From Onuapadnek our lagers went to the farm Rietfontein, near Witwatersrandjes, where we celebrated Paardekraal Day on December 16--under sad circumstances, alas!
Ds. Kriel, who constantly accompanied us in the most self-denying manner, in all our battles and on all our long journeys, led us in prayer that day. Halfway up the kopje, which we climbed in most solemn earnest, he offered up a prayer to God, and then impressed upon us the importance of the occasion. On the top of the kopje he held a short service. It reminded me of that which my own father held for the assembled burghers at Paardekraal in 1880. How true and faithful he was in his position as preacher to the fighting men, and how well he served his adopted country!
After General De la Rey, Smuts, Kemp, and Mr. Naude had all addressed us, Ds. Kriel read out a document in which was expressed, in a few words, the purpose each one of us should attach to his contribution of a stone towards the monument to be erected there. He exhorted the burghers not to add a stone to the pile unless they fully understood and were in earnest about its meaning. So the old covenant was renewed in a different place under different circumstances and in a different manner from the Paardekraal Day of former years, and when the burghers descended from the kopje they were strengthened by the renewing of an ancient pledge in their resolution to fight to the last for their country and their people.
The place where the monument was erected was called Ebenhaezer.
Between the Magalies Mountains and the Witwatersranden stretches a long valley called the Moat. In the centre runs a gray ridge or rand, parallel to the mountains, and rising into kopjes to the east, near Hekpoort. Thither our commando moved a few days later to meet the enemy, who were approaching from Commandonek, most probably with revengeful intentions. The Moat was well provided with corn, and asked for our protection. We stayed over a day on the gray ridge. When the enemy advanced towards us on the day following, General De la Rey had taken up his position near Nooitgedacht, and so formed the left wing. Commandant Kemp, with his men, was at the south on the foot of the ridge, and Veld-Kornet van Tender, with a small troop of Zoutpansbergers, was on the first kopje, while General Beyers, with the Waterbergers and Zoutpansbergers held the right wing to the west of Hekpoort, in Witwatersrand. The whole of that forenoon the enemy were ready to attack us, and we waited calmly. Towards afternoon their left wing moved towards the first kopje, beyond the reach of the Zoutpansbergers, who were on the Witwatersranden near Hekpoort. They began firing at the position of Veld-Kornet Van Tonder, and when he fell mortally wounded his Zoutpansbergers were obliged to retire from the kopje.
Our Veld-Kornet, Kruger, a fine, brave fellow, then led twenty-five of our men towards Hekpoort, to try and stop the enemy in their forward movement. As Malherbe, my brother, and I were among the twenty-five, I cannot tell what happened to De la Rey on the other side of the gray ridge. We pressed too far forward, and soon had to retreat some distance. Our Veld-Kornet stayed behind with a few of us, on a small rise, while our horses were taken some 300 paces further back, and the rest of our little troop rode in the direction of Hekpoort. The enemy already occupied the first kopje, and were firing at us from a distance. We quickly made an entrenchment of stones and lay waiting. But our people were retreating from the other kopjes, and we had to get to our horses as quickly as possible. A few cowardly burghers on the ridge took us for khakies and fired at us. Then I experienced the difference between the aim of Boer and khaki. The latter's bullets always flew far above our heads, but the former's fell terribly close to us.
As yet we had retired in good order, but soon we fled in a panic. The enemy had come from Krugersdorp in very large numbers, and already occupied the high Witwatersranden behind us.
Whoever has an incapable horse had better hide in a ditch or behind a wall along with the poor, frightened women. More than once I have seen poor frightened women holding their crying children by the hand, and seeking a hiding-place near their houses during a battle. It is indeed a tragic sight!--we men, with our weapons in our hands, not able to defend them at such a time. And then a great feeling of shame came upon us. These same women had only the day before called down God's blessing upon us, and now they cried to us to hurry, or we would be surrounded.
We rode at a flying gallop for fully half an hour--along the Magalies Mountains, between the Witwatersranden and the many smaller banks, while to the left the enemy were descending and firing at us. The Waterbergers and Zoutpansbergers, who learnt later than we did that the enemy were surrounding us, would all have been taken prisoners had they not forced their way bravely through thick and thin. As far as we can tell, our loss was, fortunately, only one killed.
At the Manharen, a peculiar kind of kopje, we halted, but had to retreat further towards evening.
Beyers' commando moved in the direction of Gatsrand, but had to turn to Zwartruggens, near Rustenburg, when it reached the farm Modderfontein, where we celebrated Christmas. The enemy was constantly at our heels, and made things hot for us; we often had to hurry most inconveniently not to be surrounded or cut off. We got a few days' rest on the farm Vlakhoek. We were camped near a small stream, and went from there to the different farms in search of the first fruit of the season.
On New Year's Eve General Beyers' commando moved on the wide hard Krugersdorp road. The bullock waggon lager had been left behind, as it prevented us from moving as quickly as was sometimes necessary. The burghers still longed to attack Krugersdorp, and on New Year's Eve, as we moved fast in the direction of the town, our hearts were cheered by the thought of Jameson's failure, when five years ago he passed along the same road in his notorious Raid. We all hoped to add an immortal page to the annals of our history on the following New Year's Day. But we were sadly disappointed in our expectations. The Jameson Raid was not avenged, and we celebrated New Year's Day calmly and peacefully at Cyferbult, on Pretorius' farm, with milie-pap (maize meal porridge) and beef and--green fruit!
Whenever we came to a farm we ate as much green fruit as possible by way of a change in our diet. On other occasions it would have been very bad for us, but now it seemed to have a very wholesome effect. As we moved on past Zwartkop over the Krokodil River in the direction of the railway, we realized that there was no chance of attacking Krugersdorp for the present, for General Beyers had apparently changed his plans. We were quite sure that it had originally been his intention, and some of our officers talked of the attack on the town as if it were an open secret.
Our capable Veld-Kornet, Kruger, had remained behind at Zwartkop to get the burghers of Wyk III. Krugersdorp from out of their hiding-places, as the Generals wanted to concentrate all the small bands for some great undertaking. We joined Wyk I. Krugersdorp under Veld-Kornet Klaassen.
Near Hekpoort, as we were camped at Dwarsvlei, we attacked a convoy of the enemy in the valley, and very nearly captured it before it was reinforced. I was not present, so cannot give any account of the battle. After a sharp trek of more than one night, we crossed the rails between Kaalfontein and Zuurfontein Stations, just before sunrise one morning towards the middle of January. We captured a few guards who seemed to know nothing of our movements. Why General Beyers did not surprise one or both stations that morning early is still a mystery to us, as our movements were remarkably quick. It could not have been because he thought us too tired, for some twenty minutes further on, while we were resting on a farm, he ordered part of our lager to turn to the left and attack Kaalfontein Station.
Our corporal was unwilling to work us and our horses to death, so he first got breakfast ready. But when our cannon began to roar and Corporal Botman, who still limped from a wound, rode off without a word in his own peculiar way, our conscience began to trouble us, and several of our men followed him. My brother, whose horse's back was chafed, remained in the lager with the rest of the burghers.
When we reached our guns, we immediately saw that the station could be taken only at the cost of many lives--more than the success would be worth. Our guns had not the desired effect, and we should have had to charge across an open space without any cover. The enemy had no guns. They say our left wing very nearly succeeded in taking a small fort near the station, but I cannot give any particulars, for our Veld-Kornet rode with a small troop of burghers to the right of the station, and took another small fort which the enemy had abandoned because it was too far away from the station. What might have been expected happened. Towards afternoon an armoured train came from Pretoria, and reinforcements arrived from Johannesburg and scattered our left wing over the valley. I happened to be with a few others on the outmost point of the right wing of attack--or, rather, since the scene was changed, of the left wing of flight. And as we were retreating at our ease an old man galloped towards us and pointed out that we were retreating in the wrong direction, as the enemy had captured our whole lager. He had never in his life seen so many khakies. They seemed to be on all sides of us. The only outlet for us was in the direction of Heidelberg. I asked him, 'Uncle, are you sure that our lager is in the hands of the khakies?' to which he answered, 'Nephew, I saw with my own eyes how they rode up to the waggons and made all our people "hands up!"' and he continued to give us a minute description of the occurrence.
If we had been greenhorns, we would have blindly followed the startled old man right through the stream of retreating burghers and exploding 15-pounders. But, fortunately, the war had taught us, and we moved on _with_ the stream, but a little more to the left, and, I cannot deny it, with a feeling of great anxiety as to what was to become of us if the old man had indeed told the truth.
Fortunately, it appeared that fright had made the old man believe his own imagination, and the lager was quite safe. My brother told me that the slight attack made upon them by the enemy was easily beaten off.
The opinion of the majority was that we should have left Kaalfontein Station alone. We were thoroughly exhausted by our rapid journeys, particularly by the journey of the preceding night, and besides that the burghers were unwilling to make an attack of which they did not see the advantage. We had several killed and wounded.
The consequence was that we had to trek that night in a way that none of us will ever forget, to get beyond the reach of the enemy. One cannot imagine how terrible it is to sit for hours on horseback, dead tired and overcome by sleep. We did not even guide our horses; they simply jogged along mechanically, too tired even to object to ill-treatment. Our hands rested on the bows of the saddles, and as we sat leaning forwards, apparently lost in thought, but in reality suffering tortures from the effort to keep awake, we forced ourselves to look up and about us, but our eyes half closed in the effort, and everything about us took a strange shape, and the sky became chaos; with a nod we half awoke, only to dream again a second later that we were falling from our horses.
Not a word was spoken, for everyone was dozing. Whenever we had to wait for our guns or waggons, we simply flung ourselves on the grass with one arm through our bridles, and soon we were unconscious of the pulling and tugging of the horse, and if the order to mount woke us up, the tugging had ceased, and our horses were calmly grazing some distance from us. Then we lifted our bodies, loaded with cartridges and guns, into the saddle at the risk of toppling over on the other side, like a lizard sliding down a bank, and rode on in silence, drowsily and top-heavy.