When that part of the Pretoria town commando to which my brother Frits and I belonged left for the Natal boundary on September 30, 1899, we were all very enthusiastic, as could be seen from the nice new suits, the new shining guns, and the sleek horses. Many ladies had come to the station to see us off, and we were proud of having the opportunity to fight for our country. Our departure seemed then to us a great occasion, we were inexperienced in war. We had not yet learnt that one could pass unscathed through many a fierce battle. We knew nothing of 'retreating' and we knew all about the enemy with whom we were to come in contact. We imagined that several sharp engagements would take place--that these would be decisive battles in which many of our men would be killed, and therefore the parting with relatives and friends was sad indeed.
Our Field-Cornet, Melt Marais, had told us that we had nothing to see to except provisions for a day or two, as Government would supply us with all necessaries at Zandspruit, where the commandos were to concentrate; so many of us took neither pots, pans, nor mugs.
What a disillusion it was to find on our arrival at Zandspruit that there were no tents, and as yet no provisions of any kind! So we were initiated by having to pass the first nights of our commando life on the open veld with insufficient food. And in the daytime our work was cut out for us, as every other minute our horses disappeared--lost among the thousands of horses that all looked exactly alike in the eyes of an inexperienced townsman. Then it meant a running and seeking, an examining of marks and tokens, until the stupid among us were obliged to tie ribbons to our horses as a means of recognising them. And one, the story goes, even tied a nosebag, with a bundle of forage, to his mount so that it should not run away.
At length the provisions began to arrive, but the pots and pans were still scarce and we could not even drink a cup of coffee till a tin of jam or meat had been emptied.
We were just beginning to feel comfortable, when the time stated in the ultimatum expired, and we had to cross the boundary of Natal. General Erasmus was at the head of our commando. We spent the night near Volksrust in a cold hail storm and rain. Those first days we are not likely to forget. They were wet, cold days, and we were still unaccustomed to preparing our own food and looking after ourselves. Fortunately, we had the opportunity, a few days later, of supplying ourselves with all necessaries at Newcastle.
Before we crossed the boundary General Erasmus had addressed us and told us the news of our first victory--the taking of an armoured train at Kraaipan; at that time we still made a fuss about such a trifle. Also, in those days, we still looked up with respect to our leaders.
Ds. Postma, who accompanied us everywhere, led us in prayer. Not one of the burghers seems to have known where the enemy were. We advanced slowly and carefully, as we expected _to meet with the enemy at any moment_; but we saw no signs of them until we came to Dundee. After a rest of a few days we undertook the momentous expedition to the mountains of Dundee, to the north of the town.
Towards evening we got the order to 'prepare for three days.' For three days! And we had not even provisions enough for one. But we understood that there could not yet be a proper commissariat, and we fought for our country willingly, convinced of the justice of our cause; so we 'prepared' cheerfully.
Before the commando started, a terrible thunderstorm came on that slowly passed over and was followed by a gentle rain. We rode hard in the dark, through dongas, past farms and houses, zigzagging in a half-circle, to the mountains of Dundee. No sound was to be heard except the dull thud of the hoofs of the galloping horses. Now and again we whispered to each other how delightfully we were going to surprise the enemy. When the horses came to a sudden pause, and an inexperienced rider, owing to a presentiment of evil, involuntarily uttered his wish to 'halt,' we turned upon him angrily and called him 'traitor.' We did not then know that we were far beyond earshot of the enemy. It stopped raining, and towards morning we reached the mountains; and after we had with great difficulty got our horses on to the mountains, we had to await the dawn in the cold, drenched to the skin. A mackintosh is of small service in such a rain. When the day dawned we led our horses higher up. A thick fog had come on. General Lucas Meyer was to begin the attack on the west, and we were to surprise the enemy from the heights.
When the roar of cannon announced the battle, we were full of enthusiasm, but General Erasmus forbade anyone to move on before the fog lifted. It was quite possible that the fog might be only on the mountain-tops, because of their great height, and that we would have clear weather as soon as we began to descend, therefore several of our men begged General Erasmus to be allowed to go on ahead as scouts. But he was very much against it, and said that the enemy might cut off our retreat, and 'if the enemy surround us it is all up with us,' said he. As soon as the roar of the cannon ceased, we withdrew some distance into the mountains to let our horses graze. But we had only just off-saddled, when from all sides came the cry of 'Saddle! saddle!' and from our left, in the valley, came the sound of firing. A detachment of 250 khakies, probably knowing nothing of our whereabouts, and intending to pass round the mountains and attack Lucas Meyer in the rear, was compelled to surrender in a few moments, after first having sought cover in a kraal near a house.
We remained three days on the Dundee mountains, and during all that time there was a steady drizzle, with intervals of hail and wind. Once when it cleared up for a few hours we got the order to attack the town, but it began to rain again, and that night we had to keep our positions in the intense cold, without any covering. Fortunately, the enemy abandoned their camp that night, and when we looked down upon the town next morning the khakies had vanished. We had only the preceding day placed our cannon in a position to command the camp.
When we returned to our saddles, the horses had strayed so far that it took us almost all day to get them back. My uncle, Paul Mare, formerly Volksraad member for Zoutpansberg, treated us to kaboe-mealies (roasted maize), the first we had on commando, and we ate with great relish.
Meanwhile the commando had left. We followed, and entered Dundee, where we helped ourselves hungrily to the good things from the shops placed at the disposal of the commandos.
In an unorganized army looting is a necessary evil. There are always some of the lower classes who are the ringleaders, and when the commandos reach a house or farm that has already been looted, they join in the looting 'because the burghers are on commando, and they must be well supplied with all necessaries, so as to be able to fight well.' So we reasoned, and we joined in the looting. I can affirm, to the honour of our burghers, that it was not our intention to plunder, and in the beginning much was done to prevent it. The lower class Uitlander, who joined us for the sake of booty, and not for love and sympathy towards us, was largely responsible for the bad name we got among right-minded people who did not know the facts of the case. It was the same as regards theft. If anyone missed his horse, he had but to look for it among the 'Irish corps,' or some other Uitlander corps, and unless he knew his beast well he would fail to recognise it, as both mane and tail would have been cut short by the thief. I do not wish to pretend that _we_ were always free from blame. It has happened that the Uitlander got a very poor horse in exchange for his thoroughbred because a Boer had tied the token of recognition to his own horse and made off with the better one. The truth is that very few men are proof against the demoralizing influence of war, and I will not deny that this war has shown up our many faults; but in my tale I shall be able to take up the cudgels for my people in cases where the rest of the world turned from us because they were disappointed in their expectations of us.
After our departure from Dundee the looting went on freely. Then we began to witness the devastation that is the irremediable consequence of war. Here and there a house had been completely plundered. At Glencoe Junction I entered the stationmaster's house, a well-furnished house with beautiful pictures, books, and mirrors. Some massive silver mugs and other articles of value were lying about. The family had only just dined, for the cloth was still laid. I ate of the food on the table, wrote a letter home with pen and ink, and left the house. Later on, when I returned, it had been thoroughly looted and some of the mirrors smashed. There were many of the riff-raff, Kaffirs and coolies in the neighbourhood, and in all probability they had done the mischief.
When our commando left Dundee to move in the direction of Ladysmith, part of the Pretoria town commando was sent to reinforce Lucas Meyer, who was to follow the troops fleeing from Dundee with his commando. My brother and I went with it. A terrible thunderstorm came on just then, and during the whole march to Ladysmith it rained heavily. Every moment we expected to come up with the troops, but they had too great a start, and we did not overtake them at all. We were too late again. An English General has said that 'the Boers are brave, and make good plans, but are always twenty-four hours late.' That can be explained in this way. We were accustomed to fighting against Kaffirs, who hid in woods and mountains, and against whom we had to advance with the utmost precaution, so as to lose as few lives as possible. So we were too cautious in the beginning of the war. We would not make a great sacrifice to win a battle.
On October 30 we were present, under Lucas Meyer, at the battle near Ladysmith, but we did not come into action, as we belonged to a part of the commando that had to hold a position to prevent attack in the rear. The enemy did not attack our position at all, except with a few bombs, because they suffered a great defeat near Modderspruit, and had to retreat hurriedly. From our positions we could see how every time the bombs burst among them the fleeing troops seemed to get 'mazed' for a moment, and then went forward again.
At that time we were often in want of food. One must have suffered hunger to know what it means. In a few linen bags I had some biscuits that had first been reduced to crumbs through the riding, and then to a kind of pap by the rain and perspiration of the horse. Often when I felt the pangs of famine I added some sugar to this mess and ate it with relish.
Some days later we left Lucas Meyer and returned to our commando, which had meanwhile gone to the north of Ladysmith. During our absence Zeederberg had taken the place of Melt Marais as Veld-Cornet.