Indeed, we presently heard that General Buller was back at Colenso collecting an ever larger army to attack again, but we were confident that the Tugela defences would hold and we saw no shadow of the disasters that were soon to overtake us. After a work my brother Joubert returned from Pretoria. He said that he and the escort had been made much of by the townspeople, for, coming straight from the battle on the hill, they were the heroes of the hour, and they were marched down to shake hands with President Kruger, the nearest approach to battle honours that we ever attained.
He arrived in camp with my three remaining brothers. The eldest, Hjalmar, aged twenty, was studying law in Holland when the war broke out, and he had after considerable difficulty succeeded in reaching the Transvaal through Portuguese territory. The other two, Amt and Jack, aged sixteen and twelve respectively, had been at school up to now; but they had at last persuaded my father to let them come to the war. Jack only remained for a few days, as old Maroola on one of his visits to our laager caught sight of him and ordered him to be sent home, but at any rate from now onward there were four of us in our tent.
About the middle of February, a force of eight hundred mounted men was drawn from different commandos for the purpose of carrying out a raid into Zululand. The exact object of this expedition I never heard, but I think that it was intended to create a diversion, for the British were massing heavily at Colenso. My two newly arrived brothers were absent on a visit to the Tugela, for commando life was a novelty to them, and they spent much of their time riding about, but my brother Joubert and I joined the Zululand column. It assembled at the Commandant-General's headquarters behind Bulwana Hill, and we started the same morning under old Maroola. For several days we travelled due east through lovely mountain country everywhere dotted with picturesque native kraals. The Zulus showed no fear of us and refused to serve as guides, for they sided with the British, as they have always done.
Of English troops we saw no sign, and our journey was a restful interlude after the excitement of the past few weeks. Unfortunately it soon came to an end, for about the fifth day out a messenger came riding post-haste with orders for Maroola to return to Ladysmith at once.
We retraced our steps by forced marches, arriving back at the head laager on about the eighth day after leaving. During the last two days of the journey we heard a constant rumble of gun-fire coming from the direction of Colenso, and, on reaching our Pretoria camp, we were met with the disturbing news that the English had broken into our defences there to the extent of capturing Hlangwane Hill, a commanding position that was considered the key to the Tugela line. Once more volunteers from every commando around the town were called for. My two brothers Hjalmar and Arnt had returned and gone off again on some jaunt, so Joubert and I, with the rest of Isaac Malherbe's corporalship, handed in our names. There was no difficulty in getting the required fifty men, and at dusk on the day after our return from Zululand we set out on a journey from which few were to come back.
We rode through most of the night in company with other units hurrying to the danger-point. Farther on we fell in with small parties riding in the contrary direction, who made no secret of having quitted the Tugela firing-line, and when we neared the river at daybreak we found a critical situation. Not only had Hlangwane been taken, but every Boer trench on the north bank for a distance of several miles had been evacuated, and, what was far more serious, there was a feeling of discouragement in the air that dismayed us.
Up to now, the prevailing note in Natal had been one of confidence in an early peace, but, almost in a night and without apparent cause, a wave of pessimism had set in and the nearer we came the more evidence was there of growing demoralization.
Hundreds of men were leaving the new line that had been formed in the hills behind the abandoned trenches. They were dispersing about the back area, some holding meetings, others making for the wagon-laagers in the rear, and from their talk and attitude we sniffed disaster, for though we knew before starting that Hlangwane had been taken, we did not know that the fighting spirit of the men had gone with it.
Bad as it looked, however, things were not yet quite hopeless, for General Botha had taken up a new lane to the rear of the old one and was once more standing on the defensive with eight or nine thousand men. We were met by one of his officers, who allotted different points to the various fresh detachments. We of the Pretoria commando were told to leave our horses in Charge of guards and march on foot down a rocky gorge which led towards the Tugela. Heavy Lyddite shells crashed against the cliffs on either side as we went down, but we emerged without loss at the lower exit of the canyon, to find ourselves in the bed of a dry spruit which ran across an open plain to where it joined the Tugela River about a mile and a half away. This dry bed skirted along the base of the foothills for some distance before bending away across the plain, and, from the exit of the gorge to the point where it curved away, its bank had been converted into a sector of the new line. We were assigned a position near the top end, not far from where we had come out of the gorge, and we fell to at once, hacking firing steps, with pocket-knives and any other implements on which we could lay our hands.
The English infantry were eight hundred yards off, approximately along the line of our former trenches that had been abandoned two days before. From here they were maintaining a continuous rifle-fire, a multitude of bullets whizzing overhead or plugging into the ground in front.
They were also methodically shelling the course of the spruit with many guns, including high-angle howitzers, so that we were in a very warm and unpleasant locality.
The casualties were few, owing to the height of the bank, and not one of the Pretoria men was hit, although I got a shell splinter through my hat before I had been there ten minutes, and one or two of our men had scratches from flying earth as the shells exploded in the bed of the spruit below.
The British did not attack on our front, but later in the morning made a determined attempt to our left against some hills known as Pieters Heights, where the Bethal commando was posted.
We saw waves of infantry going forward, but it was too far off for us to participate. At first the soldiers advanced in regular lines, but gradually their progress was stayed, and we could see the survivors crouching behind rocks and stones. They lost heavily, and it was soon evident that the attack had been repulsed.
Nothing further happened that day-and by dark all was quiet. We spent an undisturbed night, and next morning (February 26th, 1900)- the English sent in under flag of truce to fetch away their dead and wounded, so that there was no firing at all.
Having nothing to do, my brother and I walked down to watch the removal of the fallen soldiers and we spent some hours going over the ground discussing events with the English doctors and stretcher-bearers.
Returning, up the spruit on the way to our own quarters, we met my Hollander uncle, still serving with the Swaziland Police, a chance encounter which probably saved the lives of both of us. My Uncle, seeing us pass, asked us to spend a day or two with him, and, fading in with his suggestion, we went to get our things and to tell Isaac Malherbe where we were going. He made no objection to our visiting the Swazilanders, seeing that they ware close by, and he promised to send for us should we be wanted. As we were going off he looked at us with his quiet smile and said: 'Be sure and come quickly should I send word, for how shall I hold this bank without you two boys beside me ?' He was referring to the night below Surprise Hill, but we never again saw him alive, nor any of the others.
Carrying our cooking-tins and blankets, we returned to the Swaziland Police. At sunrise next morning the English started in real earnest to bombard the spruit. All day long they shelled us with light and heavy guns, while we hugged the sheltering bank. Shrapnel and Lyddite crashed upon us, causing a great many casualties, and we suffered a terrible ordeal.
Considering the demoralisation that had set in, the men stood the bombardment well. There were some who re-treated up the gorge, but there was no general desertion, and, when at sunset the fire died down, our forces were holding firm after one of the worst days of the war. This heavy shelling was the obvious preparation for an attack next day, so my brother and I, when the fire slackened, went up to find the Pretoria men. In the dusk we made our way along the bed of the spruit, past groups of burghers standing around their dead or wounded and other groups discussing the incidents of the day, but when we came to where we had left our companions the evening before, they were gone, and we were told by those near by that they had marched up the gorge an hour ago for some other point of the line. We could not understand why Isaac had not let us know, but thought that his messenger had missed us in the failing light. We were upset by his departure and decided to follow after at once, so we went back to tell my uncle of our intention. He said he was coming with us, too, as he . had been thinking of a change for some time, and would like to join the Pretoria commando. Accordingly he told his Field-Cornet of his plans and the three of us set off through the gorge. It was pitch-dark by now, and we had a difficult climb up the boulder-strewn bed, stumbling and groping our way as best we could.
When at last we reached the top entrance, we were so weary with the heavy loads we were carrying, and there was so little chance of finding our corporalship at that time of night, that we flung ourselves down on the first piece of level ground and slept until daybreak. As soon as it was light we made out the tents of the horse-guards, where we found our saddles just as we had left them, and our horses grazing not far away. These guards were here on permanent duty to look after the animals of the burghers in the firing-line, and they told us that Isaac Malherbe and his party had spent the night with them, and had ridden off before dawn to join the Bethal commando at Pieters Heights some miles east of this, so we hurriedly cooked a meal and, saddling our horses, rode after him, following behind the range of hills that formed the Boer line.
As we went along, a bombardment more violent than that of yesterday broke out ahead of us, and, when we came to the rear of Pieters Heights, we saw the ridge on which lay the Bethal men (and our own) going up in smoke and flame. It was an alarming sight. The English batteries were so concentrating on the crest that it was almost invisible under the clouds of flying earth and fumes, while the volume of sound was beyond anything that I have ever heard. At intervals the curtain lifted, letting us catch a glimpse of the trenches above, but we could see no sign of movement, nor could we hear whether the men up there were still firing, for the din of the guns drowned all lesser sounds.
We reined in about four hundred yards from the foot of the hill, at a loss what to do. To approach our men through that inferno was to court destruction, while not to try seemed like desertion. For a minute or two we debated and then, suddenly, the gun-fire ceased, and for a space we caught the fierce rattle of Mauser rifles followed by British infantry swamping over the skyline, their bayonets flashing in the sun. Shouts and cries reached us, and we could see men desperately thrusting and clubbing. Then a rout of burghers broke back from the hill, streaming towards us in disorderly flight. The soldiers fired into them, bringing , many down as they made blindly past us, not looking to right or left. We went, too, for the troops, cheering loudly, came shooting and running down the slope.
Of our Pretoria men who had been on the ridge not one came back. They had been holding an advanced position to the right of the Bethal section, and had been overwhelmed there. They stood their ground until the enemy was on them, and they were bayoneted or taken to the last man. Thus our corporalship was wiped out, with its leader, Isaac Malherbe, the bravest of them all, and their going at this calamitous time was scarcely noticed. For this day marked the beginning of the end in Natal. The British had blasted a gap through which the victorious Soldiery came pouring and, wherever we looked, Boer horsemen, wagons and guns went streaming to the rear in headlong retreat.
We followed the current, hemmed in by a great throng, all making for the various fords of the Klip River, and it was lucky indeed that the English sent no cavalry in pursuit, for the passages across the river were steep and narrow, and there was frightful confusion of men and wagons struggling to get past.
By nightfall my uncle and my brother and I had managed to cross, and as it started to rain we annexed a deserted tent behind Lombaardskop, picketed and fed our tired horses, and slept there till morning. We now resumed our journey as far as the head laager, where we spent a dismal hour or two watching the tide of defeat roll northward.
We knew that the siege of Ladysmith would have to be raised, and now came the news, while we were halted here, that Kimberley had also been relieved, and that General Cronje had been captured at Paardeberg with four thousand men, so that the whole universe seemed to be toppling about our cars.
From the way in which the commandos were hurrying past, it looked that morning as if the Boer cause was going to pieces before our eyes, and it would have taken a bold man to prophesy that the war had still more than two long years to run.
We hung about the dismantled head laager till midday, after which the three of us rode on gloomily to the Pretoria camp, arriving towards five in the afternoon. word of the disaster to our men on the Tugela had already preceded us, as is the way with evil tidings, and, as it was not known that my brother and I had escaped, our unexpected appearance caused a sensation, men running up from all sides to hear the truth. My other brothers had returned and their welcome was a warm one.
It was by now clear enough that the siege could no longer be maintained and, indeed, orders had already been received that all commandos were to evacuate their positions around Ladysmith after dark. Our wagons were standing packed, but at the last moment it was found that someone had levanted with the transport mules, so everything had to be burned. It came on to rain heavily by nightfall.
Peals of thunder growled across the sky, and, wet to the skin, we stood huddled against the storm in depressed groups, awaiting our final orders. At last, long after dark, Field-Cornet Zeederberg gave the word that we were to move off to Elandslaagte some twenty miles to the rear. It was an inky night, with rain in torrents, through which we had to feel our way, and thus we turned our backs on Ladysmith for good and all.
No march order was attempted; we were simply told to go, and it was left to each man to carry out his own retirement.
At the outset we travelled in company with many others, but, as I knew a short cut, threading the hills to the railway depot at Modderspruit, my brothers and I decided to go thither, for we saw no use in floundering about in mud and water, and the four of us, with my uncle and our native boy Charley, branched away by ourselves.
We reached the depot after two hours and found shelter until daybreak, after which we rode on.
The rain now stopped and the sun rose warm and bright, but it looked on a dismal scene. In all directions the plain was covered with a multitude of men, wagons, and guns ploughing across the sodden veld in the greatest disorder. Wherever a spruit or nullah barred the way there arose fierce quarrels between the frightened teamsters, each wanting to cross first, with the result that whole parks of vehicles got their wheels so interlocked that at times it seemed as if the bulk of the transport and artillery would have to be abandoned, for the mounted men pressed steadily on without concerning themselves with the convoys. Had the British fired a single gun at this surging mob everything on wheels would have fallen into their hands, but by great good luck there was no pursuit and towards afternoon the tangle gradually straightened itself out.
Our little family party remained behind with a number of others as a rearguard and we did not reach Elandslaagte until late that night. This place had been the chief supply centre for the Natal forces, and there were still huge quantities of stores that had been left to the enemy. These we burnt, lighting a conflagration that must have been visible for fifty miles around.
By now the bulk of the retreat had passed on, and next day we rode along leisurely, climbing up the Washbank valley to Glencoe near Dundee by the following evening. Here were stray remnants of almost every commando that had been in Natal, but things were in such confusion that most of the army had continued straight on, and there was scarcely a man who could tell us what had become of his officers, or what we were supposed to do next.
Mr Zeederberg, however, was at Glencoe when we got there, and during the next few days he succeeded in collecting about three hundred Pretoria men, while more drifted back later on, as did stragglers from the other commandos, until after a week or ten days there was quite a respectable body of men numbering well over five thousand.
During this time my brothers and I with our uncle subsisted on what we could loot from the supply trains at the station, for there were practically no commissariat arrangements, but by raiding the trucks at night we did not do badly.
After a while General Botha reorganized everything, and a new line of defence was established along the forward slopes of the Biggarsbergen, to which all available men were marched. We of the Pretoria commando were assigned a post on the shoulder of the mountain to the right of where the Washbank valley reaches the plain below, and here we lay amongst pleasant scenery, from which we looked regretfully over the wide sweep of country to the south from which we had been driven, but we enjoyed the spell of peace and quiet after the turmoil of the past weeks.