My presence was requested on the 3rd of January, 1901, by the Commandant-General at a Council of War, which was to be held two days after at Hoetspruit, some miles east of Middelburg. General Botha would be there with his staff, and a small escort would take him from Ermelo over the railway through the enemy's lines. My commandos were to hold themselves in readiness. There was no doubt in my mind as to there being some great schemes on the cards, and that the next day we should have plenty to do, for the Commandant-General would not come all that way unless something important was on. And why should my commandos have to keep themselves in readiness?
On the morning of the 5th I went to the place of destination, which we reached at 11 o'clock, to find the Commandant-General and suite had already arrived. General Botha had been riding all night long in order to get through the enemy's lines, and had been resting in the shadow of a tree at Hoetspruit. The meeting of his adjutants and mine was rather boisterous, and woke him up, whereupon he rose immediately and came up to me with his usual genial smile. We had often been together for many months in the War, and the relations between us had been very cordial. I therefore do not hesitate to call him a bosom-friend, with due respect to his Honour as my chief.
"Hullo, old brother, how are you?" was Botha's welcome.
"Good morning, General, thank you, how are you?" I replied.
My high appreciation of, and respect for his position, made me refrain from calling him Louis, although we did not differ much in age, and were on intimate terms.
"I must congratulate you upon your successful attack on Helvetia. You made a nice job of it," he said. "I hope you had a pleasant New Year's Eve. But," he went on, "I am sorry in one way, for the enemy will be on his guard now, and we may not succeed in the execution of the plans we are going to discuss to-day, and which concern those very districts."
"I am sorry, General," I replied, "but of course I know nothing of those plans."
"Well," rejoined the Commandant-General, "we will try anyhow, and hope for the best."
An hour later we met in council. Louis Botha briefly explained how he had gone with General Christian Botha and Tobias Smuts, with 1,200 men, to Komatiboven, between Carolina and Belfast, where they had left the commandos to cross the line in order to meet the officers who were to the north of it with the object of going into the details of a combined attack on the enemy's camps.
All were agreed and so it was decided that the attack would be made during the night of the 7th of January, at midnight, the enemy's positions being stormed simultaneously.
The attack was to be made in the following way: The Commandant-General and General C. Botha along with F. Smuts, would attack on the southern side of the garrisons, in the following places: Pan Station, Wonderfontein Station, Belfast Camp and Station, Dalmanutha and Machadodorp, while I was to attack these places from the north. The commandos would be divided so as to have a field-cornet's force charge at each place.
I must say that I had considerable difficulty in trying to make a little go a long way in dividing my small force along such a long line of camps, but the majority were in favour of this "frittering-away" policy, and so it had to be done.
The enemy's strength in different places was not easy to ascertain. I knew the strongest garrison at Belfast numbered over 2,500 men, and this place was to be made the chief point of attack, although the Machadodorp garrison was pretty strong too. The distance along which the simultaneous attack was to be made was about 22 miles and there were at least seven points to be stormed, viz., Pan Station, Wonderfontein, Belfast Village, Monument Hill (near Belfast), the coal mines (near Belfast), Dalmanutha Station and Machadodorp. A big programme, no doubt.
I can only, of course, give a description of the incidents on my side of the railway line, for the blockhouses and the forts provided with guns, which had been built along the railway, separated us entirely from the commandos to the south. The communication between both sides of the railway could be only kept up at night time and with a great amount of trouble, by means of despatch-carriers. We, therefore, did not even know how the attacking-parties on the southern side had been distributed. All we knew was, that any place which was to be attacked from the north would also be stormed from the south at the same time, except the coal mine west of Belfast, occupied by Lieutenant Marshall with half a section of the Gloucester Regiment, which we were to attack separately, as it was situated some distance north of the railway line.
I arranged my plans as follows: Commandant Trichardt, with two field-cornets posses of Middelburgers and one of Germiston burghers, were to attack Pan and Wonderfontein; the State Artillery would go for the coal mine; the Lydenburgers look after Dalmanutha and Machadodorp; while General Muller with the Johannesburgers and Boksburgers would devote their attention to Monument Hill.
I should personally attack Belfast Village, with a detachment of police, passing between the coal mine and Monument Hill. My attack could only, of course, be commenced after that on the latter two places had turned out successfully, as otherwise I should most likely have my retreat cut off.
In the evening of the 7th of January all the commandos marched, for the enemy would have been able to see us from a distance on this flat ground if we had started in the daytime, and would have fired at us with their 4•7 guns, one of which we knew to be at Belfast. We had to cover a distance of 15 miles between dusk and midnight. There was therefore no time to be lost, for a commando moves very slowly at night time if there is any danger in front. If the danger comes from the rear, things very often move quicker than is good for the horses. Then the men have to be kept together, and the guides are followed up closely, for if any burghers were to lag behind and the chain be broken, 20 or 30 of them might stray which would deprive us of their services.
It was one of those nights, known in the Steenkamp Mountains as "dirty nights," very dark, with a piercing easterly wind, which blew an incessant, fine, misty rain into our faces. About nine o'clock the mist changed into heavy rains, and we were soon drenched to the skin, for very few of us wore rainproof cloaks.
At ten the rain left off, but a thick fog prevented us from seeing anything in front of us, while the cold easterly wind had numbed our limbs, almost making them stiff. Some of the burghers had therefore to be taken up by the ambulance in order to have their circulation restored by means of some medicine or artificial treatment. The impenetrable darkness made it very difficult to get on, as we were obliged to keep contact by means of despatch-riders; for, as already stated, I had to wait with the police for the result of the attack on the two positions to the right and left of me.
Exactly at midnight all had arrived at the place of destination. Unfortunately the wind was roaring so loudly as to prevent any firing being heard even at a hundred paces distant.
The positions near Monument Hill and the coal mine were attacked simultaneously, but unfortunately our artillerymen could not distinctly see the trenches on account of the darkness, and they charged right past them, and had to turn back when they became aware of the fact, by which time the enemy had found out what was up, and allowed their assailants to come close up to them (it was a round fort about five feet high with a trench round it), and received them with a tremendous volley. The artillerymen, however, charged away pluckily, and before they had reached the wall four were killed and nine wounded. The enemy shot fiercely and aimed well.
Our brave boys stormed away, and soon some of them jumped over the wall and a hand-to-hand combat ensued. The commanding officer of the fortress, Lieutenant Marshall, was severely wounded in the leg, which fact must have had a great influence on the course of the fight, for he surrendered soon after. Some soldiers managed to escape, some were killed, about 10 wounded, and 25 were taken prisoners. No less than five artillerymen were killed and 13 wounded, amongst the latter being the valiant Lieutenant Coetsee who afterwards was cruelly murdered by kaffirs near Roos Senekal. The defenders as well as the assailants had behaved excellently.
Near Monument Hill, at some distance from the position, the burghers' horses were left behind, and the men marched up in scattered order, in the shape of a crescent. When we arrived at the enemy's outposts they had formed up at 100 paces from the forts, but in the dark the soldiers did not see us till we almost ran into them. There was no time to waste words. Fortunately, they surrendered without making any defence, which made our task much lighter, for if one shot had been fired, the garrison of the forts would have been informed of our approach. Only at 20 paces distance from the forts near the Monument (there were four of them), we were greeted with the usual "Halt, who goes there." After this had been repeated three times without our taking any notice, and as we kept coming closer, the soldiers fired from all the forts. Only now could we see how they were situated. We found them to be surrounded by a barbed wire fence which was so strong and thick that some burghers were soon entangled in it, but most of them got over it.
The first fort was taken after a short but sharp defence, the usual "hurrah" of the burghers jumping into the fort was, like a whisper of hope in the dark, an encouragement to the remainder of the storming burghers, who now soon took the other forts, not without having met with a stout resistance. Many burghers were killed, amongst whom the brave Field-Cornet John Ceronie, and many were wounded.
It had looked at first as if the enemy did not mean to give in, but we could not go back, and "onward" was the watchword. In several instances there was a struggle at a few paces' distance, only the wall of the fort intervening between the burghers and the soldiers. The burghers cried: "Hands up, you devils," but the soldiers replied: "Hy kona," a kaffir expression which means "shan't."
"Jump over the walls, my men!" shouted my officers, and at last they were in the forts: not, of course, without the loss of many valuable lives. A "melée" now followed; the English struck about with their guns and with their fists, and several burghers lay on the ground wrestling with the soldiers. One "Tommy" wanted to thrust a bayonet through a Boer, but was caught from behind by one of the latter's comrades, and knocked down and a general hand-to-hand fight ensued, a rolling over and over, till one of the parties was exhausted, disarmed, wounded, or killed. One of the English captains (Vosburry) and 40 soldiers were found dead or wounded, several having been pierced by their own bayonets.
Some burghers had been knocked senseless with the butt-end of a rifle in the struggle with the enemy.
This carnage had lasted for twenty minutes, during which the result had been decided in our favour, and a "hurrah," full of glory and thankfulness, came from the throats of some hundreds of burghers. We had won the day, and 81 prisoners-of-war had been made, including two officers—Captain Milner and Lieutenant Dease—both brave defenders of England's flag.
They belonged to the Royal Irish Regiment, of which all Britons should be proud.
In the captured forts we found a Maxim, in perfect order, 20 boxes of ammunition, and other things, besides provisions, also a quantity of spirits, which was, however, at once destroyed, to the disappointment of many burghers.
We now pushed on to Belfast village, but found every cliff and ditch occupied. All efforts to get in touch with the commandos which meant to attack the village from the south were without avail. Besides, we did not hear a single shot fired, and did not know what had become of the attack from the south. In intense darkness we were firing at each other from time to time, so that it was not advisable to continue our operations under the circumstances, and at daybreak I told all my commandos to desist.
The attacks on Wonderfontein, Pan Station, Dalmanutha, and Machadodorp had failed.
I afterwards received a report from the commandos on the other side of the line, that, owing to the dark night, their attacks, although they were made with deliberation and great bravery, had all been unsuccessful. They had repeatedly missed the forts and had shot at one another.
General Christian Botha had succeeded in capturing some of the enemy's outposts, and in pushing on had come across a detachment of Gordon Highlanders and been obliged to retire with a loss of 40 killed and wounded.
We found, therefore, these forts in the hands of the soldiers, who, in my opinion, belonged to the best regiments of the English army.
The guests of our Government, at "the house beautiful" near Roos Senekal were thus added to by two gentlemen, Captain Milner and Lieutenant Dease, and they were my prisoners-of-war for four months, during which time I found Captain Milner one of the most worthy British officers whom it had been my privilege to meet in this War. Not only in his manly appearance, but especially by his noble character he stood head and shoulders above his fellow-officers.
Lieutenant Dease bore a very good character but was young and inexperienced. For several reasons I am pleased to be able to make publicly these statements.
The soldiers we had made prisoners during this fight, as well as those we took at Helvetia, were given up to the British officers a few days afterwards, as we were not in a position to feed them properly, and it would not be humane or fair to keep the soldiers who had the misfortune of falling into our hands without proper food. This, of course, was a very unsatisfactory state of affairs, for we had to fight fiercely, valuable lives had to be sacrificed, every nerve had to be strained to force the enemy to surrender, and to take his positions; and then, when we had captured them, the soldiers were merely disarmed and sent back to the English lines after a little while, only to find them fighting against us once more in a few days.
The Boers asked, "Why are not these "Tommies" required to take the oath before being liberated not to fight against us again?" I believe this would have been against the rules of civilised warfare, and we did not think it chivalrous to ask a man who was a prisoner to take an oath in return for his release.
A prisoner-of-war has no freedom of action, and might have promised under the circumstances what he would not have done if he had been a free man.