Fortunately, the enemy gave us a week's rest on the farm of Landdrost Schotte. During that time Veld-Kornet Meyer, with his small troop of Germans, blew up the electric factory at Brakpan.
Then we stayed a few days on Mr. Brown's farm, where a great many little commandos congregated that were camped on the banks of the river. Our horses became quite sleek again from the abundance of mealies they got there. On that farm we first used for fuel the poles that fenced in the farm. I distinctly remember how, after we had received the order from Commandant Kemp, we waited until after dark before pulling up the poles, and how grieved we were at the necessity for doing it. Since that time we have got over such scruples. Even if there were wood to be had on an outspan place, there was always a race to procure the best poles. Of course, when there was abundance of wood, the pulling up of poles was strictly prohibited.
At that time I made the acquaintance of a nephew of mine, Paul Mare, a boy of fourteen, with a noble countenance, who, like so many others of the same age, rode about with gun and bandolier, and was full of courage. When the enemy approached his mother's house he prepared for flight, but she took it for a joke. When she noticed that he was in earnest, she forbade him to go, as his father had been killed already, and he would in all probability be killed too. He merely answered, 'Because they have shot my father, I mean to shoot them now,' and rode away.
We did not like remaining long in one place doing nothing. We always became impatient, and wished to know when we could move on. But the Commandant always answered that he could not tell. And the more sensible of us thought, 'It depends on khaki.' This was really the case now. On the evening of January 28 we got the order to be in readiness. While General Beyers, with 400 or 500 men, passed to the rear of the enemy to destroy the Boksburg mines, our commando of horsemen moved rapidly in the direction of Boesmanskop in the Heidelberg district, to cut off the enemy who were pushing on to our part of the Hoogeveld. We arrived at Boesmanskop the following morning.
The parts of the country that we now passed through had not yet been destroyed by the enemy, but everywhere else the houses and farms were burnt and ruined in the most barbarous way. We were very anxious, therefore, to cut off the enemy's advance. They were camped to the north-west of Boesmanskop. A strong Boer guard occupied this kopje--the, only one in the neighbourhood; for the rest, the surroundings were the ordinary Hoogeveld with its mounds. We pushed up in a long line over a 'bult' that ran north-west of Boesmanskop. Our guns--only a few, as most had been sent away to be repaired--stood on top of this mound without any cover. Lieutenant Odendaal, a very brave gunner, did not like kopjes, but always placed his cannon on a mound, as the enemy's guns always fired too short or too long on account of the misleading distances. They did so in this instance, and the bombs flew far beyond us. Corporal Botman ordered me to stay with the horses at the foot of the 'bult,' while the burghers crept on to the top a few hundred paces further, expecting eventually to charge the enemy. Suddenly I heard, twice over, a noise like that of a train in the distance. My brother told me afterwards how he had seen a detachment of the enemy storming Boesmanskop, and how the burghers waited until they were close by, and then beat them back completely with a twice-repeated salvo.
For some time the guns of the enemy ceased firing, because, as I heard later on, Lieutenant Odendaal had shot down the gunners. When they made themselves heard again, they were more accurate in their aim; I most narrowly escaped the bombs. Four or five thundered around me in quick succession, as I fell and stooped and grasped the bridles of the rearing horses. Some of the horses pulled the bridles out of my hands and raced down the valley.
But the left wing of the enemy was surrounding us, and, like a swarm of birds that rise on the wing, the burghers fled back in among the tethered and the straying horses, and retreated as fast as they could. The enemy now bombarded Boesmanskop, so that the retreating burghers in the valley had a bad time of it with the bombs flying over their heads.
Many waggons of Boer families, fleeing for their lives, were pushing along the sides of the long mounds, and the enemy's bombs burst in their midst more than once--perhaps accidentally, perhaps because they knew that 'the Boer nation must be swept off the face of the earth.'
The women seemed to be in a panic. From all sides families came in carts and waggons--long rows of vehicles filled with poor, terror-stricken women and children; large herds of cattle were driven along by the Kaffir servants, but many of them fell into the enemy's hands. The burghers did their best to make a stand in order to give the waggons a good start, but retreated in good order when they saw no chance of checking the enemy's forward movement. Fortunately, a heavy shower fell in the afternoon and hindered the enemy in their advance, else many a waggon would have fallen into their hands.
It was no longer necessary for the burghers to resist for the sake of the waggons. The enemy had camped and left us, with the exception of the guard, to plod our way shamefacedly through the mud. Our ponies, with their quick, peculiar gait, soon caught up the heavily-laden waggons, and we supplied ourselves with mealies, flour, fowls, etc., that had been thrown overboard or left behind on a broken-down waggon. Such is the fortune of war, and the things were better in our hands than in those of the khakies.
When we rode up alongside the waggons, many a meeting took place between relatives and friends who had been parted for months. The women and girls drove the horses, and many of them walked with the Kaffirs in the mud next to the oxen. They did the work of the men in time of peace. Many of them had been delicately nurtured, in spite of the simplicity of their lives, and were not accustomed to the hard work. They were all Transvaal women, and wives and daughters of the burghers who had to look on helplessly at their sad flight. And, oh! the dear little heads of the children that peeped at us from out of the waggons! It was a cruel sight, and it moved us strangely.
Although most of the women were drenched, they were all cheerful, and seemed proud of taking an active part in the great struggle. And if a young man asked a girl whether he should ride next to her to help her, the answer was: 'No, thank you, we can manage; the men must fight now.' There were many old men and boys who preferred the society of the women to the danger of the bombs. Some of the women were not kind, and reproached us for being the cause of all this misery, as our appearance in the Hoogeveld had brought the enemy in its train.
The waggons were heavily laden with furniture and grain, some even with stoves, and they sank deep into the mud, as the roads were one mass of mud after the numerous waggons and thousands of cattle that had already passed along them. Long rows of vehicles were continually approaching from all sides, all going in the same direction, and when we came to Waterval River a sad but grand sight met our eyes. The river was full. Hundreds of waggons had been outspanned on the banks on either side. The women and children were doing their best to light the fires with the wet wood, and to cook some food. It was just before sunset, but there was no sun to cheer them on their way.
Against the sides of the mounds (bulten) the cattle were moving in black dense masses, making an almost deafening noise with their bleating and lowing. As we rode through the full river, we saw in mid-stream a cart that had stuck fast. A woman was standing in the water pushing at the back, while a girl held the reins. A few of our men jumped down from their horses and soon succeeded in getting the cart to the other side. But we could not stay to help the poor women and children. We rode on, inquiring everywhere after the trolleys and the commissariat. These were higher up on the other side of the river, so we had to cross once more, this time in the dark, at the risk of our lives.
Two little girls were drowned that evening, and the wheel of a waggon had passed over a girl's body. It had been better if the women had stayed at home and depended on the mercy of the enemy. They should not have undertaken this terrible journey. A woman cannot flee from place to place like a man, and life in a 'refugee'(?) camp would have been better; she should bear her sorrow bravely at home. And this was only the beginning of the misery. If they had remained at home, they might have saved their homes, but now the enemy was sure to destroy and burn the deserted farms.
During the day, when the flight was still a novelty, the women and girls were cheerful enough, but who can describe their heartache and misery during their enforced journey on the rainy nights? I do not know how all those waggons and cattle got through the swollen river that night. Twenty paces from where I lay a waggon was being inspanned; I heard the voices of men and women. An old man was talking. He threatened to off-load all the women on the first available place, as he had never in his life had so much trouble. A small boy and a Kaffir had their turn also; the boy was on horseback and led, or rather dragged, another horse that refused to move. He had to collect the cattle, which seemed to me almost an impossible task in the dark, among the many horses of the burghers. When he had found Kindermeid, Witlies had disappeared, and when Witlies was found, then Vaalpens was missing again. Kindermeid, a gray ox, was the most troublesome. Repeatedly it passed by me, followed by the boy dragging the unwilling horse. Then the boy exclaimed in sad, shrill tones, 'See how the mare jibs!' When his father angrily asked, 'Have you found Kindermeid now?' he answered, 'Yes, father, but now Vaalpens is missing; the mare jibs so, I can't get the cattle together!' When he had found them all and the rumbling of their waggon was dying away in the distance, I still heard him complain of the unwilling mare, in his sad, shrill little voice. It was a small episode in my life that I shall not easily forget. This was the last I saw of the flight of the women, for we had to stay behind to fight as we were retreating. Later on I heard many sad tales about it, which I cannot repeat in this little book of mine.
The poor women and children were indeed to be pitied, but we had no sympathy with the men who fled in the winter with their cattle to the Boschveld, and now sought our protection, though they had never fought themselves. The flight with the cattle was necessary, as the enemy would otherwise have exterminated them, but many of the men took advantage of the necessity, and sometimes three or four strong, sturdy men went with one waggon, where one man would have been ample.