead them to believe that President Kruger was really guilty of such infamous conduct; but the Boers had known the good old man too many years to be so deceived, and Lord Roberts only succeeded in making them love him still more. Roberts and Kitchener each issued many proclamations, all teeming with treachery and unscrupulousness, and if either had a grain of honor, and were forced to read his own proclamations to a public audience in any civilized country, I am sure that each would be stricken with a vomiting fit. I will have more on the subject of proclamations before I finish.
Now Lord Roberts had a most excellent opportunity to make an attack on the Boer women and children, who were helpless and in his hands, and one may be assured that he did not fail to take advantage of it. He notified General Botha that he would send all the women and children to him and that he must take care of them. General Botha replied that he would be pleased to receive all of them, as he wished to send them to Holland to remain during the continuance of the war, but that he must not rush them out all at one time, as it was very cold weather, in which all would suffer and many die. He wanted no more than a ship load sent at one time, so that he could properly care for them and send them at once to Holland.
This floored Roberts and he never answered. He could not stand the idea of the Boer women and children being sent to Holland, for in that case he could not fight them, nor could they be killed off in his concentration camps.
Before the President departed I discussed the position of the Irish Boys with him, and it was his opinion that all those who were dismounted should go at once to Koomati Poort and then, if hard pressed, go to Delagoa Bay and thence to America. All Boers who were dismounted were sent to the Poort, so the Irish boys went also. Shortly after they reached Koomati Poort I telegraphed Captain O'Connor that I thought it best for them to go to America at once. I did this because I did not wish any of them to be captured. Should any be so unfortunate, I knew that it would go very hard for them, and probably cause them to suffer a slow death in some prison. Major McBride thought it best for them to go too, and he went.
General Botha soon put things in order now at Hector Spruit, and we started on our long, perilous journey through the bush veldt, our destination being, for some Pietersburg, for others Pilgrims' Rest and that vicinity. We left enough coffee, sugar, flour and soforth unharmed to last the whole British army for at least a month. How I did long apply the torch and destroy those great stacks of stores! There were about thirty Irish boys mounted, and determined as ever, with us, but distributed in small bunches with the different commandos.
I had joined with Major Pretorius of the artillery near Bronkhorst Spruit in July, but was now separated from him because the English cut in between us at Dalmanutha when he was with one Long Tom and I was with the other. My aim was to find Pretorius, and when near Pilgrims' Rest his brother-in-law, Gustav Preller, and myself set out to find him. Just before we reached the town of Pilgrims' Rest, we saw the English, about 15,000 strong, at the drift on the Sabi River, but we moved rapidly, reached the little town and heard that Major Pretorius with his guns, was about twenty miles ahead, near Aurichstad. We spent but little time at Pilgrims' Rest, because the English were very near us. Three days later we caught up with Major Pretorius near the Devil's Pulpit on the Olif ant River. We had been separated from August 26th at Dalmanutha till this day, October 1st, so that we had plenty to talk about. He had saved all his guns and had fought the English at close range for more than three weeks. We had a hard time getting the guns down the mountain to the river bank. He had six guns, including one Long Tom, and twenty-four artillery men with him. So steep arid long was the open way to the river bank that we had to dismount the guns, put them on slides and turn them loose. Some would roll over, some would glide nicely, and then some would skip off into the rocks on the side. It meant a great deal of work, but every gun was landed safely without any damage whatever. We had a lookout, of course, and on the last day he reported several thousand English about six miles from us. They could certainly see the trail of the guns, and why they did not come over and take us we do not know, unless it was that they were afraid of an ambush. We now pushed on to Leydsdorp and finally reached Pietersburg on October 7th. Here we met President Steyn and his escort under command of a good soldier, Koos Boshof . In two or three days two or three thousand burghers had assembled. General Botha cut through by Kruger's Post near Lydenburg and finally reached Bothasberg near Middleburg. He had with him quite a good command. South of the railway the Ermelo, Carolina, Bethel, Wakkerstroom and in fact all the commandos on the high veldt had gotten themselves into fighting trim.
General de la Rey had assembled 6,000 men in the Western Transvaal who had surrendered their guns, armed them again, and put them in excellent fighting condition. General De Wet had put the whole Free State in perfect order, so that when we finished counting noses we found that we had about 30,000 fighting men in the field, while the English did not have over 250,000 men. Our chances were excellent, and the two little republics would have won their independence if the devil and all his angels had not been against them.
By the 15th of October General Botha had all his forces in the Eastern Transvaal along the railway line from Pretoria to Dalmanutha and on the Natal line from Heidleburg to Laing's Nek. General de la Rey was close to Johannesburg and Pretoria on the west. General Byers, a most excellent man and soldier, was north of Pretoria, and General De Wet was general traffic manager for the railway line through the Free State. In fact, we were stronger and in better condition than we had ever been before, because we were concentrated. Of course, at one time during the war the Boer force was 35,000 strong, but it was too scattered and too much used for siege work to be of practical use.
During our six weeks' absence the English had busied themselves in building all sorts of forts along the railway lines. On a high commanding mountain a few miles north of Machadadorp they built eight forts at Helvetia and armed them with cannon, one being a 4.7 naval gun, bearing in large letters the name "Lady Roberts." English commands were moving about freely, believing that the Boer men were so scattered and demoralized that they would not dare to make a stand and fight. They were soon to be sorely disappointed for that able and most successful fighting general, Ben Viljoen, had gone to Rhinoster Kop, about fifteen miles north of Balmoral Station, to find out what the English were doing near Pretoria. Soon General Paget with 3,000 men, advanced, and attacked General Ben Viljoen and his 600 brave fighters of the Johannesburg Commando. Captain McCallum, Sergeant Joe Wade, Joe Kennedy, Mike Hannifin, Mike Halley, John McGlew and Jerry O'Leary, of the Irish Brigade were there too. General Viljoen took positions near the Kop, and on the 29th of November General Paget boldly attacked. For hours his cannon roared, and thundered, and tore up the earth and rocks generally, but the Johannesburg boys were there and they were there to stay.
Having fired enough shells to have killed each man at least five times, then General Paget advanced his lines and the rifles came into play. Time and again these lines were driven back, and the last time they advanced to within fifty yards of the Irish boys. Didn't they keep the air filled with steel and didn't they do good work ? Well, I guess they did. The English were driven back once more all along the line and did not try again. General Viljoen's men had used up almost all their ammunition and could not have repelled another advance. At night he retired a few miles back, in the hope of meeting his ammunition wagons, which were already due to arrive. General Paget was satisfied. He had had enough and made no further attempt to molest General Viljoen and the Johannesburg boys . A board over on e pit accounts for seventeen officers. The other pits bear no mark, so it is not yet known how many men were killed. However, the slaughter was so terrible, and General Paget so terribly thrashed, that he was relieved and sent home. Had he simply made a feint on General Viljoen's right flank the latter would have been forced to retreat without fighting, but it never occurred to General Paget for he was so sure that his frontal attack would be successful. General Viljoen lost three men killed and two wounded, and taught the English that the demoralized Boers were still able to defeat the disciplined English army.
It was about this time that Lord Kitchener's proclamations and orders for the burning and destruction of Boer farms was given. The English visited, and destroyed in the end every farm, both in the Transvaal and in the Free State. All fences, crops, agricultural implements and soforth were destroyed. Even the towns of Dulstroom, Carolina, Ermelo, Bethel, Piet Retief, and many others were razed to the ground. Churches were torn down and the corner stones robbed of old church papers. Some of these papers were afterwards advertised for sale at fabulous prices. It was not until November, 1901, that this burning and destruction of property was completed, and the whole country left as a desert waste. On searching a farm house the officer in command would give the family ten minutes to get out what they could, but would at once spread the oil around and then apply the torch. All fowls, pigs, sheep and cows would either be shot down or driven off, and then without a mouthful of food, without shelter or clothing, the women and children would be left to starve to death on the veldt.
I do not believe that in the history of the world, one could find more acts of barbarity and brutality committed by any people in any land than by the English in the two little republics of the Transvaal and the Free State.
There were about fifteen of us near Dulstroom watching the movements of the English in November, 1901. A column of about 500 strong rode up to a farm house occupied by a widow and eleven girls, her daughters. Soon we saw the girls pushing the organ out of the door and the smoke began to fill the windows and roof. Of course, one of the girls brought out the family bible too, for that is one of the most precious things in the household to them. The organ was pushed about forty yards away and placed by a stone cattle kraal. The mother sat down and began to play and her girls collected about her. The house was now enveloped in flames, the soldiers were killing fowl, etc., while the officers were cracking jokes at the poor mother and her children. Of course, we thought that the old lady and her children were singing a hymn or psalm, because these are nearest to the Boer heart. The English, having completed their pleasant duty, rode off in search of other farms. We then went to the scene of destruction, because we knew that immediate help was necessary, as the sun would soon go down. On meeting them we asked the old lady how she could play and sing hymns while her home behind her back was burning and all her possessions were being destroyed ? She replied, "We were not singing hymns or psalms, but our ‘Boer War Song.' "
Here you have a fair sample of the Boer women. They are ready and willing to suffer from lack of food, to suffer from lack of clothing and bedding, to endure the cold of winter and the heat and fearful rainstorms of summer without any shelter over their heads, and, yes, they are ready and willing to face death itself, if the men will only stand and fight for the liberty of the people and the land. Yes, they are noble women, brave and patriotic women, the very women whom the English strove so hard to exterminate and whom they did murder by thousands in those prison camps.
So long as the Boer woman lives so long will there be a race of liberty-loving people in South Africa, so Jong will there be great Boer generals and fighting patriots daily born, and sure it is that such fighting blood will assert its independence. No one is more certain of this than Roberts, Kitchener, Joe Chamberlain, Alfred Milner and the thousands of other women-fighters in England.