Another last look at the bloody scene. It was very hard to have to beat an ignominious retreat, but it was harder still to have to go without being able to attend to one's wounded comrades, who were piteously crying aloud for help. To have to leave them in the hands of the enemy was exceedingly distressing to me. But there was no other course open, and fleeing, I hoped I might "live to fight another day." I got away, accompanied by Fourie and my Kaffir servant. "Let us go," I said, "perhaps we shall be able to fall in with some more burghers round here and have another shot at them." Behind us the British lancers were shouting "Stop, stop, halt you —— Boers!" They fired briskly at us, but our little ponies responded gamely to the spur and, aided by the darkness, we rode on safely. Still the lancers did not abandon the chase, and followed us for a long distance. From time to time we could hear the pitiful cries and entreaties of burghers who were being "finished off," but we could see nothing. My man and I had fleet horses in good condition, those of the pursuing lancers were big and clumsy.
My adjutant, Piet Fourie, however, was not so fortunate as myself. He was overtaken and made a prisoner. Revolvers were being promiscuously fired at us, and at times the distance between us and our pursuers grew smaller. We could plainly hear them shouting "Stop, or I'll shoot you," or "Halt, you damned Boer, or I'll run my lance through your blessed body."
We really had no time to take much notice of these pretty compliments. It was a race for life and freedom. Looking round furtively once more I could distinguish my pursuers; I could see their long assegais; I could hear the snorting of their unwieldy horses, the clattering of their swords. These unpleasant combinations were enough to strike terror into the heart of any ordinary man.
Everything now depended upon the fleetness and staying power of my sturdy little Boer pony, Blesman. He remained my faithful friend long after he had got me out of this scrape; he was shot, poor little chap, the day when they made me a prisoner. Poor Blesman, to you I owe my life! Blesman was plainly in league against all that was British; from the first he displayed Anglophobia of a most acute character. He has served me in good stead, and now lies buried, faithful little heart, in a Lydenburg ditch.
In my retreat Sunday River had to be crossed. It was deep, but deep or not, we had to get through it. We were going at such a pace that we nearly tumbled down the banks. The precipice must have been very steep; all I remember is finding myself in the water with Blesman by my side. The poor chap had got stuck with his four legs in the drift sand. I managed to liberate him, and after a lot of scrambling and struggling and wading through the four foot stream, I got to the other side. On the opposite bank the British were still firing. I therefore decided to lie low in the water, hoping to delude them into thinking I was killed or drowned. My stratagem was successful. I heard one of my pursuers say, "We've finished him," and with a few more pyrotechnic farewells they retraced their steps towards Ladysmith.
On the other side, however, more horsemen came in pursuit. Unquestionably the British, fired by their splendid success, were following up their victory with great vigour, and again I was compelled to hide in the long grass into which my native servant, with Ethiopian instinct, had already crept. While I was travelling along on foot my man had rescued my horse from the muddy banks of the river.
When all was said and done I had escaped with a good wetting. Now for Newcastle. I had still my rifle, revolver, and cartridges left to me; my field-glass I had lost, probably in the river. Water there was plenty, but food I had none. The track to Newcastle to a stranger, such as I was in that part of the country, was difficult to discover. To add to my perplexities I did not know what had happened at Dundee, where I had been told a strong British garrison was in occupation. Therefore, in straying in that direction I ran the risk of being captured.
Finally, however, I came upon a kaffir kraal. I was curtly hailed in the kaffir language, and upon my asking my swarthy friends to show me the road, half a dozen natives, armed with assegais, appeared on the scene. I clasped my revolver, as their attitude seemed suspicious. After they had inspected me closely, one of the elders of the community said: "You is one of dem Boers vat runs avay? We look on and you got dum dum to-day. Now we hold you, we take you English magistrate near Ladysmith." But I know my kaffir, and I sized up this black Englishman instantly. "The fact is," I said, "I'm trekking with a commando of 500 men, and we are doing a bit of scouting round your kraal. If you will show me the way to the Biggersbergen I will give you 5s. on account." My amiable and dusky friend insisted on 7s. 6d., but after I had intimated that if he did not accept 5s. I should certainly burn his entire outfit, slaughter all his women and kill all his cattle, he acquiesced. A young Zulu was deputed as my guide, but I had to use my fists and make pretty play with my revolver, and generally hint at a sudden death, or he would have left me in the lurch. He muttered to himself for some time, and suddenly terminated his soliloquy by turning on his heels and disappearing in the darkness.
The light of a lantern presently showed a railway station, which I rightly guessed to be Waschbank. Here two Englishmen, probably railway officials, came up to me, accompanied by my treacherous guide. The latter had obviously been good enough to warn the officials at the station of my approach, but luckily they were unarmed. One of them said, "You've lost your way, it appears," to which I replied, "Oh, no, indeed; I'm on the right track I think." "But," he persisted, "you won't find any of your people here now; you've been cut to pieces at Elandslaagte and Lukas Meyer's and Erasmus's forces round Dundee have been crushed. You had better come along with me to Ladysmith. I promise you decent treatment." I took care not to get in between them, and, remaining at a little distance, said, revolver in hand, "Thanks very much, it's awfully good of you. I have no business to transact in Ladysmith for the moment and will now continue my journey. Good-night." "No, no, no, wait a minute," returned the man who had spoken first, "you know you can't pass here." "We shall see about that," I said. They rushed upon me, but ere they could overpower me I had levelled my revolver. The first speaker tried to disarm me, but I shook him off and shot him. He fell, and as far I know, or could see, was not fatally wounded. The other man, thinking discretion the better part of valour, disappeared in the darkness, and my unfaithful guide had edged away as soon as he saw the glint of my gun.
My adventures on that terrible night were, however, not to end with this mild diversion. About an hour after daybreak, I came upon a barn upon which the legend "Post Office Savings Bank" was inscribed. A big Newfoundland dog lay on the threshold, and although he wagged his tail in a not unfriendly manner, he did not seem disposed to take any special notice of me. There was a passage between the barn and some stables at the back and I went down to prospect the latter. What luck if there had been a horse for me there! Of course I should only have wanted to borrow it, but there was a big iron padlock on the door, though inside the stables I heard the movements of an animal. A horse meant to me just then considerably more than three kingdoms to King Richard. For the first time in my life I did some delicate burglary and housebreaking to boot. But the English declare that all is fair in love and war, and they ought to know.
I discovered an iron bar, which enabled me to wrench off the lock from the stable door, and, having got so far with my burglarious performance, I entered cautiously, and I may say nervously. Creeping up to the manger I fumbled about till I caught hold of a strap to which the animal was tied, cut the strap through and led the horse away. I was wondering why it went so slowly and that I had almost to drag the poor creature along. Once outside I found to my utter disgust that my spoil was a venerable and decrepit donkey. Disappointed and disheartened, I abandoned my booty, leaving that ancient mule brooding meditatively outside the stable door and clearly wondering why he had been selected for a midnight excursion. But there was no time to explain or apologise, and as the mule clearly could not carry me as fast as my own legs, I left him to his meditations.
At dawn, when the first rays of the sun lit up the Biggersbergen in all their grotesque beauty, I realised for the first time where I was, and found that I was considerably more than 12 miles from Elandslaagte, the fateful scene of yesterday. Tired out, half-starved and as disconsolate as the donkey in the stable, I sat myself on an anthill. For 24 hours I had been foodless, and was now quite exhausted. I fell into a reverie; all the past day's adventures passed graphically before my eyes as in a kaleidoscope; all the horrors and carnage of the battle, the misery of my maimed comrades, who only yesterday had answered the battle-cry full of vigour and youth, the pathos of the dead who, cut down in the prime of their life and buoyant health, lay yonder on the veldt, far away from wives and daughters and friends for ever more.
While in a brown study on this anthill, 30 men on horseback suddenly dashed up towards me from the direction of Elandslaagte. I threw myself flat on my face, seeking the anthill as cover, prepared to sell my life dearly should they prove to be Englishmen. As soon as they observed me they halted, and sent one of their number up to me. Evidently they knew not whether I was friend or foe, for they reconnoitred my prostrate form behind the anthill with great circumspection and caution; but I speedily recognised comrades-in-arms. I think the long tail which is peculiar to the Basuto pony enabled me to identify them as such, and one friend, who was their outpost, brought me a reserve horse, and what was even better, had extracted from his saddle-bag a tin of welcome bully beef to stay my gnawing hunger. But they brought sad tidings, these good friends. Slain on the battlefield lay Assistant-Commandant J. C. Bodenstein and Major Hall, of the Johannesburg Town Council, two of my bravest officers, whose loss I still regret.
We rode on slowly, and all along the road we fell in with groups of burghers. There was no question that our ranks were demoralised and heartsick. Commandant-General Joubert had made Dannhauser Station his headquarters and thither we wended our way. But though we approached our general with hearts weighed down with sorrow, so strange and complex a character is the Boers', that by the time we reached him we had gathered together 120 stragglers, and had recovered our spirits and our courage. I enjoyed a most refreshing rest on an unoccupied farm and sent a messenger to Joubert asking him for an appointment for the following morning to hand in my report of the ill-fated battle. The messenger, however, brought back a verbal answer that the General was exceedingly angry and had sent no reply. On retiring that night I found my left leg injured in several places by splinters of shell and stone. My garments had to be soaked in water to remove them, but after I had carefully cleaned my wounds they very soon healed.
The next morning I waited on the Commandant-General. He received me very coldly, and before I could venture a word said reproachfully: "Why didn't you obey orders and stop this side of the Biggarsbergen, as the Council of War decided you should do?" He followed up the reproach with a series of questions: "Where's your general?" "How many men have you lost?" "How many English have you killed?" I said deferentially: "Well, General, you know I am not to be bullied like this. You know you placed me in a subordinate position under the command of General Kock, and now you lay all the blame for yesterday's disaster on my shoulders. However, I am sorry to say General Kock is wounded and in British hands. I don't know how many men we have lost; I suppose about 30 or 40 killed and approximately 100 wounded. The British must have lost considerably more, but I am not making any estimate."
The grey-bearded generalissimo cooled a little and spoke more kindly, although he gave me to understand he did not think much of the Johannesburg commando. I replied that they had been fighting very pluckily, and that by retiring they hoped to retrieve their fortunes some other day. "H'm," returned the General, "some of your burghers have made so masterly a retreat that they have already got to Newcastle, and I have just wired Field-Cornet Pienaar, who is in charge, that I should suggest to him to wait a little there, as I propose sending him some railway carriages to enable him to retreat still further. As for those Germans and Hollanders with you, they may go to Johannesburg; I won't have them here any more."
"General," I protested, "this is not quite fair. These people have volunteered to fight for, and with us; we cannot blame them in this matter. It is most unfortunate that Elandslaagte should have been lost, but as far as I can see there was no help for it." The old General appeared lost in thought; he seemed to take but little notice of what I said. Finally he looked up and fixed his small glittering eyes upon me as if he wished to read my most inmost thoughts.
"Yes," he said, "I know all about that. At Dundee things have gone just as badly. Lukas Meyer made a feeble attack, and Erasmus left him in the lurch. The two were to charge simultaneously, but Erasmus failed him at a critical moment, which means a loss of 130 men killed and wounded, and Lukas Meyer in retreat across the Buffalo River. And now Elandslaagte on the top of all! All this owing to the disobedience and negligence of my chief officers."
The old man spoke in this strain for some time, until I grew tired and left. But just as I was on the point of proceeding from his tent, he said: "Look here, Commandant, reorganise your commando as quickly as you can, and report to me as soon as you are ready." He also gave me permission to incorporate in the reorganised commando various Hollander and German stragglers who were loafing round about, although he seemed to entertain an irradicable prejudice against the Dutch and German corps.
The Commandant of the Hollander corps, Volksraad Member Lombard, came out of the battle unscathed; his captain, Mr. B. J. Verselewel de Witt Hamer, had been made a prisoner; the Commandant of the German corps, Captain A. Schiel, fell wounded into British hands, while among the officers who were killed in action I should mention Dr. H. J. Coster, the bravest Hollander the Transvaal ever saw, the most brilliant member of the Pretoria Bar, who laid down his life because in a stupid moment Kruger had taunted him and his compatriots with cowardice.