Commandant Boshoff had been ordered to take the prisoners to Machadodorp. He left my brother and me with Captain Kirsten, who had to reconnoitre in the direction of Rustenburg along the Magalies Mountains. We first of all passed through Commandonek, and found that deserted by the enemy. We had no adventures on our way to Rustenburg.
The Rustenburgers, who had nearly all laid down their arms and taken the oath of neutrality, took courage when they saw De la Rey's big commando, and joined us one and all.
Then we recognised a great fault in the character of our people. Without the slightest compunction, they first fail in loyalty to their own country, and then break the oath of neutrality, although the enemy had in no single respect violated their part of the contract. Some of them we, in a way, forced to join us, as we took the guns and horses of the unwilling ones or of those who acted at all in a suspicious way. We also called them traitors. But most of the burghers joined us of their own free will. Many had not taken the oath of neutrality, as they had been beyond the reach of the enemy; others had, after Lord Roberts' threatening proclamations, ridden over to the enemy to give up their arms, but had given up their old rifles and kept the Mausers for 'eventualities,' to use the now historical word of Sir Alfred Milner.
A few of the oath-breakers tried to excuse themselves by the Jesuit plea that either they did not mean what they swore or else they had purposely changed the form of the oath. In judging those who broke the oath of neutrality later on, we must remember that the enemy did not keep to their part of the contract, and so our men were justified in considering it as null and void, and, according to William Stead, their forcing us to take the oath of neutrality was against the Geneva Convention. But it is too difficult a question for me to discuss.
When the enemy, a few days later, drove us from Olifantsnek, General de la Rey sent Captain Kirsten with twenty men to the neighbouring kopjes to prevent the enemy from going on a plundering expedition. Then I for the first time saw a farm-house burnt down by the enemy. From a high kopje, by the aid of a telescope, we could distinctly see the movements of the khakies. The bitter feeling that was roused in us in our helplessness is not to be described.
General Baden-Powell was in Rustenburg, and Magatonek was also in possession of the enemy.
It was a most interesting and adventurous time that we spent near the Magalies Mountains. By day we went reconnoitring along the hills near the mountains in the direction of Olifantsnek, and towards evening we withdrew into the thick woods of the kloofs, where it was delightfully warm both for ourselves and for our horses. When a small number of the enemy came in our direction, we fired at them unexpectedly from the hills, and so protected the farm-houses on the mountain-sides. Occasionally the khakies ventured a little nearer, but always had to retreat in disorder.
I once nearly fell into the hands of the enemy. As we were reconnoitring on one of the kopjes, I suggested to a friend that we should go to the farm in front of us, where none of us had been since Olifantsnek was in possession of the enemy. We had to ford a donga closed in by barbed wire. When we got to the farm, we were told that the enemy had not been there, with the exception of a khaki who had lost his way. He had taken six eggs from a nest in a kraal and swallowed them greedily, and had then passed on to the garden without speaking a word to the harmless, inquisitive women of the farm.
For safety's sake I put the boys on guard and had the horses tied. The view was so enclosed on all sides that the enemy could appear most unexpectedly from Olifantsnek. We had been there only a short time, when we were told that the enemy were coming in large numbers from the direction of Rustenburg. We mounted at once and rode back, but could not get back to our comrades on the hills because of the barbed wire in the donga. We had gone only about 250 paces along the drift, when the enemy came riding along. Fortunately, they were intent on plunder and did not see us, as they kept their eyes fixed in the direction of the house. If we had been a few seconds later we should have fallen into their hands. The few burghers on the kopjes began to fire at them, and when I got to the top of one of the kopjes I saw the enemy--about 100 in number--fleeing in great disorder. This expedition cost them several dead and wounded, besides their plunder--meal, fowls, and other things--that they dropped in their flight.
When I went back to the farm later on, I was told that one of the girls had clapped her hands with delight when the enemy fled past them. That must have been the reason why she and her family were so cruelly insulted and plundered by the khakies afterwards. We met with great kindness during our stay in the Magalies Mountains. We always got something to eat, and towards evening we bought some loaves of bread to take back with us to our hiding-place. In those days we could always get forage for our horses, and they were in very good condition.
Meanwhile General de la Rey had gone with a commando to the west of Rustenburg, and had left two Commandants in the Zwartkoppen, to the north-east of Rustenburg.
When we got the tidings that the enemy had taken possession of Selikatsnek, we went as rapidly as we could to the Zwartkoppen. We had many adventures on our way. My brother and I rode on ahead, thinking that the others would follow, but they went a round-about way, and so did not catch us up. When we left the wide tract of wood that stretches along the Magalies Mountains, we noticed that the enemy from Rustenburg had come to meet the column from Selikatsnek. Fortunately, our horses were good, and we escaped the danger by riding back into the wood to a farm that I knew of. While we were giving our horses a rest there, a despatch-rider came along looking for a reconnoitring corps. We rode with him in the track of our comrades, who had taken a great circuit round Rustenburg. We arrived safely at Zwartkoppen, and immediately joined Commandant Boshoff, who had just returned from Machadodorp.
The Commandants now followed General de la Rey. We came up with his commando to the west of Rustenburg, where he had surrounded a party of the enemy. Commandant Boshoff, however, was immediately sent to Olifantsnek, as the enemy had left Rustenburg and the pass was clear. Our men were most changeable in their moods. The slightest favourable tidings raised their spirits, but any unfavourable news made their courage sink into their shoes. There was much talk about the retreating movement of the enemy. Some spoke of intervention; others said the English soldiers had refused to fight any longer, or that the whole of the colony was in rebellion. This talk went the round even among the officers, probably because they did not understand the enemy's movements.
Now we know the meaning of it all. It was De Wet who was being followed. We were not two days at Olifantsnek, when, to our great surprise, De Wet arrived with a commando of 2,800 men, followed by 40,000 English. He had been by treason separated along with Steyn from the chief commando, and had been chased by the enemy a month already.
It was a great lager that advanced through Olifantsnek--the largest commando that we had seen yet, with numerous carts, waggons, beasts of burden, and other belongings. And it was then I made the acquaintance of President Steyn and De Wet. Our Commandant with his men accompanied President Steyn to Machadodorp to President Kruger. We put up our tents for the time being next to those of President Steyn, so that we had time and opportunity enough to learn to know him. When the enemy a few days later broke through at Magatonek, to the west of Rustenburg, General De Wet sent for me one evening and ordered me to take a report to Rustenburg, and gave me some instructions for the Commandants there.
I had to take a message for President Steyn also, that the ambulance of the Orange Free State was to follow the lager in the direction of the Krokodil River.
Late at night I arrived at Rustenburg, only to find that the lagers had already taken flight. The enemy were expected at any moment. But the ambulance was there still, and all night long I led it in the direction the General had told me the lagers would take.
Late the following morning I arrived at De Wet's lager, which had moved a few hours further on to Sterkstroom. The commando left there that afternoon, and went along the Magalies Mountains to Commandonek. That day and that night we had a first experience of the long tiresome marches that enabled De Wet to mislead the enemy.
That night President Steyn made a most favourable impression on us with his talk. He did not try to encourage us with hopes of intervention, but merely pointed out that the war might last a long time still, and that we would have to enter the Colony.
At Commandonek we rested a few hours while De Wet himself went to reconnoitre. He sent a message to the English officer in charge of the pass that he must surrender. The officer replied that he did not quite understand _who_ must surrender--he or De Wet. I think this was merely a dodge on De Wet's part to find out by the signature of the reply who was in charge of the army at the pass, and so to make a guess at the numbers of the enemy.
He decided not to attack the pass, and before daybreak next day we were on the move again. Some time afterwards at Warmbad I heard that an English General had related this dodge of De Wet's, but he thought De Wet had threatened him with a very small force, as his commando must still have been at Olifantsnek. It is an example of the way we misled the enemy by our mobility.