The enemy gave us plenty of time in which to effect our escape, and by nightfall we had abandoned our positions at Platkop. Taking with us the prisoners of war (whom I intended to set free on the far side of the Orange River), we marched towards Vaalbank, arriving there on the following morning. That day the English attacked us unawares. While I was at Dewetsdorp, Captain Pretorius had come up to give me a report of his recent doings. I had sent him, two months previously, from the district of Heilbron to Fauresmith and Philippolis, in order to fetch two or three hundred horses from those districts; he had told me that he had brought the horses, and that they were with his 200 men at Droogfontein.
It was about eight o'clock in the morning after our night march that our outpost at Vaalbank saw a mounted commando riding from Beijersberg in the direction of Reddersburg. I was at once informed of this, but as I was expecting Pretorius from that direction, I merely said: "It is sure to be Captain Pretorius."
"No; this is an English commando."
English or Australian—it made very little matter—they were enemies.
I had no need to give the order to off-saddle, the burghers did it at once of their own accord. But before we were ready for him, the enemy opened fire on us from the very ridge on which our outpost had been stationed.
Off went the burghers, and I made no effort to stop them, for the spot where we were did not command a good view of the surrounding country, and I already had my eye on some ridges, about half an hour's ride away. There we should be able to reconnoitre, especially towards Dewetsdorp, whence I expected the enemy at any moment. During the retreat Veldtcornet de Wet was severely wounded. Moreover, some of our horses had to be left behind, being too exhausted to go any further.
We marched on towards Bethulie. When in the neighbourhood of this town, and of the farm of "Klein Bloemfontein," I fell in with General Piet Fourie and Captain Scheepers, and took them with me. While on this farm I set free the Kaffirs whom I had taken prisoner at Dewetsdorp; they pretended they had not been fighting, but were only waggon-drivers. I gave them a pass to go into Basutoland.
We then proceeded towards Karmel, and just as we were approaching the farm of "Good Hope," we caught sight of an English column which had come from Bethulie, and was making for Smithfield. I at once opened fire upon them from two sides, but they were in such good positions that we failed that day to drive them out. On the morrow, early in the morning, the fight began afresh.
About four o'clock in the afternoon General Charles Knox, with a large reinforcement, arrived from Smithfield, and we had once more to retire. It was here that I sustained a loss upon my staff—my nephew, Johannes Jacobus de Wet. It was sad to think that I should never again see Johannes—so brave and cheerful as he had always been. His death was a great shock to me.
Our only other casualties were four burghers wounded, whereas the enemy, unless I am much mistaken, must have lost heavily.
Whilst this fight was in progress General Hertzog joined me. We arranged that he should with all speed make an inroad into Cape Colony, between the Norvalspont and Hopetown railway bridges, and that I should do the same between the railway bridges at Bethulie and Aliwal North. He was to operate in the north-western part of the country, I in the eastern and midland parts.
That night we continued our march towards Karmel, under a heavy downpour of rain. Next morning it was still raining when we started to continue our march; later on in the day we off-saddled for a short time and then went on again, so as to be able to cross the Caledon River before it became impossible to do so. I can assure you that it rained so hard while we were fording the Caledon, that, as the Boers say, "It was enough to kill the big devils and cut off the legs of the little ones." We then marched on—still through heavy rain.
Commandant Truter, who was in command of the rear-guard, had left a Krupp and an ammunition waggon behind. I was not at all pleased about this, but, as we had not a single round of Krupp ammunition left, the gun would only have hampered us.
That evening we reached the Orange River, at a point some three miles to the north of Odendaalsstroom, but, alas! what a sight met our eyes! The river was quite impassable owing to the floods, and, in addition, the ford was held by English troops stationed on the south bank.
Our position was beginning to be critical, for there was an English garrison at Aliwal North, so that I could not cross the Orange River by the bridge there. It was also highly probable that the Caledon would be in flood, and I knew that General Charles Knox had left a division of his troops at Smithfield—they would be sure to be holding the bridge over the Caledon at Commissiedrift. Moreover, Jammerbergsdrift, near Wepener, was doubtless well guarded, so that there, too, I would have no chance of crossing the river. There was still Basutoland, but we did not wish to cross its borders—we were on good terms with the Basutos and we could not afford to make enemies of them. Surely we had enough enemies already!
To make the best of a bad job I sent Commandant Kritzinger and Captain Scheepers, with their three hundred men, to march in the direction of Rouxville with orders that as soon as the Orange River became fordable, they were to cross it into Cape Colony without delay. I entertained no doubt that they would succeed.
Everything is as it must be, and unless one is a sluggard—who brings trouble upon himself by doing nothing to avoid it—one has no reason to complain.
Such were my thoughts as I contemplated our situation.
The Orange River was in flood—the Government and I, therefore, could not possibly remain where we were for long. The English were so fond of us that they would be sure to be paying us a visit! No, to wait there until the river was fordable was not to be thought of.
The reader will now perceive how it was that my projected inroad into Cape Colony did not become a fact. My dear old friend, General Charles Knox, was against it, and he had the best of the argument, for the river was unfordable. What then was I to do? Retreat I could not, for the Caledon also was now full. Again, as I have already explained, it would not do for me to take refuge in Basutoland. But even that would be better than to attempt to hold out where I was—in a narrow belt of country between two rivers in flood—against the overpowering force which was at General Knox's disposal, and which in ten or twelve days would increase tenfold, by reinforcements from all parts of the country.
I knew that the Orange and the Caledon Rivers sometimes remained unfordable for weeks together. How could I then escape?—Oh, the English had caught me at last! They hemmed me in on every side; I could not get away from them. In fact they had "cornered" me, to use one of their own favourite expressions. That they also thought so appears from what I read afterwards in the South African News, where I saw that Lord Kitchener had given orders to General Charles Knox "not to take any prisoners there!" For the truth of this I cannot positively vouch; but it was a very suspicious circumstance that Mr. Cartwright, the editor of the newspaper to which I have referred, was afterwards thrown into prison for having published this very anecdote about Lord Kitchener.
Our prospects were then by no means bright; I knew very well that those trusty counsellors of the English—the National Scouts—would have advised their masters to seize the bridges and thus make escape impossible for Steyn and De Wet.
Without delay I proceeded to the Commissiedrift bridge over the Caledon. As I feared, it was occupied by the enemy. Entrenchments had been dug, and schanzes thrown up at both ends.
Foiled here, I at once sent a man down to the river to see if it was still rising. It might be the case that there had not been so much rain higher up. The man whom I had sent soon returned, reporting that the river was falling, and would be fordable by the evening. This was good news indeed.
On the other hand, our horses were exhausted. They had now for three days been obliged to plough their way through the wet, muddy paths. We had no forage to give them, and the grass was so young as yet that it did not seem to strengthen them at all.
Nevertheless, we had to be off. And there was but one road open to us—we must somehow get across the Orange River and thus obtain elbow-room. Accordingly we returned to make for Zevenfontein, a ford ten or twelve miles further up the river. If it were not already in the enemy's hands, we would surely be able to get across there. Shortly before sunset, on the 8th of December, we arrived at Zevenfontein. To our immense joy, it was unoccupied and fordable.
I at once marched towards Dewetsdorp, intending, if only General Knox and his huge force would give me the chance, to rest my horses, and then make another attempt to enter Cape Colony.
But it was not to be.
The English were afraid that if President Steyn and I were in Cape Colony their troubles would be doubled. General Knox therefore concentrated all his available forces in order to drive us northwards. It was disappointing, but there was a bright side to it. If the English were pursuing me, they would have to leave Commandant Kritzinger and Captain Scheepers, who would thus be able to cross the Orange River.
These two officers, however, were not left entirely in peace. While they rested for a time near Zastron, in order to give their horses a chance of recovering their strength, there came a division of Brabant's Horse to pay them a visit. The result was that about sixty of the visitors were wounded or taken prisoner, while the rest found it as much as they could do to get back to Aliwal North, whence they had started. Commandant Kritzinger and Captain Scheepers had then another opportunity for rest until the day should come when they could make an inroad into Cape Colony according to my instructions.
Although, as I have already said, the English were passionately devoted to President Steyn and myself, I was deprived of their endearments for the space of two whole days, during which I was at Wilgeboomspruit. Here I was joined by Commandant Hasebroek with his commando, and all of us—horses as well as men—enjoyed a little rest. But very soon General Knox was again at our heels, and, to escape him, I marched west in the direction of Edenburg, hoping at last to be able to get into Cape Colony. Not only were the forces of General Knox behind us, but, when we arrived at the farm of "Hexrivier," and thus were within two hours' march of Edenburg, I heard from my scouts, whom I had sent on in advance, that there was a great English column in front of us at that town.
In the evening, therefore, I turned off towards the east, and marched in the direction of Wepener.
The following morning the enemy was again on our track; but, as we had covered twenty miles during the night, we were so far ahead that it was unnecessary for us to move very fast during that and the following day.
At mid-day, the 13th of December, we took up excellent positions—placed in a line of about eight miles from end to end—on the farm called "Rietfontein," which is in the district of Wepener, north-east of Daspoort. We were so strongly posted that the enemy had to halt and wait for the arrival of the rearguard. I had calculated on this, and knew that darkness would come to our aid before the English were ready to attack us. But in front of us there was a strong line of forts, extending from Bloemfontein through Thaba'Nchu and Springhaansnek, to Ladybrand. Through this line we should have to fight our way; this would be difficult enough, and it would never do to have General Knox at our heels, to increase the difficulty. Our only plan, then, was to make a long night march, and thus to get well out of the way.
Accordingly, I gave orders to the men to hold their positions until dark, and to let the enemy see that they were doing so. I had even had schanzes built, so as to impress them with the idea that I intended to attack them the following day if they advanced towards my positions. And just before the night came on, I ordered the burghers to show themselves from behind all our schanzes.
Then night fell, and I at once gave orders to march off.
The burghers could not understand this, and began to grumble about it—what could their General mean? Why this sudden change in his plans? I said nothing, but thought to myself, "You shall know why to-morrow."
We marched directly towards Springhaansnek. It was very slow work, for many of the burghers' horses were so weak that their owners had to go on foot. General Philip Botha and I were with the rearguard, and did not expect to reach the line of forts until ten o'clock on the following morning.
We had not advanced very far before we were joined by Commandant Michal Prinsloo, who had with him three hundred of the Bethlehem burghers. He had come down from Springhaansnek, and as his horses were in good condition I ordered him to go in advance of us, to pass through Springhaansnek, and then to occupy positions to the north of the lines of forts and east of Thaba'Nchu.
My object in making this arrangement was that when on the following morning we were crossing the mountains, he might be able to hinder the enemy at Thaba'Nchu from either checking our advance, or sending reinforcements to the Springhaansnek forts.
And in point of fact, Prinsloo's commando proved to be our salvation; for the English, from their high position at Thaba'Nchu, spied us as soon as day broke, and indeed sent troops to reinforce the point for which we were making. But Prinsloo succeeded in holding them in check, so that when we arrived at Springhaansnek we had to fight against strong positions, but against nothing else—but I must not anticipate.
Before it began to be light on the morning of the 14th of December, Commandant Prinsloo passed through the enemy's lines between the forts. The English fired upon him, but he did not turn back. Then a small outpost of the enemy, which lay half-way between the forts, made an attempt to turn the oncoming burghers by shooting at them from the front. The Commandant only gave strict orders that the men must force their way through. The consequence was that two of the enemy, who did not get out of the way in time, were literally ridden over. The burghers thought that these two unfortunate men had been trodden to death by the horses, but it was not likely that any of them would dismount to see if this were actually the case.
As I have already said, General Botha and I were in the rearguard. We knew, however, that Vice-Commandant-in-Chief Piet Fourie—a man whom nothing on earth would stop, if he had once made up his mind—was leading the van, and that he was supported by Veldtcornet Johannes Hattingh, who was as resolute and undaunted as his chief.
Fourie did not wait for us to catch him up, but at once went down the mountain side. When we saw this, General Botha and I rode with all speed ahead, telling the burghers to come on more gently with their weary horses. I did not fear thus to leave them behind, because I knew that General Knox was still a long way in the rear.
Just as General Fourie, leading the first storming-party, had passed between the forts, we came up with him, our burghers still straggling on behind us. As soon as we had crossed over the first piece of rising ground, I halted my men, and ordered them to leave their horses out of sight of the enemy, and to return to the brow of the hill, so as to be able to fire into the forts on the right and left hand, which were from eight hundred to nine hundred paces from us. From this hill we kept up as fierce a fire as we could, and this to a great extent prevented the enemy in those forts from firing on our burghers who were still coming on in a long train.
It is necessary, in order that the reader may understand the task which we had set ourselves to accomplish, to say a few words about Springhaansnek. At either side of the way by which we must pass, there were two strong forts, at a distance of from a thousand to twelve hundred paces from each other. In the space between them there was absolutely no cover; and the distance from the point where the burghers were first visible to the men in these forts, to the point where they again disappeared from view, was at least three thousand paces.
Over these terrible three thousand paces our burghers raced, while a storm of bullets was poured in upon them from both sides. And of all that force—eight thousand strong—no single man was killed, and only one was wounded!
Our marvellous escape can only be described to the providence and irresistible protection of Almighty God, who kept His hand graciously over us.
What the enemy's loss was I never heard.
In addition to the burghers, a few carts and waggons, as well as one of the two guns which had been taken at Dewetsdorp, got safely through the English lines. The other gun was left behind by the sergeant of the artillery, before he reached the fighting line. He sent the horses of the gun-carriage with the gunners, back to Commandant Hasel, who subsequently followed us to Ijzernek, to the west of Thaba'Nchu.
My ambulance with Dr. Fourie and Dr. Poutsma, were stopped by the English. Dr. Fourie had, as was quite proper, remained outside the fighting line, with the intention of coming through afterwards. This he was permitted to do on the following day. He brought me a message from General Knox to the effect that Commandant Hasebroek had lost heavily in an engagement with Colonel White, who had marched out from Thaba'Nchu. But I had already received information that the Commandant had got through the enemy's lines unhurt, and that on the contrary it was he who had killed some of Colonel White's men, while they were attacking him.
We decided to retreat still further, in order to reach a place of safety where we might rest our horses, in preparation for that long dash into Cape Colony, which I still intended to carry out on the first opportunity. I felt sure, however, that my commandos would be allowed no rest by the enemy as long as the President and I were with them. Accordingly I planned that as soon as we got to the north of Winburg he and I should absent ourselves from the commandos for some time, while I proceeded to arrange certain matters (to be set down in a later chapter) by which I hoped to effectually "settle" the English.
On our arrival at a certain farm to the south of Senekal we discovered that General Knox was once more at our heels. We had several small engagements with him, in one of which a son of Commandant Truter, of Harrismith, was killed.
On the afternoon of Christmas Day, 1900, we left the farm, and rode on to the Tafelkop, nine miles to the west of Senekal.
 He was subsequently appointed Vice-Commander-in-Chief in Cape Colony.
 In the original a Kaffir word is used here. The literal meaning of the phrase is "to throw the knuckle bones"—the Kaffir equivalent for dice.