The first month of 1902 found the storm of death and destruction still unabated, and the prospect appeared as dark as at the commencement of the previous year. Our hand, however, was on the plough, and there was no looking back. My instructions were, "Go forward and persevere."
To the south of Lydenburg, where a section of my commando under General Muller was operating, the enemy kept us very busy, for they had one or more columns engaged. We, to the north of Lydenburg, had a much calmer time of it than our brethren to the south of that place, for there the British were pursuing their policy of exhausting our people with unsparing hand. I attribute the fact that we in the north were left comparatively undisturbed to the mountainous nature of the country. It would have been impossible for the British to have captured us or to have invaded our mountain recesses successfully without a tremendous force, and, obviously, the British had no such force at their disposal. Probably also the British had some respect for the prowess of my commando. An English officer afterwards told me in all seriousness that the British Intelligence Department had information that I was prowling round to the north of Lydenburg with 4,000 men and two cannons, and that my men were so splendidly fortified that our position was unconquerable. Of course, it was not in my interest to enlighten him upon the point. I was a prisoner-of-war when this amusing information was given me, and I simply answered: "Yes, your intelligence officers are very smart fellows." The officer then inquired, with an assumption of candour and innocence, whether it was really a fact that we had still cannon in the field. To this I retorted: "What would you think if I put a similar question to a British officer who had fallen into my hands?" At this he bit his thumb and stammered: "I beg your pardon; I did not mean to—er—insult you." He was quite a young chap this, a conceited puppy, affecting the "haw-haw," which seems to be epidemic in the British Army. His hair was parted down the centre, in the manner so popular among certain British officers, and this style of hair-dressing came to be described by the Boers as "middel-paadje" (middle-path). As a matter of fact, my men only numbered as many hundreds as the thousands attributed to me by the British. As for cannons, they simply existed in the imagination of the British Intelligence Department.
Affairs were daily growing more critical. Since the beginning of the year we had made several attempts at destroying the Delagoa Bay Railway, but the British had constructed so formidable a network of barbed wire, and their blockhouses were so close together and strongly garrisoned, that hitherto our attempts had been abortive. The line was also protected by a large number of armoured trains.
In consequence of our ill-success in this enterprise, we turned our attention to other directions. We reconnoitred the British garrisons in the Lydenburg district with the object of striking at their weakest point. A number of my officers and men proceeded under cover of darkness right through the British outposts, and gained the Lydenburg village by crawling on their hands and knees. On their return journey they were challenged and fired on several times, and managed only with difficulty to return to camp unhurt. The object of the reconnaissance was, however, accomplished. They reported to me that the village was encompassed with barbed wire, and that a number of blockhouses had been built round it, and also that various large houses of the village had been barricaded and were strongly occupied. My two professional scouts, Jordaan and Mellema, had also reconnoitred the village from another direction, and had brought back confirmatory information and the news that Lydenburg was occupied by about 2,000 British soldiers, consisting of the Manchester Regiment and the First Royal Irish, together with a corps of "hands-uppers" under the notorious Harber. Three other Boer spies scouting about the forts on the Crocodile Heights also brought in discouraging reports.
At the Council of War which then took place, and over which I presided, these reports were discussed, and we agreed to attack the two blockhouses nearest the village, and thereafter to storm the village itself. I should mention that it was necessary for us to capture the blockhouses before attempting to take the village itself, for had we left them intact we should have run the danger of having our retreat cut off.
The attack was to take place next night, and as we approached the British lines on horseback, between Spekboom River and Potloodspruit, we dismounted, and proceeded cautiously on foot. One of the objective blockhouses was on the waggon path to the north of the village, and the other was 1,000 yards to the east of Potloodspruit. Field-Cornet Young, accompanied by Jordaan and Mellema, crept up to within 10 feet of one of these blockhouses, and brought me a report that the barbed wire network which surrounded it rendered an assault an impossible task in the darkness. Separating my commando of 150 men into two bodies, I placed them on either side of the blockhouse, sending, in the meanwhile, four men to cut down the wire fences. These men had instructions to give us a signal when they had achieved this object, so that we could then proceed to storm the fort. It would have been sacrificing many in vain to have attempted to proceed without effecting the preliminary operation of fence cutting, since, if we had stormed a blockhouse without first removing the wire, we should have become entangled in the fences and have offered splendid targets to the enemy at a very short range, and our losses would, without doubt, have been considerable.
My fence-cutters stuck doggedly to their task despite the fact that they were being fired upon by the sentries on guard. It was a long and weary business, but we patiently waited, lying on the ground. Towards 2 o'clock in the morning the officer in command of the wire-cutters returned to us, stating that they had accomplished their object in cutting the first wire barrier, but had come across another which it would require several hours to cut through. The sentries had, in the meantime, grown unpleasantly vigilant, and were now frequently firing on our men. They were often so close that at one time, in the darkness, they might have knocked up against the Boers who were cutting their fences.
It being very nearly 3 o'clock, it appeared to me that the attempt would be ineffectual owing to the approach of daylight, and we were forced to retire before the rays of the rising sun lit the heavens and exposed us to the well-aimed fire of the British. I therefore resolved, after consulting my officers, to retire quietly, and to renew my attempt a week later at another point. We returned to camp much disappointed, but consoled ourselves with the hope that success would attend our next efforts.