Commandant Hasebroek held the enemy in check whilst we continued our march to a place called Vrouwpan. On the following day we struck the Brak River at a point ten miles south-east of its confluence with the Orange River, to the east of Prieska. It was not fordable, and we had to off-saddle.
There was absolutely no chance of getting across—the best of swimmers would have been helpless in that swollen torrent, which rushed down to the Orange River, its great waves roaring like a tempestuous sea.
About two hours before sunset Commandant Hasebroek reported that the English were rapidly approaching. The question was, "Which way shall we go?" It was impossible to escape either to the south of the river or in the direction of the enemy, for the veldt was too flat to afford us any cover. If we were not to be cornered against an impassable torrent, we must make our way down stream to the north-west; and even then we should be in danger of being driven on to the Orange River, which was only ten miles distant. By taking this road the English would not see us, on account of a ridge which lay between us and them.
My plan was to get behind this ridge and to march under its shelter until darkness came on; then, proceeding up the Orange River, to attack the enemy in the rear. They were, however, only nine miles from us, and should their advance be rapid, they would reach the friendly ridge before night came on; and the danger would then be that before I had fulfilled my purpose, we should be hemmed in between two swollen rivers with the most fatal consequences. The risk was great, but no other course was open to us. There was no time to seek advice from any one; I had but a moment to spare in which to acquaint President Steyn with my scheme. He said at once: "General, do as you think best."
My mind had been already made up; but my respect for the President was so great, and we had always worked in such harmony, that I did not like to do anything without his knowledge; besides which, his advice was often of great value. Joshua of old prayed that the day might be lengthened: but here the case was different; we had reason to be thankful that the day was passed and night had begun to fall before the vanguard of the enemy had reached the ridge, from the summit of which they might have observed us.
That night was the darkest I had ever known. And this was in our favour. Very quietly we retreated in a line parallel with the English column until, on the following morning, we were not only out of sight but a good nine or ten miles behind the enemy, who were marching on, fully expecting to corner us between the two rivers.
The English army had been enormously reinforced, and it was clear that now more than ever they were putting forth all their powers to silence President Steyn and myself effectually.
From their point of view they were right; for had things turned out in such a way that we could have remained in Cape Colony, then I am convinced we should have made matters very awkward for them.
But what were we to do now? With so many burghers on foot or provided only with worn-out horses, it was useless to think of circumventing the enemy, and thus getting once more to the south of them; whereas to go up stream along the banks of the Orange River until we could discover a ford, and then to return across it into the Free State, would mean the upsetting of my plan of campaign.
I was obliged to make the best of a bad bargain; and I decided to find a way across the Orange River before the enemy had discovered my whereabouts.
That day, the 20th of February, we set out along the river, looking for a ford. The river was falling, but as there was no feasible crossing we had no choice but to go on, trusting that we should find one near the confluence of the two rivers. Here again we were disappointed; the punts which should have been there had been destroyed some time before by the English, but we heard of a boat six miles higher up, so on we marched. When found, it was only a small boat, capable of holding, at most, twelve men, but we got to work at once, and by the evening of the 22nd there were two hundred dismounted burghers on the other bank of the river. Some crossed by swimming, in attempting which a man of the name of Van de Nerwe was drowned.
A few of those who crossed in the boat succeeded in pulling their horses after them.
On the morning of the 23rd I received a report that the English forces were close on our heels. We did not expect them so soon, but they had made a long night's march. Without delay we off-saddled, and proceeded along the river, while the rearguard covered our retreat. The force of the enemy was, however, too great, and the rearguard had, after a short engagement, to give way.
Fortunately the veldt was broken, and we could (as we had done a few days previously) march ahead out of sight of the enemy. Towards two o'clock in the afternoon we were obliged to off-saddle, but could only do so for one hour, for the English were upon us again. Our gun and Maxim-Nordenfeldt we had to leave behind for the enemy; the draught cattle had become exhausted, and we had no dynamite with which to blow up the guns.
But what did it matter? England had already so many big guns that two more could not make much difference, if added to the four hundred which that country—one of the oldest and strongest of Empires—had brought against a small nation, fighting only to defend its sacred rights.
Nevertheless, it cut me to the heart to give up my guns on that day—the 23rd of February—the commemoration day of the independence of the Orange Free State. In happier times we had celebrated this day amongst our friends, to the accompaniment of salvoes of rifles. Now we were obliged to celebrate it by giving up the only two guns with which we could still shoot, and which we were now to see turned upon ourselves.
My feelings on that day I can never forget! Those Englishmen who go by the name of "Pro-Boers" are the best fitted to describe the anguish which then overpowered me, for they stood up for justice even against their own people. And this not because they were hostile to their Government, or to the greatness of England's power, but only because they were not without moral sense, because they could not stifle conscience at the expense of justice, nor identify themselves with iniquitous actions.
But the day will come—of this I am convinced—when not Pro-Boers only, but all England will acknowledge our rights—the rights which we shall then have earned by our quiet faithfulness and obedience. I cannot believe that any father will look without pity on a child who comes to him as a child should—obedient and submissive.
The 23rd of February, 1901, the forty-seventh anniversary of the Orange Free States, had been a disastrous day for us indeed, but it was to end in another miraculous escape, for in the darkness of that evening it again happened that we were delivered from an apparently unavoidable misfortune. As I have said already, the English were firing on my rear-guard; at the same time my scouts came in to tell me that, just in front of us, at a distance of not quite four miles, there was another great army of the enemy. I had intended to march that night to the west of Hopetown. But now if I went in that direction I should only run straight on to this army. If we went to the left we could only advance 2,000 paces before being visible to the English on the kop close to Hopetown, from where they could make known our movements by heliograph. At our front, at our back, on our left, the outlook was hopeless; and to the right lay the cruel river. Stand still we could not—the enemy were upon us—it was impossible that anything could save us—no, not impossible—a rescue was at hand.
The sun was just going down, and by the time we could be seen from Hopetown, night would have covered us with its sheltering wings.
We should then be able to execute a flank movement, and make a detour round the enemy who were before us. But now I knew that we must be prepared to march nearly the whole night through, in order that we might be able, early on the following morning, to cross the railway lines. If we did not do this, then we should have the enemy close in our rear, and perhaps an armour train threatening us in front. But ... there were the burghers on foot and those who had weak horses; and I had not the heart to make them march on foot for so long a time, yet the thought of allowing such trustworthy patriotic burghers to fall into the hands of the enemy was unbearable. I therefore decided on letting them take a cross road to the north, to the banks of the Orange River about five miles from our position. There, on the banks of the river, were many bushes amongst which they could hide themselves until the enemy had passed by. They could then proceed along the banks of the river and cross it by means of the boat. I cautioned them not to march in one troop, or in one trail, but to spread out, so that the English could not easily follow their tracks. In this the poor burghers succeeded; they already, on that memorable and sad day, had marched eighteen miles; but they had yet to cover another five miles to the river before they could take their night's rest. They accomplished this feat (on the second day) under the valiant and true Commandant Hasebroek, whose horse, although tired, was still able to proceed. As for me, I marched away in the evening, and after we had rested that night for a few hours, we arrived at a place a short distance to the south of Hopetown. About eight o'clock we crossed the line, which was fortunately at that point not as yet guarded by forts, and off-saddled about six miles beyond. We had eaten nothing since the previous day, and it will easily be understood that we were so hungry that we, as the Boer proverb says,—"could have eaten off a nail's head." There we got some sheep, and it was not long before they were killed, broiled, and eaten; what a meal we made!
Towards mid-day we headed once more for the Orange River. We thought that by the time we arrived it would be fordable, for we had seen on the previous morning that it was falling rapidly, but what was our disappointment! there must have been rain higher up the stream, as the river had become fuller, and there was still no chance of crossing.
The English were approaching. We had, however, to use our field glasses to enable us to see them, as we were fifteen or sixteen miles in front of them. Once more there were burghers whose horses were tired and who had to march on foot. We thought now that there would be a better chance at Limoensdrift; and every one who knew this ford said that it was a shallow one. The following day saw us there, and—the river was quite full! We then tried higher up, still with the same result—every drift was unfordable.
At last we reached the Zanddrift, where we had crossed seventeen days before. We knew that this was a shallow drift, and on arriving there I got two young burghers,—of whom the one, David Heenop, was an excellent swimmer,—to make a trial. The water had not appeared to be so deep as we found it to be, when the two burghers plunged into it. They could not remain on their horses' backs, but had to swim alongside of them to the other side of the river. All thought of their return was out of the question; they had risked their lives in crossing, and I gave them orders from my side of the river not to attempt the passage back. But they had not a stitch of clothing on them, for they had stripped themselves before entering the water! In this state, then, they were obliged to mount their horses and proceed, and this under a burning sun, which scorched them with its rays. About three-quarters of an hour's ride from there was a Boer farm; their only course, they thought, was to ask for gowns from the ladies there, in which to dress themselves. When they arrived at a short distance from the house (such was the account they gave on joining me later on) they halted and shouted to the house for clothing. A Boer vrouw named Boshof, sent to each one through her son—not a gown, but a pair of trousers and a shirt of her husband's, which she had been able to hide from the English, who had passed there, and who generally took away, or burnt, all male attire.
The enemy had, in the meantime, approached quite close to us, and we were again obliged to look for a drift up stream. We had hopes that if the river did not all of a sudden rise, we should find one. We came so close to the English that we had to open fire on their advance guard before we could proceed.
Here General Judge Hartzog met us with his commandos from the south-west of Cape Colony, and with him, General Fourie.
That night we marched about fourteen miles.
In the night, after crossing the Zeekoe River, we arrived at a Boer farm, to which (we are told) twenty English scouts had paid a visit shortly after sunset, and, having asked for information concerning us, had gone away by the same road we were following. About four or five miles from there we had to cross a ridge. It was dark, and I had forgotten those twenty English. I had sent out no scouts before me, but rode, as was my habit, with my staff, in front of the commandos. As we approached the summit of the mountain I saw a group of horses fastened together, and some men lying in front of them. The horses and men were not twenty paces to the left of the path, among the bushes. I thought at first that they were some of my burghers who had ridden on in advance, and were now lying there asleep; I myself had rested for a while at the foot of the mountains, to give the burghers, who were on foot, a chance of coming up with me. The thought angered me, for it would have been against all orders that any burghers, without special permission, should go in advance. I proceeded to wake them up.
"What do you mean by riding ahead like this?" I called out to them. Nearly all with one accord sprang up and asked, "Who are you?" "Hands up!" I called out; as one man their hands went up. They explained that they were seven of the twenty scouts before mentioned,—but here the remainder opened fire upon us from about two hundred paces to the front. I called out to the burghers, "Charge!"
The burghers did so, but as they came to the little hill where we had seen the sparks from the guns they found nobody. The English had fled, and, as the moon had just gone down, it was too dark to pursue them. Taking with us the seven prisoners, we continued on our way until the following morning. We allowed them to retain their clothes. It was still before the "uitschuddings" period.
The day broke, and after having been turned back on the banks of the Brak River, we marched to the fifteenth ford. "If we could only get across here," we said. We knew that once across we should have a respite from the enemy, and could with thankful hearts take breath even if it were only for three or four days.
When we came to the river I at once ordered a few burghers to undress and go in. Alas! when the horses entered the ford, the water came over their backs, and they had almost to swim. "Now they will have to swim!" we cried, but presently we saw that the farther they went the shallower it became, and that they walked where we expected them to swim, until at last the water reached only to the horses' knees.
What a scramble there was now among the burghers in order to cross! Soon the river was one mass of men from bank to bank.
I can hardly describe the different exclamations of joy, the Psalms and the songs that now rose up from the burghers splashing through the water. "Never will we return," "No more of the Colony for me," "The Free State," "On to the Free State!" "The Free State for ever!" Then again, "Praise the Lord with cheerful song," "Hurrah!" These were among the expressions which met my ears.
Although this was only an old waggon-ford, which had not been used for the last few years, my little waggon and a few carts got across. One of the carts was drawn by two small donkeys. Somebody told me that the little donkeys had to swim a short distance where it was deep, and at one time disappeared beneath the water; but that the driver was so full of joy—or of fear—that he went on whipping the water!
A fearful experience we had had! We asked each other in wonder, "Is it possible? How could we have endured it?" But as I have only been hinting at things, the reader will perhaps say, "O come! it hasn't been as bad as all that!"
Give me leave then, dear reader, to place before you the whole of the circumstances. England's great power pitted against two Republics, which, in comparison with European countries, were nearly uninhabited! This mighty Empire employed against us, besides their own English, Scotch and Irish soldiers, volunteers from the Australian, New Zealand, Canadian and South African Colonies; hired against us both black and white nations, and, what is the worst of all, the national scouts from our own nation sent out against us. Think, further, that all harbours were closed to us, and that there were therefore no imports. Can you not see that the whole course of events was a miracle from beginning to end? A miracle of God in the eyes of every one who looks at it with an unbiassed mind, but even more apparent to those who had personal experience of it. Yet, however that may be, I had to declare again that if there had been no national scouts and no Kaffirs, in all human probability matters would have taken another turn. But as things have turned out, all that can now be said is, that we have done our best, and that to ask any one to do more is unreasonable. May it be the cry of every one, "God willed it so—His name be praised!"
 There were still two Krupps left, but we had no ammunition for them.
 Farmer's wife.