My object now was to reach Smithfield. We set out at once and late in the evening I divided my commandos into two parties. The first, some five hundred men in all, consisted chiefly of Smithfield burghers under Commandant Swanepoel, of Yzervarkfontein, but there were also some Wepener men amongst them. I gave General Froneman the command over this party, and ordered him to proceed without delay and attack the small English garrison at Smithfield. With the second party I rode off to join the burghers who were under General J.B. Wessels.
I came up with Wessels' division on the 6th of April at Badenhorst, on the road from Dewetsdorp to Wepener. Badenhorst lies at a distance of some ten miles from a ford on the Caledon River, called Tammersbergsdrift, where Colonel Dalgety, with the highly renowned C.M.R. and Brabant's Horse were at that time stationed. I call them "highly renowned" to be in the fashion, for I must honestly avow that I never could see for what they were renowned.
During the fight at Mostertshoek on the previous day I had kept them under observation, with the result that I learnt that they had entrenched themselves strongly, and that they numbered about sixteen hundred men, though this latter fact was a matter of indifference to me. The history of Ladysmith, Mafeking, and Kimberley, however, served me as a warning, and I asked myself whether it would be better to besiege the wolf or to wait and see if he would not come out of his lair.
But the wolf, on this occasion, was not to be enticed out on any pretext; and moreover it was probable that Lord Roberts would be able to send a relieving force from Bloemfontein; so I decided to attack at once. First, however, I despatched some of my best scouts in the direction of Bloemfontein and Reddersburg, while I ordered the commandos under Generals Piet de Wet and A.P. Cronje to take up positions to the east and south-east of the capital.
Early in the morning of the 7th of April I made an attack on two points: one to the south-west, the other to the south-east of Dalgety's fortifications, opening fire on his troops at distances of from five to fifteen hundred paces. I dare not approach any nearer for lack of suitable cover. The place was so strongly fortified that many valuable lives must have been sacrificed, had I been less cautious than I was.
After a few days I received reinforcements, and was thus enabled to surround the English completely. But their various positions were so placed that it was impossible for me to shell any of them from both sides, and thus to compel their occupants to surrender.
Day succeeded to day, and still the siege continued.
Before long we had captured some eight hundred of the trek-oxen, and many of the horses of the enemy. Things were not going so badly for us after all; and we plucked up our courage, and began to talk of the probability of a speedy surrender on the part of the English.
To tell the truth, there was not a man amongst us who would have asked better than to make prisoners of the Cape Mounted Rifles and of Brabant's Horse. They were Afrikanders, and as Afrikanders, although neither Free-Staters nor Transvaalers, they ought, in our opinion, to have been ashamed to fight against us.
The English, we admitted, had a perfect right to hire such sweepings, and to use them against us, but we utterly despised them for allowing themselves to be hired. We felt that their motive was not to obtain the franchise of the Uitlanders, but—five shillings a day! And if it should by any chance happen that any one of them should find his grave there—well, the generation to come would not be very proud of that grave. No! it would be regarded with horror as the grave of an Afrikander who had helped to bring his brother Afrikanders to their downfall.
Although I never took it amiss if a colonist of Natal or of Cape Colony was unwilling to fight with us against England, yet I admit that it vexed me greatly to think that some of these colonists, for the sake of a paltry five shillings a day, should be ready to shoot down their fellow-countrymen. Such men, alas! there have always been, since, in the first days of the human race, Cain killed his brother Abel. But Cain had not long to wait for his reward!
Whilst we were besieging these Afrikanders, news came that large columns from Reddersburg and Bloemfontein were drawing near. So overwhelming were their numbers that the commandos of Generals A.P. Cronje and Piet de Wet were far too weak to hold them in check, and I had to despatch two reinforcing parties, the first under Commandant Fourie, the second under General J.B. Wessels.
General Froneman had now returned from Smithfield, whither I had sent him to attack the garrison. He told me that he had been unable to carry out my orders, for, on his arrival at Smithfield, he had discovered that the garrison—which had only consisted of some two or three hundred men—had just departed. He learnt, however, that it was still possible to overtake it before it reached Aliwal North. Unfortunately, he was unable to persuade Commandant Swanepoel, who was in command of the burghers, to pursue the retreating troops. He therefore had to content himself with the fifteen men he had with him. He came in sight of the enemy at Branziektekraal, two hours from Aliwal North; but with the mere handful of men, which was all that he had at his command, an attack upon them was not to be thought of, and he had to turn back.
His expedition, however, had not been without good result, for he returned with about five hundred of those burghers who had gone home after our commandos had left Stormberg.
We had to thank Lord Roberts for this welcome addition to our forces. The terms of the proclamation in which Lord Roberts had guaranteed the property and personal liberty of the non-combatant burghers had not been abided by. In the neighbourhood of Bloemfontein, Reddersburg, and Dewetsdorp, and at every other place where it was possible, his troops had made prisoners of burghers who had remained quietly on their farms. The same course of action had been pursued by the column which fell into our hands at Mostertshoek—I myself had liberated David Strauss and four other citizens whom I had found there. While peacefully occupied on their farms they had been taken prisoners by the English column, which was then on its way from Dewetsdorp to Reddersburg.
This disregard of his proclamations did not increase the respect which the burghers felt for Lord Roberts. They felt that the word of the English was not to be trusted, and, fearing for their own safety, they returned to their commandos. I sent President Steyn a telegram, informing him that our burghers were rejoining, and adding that Lord Roberts was the best recruiting sergeant I had ever had!
General Froneman and the men whom he had collected soon found work to do. The enemy was expecting a reinforcement from Aliwal North, and I sent the General, with six hundred troops, to oppose it. He came into touch with it at Boesmanskop, and a slight skirmish took place.
In the meanwhile I received a report from General Piet de Wet, who was at Dewetsdorp, notifying me that the English forces outnumbered his own so enormously that he could not withstand their advance. He suggested that I ought at once to relinquish the siege and proceed in the direction of Thaba'Nchu.
I also received discouraging news from General Piet Fourie, who had had a short but severe engagement with the troops that were coming from Bloemfontein, and had been compelled to give way before their superior forces.
Piet de Wet's advice appealed to me all the more strongly since reinforcements were pouring in upon the enemy from all sides. But I was of opinion that I ought to go with a strong force after the enemy in the direction of Norvalspont, as I was convinced that it was no longer possible to check their advance. But General Piet de Wet differed from me on this point, and held that we ought to keep in front of the English, and I was at last compelled to give in to him.
Accordingly I issued orders to General Froneman to desist from any further attack upon the reinforcement with which he had been engaged, and to join me. When he arrived I fell back on Thaba'Nchu.
My siege of Colonel Dalgety, with his Brabant's Horse and Cape Mounted Rifles, had lasted for sixteen days. Our total loss was only five killed and thirteen wounded. The English, as I learnt from prisoners, had suffered rather severely.
 Cape Mounted Rifles.