December, 1901, passed without any important incident. We only had a few insignificant outpost skirmishes with the British garrison at Witklip to the south of Lydenburg. Both belligerents in this district attempted to annoy each other as much as possible by blowing up each other's mills and storehouses. Two of the more adventurous spirits amongst my scouts, by name Jordaan and Mellema, succeeded in blowing up a mill in the Lydenburg district used by the British for grinding corn, and the enemy very soon retaliated by blowing up one of our mills at Pilgrim's Rest. As the Germans say, "Alle gute dingen sind drei." Several such experiences and the occasional capture of small droves of British cattle were all the incidents worth mentioning. It was in this comparatively quiet manner that the third year of our campaign came to a termination. The War was still raging and our lot was hard, but we did not murmur. We decided rather to extract as much pleasure and amusement out of the Christmas festivities as the extraordinary circumstances in which we found ourselves rendered possible.
The British for the time being desisted from troubling us, and our stock and horses being in excellent condition, we arranged to hold a sort of gymkhana on Christmas Day. In the sportive festivities of the day many interesting events took place. Perhaps the most noteworthy of these were a mule race, for which nine competitors entered, and a ladies' race, in which six fair pedestrians took part. The spectacle of nine burly, bearded Boers urging their asinine steeds to top speed by shout and spur provoked quite as much honest laughter as any theatrical farce ever excited. We on the grand stand were but a shaggy and shabby audience, but we were in excellent spirits and cheered with tremendous gusto the enterprising jockey who won this remarkable "Derby." Shabby as we were, we subscribed £115 in prizes. After the sports I have just described the company retired to a little tin church at Pilgrim's Rest, and there made merry by singing hymns and songs round a little Christmas tree.
Later in the evening a magic-lantern, which we had captured from the British, was brought into play, and with this we regaled 90 of our juvenile guests. The building was crowded and the utmost enthusiasm reigned. The ceremony was opened by the singing of hymns and the making of speeches, a harmonium adding largely to the enjoyment of the evening. I felt somewhat nervous when called upon to address the gathering, for the children were accompanied by their mothers, and these stared at me with expectant eyes as if they would say, "See, the General is about to speak; his words are sure to be full of wisdom." I endeavoured to display great coolness, and I do not think I failed very markedly as an extemporaneous orator. I was helped very considerably in the speechmaking part of the programme by my good friends the Rev. Neethling and Mr. W. Barter, of Lydenburg. I have not now the slightest idea of what I spoke about except that I congratulated the little ones and their mothers on being preserved from the Concentration Camps, where so many of their friends were confined.
I have mentioned that there were young ladies with us who participated in the races. These were some whom the British had kindly omitted to place in the Concentration Camps, and it was remarkable to see how soon certain youthful and handsome burghers entered into amorous relations with these young ladies, and matters developed so quickly that I was soon confronted with a very curious problem. We had no marriage officers handy, and I, as General, had not been armed with any special authority to act as such. Two blushing heroes came to me one morning accompanied by clinging, timorous young ladies, and declared that they had decided that since I was their General I had full authority to marry them. I was taken aback by this request, and asked, "Don't you think, young fellows, that under the circumstances you had better wait a little till after the termination of the war?" "Yes," they admitted, "perhaps it would be more prudent, General, but we have been waiting three years already!"
In General De la Rey's Commando, which comprised burghers from eight large districts, it had been found necessary to appoint marriage officers, and quite a large number of marriages were contracted. I mention this to show how diversified are the duties of the Boer general in war-time, and what sort of strange offices he is sometimes called upon to perform.
It will be seen from what I have said that occasionally the dark horizon of our veldt life was lit up by the bright sunshine of the lighter elements of life. At most times our outlook was gloomy enough, and our hearts were heavily weighed down by cares. I often found my thoughts involuntarily turning to those who had so long and so faithfully stood shoulder to shoulder with me through all the vicissitudes of war, fighting for what we regarded as our holy right, to obtain which we were prepared to sacrifice our lives and our all. Unconsciously I recalled on this Christmas Day the words of General Joubert addressed to us outside Ladysmith in 1899: "Happy the Africander who shall not survive the termination of this War." Time will show, if it have not already shown, the wisdom of General Joubert's words.
Just about this time rumours of various kinds were spread abroad. From several sources we heard daily that the War was about to end, that the English had evacuated the country because their funds were exhausted, that Russia and France had intervened, and that Lord Kitchener had been captured by De Wet and liberated on condition that he and his troops left South Africa immediately. It was even said that General Botha had received an invitation from the British Government to come and arrange a Peace on "independence" lines.
Nobody will doubt that we on the veldt were desperately anxious to hear the glad tidings of Peace. We were weary of the fierce struggle, and we impatiently awaited the time when the Commandant-General and the Government should order us to sheathe the sword.
But the night of the Old Year left us engaged in the fierce conflict of hostilities, and the dawn of the New Year found us still enveloped in the clouds of war—clouds whose blackness was relieved by no silver lining.