In the evening of the day on which the events described in the last chapter occurred, I handed over the command to Generals Piet de Wet and A.P. Cronje, and taking with me three of my staff, rode to Donkerpoort, in the direction of Dewetsdorp, on a reconnoitring expedition.
Early the following morning I came to a farm called Sterkfontein, where, at noon, I received the news that a party of English, coming from Smithfield, had occupied Dewetsdorp.
It was thirty miles from Sterkfontein to my commando, but, notwithstanding this, I sent an order that 1,500 men, under Generals J.B. Wessels, C.C. Froneman and De Villiers, should come up with all haste and bring three guns with them.
During the time that must necessarily elapse before the arrival of this force, I sent men out to visit the farms of those burghers who had gone home after the fall of Bloemfontein, with orders to bring them back to the front.
By the evening of the 1st of April I had all the men of the district together; but it was then too late to make a start.
At ten o'clock the following morning the English left Dewetsdorp, and marched towards Reddersburg. Directly I received news of this, I sent word to the Generals, that they must hasten to Reddersburg; while I, with the men who had rejoined, made my way to the north, so as to take up a position on the enemy's flank. I had with me one hundred and ten men in all. Many of them were without rifles, having given up their arms at Bloemfontein. Others were provided with serviceable achterlaaiers, but had little or no ammunition, because they had already fired off their cartridges in mere wantonness in the belief that they might have to give up their rifles any day. My handful of burghers were thus as good as unarmed.
During our march I kept the English continually under surveillance. They were unable to advance very rapidly, as the bulk of their force was made up of infantry. But they were too far ahead for the commandos whom I had sent in pursuit to be able to get at them; and for me, with the handful of almost unarmed burghers which I commanded, to have attempted an attack would have been worse than folly.
On the evening of the 2nd of April, the English encamped on the hill to the west of a farm called Oollogspoort; whilst we off-saddled to the north of them, on Mr. Van der Walt's farm. The enemy, however, was not aware of the position of our laager.
The following morning, at four o'clock, I sent a third report to the commandos. They had been some way on the road to Dewetsdorp, and thus, far out of the course to Reddersburg, when my second report reached them; and now my despatch rider met only Generals Froneman and De Villiers with seven hundred men and three guns, and was too late to prevent General Wessels from going on to Dewetsdorp.
Shortly after sunrise General Froneman received my report. He had been riding all night through without stopping, and many of his horses were already tired out. But as my order was that the Generals were to leave behind those who were unable to proceed, and to hasten on at once without so much as off-saddling, he did not wait to be told twice, but pushing forward with all speed, arrived on the 3rd of April at Schwarskopjes on the Kaffir River. He had left Sanna's Post on the afternoon of the previous day.
Those who consider that he was marching with seven hundred men and three Krupp guns, and that his horses were so exhausted that some of them had to be left behind, will agree with me that he did a good day's work in those twenty-four hours.
Fortunately for us, it was not at that time the habit of the English to start on their march before the sun had risen. And, by another lucky chance, our opponents were off their guard, and quite unsuspicious of attack, although they must, undoubtedly, have heard something of what had happened at Sanna's Post.
General Froneman gave me to understand that it was necessary to off-saddle the horses, and to give them a long rest, as he had been riding without any break since the previous evening.
"However necessary it may be," I replied, "it is impossible;" and I pointed out to him that if we were to delay, the English would occupy the ridge between Muishondsfontein and Mostertshoek, and thus obtain the best position. I, therefore, ordered the men to proceed with all speed, and to leave behind those who could not go on. The General did not appear to be "links" at this, but called out with his loud voice, "Come on, burghers!"
We were fortunate in being able to keep up with the enemy by riding along a little plain, which was hidden from them by an intervening hill. Our course ran in a direction parallel to their line of march, and at a distance of about six miles from it. But unluckily, the English were the first to reach the ridge. When we appeared at the point where the hill which had concealed us from them came to an end, their vanguard had just passed the eastern end of the ridge at which we were both aiming; and we had still some four or five miles to go before we could reach it.
I saw that the enemy was not strong enough to occupy the whole ridge, so I at once gave orders to General De Villiers to advance, and to seize the western end at a point just above the farmstead of Mostertshoek. The enemy, observing this manœuvre, took up their position on the eastern extremity of the ridge. Whereupon I divided the remaining burghers into small companies, with orders to occupy kopjes from six to seven hundred paces still further to the east; leaving to myself and Commandant Nel the task of seizing a small ridge which lay south-east of the English lines.
All these positions would have to be taken under fire, and before making the attempt I sent the following note to the British Commanding Officer:—
"I am here with five hundred men, and am every moment expecting reinforcements with three Krupps, against which you will not be able to hold out. I therefore advise you, in order to prevent bloodshed, to surrender."
I sent this note post haste, and then rested a little while awaiting the return of the despatch rider.
And now a shameful incident occurred. The messenger had received the answer to my letter, and had covered about a hundred paces on his way back, when the enemy opened so heavy a fire upon him that it is inexplicable how he managed to come through unscathed.
The answer which he brought from the officer was in the following terms:—
"I'm d——d if I surrender!"
I at once ordered my men to rush the positions which I had already pointed out to them; and notwithstanding the fierce opposition of the enemy, they succeeded in carrying out my orders.
But although we had thus gained very good positions, those which the English held were quite as good, and perhaps even better, except for the fact that they were cut off from the water. However, when they had first become aware of our presence—that is, while they were at Muishondsfontein—they had taken the precaution of filling their water-bottles.
Our guns did not arrive until so late in the afternoon that only a few shots could be fired before it became dark.
Acting upon my orders, the burghers kept such good watch during the night that escape was impossible for the English. I also sent a strong guard to a point near Reddersburg, for I had heard that a reinforcement of from thirteen hundred to two thousand British troops had come from the direction of Bothathanie railway station, and were now encamped at Reddersburg.
I had begun operations with only four hundred men under me, but before the sun rose on the following day my force had been doubled by the addition of those who had been compelled to remain behind and rest their tired horses.
On the previous evening it had seemed to me highly improbable that we should be able to storm the ridge in the morning. I had expected that the force at Reddersburg—which lay only about four or five miles from Mostertshoek—would have seen the fight in progress, or heard the cannonading, and would have hastened to the assistance of their comrades. Nevertheless, I had given orders that as soon as it was daylight, every one must do his utmost to force the English to surrender.
It was now rapidly growing lighter, and I ordered the gunners to keep up a continuous fire with our three Krupps. This they did from half-past five until eleven o'clock, and then the enemy hoisted the white flag.
My men and I galloped towards the English, and our other two parties did the same. But before we reached them, they again began to shoot, killing Veldtcornet Du Plessis, of Kroonstad. This treacherous act enraged our burghers, who at once commenced to fire with deadly effect.
Soon the white flag appeared above almost every stone behind which an Englishman lay, but our men did not at once cease firing. Indeed! I had the greatest difficulty in calming them, and in inducing them to stop, for they were, as may well be imagined, furious at the misuse of the white flag.
Strewn everywhere about on the ground lay the English killed and wounded. According to the official statement, they had a hundred casualties, the commanding officer himself being amongst the killed.
We took four hundred and seventy prisoners of war, all of them belonging to the Royal Irish Rifles and the Mounted Infantry. But I cared nothing to what regiment they belonged or what was the rank of the officer in command. Throughout the whole war I never troubled myself about such matters.
Our loss, in addition to Veldtcornet Du Plessis, whose death I have just described, was only six wounded.
I had no longer any need to fear a reinforcement from Reddersburg, but nevertheless there was no time to be lost, for I had just heard from a prisoner of war that a telegram had been sent from Dewetsdorp to the garrison at Smithfield, bidding them consult their own safety by withdrawing to Aliwal North. I made up my mind to capture that garrison before it could decamp. I waited until I saw that the English ambulances were busy with their wounded, and then with all speed rode off.
As the direct road might prove to be held by Lord Roberts, I caused the prisoners of war to be marched to Winburg viâ Thaba'Nchu. From thence they were to be sent forward by rail to Pretoria.
 I have never been able to understand why the great force, stationed at Reddersburg, made no attempt to come to the aid of the unfortunate victims at Mostertshoek. Their conduct seems to me to have been even more blameworthy than the similar negligence which occurred at Sanna's Post. They were not more than five miles off, and could watch the whole engagement—and yet they never stirred a foot to come and help their comrades. And it was fortunate for us that it was so, for we should have stood no chance at all against a large force.
To oppose successfully such bodies of men as our burghers had to meet during this war demanded rapidity of action more than anything else. We had to be quick at fighting, quick at reconnoitring, quick (if it became necessary) at flying! This was exactly what I myself aimed at, and had not so many of our burghers proved false to their own colours, England—as the great Bismarck foretold—would have found her grave in South Africa.