When I was on the road to Heilbron, I heard that the commandos under General Hattingh (those, namely, of Harrismith and Vrede) were near the Spitskopje, seven miles to the south-east of Heilbron. I therefore went out of my course and proceeded in the direction of these commandos. They were among those who had stood the crucial test, and had not surrendered with Prinsloo.
It was a real pleasure to me to meet the Harrismith burghers, and to talk with them over bygone days. This was our first meeting since December, 1899. The last time we had seen each other was when we were encamped round Ladysmith, where we were, so to speak, neighbours—our positions being contiguous.
But what a shock went through my heart when I saw the cumbersome waggon-camps which had come both from Vrede and Harrismith! For I remembered what trouble and anxiety the waggons and carts had already caused me, and how my commandos, in order to save them, had been forced to fly 280 miles—from Slabbertsnek to Waterberg. As Commander-in-Chief, I was now determined to carry out most strictly the Kroonstad regulation and have nothing more to do with the waggons.
I did not think that I should have any difficulty in convincing the commanders of Harrismith and Vrede that the best thing would be to do away with these unnecessary impediments, because, shortly before, the English themselves had given me a text to preach from, by taking away a great number of waggons from Commandant Hasebroek at Winburg and at Vet River. Nevertheless, my words fell on unwilling ears.
It was not long after I had arrived in the camp when I got the burghers together and spoke to them. After thanking the officers and men for not having surrendered with Prinsloo at Naauwpoort, I congratulated them on their success at Ladybrand, where they had driven the English out of the town and forced them to take refuge in the caverns of Leliehoek. I then went on to tackle the tender subject—as a Boer regards it—of sacrificing the waggons. No! I did not say so much as that—I only insisted on the waggons being sent home. Now this was very much the same as saying: "Give up your waggons and carts to the enemy"—an order which, expressed in that bald manner, would have given offence.
However, I was resolved to have my way, and at the end of my speech, I said, "I may not ask you, and I will not ask you what you will do with regard to the waggons. I only tell you that they must disappear."
On the following day I called the officers together, and gave them direct orders to that effect. I was very polite, but also very determined that the waggons should be sent off without a moment's delay. I also gave orders that the Harrismith and Kroonstad burghers under General Philip Botha should occupy themselves in cutting the English lines of communication between Kroonstad and Zand River. The Bothaville burghers were to carry out similar operations in their own district.
On that same afternoon I rode with my staff to the Heilbron burghers, who now had returned to their farms. (They had had permission to go home after they had got back from Waterberg.) They had assembled in very strong force.
The enemy also had arrived in this part of the country, and we were therefore obliged at once to get ourselves ready to fight in case it should be necessary, or to retreat if the enemy should be too strong for us.
With the Heilbron, Harrismith and Vrede commandos, I had now a very considerable force at my command.
When I met the burghers on the 25th of September I found that I must send a force in the direction of Kroonstad, in order to oppose outposts which the enemy had stationed some six miles from that town.
I at once sent orders to General Hattingh that he was to come over to me with his burghers. But what did I hear? The burghers had not been able to make up their minds to part with their waggons; most of the men from Vrede and Harrismith had gone home with these waggons, although there was a Kaffir driver and a leader for almost every one, and although I had given express orders that these Kaffirs were to be the ones to take back the waggons. How angry I was! At such moments as these one would be well nigh driven mad were there not a Higher Power to hold one back.
And, to make the situation still more serious, the English now came on from all sides, and I had no troops! The Kroonstad burghers were in their own district. I allowed those from Bethlehem to leave me in order to carry on operations in their part of the country; the same likewise with the Winburgers and the valiant Commandant Hasebroek, while the burghers of Vrede and Harrismith had gone home.
I had therefore with me only a small contingent from those districts, in addition to the burghers from Heilbron.
The reader will understand that, under these circumstances, the forces which now began to concentrate on us were too great for us to withstand; and that no other course lay open to me than to go through Schoemansdrift; and, in case I should be pursued, to Bothaville, in order to enter the zandveld (desert) through which it would be difficult for the enemy to advance.
We continued in the direction of Wolvehoek Station, and on the following night crossed the line between Vredefortweg and Wolvehoek, where I wrecked the railway at various points, and also took prisoner a small force of thirteen who had been lying asleep in their tents. This last incident happened early in the morning of September 30th.
We had crossed the line, and were about three miles on the further side of it, when a train came up and bombarded us with an Armstrong and a Maxim-Nordenfeldt, without however doing any damage. Our guns were too far behind the vanguard, and the poor horses too tired to go back for them, or we should have answered their fire. However, we got an opportunity of using our big guns against 200 mounted men, who had pursued us, but who, when they saw we were ready to receive them, turned round and—took the shortest road to safety!
That evening we marched to a place a little to the south of Parijs, and the following day to the kopjes west of Vredefort. There we stayed a few days until the enemy again began to concentrate at Heilbron.
I then divided my commando into two parts. One part I took with me, while I sent the Harrismith burghers (those at least who had not gone home with the waggons) under General Philip Botha, in the direction of Kroonstad, where he would meet the commando of that district, which had received orders to operate to the west of the railway line. General Philip Botha nominated Veldtcornet P. De Vos as Commandant of the Kroonstad contingent instead of Commandant Frans Van Aard. He made a good choice, for Commandant De Vos was not only a valiant officer, but also a strictly honourable man.
For some days the enemy remained encamped on the farm called Klipstapel, which lies to the south-east of Vredefort. Then they attacked us. We held our own for a day and a half, but at last had to retreat to the Vaal River, whither the English, doubtless thinking that we were again going to Waterberg, did not pursue us. This was on the 7th of October, 1900.
I now received a report from General Liebenberg that General Barton and his column were in the neighbourhood of Frederiksstad Station. He asked me (as he was too weak to venture anything alone) whether I would join him in an attack upon the English General. I decided to do so, and sent him a confidential letter saying that I would join him in a week's time.
In order to mislead the English, I retreated ostentatiously through Schoemansdrift to the farm of Baltespoort, which stands on the banks of the Rhenoster River, fifteen miles from the drift. The following night I returned by the way I had come, and crossed the river a little to the west of Schoemansdrift.
When on the following night we were again in the saddle I heard from many a mouth, "Whither now?"
Our destination was Frederiksstad Station, where we were to engage General Barton. Previous to an attack, thorough scouting should always take place. Accordingly I sent out my scouts, and discovered that General Liebenberg had entirely cut off the English from their communications, so that, except for heliographic messages, they were entirely out of touch with the rest of their forces. Now I do not know if they had "smelt a rat," but they were certainly well entrenched near the station on ridges to the south-east and to the north.
We had therefore to besiege General Barton in his entrenchments. For the first five days we held positions to the east, to the south, and to the north-west. On the fifth day I agreed with General Liebenberg that we should take up a new position on the embankment north-west of the strongest part of the English encampment. This position was to be held by two hundred men, of whom I gave eighty to General Froneman and one hundred and twenty to General Liebenberg. It was a position that we could not leave during the day without great danger, and it needed a large force to hold it, for its garrison had to be strong enough to defend itself if it should be attacked.
If only my arrangements had been carried out all would have gone well.
But what happened?
I thought that two hundred men had gone in accordance with my orders to that position. Instead of this there were only eighty there when, on the following morning, a very strong reinforcement of English, ordered up by General Barton, appeared from the direction of Krugersdorp. I did not hear of this reinforcement till it was so close that there was no chance for me to keep it back. In fact, when I got the report the enemy were already storming the unfortunate handful of burghers and firing fiercely upon them. If these burghers had only had enough ammunition they would have been able to defend themselves, but as they were obliged to keep up a continuous fire on the storming party their cartridges were speedily exhausted. When this happened there was nothing for them to do but to fly. This they did under a fierce fire from three guns, which had been bombarding them continuously since the morning—doing but little damage however, as our burghers were behind the railway embankment. But now they had to fly over open ground, and on foot, as they had gone down without their horses because there was no safe place for the animals.
If two hundred burghers—the number I had arranged for—had been in the position, there would have been no chance of the enemy's reinforcement being able to drive them out: and in all probability General Barton would have been obliged to surrender. Instead of this we had a loss of thirty killed and wounded, and about the same number were taken prisoners. Among the dead was the renowned Sarel Cilliers, grandson of the worthy "voortrekker" of the same name. Veldtcornet Jurie Wessels was the most distinguished of the prisoners.
It was a miserable affair altogether: General Froneman ought to have called his men back when he saw that General Liebenberg had not sent his contingent. I have heard however that Captain Cilliers refused to leave the position until it became no longer tenable. It was hard indeed for him to lose a battle thus, when it was nearly won, and to be compelled to retreat when victory was all but within his grasp.
We retired towards Vanvurenskloof, and on arriving there the following evening heard that a great English force had come from Schoemansdrift and captured Potchefstroom, that another force was at Tijgerfontein, and a third at Schoemansdrift.
Early next morning we crossed the Vaal River at Witbanksfontein. There we off-saddled.
Now I had sent out scouts—not, however, Commandant Jan Theron's men, but ordinary burghers whom the Commandants had sent out—and just as we had partaken about noon of a late breakfast, these burghers came hurriedly into the camp, shouting: "The enemy is close at hand!"
It was not long before every one had up-saddled, and we were off. The English had taken up positions on the kopjes due north of the Vaal River, whilst we had for our defence only kraals and boundary walls. As these offered no shelter for our horses, we were forced to retreat. And a most unpleasant time of it we had until we got out of range of their guns and small arms. During this retreat we lost one of our guns. This happened while I was with the left wing. One of the wheels of the carriage fell off, and the gun had to be left behind. Another incident of our flight was more remarkable. A shell from one of the enemy's guns hit an ox waggon on which there were four cases of dynamite, and everything was blown up.
The oxen had just been unyoked and had left the waggon, or else a terrible catastrophe would have occurred.
We lost also two burghers, who, thinking that it would be safe to go into a dwelling house, and hide themselves there, gave an opportunity to some English troops who were on the march from Schoemansdrift, to take them prisoner.
We retired for some distance in an easterly direction, and when it became dark, swerved suddenly to the west, as if aiming for a point somewhat to the south-west of Bothaville. The following evening we stayed at Bronkhaistfontein, near the Witkopjes. From there we went on next morning to the west of Rheboksfontein, remaining that night at Winkeldrift, on the Rhenoster River.
There I received a report that President Steyn with his staff was coming from Machadodorp, where he had met the Transvaal Government. The President requested me to come and see him, and also to meet General De la Rey, who would be there.
I told the commandos to go on in the direction of Bothaville and went with my staff to the President. We met on the 31st of October near Ventersdorp. From him I heard that when he came to Machadodorp President Kruger was just ready to sail from Lourenço Marques, in the man-of-war Gelderland, which had been specially sent by Queen Wilhelmina to bring him over to the Netherlands. This was shortly before Portugal ceased to be neutral—the old President got away only just in time.
General De la Rey had been prevented from coming: and on the 2nd of November I went with the President towards Bothaville.
I had received reports from General Fourie, Judge Hertzog, and Captain Scheepers, that the burghers in their districts had rejoined; this made me think that the time had now come to make another dash into Cape Colony. President Steyn had expressed a wish to go with us.
We marched on with the intention of crossing the railway line somewhere near Winburg. On the morning of the 5th we arrived at Bothaville, where we found General Froneman, who had been marching with the commandos from Rhenoster River. Little did we know that a terrible misfortune was awaiting us.
That very afternoon a strong English force, which indeed had been in pursuit of us all the time, came up, and a skirmish took place, after which the English withdrew out of reach of our guns, while we took up a position under cover of the nearest hill. Without suspecting any harm we went into camp about seven miles from the English, keeping the Valsch River between us and them.
I placed an outpost that night close to the river and told them to stay there till the following day. The burghers of this watch returned in the morning and reported that they had seen nothing but wreaths of smoke ascending from the north bank of the river. They believed that these came from the English camp.
We were still safe then—so at least we all believed.
But the corporal who had brought this report had but just left me, and was scarcely one hundred paces off when I heard the report of rifles. I thought at first that it was only some cattle being shot for food, but all at once there were more shots, and what did we see? The English were within three hundred paces of us, on a little hill near Bothaville, and close to the spot from whence my outpost had just returned.
It was early morning. The sun had not risen more than twenty minutes and many of the burghers still lay asleep rolled up in their blankets.
The scene which ensued was unlike anything I had ever witnessed before. I heard a good deal about panics—I was now to see one with my own eyes. Whilst I was looking for my horse to get him up-saddled a few of the burghers were making some sort of a stand against the enemy. But all those who had already up-saddled were riding away at break-neck speed. Many even were leaving their saddles behind and galloping off bare-back. As I up-saddled my horse I called out to them:—
"Don't run away! Come back and storm the enemy's position!" But it was no use. A panic had seized them, and the victims of that panic were those brave men who had never thought of flight, but only of resisting the enemy!
The only thing I could do was to leap into the saddle and try to persuade the fugitives to return. But I did not succeed, for as I stopped them at one point others galloped past me, and I was thus kept dodging from point to point, until the whole commando was out of range of the firing.
The leader of the enemy's storming party was Colonel Le Gallais, without doubt one of the bravest English officers I have ever met. On this occasion he did not encounter much resistance, for only a very few of the burghers attacked him, and that only at one point of his position. Among these burghers were Staats-Procureur Jacob De Villiers, and Veldtcornet Jan Viljoen. As for the rest of our men, it was useless to try to get them to come back to the fight. The gunners however did everything they could to save their guns, but had not enough time to get the oxen inspanned.
Our loss was, as far as I could make out, nine killed, between twenty and thirty wounded, and about one hundred prisoners. Among the dead were Veldtcornets Jan Viljoen, of Heilbron, and Van Zijl, of Cape Colony; and among the wounded, Staats-Procureur Jacob De Villiers and Jan Rechter, the latter of whom subsequently died. The wounded who managed to escape included General Froneman, who was slightly wounded in the chest; Mr. Thomas Brain, who had been hit in the thigh; and one of my staff who was severely wounded, his shoulder being pierced by a bullet.
According to English reports, Dr. De Landsheer, a Belgian, was killed in this engagement. The English newspapers asserted that the doctor was found dead with a bandolier round his body. I can vouch for the fact that the doctor possessed neither rifle nor bandolier, and I am unable to believe that he armed himself on the battlefield.
Six of our Krupp guns were captured in this battle, but as our ammunition for these pieces was nearly exhausted, the loss of them made little difference to us.
I feel compelled to add that, if the burghers had stood shoulder to shoulder we should certainly have driven back the enemy, and the mishap would never have occurred. We were eight hundred men strong, and the enemy numbered not more than one thousand to one thousand two hundred. But a surprise attack such as theirs had been usually produces disastrous consequences.