We had never in all our lives seen so many flies as at Ladysmith. We had to hurry over our meals as they made eating almost an impossibility to us. Fortunately, I was only a short time there, as towards the end of January, 1900, part of our commando, including my brother and myself, was sent to the Tugela as reinforcement. We had a distance of four and a half hours to ride, and we had to ride hard, as the enemy were determined to force their way through. We arrived the same day, just two days after the enemy had tried to force their way through to the right of Spion Kop and had been defeated. On nearing the high Tugela mountains we heard more and more distinctly the constant rattling of bullets, interrupted by the roar of the cannon and the bom-bom-bom of our saucy bomb-Maxim, that made our hearts expand and those of the enemy shrink. As we raced on to the foot of the mountains, the bullets that the enemy were sending over the mountains to find the Boers raised the dust around us.
The following morning we went to lie in a trench that had been dug by our men on a rise to the right of Spion Kop. The previous day eight burghers had been wounded there. Red Danie Opperman was Field-Cornet. Not far from us, to our left, stood a few of our cannon, and facing us, to our left, on the long mountain slope, we could see fourteen guns of the enemy's. In front of us was a large wood, and close to that the English camp. We could see the enemy moving in great close square masses. It was a terribly hot day; we had to lie in the trenches, as all day long the enemy fired at us from the smaller positions facing us, at a distance of 15,000 paces; and constantly the bombs burst over our heads. At regular intervals a lyddite bomb--that gave us a shock through our whole body--came from the wood towards the cannon on our left. Once only part of our entrenchment, where, fortunately, no one happened to be, was blown to bits.
Whenever there was a moment's pause, we lifted our heads above the trenches to have a look at the lovely landscape and at the positions of our enemy. That day not one of us was wounded. Only the artillery suffered. If our few cannon ventured to make themselves heard, eight or more bombs followed in quick succession to silence them. Next to me lay a man whose servant, a restless, impatient Bushman, most amicably addressed him as Johnny. The Bushman went to and fro continually to a 'chum' of his who lay hidden behind a rock close to us. Once, on one of his visits to his 'chum,' a bullet struck the ground close to his heels; he stood still, looked slowly and defiantly from his heels to the enemy, and said in a most emphatic tone, 'You confounded Englishman!' and calmly proceeded on his way to his chum.
To the right of this position was an open space, almost level with the immediate surroundings, but ending in a steep decline some 900 paces further on. There we went towards evening with a reinforcement of the Pretoria town commando that had followed us. The Field-Cornet made us stand in rows, and told off forty men to dig a trench that night. The rest of the men would relieve us the following night. My brother and I were in the first shift. Towards morning, while we were still digging at the trenches, fire was opened across the whole line of battle. We imagined that we were being attacked, and jammed ourselves in the narrow trench. But as the attack did not come off, and the bullets flew high over our heads, we went on digging until daybreak. Then we noticed that the enemy were lying in a trench about 800 paces ahead of us. We fired a few shots at them, but saved our ammunition for an eventual storming.
The whole of that day and the two succeeding days there was a constant salvo over our heads. The bullets flew over our heads like finches, and did us no harm, but we had to be on our guard against the sharpshooters, who occasionally fired close to us. That day (January 24), the heroic Battle of Spion Kop took place, where our burghers, after having been surprised in the night by the enemy and driven off the kop, obliged them, after a stubborn fight, to abandon it again. The Pretoria men, who were to have relieved us in the trench, took a great part in that battle. Reineke, Yeppe, Malherbe, De Villiers, and Olivier were killed. Ihrige was severely wounded.
All day long we lay listening to the fighting, for we could not sleep. We had to stay in the trench three days and four nights before we were relieved. Water and food were brought to us, or fetched by our men at night, as we did not venture to leave the trench by day. We were safe enough, for the bombs had not much effect on the sand-walls of our trench, and there was always time to stoop to avoid them. The following morning news was brought to us that the enemy had abandoned the whole line of battle and were retreating in the direction of Chieveley.
The battle of the Tugela had lasted eight days.
I had again hurt my knee, and had to leave Ladysmith for Pretoria, from whence I went to Warmbad at Waterberg to stay for a few weeks with Mrs. Klein-Frikkie Grobler, who received me most kindly. My brother Frits got leave for the first time then, too, and Willem remained at Ladysmith. During my absence the English broke through at Pieter's Heights, where Willem was made prisoner and Luettig, Malherbe and Stuart de Villiers were killed. Meanwhile Frits had gone, with some other Pretoria men, to the Orange Free State, where the enemy had surrounded General Cronje.
Since the beginning of the siege our burghers always thought the town would fall soon. 'The khakies cannot hold out any longer! They have no provisions, and their ammunition must be coming to an end! Buller can never cross the Tugela, our positions are too good! What does it matter if _I_ do go on leave? The khakies cannot get through!' That was the opinion of most of the burghers. And if anyone ventured to point out that the enemy _might_ force their way through because we did not all do our duty, he was either not believed or looked upon as a traitor. Meanwhile enthusiasm was dying out. The burghers lay in their lagers or went home, trusting to the few willing ones, who ultimately proved not strong enough to withstand the overwhelming force that Buller brought to bear upon one point of our positions when he was obliged to force his way through at no matter what cost.
No leave should have been given during the war, and here I may as well mention--although this tale does not pretend to be a history of the war--that it has been carried on with far too great laxity, owing to the ignorance of our Generals and the demoralizing influence of self-interest and nepotism. We should have sent our forces far into the Cape Colony to get help from our brothers in a war that had been forced upon us by England. The Colonial Afrikanders never had the opportunity of standing by us, because we did not supply them with the necessary ammunition or stretch out our hands towards them. Unless they had help from our invading forces, they dared not risk a rising, because of the confiscation of their property in case of failure.
We have had to suffer--to suffer cruelly for our sins. Our enemy forced his way through the dyke that surrounded us, and like a stormy sea he ruined our homes, devastated our fields, and caused us endless suffering. Besides this, the talk of intervention had an enervating effecton the commandos. In our commando, which was largely composed of ignorant men, the strangest stories went round. One was that the Russians had landed somewhere in South Africa with 100 cannon. There was always talk of a great European War having broken out; and the consequence was that the Boers counted on intervention or help from the Powers, instead of depending on their own strength and perseverance. The most sensible among us recognised the improbability of intervention. It was not to the interest of any foreign Power to intervene in South Africa where it had no firm footing, particularly as Chamberlain had, by most cunning artifices, forced us to be the aggressors.
War was inevitable. Sooner or later it had to come. After the Jameson Raid, which was really the beginning of the war, the Transvaal Government recognised the dangerous position in which it stood, as an isolated Republic, and was therefore obliged to arm itself with the most modern of military equipments. Before the Jameson Raid race hatred was dying out rapidly. The consequence of the raid was that the gap between Boer and Englishman widened, the sympathy of the Uitlanders for us grew deeper, and the Afrikander Bond grew stronger. England's prestige in South Africa was threatened, and with it her rank as first Power in the world. She had to maintain her supremacy in South Africa; while for us it had become a question of all or nothing. England has evidently succeeded in keeping up such friendly relations with the other Powers that no intervention seems possible.
The relief of Ladysmith took place on February 28--a Majuba Day--a day that had been marked as a red-letter day in our calendars. For nineteen years the enemy have longed to wipe out the remembrance of that day, and they have done so brilliantly and malignantly. Since that time we have been humiliated and belittled. Our fall was great. For the first time there was a general panic. The two Republics, being forced to venture on war against a powerful kingdom, felt themselves staggering under the heavy blow.