About a fortnight after the finding of the body of the missionary, and while I was away from Fort Edward on convoy escort, three armed Boers were reported coming in. Upon Lieutenant Morant being informed, he went out, taking with him Lieutenant Handcock and two men. These Boers were met and shot.
The same day Major Lenehan arrived at Fort Edward from Pietersburg; he found the merry-hearted Morant, whom he had known for a number of years, a changed man. He was now gloomy and morose, and was still brooding over the manner of the death of Captain Hunt. Morant fancied that if he had been out with Hunt it would not have happened. The major thought, as did others, that Moranfs mind had become unhinged with grief.
When I returned from Pietersburg, about two days later, I learned that two strong forces of Boers were reported in the district, and the outlook at Fort Edward was not a bright one.
Field-Cornet Torn Kelly, a notorious Boer Irregular leader, and a great fighter, was moving in from the Portuguese territory, and it was reported that he had several guns with him. Commandant Beyers, with a strong force, was threatening on another side. Morant had been wishing for months for a chance to capture Tom Kelly, and he now entreated Major Lenehan to allow him to go in pursuit. The major hesitated for some time, but finally gave permission to go. This brightened Morant up considerably.
On Monday, 16th September, Morant and myself left the Fort with thirty men in search of Kelly, proceeding in the direction of the Birthday Mine. We arrived there three days later, and waited for the scouts to come in and report the locality of Kelly's laager. Early on Saturday morning we started off again. Owing to the rough nature of the country we would have to travel over, we decided to leave behind all stores, taking with us only two days' rations, intending to live after that on any game we could shoot. Pushing on, we reached Banniella's (Kaffir) Kraal, within two miles of Kelly's laager, and about 150 miles from Fort Edward, late on Sunday evening. We dismounted, and left our horses here. The natives in formed us that Kelly had been there that day drinking palm wine with them, and had only left a couple of hours before; he had told them that if a thousand Englishmen came to his laager he would wipe them all out.
After warning the natives under penalty of death not to move away from the kraal, we proceeded on foot to the laager, which we reached at midnight. The camp was situated in a small clearing, among dense scrub, on the bank of the Thsombo River, and close to the Portuguese border. Halting within 300 yards of it, Morant and an intelligence agent named Constanteon made a careful reconnaisance, leaving me in charge of the men, some of whom were so fatigued that they almost immediately fell asleep.
One man, hearing a noise in the bush and leaves rustling, reported to me that he had seen a lion, and asked if he could shoot it. I knew that if we were successful in securing the lion we would lose Kelly, so I peremptorily ordered him to preserve strict silence until the laager was taken.
Morant returned shortly after, having found out the exact situation of the waggons and surroundings. He divided the patrol into three parties, and posted one on the right flank with Serjeant-Major Hammett, about 150 yards off; he and I took the others into the river bed, which ran under a steep bank around the waggons. The night was intensely cold, but we lay there within 50 yards of them until the first streak of dawn. During the night a dog scented us and started to bark; a Boer got up and gave it a kick to quieten it, at which Morant remarked, "A man never knows his luck in South Africa."
About four o'clock a Kaffir got up and lit a fire to make early morning coffee. We then charged the camp, shouting "Hands up" in the nearest approach to Dutch at our command. The Boers were taken completely by surprise. As there were women there we refrained from shooting. Morant rushed to Kelly's tent, and called upon him to surrender, and when he showed his head through the doorway he was looking straight down the barrel of Morant's rifle. The others, as they rolled from under the waggons, put up their hands very sulkily, while we collected the rifles.
Kelly was a fine type of a man, over six feet in height, and about 55 years of age; his father was an Irishman and his mother a Dutch woman. When I saw him again he was sitting in a Boer chair beside the fire; it had completely staggered him to realise that he was a prisoner, he who had boasted so often that he would give every Englishman a warm reception who came after him, and he had been taken without an opportunity of making the slightest resistance. The talk about the guns was all bluff One of our troopers went up and asked him, "Where are the big guns?" He replied, snappishly, "Don't talk to me, young man, I'm a prisoner."
After collecting all the prisoners, we got together all the arms and ammunition, which were nearly all British, and sent a party back to the kraal for the horses. We then spanned in the oxen, and started on our return journey to Fort Edward. As the country was very rough, and there were no roads, it took us four days to get back to the Birthday Mine. When we outspanned on the third night the horse-guard reported several horses missing. My own spare horse being amongst them, on the following morning I left the convoy and returned with three men to the site of the previous outspan, and after scouring the country all day found the missing horses. We got back late the same night to the place we had started from in the morning; we had used up all our rations, and had been living for the last four days on what we could shoot in the way of game. Leaving before daylight, we reached the Birthday Mine about 10 a.m.; finding the caretaker at home, four hungry men made great havoc upon his stock of provisions, besides commandeering his mealies for our horses. After a short rest we hurried on to overtake the convoy, which we came up with late in the evening, having travelled 60 miles since morning; the last 70 miles was covered in two days, as we feared that Commandant Beyers, who was in the district, would try to intercept us.
Our rate of travelling with ox teams surprised the Dutchmen, Ten miles a day is their average trek, so that 35 and 40 miles a day was naturally regarded by them as a "bi goed trek" (very great trek).
When we arrived at Fort Edward two of Kelly's daughters left the waggon. I asked them where they were going. They replied, "Home to get the house ready"—not knowing that their home was now a heap of ruins. I could not tell them, as I knew the effect it would have on them.
After fighting in the earlier stages of the war. Commandant Kelly had returned to his farm, which was situated about half a mile from Fort Edward. As soon as the Carbineers went to the district, he went off again on trek with his family rather than surrender. There were a number of other farmers living quietly around there. They had been frequently visited by Boer commandos, and all their horses and mealies or maize corn that could be found had been commandeered.
From the time we left in search of Kelly to our return to Fort Edward was exactly a fortnight; his pursuit and capture was the last official military duty of Lieutenant Morant. He received the following message from Colonel Hall:-"Very glad to hear of your success, and should like to have an account of what must have been a good bit of work."
Morant's career in South Africa was adorned by not a few actions such as this, but accounts of them were never published broadcast to his credit, to balance the stories scattered to his detriment.
After handing over Kelly's commando intact to the Pietersburg authorities, Morant was granted a fortnight's leave, and went to Pretoria. Just about this time Captain Taylor was recalled. Three weeks later Morant's detachment was relieved at Fort Edward, and returned to Pietersburg. On 21st October Major Lenehan, myself, Lieutenant Handcock, and all non-commissioned officers and men who had been on service in the district left Spelonken, and arrived at Fort Klipdan, 15 miles out of Pietersburg, on the evening of the 22nd.
The following morning we made an eventful entry into the garrison. I was riding ahead with the advance guard, and when about three miles from the town I was met by two mounted officers, who inquired if I was Lieutenant Witton. Upon replying in the affirmative, they informed me that the garrison commandant wished to see me. One of the officers accompanied me into Pietersburg, and took me direct to the commandant's office, where I met Major Neatson, staff officer to Colonel Hall, who merely asked me if I was Lieutenant Wit-ton. Upon replying again in the affirmative, he gave the officer who accompanied me some instructions. Leaving the commandant's office,
I was requested to accompany him to the Garrison Artillery Fort. The proceedings seemed rather strange to me, as I had not the slightest conception of what was about to take place. On my arrival at the fort I was left with Lieutenant Beattie, who could not or would not enlighten me. A little later Major Neatson came to me and informed me that I was under close arrest pending a court of inquiry.
The officer commanding the fort then informed me that I was a military prisoner under his charge, and if I attempted to escape, or went outside the wire entanglements, I would be shot; that I was not to communicate with anyone outside, and all correspondence was to be i sent through him. At this time I had not the faintest notion of the charges against me, or for what reason I was made a prisoner.
I learned afterwards that Major Lenehan, Captain Taylor, i Lieutenants Morant, Handcock, Picton, Hannam, and Sergeant-Major Hammett were in the same predicament as myself, and were located in different parts of the garrison. Major Lenehan was with the 2nd Wiltshire Regiment, Captain Taylor and Lieutenant Handcock in blockhouses close to the Wiltshire lines, Lieutenant Hannam and Sergeant-Major Hammett at the garrison prison, Lieutenant Picton with the Royal Field Artillery, Lieutenant Morant first with the Gordon Highlanders, and afterwards at the garrison prison.
After being a fortnight in close confinement I was called upon ' to attend a sitting of the court of inquiry, and for the first time I became aware of the nature of the charges against me. A great deal of pride is evinced in what is called British justice, but after that court of inquiry I doubted if such a thing existed. This piece of history could well be dated back to the days of the Star Chamber or the Spanish Inquisition.
The president of the court appeared to be Colonel Carter, whilst Captain Evans acted as his secretary. Both belonged to the Wiltshire Regiment. There was also another member, belonging to the same regiment. He was constituted a sort of private detective to round up witnesses to give evidence to meet necessary requirements; he employed as an understrapper a corporal who had once been a South African Republic detective, and was afterwards a trooper in the Carbineers. He had been arrested several times whilst with the corps, and on one occasion was reprimanded for selling British uniform. He expected at the close of the case to be rewarded with a farm. His hostility and bitterness can be imagined when be openly boasted that he would be willing to walk barefooted from Spelonken to Pietersburg, 90 miles, to be in a firing party to shoot Morant and Handcock.
Upon my appearance at the court, which was held in a tent close to the commandant's office, the president read out that I was charged with complicity in the death of a prisoner of war named Viss-er, with complicity in the death of eight others, names unknown, also with complicity in the death of C. H. D. Hesse, a German missionary.
I was asked to make a statement regarding these charges. I said that any part I had taken in the shooting of Boers was under the direct orders of a superior officer; as to the death of the missionary, it was quite a mystery to me, but I was confident that it could not be charged to the Carbineers.
I was astounded to hear that his death was imputed to Lieutenant Handcock, as I had been frequently in his company while at Spelonken, and had not the slightest reason to connect him with it. I proved even to the satisfaction of that court that I knew nothing of this case, and the charge was immediately withdrawn.
I always understood that a man was innocent until he was proved to be guilty; that position was here reversed, and we were adjudged guilty until we proved we were innocent.