De Wet cornered again - De la Rey cornered too - General Kemp fights a good fight - The way by which the Boers so successfully outwitted the English.
In many parts of the Free State several skirmishes took place, but the English columns generally were occupied in trying to corner De Wet. A mighty army was brought to bear on him, for the English were convinced that, once he was cornered and captured, the war would come to a sudden end; but they did not reckon on the fact that a mighty army without a trace of military sense to guide its movements was a very harmless thing in the presence of such an able strategist as General De Wet. The Free State, with its broad, grassy, level plains, is a most beautiful country for cavalry and artillery operations, and although the English had thousands of cavalry, and guns without number, yet they seemed to be able to effect but little with either, or the two combined. They were so numerous that they fell over each other, and in the scramble General De Wet managed to pick up some of them. In Cape Colony matters were daily growing worse for the British, and the Boers, ever increasing in numbers, were very active and aggressive in many districts. General Kritsinger captured a convoy, some prisoners and one or two fortified towns. General Brand had helped himself to one of the English supply trains, and Commandant Malan in the far south was fighting and accumulating war supplies. Commandants Fouche, Wessels, Latigan and other officers were doing good work in their respective districts.
In fact, there was daily fighting throughout the Cape, and the English were so upset and worried that they scarcely knew how to defend themselves. In the Western Transvaal General de la Key's commandos had done some damage, and all were progressing nicely. Lord Methuen was active enough, but his columns were misguided and made suffer severely. Near the Mafeking railway line General de la Rey was much interested in several columns that were trying to corner and capture him. He had several skirmishes with them, took some prisoners, among them being three burghers who had deserted and taken up arms with the British. These were afterwards shot, and the English were convinced that General de la Rey had committed a great crime. A pity it is that all the other Boer generals did not commit many such great crimes in the beginning of the war.
When these numerous columns were about to make it very warm for him, General de la Rey doubled back between two of them and left for other parts. It was a week before Lord Methuen discovered that his bird had flown and was creating trouble elsewhere. It was on his return from his Mafeking expedition that Major Pretorius and myself met him and delivered our despatches. Some time ago I mentioned something about booming cannon in our rear a few days after leaving General Kemp, with whom we had spent a most pleasant week. It was this very General Kemp, who was always seeking a fight, that caused all that noise which so puzzled us. Shortly after we left, General Kemp's scouts reported an English column moving about from farm to farm and destroying all of them. He had his men saddle their horses, and off they went in search of this column. They found it at Vlakfontein, where Major Pretorius and I had slept the day after leaving General Kemp. He set the grass on fire to conceal his men in smoke, advanced to within short range, surprised General Dixon and his 1,500 men, and in a short time put them to flight. General Kemp killed and wounded over 200, captured more than 100 men and horses, and took two cannon, which they turned on the fleeing column. This was a good piece of work accomplished by General Kemp and his 400 burghers. General Dixon and his men never stopped running till far away from all danger, for they supposed that Kemp must have had two or three thousand men. No better men ever lived than those Krugersdorp men, and, taking the war from start to finish, I believe they did more and harder fighting than any other commando in the field. Like the Johannesburg boys they were brave, reckless, dashing patriots who defeated the English in many battlefields. General Beyers in the north troubled Pietersburg a great deal, but no fighting of any consequence took place. He had with him a most capable man, in the person of Captain Henry Dutoit, who commanded his scouts. Captain Dutoit was an artillery officer and was nearly torn to pieces at the battle of Modderspruit on October 30, 1899. He was patched up by such able and competent surgeons as Dr. Max Mehliss, Dr. Lillepop, and Dr. Wepner, and in some way managed to survive.
A year afterwards some of his numerous wounds were still open, yet he was one of the most active and energetic officers in the field. He spurned all danger and fought like a very tiger to the end of the war.
Now I come to the month of June, a cold bleak month with piercing winds. We had but one blanket each, no overcoats, no tents, no shelter of any description, and how well I remember how near all came to freezing stiff every night. Still we had to keep on the alert, for the English were on all sides of us. They had burnt the entire high veldt, and but a little patch of grass could be found here and there. All houses were burned, all property was burned, all the grass was burned, and the scene was a most dreary, desolate one.
Before relating the events of this month I will try to tell in as few words as possible how we lived and managed so successfully to outwit the thousands of English about us and with whom we practically lived, because we were never out of each other's sight. The Boers were divided up into small bands 100, 200 or 300 strong, and each little band went as it pleased, and when it pleased, but generally confined itself to its own little district. These small commands were always in close touch with each other and could quickly come together if there was a chance of taking in some single English column that might be passing by. During the day, when not fighting, we would camp near some old ruins where we would find a little patch ol grass that had escaped the fire. The English would generally see us and we were sure to see them at all times. After sunset and darkness had set in, we would saddle up, dodge behind the English, find another little patch of grass, and then unsaddle, hobble our horses and try to get a little sleep. So cold it was that precious little any of us had during the night. We would put out no guards, but at four o'clock in the morning all would get their horses, saddle up and prepare for fight. We would then send out a man here and there, say about 1000 yards distance, to wait for daylight and to locate the English if possible. If none were to be seen at hand after the sun came up, we would unsaddle, hobble our horses again and try to get in some sleep under the warm sunshine. If the English were found near, we would probably have a short skirmish with them, knock a few from their horses, and then fly away to some other part of our district where we would be safe to get something to eat. We were surrounded many times at daylight, but I will tell something about that later on.
As everything was destroyed on the high veldt, the reader will naturally ask how we got anything to eat, as we had no carts or wagons to carry food. I will tell him just how we managed to live and grow fat and strong on nothing. Before the rainy season set in, about October, the burghers would pull out their hidden plows, put the fields in good shape and then plant their mealies, (Indian corn). All this had to be done under the cover of darkness, and it meant a great deal of hard, tiresome work. In the following March and April we would have plenty of green mealies, and, later on, dry mealies. The English could not destroy these crops, though they tried and failed. If they turned their horses out to eat and trample it down, the green corn would kill them. When the corn ripened and became dry they tried to burn it, but failed because there was little or no grass in the fields. The result was that we had mealies on the stalk in all the districts. Many would be gathered, hidden in the high reeds along the small rivers, or buried in nice, dry pits. The English have often ridden over these without discovering them. Now, the reader may understand how we had mealies to eat ourselves, and some besides for our horses.
The English took all the Kaffirs away and burnt their kraals. In these kraals there were large Kaffir baskets, some that would hold fifty bags of mealies or Kaffir corn. The English would set these on fire, but they would not burn. Then they would destroy the baskets and scatter the coin. In a pinch we would take this corn, wash arid dry it and find it as good as ever with the exception of a little sand or gravel that might be in it. But a hungry soldier has little regard for sand and gravel under the circumstances. Now, we always had cattle near by, and generally two or three good fat bullocks with us. These we would drive along with us, until they were wanted. In every mess of two or three men, there was one ordinary coffee mill, but of course we had neither coffee nor sugar. We used these mills, however, to grind the corn into a rather coarse meal. It was hard, tedious work, but do it we must, if we were to have anything with our fresh meat. Having ground sufficient meal for breakfast, a small tin pot filled with water would be brought to the boiling point, the meal carefully stirred in and constantly stirred for about forty minutes, when it would be cooked. Of course we had no salt ; so our fresh meat would be thrown into the ashes, broiled to suit each one's taste, and then breakfast was ready. There is ammonia or some other kind of salts in the ashes, that help the meat out. For coffee, we had in each little mess another small tin bucket, which would be filled with water and boiled. Some meal would be burnt in a small pan, till black, and then put into the boiling water ; this makes a very good drink, but I don't believe, reader, that you would like it.
When near the bush veldt, we often used acorns for the same purpose, and the coffee was very good. At times, during peach season, we dried some peaches, charred them and had a really delicious drink. Sweet potatoes prepared in the same way make a nice beverage, too. So you see that, after all, we lived very well. Live on mush and fresh meat, as we did, and you will never be sick.
We lived in this way for two long years, fighting all the time or trying to evade the English, and we lost but one man from sickness ; this, too, in the face of the fact that we had nothing to protect us against the cold of winter, or the severe rain storms of summer.
Of course many English convoys were taken, and many railway trains, too, but the Boers have good sense, and will not eat any canned stuff. They would destroy all such, and only take what they could comfortably carry on their horses. To every man's saddle you would see tied either a small tin bucket, or a coffee mill, and these constituted our complete cooking outfit. On this high veldt there is practically no wood. So for fuel we would go about the veldt and collect dry cow dung, just as they did in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona in the early days.
Now, reader, you are sure to tell me that the English captured all our cattle, because you read it in the paper. Well, I confess they did ; and let me tell you about it. When the war began, the number of cattle in the Transvaal and Free State together, was nearly 300,000. The English captured all these cattle, time and time again, and if you will take the trouble to look up their official reports, you will find that during the war they captured some 2,000,000 head from us, although we had less than 300,000 to begin with. Here is the explanation : the English would capture our cattle to-day, and make their report. Tomorrow, we would take the cattle back, but the English would make no report of it. They always reported the capture, but not the re-capture, and that is how they captured some 2,000,000 head of cattle. The cattle were captured and re-captured so often that they grew to know the khakhi's uniform as well as the Boer's rags : so when they saw a man or two coming, if he or they wore khakhi uniforms, they would at once start toward the railway line. If the men were recognized by their rags as Boers, they would all start for the high veldt, where the Boers always took them.
The poor, patient and willing cattle had hard lines, and many and many miles they travelled during the war. At the end of it, the Boers still had nearly one-fifth the original number, and all were fat and in good eating condition.
Now, I will drop this subject for the present, and tell what was done during June. All the columns made another drive at General Louis Botha, east of Ermelo, and they had him cornered this time sure; "there was no possible chance for his escape," and all that remained to be done was to go through the formal ceremony of surrender of the Commandant General of the Boer forces. True it is they gave him a lively dance, in double quick time, too, but when they closed they found that General Botha and his men were missing, and had left them nothing but the corner. This was too bad, for the English felt much disappointed at the idea of having to correct all previous reports. To add to their misery, General Chris. Botha slipped up behind them, fired a volley into their rear, and nearly shattered the nervous system of the whole English force. It was simply a joke on the part of General Chris. Botha, and having played it, he and his men rode away to some warm spot where they could rest and eat their mealie pap and fresh meat. One of these English "drives" is a wonderful tactical success when the number of telegrams, and the quantity of paper required in the execution, are considered. However, as long as there were any women and children on the veldt they managed to get some of them, and these they could kill in the concentration camps, if they couldn't kill their men on the battle field.