We reached the border village of Volksrust before noon, and here the entire force was halted for the day, the Pretoria men camping beside the monument erected to commemorate the Battle of Majuba, fought on the mountain nearby in 1881.
The army was now split up to facilitate our passage through the mountainous country lying ahead. Tile Pretoria commando, about 300 strong, was attached to a larger force of 1,500 men under (General Erasmus, nicknamed 'Maroola', with his brother, Commandant Erasmus, nick-named 'Swart Lawaai' (Black Noise) as second in command.
They were tall, swarthy men, clad in black claw-hammer coats, and semi-top-hats, trimmed with crepe, a style of dress and headgear affected by so many Boer officers as virtually to amount to insignia of rank. General Maroola had got his name during a recent native campaign in the Northern Transvaal, in the course of which he was said to have directed operations from behind a maroola tree, while Swart Lawaai's was a tribute to his dark complexion and quarrelsome temper.
Several other forces, more or less equal to ours, were carved out of the main body, and in the afternoon each of these new commandos was assigned its route. We spent an unhappy night in the rain. We had neither tents nor over-coats, so we sat on ant-heaps, or lay in the mud, snatching what sleep we could. It was our first introduction to the real hardships of war, and our martial feelings were considerably damped by the time the downpour ceased at daybreak. When it was light we moved out, shivering and hungry, for it was too wet to build fires.
Our road lay between high mountains, and the rain came down again in torrents. Far away to our right and left we caught an occasional glimpse of other forces marching through the mist, also making slow progress over the heavy Country. We did not cross the border, but kept to a parallel road, and by dark we halted at a dismal spot, soon trampled into a quagmire by the multitude of horses. Again it rained all night, and again we could light no fires, and had to appease our hunger by munching biltong from our saddlebags.
It was a severe first test, for, in addition to the rain, a cold wind blew from the great Drakensberg range, cutting through us. Fortunately past troubles are soon forgotten, and when, towards sunrise, the weather lifted and we got under way, we were in good spirits again, with no thought of the unhappy night behind us.
After a long ride we emerged into open country and there, winding across the plain ran the Buffalo River with the green hills and pleasant valleys of Natal stretching beyond. With one accord the long files of horsemen reined in, and we gazed silently on the land of promise. General Maroola, with a quick eye to the occasion, faced round and made a speech telling us that Natal was a heritage filched from our forefathers, which must now be recovered from the usurper. Amid enthusiastic cries we began to ford the stream. It took nearly an hour for all to cross, and during this time the cheering and singing of the 'Volkslied' were continuous, and we rode into the smiling land of Natal full of hope and courage.
As soon as we were through the river, we spread out on a front of several miles, and went forward. Far away, on either side, we could see the other forces moving abreast of us. There was not a man who did not believe that we were heading straight for the coast, and it was as well that the future was hidden from us, and that we did not know how our strength and enthusiasm were to be frittered away in meaningless siege, and in the holding of useless positions, when our only salvation lay in rapid advance. The nearest English soldiers were still many miles to the south, so that, beyond sending out vedettes, the men went as they pleased- riding hither and thither to forage for supplies at the farm-houses we passed.
By nightfall we reached the hills near the village of Newcastle, and here we halted, our camp fires glowing far and near like the lights of a great city. Next morning we moved in columns through the streets, such of the inhabitants as sympathized with us waving encouragement, and the rest looking on in sullen resentment, as the long lines of horse-men went by. Beyond the village, a halt was called to allow the other forces to come abreast, and then, at dusk, all commandos started on a forced march that lasted throughout the night, except for an occasional halt to rest the horses.
By sunrise we had come within fifteen miles of the flat-topped mountain behind which lay the town of Dundee and the nearest English forces.
Contrary to expectation, we halted for the greater part of the day, and again, at sunset, were ordered to prepare for another night march. The commandos had by now closed in, and our fatal army was assembled practically in one body, making a brave show as we rode out. General Joubert had passed among us during the day, and we knew from him that he planned to surround the English troops that night. General Maroola, with the 1,500 men of who we of the Pretoria Commando formed part, was to occupy the mountain overlooking the enemy's camp at Dundee while the other forces were to complete the pincers on the flanks and rear. There was much excitement at the prospect of fighting, and even the heavy rain that set in after we started could not depress our spirits. The night was black and our route seemed to lie chiefly over an open mud-bound plain, varied at times by more broken country in the passage of which there was a good deal of confusion and intermingling between the different commandos; but for all that, steady progress was made, and towards dawn Maroola succeeded in disentangling his commando from the other columns. Soon the frequent lightning revealed the steep side of a mountain, rising like a wall before us, and word was passed to commence the ascent, for this was the mountain from the top of which it was said one could look down on the English encampments on the other side. As there was almost certain to be a strong post holding the summit we climbed up in silence, expecting to be fired on at any moment, but when we reached the wide Plateau above we found it deserted. This was so unlooked for that no one seemed to know what to do next, and, as it was still pitch dark, and the rain was coming down in torrents, we waited shivering in the cold for the coming of daybreak. When it grew light the rain ceased, but a mist enshrouded the mountain-top through which everything looked so ghostly and uncertain that we felt more at a loss than ever, and when Maroola was asked for orders he merely stood glowering into the fog without reply. We could not see fifty yards in any direction, but we knew that the English lines were immediately below us, for we could hear muffled shouts and the rumble of wagons, and we expected to be led down the face of the mountain to the attack. But General Maroola and his brother made no sign, and when President Kruger's son Caspar, who was serving with us as a private, and who for once in his life showed a little spirit, went up and implored them to march us to the enemy, Maroola curtly ordered him off.
He must have known what he was about though, for suddenly there came a violent cannonade, bringing us all to our feet as we listened to our first sound of battle
We could see nothing, but heavy fighting had started close by, for the roar of the guns increased and at times we heard the rattle of small arms and Maxims. None of the fire, however, was directed at us, and so far as we were concerned nothing happened, and we fretted at the thought of standing passively by when others were striking the first blow of the war. After perhaps an hour the sound died down, indicating, although we did not know it at the time, that the English had driven the Vryheid men from Talana Hill with heavy losses. Towards midday the weather cleared somewhat, and while it still continued misty, patches of sunshine began to splash the plain behind us, across which we had approached the mountain overflight. And then, far down, into one of these sunlit spaces rode a troop of English horsemen about 300 strong. This was our first sight of the enemy, and we followed their course with close attention.
How this handful of men came to be right in the rear of due whole Boer Army I never heard, but they were on a desperate errand, for between them and their main body lay nearly 15,000 horsemen, and, now that the fog was lifting, their chance of regaining their base unobserved was gone. Already scattered Boer marksmen were appearing out of the mist, firing from the saddle as they came, and- shepherding the soldiers still farther from their own people. Our men were by this time mostly crowding the forward edge of the mountain, hoping to catch sight of the English camp below, so that there were only a few of us who saw the troopers on the plain behind. Among these was our corporal, Isaac Malherbe, my brother and I, and five or six other Pretoria men, and, after watching the squadron below for a few seconds, we mounted our horses and rode down the mountain-side as fast as we could go. Arrived at the foot, we raced across the veld in the wake of the English troops, guided by the sound of dropping rifle-shots ahead of us, for we could no longer see our quarry, as they had disappeared for the time being among some low foot- hills. Following on, we soon came to the scene of action.
The English had gone to earth at a small homestead, and we were just in time to see the soldiers jumping from their horses, and running for cover to the walls of a stone cattle kraal, and among the rocks behind the farmhouse. Other burghers were flocking in, and soon the troops were completely surrounded. Across their front ran the dry bed of a spruit, and Isaac led us thither at once. This meant riding towards the enemy over the open, and now, for the first time in my life, I heard the sharp hiss of rifle-bullets about my ears, and for the first time I experienced the thrill of riding into action. My previous ideas of a battle had been different, for there was almost nothing to see here. The soldiers were hidden, and, except for an occasional helmet -and the spurts of dust flicked up around us, there was nothing. We reached the spruit we were making for with one man wounded, and leaving him and our horses in the bed below, we climbed the bank and were soon blazing away our first shots in war.
The troops replied vigorously, but they were able to devote comparatively little attention to us, for by now the countryside was buzzing like an angry hive, with men arriving from every direction, and the end was but a question of time. After a few minutes a Creusot gun of the Transvaal Staats Artillery unlimbered and opened fire. The very first shell stampeded all the troop horses. The poor maddened brutes came tearing past us, and we leaped on our horses to head them off, but had to retreat to avoid being trampled down as they thundered by. I managed to hang on to the skirt of the mob, and, by seizing its flying reins, brought a fine black Waler to a standstill. As I was looking over my prize I saw a white flag go up at the kraal and another from the farmhouse, so I hastened to be present at the surrender. By the time I got there the soldiers had thrown down their arms and were falling in under their officers. Their leader, Colonel Moller, stood on the stoep looking pretty crestfallen, but the private soldiers seemed to take the turn of events more cheerfully. Officers and men were dressed in drab khaki uniforms, instead of the scarlet I had seen in England, and this somewhat disappointed me as it seemed to detract from the glamour of war; but worse still was the sight of the dead soldiers. These were the first men I had seen killed in anger; and their ashen faces and staring eyeballs came as a great shock, for I had pictured the dignity of death in battle, but I now saw that it was horrible to look upon. I was too elated, however, at having taken part in our first success to be downcast for long, and I enjoyed the novelty -of looking at the captured men and talk to such of them as were willing. After a final look round, those of us from Pretoria rode back towards the berg, where we had left the rest of our commando, leaving the wounded to make their way as best they could to the nearest medical assistance.
It fell dark before we reached the foot of the mountain on which our men were, and, heavy rain setting in, we made for a deserted farmhouse, and here we spent a comfortable night, pitying our companions out in such weather.
At dawn the rain stopped, and before long we saw Maroola's force winding down the mountain, so we saddled our horses and made haste to rejoin them as they came down.
The men were cold and wet and hungry, and they looked with envy on our dry clothes and on the trophies in the way of swords and bayonets which we had brought with us. The weather at last was clearing and the sun came shining warmly through so that all were soon in a more cheerful frame of mind in spite of Maroola's telling us that the encircling movement had failed and that the English forces in Dundee had got away towards Ladysmith. When his brother Swart Lawaai saw the horse I had captured the previous day, he made me hand it over to one of his Field-Cornets whose mount had gone lame, and I was fool enough to comply, for I still had some respect for authority, and that was the last t saw of my booty. This was the more unfortunate because the little Basuto pony that I had been using as a pack-animal had strayed during the night, and my brother and I were left without a led horse to carry our cooking-tins and supplies. We now felt our way round the corner of the mountain into Dundee town. As Maroola was not quite certain that the English evacuation was complete, he sent a patrol of ten men forward to investigate.
My brother and I were of the party, and, while we were riding ahead along the base of a kopje, we saw half a dozen English soldiers running up the slope about 500 yards off. We shouted to them to stop, but as they paid no heed, we sprang to the ground and fired, bringing two men down.
The others now halted, and, riding up, we found one dead and another badly wounded. The rest told us that they were a signalling party that had lost their way in the rains and mists of the preceding day, and they seemed greatly taken aback when they heard that their troops had evacuated Dundee.
We left the dead man lying where he fell and ordered the prisoners to carry their wounded companion into town, and as we were anxious to be first in, we left them and rode on.
By now Maroola's men were also making for Dundee, galloping hard behind us, but we were well in advance and easily got in before they came. They were not long, however, and soon 1,500 men were whooping through the streets, and behaving in a very undisciplined manner. Officers tried to stem the rush, but we were not to be denied, and we plundered shops and dwelling-houses, and did considerable damage before the Commandants and Field-Cornets were able to restore some semblance of order. It was not for what we got out of it, for we knew that we could carry little or nothing away with us, but the joy of ransacking other people's property is hard to resist, and we gave way to the impulse. My brother and I were hampered by the loss of our pony, but we brought away enough food for a royal feast, and after living on half-cured biltong for all these days, we made up for lost time.
There was not only the town to be looted, but there was a large military camp standing abandoned on the outskirts, and here were entire streets of tents, and great stacks of tinned and other foodstuffs, and, knowing the meagre way in which our men were fed and equipped, I was astonished at the numberless things an English army carried with it in the field. There were mountains of luxurious foods, comfortable camp stretchers and sleeping-bags, and there was even a gymnasium, and a profusion of other things too numerous to mention.
The looting of Dundee was the work of General Maroola's men, for the rest of the Boer forces were moving, east and west of the town in pursuit of the English garrison that was retreating to Ladysmith.
That afternoon Maroola managed to persuade his men to resume the advance, and he trekked off, but twenty men of our Pretoria commando were picked haphazard by him to remain behind to prevent further looting. I rode by just as he was making his selection and, his eye happening to fall on me, I was included in the party.
The old fellow probably thought he was doing me a good turn, but I was far from pleased, especially as my brother went on with the rest of the commando. After they were gone we searched around for one of the less-damaged houses, as we had no idea how long we might be marooned here and had decided to be comfortable. Towards evening I rode up again to the English camp to have another look at it and, wandering- about, I came on the field hospital, flying the Geneva Cross. One of the tents was a large marquee for wounded officers, and here I saw General Penn Symons, the Commander of the English troops. He was mortally wounded and the nurses told me that he could not last out the night. Next morning, as I was again on my way up to the camp, I met a bearer-party carrying his body, wrapped in a blanket, and I accompanied them to where they buried him behind the little English chapel. Now that the commandos were gone, and we were left in sole charge, we looked like settling down for some time, but that afternoon a dishevelled horseman rode into town with tidings of the disaster that had overtaken the Johannesburg men at Elandslaagte. He was in a state of great excitement and gave us such an exaggerated account of the fight, probably to excuse his presence so far to the rear, that I decided to go off in search of our commando, as I could see that there would be other fighting. The temporary Corporal in charge of us, one Paul de Villiers, forbade me to leave, as our instructions were to stay in Dundee until further orders, but I rode away within the hour. As it was late when I started, darkness came on before I had got very far, and I spent the night at Glencoe Junction, where I found other fugitives from the Elandslaagte battle, from whom I gathered that it had been a pretty serious affair, in which we had lost two guns and many men killed and wounded, besides some hundreds of prisoners.
At the station, too, I saw the wife of General Kock, who commanded the Johannesburg commando. He had been badly wounded and taken into Ladysmith by the British, and the poor woman was hoping to get through their lines to see him. How she came to be here at all I do not know; probably she had accompanied the forces in the same way as the Commandant-General's wife, but I do not know whether she ever succeeded in reaching her husband, who died a few days later.
I rode on before daylight next morning, the memory of her tear-stained face giving me the first hint of what women suffer in time of war. I went down the Washbank Pass all by myself, and, although I was new to the country, I had no difficulty in finding my way, as the road was trampled and churned by the thousands of horsemen who had gone before.
During the two days while I was in Dundee, General Hubert had moved his whole army southwards, and was at this moment camped about ten miles from Ladysmith, where I rejoined after nightfall. As I approached I saw thousands of fires springing up on the hills, for the commandos were strung out over several miles, and it took me a long time to locate the Pretoria men in the dark. Stumbling about I came on General Maroola squatting by a fire, and, before I could slip away, he saw me, and testily demanded why I had left Dundee without his permission. I said I had come away to help him take Ladysmith, and, grinning sourly at my impudence, he packed me off. When at last I found my corporalship I was told that my brother had been missing since the day before, which troubled me, for we had promised my father to remain together if possible.
Next day our whole line moved- forward, and a fine sight it was, as the masses of horsemen breasted the green slopes towards the final hills from which we could look down to Ladysmith. The English were standing on the defensive, for during the morning we had not come in contact with them and we could now see them building forts and redoubts in the low kopjes surrounding the town.
Neither side made any attempt to get to grips that day, but by night our men had occupied Bulwana and Lombaardskop, two prominent heights, and they were also holding a line that stretched around by Pepworth Hill and the ridges lying towards Nicholsoll's Nek. The following day was spent in preparation for the coming battle, but I was riding from commando to commando in fruitless search for my brother.
A collision with the British was imminent. They had 10,000 to 12,000 men, including those who had retired from Dundee, and we had 14,000 or 15,000, so that something was bound to happen.
That night the Pretoria commando took up a suitable position to the right of Pepworth Hill, where we lay on our arms till morning, expecting an attack at any moment, but sunrise came and all remained quiet, from which we gathered that another day was to pass before the dash.
Towards eleven in the morning Piet Joubert, the Commandant-General, and his staff rode up to address us. He started by scolding the men for having looted a farm close by, and got so worked up that he forgot to tell us what the real object of his visit had been. We took his wigging in good part, but I am afraid no one treated our Commander in-Chief very seriously. His staff was jocularly known as the Royal Family, mostly relations. There was a story going round of a burgher who saw a man ordering people about. The burgher asked him if he was an officer and the man replied: 'Of course I'm an officer, I am the Commandant-General's nephew.' This tale might have been true, for some of the Royal Family put on airs, and we had no great love for any of them, although in fairness it must be said that none of the Commandant-General's own sons were on his staff, but were serving as ordinary privates.
After Piet Joubert had ridden off Mr Zeederberg, our, Field-Cornet, set us to building breastworks in the line of hills forward of our halting-ground, and every man worked hard until sunset, for this was the position we were to hold when the enemy came against us.