After I had carefully reconnoitred the enemy's positions, I resolved, after consulting my fighting-general, Muller, to attack the Helvetia garrison, one of the enemy's fortifications or camps between Lydenburg and Machadodorp. Those fortifications served to protect the railway road from Machadodorp Station to Lydenburg, along which their convoys went twice a week to provision Lydenburg village. Helvetia is situated three miles east of Machadodorp, four miles west of Watervalboven Station, where a garrison was stationed, and about three miles south of a camp near Zwartkoppies. It was only protected on the north side. Although it was difficult to approach this side on account of a mountainous rand through which the Crocodile River runs, yet this was the only road to take. It led across Witrand or Bakenkop; the commandos were therefore obliged to follow it, and had to do this at night time, for if they had passed the Bakenkop by day they would have exposed themselves to the enemy's artillery fire from the Machadodorp and Zwartkoppies garrisons.
During the night of the 28th of December 1900, we marched from Windhoek, past Dullstroom, up to the neighbourhood of Bakenkop, where we halted and divided the commandos for the attack, which was to be made in about the following order:—
Fighting-General Muller was to trek with 150 men along the convoy-road between Helvetia and Zwartkoppies up to Watervalboven, keeping his movements concealed from the adversary. Commandant W. Viljoen (my brother), would approach the northerly and southerly parts of Helvetia within a few hundred paces, with part of the Johannesburgers and Johannesburg Police. This commando numbered 200 men.
In order to be able to storm the different forts almost simultaneously we were all to move at 3.30 a.m., and I gave the men a password, in order to prevent confusion and the possibility of our hitting one another in the general charge. There being several forts and trenches to take the burghers were to shout "Hurrah!" as loudly as they could in taking each fort, which would show us it was captured, and at the same time encourage the others. Two of our most valiant field-cornets, P. Myburgh and J. Cevonia, an Italian Afrikander, were sent to the left, past Helvetia, with 120 men, to attack Zwartkoppies the moment we were to storm Helvetia, while I kept in reserve the State Artillerists and a field-cornet's posse of Lydenburgers to the right of the latter place, near Machadodorp, which would enable me to stop any reinforcements sent to the other side from that place or from Belfast. For if the British were to send any cavalry from there they would be able to turn our rear, and by marching up as soon as they heard the first report of firing at Helvetia, they would be in a position to cut me up with the whole of my commando. I only suggest the possibility of it, and cannot make out why it was not attempted. I can only be thankful to the British officers for omitting to do this.
I had taken up a position, with some of my adjutants, between the commandos as arranged, and stood waiting, watch in hand, for the moment the first shot should be fired. My men all knew their places and their duties, but unfortunately a heavy fog rose at about 2 o'clock, which made the two field-cornets who were to attack the Zwartkoppies lose their way and the chance of reaching their destination before daybreak.
I received the news of this failure at 3.20, i.e., ten minutes before the appointed time of action. A bad beginning, I thought, and these last ten minutes seemed many hours to me.
I struck a match every moment, under cover of my macintosh, to see if it were yet half past three. Another minute and it would soon be decided whether I should be the vanquished or the victor. How many burghers, who were now marching so eagerly to charge the enemy in his trenches, would be missed from our ranks to-morrow? It is these moments of tension which make an officer's hair turn grey. The relation between our burgher and his officers is so entirely different from that which exists between the British officer and his men or between these ranks perhaps in any other standing army. We are all friends. The life of each individual burgher in our army is highly valued by his officer and is only sacrificed at the very highest price. We regret the loss of a simple burgher as much as that of the highest in rank. And it was the distress and worry of seeing these lives lost, which made me ponder before the battle.
Suddenly one of my adjutants called out: "I hear some shouting. What may this be?"
I threw my waterproof over my head and struck a match, then cried: "It is time, my lads!" And in a few seconds a chain of fire flamed up round the forts, immediately followed by the rattling and crackling of the burghers' Mausers. The enemy was not slow in returning our fire.
It is not easy to adequately render the impression a battle in the dark makes. Each time a shot is fired you see a flash of fire several yards long, and where about 500 or 600 rifles are being fired at a short distance from you, it makes one think of a gigantic display of fireworks.
Although it was still dusk, I could easily follow the course of the fight. The defenders' firing slackened in several places, to subside entirely in others, while from the direction of the other reports and flashes, our men were obviously closing up, drawing tighter the ring round the enemy.
So far, according to my scouts, no stir had been made from Belfast, which encouraged me to inform the officers that we were not being cut off. At daybreak only a few shots were falling, and when the fog cleared up I found Helvetia to be in our hands.
General Muller reported that his part of the attack had been successfully accomplished, and that a 4•7 naval gun had been found in the great fortress. I gave orders to fetch this gun out of the fort without delay, to take away the prisoners we had made and as much of the commissariat as we could manage to carry, and to burn the remainder.
Towards the evening we were fired at by two guns at Zwartkoppies, making it very difficult for us to get the provisions away.
A great quantity of rum and other spirits was found among the enemy's commissariat, and as soon as the British soldiers made prisoners were disarmed, they ran up to it, filled their flasks, and drank so freely that about thirty of them were soon unable to walk. Their bad example was followed by several burghers, and many a man who had not been given to drinking used this opportunity to imbibe a good quantity, making it very difficult for us to keep things in order.
About 60 men of the garrison had been killed or wounded, and their commanding officer had received some injuries, but fortunately there was a doctor there who at once attended to these cases. On our side we had five men killed and seven wounded—the brave Lieutenant Nortje and Corporal J. Coetzee being amongst them.
A small fort, situated between the others, had been overlooked, through a misunderstanding, and a score of soldiers who were garrisoning it had been forgotten and omitted to be disarmed.
An undisciplined commando is not easily managed at times. It takes all the officers' tact and shrewdness to get all the captured goods—like arms, ammunition, provisions, &c.—transported, especially when drink is found in a captured camp.
When we discussed the victory afterwards, it became quite clear that our tactics in storming the enemy's positions on the east and south sides had been pregnant of excellent results, for the English were not at all prepared at these points, though they had been on their guard to the north. In fact it had been very trying work to force them to surrender there. The officer in command, who was subsequently discharged from the British Army, had done his best, but he was wounded in the head at the beginning of the fight, and so far as I could ascertain there had been nobody to take his place. Three lieutenants were surprised in their beds and made prisoners-of-war. In the big fort where we found the naval gun, a captain of the garrison's artillery was in command. This fortress had been stormed, as already stated, from the side on which the attack had not been expected and the captain had not had an opportunity of firing many shots from his revolver, when he was wounded in the arm and compelled to surrender to the burghers who rushed up. Two hundred and fifty prisoners, including four officers, were made, the majority belonging to the Liverpool regiment and the 18th regiment of Hussars. They were all taken to our laager.
We succeeded in bringing away the captured gun in perfect order, also some waggons. Unfortunately the cart with the projectiles or shell, stuck in the morass and had to be left behind.
I gave orders to have a gun which we had left with the reserve burghers at Bakenkop, brought up, to open fire on the two pieces which were firing at us from Zwartkoppies, and to cover our movements while we were taking away the prisoners-of-war and the captured stores. I was in hopes of getting an opportunity of releasing the carts which stuck. But Fate was against us. A heavy hailstorm accompanied by thunder and lightning, fiercer than I have ever witnessed in South Africa before, broke over our heads. Several times the lightning struck the ground around us, and the weather became so alarming that the drunken "Tommies" began to talk about their souls, and further efforts to save the carts had to be abandoned.
Whoever may have been the officer in command at Zwartkoppies he really deserved a D.S.O., which he obtained, too.
What that order really means I wot not, but I know that an English soldier is quite prepared to risk his life to deserve one, and as the decoration itself cannot be very expensive, it pays the British Government to be very liberal with it. A Boer would be satisfied with nothing less than promotion as a reward for heroism.
When the storm subsided we went on. It was a remarkable sight—a long procession of "Tommies," burghers, carts, and the naval gun, 18 feet long, an elephantine one when compared with our small guns.
It struck me again on this occasion what little bad feeling there was really between Boer and Briton, and how they both fight simply to do their duty as soldiers. As I rode along the stream of men I noticed several groups of burghers and soldiers sitting together along the road, eating from one tin of jam and dividing their loaf between them, and drinking out of the same field flask.
I remember some snatches of conversation I overheard:—
TOMMY: By Jove, but you fellows gave us jip. If you had come a little later you wouldn't have got us so easy, you know.
BURGHER: Never mind, Tommy, we got you. I suppose next time you will get us. Fortunes of war, you know. Have some more, old boy. Oh, I say, here is the general coming.
TOMMY: Who's he? Du Wyte or Viljohn?
And then as I passed them the whole group would salute very civilly.
We stopped at Dullstroom that night, where we found some lodgings for the captured British officers. We were sorry one of the Englishmen had not been given time to dress himself properly, for we had a very scanty stock of clothes, and it was difficult to find him some.
The next morning I found half a dozen prisoners-of-war had sustained slight flesh wounds during the fight, and I sent them on a trolley to Belfast with a dispatch to General Smith-Dorrien, informing him that four of his officers and 250 men were in our hands, that they would be well looked after, and that I now sent back the slightly wounded who had been taken away by mistake.
I will try to give the concluding sentence of my communication as far as I remember it, and also the reply to it. I may add that the words "The Lady Roberts" had been chiselled on the naval gun, and that many persons had just been expelled from Pretoria and other places as being considered "undesirables."
My letter wound up as follows:—
"I have been obliged to expel "The Lady Roberts" from Helvetia, this lady being an "undesirable" inhabitant of that place. I am glad to inform you that she seems quite at home in her new surroundings, and pleased with the change of company."
To which General Smith-Dorrien replied:
"As the lady you refer to is not accustomed to sleep in the open air, I would recommend you to try flannel next to the skin."
I had been instructed to keep the officers we had taken prisoners until further orders, and these four were therefore lodged in an empty building near Roos Senekal under a guard. The Boers had christened this place "Ceylon," but the officers dubbed it "the house beautiful" on account of its utter want of attractiveness.
They were allowed to write to their relatives and friends, to receive letters, and food and clothes, which were usually sent through our lines under the white flag. The company was soon augmented by the arrivals of many other British officers who were taken prisoners from time to time.
The 250 captured rank and file were given up to the British authorities at Middelburg some days after, for military reasons.
"The Lady Roberts" was the first and so far the last big gun taken from the English, and we are proud to say that never during this War, notwithstanding all our vicissitudes and reverses, have the British succeeded in taking one of our big guns.
One might call this bragging, but that is not my intention and I do not think I am given to boasting. We only relate it as one of the most remarkable incidents of the War, and as a fact which we may recall with satisfaction.
As already related, the cart with the shells for "The Lady Roberts" had to be left behind after the battle. Nothing would have given us greater pleasure than to send some shells from "Her Ladyship" into the Belfast camp on the last day of 1900, with the "Compliments of the Season." Not of course, in order to cause any destruction, but simply as a New Year's greeting. We would have sent them close by like the Americans in Mark Twain's book: "Not right in it, you know, but close by or near it." Only the shells were wanting, for with the gun were 50 charged "hulzen" and a case of cordite "schokbuizen."
We tried to make a shell from an empty "Long Tom" one, by cutting the latter down, for the "Long Toms" shells were of greater calibre, and after having it filled with four pom-pom bullets, some cordite etc., we made it tight with copper wire, and soldered the whole together.
But when the shell was fired it burst a few steps away from the mouth of the cannon, and we had to abandon all hope of ever hearing a shout from the distinguished "Lady's" throat.
It was stowed away safely in the neighbourhood of Tautesberg and guarded by a group of cattle-farmers, or rather "bush-lancers," as they were afterwards called, in case we should get hold of the proper shells some day or other.
In connection with the attack on Helvetia I should like to quote the following lines, written by one of our poetasters, State-Secretary Mr. F. W. Reitz, in the field, although the translation will hardly give an adequate idea of the peculiar treatment of the subject:—
"Hurrah for General Muller, hurrah for Ben Viljoen, They went for 'Lady Roberts' and caught her very soon. They caught her at Helvetia, great was Helvetia's fall! Come up and see 'The Lady,' you Ooms and Tantes all.
It was a Christmas present (they made a splendid haul), And sent 'The Lady Roberts,' a present to Oom Paul. It cheered the poor Bush-lancers, it cheered the 'trek boers' all, It made them gladly answer to freedom's battle call.
Lord Roberts gave up fighting, he did not care a rap, But left his dear old 'Lady,' who's fond of mealie-pap. Of our dear wives and children he burned the happy homes, He likes to worry Tantes but fears the sturdy Ooms.
But his old 'Lady Roberts' (the lyddite-spitting gun), He sent her to Helvetia to cheer the garrison; He thought she would be safe there, in old Smith-Dorrien's care; To leave the kopjes' shelter the Boers would never dare.
Well done, Johannesburgers, Boksburgers, and police, Don't give them any quarter, don't give them any peace; Before the sleepy "Tommies" could get their stockings on, The forts were stormed and taken, and all the burghers gone.
We took 300 soldiers, provisions, and their guns, And of their ammunition we captured many tons. 'This is guerilla warfare,' says Mr. Chamberlain, But those we have bowled over will never fight again.
Let Roberts of Kandahar, and Kitchener of Khartoum, Let Buller of Colenso make all their cannon boom. They may mow down the kaffirs, with shield and assegai, But on his trusty Mauser the burgher can rely.
For now the white man's fighting, these heroes dare not stay, Lord Kitchener's in Pretoria, the others ran away. Lord Roberts can't beat burghers, although he Candahar, The Lords are at a distance, the Generals few and far!
They may annex and conquer, have conquered and annexed, Yet when the Mauser rattles the British are perplexed. Stand firm then, Afrikanders, prolong the glorious fight, Unfurl the good old 'Vierkleur.' Stand firm, for right is might!
What though the sky be clouded, what though the light be gone; The day will dawn to-morrow, the sun will shine anon; And though in evil moments a hero's hand may fail, The strong will be confounded and right will yet prevail!"