The English Army, having forced the Tugela and relieved Ladysmith, was also resting.
Far down on the plain, large camps were springing up, but all through the month of March and half of April they made no move at all and the weeks went by unbroken, except for an occasional patrol when we would leave over horses below some kopje and climb up to watch the troops at exercise in the distance.
While matters went this easily in Natal, grave rumours reached us as to the situation in the Free State. Reliable information was scarce, but it was freely said that a powerful army under Lord Roberts had crossed the Free State border and was marching on Bloemfontein.
When my brothers and I heard this we felt we ought to go to our own country. We decided to go to Pretoria first and thence south by rail, for since the destruction of our corporalship we considered ourselves free to go where we pleased.
The day before we meant to leave we were ordered to take part in an attack on the English camps lying at Elandslaagte, halfway back to Ladysmith.
This much-criticized affair was to have been carried out by three thousand Transvaalers in conjunction with an equal force of Freestaters from the Drakensbergen. We assembled after midnight at the exit of the Washbank valley and reached the Elandslaagte hills as it grew light, but we looked in vain for the Free State commandos.
The Free State Commandant-General, Prinsloo (the same who surrendered so ignominiously with three thousand men a few months later), had telegraphed to General Botha at the last moment to say that he and his officers were attending a cattle sale at Harrismith on the day set for the attack, and were therefore unable to be present.
In view of this, General Botha had to change his plans and content himself with a mere demonstration instead of serious business and the whole thing fizzled out in an artillery duel with heavy expenditure of ammunition and very little damage done. To me it was memorable only for the fact that while I was watching one of our Creusot guns being fired, the wind of a shell from the English batteries sent-me spinning yards away. It must have passed within a few inches of me and I shall not soon forget being blown head over heels.
We remained before the camps all day, subjected to severe shell-fire at times, and after dark we rode back to our stations in the Biggarsbergen, none the better for our outing.
The next day my brothers and I took leave of the Pretoria commando with which we had served for so long.
We rode up the valley to the train at Glencoe Junction, and it was months before we saw our old force again.
At the railway station we held up the first north-bound train, loaded our horses in one truck and ourselves in another, and steamed off, leaving Natal behind us for ever.
After the usual three days' journey and the usual delays at halts and stations, we arrived at Pretoria. My uncle, Jan Mulder, was not of our party, for he had remained with the Irish Brigade, a band of two hundred adventurers commanded by an American Colonel named Blake, whose roystering habits and devil-may-care methods suited his own, so that we four brothers and Charley, our boy, formed our party.
My father did not know of our arrival until we came riding up to the front door, but when we told him we were for the Free State he approved. We gathered that the position was very bad, -and he himself seemed aged and worn, for he bore great responsibilities upon his shoulders. He had signed the ultimatum to Great Britain, and in a large measure the policy which had led to the war had been his, so the gloomy military situation lay heavily upon his mind, as well as the personal anxiety of having four sons at the front. We spent the next few days in the luxury and comfort of home life, the last we were ever to enjoy.
I even visited Johannesburg for the first time. The city was practically deserted; the shops were boarded up and there was little or no life in the streets, but I remember the visit because that afternoon there came the roar of a great explosion and a column of smoke shot up into the sky a mile high. It was the Begbie foundry, where the Government was manufacturing shells and ammunition, that had gone into the air, by treachery it was said.
About thirty people were killed, but so fierce was the blaze that we could give no assistance and we had to look on helplessly while the fire burnt itself out.
On April 30th (1900) my three brothers and I, with our boy Charley, entrained for the Free State. We knew that the British had occupied Bloemfontein by now and were advancing towards the Transvaal, but no one seemed certain how far they had got, or for how far the railway line to the south was still open. We crossed the Vaal River that night, and, after a slow journey over the rolling plains of the northern Free State, we reached a small station near the banks of the Vet River by eleven o'clock next night. We were now within fifty miles of Bloemfontein and the train was going no farther, as the engine-driver told us that the British advance was at the next station but one down the line. On hearing this, we unslipped our horses and camped beside the track until daybreak, intending then to ride forward in search of the Boer forces that we knew must be somewhere ahead.
As we were preparing to start next morning, another train steamed in from the north, carrying a hundred and fifty men under Commandant Malan, a brother-in-law of the Commandant-General Piet Joubert, who had recently died. Malan had collected a lot of young fellows whom he had formed into a flying column, the 'Afrikander Cavalry Corps', and they were on their way to the nearest fighting.
They detrained here and we lost no time in enrolling ourselves as members of the 'A.C.C.' as it was called for short. Among them was my old schoolfellow Jan Joubert, the Commandant General's son, with other friends and acquaintances.
We spent the morning getting ready and that afternoon we trekked off, riding south through the Vet River towards the sound of the distant gun-fire that we could now hear on the wind.
Darkness found us on the wide plain beyond the river, where we met hundreds of horsemen withdrawing, so they told us, to fresh positions, but whom we suspected of being on their way home for good. They said that great swarms of British troops were on the move, and that it was useless to think of fighting them in the open.
Nevertheless we rode on until midnight, when we came to where General de la Rey was halted with the Transvaal commandos. We found him squatted-by a small fire, a splendid-looking old man with a hawk-like nose and fierce black eyes. Beside him was his brother, nursing an arm shattered by a bullet that afternoon. He gave us a hurried account of the situation, which was very black. The British Army, after capturing Cronje and taking Bloemfontein, was now advancing on the Transvaal and, owing to the demoralized state of the commandos and the lack of defensive cover in this bare region, he saw little or no hope of stopping them.
He said he had about four thousand Transvaalers who had escaped the debacle at Paardeberg, but they were discouraged and were making the merest show of opposition.
The Free State commandos had disappeared altogether, although he believed that President Steyn and Christian de Wet were trying to reorganize them somewhere in the mountain country to the east, but for the time being they were out of action. The British were within a few miles of us, and would doubtless resume their advance in the morning.
So far as the 'A.C.C.' was concerned, he ordered us to ride forward for half an hour and halt till daybreak, after which we were to fit ourselves into the firing-line and act according to circumstances. We took leave of him and, mounting our horses, rode on for three or four miles.
Since we had come south the weather had turned bitterly cold, and we felt the change from the warmer climate of Natal.
For months we were not to spend one really comfortable night until summer came round again, and on this particular night we sat, with our blankets wrapped around our shoulders, shivering till daybreak, for sleep was out of the question with the temperature below zero.
As soon as it grew light we were astir, anxiously scanning the ground before us, and soon we made out dense masses of English infantry on the plain. First came a screen of horsemen, and behind a multitude of infantry, guns and wagons throwing up huge clouds of dust.
We looked in dismay at the advancing host, for there were thirty thousand men approaching, whilst on our meagre front there may have been between three and four thousand Boer horsemen, strung out in a ragged line on the rising ground to right and left of us.
It was plain from the very way in which the men sat their horses that they would not stand, and indeed, on this bare veld and against such heavy odds, the task was manifestly beyond them.
The enemy forces came steadily on until their scouts were close to us. When we fired at these they fell back upon their regiments; the batteries unlimbered and in a few seconds shrapnel was bursting over us.
Our line gave way almost at once. The A.C.C. stayed as long as any, but we recognized the futility of remaining, so we went galloping back with field-gun and pom-pom shells besprinkling us as we rode. We had no casualties, but a number of men from other commandos were killed and wounded before we got clear, and after a hard ride we slowed down at a deserted farmhouse to breathe our winded animals.
The English troops being mainly infantry, their progress was slow, and, although they were quickly at us once more, we were able to retire before them with very little loss for the rest of the day, firing on their scouts when they pressed us too nearly, and moving back in extended order to escape the shell-fire that came in gusts as the guns were brought forward. We were in the saddle until sunset, for we had to exercise ceaseless vigilance to keep the English horse from the wagons that were struggling to get away.
There must have been over a thousand of these, for, in addition to General de la Rey's transport, there were a great many vehicles belonging to the civilian population fleeing before the oncoming invasion.
By dark the English had pushed us right back to the Vet River, a distance of twenty miles or more, and next morning we had scarcely time to prepare a hasty breakfast before we could see the columns again advancing towards us.
General Louis Botha was standing at the drift as we rode through, for he had hurried round by rail from Natal to see for himself what was going on in the Free State.
He and General de la Rey disposed such commandos as were available along the river from the railway bridge to a point about four miles down, with orders to take a stand. The 'A.C.C.' was allotted the extreme right, so we searched out a suitable spot on the river bank beyond the next farthest commando, and, leaving our horses in the bed below, took up our posts. As we expected trouble, we sent the native boy Charley to the rear with our spare kit loaded on my Basuto Pony (which we had brought from Natal as a pack-horse).
The British were by now feeling their way over the plain that ran down to the river, and before long were volleying at us from tall grass in which we could only just see where they lay. Then their guns came forward and started shelling us. Our horses were safe in the river bed behind, but owing to the thorn trees fringing the bank our view was impeded, and we had to crawl to the outside edge of the bush to see the enemy, with the result that we had practically no cover and had casualties almost at once. Several men were killed and wounded close to me, and altogether it was a beastly day.
The shelling was not confined to our portion of the line, but ran up and down, like a piano, as far as the bridge and back again, and at times was as heavy as that on the Tugela. It continued until far into the afternoon and it was only at three o'clock that we saw the infantry preparing to charge.
We had six killed and about fifteen wounded by then. The dead had been laid on the sand in the river bed, and the wounded had been placed on their horses and told to get away as best they could, while the rest of us stayed on in such holes and hollows as we had been able to scrabble in the soil. The shell-fire and the casualties had shaken us, and when the British rose to their feet, and from their rear some three hundred cavalry came riding, sword in hand, we rose to fire a few wavering shots, and then broke for the river behind, tumbling down pell-mell to get our horses. Leaving our dead, we rode up the opposite bank and went racing across the open to the hills a mile to rearward. We were heavily fired on, but reached sanctuary with only two or three men down and a few wounded, including my younger brother Arnt with a scalp-wound from a glancing rifle bullet. The English horsemen that had been the chief cause of our flight came no farther than the river, but the infantry were breaking through at several places, and we could see them well on our side of the stream, the rest of the commandos also retreating wildly.
Before long we were again being shelled, and near sunset the soldiers came on to drive us out of the hills to which we had fled. As we were holding the extreme end of the Boer line, we were soon outflanked. We saw a regiment change direction and before we could stop them they were climbing into the very hills on which we ourselves were at a point about fifteen hundred yards off, from which they began to work their way towards us.
We fronted round to meet them, but the sinking sun was straight in our eyes, making accurate shooting difficult, and, when the soldiers came swarming towards us at short range, another stampede took place. The whole of what remained of the 'A.C.C.' rushed for their horses and made haste to be off. By the time I was in the saddle, the nearest infantrymen were so close that I could see their faces and the brass buttons on their tunics, but they were blown with running and their aim was poor, and although several horses were hit, none of the men were injured. My eldest brother's pony was shot through the body from saddle-flap to saddle-flap, but the plucky little animal carried him a thousand yards before he fell dead. Riderless horses were careering all over the place, and by cornering one of them we succeeded in providing my brother with another mount. Bullets and shells were striking everywhere, so we hurriedly transferred his belongings to the new horse and followed the rout now fast vanishing over the next rise. In the darkness we galloped on to catch up with the press, for all positions along the river had been given up and a wholesale retreat was in progress.
The 'A.C.C.' had over thirty men killed and wounded during the day, and if this was a fair average the total Boer casualties must have been heavy.
We trekked on till after midnight, our only crumb of comfort being our native boy awaiting us beside the road, his voice quavering with emotion at seeing all four of us still alive.
The withdrawal was continued next morning without waiting for the enemy, and by midday we were across the Sand River, thirty miles and more from the scene of yesterday's encounter.
The wagon convoys were far away by now, so we were free of that trouble, and we had moved to the rear so rapidly that it was twenty-four hours before we saw the English on the skyline once more. It was towards evening of the next day that they came - a small advance guard of two hundred horsemen with a gun, riding so fast that before we could stand to arms they were on the south bank of the Sand River, and killed one of the Irishmen preparing to dynamite the bridge. The commandos were some distance back, but the 'A.C.C.' was halted near by, so we ran for our horses and recrossed the river lower down to outflank the intruders. When they saw that they might be cut off, they fired a few shells at us and fell back on their main troops, masses of whom we could now see on the far horizon. We got near enough to use our rifles, bringing down two troopers from their horses. I rode up to have a look at them. They were both Canadians, badly wounded, one of whom told me that many thousands of their people, as well as Australians and other Colonial forces, had volunteered for the war, as if the odds against us were not heavy enough already.
It was getting dark, so we left the wounded men to be fetched in by their own side, and for the next two days we were not disturbed, the English apparently resting their men before resuming the advance. On the morning after this, Commandant Malan sent me with a message for General Botha, whom I found, after a fifteen-mile ride, camped beside the railway line. Having delivered my dispatch, I started back for the Sand River where I had left the 'A.C.C.', only to find them gone. Men in the neighbourhood told me they had ridden away hours before, going west on some unknown errand. It was growing dark and bitterly cold, and as it was useless to try and follow, with no idea of where they had gone, I broke enough timber from the pumping station at the railway bridge to make a bonfire, and spent the night in solitary comfort within, my old roan horse snag beside me.
As soon as it grew light next morning, high dust-clouds rising south of the river showed that the English were coming, so I saddled and hastened to fall back to where a force of six hundred burghers was approaching under the personal command of General Louis Botha. He ordered us to open out, and each man stood before his horse awaiting developments. These were not long in coming. Soon the English scouts had crossed the river, and infantry were coming down to the drifts, while the country behind was black with more troops and transport columns. Batteries came into play, and, as the ground was devoid of cover, we mounted and sullenly retired. Now began anew the long-drawn humiliation of retreat. All day we were driven relentlessly; the British herded us like sheep to the incessant shriek of shells and the whizz of bullets, and by evening we were a demoralized rabble fleeing blindly across the veld.
After sunset the pursuit tailed of I spent a cold night on a kopje with a few other stragglers, and next morning we rode into the town of Kroonstad. Here we found President Steyn addressing a crowd of burghers from a market-table in the square. He had succeeded my father as President of the Free State in 1896, a burly, heavily bearded man, not brilliant, but possessed of dogged courage.
For the moment his words fell on deaf ears, for so universal was the discouragement that few paid any heed to his appeals. His audience consisted mainly of Transvaal burghers, more concerned with getting back home than with forlorn hopes, so there was little response, but I stopped to listen, and was so carried away by what he said that I rode back the way I had come with a dozen more until we reached the scattered hills a few miles south of the town. From here we could see the English columns advancing towards us, and after some time several hundred other men rode up, coming across the plain from various directions. By midday the troops were within range and began to shell us, but made no attempt to push home an attack. In the afternoon my brother Arnt made his appearance from the rear. He brought me bad news of the 'A.C.C.' He said that after I had left them on the Sand River, they had received orders to go west, to watch the movements of a cavalry force in that direction.
In the neighbourhood of Kopje-Alleen they were ridden down by a regiment of horse. It was a case of every man for himself, and he had escaped by hard riding, but he could not tell whether our remaining two brothers and the native boy had got away.
This was serious news, and when a retreat was called after nightfall we rode back into Kroonstad greatly troubled. The town was in darkness, and we went right on for twenty miles without a halt until we overtook the commandos.
Next day the retreat was continued to the Rhenostee River. In the course of the morning we came on our boy Charley, who had not only escaped but had brought out the Basuto pony as well, thereby saving much of our gear, but he had no word of the other two.
An hour later we saw my eldest brother ambling along in company with the rest of the 'A.C.C.' They had got off better than we thought, having lost only twelve men in the fight. Of my brother Joubcrt they could tell us nothing; no one remembered having seen him and it was a long time before we heard of him again.
The 'A.C.C.' had now lost, in less than a week's fighting, nearly a third of its strength, with very little to show for it, but at any rate we were still a coherent unit, which was more than could be said for most of the other commandos, as the process of disintegration was gaining so rapidly that the major portion of the burghers riding in the retreat were no longer members of any recognized force, but merely individuals on their way home.
At the north bank of the Rhenoster River, we lay for nearly a week without sign of the British, during which time the Boer Army melted still further until General Botha had a bare handful of men left.
One morning a dozen of the 'A.C.C.', of whom I was one, were ordered to go back in the direction of Kroonstae to reinforce a small body of Scouts under Captain Daniel Theron, who was keeping touch with the enemy.
We recrossed the river, and after a forty-mile ride south over the plains, we found him and his men on a hill over-looking the English camps that had sprung up around Kroonstad. Captain Theron had gained considerable notice before the war for thrashing Mr Moneypenny, the well-known journalist, and had of late added to his reputation by his daring at the time when Cronje was surrounded at Paardeberg. He was a light, wiry man of about twenty-six, dark complexioned and short-tempered, and although I never once saw him really affable, his men swore by him for his courage and gift of leadership.
For two days we watched the camps, and then one morning pillars of dust slowly rising and troops marching on every road showed that once more trouble was afoot. We made immediate preparations to depart, for we were only there as an observation post. Before we started a companion and I went down to a farmhouse to fill our saddlebags with meal and biltong from a supply stored there, and in returning we rode into a troop of English horse that unexpectedly appeared through the trees. We whipped up and raced away towards where we could see Theron and his men retreating in the distance, but the patrol was hard on our heels, and galloped after us for over a mile, firing about our ears, until at last our men, seeing the danger, came to the rescue. We fell back slowly until dark, and spent the night in view of their camp fires, and next morning, when we reached the north bank of the Rhenoster River, we found it deserted.
A solitary member of the 'A.C.C.', left behind for the purpose, told us that General Botha was summoned to Pretoria and that General de la Rey had taken the remainder of the forces towards the Transvaal border. We were to follow after.