Soon after his defeat at Spion Kop, General Buller, moved by the earnest entreaties for help from Ladysmith, and pressed by Lord Roberts, attempted a third time to break through our lines. This time my position had to bear the onslaught of his whole forces. For some days it had been clear to me what the enemy intended to do, but I wired in vain to the Commander-in-Chief to send me reinforcements, and I was left to defend a front, one and a half miles in length, with about 400 men. After many requests I at last moved General Joubert to send me one of the guns known as "Long Toms," which was placed at the rear of our position, and enabled us to command the Vaalkrantz, or, as we called it, "Pontdrift" kopjes. But instead of the required reinforcements, the Commander sent a telegram to General Meyer to Colenso, telling him to come and speak to me, and to put some heart into me, for it seemed, he said, "as if I had lost faith."
General Meyer came, and I explained to him how matters stood, and that I should not be able to check the enormous attacking force with my commando alone. The British were at this time only 7,000 paces away from us. The required assistance, however, never came, although I told the General that a faith strong enough to move Majuba Hill would be of no avail without a sufficient number of men.
Early in the morning of the 5th February, 1900, my position was heavily bombarded, and before the sun had risen four of my burghers had been put hors de combat. The enemy had placed their naval guns on the outskirts of the wood known as "Zwartkop" so as to be able to command our position from an elevation of about 400 feet. I happened to be on the right flank with ninety-five burghers and a pom-pom; my assistant, Commandant Jaapie du Preez, commanding the left flank.
The assailants threw two pontoon bridges across the river and troops kept pouring over from 10 o'clock in the morning. The whole of the guns' fire was now concentrated on my position; and although we answered with a well-directed fire, they charged time after time.
The number of my fighting men was rapidly diminishing. I may say this was the heaviest bombardment I witnessed during the whole of the campaign. It seemed to me as if all the guns of the British army were being fired at us.
Their big lyddite guns sent over huge shells, which mowed down all the trees on the kopje, while about fifty field pieces were incessantly barking away from a shorter range. Conan Doyle, in his book, "The Great Boer War," states that the British had concentrated no less than seventy-three guns on that kopje. In vain I implored the nearest Generals for reinforcements and requested our artillery in Heaven's name to aim at the enemy's guns. At last, however, "Long Tom" commenced operations, but the artillerymen in charge had omitted to put the powder in a safe place and it was soon struck by a lyddite shell which set the whole of it on fire. This compelled us to send to the head laager near Ladysmith for a fresh supply of powder.
On looking about me to see how my burghers were getting on I found that many around me had been killed and others were wounded. The clothes of the latter were burnt and they cried out for help in great agony.
Our pom-pom had long since been silenced by the enemy, and thirty of my burghers had been put out of the fight. The enemy's infantry was advancing nearer and nearer and there was not much time left to think. I knelt down behind a kopje, along with some of the men, and we kept firing away at 400 paces, but although we sent a good many to eternal rest, the fire of the few burghers who were left was too weak to stem the onslaught of those overwhelming numbers.
A lyddite shell suddenly burst over our very heads. Four burghers with me were blown to pieces and my rifle was smashed. It seemed to me as if a huge cauldron of boiling fat had burst over us and for some minutes I must have lost consciousness. A mouthful of brandy and water (which I always carried with me) was given me and restored me somewhat, and when I opened my eyes I saw the enemy climbing the kopje on three sides of us, some of them only a hundred paces away from me.
I ordered my men to fall back and took charge of the pom-pom, and we then retired under a heavy rifle and gun fire. Some English writers have made much ado about the way in which our pom-pom was saved, but it was nothing out of the ordinary. Of the 95 burghers with me 29 had been killed, 24 wounded.
When I had a few minutes rest I felt a piercing pain in my head, and the blood began to pour from my nose and ears.
We had taken up another position at 1,700 paces, and fired our pom-pom at the enemy, who now occupied our position of a few minutes before. Our other guns were being fired as well, which gave the British an exciting quarter of an hour. On the right and left of the positions taken by them our burghers were still in possession of the "randten"; to the right Jaapie du Preez, with the loss of only four wounded, kept his ground with the rest of my commando.
The next morning the fight was renewed, and our "Long Tom" now took the lead in the cannon-concert, and seemed to make himself very unpleasant to the enemy.
The whole day was mainly a battle of big guns. My headache grew unbearable, and I was very feverish. General Botha had meanwhile arrived with reinforcements, and towards evening things took a better turn.
But I was temporarily done for, and again lost consciousness, and was taken to the ambulance. Dr. Shaw did his best, I hear, for me; but I was unconscious for several days, and when I revived the doctor told me I had a slight fracture of the skull caused by the bursting of a shell. The injuries, however, could not have been very serious for ten days after I was able to leave my bed. I then heard that the night I had been taken to the hospital, the British had once more been forced to retire across the Tugela, and early in the morning of the 7th of February our burghers were again in possession of the kopje "Vaalkrantz," round which such a fierce fight had waged and for the possession of which so much blood had been spilled.
So far as I could gather from the English official reports they lost about 400 men, while our dead and wounded numbered only sixty-two.
Taking into consideration the determination with which General Buller had attacked us, and how dearly he had paid for this third abortive attempt, the retreat of his troops remains as much of a mystery to me as that at Spion Kop.
Our "Long Tom" was a decided success, and had proved itself to be exceedingly useful.
The Battle of "Vaalkrantz" kopje was to me and to the Johannesburg commando undoubtedly the most important and the fiercest fight in this war, and although one point in our positions was taken, I think that on the whole I may be proud of our defence. About two-thirds of its defenders were killed or wounded before the enemy took that spot, and all who afterwards visited the kopje where our struggle had taken place had to admit that unmistakable evidence showed it to be one of the hottest fights of the Natal campaign. All the trees were torn up or smashed by shells, great blocks of rock had been splintered and were stained yellow by the lyddite; mutilated bodies were lying everywhere—Briton and Boer side by side; for during the short time "Vaalkrantz" had been in their possession the English had not had an opportunity of burying the bodies of friends or foe.
I think I may quote a few paragraphs of what Dr. Doyle says in his book about this engagement:—
"The artillery-fire (the "Zwartkop" guns and other batteries) was then hurriedly aimed at the isolated "Vaalkrantz" (the real object of the attack), and had a terrific effect. It is doubtful whether ever before a position has been exposed to such an awful bombardment. The weight of the ammunition fired by some of the cannon was greater than that of an entire German battery during the Franco-Prussian war."
Prince Kraft describes the 4 and 6-pounders as mere toys compared with machine Howitzer and 4•7 guns.
Dr. Doyle, however, is not sure about the effect of these powerful guns, for he says:—
"Although the rims of the kopje were being pounded by lyddite and other bombs it is doubtful whether this terrific fire did much damage among the enemy, as seven English officers and 70 men were lying dead on the kopje against only a few Boers, who were found to have been wounded."
Of the pom-pom, which I succeeded in saving from the enemy's hands, the same writer says:—
"It was during this attack that something happened of a more picturesque and romantic nature than is usually the case in modern warfare; here it was not a question of combatants and guns being invisible or the destruction of a great mass of people. In this case it concerns a Boer gun, cut off by the British troops, which all of a sudden came out of its hiding-place and scampered away like a frightened hare from his lair. It fled from the danger as fast as the mules' legs would take it, nearly overturning, and jolting and knocking against the rocks, while the driver bent forward as far as he could to protect himself from the shower of bullets which were whistling round his ears in all directions. British shells to the right of him, shells to the left of him bursting and spluttering, lyddite shrapnel fuming and fizzing and making the splinters fly. But over the "randtje" the gun disappeared, and in a few minutes after it was in position again, and dealing death and destruction amongst the British assailants."
While I was under treatment in Dr. Shaw's ambulance I was honoured by a visit from General Joubert, who came to compliment me on what he called the splendid defence of Vaalkrantz, and to express his regret at the heavy loss sustained by our commando. I heard from Dr. Shaw that after the battle the groans and cries of the wounded burghers could be heard in the immediate neighbourhood of the English outposts. Some burghers volunteered to go, under cover of the darkness, to see if they could save these wounded men. They cautiously crept up to the foot of the kopjes, from where they could plainly see the English sentinels, and a little further down found in a ditch two of our wounded, named Brand and Liebenberg; the first had an arm and a leg smashed, the latter had a bullet in his thigh.
One can imagine what a terrible plight they were in after laying there for two nights and a day, exposed to the night's severe cold and the day's scorching sun. Their wounds were already decomposing, and the odour was most objectionable.
The two unfortunate men were at once carried to the laager and attended to with greatest care. Poor Liebenberg died of his wounds soon after. Brand, the youngest son of the late President Brand, of the Orange Free State, soon recovered, if I remember rightly.
At the risk of incurring the displeasure of a great number of people by adding the following statement to my description of the battle of Vaalkrantz, I feel bound to state that Commandant-General Joubert, after our successes at Colenso, Spion Kop, and Vaalkrantz, asked the two State Presidents, Kruger and Steyn, to consider the urgency of making peace overtures to the English Government. He pointed out that the Republics had no doubt reached the summit of their glory in the War. The proposal read as follows: That the Republican troops should at once evacuate British territory, compensation to be given for the damage to property, etc., inflicted by our commandos, against which the British Government was to guarantee that the Republics should be spared from any further incursions or attacks from British troops, and to waive its claim of Suzerainty; and that the British Government should undertake not to interfere with the internal affairs and legal procedure of the two Republics, and grant general amnesty to the colonial rebels.
Commander-in-Chief Joubert defended these proposals by pointing out that England was at that moment in difficulties, and had suffered repeated serious defeats. The opportunity should be taken, urged the General.
He was supported by several officers, but other Boer leaders contended that Natal, originally Boer territory, should never again be ceded to the enemy. As we heard nothing more of these proposals, I suppose the two State Presidents rejected them.