I will not describe our retreat, as nothing of importance occurred. We were constantly on the alert to move before the cunning French entrapped us within the circle that he was trying to draw around us.
At Trichardsfontein Malherbe and I had to go in search of our horses, which had strayed, so we were separated from our commando for some days. When we found our horses we went to Ermelo, and stayed there until the enemy were so close upon us that General Louis Botha, who happened to be at Ermelo, and knew of our arrival, sent to say that we must leave the town. We then joined his force and rode to Spion Kop.
'In the land of the blind the one-eyed is king!' Even so it was with Spion Kop of the Hoogeveld Ermelo. During the three years of my University life in that distant little country that stands by us now so well in our need, I often climbed a hill about the size of Spion Kop. That hill is famed for its height throughout the whole country, and bears the formidable name of 'the Amersfoort Mountain.'
While the officers were holding a council of war, Malherbe and I rode off to our commando. At Klipstapel we were allowed a few days' breathing time, and there we prepared for the night attack on Smith-Dorrien's camp, to the north of us. But our guide lost his way in the dark, and we had to return. It was decided, nevertheless, to attempt the attack the following night at Chrissiesmeer, where the camp was then. We had everything in our favour. We were a strong force of many commandos, and the enemy's force was not much larger.
That evening we were placed in quite a different order from the usual one. The men of each corporal's division rode next to each other. The Commandant or Veld-Kornet at the head, followed by the corporal with his ten or fifteen men riding abreast, was followed by the next corporal riding abreast with his men, etc. On looking back from the top of the hill in the moonlight, one saw a broad dark mass of fierce, determined men. Nearly every burgher had one or two extra horses, mostly mares with foals, that we had commandeered and trained during our retreat on the Hoogeveld. At that time every horse, trained or untrained, was put to use. It was a pity that the mares with their foals were not left behind, as they made a terrible noise with their whinnying. We walked our horses; we were not allowed to utter a word or to light our pipes--that was reasonable; but the neighing of the horses was not exactly in accordance with our silence. Every now and again, when the whinnying of the mares was at its worst, some burgher or other would give vent to an exclamation of impatience. Every now and again someone or other would light his pipe, taking care that neither the Veld-Kornet nor the enemy should see it. A dead silence reigned everywhere, broken only by the mares and their foals. These beasts caused us great uneasiness, but so did the order we received that we had to shoot sharp at the beginning of the attack, but then slowly, until it became light, so as to save some of our ammunition in case of need. We had to attack in the dark then. But what if the enemy, prepared for our arrival, were to pepper at us unexpectedly from a different direction, or to point their Maxims at us?
The greatest mistake of all was that we took our horses right up to the hill on the other side of which the khakies were. The horses were tired and had ceased neighing, but we should have left them some miles behind and walked on to make the attack as soon as it was light. An uncle of mine told me that he saw some men on horseback riding over the bull, whom he took to be our spies, but they were of course the enemy's guard.
When we had tethered our horses at the foot of the bult, we climbed up slowly, but before we could fall into position the enemy opened a sharp fire at us. We charged shouting 'Hurrah!' in wild enthusiasm, and fired as fast as we could straight ahead. The sparks flew up some twenty paces in front of us, and even after the fight we could not tell whether they came from our own guns or from those of the enemy. At intervals we heard the tick-tick-tick of a small Maxim, but owing to the dark we were not mown down. Some of the burghers threw themselves down behind us, and involuntarily one thought of the proverb, 'to hide in another's blood.' Whenever the firing slackened a few of our brave men charged, shouting out encouraging words, and again raised our enthusiasm. Both burghers on my right and on my left were wounded. The latter had a most demoralizing influence on the rest of the men, as he lay groaning and moaning in a heart-rending way. He was only slightly wounded, and eventually escaped on horseback. Our brave Commandant Botman went forward ten paces beyond the rest in his enthusiasm, and served as a target for the enemy. He was severely wounded, but walked back without a moan and fell down close behind me. I did not even know that he was wounded. I turned round to see if the burghers behind me would not take the initiative in the inevitable flight, as I was ashamed to take it upon myself. I did not take it at all amiss, therefore, when I saw several men looking round to see if the way were clear, and darting like an arrow back to their horses, for all round us our men were being shot down, and we did not know where the enemy's camp was, nor could we tell the effect of our shooting in the dark. A slight fog had arisen, through which the moon occasionally succeeded in dimly appearing. The day had dawned; we reached our horses in the greatest disorder, and heightened the confusion by shouting inquiries to each other after friends and relatives. Some did not wait to find their horses, but fled on foot; others jumped on strange horses. Some even escaped on khaki horses that had strayed from the camp.
As my brother and I galloped off, a man fell wounded close behind us, and the bullet struck the ground between us. The burghers rallied at a farm in the neighbourhood of the enemy's camp. Some of our men fled on, but most of them retreated with the guns to the commissariat trolleys, many without saddle, mackintosh or blanket, more hopelessly impoverished than ever, but not discouraged, for although the attack had been repulsed we were not defeated.
In this lay our strength, that we were not disheartened by our defeats, but were able constantly to rally and to renew the attack. We kept on exhausting the enemy by slight skirmishes that are not worth relating, but their effect on the whole weakened him and strengthened us.
On our side that day there were forty wounded, but only a few killed. It grieved us all that Commandant Botman had remained behind on the battle-field. He was universally liked for his bravery and for his simple Christianity. To our great joy, we heard later on that he had recovered, and had somehow succeeded in reaching Krugersdorp. Fortunately, the fog prevented the enemy from doing us much harm, and towards afternoon our cannon put a stop to their advance.
The attack on Smith-Dorrien's camp was worthy of a better result. In this, as well as in the Hekpoort and Boesmanskop battles, where also we had no position, the burghers showed great courage and goodwill. In my opinion, the officers should have given up the plan of attack after we had missed our way the night before and been obliged to return. The Kaffirs and traitors must have warned the enemy of our intention to attack, so that they could be in readiness for us.
The enemy were now all round us. We heard the firing of cannon on all sides, but that same night we undertook a cunning backward movement, and when the enemy closed their cordon an hour later the bird had flown. We were careful to avoid a repetition of Cronje's experience.
The burghers were very anxious about our lager. We had left it on Brown's farm on the Wilgeriver, when our commando advanced towards Boesmanskop. How the lager escaped I do not know, for we heard that the enemy were advancing from all sides--Standerton, Middelburg, etc. But we reached it in safety the very night that we slipped through the enemy's cordon.
We were now safely on our way back to Rustenburg, and had to leave General French with his 30,000 or 40,000 men to drive along helpless women and children, and all the cattle he could lay hands on. Commandant-General Louis Botha had strictly forbidden the women to leave their farms after the Battle of Boesmanskop, so that the enormous woman lager received no new additions.
Many of the farms were burned down, but some families had been left unmolested, because they said the enemy were ill at ease, owing to a rumour that General Beyers was going to attack them in the rear. The partly-burned granaries bore evidence to the great hurry the enemy were in. On some farms the very rooms that contained grain were set on fire.
Our constant retreat had a most demoralizing influence. This was felt even in our conversation and our expressions. We called this retreating 'kamping,'[A] and it became one of our most common expressions in our daily life. For 'Let us go!' we said 'Let us kamp!' or for 'This evening we start!' we said 'This evening we go on the kamp!' A typical expression was 'kamping' for our independence, when we could no longer withstand the enemy. If anyone boasted of his loyalty to his country and people, he merely said that he had 'kamped' along with the burghers wherever they had 'kamped.' We used in our conversation many military terms; for instance, 'to change one's position' was 'to go and lie with your saddle on another place.' 'I shall mauser you' meant 'I shall strike you.'
At Grootpan General Beyers again joined us, after having done the enemy some harm at Boksburg. He addressed us and explained his reason for countermanding the attack on Krugersdorp. He had told the secret to a few of his officers, who made it public property, so that the enemy had heard of it and were prepared for the attack.
Moreover, a great fault of the burghers had come to light at Nooitgedacht--namely, that they shirked their duty in their eagerness for plunder. He was afraid that if they took the town their plundering spirit would get the better of them and so give the enemy a chance of catching them or putting them to flight. Lastly he said that he was going to act in opposition to the orders received from the Commandant-General, and would send the Zoutpansbergers and Waterbergers home that evening, as it was impossible for them in their condition to undertake any military operations. He himself also was going home, but would return after a few weeks, as a large commando, led if possible by himself, was to invade Cape Colony.
Kemp was made fighting General; the Rev. Mr. Kriel left with General Beyers; Klaassen took the place of Kemp, and Liebenberg was appointed Field-Cornet of our commando.
The return to their homes of the Waterbergers and Zoutpansbergers roused a feeling of dissatisfaction in us. Owing to the horse-sickness in those regions, and the home-sickness of the men themselves, we concluded that we were not likely to see them again. We also thought it would have been better to have invaded the Colony long ago, instead of aimlessly wandering about the Hoogeveld as we had been doing. In all probability our Generals put off the invasion as long as possible because many of the men--nearly all the Waterbergers and Zoutpansbergers--were against it. Such were the difficulties against which our Generals had to fight.
In private, both Kemp and Beyers acknowledged to me that a march into the Colony was strictly necessary. I do not mean to criticise, but only to give an idea of the spirit reigning among the burghers at that time.
[Footnote A: 'Trappers.']