After the relief of Kimberley and Ladysmith we imagined that the decisive battles would soon follow. Although my knee was not yet cured, I went to Glencoe, whither our commandos had retreated. I was not five days there when I had to leave, being unfit for active service. Again I went to Warmbad for some weeks with Mr. Burgemeester Potgieter and his family, and on my return to Pretoria remained in my office until the beginning of May.
Meanwhile Frits had returned from the Free State, and my knee was cured. We each bought ourselves a sturdy pony, and left, with some other burghers, by train for Klerksdorp, from where we went on to Dewetsdrift, on the Vaal River. General Viljoen was guarding the drift there with some hundreds of burghers. We rode from there some four or five hours into the Free State to spy the movements of the enemy.
From Dewetsdrift we went, under Commandant Boshoff, to Schoemansdrift, Venterskroon, and Lindequidrift. Our division formed part of the escort for the guns. Our route lay through beautiful scenery. The Vaal twists and bends between two high mountains that curve on either side like the roads the khaki makes with his double row of waggons over the hills of the Hoogeveld. In every opening of the mountains lies a farm, a mean little house, but among well-cultivated fields. In nearly every farm the family was grieving for one of its members who had been taken prisoner along with Cronje, and of whose fate they were in ignorance. The people received us very kindly. Everywhere we got milk and biscuits, and we found afterwards that those people were the kindest who had suffered the most from the war.
As the enemy were already on their way to Johannesburg, we had to retreat as rapidly as possible, first to Bank Station, near Potchefstroom, and then by train to Langlaagte. To the north-west of Johannesburg we had a skirmish with the enemy, who attacked us as we were feeding our horses. It appeared that our guard was not on duty. I have never seen horses saddled so quickly. Most of the burghers rode off and left us behind with the guns. One ammunition waggon stuck in the mud, and was left behind, but was brought in safety to Pretoria by Frans Lottering, a comrade of mine, who rode back for it with some gunners when we had fled. Lottering was given a sword by General de la Rey for his brave conduct. Through negligence on the part of our officers we lost on that occasion one gun, several waggons, and some of our men.
Almost all night long we retreated with our guns to Pretoria. We had not lost courage. We all spoke of the thorough way in which our Government would have fortified Pretoria, and of the great battle that would take place there. We had all made up our minds to a stubborn resistance at our capital. What a bitter disappointment it was to find that our Government had decided not to defend the town! The causes that led to such a decision will be brought to light by historians. The consequences were that many of the burghers were discouraged, and rode 'huis-toe,' and nothing came of the great battle that was to have been fought.
Frits and I decided to give our horses a few days' rest in their stables before going to meet the enemy.
On June 4, at about twelve o'clock, while we were at luncheon, a lyddite bomb fell close to the fort, raising a cloud of dust. My mother went outside, and came back quickly to tell us that it was not a shot _from_ the fort, but from the enemy. The bombs followed in quick succession. They flew over Schanskop fort, and fell close to our house at Sunnyside. As the ground was rocky they exploded well. My mother and sister fled with our neighbours to the town, and my brother and I saddled our horses and rode off to Quaggaspoort.
From over the mountains, to the south of the town, the bombs came flying as a gentle warning from the khakies that it would be better to surrender in order to avoid a great calamity.
It was sad to see how few horses there were at the foot of the mountain. Here a group of four, there of ten--a sign that the number of burghers in the positions was very small indeed. When the enemy appeared at Quaggaspoort, we noticed that the burghers from the direction of Krokodil River were retreating, and a moment later they were all in full flight. One of my comrades, a brother of Lottering, was wounded in the arm by a shell as he fled, and had to remain behind in Pretoria. That night my brother and I spent in our own home, but we left the town the following morning in the direction of Silverton, just before the enemy entered.
It would be well to try and understand the condition of our country and the temper of our burghers.
As the capital was in the hands of the enemy, it was easy enough to convince our simple-minded men that our country was irretrievably lost to us. Therefore a period of discouragement and demoralization followed. Many burghers, also, who had all along fought bravely now remained behind in the towns or on their farms, not daring to leave their wives and daughters at the mercy of the soldiers. We may not judge those men, neither need we consider it to our credit that we, either from a sense of duty or from a spirit of adventure, acted differently. There were many also who argued that the Government was corrupt, and that the war should have been prevented, or that the Boers did not want to fight. So they also became unfaithful to the cause, and to those along with whom they began the war. And the name of 'hands-upper' was earned by those burghers who of their own free will surrendered to the enemy. The chaff was divided from the grain; cowards and traitors remained behind, and the willing ones went to the veld, even though it were in a retreating direction. We were still very hopeful. There were still the good positions in the Lydenberg district, and we had heard that De Wet had cut the line of communication behind the enemy. We also still had an intact line to Delagoa Bay.
My brother and I met our old comrade Frans Loitering, and the three of us went in search of General Grobler of Waterberg, who lay with his commando to the east of Pretoria at Franspoort, near Donkerhoek. There we joined his commando. Our camp was put up near a Kaffir location, and as the Kaffirs were clean, we often bought boiled sweet potatoes and crushed maize from them.
Nothing particular happened at Franspoort. To the right and left of us some desperate fighting went on for several days, and at Donkerhoek a fierce battle took place, but we were not attacked.
When the news came that the enemy had broken through our lines at Donkerhoek, and that we had to retreat, my brother and I left Grobler's commando. Thinking that the commandos would fall back upon the positions of Belfast, we went to Middelburg to an uncle of ours, the missionary Jan Mare, in order to give our horses a rest. We had lost sight of our comrade Frans. On our way we bought bread at the farms, or had it given us, cut a piece off an ox that had been slaughtered for the commando, and slept either in a manger or, as was more often the case, in the open air of the cold Hoogeveld. We arrived at Middelburg completely exhausted, and are not likely to forget our uncle's great hospitality.
We accidentally met our former Commandant, Boshoff, who told us that he was on his way with ten men to join General de la Rey, who had gone in the direction of Rustenburg to cut the enemy's line of communication between Mafeking and Pretoria, and we very willingly joined him, after a delightful rest of ten days.
The commando of Commandant Boshoff consisted of nine burghers with an ambulance waggon--that was used for the commissariat and for our bedding--a French doctor, two Kaffirs and two tents. It seemed as if we were going for a picnic. But it was necessary that we should be well provided with all sorts of things, as our journey would be through the Boschland, where fever and horse-sickness play havoc with man and horse in summer. In winter it is endurable for a few months only, so the country is very scarcely populated and almost uncultivated, and in winter the Boers trek there with their cattle from the bare, chill Hoogeveld. I had always longed to see that part of the Transvaal.