We found Pietersburg to be quite republican, all the officials, from high to low, in their proper places in the offices, and the "Vierkleur" flying from the Government buildings. The railway to Warmbad was also in Boer hands. At Warmbad were General Beyers and his burghers and those of the Waterberg district. Although we had no coals left, this did not prevent us from running a train with a sufficient number of carriages from Pietersburg to Warmbad twice a week. We used wood instead, this being found in great quantities in this part of the country.
Of course, it took some time to get steam up, and we had to put in more wood all the time, while the boilers continually threatened to run dry. We only had two engines, one of which was mostly laid up for repairs. The other one served to keep the commandos at Warmbad provided with food, etc.
The Pietersburgers also had kept up telegraphic communication, and we were delighted to hear that clothes and boots could be got in the town, as we had to replace our own, which had got dreadfully torn and worn out on the "trek" through the "boschveldt." Each commandant did his best to get the necessary things together for his burghers, and my quarters were the centre of great activity from the early morning to late in the evening, persons who had had their goods commandeered applying to the General and lodging complaints.
After we had been at Pietersburg for eight days, a delay which seemed so many months to me, I had really had too much of it. The complaints were generally introduced by remarks about how much the complainants' ancestors had done for the country at Boomplaats, Majuba, etc., etc., and how unfairly they were now being treated by having their only horses, or mules, or their carriages, or saddles commandeered.
The worst of it was, that they all had to be coaxed, either with a long sermon, pointing out to them what an honour and distinction it was to be thus selected to do their duty to their country and their people, or by giving them money if no appeal to their generous feelings would avail; sometimes by using strong language to the timid ones, telling them it would have to be, whether they liked it or not.
Anyhow we got a hundred fine horses together at the cost of a good many imprecations. The complainants may be divided into the following categories:—
1st. Those who really believed they had some cause of complaint.
2nd. Those who did not feel inclined to part with anything without receiving the full value in cash—whose patriotism began and ended with money.
3rd. Those who had Anglophile tendencies and thought it an abomination to part with anything to a commando (these were the worst to deal with, for they wore a mask, and we often did not know whether we had got hold of the Evil One's tail or an angel's pinions), and
4th. Those who were complaining without reason. These were, as a rule, burghers who did not care to fight, and who remained at home under all sorts of pretexts.
The complaints from females consisted of three classes:—
1st. The patriotic ones who did all they could—sensible ladies as they were—to help us and to encourage our burghers, but who wanted the things we had commandeered for their own use.
2nd. The women without any national sympathy—a tiresome species, who forget their sex, and burst into vituperation if they could not get their way; and
3rd. The women with English sympathies, carefully hidden behind a mask of pro-Boer expressions.
The pity of it was that you could not see it written on their foreheads which category they belonged to, and although one could soon find out what their ideas were, one had to be careful in expressing a decided opinion about them, as there was a risk of being prosecuted for libel.
I myself always preferred an outspoken complaint. I could always cut up roughly refer him to martial law, and gruffly answer, "It will have to be like this, or you will have to do it!" And if that did not satisfy him I had him sent away. But the most difficult case was when the complaint was stammered under a copious flood of tears, although not supported by any arguments worth listening to.
There were a good many foreign subjects at Pietersburg but they were mostly British, and these persons, who also had some of their horses, etc., commandeered, were a great source of trouble, for many Boer officers and burghers treated them without any ceremony, simply taking away what they wanted for their commandos. I did not at all agree with this way of doing things, for so long as a foreign subject, though an Englishman, is allowed to remain within the fighting lines, he has a right to protection and fairness, and no difference ought to be made between him and the burghers who stay at home, when there is any fighting to be done.
From Pietersburg we went to Nylstroom, a village on the railway to which I had been summoned by telegram by the Commandant-General, who had arrived there on his way to the westerly districts, this being the first I had heard of him after we had parted at the foot of the Mauchberg, near Mac Mac.
I travelled by rail, accompanied by one of my commandants. The way they managed to keep up steam was delightfully primitive. We did not, indeed, fly along the rails, yet we very often went at the rate of nine miles an hour!
When our supply of wood got exhausted, we would just stop the train, or the train would stop itself, and the passengers were politely requested to get out and take a hand at cutting down trees and carrying wood. This had a delicious flavour of the old time stage coach about it, when first, second, and third class passengers travelled in the same compartment, although the prices of the different classes varied considerably. When a coach came to the foot of a mountain the travellers would, however, soon find out where the difference between the classes lay, for the driver would order all first-class passengers to keep their seats, second-class passengers to get out and walk, and third-class passengers to get out and push.
We got to our destination, however, although the chances seemed to have been against it. I myself had laid any odds against ever arriving alive.
At Nylstroom we found President Steyn and suite, who had just arrived, causing a great stir in this sleepy little village, which had now become a frontier village of the territory in which we still held sway.
A great popular meeting was held, which President Steyn opened with a manly speech, followed by a no less stirring one from our Commandant-General, both exhorting the burghers to do their duty towards their country and towards themselves by remaining faithful to the Cause, as the very existence of our nation depended on it.
In the afternoon the officers met in an empty hall of the hotel at Nylstroom to hold a Council of War, under the direction of the Commandant-General.
Plans were discussed and arrangements made for the future. I was to march at once from Pietersburg to the north-westerly part of the Pretoria district, and on to Witnek, which would bring us back to our old battle-grounds. The state of the commandos, I was told, in those parts was very sad. The commandant of the Boksburg Commando had mysteriously fallen into the enemy's hands, and with his treacherous assistance nearly the whole commando had been captured as well. The Pretoria Commando had nearly shared this melancholy fate.
That same night we travelled to Pietersburg. After we had passed Yzerberg the train seemed to be going more and more slowly, till we came to a dead stop. The engine had broken down, and all we could do was to get out and walk the rest of the way. In a few hours' time, to our great joy, the second, and the only other train from Pietersburg there was, came up.
After having convinced the engine-driver that he had to obey the General's orders, he complied with our request to take us to Pietersburg, and at last, after a lot of trouble, we arrived the following day. Our cattle and horses were now sufficiently rested and in good condition. The commandos have been provided with the things they most urgently needed, and ordered to be ready within two days.