From now onward, the circumstances of our expedition into the Cape radically altered for the better. Here in the far-west there were no railways, arid the country Was so difficult for large bodies of troops that we had reached comparative sanctuary. North, stretching towards the Orange River hundreds of miles away, lay a great territory practically free of the enemy, save for rare columns passing by, and a few garrisons scattered long distances apart so that we had the country almost to ourselves.
Small bands of local rebels had long been carrying on a desultory warfare of their own, between here and the coast, and General Smuts told us that he was going to reorganize these into larger commandos until he was strong enough to undertake big-scale operations, which he thought might ease the Pressure in the two Republics. Thus we looked forward with fresh interest to the new-stage of the war opening before us.
That same evening we moved off, still going west, our wounded now comfortably driven in carts, while those of us who had returned without horses were provided with temporary mounts, a welcome change after our long tramp. In a few days' time we reached Elandsvlei, an oasis with waving palms and running water, and here we halted for two whole days. This was the first time since crossing the Orange River into the Cape that we had stayed in one place for even a day and a night, and, needless to say, both man and beast revelled in the unaccustomed holiday. In the hills near by ran a troop of mules, and some friends and I, managed to catch half a dozen of them, mine being a powerful black, who squealed and bit and threw me several times before I mastered him. Then he was quite gentle and I rode him for many hundreds of miles during the next few months.
From Elandsvlei we went north-west via Biddow to place called Kobbee, a deep valley that reminded me of Dreadful Hollow in Robbery Under Arms, and here again we lay over for several days, feeding our animals on the plentiful crops. Thence we crossed the intervening mountains to the great plain that runs towards the Atlantic; sixty miles away. At the foot of these mountains lies the village of van Rijnsdorp. It had been recently garrisoned by the British, but Commandant Maritz had swooped down and captured it. This Maritz was a policeman from Johannesburg, who, after many adventures, had established himself in these parts as a leader of various rebel bands.
He was a short, dark man, of enormous physical strength, crude and ruthless in his methods, but a splendid guerilla leader, and according to his lights an ardent patriot, of whom I was to see more later on.
He had sacked the village and disappeared with his retainers, and we found the original civil population in peaceful occupation, the English having apparently abandoned the place for good.
As the 'Rijk Section' was now practically defunct, General Smuts ordered William Conradi and me to join his staff. This was in recognition of our late exploit, and was tantamount to military promotion. The rest of the 'Rijk Section' was absorbed into Commandant Bouwer's commando, with the exception of Ben Coetzee, who rode away, his leg still in splints, in search of Maritz, for they were old friends. This, then, was the end of that small company with whom I had come into the Cape. Like Isaac Malherbe's Corporal ship and the A.C.C., it, too, had been destroyed, but I am glad to have served with three such bodies of men.
I was now what might correspond to a staff officer in a regular army, although none of us on General Smuts's headquarters bore any distinguishing title, beyond the fact that the rest of the men in friendly derision referred to us as 'Kripvreters'—a Kripvreter being a stall-fed horse, as distinguished from one having to scratch for its own living on the veld.
On assuming my new duties, however, I soon found that, so far from being staffed, the members of the staff, in addition to having to fight and forage for themselves like the rest, were employed as dispatch-riders, and during the next few weeks our life was one continual round of weary rides in search of one portion or another of the commando, for General Smuts had now divided his force into smaller groups, often stationed days apart, to provide more easily for grazing and food.
In December (1901) he left the commando scattered along the banks of the Olifants River near van Rijnsdorp, and, with his staff, moved up the mountains to a spot called Willems River, where he began his work of collecting the various rebel bands into organized commandos. A large number of men from this area had either joined Maritz or were riding about on their own, sniping at British columns or waylaying convoys, and, in order to get into touch with these irregulars, we 'Kripvreters' were sent during the next few weeks on long rides, in the course of which we travelled unumbered miles from south of the Olifants River to far beyond Calvinia and back, until we knew every inch of the country.
The inhabitants sympathised with us, and looked upon us as their champions, so we were welcomed wherever we went and, despite the long gruelling journeys on mule-back, I enjoyed myself, for I was not above feeling a pleasant glow when the womenfolk waved from before the farmhouses, and the men shouted greetings from the road-side.
On Christmas Day, returning from a hundred-mile errand beyond Calvinia, I saw mounted men camped in the distance, and making thither, found them to be Commandant van Deventer's missing column. My unexpected appearance amongst them was hailed with joy, for this was their first word of us since we had parted below the Zuurbergen, and for a long time I was busy telling them how we had fared and listening to their experiences. They had only just arrived here, having been driven out of their course for several weeks, but they had done well, for they had captured several convoys and many prisoners, and they had more horses, rifles, and ammunition than they could use.
After a pleasant evening's talk around the camp fires, I remained there for the night, and took the road again next day, getting back by the 28th to General Smuts, who was greatly pleased at my news.
My mule had unflinchingly trotted the better part of two hundred miles in five days, and the following morning I was off again in search of Maritz, whom I found eighty miles away in the neighbourhood of Tontelbos. This place was an important grain growing centre, at which the, British had posted a force of men, to prevent the crops from being carried away. Maritz attacked the garrison the day before I arrived, but was repulsed with heavy loss, he himself bring severely wounded. I found him seated on a chair in a farmhouse with two of his men dressing his wound, a terrible gash below the right armpit, exposing the lung, an injury that would have killed most men, but he was like a bull and seemed little the worse for it.
I saw the year 1902 in with them, and then started back, catching up General Smuts three days later at Nieuwoudsville on the escarpment. During all this time our main commando under Commandant Bouwer was lying down on the plains to the south, having occasional brushes with the English, but on the whole passing a quiet time. Some of our patrols went beyond Porterville, to within sight of Table Mountain, and my old companion Krige (the General's brother-in-law), with whom I had served in Isaac Malherbe's Corporalship, and who had been so badly wounded at Spion Kop, even penetrated as far as Malmesbury, and brought back a large sum of money for the use of the commando from General Smuts's father, who lived there.
During a visit which I paid at this time to our men along the Olifants River, I met my old Ladysmith tent-mate, Walter de Vos, who had likewise been wounded on Spion Kop, and whom I had last seen lying on the slope of that hill, on the day of the big fight two years before. He had latterly been in command of one of the local rebel bands, and we spent the morning talking over old times; but he was killed an hour after my going, in an outpost affair nearby.
Early in January General Smuts decided to go north to the Orange River, to organize the numerous rebel patrols that were under arms there. Our company consisted of himself and his staff only. It was a three-hundred-mile ride through desert country, and we went first of all to Tontelbos, now evacuated, as the crops were in. Maritz was here on a pallet of straw in an empty dwelling-house, but he made light of his wound and was well on the mend.
From Tontelbos we moved north through country thinly occupied by Nomad Boers (Trek Boers), who spend their lives going from one well to another with their flocks, like the old peoples in the Bible. They are a primitive patriarchal folk, knowing little of the outside world, but of a brave and sturdy stock, and many of them were under arms.
We travelled mostly at night to avoid the blazing heat of day, and at length reached Kakamas, a small irrigation colony founded by the Dutch Church on the south bank of the Orange River. The settlement was still in its infancy and the inhabitants lived in rude huts and shelters made of grass and reeds, but they had built a canal from the river, and had established fields and orchards so successfully that the place had become a supply depot for the surrounding districts. We spent a pleasant fortnight here, eating fruit and swimming in the river every day. As soon as General Smuts had completed his arrangements with the guerilla bands, many of whom rode in from the desert to meet him, we returned south, reaching Tontelbos again towards the second week in February. Maritz was no longer here, but as the grazing was good in the cropped wheat-lands, we lay over a few days to rest our animals and ourselves.
General Smuts then decided to go eastwards in search of Commandant van Deventer. We did not know exactly where his commando was, but we travelled up along the Fish River, and after a day or two got word that he was thirty or forty miles away. We rode thither all that night, and towards daylight heard the sound of gun-fire and small-arms and saw a red glare in the sky. Quickening our pace, we reached a farmhouse called Middelpost at dawn, and found two or three men here in charge of a dozen wounded.
They told us that van Deventer was fighting close by with an English column on its way to Calvinia, so, after a few hurried questions, we rode to where we could see his men, lining the crest of some small kopjes, their horses tethered below. On higher ground away to the left were small parties of English troops, and a single field-piece stood in full view but out of rifle-range. The men at the farmhouse warned us to ride for it, as they said that the gunners had the distance to a yard, so we set off at a gallop. They were right, for when we had got about halfway, there was a flash at the gun, and a shell came tearing at us.
A local schoolmaster named Hugo, who had joined a few weeks before, was riding beside me. The shell burst on us with a roar, but although I was nearer the gun, neither my mule nor I received a scratch. But when the smoke cleared I saw that my companion was badly hit. He was swaying in his saddle with blood streaming from his chest. His rifle dropped to the ground, and he fell forward on the neck of his animal. Then he recovered himself and said he was not going to give the gunners the satisfaction of knowing that they had hit anyone, so raising himself he rode for cover of the hill. Other shells came after, but no one else was hit, and, having retrieved the fallen rifle, I rode on and found that Hugo had fainted and fallen from his horse, and that General Smuts and the others were trying to staunch his wound. It was at the base of his left lung, and I fished out the twisted buckle of his braces, and a cartridge-clip with five rounds of ammunition, all of which had been driven into the cavity, in addition to the shell-fragment which I could not recover. I thought that he had not ten minutes to live, but two months later he was in the saddle once more. We made him comfortable, and climbed up to where Commandant van Deventer and his men were holding the ridge -above. This was the first time that General Smuts had come among them since the parting in Somerset East, and there were cheers and shouts of greeting when they saw him. Van Deventer himself hastened forward to welcome us, and in a few seconds we were in the firing-line. Looking down the forward side of the hill, we saw an interesting sight.
Immediately below, on the level ground by the banks of a spruit, stood some hundred and twenty English convoy-wagons, most of them burning fiercely to the crackle of exploding rifle ammunition, for every wagon seemed to carry several cases. Scattered among the blazing vehicles lay dead men and horses, and there were a large number of live troop-horses and mules, that had stampeded during the night, but had drifted back into the burring camp, where, in spite of the smoke and flames and the bursting cartridges, they were feeding on the seed oats and other fodder that our men had flung from the wagons during their hasty search for loot, before setting them on fire.
Van Deventer gave us a brief account of what had happened. A long convoy had approached the evening before, accompanied by a mounted column. He had disputed their way, whereupon the English troops parked their wagons beside the spruit, and took up covering positions, but during the night he and his men broke through the line on foot, and, entering the camp, set it on fire. In the dark the troops were unable effectively to hinder the work of destruction, and the position when we arrived was that van Deventer, having fired the wagons, had withdrawn before daylight, and the two sides were now facing one another with the convoy burning between them, neither side permitting the other to approach it. The bulk of the English soldiers had taken post at a farmhouse surrounded by a walled garden, about nine hundred yards away, from which they were maintaining a hot rifle-fire.
To the left, four hundred yards off, lay more of them on a stone hill, with their field-gun on a rise behind, and on the right in another kopje was an isolated detachment, so placed that they had anyone under short range who tried to enter the camp. Van Deventer told General Smuts that he was anxious to recover the animals feeding amongst the wagons, to which end he had a fewer minutes previously sent Field-Cornet Van der Berg with twenty-five men to clear the kopje overlooking the camp by a surprise attack from the rear. He had ordered them to ride round behind some other kopjes that screened the view.
I had now ridden my mule for upwards of a thousand miles. He was a willing animal, but with his shambling gait and long stride a mule at best makes a tiring mount, and I yearned for the easier seat of a horse. Another man in the staff, Martin Brink, had also been on a mule for months past, and was equally anxious for a change, so we decided to overtake the attacking party in the hope of getting a troop-horse or two. We ran down, and, mounting, followed the tracks made by Van der Berg's men as fast as we could go. He had led them with skill, for nowhere was their route visible from the kopje, and when, after a breathless gallop, we raced round the corner of a ridge into the open we found that he had taken the soldiers by surprise and that he and his men had reached the foot, and were climbing up under a ragged rifle-fire, without having sustained any visible loss. By the time we joined them the affair was as good as over. A shot or two was loosed, but in a few seconds the last of the soldiers stood up to surrender. It had, however, been an expensive little fight. Alouin Weber, an ex-Transvaal artillery officer, and two more men lay dead and Field-Cornet van der Berg and another were badly wounded, while several soldiers were killed and three or four wounded, out of the dozen or so who had been holding the post.
In any case, know that the kopje was in our hands, it was possible to make our way down to the spruit, on the opposite bank of which stood the burning wagons, so, leaving their friends to attend to the wounded, the rest of us lost no time in descending the slope and jumping into the spruit. We ran along the sandy bottom until we could peer over at the camp, a stone's throw away. Then we climbed out and rushed for the horses that were nosing the fodder-strewn ground. When the troops from the distant farm-house saw us running amongst the wagons, they opened fire, but we were not to be denied. My first effort was to insure myself against further mule-riding, and in three successive raids I brought away three good horses with saddles and holsters complete. I hurried each into the shelter of the spruit, and ran out again for the next. The other men were just as busy, and luckily no one was hit. As soon as I had secured my horses, I went back for other portable property, for several of the wagons and their loads were only half burnt, while some were scarcely damaged at all, and there was much useful loot still to be had. In dodging among the smouldering wagons I came on a fully laden scotch-cart that had been overlooked in the dark. It was quite intact, and, as the firing from the farmhouse was increasing, I seized a large portmanteau and shovelled into it all that I could find in the way of books, papers, boots and clothing, including some Bank of England notes, and then dragged it over the ground to the spruit.
I found that most of it belonged to Colonel Dorran, who had commanded the convoy, and that amongst his papers were the records of the Court Martial of Commandant Scheepers, at which he had presided. We had heard already that this well-known guerilla leader had been captured and executed in the Midlands some months before for alleged train-wrecking.
After a hurried inspection of my new property, I distributed my haul evenly on my three horses and my mule, and rode back to General Smuts very pleased with the morning's work, for, no longer a ragged muleteer, I was now better horsed, shod, and equipped than at any time of the war.
Soon after this the English troops sent off their gun and began to retire southward, abandoning a large number of horses and mules that had broken away, and were roaming about the veld.
General Smuts and Commandant van Deventer decided not to pursue the retreating column, for, even if we captured them, we should only have to let them go again, and we had done so well in horseflesh that it did not seem worth while to go after them. We were now free to revisit the camp unmolested, and, in addition to hundreds of animals, the men recovered a considerable quantity of ammunition, saddlery, etc., and, most valuable of all, many cases of horse-shoes and nails. Five or six soldiers lay dead in the camp, and, when some of us rode up to the farmhouse where their main body had been, we found twenty or thirty wounded who had been left there in charge of a military doctor, several of them very badly injured. At the request of the Medical Officer I rode round to shoot the wounded horses and mules standing about the house, some with broken legs, others with blood dripping from their flanks, for, with no one to look after them, it was best to put them out of their misery. One of the horses I had taken from the camp was a beautiful little dark-grey Arab mare with a coat like velvet and nimble as a goat. I was mounted on her when I rode to the farmhouse, and here her former owner, a wounded officer named Chapman, lying on a stretcher outside, recognized her, and offered to buy her back from me for £65. He said her name was Ninny and that she was the best horse in the country. As money was of no use to me, and I knew a good horse when I saw one, I refused to sell, but I promised to look after her and treat her well.
The commando spent the night at the other little farm-house, where we had first found van Deventer's wounded, and here we buried our dead at sunrise next day. The bodies had been placed ready on a wagon, and, not knowing this, I spent the night under it, and, waking in the morning, found myself dotted with blood that had oozed through the planking overhead.
At the funeral General Smuts made a moving speech. He pointed out that among the dead were a Transvaaler, a Freestater, and a Colonial, all parts of South Africa being thus represented in the common sacrifice for liberty. When the ceremony was over I was ordered to ride to the place twenty miles away to which our wounded had been taken, to see that all was well. I found most of the men fairly comfortable, although there were several bad cases. One was a Colonial who had been shot through the stomach, and the woman of the house asked me to have a look at him as his side was inflamed. While she and I were examining the wound, he gave a deep groan and died without speaking. A wagon-driver helped me to bury him. We dug a hole beside the threshing-floor, and as we knew no funeral service, we simply carried him by the shoulders and knees, laid him in the grave, covered him with earth, and left him.
While I was at this farm we saw forty or fifty strange horsemen approaching from the north, and there was some alarm at first amongst the wounded, as we could not make out who they were. I fetched my horse and rifle and rode in their direction, until I was close enough to see that they were not British. They proved to be the survivors of a portion of the commando that General Smuts had left behind on his way through the Free State the year before, because their horses were too worn out to go on. He had placed Field-Comet Dreyer in charge, with orders to follow later, when the condition of their animals permitted, and the faithful band had carried out these instructions to the letter. As soon as possible they started south in our tracks, and, after many trials and dangers, this remnant had come through. Among them was the Reverend Mr Kriel, with whom my brothers and I had quarrelled at Warm Baths in December, 1900.
In spite of his religious bigotry, he was a stout-hearted old man, whom I learned to respect. When they heard that General Smuts was in the district, they were so anxious to see him that they wanted to go off at once, but I told them to wait, as I knew that the General was coming our way, and he arrived that evening with van Deventer and his commando and there was great rejoicing on both sides.
Ever since General Smuts had gone to Kakamas in December, Commandant Bouwer with his commando had remained down on the Plains near the Olifants River beyond van Rijnsdorp, and I was now sent to find them. I gave away my mule, but took all three of my newly acquired horses, loaded with my loot from the camp. I reached van Rijnsdorp in three days, going via Nieuwoudsville, and thence down the mountain pass to the country below. I found Bouwer in van Rijnsdorp, and most of his men camped along the True-true River not far off. They were the more pleased when I told them of van Deventer's success, because they had suffered an unpleasant reverse the previous morning.
A week before a Colonial named Lemuel Colaine had turned up amongst them with a tale that the English had put him in prison at Clan-William on a false charge of high treason. He said that he had escaped over the wall one night and had come in revenge to take up arms. Believing his story, they gave him a rifle and he joined the commando.
Colaine, however, was a spy in British pay, and, after collecting what information he could, he disappeared. No particular notice was taken of his absence, as the men were constantly riding off to visit farms, or look up friends at distant outposts, and it was thought that he had done the same; but the commando had a rude awakening when a body of English horse, with Colaine riding at their head, fell upon them at dawn, killing and wounding seventeen men, including my young friend Michael du Preez.
The attacking force took our men so completely by surprise that the troopers rode through the camp using their swords, and got away safely on the other side before our men could recover their wits. All were fierce in their denunciation of Colaine's treachery, and hoped that he would fall into their hands. And later Nemesis ran the right man to earth for once.
Meanwhile Bouwer was smarting under this setback, for not only had he lost good men, but the British were following up their success by an advance in force, with the object of retaking van Rijnsdorp, which we had come to regard as our headquarters, for it was the only town in South Africa still in Boer hands.
I remained with Bouwer overnight in the threatened village, and, as his scouts reported next morning that a strong column of English horsemen was pushing forward, he decided to retire northwards to the mountains until reinforcements could reach him.
I went out to watch the enemy movements with a party, among them being my old friends Nicolas Swart and Edgar Duncker, the former with his arm still in a sling, while the latter had his shattered hand in splints, and a pillow strapped to his saddle to ease his wounded thigh, for the sound of rifle-fire was an irresistible attraction to these two, and they refused to remain behind when they heard shots beyond the town. After going forward for a mile or two, we saw a long column of horsemen coming up from the direction of the Olifants River, their scouts thrown forward on a wide front, and we were soon engaged in a running fight, which continued until they pressed us back through the streets into the open country, where we took to our heels, to catch up with Bouwer's main body making for the mountains. In the course of one of these skirmishes, Duncker, riding beside me, was shot through the chest. We plugged the bullet-holes with pieces of his shirt, and he rode on with us for the fifteen-odd miles that we had to go before we over-took the commando. He was then sent to a farm among the foothills, and completely recovered in a few weeks. The English contented themselves with reoccupying our little capital and came no farther, so Bouwer did not retire up the mountains after all, but, determined to recover his lost ground, he sent me hurrying up the pass to ask General Smuts for help.
After riding hard for two days I came up with him near Calvinia, sixty miles off, and, when he heard that the troops were back in van Rijnsdorp, he ordered the commanders to gather. He sent word to van Deventer to bring his men to the head of the pass at Nieuwoudsville, where he would wait for him, while another messenger was sent to Bouwer, bidding him keep his men below until assistance came.
The various smaller local patrols were also ordered in, and General Smuts and his staff made for the appointed rendezvous at the edge of the berg.
The arrangements worked perfectly. In three days van Deventer arrived with his fighting-men, and we descended the mountains to Urion's Kraal on the plains, where Bouwer was eagerly awaiting us. This was the fist time that our entire original commando had been reunited since parting under the Zuurbergen, and there was great cheering and handshaking when we rode up. That night our whole force marched out, intending to attack van Rijnsdorp at daybreak, but when it grew light we found that the English troops had been withdrawn to a place called Windhoek, ten miles back, which was being turned into a fortified camp, so we lay over in the recovered village until dark. General Smuts had decided to attack Windhock at dawn next morning, but I missed the fight, for I was not told of what was pending, and was sent off at sunset with a message to a post stationed towards the Olifants. I arrived after midnight, and spent the night with the picket. At dawn I was in the saddle on the return journey, and, as I rode towards van Rijnsdorp, I heard distant rifle-fire, and hurried towards it.
As I approached, the firing grew heavier for a while, and then died down altogether, so that I knew one side had been worsted. Then I came on Commandant van Deventer huddled on the ground before his horse, badly wounded and in great pain. Blood was pouring from a bullet-wound in his throat, and his tongue was so lacerated that he could not speak. Two men with him told me that the fight was over, and that the English camp at Windhoek had been captured. I galloped on, and met about a hundred disarmed soldiers, marching across the veld without their boots. They said our men had ordered them to find their way back to Clan-William, fifty miles away.
In a few seconds I reached the scene of action. General Smuts had surrounded the camp at daybreak, and, after a sharp fight, had overwhelmed it, killing and wounding many, and capturing the rest, about two hundred in number. He had not come off lightly either, having lost five men killed and sixteen wounded, but he had taken wagons, horses, arms and ammunition, and he head re-established his hold on these parts. As I rode through the camp I found Nicolas Swart lying on the ground apparently dead. A bullet had struck him in the chest and had traversed the length of his body, emerging at his left thigh, showing that he must have been bending forward when he was hit. His face was so pale that I thought him dead, so I went to one of the wagons in search of something to throw over his body, but when I came back his eyes were open, and he asked me in a whisper for a drink of water, which I gave him from my bottle. We carried him into the shade of a wagon, and roughly bandaged his wounds. As we could do nothing further for the moment, I left him, in order to look around the rest of the- captured Convoy now being ransacked by the men. It was parked around the dwelling-house in which the troops had made their last stand, and, seeing Wyndell of the 'Rijk Section', I went to tell him about Nicolas. He had shared in the attack, but did not know that Nick was wounded, and he said we must search the house for pillow-slips or sheeting for better bandages. As we went through the rooms, strewn with upturned chairs, etc., in the hand-to-hand fighting, we saw a man in civilian clothing crouched under the arched fireplace in the kitchen. I thought it was the owner of the farm, not yet recovered from his fright, but when I drew Wyndell's attention to him he exclaimed, 'By God! it's Colaine!' I did not know Colaine, but Wyndell dragged him from the house, shouting to the men outside to come and see who was here, and soon dozens of angry men were muttering threats and curses at the wretched spy. He was a man of about forty-five, in appearance a typical back-veld Boer, with flowing beard and corduroys. He was brave enough now, for when the men fiercely assured him of his certain fate he shrugged his shoulders, and showed no sign of fear. Commandant Bouwer came up while we were crowding round, and ordered two men to guard him until General Smuts was notified.
Wyndell and I, having found some linen, went back to look for Nicolas, but found him gone, and were told that he had been loaded on a mule-wagon with other casualties, for removal to another farm.
As I was well found in horses and equipment since the Middelpost affair, the present convoy did not much interest me, but I collected some newspapers and books, and, leaving the men at their looting, I prepared to ride down to the farm known as Aties, belonging to old Isaac van Zijl, the local member of Parliament, where General Smuts was said to be. But first I went to see who were killed, and was sad to find among them young Martin Wessels, a school-friend who had spent many of his holidays with my brothers and myself in the old Bloemfontein days. I had met him two days before, for the first time during the war, having come on him with one of the small rebel bands in the neighbourhood. He had been wounded and captured by the British a year ago, but with Cornelius Vermaas, now also dead, he had leaped the train in the Hex River Mountains to rejoin the commandos. When I entered the homestead at Aties, General Smuts was in the dining-room talking to the , owner, Isaac van Zijl, whose wife and daughters were there, too, and before long Colaine, the spy, was ushered in by his guards, who wanted to know what to do with their by prisoner. General Smuts had heard the whole story of by Colaine's treachery, and, after questioning the escort to make sure of the man's identity, he sentenced him to death without further formality. When the General said to the guards, 'Take him out and shoot him!' Colaine's nerve failed him, and, falling on his knees, he begged for mercy, while the women fled from the room in tears. General Smuts repeated his order, but as the condemned man was being led out, the Reverend Mr Kriel came in, and asked leave to pray for the soul of this poor sinner. So Cocaine was taken to a little smithy behind the dwelling-house, and when I looked in a little later, I saw him and the clergyman kneeling side by side against a plough-tail, deep in prayer. After a while Andries de Wet of our staff was told to collect a firing party, and, as he disliked the job, he asked me to accompany him. We sent some Hottentot servants to dig a grave out of sight of the house, to spare the feelings of its inmates, and, ordering three men who had off-saddled in the garden to fetch their rifles, we went to the workshop door. Catching Mr Kriel's eye, de Wet pointed to the prisoner, and the clergyman touched the kneeling man on the shoulder and said, 'Brother, be a man, your time has come.' Colaine took the news calmly; he rose from his knees, shook the parson by the hand, and bidding good-bye to the guards, said that he was ready. We led him to where the grave was being dug. On the way he spoke to us. He said he knew he deserved to die, but he was a poor man and had taken blood-money to keep his wife and children from starving. The Hottentots were just completing the grave when we came up, and the unfortunate man blanched when he looked into the shallow pit. Perhaps he had still hoped for a reprieve, until he saw it. Even now he tried to gain time, by appealing to us to send for Mr Kriel, to say a final prayer with him. Then he turned to me, and asked me to fetch General Smuts, but we felt that the sooner it was over the better, so de Wet blindfolded him, and placed him at the head of the grave. Realizing that this was the end, Colaine held up his hands, and in a low tone recited the Lord's Prayer, while the firing party silently ranged themselves. As he came to the final 'Amen', they fired. With a convulsive jerk he pitched backward into the grave, and the frightened Hottentots quickly covered him with earth.
When we returned, we found that the wounded had been brought down from Windhoek, and were being placed in the main dwelling-house. Nicolas Swart was still alive, in fact the jolting seemed to have improved his condition, for he was conscious and able to speak. He was put in a room by himself, whilst the rest were laid on mattresses or on straw, wherever the mistress of the house and her daughters could find room for them. Nicolas was taken with a sick man's fancy that I should remain by his side. When I tried to leave him, he seized my hand and would not let me go, so General Smuts said I was to stay, and I sat by his side all that afternoon and all through the following night. At intervals I renewed the wad of damp cloth over the wound in his chest, doing this for close on twenty hours, and soon after daybreak he fell into an easy sleep. From then onward he began slowly to mend, and within a month was well again. Of the other wounded only one man died, the rest all making good progress, thanks to the care of the women and the wonderful climate.
The camp at Windhoek had cost us more men than it was worth, but the English were discouraged from further attempts to dislodge us and from the Olifants northwards we were left in possession of all area that we were beginning to regard as our peculiar property. So much was this the case that General Smuts once more broke up the commandos, and distributed the men in small patrols until he should need them for a fresh effort. This entailed much work for the members of the staff, who were kept riding backwards and forwards from one detachment to another, in order to maintain contact.
I, however, stayed behind at the farm, as Nicolas Swart would not hear of my leaving.
While I was here I had time to read the English newspapers that I had found in the Windhoek camp. I gathered from certain letters and articles that there were many people in England who thought the war-unfair. I cut out one poem and have kept it ever since. It ran:
Peace On Earth, Goodwill To Man
Christmas Day, 1901
The story is too old: no more it thrills.
Pity is dead; peace is a paltry art.
How can a glory on Judaean hills
Make glad my heart?
The mighty splendours of our state shall show
A worthier creed than decalogue or love,
Let death and vengeance, launched on every foe
Our greatness prove.
Why mock us with the thoughts of Bethlehem foe
And glory humbled, and exalting grace?
Celestial music hits not with our theme
Our pride of race.
Dear God, forgive! Let other hearts be stone;
Christ's natal message shakes me like a reed.
Nor pride nor power nor country can condone.
The wild beast's creed?
At the end of ten days Nicolas was so much better that I was able to get away in search of General Smuts, whom I found on the banks of the Olifants River down towards the mouth. The sea lay only twenty-five miles from here and the day after my return he sent word to the Units quartered within reach, that all who had never seen it were to be sent to him. Some sixty or seventy men arrived within the next forty-eight hours, and with these we set off for a small inlet on the coast called Fishwater. We rode via the Ebenezer Mission Station, and towards afternoon caught a glint of the sea through a gap in the dunes. It was amusing to watch the expression on the men's faces as the great expanse of ocean burst on their view, for few of them had seen anything bigger than the dam on their parents' farms, and, as we topped the last sand-hills, they looked in amazement on water that stretched beyond the horizon.
With one accord they reined in their horses in silence, and then, like the Greek soldiers, rushed forward in a body, crying, 'The sea! The sea!' each wanting to be first on the beach.
Soon they were throwing off their clothes, and our trouble was, not to get them to enter the waves, but to prevent them from venturing in too deep, for they were pitching down their saddles and riding barebacked into the surf, shouting and laughing whenever a rider and his mount were thrown headlong by the breakers.
After a while General Smuts ordered three of us to ride along the shore towards some huts in the distance, to inquire whether any troops had been here of late. In doing so we had an amusing encounter with a Hottentot fisher-man. He stared open-mouthed at sight of armed Boers patrolling the water-line, and, seeing his surprise, I halted my horse and ordered him in a peremptory tone to show me where the road went through. He said, 'What road, Baas?' Pretending to be angry, I replied, 'The road to England, you fool, and show me the way at once, for we are crossing to-night to capture London.' He looked at me for a moment, and then exclaimed, 'My God, Baas, don't do it; the water is over your head here, and you will all be drowned.'
When next I met Maritz and told him this story, he said that two of his men had recently ridden on to the beach at Lambert's Bay, where an English cruiser lay at anchor close in-shore. Dismounting, they opened fire. Their bullets pattered harmlessly against the armoured side of the warship, and when the crew turned a gun on them they made haste to disappear into the sand hills, but, on their return to their commando, they boasted that they had fought the only naval action of the war!
That night we camped in the dunes, sitting around great fires of driftwood, the men discussing what they had seen until far into the night, and telling each other of the things they would have to recount when they got home again.
We spent two more days here, boating on the estuary and helping the local fishermen to drag their nets. Then we returned along the Olifants River to our starting-place, proud of having ridden our horses into the sea.