When Morant's detachment was withdrawn from Spelonken, and the officers arrested, the Boers returned to the district, full of renewed hope; they were well acquainted with the fighting abilities of our successors. The war had been going on for so long that even in those out-of-the-way places, both sides were as well-known to each other as rivals for party power would be in the snug quarters of Parliament House, or even as rival factions in a little country township, where the causes for tumult are numerous and varied.
In December Commandant Beyers, with a strong force, fairly beleagured Fort Edward, billeting himself and his men at Sweetwater's Farm, about a mile away, in the quarters recently vacated by Captain Taylor. Beyers had occupied the same place about nine months before, but when the Carbineers appeared upon the scene he went elsewhere.
Just before his first visit the good lady of the house had made a large Union Jack in anticipation of the advent of the Carbineers. She knew that if it fell into the hands of the Dutchmen it would not only go hard with the flag, but with the homestead as well. She was determined it should not be destroyed, and a happy thought struck her; she wrapped it carefully round a pillow, and enclosed it in two pillow cases, one reverse to the other, and placed it on the bed in which Beyers slept, so that nightly he rested his head comfortably on the grand old Union Jack. The flag was preserved, and for many months afterwards it fluttered nobly in the breeze at Fort Edward.
For nearly a fortnight Beyers and his men stayed at the farm, moving about among the settlers, helping themselves to the cattle and doing what they pleased, and passing many a joke at the expense of the Fort Edward garrison, who all this time were penned up and not allowed to move outside the walls.
The men entreated the officers to take them out and engage Beyers, and were almost on the verge of mutiny through the inaction of their leaders, when reinforcements, including a detachment of the Field Artillery, arrived from Pietersburg. Then, and only then, were the occupants of Fort Edward permitted to move outside.
On the approach of the troops Beyers and his force fled in the direction of the Waterberg, hotly pursued by the Carbineers, who several times came in touch with them, and exchanged a few shots. In one of these engagements the horse of Beyers' adjutant was shot under him, and he was captured. He appeared to be of the better class of Dutchman, and a well-informed man. He freely spoke of the tight way in which the Spelonken district had been held under the military ri-gime of Lieutenant Morant, and said that the men of Beyers' commando absolutely refused to work in that district until they learned of Morant's removal and arrest, when they ventured back.
Beyers now turned his attention to Pietersburg. During the trial of the Visser case, on the night of the 22nd January, the soldiers who were in the blockhouses guarding the camp were enticed from their duty by the Boer women. Beyers, with a strong force, then rushed the Burgher camp, and, unchallenged, entered it, looted a quantity of provisions, and took away 150 men who had previously surrendered and had been allowed to remain with their families in the camp.
Upon an inquiry being made into the conduct of the soldiers on guard, several were court-martialled and sentenced to terms of imprisonment ranging from six months to two years.
It was anticipated that the Boers, having secured a large number of recruits, would require remounts and equipment, so on the following day arms were returned to the late officers of the Carbineers, and we were ordered to be ready for duty when called upon. Next morning, just as the day was breaking, the Boer force rushed upon the town, making for the Remount Depot. This necessitated breaking through the ring of block-houses at the point where Handcock was confined, and close to the garrison prison where Morant was located. From my position near the cow-gun I saw the Boers galloping madly over the sky-line, making for the town, doubtless thinking that the forts were only dummies and unoccupied, and expecting to annex the remounts as easily as they had the recruits.
They were allowed to come within fifty yards of the blockhouses, when they received a warm welcome from within in the shape of a shower of bullets. They made a desperate effort even then to get through, firing as they charged. Handcock was at the block-house nearest the point of attack. This had originally been a small brick building, and had been converted into a fort by being loop-holed and sangered.
Morant joined Handcock as soon as the firing commenced, and they climbed together on to the flat roof of the fort, in the most exposed position. Disregarding any cover, they fought as only such brave and fearless men can fight. Handcock in particular, in his cool and silent manner, did splendid work, one of his bullets finding its billet in Marthinus Pretorius, Beyers' fighting leader. Handcock was the only man armed with a Mauser rifle, and when Pretorius was brought in, dangerously wounded, it was found that he had been struck by a Mauser bullet.
The Boers were repulsed, leaving many dead and wounded behind, some being within a few yards of the block-house. Whilst they were beating a hasty retreat in a north-easterly direction, I espied a party making round the foot of Krughersberg Kopje, about one mile and a-half from the fort. I drew the attention of the cow-gun officer to them, and he hurriedly had the gun loaded, and sent a 50-lb. lyddite shell after them. This resulted in a rather inopportune disaster that put the gun out of action until the Boers had got safely away. When loading the gun, the gunners, in their hurry and excitement, neglected to put the brake on the wheels to check the recoil; consequently the shock of discharge drove it back to the top of the inclined plane at the rear, then, running forward again, it took a header off the gun floor into a deep ditch, burying the muzzle in the ground, while the trail pointed in the direction of 10 on a clock—just the time for the court to assemble. It was fortunate that none of the gunners were killed; one man had his foot crushed by the gun running over it, and he was removed to the hospital. No casualties from the other side were reported.
Such a gun as that, in the hands of an inefficient officer, is a greater danger to those around him than it is to the enemy.
The court met as usual that day. The members were just a little more imperious; perhaps they were slightly tired by their exertions in the early morning. During the day the Pietersburg Light Horse, a corps formed in place of the now defunct Carbineers, went out under an Imperial officer in pursuit of Beyers, and with him went any late members of the Carbineers who had been detained in Pietersburg as witnesses at the trials.
They came in touch a short distance out, at a place called Ma-tapanspoort; upon climbing a kopje and looking down on the other side, they saw Commandant Beyers dismounted and within 150 yards of them. A late member of the Carbineers at once covered him, and asked permission from the officer commanding to open fire, or at least to shoot Beyers' horse and capture him, but this request was refused until more men were got up from below. In the meantime, Beyers, with a party' of his men within easy range, and the British troops looking idly on, was allowed to pass out through the Poort. A little time after his departure another party came riding in through the same pass. The commanding officer on the kopje was just about to order his men to open fire, when one of them discerned that the party approaching was some of their own men, who had been sent round on the flank. Just as I write this I can extract a cablegram published in the Melbourne "Age," and dated from London on 20th February, 1905, to the effect that at a recent conference of leading Transvaal Boers at Pietersburg "Ex-General Beyers made a violent speech, threatening that, if representative and responsible government were not immediately granted to the Transvaal, there would be a rebellion of Boers after the fashion of the Slaghter's Nek rising in the old days of Cape Colony." He still adheres to that deliverance, for a further cable said that, "In an interview at Potgietersrust yesterday, Beyers declared that he meant what he said at Pietersburg, and if a second Transvaal war should occur, the blame would be with the capitalists, who are the controllers of the present policy, and who are interested solely in the Rand mines."
I am wondering if Commandant Beyers is aware that he owes his life to the hesitancy of an English officer.
The court should have had a little rest that day, and sent Mo-rant and Handcock after Beyers. A monument to his memory would then have been the only cross the Empire would have had to carry for him.
Morant had his favourite horse, "Bideford Boy," stabled at the garrison prison near him, claiming it as his private property; he kept it, too, in spite of the requests and demands of the commandant to hand it over to the Pietersburg Light Horse. He wrote this skit on the venture of the Pietersburg Light Horse and the English major who went out and essayed to capture Beyers:—
"A new foot-slogging Major has ventured out of town, To spoil the mouth of 'Bideford,' and break the pony down; But when he sallies after Boers, it's different now to then— He's got to let the Dutchmen rip, to muster up his men."