As I have already stated, I led my commando, on the 15th of July, through Slabbertsnek, out of the mountain district. My force amounted to the total of two thousand six hundred burghers. The Government travelled with us, and also alas! four hundred waggons and carts. Whatever I did, it seemed as if I could not get rid of the waggons!
That night we reached a farm six miles to the east of Kaffirs Kop; during our march we passed a column of the enemy that had left Bethlehem in the afternoon.
On the following day I came into contact with some English troops, who were marching in the direction of Witnek. They sent out a body of cavalry to ascertain what our plans might be. It was very annoying to me that they should thus discover our whereabouts, because it made it impossible to carry out my intention of attacking one or other of the English forces.
However, nothing was done that day, as neither we nor the enemy took up the offensive.
In the evening we pushed on to the east of Lindley, and the following day remained at the spot we had reached. The next evening we marched to the farm of Riversdale; and the night of the 18th found us on the farm of Mr. Thomas Naudé, to the north-west of Lindley. We discovered that the English had all left this village and gone to Bethlehem. My scouts reported to me, the following day, that an English force, some four hundred men strong, was approaching Lindley. Need I say that these men had to be captured? With five hundred burghers and two guns I went out to do this. When I was only a short distance from my camp, I received a report that a large force of cavalry, numbering seven or eight thousand men, had arrived on the scene from Bethlehem. This compelled me to abandon the idea of capturing those four hundred men, and, instead, to try to escape in a westerly direction from this large body of mounted troops.
That evening we reached the farm of Mr. C. Wessels, at Rivierplaats. The next day we were forced to move on, for the mounted troops were coming nearer to us. They marched, however, somewhat more to the right in the direction of Roodewal; whereas I went towards Honingspruit, and halted for the night at the farm of Paardenkraal.
On the following morning, the 20th of July, I let the commando go on, whilst I stayed behind to reconnoitre from a neighbouring kop. The President, and also some members of the Government, remained with me. We had the opportunity of accepting the invitation of Mr. C. Wessels to take breakfast at his house. It was there that General Piet de Wet came to me and asked if I still saw any chance of being able to continue the struggle?
The question made me very angry, and I did not try to hide the fact.
"Are you mad?" I shouted, and with that I turned on my heel and entered the house, quite unaware that Piet de Wet had that very moment mounted his horse, and ridden away to follow his own course.
After breakfast we climbed the kop; and when we had made our observation we followed after the laager. On reaching the commando, I gave orders to outspan at twelve o'clock.
While this was being done I heard from my sons that Piet de Wet had told them that we should all be captured that night near the railway line. He had not known that it was my intention to cross the railway that night, but he had guessed as much from the direction I let my commando take.
At two o'clock I received a report that two divisions of English troops were drawing near. One division was six miles to the left, and the other eight miles to the right of the road along which we had come.
I gave orders immediately that the laager should break up. What an indescribable burden this camp, with four hundred and sixty waggons and carts, was to me! What a demoralizing effect it had upon the burghers! My patience was sorely tried. Not only were we prevented from moving rapidly by these hampering waggons, but also, should we have to fight, a number of the burghers would be required to look after them, and so be unable to fire a shot.
We marched to the farm of Mr. Hendrik Serfontein, on Doornspruit, and whilst I was there, waiting for darkness, some burghers, who were not my scouts, brought a report that there were English camps both at Honingspruit and at Kaallaagte.
This alarmed the President and the members of the Government, because, should this report prove true, we should be unable to cross the railway line without hard fighting, and besides there would be a considerable risk of being taken prisoner.
For myself, I did not pay any attention to these burghers. I relied on my own scouts, and I waited for their reports. I knew that if there had been any truth in what we had been told, that I should have heard the news already from the men whom I had sent out in the morning in that direction. At last some of Captain Scheepers' men appeared—he was scouting in front, and Captain Danie Theron in the rear—and reported that the railway line was clear, with the exception that at Honingspruit there were half a dozen tents, and four in the Kaallaagte to the north of Serfontein, and a few small outposts. This information came as a great relief to the President and the members of the Government.
If I was to escape from the large force which was dogging my footsteps, it was now necessary to cross the railway. I had made all preparation for this move. I had left behind me, that afternoon, on the banks of Doornspruit a commando of burghers, with orders to keep the enemy back until we should have crossed the line. And now I only waited until the darkness should come to my assistance.
As soon as the night came I ordered the waggons to proceed in four rows, with a force on each side, and with a rearguard and vanguard. Immediately behind the vanguard followed the President and myself. When we were about twenty minutes' march from the railway line I ordered the two wings of my force, which were about three miles apart, to occupy the line to the right and left of Serfontein Siding.
Before we had quite reached the railway I ordered the vanguard to remain with the President, whilst I myself, with fifteen men, rode on to cut the telegraph wire. Whilst we were engaged in this task a train approached at full speed from the south. I had no dynamite with me, and I could neither blow it up nor derail it. I could only place stones on the line, but these were swept away by the cowcatcher, and so the train passed in safety.
I had forbidden any shooting, for an engagement would have only produced the greatest confusion in my big laager.
Just as the last waggon was crossing the line, I received a report that Captain Theron had captured a train to the south of us. Having ordered the waggons to proceed, I rode over to see what had happened. When I arrived at the scene of action I found that the train had come to a standstill owing to the breaking down of the engine, and that on this the English troops had at once opened fire on my men, but that it had not been long before the enemy surrendered. Four of the English, but only one of our burghers, had been wounded.
It was very annoying that the laager was so far off, but it was impossible to carry off the valuable ammunition which we found on the train.
I gave orders that the four wounded soldiers, who were under the care of the conductor of the train, should be taken from the hut in which I had found them, and placed in a van where they would be safe when I set fire to the train. After the burghers had helped themselves to sugar, coffee, and such things, I burned everything that was left. My ninety-eight prisoners I took with me.
We had not gone far when we heard the small arm ammunition explode; but I cannot say that the sound troubled me at all!
Thus we crossed the line in safety, and Piet de Wet's prediction did not come true. He knew that we had a large force behind us, and believing that the railway line in front of us would be occupied by troops, he had said: "This evening you will all be captured on the railway line." Yet instead of finding ourselves captured, we had taken ninety-eight prisoners, and destroyed a heavily-laden train! How frequently a Higher Power over-rules the future in a way we least expect!
That night we reached the farm of Mahemsspruit. From there we moved on to the Wonderheurel; and on the 22nd of July we arrived at the farm of Vlakkuil. I remained here for a day, for I wished to find out what the English troops (they had remained where we left them by the railway line) were intending to do.
Whilst I was waiting I despatched some corn on a few of my waggons to Mr. Mackenzie's mills near Vredefort, giving orders that it should be ground.
During the afternoon it was reported to me that a strong column of English were marching from Rhenosterriviersbrug to Vredefort, and that they had camped on the farm Klipstapel, some eight miles from my laager.
Shortly after sunrise the following morning a second report was brought to me. It appeared that the enemy had sent out a force to capture our grain waggons, and had nearly overtaken them.
In an instant we were in our saddles, but we were too late to save our corn.
When the enemy saw us they halted at once; and meanwhile the waggons hurried on, at their utmost speed, to our camp.
The English numbered between five and six hundred men, whilst we were only four hundred. But although we were the smaller force, I had no intention of allowing our waggons to be captured without a shot, and I ordered my burghers to charge.
It was an open plain; there was no possible cover either for us or for the English. But we could not consider matters of that sort.
The burghers charged magnificently, and some even got to within two hundred paces of the enemy. They then dismounted, and, lying flat upon the ground, opened a fierce fire. One of the hottest fights one can imagine followed.
Fortunately a few paces behind the burghers there was a hollow, and here the horses were placed.
After an hour's fighting, I began to think that any moment the enemy might be put to rout. But then something happened which had happened very often before—a reinforcement appeared.
This reinforcement brought two guns with it; thus nothing was left to me but retreat. Our loss was five killed and twelve wounded. What the loss of the English was I do not know, but if the Kaffirs who lived near there are to be trusted, it must have been considerable.
In the evening I moved my camp to Rhenosterpoort; whilst the English went back to Klipstapel.
And now the English concentrated their forces. Great Army Corps gathered round. From Bethlehem and Kroonstad new columns were constantly arriving, until my force seemed nothing in comparison with them.
I was stationed on the farm of Rhenosterpoort, which is situated on the Vaal River, twenty miles from Potchefstroom. At that town there was a strong force of the enemy, on which I had constantly to keep my eye.
But, notwithstanding their overpowering numbers, it seemed as if the English had no desire to follow me into the mountains of Rhenosterpoort. They had a different plan. They began to march around me, sending troops from Vredefort over Wonderheurel to Rhenoster River, and placing camps all along the river as far as Baltespoort, and from there again extending their cordon until Scandinavierdrift was reached.
We were forced now either to break through this cordon, or to cross the Vaal River into the South African Republic. The Free-Stater preferred to remain in his own country, and he would have been able to do so had we not been hampered by a big "waggon-camp" and a large number of oxen. As these were with us, the Boers found it hard to make up their minds to break through the English lines as a horse-commando, as it necessitated leaving all these waggons and oxen in the hands of the enemy. But there we were between the cordon and the Vaal River.
Almost every day we came into contact with the enemy's outposts, and we had an engagement with them near Witkopjes Rheboksfontein. On another occasion we met them on different terms, in Mr. C.J. Bornman's house. Some of his "visitors" were, unfortunately for themselves, found to be English scouts—and became our prisoners.
We remained where we were until the 2nd of August. On that day we had to drink a cup of bitterness. It was on the 2nd of August that I received the news that Prinsloo had surrendered near Naauwpoort.
A letter arrived from General Broadwood in which he told me that a report from General Marthinus Prinsloo addressed to me had arrived through his lines. The bearer of it was General Prinsloo's secretary, Mr. Kotzé. And now the English General asked me if I would guarantee that the secretary should be allowed to return, after he had given me particulars of the report he had brought.
Mr. Prinsloo's secretary must certainly have thought that he was the chosen man to help us poor lost sheep, and to lead us safely into the hands of the English! But I cannot help thinking that he was rather too young for the task.
I had a strong suspicion that there must have been some very important screw loose in the forces which we had left stationed behind the Roodebergen, for on the previous day I had received a letter from General Knox, who was at Kroonstad, telling me that General Prinsloo and his commandos had surrendered.
In order to gain more information I gave General Broadwood my assurance that I would allow Mr. Prinsloo's secretary to return unhurt.
When I had done this the President and some members of the Government rode out with me to meet the bearer of this report. We did not wish to give him any opportunities to spy out our positions. Half way between the English lines and our own we met him. He presented us with this letter:—
HUNTER'S CAMP, 30th July, 1900.
TO THE COMMANDER-IN-CHIEF, C.R. DE WET.
I have been obliged, owing to the overwhelming forces of the enemy, to surrender unconditionally with all the Orange Free State laagers here.
I have the honour to be, Sir,
Your obedient servant,
I sent my reply in an unclosed envelope. It ran as follows:—
IN THE VELDT, 3rd August, 1900.
TO MR. M. PRINSLOO.
I have the honour to acknowledge the receipt of your letter dated the 30th of last month. I am surprised to see that you call yourself Commander-in-Chief. By what right do you usurp that title? You have no right to act as Commander-in-Chief.
I have the honour to be,
C.R. DE WET,
Hardly had I written this letter before two men on horseback appeared. They proved to be burghers sent by General Piet Fourie, who was with Prinsloo at the time of his surrender. These burghers brought from Generals Fourie, Froneman, and from Commandant Hasebroek and others, a fuller report of the surrender of Prinsloo. We learnt from the report that not all of the burghers had surrendered, but that, on the contrary, some two thousand had escaped. This news relieved our minds.
President Steyn and myself determined to despatch Judge Hertzog to the commandos which had escaped, giving him instructions to bring them back with him if possible. We had been told that these commandos were somewhere on the Wilgerivier, in the district of Harrismith.
My position had now become very difficult. It seemed, as far as I could discover, that there were five or six English generals and forty thousand troops, of which the greater part were mounted, all of them trying their best to capture the Government and me.
My force numbered two thousand five hundred men.
On the afternoon when I received the above-mentioned letter, there was still a way of escape open to me, through Parijs to Potchefstroom. This road crossed the Vaal River at Schoemansdrift, and then followed the course of the stream between Parijs and Vanvurenskloof. It was now, however, somewhat unsafe, for that same afternoon a large force of the enemy was marching along the Vaal River from Vredefort to Parijs. These troops would be able to reach Vanvurenskloof early the following morning; whilst the force at Potchefstroom, which I have already mentioned in this chapter, would also be able to arrive there at the same hour.
I led my burghers that evening across the Vaal River to Venterskroon, which lies six miles from Schoemansdrift. The following morning my scouts reported that the English were rapidly approaching from Potchefstroom in two divisions; one was at Zandnek: the other had already reached Roodekraal on its way to Schoemansdrift. One of these divisions, my scouts told me, might be turning aside to Vanvurenskloof.
Now the road from Venterskroon passed between two mountain chains to the north of Vanvurenskloof; and I feared that the English would block the way there. I had to avoid this at all costs, but I had hardly a man available for the purpose. The greater part of my burghers were still to the south-east and south-west of the Vaal River.
There was nothing left for me to do except to take the burghers who remained with me, and, whilst the laager followed us as quickly as possible, to advance and prevent the enemy from occupying the kloof. This I did, and took a part of my men to Vanvurenskloof, whilst I sent another body of burghers to Zandnek.
Everything went smoothly. The enemy did not appear and the laager escaped without let or hindrance—and so we camped at Vanvurenskloof.
I must have misled the English, for they certainly would have thought that I would come out by the road near Roodekraal. But I cannot understand why the force in our rear, which had arrived at Parijs the previous evening, remained there overnight, nor why, when they did move on the following morning, they marched to Lindequesdrift, eight miles up the Vaal River, and not, as might well have been expected, to Vanvurenskloof.
The burghers whom I sent in the direction of Roodekraal had a fight with the enemy at Tijgerfontein. A heavy bombardment took place; and my men told me afterwards that the baboons, of which there were a large number in these mountains, sprang from cliff to cliff screaming with fright—poor creatures—as the rocks were split on every side by the lyddite shells.
The burghers came to close quarters with the enemy, and a fierce engagement with small arms took place.
It appeared later that the enemy's casualties amounted to more than a hundred dead and wounded. Our loss was only two men.
As I have already stated, we camped at Vanvurenskloof. The next morning, while we were still there, we were surprised by the enemy—an unpleasant thing for men with empty stomachs.
I did not receive any report from my scouts until the English were not more than three thousand paces from us, and had already opened fire on the laager, not only with their guns, but also with their rifles. We at once took the best positions we could find; and meanwhile the waggons got away as quickly as possible. They succeeded in getting over the first ridge, and thus gained a certain amount of shelter, whilst we kept the English busy.
The enemy approached nearer and nearer to us with overpowering forces. Then they charged, and I saw man after man fall, struck down by our merciless fire. We were quite unable to hold the enemy back, and so we had to leave our positions, having lost one dead and one wounded.
That night we marched ten miles to the east of Gatsrand, on the road to Frederiksstad Station, and the following morning we arrived at the foot of the mountain. Here we outspanned for a short time, but we could not wait long, for our pursuers were following us at a great pace. It was not only the force from the other side of Vanvurenskloof with which we had to deal. The united forces of the English had now concentrated from different points with the purpose of working our ruin.
The English were exceedingly angry that we had escaped from them on the Vaal River, for they had thought that they had us safely in their hands. That we should have succeeded in eluding them was quite beyond their calculations; and in order to free themselves from any blame in the matter, they reported that we had crossed the river at a place where there was no ford, but this was not true; we had crossed by the waggon and post ford—the well-known Schoemansdrift.
But whether the enemy were angry or not, there was no doubt that they were pursuing us in very large numbers, and that we had to escape from them. That evening, the 7th of August, we went to the north of Frederiksstad Station, and blew up a bridge with two spans and wrecked the line with dynamite.
The following day we arrived at the Mooi River. This river is never dry winter or summer, but always flows with a stream as clear as crystal. It affords an inexhaustible supply of water to the rich land that lies along its bank. It is a fitting name for it—the name of Mooi.
At the other side of this river we found General Liebenberg's commando, which, like ourselves, was in the trap.
The General joined us on our march, and the following day we were nine miles from Ventersdorp.
Early that morning a report came that the English were approaching and were extended right across the country.
No man uttered a word of complaint; each man did his work so quickly that one could hardly believe that a laager could be put on the move in so short a time. And away the waggons and carts skurried, steering their course to Ventersdorp.
It was impossible to think of fighting—the enemy's numbers were far too great. Our only safety lay in flight.
We knew very well that an Englishman cannot keep up with a Boer on the march, and that if he tries to do so, he soon finds that his horses and oxen can go no further. Our intention was then to march at the very best pace we could, so that the enemy might be forced to stop from sheer exhaustion. And as the reader will soon see, our plan was successful.
Nevertheless we had to do some fighting, to protect our laager from a force of cavalry that was rapidly coming up with us.
They wanted to make an end of this small body of Boers, which was always retreating, but yet, now and again, offering some slight resistance—this tiny force that was always teaching them unpleasant lessons; first at Retiefsnek, then to the north of Lindley, then on the railway line, then near Vredefort, then at Rhenosterpoort, and then again at Tijgerfontein. Yes; this sort of thing must come to an end once for all!
We attacked the approaching troops, and succeeded in checking their advance. But our resistance could not last long, and soon we had to retreat and leave one of our Krupps behind us.
Had I not continued firing with my Krupp until it was impossible to save it, then, in all probability, the laager would have been taken. But with the loss of this Krupp we saved the laager.
I withdrew my burghers; I released the prisoners whom I had with me.
And now it was my task to make it as difficult as possible for my pursuers. The winter grass on the veldt was dry and very inflammable, and I decided to set fire to it, in order that the English might find it impossible to obtain pasture for their oxen and cattle. I accordingly set it alight, and very soon the country behind was black.
We hurried on until we reached Mr. Smit's farm, which is one hour on horseback from the southern slopes of the Witwatersrand—the great dividing chain of mountains that runs in the direction of Marico. Crossing this range, we continued on the march the whole night until, on the morning of the 11th of August, we arrived at the southern side of the Magaliesberg.
In the afternoon we went over the saddle of the mountain and across the Krokodil River.
My idea was to remain here and give our horses and oxen a rest, for the veldt was in good condition, and we could, if it were necessary, occupy the shoulder of the mountain behind us.
General Liebenberg took possession of the position to the west, near Rustenburg; but hardly had he done so, before the English made their appearance, coming over another part of the mountain. He sent me a report to this effect, adding that he was unable to remain where he was stationed.
Thus again we had to retreat, and I was unable to give my animals the rest I had intended to give them.
We now took the road from Rustenburg to Pretoria, and arrived the following evening close to Commandonek, which we soon found was held by an English force.
I left the laager behind and rode on in advance with a horse-commando. When I was a short distance from the enemy, I sent a letter to the officer in command, telling him that, if he did not surrender, I would attack him. I did this in order to discover the strength of the English force, and to find out if it were possible to attack the enemy at once, and forcing our way through the Nek, get to the east of the forces that were pursuing me.
My despatch rider succeeded in getting into the English camp before he could be blindfolded. He came back with the customary refusal, and reported that although the enemy's force was not very large, still the positions held were so strong that I could not hope to be able to capture them before the English behind me arrived.
I had therefore to give up the thought of breaking through these and flanking the English. Thus, instead of attacking the enemy, we went in the direction of Zoutpan, and arrived a few hours later at the Krokodil River.
I had now left the English a considerable distance behind me; and so at last—we were able to give ourselves a little rest.
 I put down here the very words I used, for any other course would not be honest.
 Kaallaagte—a barren hollow.
 Parijs is situated on the Vaal River.
 The reason why Captain Scheepers was so late in sending his report was because he himself was engaging the enemy with six of his men near Zandnek. He had come across a convoy of fourteen waggons and thirty men, and had, after an hour's fight, nearly brought them to the point of surrendering, when reinforcements arrived. He was thus forced to retire, and then discovered that the enemy were approaching our laager; and he had a hair's breadth escape from capture in bringing me the report.
 "Mooi" means beautiful in the Taal language.