It was in the winter of 1901, while Hansie was at the Irene Concentration Camp, as one of six volunteer nurses from Pretoria, that Mrs. van Warmelo began her first adventures with the spies, and it has always been a source of keen regret to Hansie that she was not in Pretoria at the time. But one cannot have everything, and the knowledge she gained in the Camp was more valuable to her than any other experience she went through during the war.
I have merely touched on the Concentration Camps in the previous chapter, for obvious reasons, and propose to entirely omit the events of the two months Hansie spent in the Irene Camp.
As the six volunteer nurses were soon after expelled from the Camp by the military authorities, there was, fortunately for her, no opportunity of returning to her labour of love. Other duties awaited her at home, however, and by degrees she came into full possession of the facts connected with her mother's experiences during those months.
Amongst the men caught in Pretoria on June 5th, 1900, when the British first entered the capital, were two heroes of this book, Mr. J. Naudé and W.J. Botha.
These men were destined, through their indecision in allowing themselves to be caught like rats in a trap, to fulfil with honour a rôle of great importance in the history of the war—a rôle unknown to the world, and without which this book would probably not have been written. Mr. Naudé—who, by the way, was well known in town as beadle of the Dutch Reformed Church on Church Square immediately opposite the Government Buildings—had, after the first few days of uncertainty and remorse, no intention whatever of remaining long in durance vile.
With a few comrades in the same predicament as himself, amongst whom were Willem Botha and G. Els, he laid his plans for a speedy escape, and for the purpose of spying more effectually he used the tower of the sacred edifice for which he was responsible, as a point of vantage not only suitable but safe. With a strong telescope he took his observations, unobserved himself, from the highest point of the tower, with the result that a certain route was chosen as offering the best facilities for a safe exit from the town.
Mr. Botha should have accompanied him on this, his first enterprise; but because of Mr. Botha's physical weakness, he having been struck by lightning at Pieter's Heights while on commando, and being subject to severe headaches and unable to walk far at times, it was decided that he should wait in town until Mr. Naudé could come back from commando, bringing with him a horse for the use of his friend. It was as well that Mr. Botha did not expose himself to the hardships and perils of that first flight from the capital, for though Mr. Naudé, wearing an English officer's uniform and carrying his private clothes in a knapsack, escaped with the greatest ease and safety, he and his companion roamed about the veld for three days and nights without finding a trace of the Boer commandos which they were so eager to join.
They therefore ventured a return to their homes in Pretoria and accomplished this successfully at dead of night, except for a small adventure through having been delayed too long on their homeward journey, on account of which they reached the first outpost just as day was breaking.
Naudé's companion, in great anxiety, suggested making a détour, but Mr. Naudé, with the presence of mind which characterised his every action, answered firmly:
"No; we must go straight ahead. Perhaps the watch has already caught a glimpse of us, and any indecision on our part would be fatal."
Seeing some clothing hanging on a line to dry near a Kaffir or coolie hut, Mr. Naudé annexed one or two garments, and, quickly changing his uniform for the civilian clothes he had with him, he made a bundle of his knapsack, uniform, and helmet, tying them up in the stolen articles. With this bundle under his arm and a handkerchief tied over his head, he and his companion lurched uncertainly over the veld towards the watch, after first having taken a draught from their spirit-flask.
"Halt! who goes there?"
They halted, smiling at him in an imbecile manner.
"Show me your residential passes."
His comrade fumbled in his pockets and produced his, but Mr. Naudé fumbled in vain. He had no pass.
He shook his head. His smile became more inane. He muttered hoarsely:
"Can't find it. Must have lost it last night. We have been on the booze, old man."
"I can see that," the watch replied and signed to them to pass on.
That their reappearance caused a stir amongst their relatives and friends can easily be understood, and it was found necessary to keep them in hiding. The beadle had been missed from his post, and it was an open secret among his friends and certainly not unknown to the enemy, that he had made a dash for liberty. Under the circumstances he could not remain in Pretoria long, and after a few days of more spying from the church tower he made a second attempt in a different direction, with a comrade of the name of Coetzee, the first man having had enough of the dangerous game. This time their enterprise was crowned with success, and they were able to join a Boer commando under General Louis Botha, but not before they had gone through an adventure which might have cost them their lives.
They were captured by the Boers under Acting Commandant Badenhorst and detained as British spies, all protestations of their innocence proving futile, until Mr. Naudé informed the Commandant that he had with him dispatches for General Botha.
Commandant Badenhorst demanded to see them.
He refused, saying that they were private documents for the Commandant-General, and that he was not at liberty to deliver them to any one else.
His word was accepted, and he was sent to the High Veld with a guard of men on foot to escort him to the General.
The want of horses proved to be a serious drawback and hardship to these men, so they determined to provide themselves with horses, of the very best, and appointed Mr. Naudé as their leader.
Instead of proceeding straight to the High Veld, these enterprising and resourceful young fellows retraced their steps to the vicinity of the Pretoria West Station, where Mr. Naudé knew that the enemy kept a number of magnificent horses for the use of officers only.
With infinite caution they approached the spot, keeping under cover until they were well within rifle-range of the men on guard. The movements of the latter were stealthily watched, and it was observed that the guard, consisting of two men, well armed, walked up and down before the stables in which the horses were kept. Meeting at a certain point, they turned abruptly and retraced their steps in the opposite direction, until they reached the limit of their beat and turned again.
Mr. Naudé's plans were quickly made, and his commands given below his breath.
There was to be no bloodshed, he said. The thing could easily be done without, if his instructions were well carried out.
Two of the men were ordered to level their guns at one of the guard when he had nearly reached the point farthest from his comrade, while the others stormed the stables.
It was the work of a few moments.
The first thing the unfortunate guard knew was that he was looking straight into the barrels of two guns.
Not a word was said on either side.
Those glittering rifles, held by unseen, steady hands, flashed the unspoken challenge, "Give the alarm, and you are a dead man."
The guard stood still as if rooted to the spot.
Swiftly and silently Mr. Naudé, with his few men, approached and entered the stables, cut loose the halters of the animals, and stampeded from the place.
And yet the guard stood still, transfixed by the unerring aim of those two deadly implements.
A moment more and every man was provided with a steed, another moment and they tore across the veld in mad, exultant flight, while behind them the shots rang out and the bullets fell beside them in the grass.
Eleven horses in all! Noble thoroughbreds, well trained and sensitive to voice and touch.
No fear of cruel treatment from your captors, beautiful steeds! The life you are entering upon may be full of hardship for you, but it will be free and wild, and you will be tended with all care and gentleness. These men are brave and strong, and it is only the cowardly and weak who would inflict on you one single unnecessary pain.
Serve your new masters well.
Be swift and sure when Death is on their track.
God only knows what the future holds for them of suffering and woe.
Not on foot, but riding like lords, these men reached General Botha's force, and the two men Naudé and Coetzee, being among the only burghers on commando familiar with the route through the British lines, were thereafter employed by minor officers to travel backwards and forwards to the capital. At first their work consisted only of helping other burghers to escape, but as time went on their duties became more complicated and hazardous. There were countless commissions to fulfil and information to be obtained on every imaginable question.
The need of a body of organised men in town began to be felt more strongly in the field, and it was Captain Naudé who introduced the system of employing a set of reliable burghers as spies in the heart of the enemy.
For this purpose he once again went to Pretoria with the list of names of the men he wished to interview.
Mr. Botha was the first he approached, and the former was only half pleased when he heard that, instead of the escape from British martial law, for which he had been keeping himself in readiness so long, he was commanded to remain in Pretoria as the head of a body of Secret Service men.
He protested vehemently, but his objections were overruled by the argument brought forward by Naudé, a consideration for the state of his health. This was certainly a point which carried weight. He consented, and the names of the other men to be appointed as his co-operators were submitted to him for approval:
C.P. Hattingh, G. Els, W. Bosch, and J. Gillyland, a body of five men, which we shall know in future by the name of "the Secret Committee."
The Secret Service of the Boers was now well established, and could not have been entrusted into hands more capable, more undaunted, or more faithful.
Captain Naudé had in the meantime earned distinction for himself as the bravest and most enterprising emissary employed in the field. He was placed by General Botha at the head of a corps of scouts, including the men who had captured the British remounts, and it is on the foundation of his adventures as captain of this body of men that this story is built.
We now turn to Mr. Botha and his first visit to Harmony.
It seems that Mrs. van Warmelo was one morning, during her daughter's absence at Irene, surprised by the appearance of a stranger at her house.
He introduced himself as Mr. Willem Botha and handed a card to Mrs. van Warmelo, the card of her friend Mrs. Pieter Maritz Botha, on which were written the following words, "You may trust the bearer as you would myself."
No other introduction was necessary.
Mrs. P.M. Botha, sister of Sir David Graaf, whose striking personality and unique experiences throughout the war would alone fill a big book, was one of Mrs. van Warmelo's dearest friends.
Any one coming from her to Harmony could depend upon a hearty welcome.
Mrs. van Warmelo looked at her visitor with her keen and searching eyes.
He was short of stature and carried a little walking-stick for support, and his eyes, when they looked into yours, were shrewd, humorous, and true as steel.
A great little man he was, and is to-day, God bless him!
I stretch out my hands to him across these pages and clasp his in the sympathy and understanding of what we went through together. True as steel! Yes, that describes him well, for in all his dealings he was a noble friend, an honourable foe.
Fate had been hard on him in leaving him a helpless prisoner in the hands of his enemies when his whole heart was with his brothers in the field, but Providence was kind in giving him the power and opportunity he required for serving land and people under circumstances as unique as they were dangerous and difficult.
From him Mrs. van Warmelo learnt of the existence of the Secret Committee.
No names were mentioned to her, but the general outline of their work was described, and her assistance was invited in that branch of the work which included the sending of dispatches to the President.
Her fame as an exceedingly clever "smuggler" had evidently spread, and if the plan of the White Envelope had been known to her visitor at the time, he would no doubt have been even more satisfied with the result of the visit.
That the Committee in Pretoria formed only a very small part of the scheme of espionage all over South Africa I am well aware, but it is with this particular Committee that we have to do, and a detailed account of the work carried out by them will give the reader some idea of the system generally employed by the Boers.
Not with the foolhardy young spy who came into the capital to buy a pound of sweets or a box of cigarettes, not with the reckless youth who came in to spend a few days with his friend and to escort his sweetheart to church on Sunday night, thereby increasing the difficulties and danger of detection for his more earnest fellow-countrymen, are we concerned in this book.
These escapades were of such frequent occurrence, and were so well known to many people in town, that it would have been dangerous in the extreme to use them for serious purposes.
From the earliest days of the occupation Pretoria was always full of spies, and the English were aware of it, but, do what they would, they could not prevent it.
Although we always knew how things were going in the field, I do not for a moment believe that the accounts of British reverses brought unofficially in to town by the spies were always reliable, nor do I sanction the reckless coming and going of irresponsible men. Alas, no! too bitter have been the experiences of disastrous results brought about by their thoughtlessness.
The van Warmelos were warned from the beginning against having dealings with them if they really wished to be of service to their people, to which warning they owed their safety and the privilege of being able to help their countrymen till the end of the war. General Emmet, as prisoner in the Rest Camp, also sent a warning, saying that General Botha had instructed him to tell Mrs. van Warmelo that her name was known on commando.
As time went on, Pretoria was being shut in more completely every day. Blockhouses rose on every side; on the hills which lie around the town searchlights played from commanding positions over many miles of country, making darkest night as clear as noonday; barbed-wire fences enclosed the entire capital, and outposts were on guard night and day—with no avail!
The spies glided in and out like serpents in the night, and some idea of the hardships and perils they went through in order to achieve their purpose will be given in this true story of the great Boer war, some idea of the dangers to which their assistants in town were exposed, and the part played by women and girls in the scheme of espionage.
I believe the events related here to be tame in comparison with some of the risks incurred and heroism displayed by other Boer women all over South Africa, but we must confine ourselves strictly to Hansie's diary, as it was written from day to day, before time could obliterate the smallest detail from her memory.
Hansie's diary with all the bitterness left out; Hansie's diary without its sighs and tears, its ever-changing moods, and deep emotions; Hansie's diary, shorn of all that makes it human, natural, and real,—surely what is left of it must be tame and totally unworthy of the original!
And yet it needs must be!
This book must be a calm, dispassionate review of the past, a temperate recital of historical events as they took place, and, as facts speak largely for themselves, I leave the details to be filled in by the reader's imagination.