We rode on steadily for three days, making a bend so as to strike the river midway between Bloemfontein and Kimberley. Nothing of interest happened, save for a brush with an English patrol that suddenly bore down on us one morning out of the mist.
The light was so uncertain that both sides drew off, after firing a few shots, for neither party could make out how strong the other was.
We passed the 'dorp' of Bultfolltein on our way and looked in for what we could find, but the place was gutted. For the rest we rode over interminable plains devoid of human beings. We did not see a single homestead that was not in ruins, and at some places lay hundreds of sheep clubbed to death or bayoneted by the English troops, in pursuance of their scheme of denuding the country of live-stock to starve out the Boers.
In spite of this there was generally an odd sheep or two straying about, and there were plenty of springbok besides, so we did not lack meat. Nevertheless we were leading a pretty hard life. Bread and salt, soap, tobacco and books were things of the past. We had almost forgotten the taste of tea, coffee, sugar and vegetables. If a man was not lucky enough to possess a tinder-box, he had to expend a valuable rifle-cartridge every time he wished to light a fire. It was midwinter, with ice on every pool, and we went in tattered clothing and slept under threadbare blankets at night.
We crossed the Modder River at midnight above Abra-kamskraal, and daybreak found us facing the line of military posts we had been told of, that the English had established all the way from Bloemfontein to the Diamond Mine at Koffiefontein, a distance of sixty miles. This cordon was formed to guard thousands of sheep and cattle taken from the farms. Each post consisted of ten or twelve tents, at intervals of perhaps two thousand yards, and as our horses were in too poor a condition to make a dash for it, we turned westward, seeking a convenient spot at which to slink by without attracting attention. We could see patrols of cattle-guards riding about, but they probably took us for their own men, and for a while we went in peace.
Then a heliograph started winking from a kopje, and before long there was activity; soldiers running for their horses, and others galloping in from the plain. Seeing this, we boldly headed between two of the camps for a chain of hills beyond, firing from the saddle and getting well peppered in return, but we gained the cover of the hills before a real pursuit could be organized. A considerable number of horsemen came towards us, and when we opened long range fire they contented themselves with spattering some volleys against the rocks about us, and then returned to their business of minding the herds. We were now safely across the much-talked-of Modder River barrier, and, continuing our journey, reached the mineral spring near Lots-hoek by next day, where we fell in with a small commando of fifty or sixty men under a Field-Cornet named Blignault.
We were now in the Fauresmith district, not more than fifty miles from the Orange River, beyond which lay the Cape Colony, but I was yet to discover that it was farther off than it seemed.
When we told Blignault or our plan of invasion from here, he strongly advised us against the attempt. He said that if we crossed the Orange River here, we should find ourselves in open and arid country, where our horses would surely starve, and where we would be ridden down by the first British force that saw us. On the other hand, if we went east towards the headwaters of the Orange River, a hundred and fifty miles away, and then turned south into the Cape, we should find mountains and good grazing for our horses, and there so small a band as ours would stand some chance of survival. Blignault and his men had much to say of the hardships they had endured when they accompanied General de Wet into the Colony some months previously.
Fifteen hundred men had crossed the river, but they were so beset by enemy columns that they had to return to the Free State with the loss of many men and horses. In fact everyone we met in these parts spoke against further raids into British territory.
We were reminded, too, of the disaster that overtook General Hertzog's venture to the south, and of the fate of almost every other party that had crossed the Orange River. It seemed that, like the cave in the fable, many tracks led over the river, but few came back.
This was not encouraging, and Field-Cornet Botha and the rest of my companions were so impressed that they began to waver, but Jacobus Bosman and I talked them into a better frame of mind, and finally persuaded them that, by accepting the advice we had received and going east, we could get into the Cape Colony and hold our own once we were there.
Next day we said good-bye to Blignault's commando and rode away east, coming within sight of Edenburg village the following afternoon. This place lies about forty miles south of Bloemfontein on the main railway, and, as we found the line strongly block-housed and saw a big English camp on the outskirts of the village, we lay over for the night, to spy out the land next day.
The night after that we saddled at dark and rode to-wards the railway track, hoping to get over unobserved at a spot which we had investigated during the day. Just be-fore we started, a sturdy little Shetland pony came wandering up from the English camp, and I took him along with me, which was just as well, as it turned out. After an hour's ride we reached the railway line at what we took to be the point which we had selected, but the night was so dark that we had gone astray, and we ran into a block-house instead. We were met with the usual 'Halt! Who comes there?' Followed by rifle-shots, so we bore away to look for a more suitable crossing, and some five hundred yards farther down we made another attempt.
As is the case with most railways in South Africa, a fence ran on either side of the line, composed of thick strands of wire which had to be cut before the horses could be led through. The only implement we possessed was a large file, and with this a young fellow named Verster and I tried to saw the wires, while the others waited a hundred yards back. The file grating across the taut wires made a tremendous noise, and before we had cut even one strand, we were again challenged and fired at by a sentry, who sounded not twenty yards away. We hurriedly mounted to rejoin our companions, but our horses began to plunge and flounder over obstructions staked along the ground. In approaching the railway we had somehow or other missed these entanglements, but now we were in the thick of them, and-the tins always attached to them were clanging and jangling, and increasing the terror of our animals. To this din was added a blaze of musketry from a block-house standing only a few yards away, which in the darkness we had mistaken for a mound of rocks.
Rifle-fire at point-blank range is unpleasant at the best of times, but when one is on a maddened horse-staggering amid wire loops it is infinitely more so, and had there been even a glimmer of light to guide the soldiers we should both have been shot. It was so dark, however, that they were firing at the sounds, and not at us, and Verster managed to wrench his horse free, but mine was shot and I was nearly pinned underneath him. I undid the buckles of the girth, and dragged my saddle from under the prostrate animal and, stumbling over the rest of the obstructions, we got clear away to where the others stood whistling and shouting to us and anxiously watching, not daring to shoot for fear of killing us. I had left the Shetland pony with them when I went forward to the fence, so I now put my saddle on him, and we galloped off, leaving the soldiers firing blindly into the night. We made a half-moon, until we again reached the railway line, intending to have another try, but as soon as I began to use the file, we heard the sound of men running along the track towards us, so we lost no time in decamping, and abandoned all thought of crossing that night. We spent a cold night behind a kopje, and, when it grew light, we were nearer the English camp at Edenburg than we imagined. We had barely time to get our horses saddled before a hundred or more troopers came racing at us, but, riding fast, we got safely into the hills at Boomplaats, my Shetland pony going surprisingly well.
As the English horsemen turned back after a while, we halted by the little cemetery where those English soldiers lie buried who were killed at the battle here between Sir Harry Smith and the Boers, in I 848. This graveyard was of some personal interest to me, because it had almost caused my father the loss of his position as President of the Free State when I was a boy. The British Government many years before had erected headstones over the fallen soldiers inscribed with the words: 'Killed in action against the Rebel Boers'. Many of these stones, in course of time, fell to pieces, so my father ordered replicas with the original inscription faithfully copied. This gave rise to much ill feeling, for there were indignant patriots who considered the epithet 'Rebel' an insult to the Boers, and my father very nearly lost the next presidential election in consequence I have another reason for remembering the Boomplaats cemetery, for while we were resting here, Field-Cornet Botha came to me and said that he and the other men had for some days been reconsidering the matter of continuing to the Cape Colony, and he now asked me to give up the plan. Apparently last night's affair and the chase of that morning had put the finishing touch to their indecision, and, with the exception of Bosman and myself, they all declared their intention of returning to the Winburg Mountains.
We two said that we had not ridden thus far to turn back now, and we told them that we were going to the Cape, even if we had to go alone. We argued and entreated for hours, but in the end Botha and his men, with my two German friends Haase and Pollatchek, saddled their horses and rode off, leaving us behind.
Bosman and I spent the night beside the graveyard, feeling too depressed to light a fire, and next morning we found our horses strayed out of sight. It took us the better part of five hours to trail their spoor, and when at last we got back to where we had left our saddles and other belongings, there was nothing there. This was a serious blow, for saddles were indispensable, and blankets and cooking-tins even more so We could see from the hoof-marks that there were two mounted thieves, and although we could not say whether they were Boer or British, we decided to follow; them. After careful going, on our bare-backed horses, for ten miles or more, we saw two men seated beside a fire below a kopje, and, stalking them on foot came close enough to cover them with our rifles before they could stir. They proved to be two Boer boys from a neighbouring outpost, and they had all our missing gear beside them. They said that they thought the things belonged to English scouts, a palpable lie, and we told them plainly what we thought of them, but we did learn from them of a commando under General Hertzog lying in the hills beyond the Riet River forty or fifty miles away, and we decided to go there.
For two days we rode on, passing through the deserted mining town of Jagersfontein, and reaching the next village, Fauresmith, by sunset. This place had also been abandoned by its original inhabitants, but we found it occupied by men who were little better than bandits.
As we went up the main street a number of unkempt individuals rushed at us, rifle in hand, and ordered us to halt. They crowded round threateningly, with shouts of 'Maak dood die verdomde spioene' ('Kill the cursed spies'); although they must have known that we were nothing of the sort, and only wanted a pretext to rob us. We sat on our horses, uncertain what to do with such ugly customers, and it looked as if we were in for serious trouble, for already greedy hands were clutching at our wallets, and trying to pull us from our saddles. Just then two gaunt, famished-looking women rushed from a neighbouring house, and shrilly ordered them off. They had so much influence over the rabble, that they stood aside growlingly and allowed us to accompany our forbidding guardian angels to their home. They were the daughters of a once-wealthy farmer, ruined and-killed during the war, and they had taken refuge in an empty house in the village, where they were living in poverty. They told us that the people who had molested us were riff-raff ejected from the fighting commandos, existing on what they could rob and loot. We now heard that General Hertzog's commando had moved west, so we took our leave next morning, and rode for two days in search of them, until we were right on the Griqualand border, where we met a solitary burgher, from whom we learned that we were a long way out of our course and that the commando was back on the Riet River. We turned north-east, and by dark of the following evening we crossed the river by the wagon-bridge which, strange to say, was still intact. On the far bank was a cattle-post in charge of an old man and his two sons. They were looking after the meat supply of General Hertzog's men, lying, we were glad to hear, only ten miles upstream. As it was late, we spent the night with our hosts, an unsavoury trio, who did not belie their looks, for we found next morning that our saddlebags had been rifled. So I stood them in a line while Bosman went through their pockets and recovered our knives, tinder-boxes, and other property, after I had grazed the eldest ruffian's arm with a bullet to teach him better manners.
We then rode on, not particularly impressed by the specimens of Fauresmith men whom we had met thus far, for we had been the victims of three attempted robberies in less than a week. These men, however, were only off-scourings, and our subsequent association with the real fighting-men of the district was much happier.
By midday we came on General Hertzog's force, camped on the banks of the river at a place called Bethal. I knew General Hertzog from the old days, a thin-high-cheeked - man with angry eyes, though his speech was pleasant and I saw that his men held him ill great respect. He had been a Judge of the Supreme Court at Bloemfontein before the war, but was now in command of the south-western districts of the Free State. He had with him about three hundred men, the largest commando that I saw on my passage through, and he had other smaller bodies scattered about.
We remained with the commando for ten days, hoping to gain recruits for the Cape, but not a man would come. They said once was enough, and every time we broached the subject we were met with emphatic refusals, and with tales of the privations and losses which they had sustained during the previous expeditions, so it began to look as if Bosman and I would have to go by ourselves after all. During the time spent with the commando we earned our keep by taking part in a sharp little affair in the hills above the Riet River wagon-bridge.
An English column, a thousand strong, crossed to our side of the river one night, on their way to Kimberley, and we held them up for two days, until at length they fell back over the bridge and returned by the way they had come.
General Hertzog lost only two killed and a few wounded, although the English rifle-fire was very heavy at times, and they had guns as well. On the afternoon of the second day, while two of us were riding down to a dam to water our horses, an English trooper came galloping towards us from round a kopje. He was plucky enough, for when he realized his mistake he fired from the saddle, from so close that before he could do so again I was alongside with my rifle in his ribs. He said that he had been scouting and had lost his way, and as my companion was barefooted, we relieved him of his boots, as well as his horse, and we left him gingerly picking his way over the sharp surface towards his own side, a thing I did not envy him, for he had to make a semicircle of several miles to get around our flank, before he could rejoin his companions.
When we found next morning that the English had with-drawn overnight, General Hertzog ordered us to return to our former halting-ground higher up the river, and here Bosman and I had good luck, for, off-saddled close by, was a small party of newcomers, ten in number, amongst whom I recognized several old acquaintances from the Transvaal, and to our great joy they told us that they were on their way into the Cape Colony. This was good news indeed, and we told them of our own plans at once.
As from now onward I was to be intimately associated with this little band, and as so many of them died tragically, I shall give their names:
The leader was Jack Borrius, a short thick-set man of twenty-eight, from Potchefstroom, whom I had met while serving with Captain Theron's scouts and in the 'A.C.C.' Next came Benjamin Coetzee, from Pretoria, whose reckless bravery had earned him a reputation as long ago as the Natal days, when I had known him as a member of the Pretoria commando. Then Nicolas Swart and Cornelius Vermaas, both sons of wealthy Transvaal farmers. Vermaas had been wounded and captured by the British six months before, but he had jumped from the train in the mountains near Capetown while being taken for shipment to Ceylon, and after many trials he had got back on foot to the Transvaal.
Next were Percy Wyndall and Edgar Duncker, two English-speaking boys from Johannesburg, and Frits Balogh, a young Austrian from Pretoria.
Then Jan van Zijl, illiterate but witty, and Piet de Ruyt, a Hollander, and lastly young Rittenberg, also from Potchefstroom.
They were all Transvaalers and, with the exception of Borrius, not one was yet twenty years old; and like myself, they had all been taken with the idea of free-lancing it into the Cape Colony.
By way of ironic comment on their tattered clothing and ragged appearance they called themselves the 'Rijk Section' (or 'Dandy Fifth', as Duncker translated it). of this small band four were to meet their death by execution, and six were wounded or captured, a result that fully justified the many warnings which we had received against entering the Colony.
While we were discussing whether to try the Orange River in this vicinity or to take the advice we had received, and go east towards the headwaters, there arrived another party of horsemen, who decided us for the latter course.
These were Commandant George Brand and a score of followers from the south-eastern districts, come to confer with General Hertzog on military affairs.
He was a son of Sir John Brand, who had preceded my father as President of the Free State. He told me that as soon I as he had finished with General Hertzog, he was returning east across the railway line to the area between the Caledon River and Basutoland, and when he heard or our intention to enter the Cape Colony he advised us to accompany him as far as the Caledon River, where the passage would be safer than here.
As we had already received similar advice, and as he assured us that we could get as many horses as we liked in the mountains, we agreed to travel with him.
The very next day, saying good-bye to Hertzog and his men, we set out and made such good progress that by the following afternoon we were back in the same hill over-looking Edenburg village from which we had started with our previous companions on our unsuccessful attempt to cross the railway line.
Now things went better, for we were with men who knew the exact position of every block-house and every sentry along the track, and by midnight we were over without a single casualty, although there was a good deal of firing from block-houses on either side of us as we went through.
The railway is regarded as the dividing line between the Western and Eastern Free State. To the west lie the great plains, while to the east the country grows more and more mountainous as one approaches the Basutoland border.
I knew this region quite well, having hunted here as a boy, so after sunrise we took our leave of Brand and his men, whose course lay in another direction, and we rode on for the next few days in the direction of the upper reaches of the Caledon River. Only once did we see an English column, to which we passed so close that we heard the bugles sound the alarm and saw the soldiers running for their horses; but after the exchange of a few shots, we went on our way.
Most of the live-stock lay clubbed to death around the burnt farmhouses, and there was no sign of the civilian population, for those who had escaped capture were hiding . in caves and gorges.
We did not see many fighting-men either, for they were dispersed in small guerilla bands among the mountains.
Troops of wild horses were fairly common between Sikonyella's Peak and the Elandsberg, so we searched our a local outpost, and with their help were able to corral sufficient horses to give each of the 'Rijk Section' two fresh mounts, my own share being two spirited mares, a brown and a roan. The horses were entirely untrained, but in a few days we had them broken to bit and rein and our prospects were vastly improved, for the animals we had been riding thus far were in wretched condition. To these we gave their freedom, knowing that when they had picked up flesh they could be recaptured and used by others, and it was pleasant to see them trotting up the mountain-side to a well-earned rest, my little Shetland pony kicking up his heels and whinnying joyously at their head.
It was near the end of August (1901) by now, and the rainy season might be upon us at any moment, when a single freshet might render the Orange River impassable, so, as we were come to within fifteen miles of it, we made ready for our final effort.
Upon the very morning, however, on which we hoped to cross, a large body of horsemen appeared over the shoulder of a distant hill. By their formation and manner of riding we knew them to be Boers, but as there was no commando of that size round here, we waited for them with considerable interest. After an hour the column came abreast of us and we were astonished to see that at its head rode Mr Smuts, the Transvaal State Attorney, now a General, who, after hearty greetings, told us that he was on his way to the Cape Colony with three hundred men.
This was another stroke of luck ! Falling in with the 'Rijk Section' had been the first, but to meet with a whole commando making for the river was the greatest fortune of all, far greater than we realized at the time, for our subsequent experiences went to show that a small force like ours would not have lasted a week in the troublesome country beyond.
It was the finest commando with which I ever served. The rank and file were mostly keen young farmers from the Western Transvaal, the pick of de la Rey's fighting men, and in command of them was perhaps the one man in South Africa who could have led us through the perilous days to come.
General Smuts halted his men and ordered them to off-saddle. This gave me time to go among them, and I had another pleasant surprise, for I came on my Hollander uncle, Jan Mulder, whom I had not seen since that time in Natal, nearly two years before. I also found the General's brother-in-law, Krige, one of the few survivors of Isaac Malherbe's corporalship, who had been so badly wounded.
I learned from them of the great hardships and dangers which they had encountered on their way through the Free State. The English had wind of their intention to invade the Cape Colony and strenuous efforts were made to head them off. Large forces were hurried up from all sides, giving them no rest either night or day, and it was only by hard riding and hard fighting that they had escaped, with the loss of many men and horses.
From what I could gather, General Smuts proposed a flying raid into the central districts of the Cape, to test a large-scale invasion later on, in order to relieve the increasing pressure in the north.
Whether this was really his object I do not know, for he was an uncommunicative man, but at any rate here he was, and we were only too eager to go with him, whatever his plans might be. When we went to tell him that the 'Rijk Section' proposed joining his force he said he was very pleased, and he appointed us to be his scouts, a distinction which we accepted gladly, but for which we paid dearly an the long run.