Destruction of women and children - The only way to end the war - Scots Greys routed - English troops and armed kaffirs fight side by side - General De Wet completely cornered
The year 1901 came to an end and the Boers were still in excellent spirits, and good fighting trim. Our little command was twenty-five miles from Pretoria, and in addition to our dinner of mealie pap and fresh meat, we received through our famous spy, Captain Naude, our weekly mail from Pretoria. Letters informed us that Lord Kitchener wanted reinforcements to bring the war to a speedy end, and that the application of martial law in Cape Colony was making trouble among the British subjects. With all this the burghers were highly pleased, but the further news, that their women and children were daily dying by the hundreds in the prison camps, cast a gloom over all, and they spent most of the afternoon and evening in prayer.
Lord Roberts, Lord Kitchener, Joe Chamberlain and Milner, all fully realized that the only way to bring the war to a speedy end was to destroy the Boer women and children as quickly as possible.
They all worked to the same diabolical end, and within eighteen months their death lists contained the names of 22,000 defenceless Boer women and children.
The new year begins well, for the burghers are determined to fight. They did not generally know, however, that their women and children were being murdered by wholesale, otherwise I am sure they would have stopped the war at once. The English columns made a desperate effort on the high veldt during January, and it was fighting here and there and everywhere every day. There was no rest for any one, and I think that General Botha was cornered every day, but he was never found in the corner. I was with Commandant Joacham Prinsloo and 120 men early in this month of January, and we camped by the Klip-Kopjes about six miles from Bronkhorst Spruit, a station on the Delagoa railway line. It was very warm and we were trying to shelter ourselves from the sun by hanging blankets on our rifles, when suddenly, about ten a. m., the English began to fire on us from some Kaffir kraals about 800 yards distant. Our horses were out grazing, but within five minutes all had caught their horses, saddled them, and were striking for the English. The English scouts left the kraals when they saw the Boers coming in a gallop. On reaching the kraals and kopjes near by, we discovered about 700 advancing. They tried at first to surround us, but grew frightened, because they saw the Boers were too determined, and all began to retreat. The Boers charged and the English fled with the Boers hot after them. This regiment of 700 men was the Scots Greys, and all were panic stricken. They were scattered in every direction, and making for the forts on the railway line. Before they found safety, however, the Boers had killed seven, wounded eighteen, captured twenty-three men and nearly sixty horses, bridles and saddles. The enemy really put up no fight at all, and when asked the reason, they said, "Our time is up in March, and we are not going to fight any more, for we are tired of it, and the English always manage to keep out of the fight."
I merely mention this to show the feelings of some of the so-called Scotch regiments at this stage of the war.
In the Free State they were constantly cornering General De Wet, and, although he was many tunes cornered, yet he was never captured. In Cape Colony the Boer commandants kept all the districts in great turmoil, and General French and his big army seemed helpless to do anything. Besides, the blockhouses were giving the English trouble too, for Commandant Alex Boshof was slipping up nightly and blowing them up with dynamite. This perfect little dare devil, with his equal, Captain John Shea, blew up fifty or sixty of them, and so terrorized the Tommies that they would not take chances in them at night. Now, the commandos could cross the lines easily, for the Tommies would lie in trenches and not shoot if the Boers let them alone.
In the Western Transvaal, some of General de la Rev's commandos were sent after cattle to the Mafeking border. They were successful and re turned with some 20,000 head. Little else was done in this part of the world. In the North, General Beyers attacked Pietersburg and after a very hot fight, released 160 Boers whom the English had in a camp near the town. Fortunately, he was able to take them out all mounted and well armed.
Now I come to February, when there is not nearly as much rain as in January. During the month of January, heavy rains fall daily, and as the Boers were without shelter or overcoats and constantly wet, they were not inclined to be active. In February, they are dry at least half the time, so one may expect them to do something.
I forgot to say that late in January, in company with Walter Trichardt, a young Colonial, and four young Boers, I decided to cross the railway line, and visit Commandant Trichardt and Captain Jack Hindon, both old friends of mine. We foresaw much trouble, so we concluded to make a careful survey of the situation before trying our luck. Walter and myself rode directly towards Balmoral Station, on the main road, and when within about two miles of the numerous forts and blockhouses, we halted and used our glasses. We could see no one about the forts or blockhouses, so we rode on till within 600 yards of one of the largest forts. Now we were close to Balmoral, could see the poor women and children cramped up in the beastly concentration camp, and about 200 Tommies. In the forts and blockhouses we. could discover no life whatever, so we knew that all available men were out trying to corner General Botha.
We came back, joined the four young Boers, returned to the line within a mile of Balmoral, cut twelve barbed wires, and went on our way. The English had put up dummy soldiers at the blockhouses, and dummy cannon on high points near them, but we were not frightened by them in the least. I mention this, because we soon had trouble, and I witnessed something that will give Joe Chamberlain, Lord Kitchener and Lord Milner the direct lie. We are now in February, and about twentyfive miles north of Middleburg. We are with Commandant Trichardt, of the Artillery, Captain Jack Hindon and Captain Karl Trichardt. The entire command is 213 strong. It is rolling prairie where we are camped, and on the Middleburg side are several thousand cavalry, and on the north side about five miles distant, some 4,000 Kaffirs who had been armed by the English. We kept a good look out both ways. Yet before the month came to an end, we were surrounded at daylight and suffered severely. Colonel Park with about 4,000 cavalry and 600 armed Kaffirs, made a night march and attacked us just at sunrise. They were on three sides of us, and the 4,000 armed Kaffirs were on the fourth side. They .began to fire on us at a range of six or seven hundred yards, and as our horses were not saddled, but out grazing, one can well imagine that we were in a hot corner. Every man ran for his horse and pack horse, and under heavy fire saddled and packed. Then it was time that every man should make a dash for liberty. We put in the spurs and all made the dash, but unfortunately only thirty-nine of us succeeded in escaping. My pack mule always followed me, and although she fell far behind and the English hurled a storm of bullets at her, yet she came through all right, and joined me. These 600 armed Kaffirs were on the English left flank and fought in line with the Tommies; yet Chamberlain, Kitchener, Roberts, and Milner all swore that they had no armed Kaffirs with them in the war. Now, when any man tells me that such Englishmen as these are capable of telling the truth, I know at once that man is either an Englishman himself or an Anglo-American.
On the high veldt the English columns were still very numerous, and there was daily fighting, but the Boers held their own and suffered but little. Commandant Alberts and Veldtcornet Tromp attacked the Scots Greys, who had shown up again, and utterly routed them near Springs, killing and capturing a few, and several horses. These Scots evidently meant it when they told us in January that they would not fight any more. In the Free State there was an army 60,000 strong in the field, bent on cornering and capturing General De Wet. They had him and his burghers with 500 cattle in a triangle, two sides of which were lines of blockhouses and networks of barbed wire. On both sides the blockhouses were very near to each other, and all well manned. It would seem almost impossible for any Boer force less than a thousand strong to pass through.
On the third side were about 40,000 English, and their plan was to drive General De Wet into the angle formed by the blockhouse lines. They were advancing rapidly, and General De Wet knew that he must decide and act quickly, so he made up his mind to cross the Lindley-Kroonstad line of blockhouses. It was a very dark night and he had lost sight of his cattle, but there was no time to lose in trying to recover them. On reaching the line, he cut out a passage in the net work of barbed wire within a hundred yards of the blockhouses on either side, and passed through without a shot being fired. He went on for a few miles and unsaddled for the night. He had not been in camp very long before he heard shouting in the darkness, and much to his surprise here came four young burghers with the 500 cattle which he had given up as lost. These youngsters had cut away the wires and driven all these cattle between the blockhouses without the English firing a shot. The blockhouse system may be a great invention, but it is of no earthly use when fighting such an enemy as the Boers. I am sure that we crossed the blockhouse lines on the high veldt at least fifty times, yet I never heard a shot from one of them.
I remember one occasion when 300 Boers, about 100 trek wagons loaded with women and children, and nearly 10,000 head of cattle, passed through a line of blockhouses, and not one shot was fired. We were well surrounded, and on the following morning, the English spent hours hunting us within the circle, while we were at least ten miles away. The English officer is certainly a brilliant soldier.
It was only a few days after this that the English suddenly came upon these wagons, women and children, and, of course, captured them. About an hour afterwards, a small Boer commando with a French gun discovered the wagons moving along with an escort of about fifty Tommies. The Boers could not attack, on account of the women and children, but one of the artillery boys thought he would see what effect a shell would have on the escort. He sighted the gun so that the shell would be sure to fall well to one side. The shell struck and exploded, about 200 yards from the escort, and every man fled as fast as his horse could take him. Then the women turned their wagons about and returned to the Boers. To each wagon was yoked from twelve to sixteen bullocks, and the women had to drive them. It was a sad sight to see those young and old ladies, and even children, working like slaves to escape capture by the English. They preferred to take the chance of being shot or of dying hi open field, to sure death in the English prison camp.
The bird having escaped for the hundredth time, the English columns went back to their respective stations, and then General De Wet, too, returned to his old corner.
After a week's rest, out came the English, more numerous than ever, and the general could see columns of them in every direction. It was plain to him that they did not intend to make use of the blockhouse lines, but to form a continuous circle around him. They succeeded, and General De Wet was again rounded up. When night came, he started out for freedom or death, and as soon as his scouts came in contact with the English, lively firing began. He ordered his men to charge, and they broke through, but lost eleven men killed. Some of his commandants became confused, and did not get through, but on the following night, all broke the same circle, with the exception of two that were captured. Although there were 60,000 men in that circle, yet they dug trenches, so fearful they were of General De Wet and his men. Maxims and rifles were concentrated on the band of patriots, but it faced the storm of bullets, charged over the English trenches, and De Wet was free for the one hundredth and first time; and that is why you will still hear the real Englishmen talking about the cowardly De Wet and his burghers. Every word that falls from your lips, Mr. Englishman, is an unmistakable sign of your degeneracy.
In Cape Colony, General Smuts and his numerous commandants were so active that an alarming state of affairs continued to prevail, and the English shot down, without trial, many suspected rebels in the various districts. In the Western Transvaal, General de la Rey had been busy in many parts, but especially at Yzerspruit, where he again fell upon Colonel Van Donop, captured 600 prisoners, killed and wounded 200, took three cannon, a convoy of 150 wagons and 1500 mules. This was a good afternoon's work, and General de la Rey ascribes its great success to the personal bravery and daring of General Celliers, one of the very best fighting generals in the war. General Celliers, with less than 500 burghers, proved too much for Colonel Von Donop and his 1000 English ; yet the Colonel came out all right, for he reported that he had been attacked by an overwhelming number of Boers ; this, too, in the face of the fact that Lord Methuen had just swept all the Boers out of this part of the country.
To read a British commander's glowing report, describing how thoroughly he has swept the Boers from a certain district, one is not apt to be much amused, but following on his heels is another British commander, and to read his report, relating how thoroughly he has been wiped up by an overwhelming force of Boers, one feels very much inclined to laugh. Not a week passes but that some of the English commanders are guilty of just such amusing contradictions. The English officers, with very few exceptions, excuse all these blunders and acts of stupidity by that one phrase, "Attacked by an overwhelming force of Boers," notwithstanding the fact that the officer who has just preceded him reported the same ground as swept clean of the Boers. Lord Kitchener cables these contradictory reports regularly to London, and the people, with their eyes bulging out of their heads, read every word of them, but not one ever sees the joke.
During the month of March, there were plenty of small fights on the high veldt in the Free State and in Cape Colony, but none of them were of much importance. In the Colony, General Smuts captured a few towns, some prisoners and drove some of the English commands to the sea, but no heavy fighting took place. In the Western Transvaal was fought the most brilliant battle of the war, at Klipdrift (Tweebosch) on the seventh day of March. For more than two years, Lord Methuen with an army ten times as strong in numbers as that which General de la Rey had, struggled in vain to capture or destroy this Boer leader and his little army of patriots. They had fought over thirty battles, yet Lord Methuen could not lay claim to one real victory over General de la Rey. On this seventh of March, 1902, Lord Methuen with four cannon, 1,600 men and 134 wagons, arrived at Klipdrift, a beautiful place for a fight or a good horse race. General de la Rey, with 740 men, made up his mind to take in Methuen and show his burghers a real earthly Lord. He could see that Lord Methuen was well prepared to fight, and that if he were to win he must win quickly. He went to each of his 740 men, and told them that at the command, "Charge," all must use their spurs and lose no time in taking in the cavalry rear guard. All being in readiness, the old war-horse gave his signal, and his 740 patriots responded. Away they went, with the old war horse in the lead. It was a charge, a real cavalry charge, and with such force did those 740 patriots go over that broad beautiful plain, that the 500 English cavalry rear guard fled at the very sight of them. A few followed the fleeing cavalry, and the main body went for the infantry. So frightened were they that most of the infantry threw their rifles down and their hands up, while the rest took quarter in a kraal with Lord Methuen. The cavalry was still running and the burghers still pursuing, but the latter's horses were not fast enough, and they finally had to abandon the chase. Lord Methuen made a short stand in the kraal and then hoisted his white flag.
All was over. Lord Methuen and 900 of his men were prisoners, nearly 200 of his men were killed, and 163 wounded. In addition to Lord Methuen and his men, General de la Rey also captured four cannon, 134 loaded wagons, 500 horses, and nearly 1,000 mules. At best, little de la Rey, the farmer, the Boer general, had taken in Lord Methuen, the second in command in South Africa, a trained soldier with a trained force more than double that of the untrained farmer. Lord Methuen was shot in the thigh, and the bone was broken, therefore he was severely wounded and must receive every care and attention.
Some five months before this fight, Lord Methuen was fortunate enough to capture Mrs. de la Rey and her children, during the general's absence. Her wagons, her food, clothing and every bit of bedding were set aflame, and burnt up, and she and her children were left on the bare veldt to starve or die, because General de la Rey had so often defeated Lord Methuen in honorable battle. Mrs. de la Rey took refuge in an old hut, after walking several miles in search of some Boers who might be near by. She had to suffer the pangs of hunger, expose herself to beating rains, and with sore feet cross the barren veldt in search of some of her people. When almost exhausted from hunger, fatigue and pain, she and her little ones were found by the Boers and immediately cared for.
Now I return to Tweebosch, where Lord Methuen lies prostrate arid suffering great pain. It was Mrs. de la Rey that came to help comfort him, to prepare his food, and pray for his recovery. I have often wondered if Lord Methuen, as he lay on his sick bed, ever recalled the good time he had, when with fire and dynamite he destroyed General de la Rey's beautiful home and all his property. I think not. General de la Rey showed his savage instinct by sending Lord Methuen and all his wounded men and prisoners back to their own people, where they could receive more comfort and better surgical treatment.
Some time after Lord Methuen's return, General de la Rey was summoned to the Peace Conference, and as his path led him near by, he stopped to see how Lord Methuen was progressing. After a short conversation, so it is related, Lord Methuen said: "You know, general, that that was not my own column you captured." "Yes, that is true ," replied the general, "I remember that I took in your own column some months ago."
Before the month closed, General de la Rey found an opportunity to test the Kitchener blood, and took advantage of it. It was on March 31st that General de la Rey attacked General Walter Kitchener and his convoy. Although he failed to capture the convoy, which only narrowly escaped, so disastrous was this fight in the loss of men killed and wounded, that it was generally believed that General Kitchener would be sent home in disgrace.
But being a brother of Lord Kitchener, he was probably decorated with the V. C. for his rapid flight and escape from General de la Rey. When the English run up against three such old farmers as Oom Koos de la Rey, Chris de Wet and Louis Botha, many are liable to find a grave, while he who reaps honors must have shown his running ability to be most excellent. With their numerous maxims and guns and their great preponderance in men, all thoroughly trained, the English should have easily won all the important fights of the war, but, thanks to British stupidity and incompetency, the Boers were almost invariably the victors.
The last fight of the war was fought in the first part of April, near Heidelburg. Commandant Joacham Prinsloo, a young and energetic Boer, a most gracious and lovable man, one of the best officers I ever saw, here made his last charge. Preceding the charge, a very hot fight took place, and Commandant Prinsloo received two bad wounds, but he nerved himself up, ordered and led his last charge, saw the last battle of the war a victory, and the last shot fired in that last battle gave the commandant a third wound, a fatal one, and he rolled from his horse and died a contented patriot.
The brave Veldtcornet Vander Walt, badly wounded himself, felt sorely grieved as he gazed upon the lifeless remains of his beloved commander, but consoled himself in the knowledge that Commandant Prinsloo had lived to see his enemy utterly routed.