We were busy all evening baking vet-koek (a kind of scone fried in lard), as we had received the order to be ready to leave the following morning at one o'clock, and to take provisions sufficient for two days. Although our officers were beginning to see the advisability of keeping their plans secret, we were able to guess that we were going to attack General Clements' camp, an hour's ride further east at Nooitgedacht--particularly as the chances of success, in case of an eventual attack, were being discussed by some of the officers. The general opinion was that Clements' force was 5,000 strong.
We left quite three-quarters of an hour later than the fixed time in the early morning of December 13, 1900, and recrossed the steep, narrow neck, took a way to our right in the Kromriverskloof, making a sharp turn to Elandskrans, where a strong outpost had been placed by the enemy on the Magalies Mountains.
That was the crust through which we had to bite to get at the dainties of the booty. It cannot be denied that victory and booty, in our impoverished circumstances, were very close together in our thoughts. The enemy's camp lay at the foot of the long, high cliff that forms a precipice on that side of the mountain, while the slope of the mountain on our side was not steep, and there were a great many footholds and boulders. The artillery had been left in the neck of the pass to protect the lagers. Beyers, with some Zoutpansbergers, turned away from us to the right to reach Elandskrans along the mountain ridge. It appeared, therefore, that Beyers and Kemp were going to make the attack from the north, with 1,000 men, and that Kemp had the centre and the left wing. We were again too late. The sun had risen when we began the attack. Corporal Botman was ordered by Kemp to surround the extreme right of the enemy's right wing, with thirty men.
We had to storm the left to enclose the enemy in the half-circle. We were exposed to a rain of bullets, and had to storm through ravines and reefs, sometimes racing our horses, then leading them, and making use of every cover. General Beyers, with his splendid sharp-shooters, was already in hot action with the right wing, and Commandant Kemp in the centre had forced his way close to the enemy. We tied our horses together behind a reef, left them in charge of a few men, and advanced, spreading ourselves in groups of three, four and five. A moment of extreme anxiety followed.
Not to expose ourselves unnecessarily, we had to peep from behind the rocks, shoot the course clear, and run to the next cover. Malherbe and I stayed as close as possible to our cool, collected, brave corporal, and we had to gasp for breath sometimes if trying to keep up to him. The others forced their way upwards more to the left, and so formed the furthest left point of the half-moon.
While the three of us were pushing our way from position to position into the neighbourhood of the few khakies who already dared not raise their heads from behind the rocks, I noticed, some 500 paces to our front, a number of khakies moving in our direction. I warned Malherbe to keep up his courage, as the enemy were getting reinforcements. A moment later, while our corporal had again moved onwards, I noticed several khakies on a stone ridge some 150 paces in front of us. It appeared that they were driven on by part of the centre and right wing, for just then two men made their appearance, whom I at once recognised as Boers from the colour of their clothes and the quick way in which they aimed at me. I stooped quick as a hare, and immediately rose again. The enemy now surrendered, I believe to the number of two or three hundred of the Northumberland Fusiliers, called the 'Fighting Fifth' on account of their courage and bravery. We also took on the mountain a heliograph that the enemy had broken.
The khakies acknowledged that we had taken the position with the greatest possible speed. We were in the majority. But it must not be forgotten that we were the attacking party and had to expose ourselves, and also that, although the battle on the mountain extended over a long line, our right wing had still to reckon with the reinforcements that were sent up through a narrow kloof from the camp. It was a repetition of Selikatsnek. The khakies had the good positions, and we had good cover behind the rocks on the mountain slope. In such a case he is no match for us.
We went on a few hundred paces over pretty level ground, and then looked down upon the camp at the foot of the mountain, which consisted of several hundreds of tents and many waggons. Some of these waggons were inspanned, some were already retreating, but most of them were not yet inspanned. The camp lay on the grounds and by the fields of a deserted farm.
Afterwards I heard that Commandant Badenhorst, of Pretoria (who had attacked the enemy before our arrival, at the foot of the mountain, and so suffered the greatest loss), was already retreating, but, hearing the fighting on the mountain, had renewed his attack.
The enemy could not stand the fire that we opened upon them, and had to retreat from the camp in the direction of Commandonek. The inevitable consequence was that the troops on the west, opposite De la Rey, had to retreat hurriedly so as not to be cut off by the wedge that was forcing its way along the mountains into the camp. They were far beyond reach of our bullets. Where De la Rey's cannon were, and why they did not make themselves heard, I do not know. Neither do I know why General Smuts did not cut off the retreat of the enemy to the south-east. They had placed a few cannon to our left in the valley, and bombarded us fiercely on the mountain without much result. The balls of a small Maxim flew past us with a hissing sound and hindered us in our aim.
The waggons that were inspanned fled in the direction of Commandonek, and halted in the valley at a respectful distance from us. Although the camp appeared to be almost deserted, a continual firing was heard below us. I could not make out from where it came until I suddenly discovered several small troops of horsemen who galloped at intervals from behind a wall in the shade of some trees. They were in all probability left there as cover for the waggons. The few shots we fired at them missed their aim. We saw De la Rey's burghers capture a large herd of cattle.
While Malherbe and I were peering from behind our hurriedly erected entrenchment, and occasionally firing a few shots, I discovered four or five brave khakies busy dragging along an ammunition waggon, or a gun; from such a distance we could not distinguish which. We fired at them with a sight of 800 paces, but did not hit them, as the horizontal distance to the camp was not more than 400 paces, and we should have used a sight of 600 paces, but the height of the mountain was very misleading. Immediately afterwards a span of mules came in the direction of the supposed gun, so Malherbe and I retreated as fast as we could, to find a better cover more to the left. It is strange how in a battle one always has an idea that all the threatened danger is aimed specially at one's self.
We had to be on the look-out not to fire at our own people, some of whom were already in the camp. My brother, Malherbe, and I went to the narrow kloof that I have already mentioned, after a fruitless search for our horses, which had meanwhile been taken to the entrance of the kloof, and I heard from my brother that our brave General had been wounded in the leg by a shell. During the search for our horses we had noticed a long dust-cloud at the end of Kromriverskloof, near Buffelspoort, moving from Rustenburg in the direction of Commandonek--in all probability reinforcements for the enemy, arriving too late.
The Waterbergers and Zoutpansbergers, who were most undisciplined, had descended through the kloof in quest of booty. But the Krugersdorpers, formerly notorious for their rough behaviour, were now the most orderly, and did not descend before all the men were collected. The kloof was strewn with bodies of khakies, who were sent up as reinforcement and pitilessly shot down by the burghers. The little stream of water was red with blood, so that we could not even quench our thirst. Some of the khakies had fallen from the high cliffs, where they had to lie unburied--like the soldiers on Amajuba in 1881.
We led our horses to the opening of the kloof, and then galloped into camp under the thundering noise of the shells that the enemy were firing at us from the distance. There was no control possible among the burghers. Each one loaded his horse with whatever he could lay his hands on, and there was no thought of following up the retreating enemy. They did not leave us undisturbed in our glory, but aimed lyddite at us, which had the desired effect, that we in our disorder did not storm the front positions, but retreated in the direction of our camp, a quarter of a mile in among the trees. There Veld-Kornet Klaassen ordered his men to off-saddle and give the horses a rest. Meanwhile the camp was burnt, flames arose in all directions, and thousands of cartridges exploded.
After we had watered our horses in a neighbouring spruit we lay down to rest. But ere long General De la Rey came galloping into our midst with a lash in his hand, calling to us whether we were not ashamed to lie there doing nothing, instead of following up our advantage now that we had the chance, when otherwise the enemy would ill-treat our women and children and burn down our homes. One of our corporals rather impertinently informed De la Rey that he served under another General, and would obey no orders but his. De la Rey thereupon rode up to him and gave him a heavy cut with his lash. I went up to the General, and told him that we were quite willing to fight, and had only off-saddled for a rest by order of our Field-Cornet. In his rage he lifted his lash, but, recognising me, lowered it again. If I had aimed at getting a cut from him, I might have called out like the Dutch farmers, who got a box on the ear from Peter the Great for pressing too closely upon him while he was building ships at Zaandam: 'I have had one too! I have had one too!' We then rode with the General to the burnt camp. The enemy had not found the game worth the candle, and had saved their shell for a more favourable occasion.
One can imagine De la Rey's indignation when he saw that waggons, provisions, and ammunition were nearly all burnt. He pointed out to us how ammunition and guns were required on every side. General Beyers, whom we met there, excused himself by explaining that he had ordered only those things to be burnt that we did not require. We then rode to the other positions on the opposite side of the camp, but the enemy were in full flight, followed by an occasional burgher.
I do not consider myself able to criticise the manner in which our officers organized this battle. But it was easy to see that a great mistake had been made. We had much to be thankful for, but the result might have been more advantageous to us. The whole camp with all its cannon should have been taken with a smaller loss than eighty men killed and wounded.
I do not know the number of the enemy's killed and wounded. If our first attack had been made unanimously and unexpectedly, we could easily have crushed the enemy. The prisoners, as usual, pretended that they knew all about our plans, but why, then, were their reinforcements too late, or, rather, why did they never arrive? When General De la Rey organizes an attack, and his instructions are well carried out, the burghers have so much confidence in him, and like him so well, in spite of, or perhaps because of his violent temper, that they never have any doubt as to his ultimate success.
The prisoners were released. In my presence they were always well treated, and I have seen many khaki prisoners who have never on any occasion been ill-treated.