When we surrounded the town and the siege began, all talk of the bananas that we were to eat in the south of Natal came to an end.
Ladysmith ought never to have been besieged. On October 30 we should have made use of our advantage. If we had at once followed the enemy when they fled in disorder, we should in all probability easily have taken those positions that would have involved the immediate surrender of Ladysmith. Many lives would have been sacrificed, but not so many as were sacrificed during the whole siege. And we might have used those men who were necessary to maintain the siege elsewhere as an attacking force. Instead of following up our advantage, we deliberately prepared for a siege. The enemy meanwhile made use of the opportunity to entrench themselves well. Most of our burghers were against our attempting to take the town by assault when once it was thoroughly entrenched.
The Pretoria town commando and that from Krokodil River in the Pretoria district occupied the position nearest to Ladysmith. This was a hill to the north of the town, flat at the top, and surrounded by a stone wall. In all probability the enclosed depression of about 500 paces in circuit had been used as a cattle-kraal. Against that kopje (hill) we gradually put up our tents. From our camp we looked on to a large flat mountain that we called Little Amajuba, because on October 30 the first large capture of prisoners had been made there. In front of our kopje, near the foot, ran a donga, and at a distance of about 1,000 paces, parallel to us, lay another oblong kopje occupied by the enemy. This kopje we called Rooirandjes.
On November 8 we received the order from our General to attack the Rooirandjes the following day. We were about 250 strong, and very willing, as that position had not yet been entrenched. On a mountain to our right a cannon had been placed that was to begin firing on the enemy's position towards dawn. Distinct orders were given that our Veld-Cornet was to be at the foot of Rooirandjes with his men before daybreak. But something went wrong again, and it was already quite light when we reached the donga. We found ourselves at a distance of about 700 paces from the Rooirandjes, and we had to cross an open space if we still wished to storm the position. The enemy's watch already began shooting at us.
The corporals let their men advance in groups of four from the donga to the kopje, using the ant-hills as cover when they lay down. Our turn came last, but meanwhile the enemy had received reinforcements, and the nearest ant-hills were nearly all occupied, so that only three men could go at a time. Such a shower of bullets fell that it was a miracle that we came out of it alive. Fortunately I found a free ant-hill. My brother had to share one with a comrade.
At last the cannon from the mountain fired a few shots, but stopped again almost immediately--why, I do not yet know. So we were obliged to lie in our positions. It was terribly hot, and not a cloud in the sky. We suffered horribly from thirst, and scarcely dared move to get at our water-bags. One of our comrades lay groaning behind me. He was shot through both legs. The bullets kept flying over our heads to the kopje behind us, where some of our burghers lay firing at the enemy. Every now and again a bullet exploded in our neighbourhood with the noise of a pistol-shot. I fancy only Dum-Dums make that peculiar noise. We had already seen many such bullets taken from the enemy by our burghers in the Battle of Modderspruit. Another burgher, Mulder, ran past me with a smile on his lips, threw himself behind an ant-hill, immediately rose again with the intention of joining some of our burghers in the front ranks, who sat calmly smoking behind some rocks under a tree, but had not gone two paces when he was shot in the thigh. There he had to lie groaning until our brave Reineke, who was killed later on at Spion Kop, saw a chance of carrying him away.
Some of us fell asleep from fatigue. One of our men on waking heard the hiss of a bullet over his head at regular intervals, and thought that a khaki had got closer up to him, and was firing at him from the side. When he lifted his head he found that he had rolled away from all cover. One, two, three, back he was again behind his ant-hill, and the scoundrel stopped firing at him. It was lucky for us that the enemy were such bad shots, or not many of us would have lived to tell the tale.
When our cannon at last, towards evening, condescended to bombard the enemy, the firing almost wholly ceased, and we made use of that favourable opportunity to get back to the donga. We had lain nine hours behind those ant-hills, and, strange to say, there were only two wounded on our side. We decided not to run the same risk again. In this way we lost our confidence in men like the brothers Erasmus, General and Commandant, who, in the first place, were incapable of organizing a good plan of attack, and, secondly, never took part in a battle.
The months spent near Ladysmith were to most of us the most tedious of the whole war. We had so little to do, and the heat between the glowing rocks of the kopjes was awful. The little work we had was anything but pleasant; it consisted chiefly in keeping guard either by day or by night. In the beginning a very bad watch was kept. Later on we had to climb the kopje at least every alternate evening to pass the long nights in our positions, while not far behind us stood our empty tents.
When we got back in the morning with our bundles on our backs, dead tired, we simply 'flopped' on to a stone, and sat waiting for our cup of coffee, either gazing at the lovely landscape or at the dirty camp, according to the mood we were in, or exchanging loud jokes with our neighbours. Constantly being on guard and constantly being in danger wears one out. We much prefer active service on patrol or in a skirmish to lying in our positions. It is not in the nature of the Boer to lie inactive far from his home. He soon wants to go 'huis-toe' (home), and very soon the 'leave-plague' broke out in our camp. That plague was one of the causes why the enemy succeeded in breaking through our lines.
Through unfairness on the part of the officers, some burghers often got leave, others never, and the consequence, of course, was a constant quarrelling. Many burghers got leave and never returned--either with or without the knowledge of the officers. No wonder we never had a proper fighting force in the field.
The difficulties we had to contend with through want of organization prevented the Generals from putting their plans into execution.
Fortunately, many burghers were very willing, and if there was to be a fight they always went voluntarily. It was noticeable that those under a capable General fought well, while those under a bad or incapable General were very weak indeed. Sometimes wonders were done at the initiative of some of the burghers. We had a few games in the camp to pass the time, but we were kept busy in a different way also. Sometimes, when we were all just comfortably lazy, the order would be given to 'mount.' That meant a hurried search for our horses and snatching up our guns and bandoliers. But after a while we had had enough of those false alarms, and they failed to make any impression on us. The call of 'The English are coming! saddle, saddle!' became proverbial.
When we did not keep such constant guard, we sat or lay listening of an evening to a most discordant noise caused by the singing of psalms and hymns at the same time at different farms. We sometimes joined in. As a people we are not very musical.
The day-watch we liked best. Then we often got a chance of firing a shot at a careless khaki on the Rooirandjes. To some of our young men there was something very exciting in the idea that they were in constant danger. Every now and again a bomb, too, would come flying over the camp, and the whole commando would make for the rocks amid shouts of laughter.
At that time we still felt rather down when there was a fight in prospect. When, some time after our attack on the Rooirandjes, we went to the west of Ladysmith to attack Platrand, we did not feel at all comfortable, although we went voluntarily. It was a lovely ride in the dark at a flying gallop, but when we found on our arrival at Platrand that the promised number of men was not there, we rode away again quite satisfied that we had not to attempt the attack. For had we not made up our minds not to risk a repetition of the attack on Rooirandjes?
The blowing-up of the cannon at Ladysmith is one of the episodes of the war that we look back upon with a feeling of shame. A few days after a Long Tom had been blown up on Umbulwana Kop, east of Ladysmith, I warned our Field-Cornet that the enemy were busy spying in our neighbourhood at night. While on guard, we could distinctly hear the flapping of the saddles and the neighing of the horses in front of us. I foretold a repetition of what had happened on Umbulwana Kop. The Field-Cornet promised that the guard would be doubled that night. Towards morning those of us who were not on guard were waked out of our sleep by a loud cry of 'Hurrah!' from the throats of a few hundred Englishmen who were blowing up two cannon on a mountain to our right, close to us. We sprang towards our positions, stumbling and falling over stones, not knowing what was going on, and expecting the khakies at any moment. It was the first time that we had heard a fight at night, and it gave us a creepy feeling. We saw the flames of the guns and from the exploding bullets, and heard the rattling of the shots and the shouting, but we could not join in the fight, as we--eight of us--were not allowed to leave our positions. Now and again a bullet fell in our neighbourhood, and the Free State Artillery, who were on the mountains to the right, fired some bombs at the enemy, nearly hitting us in the dark.
When it got lighter we went to look at the dead and wounded, perhaps from a feeling of bravado, perhaps to accustom ourselves to the sight. The enemy had paid dearly for their brave deed. They know the number of their dead and wounded better than we do, for they had opportunity enough to carry them away. On our side only four were killed and a few wounded. Niemeyer, Van Zyl and Villiers were among the killed. Pott was severely wounded. Niemeyer had several bayonet wounds.
After that we were, of course, doubly careful. We have never been able to discover who failed in their duty on guard. Cooper and Tossel were suspected and accused. They were sent to Pretoria under arrest, but the investigation never led to any result. We have every reason to believe that our burghers were guilty of treachery more than once near Ladysmith. Government ought from the start to have taken strict measures against traitors and spies.
Some days after the blowing up of the cannon I sprained my left knee, which I had already hurt before the war began. General Erasmus gave me leave to go home for an unlimited time. On my way home I passed my brother Willem without being aware of it. He had come from Holland, where he was studying, to take part in the war.
What a meeting with relatives and friends! How much there was to tell! Even then we had not experienced very much, and how much more will our burghers have to tell their dear ones on returning from their exile in strange countries! There will, alas! be much sorrow, too; for many of our friends and relatives have been killed in this war, and many more will have yet to give their lives for their country!