The English, now that they had taken Bethlehem, were in need of rest; and this was especially the case with General Macdonald, who had come up by forced marches from the far-off Transvaal. A short breathing space was also a great benefit to us, for we had many preparations to make in view of probable events in the near future. I did not deceive myself as to the meaning of the present situation; now that all of us, except two small parties at Commandonek and Witnek, had retreated behind the lofty Roodebergen, I could see that, in all probability, we must before long be annihilated by the immense forces of the enemy.
The Roodebergen, which now separated us from the English, is a vast chain of mountains, extending from the Caledon River on the Basuto frontier to Slabbertsnek, then stretching away to Witzeshoek, where it again touches Basutoland. The passes over this wild mountain range are Commandonek, Witnek, Slabbertsnek, Retiefsnek, Naauwpoort and Witzeshoek. These are almost the only places where the mountains can be crossed by vehicles or horses; and, moreover, there are long stretches where they are impassable even to pedestrians.
It is plain enough, therefore, that nothing would have pleased the English more than for us to have remained behind the Roodebergen. If those Free-Staters—they must have been thinking—try to make a stand there, it will be the last stand they will ever make.
And the English would have been quite right in their anticipations. To have stayed where we then were would, without doubt, have been the end of us. Therefore, when the proposal was made that we should take positions in the mountains, I opposed it as emphatically as I could, alleging incontrovertible arguments against it. It was then decided that all our forces, with the exception of a small watch, should issue forth from behind the mountains.
We also arranged to divide the whole of the commandos we had with us into three parts:—
I was in supreme command of the first division, which was to march under the orders of General Botha. It consisted of burghers from Heilbron, under Commandant Steenekamp, and of Kroonstad men, under Commandant Van Aard. Besides these, there were also five hundred men from Bethlehem, under Commandant Michal Prinsloo; the burghers from Boshof, under Veldtcornet Badenhorst; a small number of Colonials from Griqualand, under Vice-Commandant Van Zyl; and some Potchefstroom burghers, who happened to be with us. Further, I took with me, for scouting purposes, Danie Theron and his corps of eighty men, recruited from almost every nation on the face of the earth; Captain Scheepers and his men also served me in the same capacity.
The Government and its officials were placed under my protection; and I was to set out, on July the 15th, in the direction of Kroonstad-Heilbron.
The second division was entrusted to Assistant Commander-in-Chief Paul Roux, with P.J. Fourie and C.C. Froneman as Vechtgeneraals. It was composed of burghers from Fauresmith, under Commandant Visser; from Bloemfontein, under Commandant Du Plooij; from Wepener, under Commandant Roux; from Smithfield, under Commandant Potgieter; from Thaba'Nchu, under Commandant J.H. Olivier; from Jacobsdal, under Commandant H. Pretorius; and of the Deetje Bloemfontein commando, under Commandant Kolbe.
This force was to wait until the day after my departure, that is, until the 16th, and then proceed in the evening in the direction of Bloemfontein. From the capital it was to go south, and during its advance it was to bring back to the commandos all those burghers in the southern districts who had remained behind.
General Crowther was given the command over the third division, which consisted of the burghers from Ficksburg, under Commandant P. De Villiers; from Ladybrand, under Commandant Ferreira; from Winburg, under Commandant Sarel Harebroek; and from Senekal, under Commandant Van der Merve.
This division was to start on the 16th, and marching to the north of Bethlehem, was to continue advancing in that direction until it fell in with the commandos from Harrismith and Vrede under Commander-in-Chief Hattingh. It would then operate, under his directions, in the north-eastern districts.
The remainder of Commandant Michal Prinsloo's Bethlehem men—that is to say, the burghers of Wittebergen—were to stay behind as a watch, and to take orders from Mr. Marthinus Prinsloo. This watch was divided into three sections: the first to occupy a position at Slabbertsnek, the second at Retiefsnek, and the third at Naauwpoort. They were forbidden to use waggons; thus if the enemy should appear in overwhelming numbers, it would always be possible for them to escape across the mountains.
My reason for selecting these men in preference to others, was that they belonged to the district, and thus were well acquainted with every foot of this rough and difficult country. Their duties were simply to protect the large numbers of cattle which we had driven on to the mountains, and I anticipated that there would be no difficulty about this, for now that all our commandos had left those parts, the English would not think it worth while to send a large force against a mere handful of watchers.
Thus everything was settled, and on the 15th of July I set out through Slabbertsnek, expecting that the other generals would follow me, conformably to my orders and the known wishes of the Government.
But what really happened?
Immediately after my departure, some of the officers, displeased that Assistant Commander-in-Chief Roux should have been entrusted with the command, expressed the wish that another meeting should be held and a new Assistant Commander-in-Chief elected. This would have been absolutely illegal, for the Volksraad had decreed that the President should be empowered to alter all the commando-laws. But even then, all would have gone well if Roux had only stood firm. Unfortunately, however, he yielded, and on July the 17th a meeting was called together at which Mr. Marthinus Prinsloo was chosen Assistant Commander-in-Chief. He had a bare majority even at the actual meeting, and several officers, who had been unable to be present, had still to record their votes.
Not only, therefore, had Prinsloo been elected irregularly, but his election, such as it was, could only be considered as provisional. Nevertheless, for the moment, power was in his hands. How did he use it?
He surrendered unconditionally to the English.
On the 17th and 18th of July the enemy had broken through at Slabbertsnek and Retiefsnek, causing the greatest confusion among our forces.
Many of the officers and burghers were for an immediate surrender, as appears from the fact that the same assembly which, in defiance of the law, elected Mr. Prinsloo as Commander-in-Chief, also decided, by seventeen votes to thirteen, to give up their forces to the enemy. But this decision was at once rescinded—an act of policy on the part of the officers—and it was agreed to ask for an armistice of six days, to enable them to take counsel with the Government.
A more senseless course of action could hardly be imagined. The Boer Army, as anybody could see, was in a very tight place. Did its officers think that the English would be so foolish as to grant an armistice at such a time as this—when all that the burghers wanted was a few days in which to effect their escape? Either the officers were remarkably short-sighted, or ... something worse.
It was still possible for the commandos to retire in the direction of Oldenburg or of Witzeshoek. But instead of getting this done with all speed, Mr. Prinsloo began a correspondence with General Hunter about this ridiculous armistice, which the English general of course refused to grant.
It was on July the 29th, 1900, that Prinsloo, with all the burghers on the mountains, surrendered unconditionally to the enemy.
The circumstances of this surrender were so suspicious, that it is hard to acquit the man who was responsible for it of a definite act of treachery; and the case against him is all the more grave from the fact that Vilonel, who was at that time serving a term of imprisonment for high treason, had a share in the transaction.
Prinsloo's surrender included General Crowther, Commandants Paul De Villiers, Ferreira, Joubert, Du Plooij, Potgieter, Crowther, Van der Merve, and Roux; and about three thousand men.
The most melancholy circumstance about the whole affair was that, when the surrender was made, some of the burghers had reached the farm of Salamon Raath, and were thus as good as free, and yet had to ride back, and to go with the others to lay down their arms.
As to Roux, the deposed Commander-in-Chief, there is a word to be added. I had always heard that he was a very cautious man, and yet on this occasion he acted like a child, going in person to General Hunter's camp to protest against the surrender, on the ground that it was he (Roux), and not Prinsloo, that was Commander-in-Chief. One can hardly believe that he really thought it possible thus to nullify Prinsloo's act. But he certainly behaved as if he did, and his ingenuous conduct must have afforded much amusement to the English general.
If any one is in doubt as to what was the result of General Roux's absurd escapade, I have only to say that the English had one prisoner the more!
Those who escaped were but few. Of all our large forces, there were only Generals Froneman, Fourie and De Villiers (of Harrismith); Commandants Hasebroek, Olivier, Visser, Kolbe, and a few others; a small number of burghers, and six or seven guns, that did not fall into the hands of the English.
What, then, is to be our judgment on this act of Prinsloo and of the other chief officers in command of our forces behind the Roodebergen?
That it was nothing short of an act of murder, committed on the Government, the country, and the nation, to surrender three thousand men in such a way. Even the burghers themselves cannot be held to have been altogether without guilt, though they can justly plead that they were only obeying orders.
The sequel to Prinsloo's surrender was on a par with it. A large number of burghers from Harrismith and a small part of the Vrede commando, although they had already made good their escape, rode quietly from their farms into Harrismith, and there surrendered to General Sir Hector Macdonald.—One could gnash one's teeth to think that a nation should so readily rush to its own ruin!
 The Harrismith and Vrede commandos had also received orders to join us.