I rode round the town with Piet de Wet the next day, in order to find out our best method of attacking it.
Commandant Olivier had been sent by me that morning in the direction of Kroonstad to oppose a strong English column, which I had been informed was approaching. But my plan must have leaked out in some way or other, for the enemy carefully chose so well protected a route that they gave Commandant Olivier no chance of attacking them. Thus the following morning the English arrived safely at Lindley, and now there was no possibility of capturing the town.
In the meantime President Steyn's laager had moved from the east of Heilbron and joined us. He himself, with the members of the Government, had gone to Bethlehem. General Marthinus Prinsloo was there too; he had resigned his post of Commander-in-Chief of the commandos which guarded the Drakensberg. Commandant Hattingh of Vrede had been chosen in his place, and he also was at Bethlehem.
A difficulty now arose as to Prinsloo's position. The President declared that Prinsloo was nothing more than a private burgher; but Commandant Olivier was not satisfied with this, and asked that there might be an election of a Commander-in-Chief. This request, however, the President refused to grant.
I did not wish the office of Commander-in-Chief to devolve upon myself, for I knew that I did not possess the confidence of the officers. And as some eight miles to the east of Lindley there was telegraphic communication with Bethlehem, I was able to hold a conversation with the President over the wires. I accordingly again asked him to permit an election. But it was all in vain; the President declined to allow an election to take place.
I now took matters into my own hands. I collected the officers together with the object of holding a secret election. Thus I should discover what their opinion of me might be as chief of the Free State forces. I was firmly resolved that should the majority of the officers be against me, and the President should still refuse his consent to an election, that I would send in my resignation, and no longer continue to hold the post of Commander-in-Chief.
Commander-in-Chief Hattingh, Vechtgeneraal Roux, and all the oldest commandants of the Free State, were present at this meeting. The voting was by ballot; and the result was that there were two votes for General Marthinus Prinsloo, one for General Piet de Wet, and twenty-seven for myself.
I at once wired to the President, and told him what had occurred. He was ready to abide by the decision, and I was satisfied now that I knew exactly where I stood. Mr. Marthinus Prinsloo was also contented with the turn events had taken. And I must say this of him, that it was not he who had insisted on an election.
It soon became apparent that the enemy's object was the capture of Bethlehem. The English forces round Senekal advanced towards Lindley, and having been joined by the troops stationed there, had proceeded in the direction of Bethlehem; consequently a very large British force was marching on that town.
We on our part now numbered over five thousand men, for General Roux had joined us with some of his burghers.
The English were unopposed until they reached Elandsfontein, but there a battle took place in which big guns played the main rôle, although there was also some heavy fighting with small arms.
In this engagement Commandant Michal Prinsloo did a brave deed. I arrived at his position just after the burghers had succeeded in shooting down the men who served three of the enemy's guns. With a hundred men he now stormed the guns, hoping to be able to bring them back with him to our lines. Whilst he charged, I cannonaded the enemy, with a Krupp and fifteen pound Armstrong, to such good effect that they were forced to retreat behind a ridge. In this way Commandant Prinsloo reached the guns safely, but he had no horses with him to drag them back to us. He could do nothing but make the attempt to get them away by the help of his burghers, and this he tried to accomplish under a fierce fire from the English. But he would still have succeeded in the endeavour, had not unfortunately a large force of the enemy appeared on the scene, and attacked him and his hundred burghers. I was unable to keep the English back, for both my guns had been disabled. The nipple of the Armstrong had been blown away, and—for the first time—the lock of the Krupp had become jammed. Had it not been for this mishap, Commandant Prinsloo would certainly have been able to remove the guns to the other side of a ridge, whither teams of our horses were already approaching. But, as it was, he had to hurry away as fast as possible, and leave the guns behind.
When the enemy arrived they had outflanked us so far to the north, that we had nothing open to us but again to abandon our positions. We therefore retired to Blauwkop, and on the following day to Bethlehem.
In the meantime I had once more become encumbered with a large waggon camp, which proved a source of great danger. During the last few weeks waggons had been accumulating round me without attracting my attention. The reason that the burghers were so anxious to bring their waggons with them, was to be found in the fact that the English, whenever they arrived at one of our farms, always took the waggons and oxen. The Boers felt it very hard to be robbed in this way of their property; and they hoped to be able to save their waggons and carts by taking them to the commando.
It was natural for them to wish to save all they could; but I was convinced that the waggons could only be saved at the expense of our great cause. But nobody could see it in that light. And as I could only appeal to the free will of my burghers, I dare not attempt to get rid of the waggons by force. If I had made any such attempt, serious consequences would certainly have followed, even if a revolt had not ensued. The great fault of the burghers was disobedience, and this came especially to the fore when their possessions were in jeopardy.
I now made up my mind to defend the town of Bethlehem. The following morning I went with the Generals and Commandants to reconnoitre the country, so that I might be able to point out to each of them the position that I wished him to occupy.
Our line of defence began at the south of Wolhuterskop (a kop to the south-west of Bethlehem), and extended from there to the north-west of the town.
When I had given my instructions to the officers, they returned to their commandos, which were stationed behind the first ridges to the south of Bethlehem, and brought them to the positions I had assigned to them.
So many of the horses were exhausted, that a large number of the burghers had to go on foot. Such of these Voetgangers as were not required to attend to the waggons, I placed at Wolhuterskop.
When I had done this I gave notice to the inhabitants of Bethlehem, that as the dorp would be defended, I must insist on the women and children leaving it at once. It was not long before a number of women and children, and even a few men, started out on their way to Fouriesburg. The prisoner Vilonel, also, was conducted to this town.
At four o'clock that afternoon the advance guards of the enemy approached; and fifteen of their scouts made their appearance on the ridge to the north of the town. The burghers reserved their fire until these men were almost upon them. Then they let their Mausers speak, and in a moment there were nine riderless horses. The other six English made their escape, although they must have had wounds to show for their rashness.
Only a few moments had passed before the roar of guns was mingled with the crack of rifles, and the whole air was filled with the thunder of battle.
Everywhere the burghers fought with the utmost valour; the Voetgangers on Wolhuterskop were perhaps the bravest of them all. Whenever the enemy approached our positions, they were met by a torrent of bullets. And thus the day came to a close.
But the next day a large force of English appeared from the direction of Reitz. This had come from the Transvaal, and, if I remember rightly, was commanded by General Sir Hector Macdonald. He had come up and joined Generals Clements, Hunter, Broadwood and Paget, with the object of once and for all making an end of the Free-Staters.
Our positions were now exposed to a most terrific bombardment, but fortunately without any serious consequences. I must describe here the fearful havoc that one lyddite shell wrought. It fell into the position held by Commandant Steenekamp, to the north-west of Bethlehem, and struck a rock behind which twenty-five of our horses were standing. Without a single exception every horse was killed!
The attack was pressed with the greatest vigour on the positions held by Commandants Van Aard and Piet Fourie. It became impossible for these officers to maintain their ground; and, at about twelve o'clock, before I was able to send them any reinforcements, they were compelled to give way.
Thus retreat became inevitable, and the enemy entered Bethlehem.
One of our guns we were unable to remove; but before we withdrew it was thrown down the krans of the mountain, and broken to pieces.
I knew at the time the number the English had lost, but now it had slipped my memory. I obtained the information from a man named Bland, who acted as our telegraphist. He had tapped the telegraph wire at Zwingkrans, and before General Clements had detected that he was not communicating with Senekal, he had received from that General a full list of the English killed and wounded.
We withdrew our commandos in a southerly direction to Retiefsnek, whither President Steyn and the Government had already preceded us.
 He had left the remainder of his burghers at Witnek and at Houtnek, near Ficksburg.
 As I have already stated, I intend to write on another occasion a book dealing with the art of scouting; and the above incident will there form a striking proof of how foolishly the English scouts did their work.