At Windhoek we were again attacked by an English column. The reader will probably be getting weary of these continual attacks, and I hasten to assure him that we were far more weary than he can ever grow. On the first day of the fight we succeeded in forcing back the enemy, but on the second day, the fortunes of war were changed and after a fierce fight, in which I had the misfortune to lose a brave young burgher named Botha, we gave up arguing the matter with our foes and retired.
The enemy followed us up very closely, and although I used the sjambok freely amongst my men I could not persuade them, not even by this ungentle method, to make a stand against their foes, and as we passed Witpoort the enemy's cavalry with two guns was close at our heels.
Not until the burghers had reached Maagschuur, between the Bothas and Tautesbergen, would they condescend to make a stand and check the enemy's advance. Here after a short but sharp engagement, we forced them to return to Witpoort, where they pitched camp.
Our mill, which I have previously mentioned as being an important source of our food supply, was again burned to the ground.
Our commandos returned to Olifant's River and at the cobalt mine near there joined those who had remained behind under General Muller. The enemy, however, who seemed determined, if possible, to obliterate us from the earth's surface, discovered our whereabouts about the middle of July, and attacked us in overwhelming numbers. We had taken up a position on the "Randts," and offered as much resistance as we could. The enemy poured into us a heavy shell fire from their howitzers and 15-pounders, while their infantry charged both our extreme flanks. After losing many men, a battalion of Highlanders succeeded in turning our left flank, and once having gained this advantage, and aided by their superior numbers, the enemy were able to take up position after position, and finally rendered it impossible to offer any further resistance. Late in the afternoon, with a loss of five wounded and one man killed—an Irish-American, named Wilson—we retired through the Olifant's River, near Mazeppa Drift, the enemy staying the night at Wagendrift, about three miles further up the stream. The following morning they forded the river, and proceeded through Poortjesnek and Donkerhoek, to Pretoria, thus allowing us a little breathing space. I now despatched some reliable burghers to report our various movements to the Commandant-General, and to bring news of the other commandos. It was three weeks before these men returned, for they had on several occasions been prevented from crossing the railway line, and they finally only succeeded in doing so under great difficulties. They reported that the English on the high veldt were very active and numerous.
About the middle of July I left General Muller to take a rest with the commando, and accompanied by half a score of adjutants and despatch riders, proceeded to Pilgrimsrust in the Lydenburg district to visit the commandos there, and allay as much as I could the dissatisfaction caused by my reorganisation.
At Zwagerhoek, a kloof some 12 miles south of Lydenburg, through which the waggon track leads from Lydenburg to Dullstroom, I found a field-cornet with about 57 men. Having discussed the situation with them and explained matters, they were all satisfied.
Here I appointed as field-cornet a young man of 23 years of age, a certain J. S. Schoenman, who distinguished himself subsequently by his gallant behaviour.
We had barely completed our arrangements when we were again attacked by one of the enemy's columns from Lydenburg. At first we successfully defended ourselves, but at last were compelled to give way.
I do not believe we caused the enemy any considerable losses, but we had no casualties. The same night we proceeded through the enemy's line to Houtboschloop, five miles east of Lydenburg, where a small commando was situated, and having to proceed a very roundabout way, we covered that night no less than 40 miles.
Another meeting of all burghers north of Lydenburg was now convened, to be held at a ruined hotel some 12 miles west of Nelspruit Station, which might have been considered the centre of all the commandos in that district. I found that these were divided into two parties, one of which was dissatisfied with the new order of things I had arranged and desired to re-instate their old officers, while the other was quite pleased with my arrangements. The latter party was commanded by Mr. Piet Moll, whom I had appointed commandant instead of Mr. D. Schoeman, who formerly used to occupy that position. At the gathering I explained matters to them and tried to persuade the burghers to be content with their new commandants. It was evident, however, that many were not to be satisfied and that they were not to be expected to work harmoniously together. I therefore decided to let both commandants keep their positions and to let the men follow whichever one they chose, and I took the first opportunity of making an attack on the enemy so as to test the efficiency of these two bodies.
Taking the two commandos with their respective two commandants in an easterly direction to Wit River, we camped there for a few days and scouted for the enemy on the Delagoa Bay Railway, so as to find out the best spot to attack. We had just decided to attack Crocodilpoort Station in the evening of the 1st August, when our scouts reported that the English, who had held the fort at M'pisana's Stad, between our laager in Wit River and Leydsdorp, were moving in the direction of Komati Poort with a great quantity of captured cattle.
Our first plan was therefore abandoned and I ordered 50 burghers of each commando to attack this column at M'pisana's fort at once, as they had done far too much harm to be allowed to get away unmolested. They were a group of men called "Steinacker's Horse," a corps formed of all the desperadoes and vagabonds to be scraped together from isolated places in the north, including kaffir storekeepers, smugglers, spies, and scoundrels of every description, the whole commanded by a character of the name of ——. Who or what this gentleman was I have never been able to discover, but judging by his work and by the men under him, he must have been a second Musolino. This corps had its headquarters at Komati Poort, under Major Steinacker, to whom was probably entrusted the task of guarding the Portuguese frontier, and he must have been given carte blanche as regards his mode of operation.
From all accounts the primary occupation of this corps appeared to be looting, and the kaffirs attached to it were used for scouting, fighting, and worse. Many families in the northern part of Lydenburg had been attacked in lonely spots, and on one occasion the white men on one of these marauding expeditions had allowed the kaffirs to murder ten defenceless people with their assegais and hatchets, capturing their cattle and other property. In like manner were massacred the relatives of Commandants Lombard, Vermaak, Rudolf and Stoltz, and doubtless many others who were not reported to me. The reader will now understand my anxiety to put some check on these lawless brigands. The instructions to the commando which I had sent out, and which would reach M'pisana's in two days, were briefly to take the fort and afterwards do as circumstances dictated. If my men failed they would have the desperadoes pursue them on their swift horses, and all the kaffir tribes would conspire against us, so that none would escape on our side. A kaffir was generally understood to be a neutral person in this War, and unless found armed within our lines, with no reasonable excuse for his presence, we generally left him alone. They were, however, largely used as spies against us, keeping to their kraals in the daytime and issuing forth at night to ascertain our position and strength. They also made good guides for the English troops, who often had not the faintest idea of the country in which they were. It must not be forgotten that when a kaffir is given a rifle he at once falls a prey to his brutal instincts, and his only amusement henceforth becomes to kill without distinction of age, colour, or sex. Several hundreds of such natives, led by white men, were roaming about in this district, and all that was captured, plundered or stolen was equally divided among them, 25 per cent. being first deducted for the British Government.
I have indulged in this digression in order to describe another phase with which we had to contend in our struggle for existence. I have reason to believe, however, that the British Commander-in-Chief, for whom I have always had the greatest respect, was not at that time aware of the remarkable character of these operations, carried on as they were in the most remote parts of the country; and there is no doubt that had he been aware of their true character he would have speedily brought these miscreants to justice.