During the first week of May, 1901, we split up into two sections, and left Blackwood Camp early in the evening. General Muller took one section over the railway line near Brugspruit, whilst I took the other section across near Balmoral Station. We naturally kept as far from the blockhouses as possible, quietly cut the barbed-wire fences stretched all along the line, and succeeded in crossing it without a shot being fired. To split up into two sections was a necessary precaution, first because it would have taken the whole commando too long to cross the line at one point, and secondly, we made more sure of getting at least one section across. Further, had the enemy encountered one of the sections they would probably have concluded that that was our whole force.
We halted about six miles from the railway-line, as it was now 2 o'clock in the morning. I ordered a general dismount, and we were at last able to light up our pipes, which we had been afraid of doing in the neighbourhood of the railway for fear of the lights being seen by the enemy. The men sat round in groups, and smoked and chatted cheerfully. We passed the rest of the night here, and with the exception of the sentinels on duty, all were able to enjoy a refreshing sleep, lying down, however, with their unsaddled horses by their side, and the bridles in their hands—a most necessary and useful precaution. Together with my adjutant, Nel, I made the round of the sentries, sitting a few moments with each to cheer them up and keep them awake; for there is nothing to which I object more than to be surprised by the enemy, when asleep.
The few hours of rest afforded us passed very quickly, and at the first glimmer of dawn I ordered the men to be called. This is simply done by the officers calling "Opzâal, opzâal" (saddle-up) in loud tones. When it was light enough to look round us we had the satisfaction of seeing that all was quiet and that no troops were in the immediate neighbourhood. We made for a place called Kroomdraai, about halfway between Heidelberg and Middelburg, where we knew there were some mealies left; and although we should be between the enemy's camps there, I felt there would be no danger of being disturbed or surprised.
I also sent a report to the Commandant-General, who was at that time with the Government near Ermelo, and described to him all that had happened. I received a reply some days later, requesting me to leave my commando at Kroomdraai and proceed to see him, as an important Council of War was to be held between the various generals and the Government.
Four days later I arrived at Begin der Lijn ("beginning of the line") on the Vaal River, south-east of Ermelo, accompanied by three of my adjutants, and reported myself to the Commandant-General.
Simultaneously with my arrival there came two British columns, commanded by our old friend Colonel Bullock, whose acquaintance we had previously made at Colenso. They came apparently with the idea of chasing us, possibly thinking to catch us. This was far from pleasant for me. I had been riding post-haste for four days, and I and my horse were very tired and worn out. However, there was no help for it. I had barely time to salute the members of the Government, and to exchange a few words with General Botha, when we had to "quit." For eight days we wandered round with Colonel Bullock at our heels, always remaining, however, in the same neighbourhood. This officer's tactics in trying to capture us were childishly simple. During the day there would be skirmishes between the enemy and General Botha's men, but each evening the former would, by retiring, attempt to lull us into a sense of security. But as soon as the sun had set, they would turn right about face, return full speed to where they had left us, and there would surround us carefully during the night, gallantly attacking us in the morning and fully expecting to capture the whole Boer Government and at least half a dozen generals. This was a distinct nuisance, but the tactics of this worthy officer were so simple that we very soon discovered them. Accordingly, every evening we would make a fine pretence of pitching our camp for the night; but so soon as darkness had set in, we would take the precaution of moving some 10 or 15 miles further on. Next morning Colonel Bullock, who had been carefully "surrounding" us all night, would find that we were unaccountably absent. Much annoyed at this, he would then send his "flying" columns running after us. This went on for several days, until finally, as we expected, his horses were tired out, and I believe he was then removed to some other garrison, having been considered a failure as a "Boer-stalker." No doubt he did his best, but he nevertheless managed his business very clumsily.
Not until nine days after my arrival at this perambulating seat of Government did we have an opportunity of snatching a few hours' rest. We were now at a spot called Immegratie, between Ermelo and Wakkerstroom. Here a meeting was held by the Executive Council, and attended by the Commandant-General, General Jan Smuts, General C. Botha, and myself. General T. Smuts could not be present, as he was busy keeping Colonel Bullock amused.
At this meeting we discussed the general situation, and decided to send a letter to President Steyn, but our communication afterwards fell into the enemy's hands. In accordance with this letter, President Steyn and Generals De Wet and De la Rey joined our Government, and a meeting was held later on.
The day after this meeting at Immegratie I took leave of my friends and began the journey in a more leisurely fashion back to my commando at Kroomdraai, via Ermelo and Bethel. The Acting-President had made me a present of a cart and four mules, as they pitied us for having had to burn all our vehicles in escaping from Roos Senekal. We were thus once more seated in a cart, which added considerably to the dignity of our staff. How long I should continue to be possessed of this means of transport depended, of course, entirely on the enemy. My old coloured groom "Mooiroos," who followed behind leading my horse, evidently thought the same, for he remarked naïvely: "Baas, the English will soon fix us in another corner; had we not better throw the cart away?"
We drove into Ermelo that afternoon. The dread east wind was blowing hard and raising great clouds of dust around us. The village had been occupied about half a dozen times by the enemy and each time looted, plundered, and evacuated, and was now again in our possession. At least, the English had left it the day before, and a Landdrost had placed himself in charge; a little Hollander with a pointed nose and small, glittering eyes, who between each sentence that he spoke rolled round those little eyes of his, carefully scanning the neighbouring hills for any sign of the English. The only other person of importance in the town was a worthy predicant, who evidently had not had his hair cut since the commencement of the War, and who had great difficulty in keeping his little black wide-awake on his head. He seemed very proud of his abundant locks.
There were also a few families in the place belonging to the Red Cross staff and in charge of the local hospitals. One of my adjutants was seriously indisposed, and it was whilst hunting for a chemist in order to obtain medicine that I came into contact with the town's sparse population. I found the dispensary closed, the proprietor having departed with the English, and the Landdrost, fearing to get himself into trouble, was not inclined to open it. He grew very excited when we liberally helped ourselves to the medicines, and made himself unpleasant. So we gave him clearly to understand that his presence was not required in that immediate neighbourhood.
Our cart was standing waiting for us in the High Street, and during our absence a lady had appeared on the verandah of a house and had sent a servant to enquire who we were. When we reappeared laden with our booty she graciously invited us to come in. She was a Mrs. P. de Jager and belonged to the Red Cross Society. She asked us to stay and have some dinner, which was then being prepared. Imagine what a luxury for us to be once more in a house, to be addressed by a lady and to be served with a bountiful repast! Our clothes were in a ragged and dilapidated condition and we presented a very unkempt appearance, which did not make us feel quite at our ease. Still the good lady with great tact soon put us quite at home.
We partook of a delicious meal, which we shall not easily forget. I cannot remember what the menu was, and I am not quite sure whether it would compare favourably with a first-class café dinner, but I never enjoyed a meal more in my existence, and possibly never shall.
After dinner the lady related to us how on the previous day, when the British entered the village, there were in her house three convalescent burghers, who could, however, neither ride nor walk. With tears in her eyes she told us how an English doctor and an officer had come there, and kicking open the doors of her neatly-kept house, had entered it, followed by a crowd of soldiers, who had helped themselves to most of the knives, forks, and other utensils. She tried to explain to the doctor that she had wounded men in the house, but he was too conceited and arrogant to listen to her protestations. Fortunately for them the men were not discovered, for the English, on leaving the village, took with them all our wounded, and even our doctor. With a proud smile she now produced this trio, who, not knowing whether we were friend or foe, were at first very much frightened.
I sympathised with the lady with respect to the harsh treatment she had received the previous day, and thanking her for her great kindness, warned her not to keep armed burghers in her house, as this was against the Geneva Convention.
We told her what great pleasure it was for us to meet a lady, as all our women having been placed in Concentration Camps, we had only had the society of our fellow-burghers. Before leaving she grasped our hands, and with tears in her eyes wished us God speed:—"Good-bye, my friends! May God reward your efforts on behalf of your country. General, be of good cheer; for however dark the future may seem, be sure that the Almighty will provide for you!" I can scarcely be dubbed sentimental, yet the genuine expressions of this good lady, coupled perhaps with her excellent dinner, did much to put us into better spirits, and somehow the future did not seem now quite so dark and terrible as we were previously inclined to believe.
We soon resumed our journey, and that night arrived at a farm belonging to a certain Venter. We knew that here some houses had escaped the general destruction and we found that a dwelling house was still standing and that the Venter family were occupying it. It was not our practice to pass the night near inhabited houses, as that might have got the people in trouble with the enemy, but having off-saddled, I sent up an adjutant to the house to see if he could purchase a few eggs and milk for our sick companions. He speedily returned followed by the lady of the house in a very excited condition:—
"Are you the General?" she asked.
"I have that honour," I replied. "What is the matter?"
"There is much the matter," she retorted loudly. "I will have nothing to do with you or your people. You are nothing but a band of brigands and scoundrels, and you must leave my farm immediately. All respectable people have long since surrendered, and it is only such people as you who continue the War, while you personally are one of the ringleaders of these rebels."
"Tut, tut," I said, "where is your husband?"
"My husband is where all respectable people ought to be; with the English, of course."
"'Hands-uppers,' is that it?" answered my men in chorus, even Mooiroos the native joining in. "You deserve the D.S.O.," I said, "and if we meet the English we will mention it to them. Now go back to your house before these rebels and brigands give you your deserts."
She continued to pour out a flood of insults and imprecations on myself, the other generals, and the Government, and finally went away still muttering to herself. I could scarcely help comparing this patriotic lady to the one in Ermelo who had treated us so kindly. I encountered many more such incidents, and only mention these two in order to show the different views held at that time by our women on these matters, but in justice to our women-folk I should add that this kind were only a small minority.
It was a bitterly cold night. Our blankets were very thin, and the wind continually scattered our fire and gave us little opportunity of warming ourselves. There was no food for the horses except the grass. We haltered them close together, and each of us took it in turn to keep a watch, as we ran the risk at any moment of being surprised by the enemy, and as many in that district had turned traitors, we had to redouble our precautions. During the whole cold night I slept but little, and I fervently wished for the day to come, and felt exceedingly thankful when the sun arose and it got a little warmer.
Proceeding, we crossed the ridges east of Bethel, and as this village came in sight my groom Mooiroos exclaimed: "There are a lot of Khakis there, Baas."
I halted, and with my field-glasses could see distinctly the enemy's force, which was coming from Bethel in our direction, their scouts being visible everywhere to the right and left of the ridges. While we were still discussing what to do, the field-cornet of the district, a certain Jan Davel, dashed up with a score of burghers between us and the British. He informed me that the enemy's forces were coming from Brugspruit, and that he had scattered his burghers in all directions to prevent them organizing any resistance. The enemy's guns were now firing at us, and although the range was a long one the ridges in which we found ourselves were quite bare, and afforded us no cover.
We were therefore obliged to wheel to our right, and, proceeding to Klein Spionkop, we passed round the enemy along Vaalkop and Wilmansrust.
At Steenkoolspruit I met some burghers, who told me that the enemy had marched from Springs, near Boksburg, and were making straight for our commando at Kroomdraai. We managed to reach that place in the evening just in time to warn our men and be off. I left a section of my men behind to obstruct the advance of the enemy, whom they met the following day, but finding the force too strong were obliged to retire, and I do not know exactly where they got to. At this time there were no less than nine of the enemy's columns in that district, and they all tried their level best to catch the Boers, but as the Boers also tried their best not to get caught, I am afraid the English were often disappointed. Here the reader will, perhaps, remark that it was not very brave to run away in this fashion, but one should also take our circumstances into consideration.
No sooner did we attack one column than we were attacked in our turn by a couple more, and had then considerable difficulty in effecting our escape. The enemy, moreover, had every advantage of us. They had plenty of guns, and could cut our ranks to pieces before we could approach sufficiently near to do any damage with our rifles; they far surpassed us in numerical strength; they had a constant supply of fresh horses—some of us had no horses at all; they had continual reinforcements; their troops were well fed, better equipped, and altogether in better condition. Small wonder, therefore, that the War had become a one-sided affair.
On the 20th of May, 1901, I seized an opportunity of attacking General Plumer on his way from Bethel to Standerton.
We had effected a junction with Commandant Mears and charged the enemy, and but for their having with them a number of Boer families we would have succeeded in capturing their whole laager. We had already succeeded in driving their infantry away from the waggons containing these families, when their infantry rushed in between and opened fire on us at 200 paces. We could do nothing else but return this fire, although it was quite possible that in doing so we wounded one or two of our own women and children. These kept waving their handkerchiefs to warn us not to fire, but it was impossible to resist the infantry's volleys without shooting. Meanwhile the cavalry replaced their guns behind the women's waggons and fired on us from that coign of vantage.
Here we took 25 prisoners, 4,000 sheep and 10 horses. Our losses were two killed and nine wounded. The enemy left several dead and wounded on the field, as well as two doctors and an ambulance belonging to the Queensland Imperial Bushmen, which we sent back together with the prisoners we had taken.
On this occasion the English were spared a great defeat by having women and children in their laager, and no doubt for the sake of safety they kept these with them as long as possible. I do not insinuate that this was generally the case, and I am sure that Lord Kitchener or any other responsible commanding officer would loudly have condemned such tactics; but the fact remains that these unpleasant incidents occasionally took place.
About the beginning of June, 1901 (I find it difficult to be accurate without the aid of my notes) another violent effort was made to capture the members of the Government and the Commandant-General. Colonel Benson now appeared as the new "Boer-stalker," and after making several unsuccessful attempts to surround them almost captured the Government in the mountains between Piet Retief and Spitskop. Just as Colonel Benson thought he had them safe and was slowly but surely weaving his net around them—I believe this was at Halhangapase—the members of the Government left their carriages, and packing the most necessary articles and documents on their horses escaped in the night along a footpath which the enemy had kindly left unguarded and passed right through the British lines in the direction of Ermelo. On the following day the English, on closing their cordon, found, as they usually did, naught but the burned remains of some vehicles and a few lame mules.
Together with the late General Spruit, who happened to be in that neighbourhood, I had been asked to march with a small commando to the assistance of the Government and the Commandant-General and we had started at once, only hearing when well on our way that they had succeeded in escaping.
We proceeded as far as the Bankop, not knowing where to find them, and it was no easy matter to look for them amongst the British columns.