An hour after sunrise we off-saddled, and heard, from the direction of Paardeberg, the indescribable thunder of bombardment. That sound gave us all the more reason for haste. We allowed our horses the shortest possible time for rest, partook of the most hurried of breakfasts, and at once were again on the move, with the frightful roar of the guns always in our ears.
About half-past four that afternoon, we reached a point some six miles to the east of Paardeberg, and saw, on the right bank of the Modder River, four miles to the north-east of the mountain, General Cronje's laager. It was surrounded completely by the enemy, as a careful inspection through our field-glasses showed.
Immediately in front of us were the buildings and kraals of Stinkfontein, and there on the opposite bank of the river stood Paardeberg. To the left and to the right of it were khaki-coloured groups dotted everywhere about—General Cronje was hemmed in on all sides, he and his burghers—a mere handful compared with the encircling multitude.
What a spectacle we saw! All round the laager were the guns of the English, belching forth death and destruction, while from within it at every moment, as each successive shell tore up the ground, there rose a cloud—a dark red cloud of dust.
It was necessary to act—but how?
We decided to make an immediate attack upon the nearest of Lord Roberts' troops, those which were stationed in the vicinity of Stinkfontein, and to seize some ridges which lay about two and a half miles south-east of the laager.
Stinkfontein was about a thousand paces to the north of these ridges, and perhaps a few hundred paces farther from where Cronje was stationed.
We rode towards the ridges, and when we were from twelve to fourteen hundred paces from Stinkfontein, we saw that the place was occupied by a strong force of British troops.
General Botha and I then arranged that he should storm the houses, kraals and garden walls of Stinkfontein, whilst I charged the ridges. And this we did, nothing daunted by the tremendous rifle fire which burst upon us. Cronje's pitiable condition confronted us, and we had but one thought—could we relieve him?
We succeeded in driving the English out of Stinkfontein, and took sixty of them prisoners.
The enemy's fire played on us unceasingly, and notwithstanding the fact that we occupied good positions, we lost two men, and had several of our horses killed and wounded.
We remained there for two and a half days—from the 22nd to the 25th of February—and then were forced to retire. While evacuating our positions, three of my burghers were killed, seven wounded, and fourteen taken prisoner.
But the reader will justly demand more details as to the surrender of Cronje, an event which forms one of the most important chapters in the history of the two Republics. I am able to give the following particulars.
After we had captured the positions referred to above, I gave orders that the Krupp and the Maxim-Nordenfeldt should be brought up. For with our hurried advance, the oxen attached to the big guns, as well as some of the burghers' horses, had become so fatigued, that the guns and a number of the burghers had been left behind. The ridges were so thickly strewn with boulders, that even on the arrival of the guns, it was impossible to place them in position until we had first cleared a path for them. I made up my mind to turn these boulders to account by using them to build schanzes, for I knew that a tremendous bombardment would be opened upon our poor Krupp and Maxim-Nordenfeldt as soon as they made themselves heard.
During the night we built these schanzes, and before the sun rose the following morning, the guns were placed in position.
By daybreak the English had crept up to within a short distance of our lines. It was the Krupp and the Maxim-Nordenfeldt that gave our answer.
But we had to be very sparing of our ammunition, for it was almost exhausted, and it would take at least five days to get a fresh supply from Bloemfontein.
Our arrival on the previous day had made a way of escape for General Cronje. It is true that he would have been obliged to leave everything behind him, but he and his burghers would have got away in safety. The British had retreated before our advance, thus opening a road between us and the laager. That road was made yet wider by the fire from our guns.
But General Cronje would not move. Had he done so, his losses would not have been heavy. His determination to remain in that ill-fated laager cost him dearly.
The world will honour that great general and his brave burghers; and if I presume to criticize his conduct on this occasion, it is only because I believe that he ought to have sacrificed his own ideas for the good of the nation, and that he should have not been courageous at the expense of his country's independence, to which he was as fiercely attached as I.
Some of the burghers in the laager made their escape, for, on the second day, when our guns had cleared a wide path, Commandants Froneman and Potgieter (of Wolmaranstadt), with twenty men, came galloping out of the laager towards us.
Although we were only a few in number, the British had their work cut out to dislodge us. First they tried their favourite strategy of a flanking movement, sending out strong columns of cavalry, with heavy guns to surround us. It was necessary to prevent the fulfilment of this project. I, therefore, removed the Krupp and the Maxim-Nordenfeldt from their positions, and divided our little force into three portions. I ordered the first to remain in their position, the second was to proceed with the Krupp round our left wing, while I despatched the third party to hold back the left wing of the British. I had no wish to share General Cronje's unenviable position.
We succeeded in checking the advance of the enemy's wings; and when he saw that we were not to be outflanked he changed his tactics, and while still retaining his wings where they were, in order to keep our men occupied, he delivered at mid-day, on the 20th, an attack on our centre with a strong force of infantry.
The result of this was that the British gained one of our positions, that, namely, which was held by Veldtcornet Meyer, an officer under Commandant Spruit. Meyer was entirely unable to beat off the attack, and, at nightfall, was compelled to retire about two or three hundred paces, to a little ridge, which he held effectively.
As the English took up the abandoned position, they raised a cheer, and Commandant Spruit, who was ignorant of its meaning, and believed that his men were still in possession, went there alone.
"Hoe gaat het?" he called out.
"Hands up!" was the reply he received.
There was nothing left for the Commandant to do but to give himself up. The soldiers led him over a ridge, and struck a light to discover his identity. Finding papers in his pocket which showed that their prisoner was an important personage, they raised cheer upon cheer.
I heard them cheering, and thought that the enemy were about to attempt another attack, and so gave orders that whatever happened our positions must be held, for they were the key to General Cronje's escape. However, no attack was delivered.
Nobody could have foreseen that two thousand infantry would give up the attack on positions which they had so nearly captured, and we all expected a sanguinary engagement on the following morning. We had made up our minds to stand firm, for we knew that if General Cronje failed to make his way out, it would be a real calamity to our great cause.
Fully expecting an attack, we remained all that night at our posts. Not a man of us slept, but just before dawn we heard this order from the English lines:
"What can be the meaning of this?" we ask one another.
Lying, sitting or standing, each of us is now at his post, and staring out into the darkness, expecting an attack every moment. We hold our breath and listen. Is there no sound of approaching footsteps? And now the light increases. Is it possible? Yes, our eyes do not deceive us. The enemy is gone.
Surprise and joy are on every face. One hears on all sides the exclamation, "If only Cronje would make the attempt now." It was the morning of the 25th of February.
But the enemy were not to leave us alone for long. By nine o'clock they were advancing upon us again, with both right and left wing reinforced. I had only a few shots left for the Krupp, and thirty for the Maxim-Nordenfeldt, and this last ammunition must now be expended on the wings. One gun I despatched to the right, the other to the left, and the English were checked in their advance. I had ordered the gunners, as soon as they had fired their last round to bring their guns into safe positions in the direction of Petrusberg. Very soon I observed that this order was being executed, and thus learnt that the ammunition had run out.
The burghers who, with their rifles, had attempted to hold back the wings, now having no longer any support from the big guns, were unable to stand their ground against the overpowering forces of the enemy, and shortly after the guns were removed, I saw them retreat.
What was I to do? I was being bombarded incessantly, and since the morning had been severely harassed by small-arm fire. All this, however, I could have borne, but now the enemy began to surround me. It was a hard thing to be thus forced to abandon the key to General Cronje's escape.
In all haste I ordered my men to retire. They had seen throughout that this was unavoidable, and had even said to me:
"If we remain here, General, we shall be surrounded with General Cronje."
All made good their retreat, with the exception of Veldtcornet Speller, of Wepener, who, to my great regret, was taken prisoner there with fourteen men. That occurred owing to my adjutant forgetting, in the general confusion, to give them my orders to retreat. When Speller found that he, with his fourteen men, was left behind, he defended himself, as I heard later, with great valour, until at last he was captured by overpowering numbers. It cost the English a good many dead and wounded to get him out of his schanzes.
Although I had foreseen that our escape would be a very difficult and lengthy business, I had not thought that we should have been in such danger of being made prisoners. But the English had very speedily taken up positions to the right and left, with guns and Maxims, and for a good nine miles of our retreat we were under their fire. Notwithstanding the fact that during the whole of this time we were also harassed by small-arm fire, we lost—incredible as it may appear—not more than one killed and one wounded, and a few horses besides. The positions which we had abandoned the British now occupied, hemming in General Cronje so closely that he had not the slightest chance of breaking through their lines.
No sooner had we got out of range of the enemy's fire, than the first of the reinforcements, which we had expected from Bloemfontein, arrived, under the command of Vechtgeneraal Andreas Cronje. With him were Commandants Thewnissen, of Winburg, and Vilonel, of Senekal.
A council was at once held as to the best method of effecting the release of General Cronje. It was decided to recapture the positions which I had abandoned. But now the situation was so changed that there were three positions which it was necessary for us to take. We agreed that the attack should be made by three separate parties, that General Philip Botha, with Commandant Thewnissen, should retake the positions which we had abandoned at Stinkfontein, General Froneman the position immediately to the north of these, and I, with General Andreas Cronje, others still further north.
The attack was made on the following morning. General Botha's attempt failed, chiefly owing to the fact that day dawned before he reached his position; a hot fight ensued, resulting in the capture of Commandant Thewnissen and about one hundred men. As I was so placed as to be unable to see how affairs were developing, it is difficult for me to hazard an opinion as to whether Commandant Thewnissen was lacking in caution, or whether he was insufficiently supported by General Botha. The burghers who were present at the engagement accused General Botha, while he declared that Thewnissen had been imprudent. However that may be, we had failed in our essay. The position had not been taken, and Commandant Thewnissen, with a hundred whom we could ill spare, were in the hands of the enemy, And to make matters still worse, our men were already seized with panic, arising from the now hopeless plight of General Cronje and his large force.
I, however, was not prepared to abandon all hope as yet. Danie Theron, that famous captain of despatch-riders, had arrived on the previous day with reinforcements. I asked him if he would take a verbal message to General Cronje—I dare not send a written one, lest it should fall into the hands of the English. Proud and distinct the answer came at once—the only answer which such a hero as Danie Theron could have given:
"Yes, General, I will go."
The risk which I was asking him to run could not have been surpassed throughout the whole of our sanguinary struggle.
I took him aside, and told him that he must go and tell General Cronje that our fate depended upon the escape of himself and of the thousands with him, and that, if he should fall into the enemy's hands, it would be the death-blow to all our hopes. Theron was to urge Cronje to abandon the laager, and everything contained in it, to fight his way out by night, and to meet me at two named places, where I would protect him from the pursuit of the English.
Danie Theron undertook to pass the enemy's lines, and to deliver my message. He started on his errand on the night of the 25th of February.
The following evening I went to the place of meeting, but to my great disappointment General Cronje did not appear.
On the morning of the 27th of February Theron returned. He had performed an exploit unequalled in the war. Both in going and returning he had crawled past the British sentries, tearing his trousers to rags during the process. The blood was running from his knees, where the skin had been scraped off. He told me that he had seen the General, who had said that he did not think that the plan which I had proposed had any good chance of success.
At ten o'clock that day, General Cronje surrendered. Bitter was my disappointment. Alas! my last attempt had been all in vain. The stubborn General would not listen to good advice.
I must repeat here what I have said before, that as far as my personal knowledge of General Cronje goes, it is evident to me that his obstinacy in maintaining his position must be ascribed to the fact that it was too much to ask him—intrepid hero that he was—to abandon the laager. His view was that he must stand or fall with it, nor did he consider the certain consequences of his capture. He never realized that it would be the cause of the death of many burghers, and of indescribable panic throughout not only all the laagers on the veldt, but even those of Colesberg, Stormberg and Ladysmith. If the famous Cronje were captured, how could any ordinary burgher be expected to continue his resistance?
It may be that it was the will of God, who rules the destinies of all nations, to fill thus to the brim the cup which we had to empty, but this consideration does not excuse General Cronje's conduct. Had he but taken my advice, and attempted a night attack, he might have avoided capture altogether.
I have heard men say that as the General's horses had all been killed, the attempt which I urged him to make must have failed—that at all events he would have been pursued and overtaken by Lord Roberts' forces. The answer to this is not far to seek. The English at that time did not employ as scouts Kaffirs and Hottentots, who could lead them by night as well as by day. Moreover, with the reinforcements I had received, I had about sixteen hundred men under me, and they would have been very useful in holding back the enemy, until Cronje had made his escape.
No words can describe my feelings when I saw that Cronje had surrendered, and noticed the result which this had on the burghers. Depression and discouragement were written on every face. The effects of this blow, it is not too much to say, made themselves apparent to the very end of the war.
 "How is it with you?"
 Eleven or twelve days after, Commandant Spruit was again with us. When he appeared, he seemed to us like one risen from the dead. We all rejoiced, not only because he was a God-fearing man, but also because he was of a lovable disposition. I heard from his own mouth how he had escaped. He told me that the day after his capture, he was sent, under a strong escort, from Lord Roberts' Headquarters to the railway station at Modder River, and that he started from there, with a guard of six men on his road to Cape Town. During the night as they drew near De Aar, his guards fell asleep, and our brave Commandant prepared to leave the train. He seized a favourable opportunity when the engine was climbing a steep gradient and jumped off. But the pace was fast enough to throw him to the ground, though fortunately he only sustained slight injury. When daylight came he hid himself. Having made out his bearings he began to make his way back on the following night. He passed a house, but dared not seek admission, for he did not know who its occupants might be. As he had no food with him, his sufferings from hunger were great, but still he persevered, concealing himself during the day, and only walking during the hours of darkness. At last he reached the railway line to the north of Colesberg, and from there was carried to Bloemfontein, where he enjoyed a well-earned rest. In the second week of March he returned to his commando, to the great delight of everybody.