General Beyers' force was again split into small commandos, which it was the intention of our officers to join into one large force, and so make their way through the ranks of the enemy. But this plan was not a success, for the enemy were too strong for us.
The Krugersdorp and Pretoriadorp commandos one night crossed the railway within sight of the khaki camp-lights at Irene Station--quite close to our capital, in full view of khaki's warning, 'No admittance!' We passed Zwartkop, crossed Dwarsvlei, and had to turn back to the right through Hartleyskloof, as we came across a camp of the enemy. We then entered the Moot district, dreaded for its terrible horse-sickness, and in the beginning of March we arrived at Tafelkop, to the north-east of Lichtenburg, near Mabaalstad.
Once, as I lay resting against my saddle, I heard an old Boer telling of the courage and hopefulness among the burghers from whom he came. They talked of nothing but peace. It was their belief that a European Sovereign on marriage may make a request which must be granted. He may even ask a million pounds or somebody's head, and cannot be refused. So, they said, Queen Wilhelmina had risen to make her speech at her wedding, and had requested absolute independence for the Republics. The Kings and Princes were against it, but could not break the old custom, and therefore peace would soon reign over our country. But such talk of 'peace' was an exception, not the rule. After the terrible experience of the last months, we had become resigned to our fate, and did not try to anticipate the future. We knew that we must fight with courage and energy, and the rest we left in God's hands. We had ceased to be curious about the plans of our Generals, which were never made known to us. Exhausted in body and spirit, we took no account of time. It was all one to us whether it were morning, noon or night; whether we had to march one, two, or three hours longer; whether we had to march at all, or to remain where we were. But we were not demoralized, not unnerved. An overworked horse allows himself to be caught and ill-treated afresh. The enemy, had only to fire at us to rouse our slumbering energy, for we suffered voluntarily, and were a support to each other, because of our firm conviction that we were giving our lives for the sake of our independence.
It rained when we arrived at Tafelkop, and when we had been there a week it still rained. The only clothes we possessed were beginning to rot on our bodies. Some of the burghers had a change of clothes on the trolleys; others made themselves trousers of their many-coloured blankets, in which they cut a remarkable figure. Others, again, were in tatters, and had to disappear on the few occasions that any lady visited us. Most of the men had no mackintoshes, but always looked forward to the sunshine that was sure to follow a heavy shower. But if the rain continued, we made huts of grass, or clubbed together in the few remaining tents, or if there happened to be an unburned farmhouse, we made for that.
When the rain continued at Tafelkop, and our limbs became stiffened with the cold, some of us went to an outhouse belonging to a neighbouring farm to seek shelter. During the day we sat there in our wet clothes staring dismally out into the rain. At night we tried to warm our naked bodies by covering ourselves with the dirty wool that happened to be lying there. All the outhouses in the neighbourhood were crowded with armed burghers in tatters. On the eighth day, when the welcome sun made its appearance once more, our clothes were still dripping.
Lately we had had fruit as a substitute for sugar; but the fruit season was over now, and we had to go back to meat and mealie-porridge, or mealie-porridge and meat.
In the Moot our horses died in such numbers--particularly the 'unsalted' mares--that many of our men had to walk. On March 10 my faithful brown pony Steenbok died of horse-sickness. For over a year he had carried me through thick and thin, and I could not bear to see his suffering. A few weeks later we got another lot of horses; I will not mention how, as the information might fall into the hands of the enemy. The people who still lived on their farms often told us that the few remaining fowls instinctively recognised khaki as an enemy, and made for the hedges and shrubs whenever they caught sight of him. So here, also, Nature looked after the survival of the species. The cows taken by the enemy also made their way back to their calves that khaki stupidly left behind, and so the little children could again have milk. Even the bees were not left undisturbed; but the bee is an enemy of any nasty-smelling thing, and therefore the dirty, perspiring khakies got many a sting, and the honey usually remained in the hives.
The enemy probably thought that we were helpless in our poverty. But a Boer is not easily made helpless. We patched our own shoes and carried the lasts about with us. Horseshoes and nails we made from the tires of wheels and telegraph-wires. Instead of matches we used two stones. When the enemy have burned and destroyed all our corn-mills, we will still have coffee-mills, and when those are gone we will do as the Kaffirs do, and grind our corn between two stones--and crushed and roasted maize is very good to eat.
The old Voortrekkers wore trousers made of untanned hide. We can do the same if khaki does not supply us with sufficient clothes. Our wives and children and our exiled men we cannot get out of khaki's hands, and that is the greatest difficulty in our way.
One of the greatest advantages we have over the enemy is that we are among friends, and can move about in small troops without having to depend on a base of operations, whereas they do well not to divide themselves in too small groups, or to venture too far from their base--even in large numbers.
The services in our camp were held by the Rev. Mr. Naude--a man who kept the courage and the moral sense of the burghers up to the mark with his meek Christian spirit. He also formed the debating club that was such a welcome recreation to us. We often thought that the enemy would be surprised if they could know of the debates we had--for instance, 'Must the "hands-uppers" be allowed to vote after the war is over?' 'Must the Kaffirs or natives have more rights?' 'Is intervention advisable under the circumstances? etc. The men in the neighbourhood of Tafelkop were mostly 'hands-uppers,' so we confiscated their property, and their grain and cattle we took for the use of the lager, but we always left sufficient for the use of the women and children. The future of a farm on which a lager had camped for some time was dark indeed, for even the grain in the fields was destroyed by the demon of war. If the owner of the farm were not a 'hands-upper,' our officers usually succeeded in preventing the destruction. Sometimes the pulling up of the fencing was inevitable, as we were so short of fuel. The Boer women were sometimes forced to accept the protection of the enemy, after their farms and property had been destroyed by friend and enemy alike.
The negotiation of February 7, between Kitchener and Louis Botha, was read out to us at Tafelkop. The burghers were unanimous in condemnation of Kitchener's conditions, and were fully satisfied with Botha's short, vigorous answer. Had we indeed fought so long and so fiercely only to become an English colony, and not to be allowed to carry arms unless we had a license? And for the Kaffirs to be eventually allowed to vote? The men who were attached to their families and farms, but preferred losing all to becoming 'hands-uppers,' were unanimous in declaring Kitchener's conditions unacceptable, and all were ready to fight to the bitter end. We often spoke of the terrible suffering of our women and children in the refugee camps, and sometimes doubted whether it were not better for their sakes to give in. We did not know whether patriotism were worth the shedding of so much innocent blood. It cost us more than we can tell to remain firm and brave in our undertaking.
At that time we also heard of De Wet's retreat from Cape Colony, but not officially. It was broken to us gently, and at first as if he had been successful, so that we all thought peace was to follow soon.
How we rejoiced!
But a few days later De Wet's official report was read out to us, and then our courage sank indeed. What was the good of our fighting if the Colony would not help us?
The disappointment was not great enough to make us lay down our arms, but we knew it would be many a long day before peace was in the land. How long should we still be chased from place to place? When would there be rest for our exhausted bodies? And how we longed for our dear ones, if only we should find them alive!