It was the intention of President Steyn to remain for some time in the division of Vice-Commander-in-Chief Judge Hertzog. Meanwhile, I went to the northern commandos, in order to keep in touch with Generals Louis Botha and De la Rey and our Government. When I was about twelve miles to the south of Petrusburg, I received a letter from General Botha, informing me that Lord Kitchener desired to have a conference held, at Middelburg, in the middle of February, as the English Government wanted to make a Peace Proposal. General Botha asked the President and myself to come yet nearer, so that, in case we might be wanted, we should be within reach.
I sent on his letter to President Steyn, giving him my opinion of it, and asking if he would come. The President, who was always ready to do anything for his country or people, did not lose one moment, but came at once. Meanwhile, I went on ahead with my staff, taking with me also Captain Louis Wessels, and five of his men.
About the 15th of March I crossed the railway line, ten miles to the north of Brandfort, during the night. There we placed some charges of dynamite under the rails, but before we had completed our work, a train came up so quietly that one might call it a "scouting train." It was a dark night, and there was no lantern at the head of the engine, so that we did not see it until it was close upon us. We had, therefore, no chance to ignite the fuse. We retired to a distance of about one hundred paces from the line, when a fierce fire was opened upon us from the train. We replied to this as the train went past, to be succeeded immediately afterwards by a second one. As soon as this also had passed us, we fired the fuses and blew up the railway line at different places close to each other.
Immediately after this two trains came up, stopping close to the place where the explosions had occurred, and fired on us for about ten minutes without intermission. We paid them back in their own coin, and then each train went its way, leaving the repairing of the line to the following day.
From there we marched on, without accident, except that a German received a slight wound, and one horse was killed. We soon reached Senekal (which had been abandoned by the English), where for the first time I met Dr. Reich and his wife. The doctor received us very heartily; although he did not belong to our Field Ambulance, he did everything that he could for our wounded, as he had done for those of the enemy.
From Senekal I went on to pay a visit to the Heilbron commando, after which I proceeded to Vrede, arriving there on the 24th of February.
It was at Vrede that I had asked Louis Botha to meet me, if he could manage it, and the day after my arrival this meeting took place. The General told me that the negotiations between him and Lord Kitchener had resulted in nothing.
Although this was not very satisfactory, still it was just as well that I should meet the Commandant-General of the Transvaal. We had much to discuss and, after a long talk, we parted with the firm determination that, whatever happened, we would continue the war.
On the 27th General Botha returned to the Transvaal, and I to the Heilbron commando. After a few days President Steyn came from the south of the Free State, in order to meet the Transvaal Government at Vrede. After this meeting had taken place he went off to a camp of his own, for it was thought better that he should not remain with the commandos any longer. I gave him fifty burghers, under the command of Commandant Davel, to serve as a bodyguard.
I had but just returned from my meeting with General Botha when a serious matter arose at Petrusburg, demanding my immediate presence there. It was three hundred and sixty miles there and back, and the journey promised to be anything but a pleasure trip—far less a safe excursion—for me; but the country's interest requiring it, I started on the 8th of April, although much fatigued by my inroad into Cape Colony.
My staff succeeded in capturing an outpost of sixteen men on the railway line near Vredefort, the English losing one killed and two wounded.
I visited the commando at Vredefort, arranged everything at Petrusburg, and started on my return journey on the 17th. I crossed the railway line between Smaldeel and Ventersburg Road Station, and after paying Commandant Hasebroek a short visit, I came back to the Heilbron commando.
Our tactics of dividing our commandos, and thus keeping the English busy in every part of the Free State, or, where they were too numerous for us, of refusing to allow them to give us battle, so enraged them that they no longer spared the farmhouses in the north and north-western districts. Even in the south and south-west many of the houses were wrecked, but the work of destruction was not carried out with the same completeness as in the afore-mentioned districts. The enemy, moreover, did not spare our cattle, but either drove them off or killed them for food. As for our women-folk—any of them who fell into the hands of the enemy were sent off to the concentration camps.
I have no space here, however, to write about the treatment of the women; it is such a serious matter that it would require whole chapters to deal with it adequately. Abler pens than mine will deal with it in full detail. I will only remark here that the Boer women were shamefully treated, and that if England wishes to efface the impression which these cruelties have left upon the hearts of our people, she will have to act as every great conquering race must act, if it is ever to be reconciled with the nations it has vanquished.
Our winter season had now begun. We had no provisions except meat, bread and maize. Even these were rather scarce, but we could not yet say that we were altogether destitute. Coffee and sugar—except when we had an opportunity of helping ourselves from the enemy's stores—were unknown to us. With regard to the first-named commodity, however, the reader must know that in the district of Boshof there grows a wild tree, whose roots make an excellent substitute for coffee. Broken up into small pieces and roasted, they supplied us with a delicious beverage. The only pity was that the tree was so scarce that the demand for this concoction very greatly exceeded the supply. We therefore invented another drink—which we also called coffee—and which was composed of corn, barley, maize, dried peaches, sweet potatoes, and miscellaneous ingredients. My own favourite beverage was abundant—especially after heavy rain!
The question of clothing was now beginning to be a very serious one. We were reduced to mending our trousers, and even our jackets with leather. For the tanning of this leather the old and feeble were employed, who, as soon as the enemy approached, fled, and as soon as they had passed, returned to their tanning. At a later period the English had a trick of taking the hides out of the tanning tubs and cutting them to pieces, in the hope, I suppose, that we should then be compelled to go barefoot and unclothed.
It was to obviate such a catastrophe as this that the custom of Uitschudden now came into force. The burghers, although against orders, stripped every prisoner. The English had begun by taking away, or burning, the clothes which the burghers had left in their houses—that was bad enough. But that they should cut up the hides, which they found in the tanning tubs, was still worse; and—the burghers paid them back in the same coin by stripping the troops.
Towards the end of May I crossed the railway line to Parijs and Vredefort, intending to go on from there to see General De la Rey, and discuss our affairs with him. I had come to the conclusion that it would be good policy to send small commandos into Cape Colony; for small bodies of men can move rapidly, and are thus able to get out of the way if they are threatened by overpowering numbers. Moreover, such small detachments would compel the English to divide their forces.
When I reached Vredefort I received a despatch from President Steyn, summoning me to him. I had thus to abandon my idea of visiting General De la Rey; instead of this, I wrote him a letter requesting him to come to the President. I also sent for Judge Hertzog.
De la Rey was the first to arrive, and, without waiting for Judge Hertzog, we at once proceeded to take into consideration the following letter from the Government of the South African Republic.
IN THE FIELD,
South African Republic,
May 10th, 1901.
TO THE GOVERNMENT SECRETARY, O.F.S.
I have the honour to report to you that to-day the following officers met the Government, namely, the Commandant-General, General B. Viljoen, General J.C. Smuts (Staats-Procureur), the last-named representing the western districts. Our situation was seriously discussed, and, among others, the following facts were pointed out:—
1. That small parties of burghers are still continually laying down their arms, and that the danger arising from this is becoming every day more threatening, namely, that we are exposed to the risk of our campaign ending in disgrace, as the consequence of these surrenders may be that the Government and the officers will be left in the field without any burghers, and that, therefore, heavy responsibility rests upon the Government and War Officers, as they represent the nation and not themselves only.
2. That our ammunition is so exhausted that no battle of any importance can be fought, and that this lack of ammunition will soon bring us to the necessity of flying helplessly before the enemy. And that through this same lack it has become impossible for us to afford adequate protection to our people and their cattle, with the result that the general population is being reduced to poverty and despair, and that even the troops will soon be unable to be supplied with provisions.
3. That through the above-mentioned conditions the authority of the Government is becoming more and more weakened, and that thus the danger arises of the people losing all respect and reverence for lawful authority, and falling into a condition of lawlessness. And that to prolong the war can only lead to hastening the ruin of the people, and making it clear to them that the only authority in the country is that of the enemy.
4. That not only is our nation becoming disorganized in the manner above referred to, but that it will also most certainly happen that the leaders of the nation, whose personal influence has hitherto kept it together, will fall into utter contempt, and lose that influence which is our only hope for reviving the national spirit in the future.
5. That the people are constantly demanding to be told what hope still exists of successfully prosecuting the war, and that they have the right to expect to be informed in an honest and straightforward manner that their cause is hopeless, whenever this has become evident to the Government and the Leaders.
Up to the present time the Government and the nation have been expecting that, with the co-operation of their Deputation and by the aid of European complications, there would be some hope for the success of their cause, and the Government feels strongly that before taking any decisive step, an attempt should again be made to arrive with certainty at the results of the Deputation and the political situation in Europe.
Having taken all the facts into consideration, the Government, acting in conjunction with the above-mentioned officers, have arrived at the following decision:
Firstly, that a request should be addressed this very day to Lord Kitchener, asking that through the intervention of ambassadors sent by us to Europe, the condition of our country may be allowed to be placed before President Kruger, which ambassadors are to return with all possible speed.
Secondly, that should this request be refused, or lead to no results, an armistice should be asked for, by which the opportunity should be given us of finally deciding in consultation with your Government, and the people of the two States, what we must do.
This second proposal is, however, subject to any solution which your Government, taking into consideration the above-mentioned grievances, may be able to suggest.
The Government feels very keenly that it would no longer be right to allow things to go on as they have been going on, and that the time has arrived for taking some definite steps; it will, therefore, be glad to receive an answer from your Government as soon as possible.
I have the honour to be,
Secretary of State.
The answer which the President sent to this letter was formerly in my possession, but has been lost with many of my documents. I am able, however, to give an extract, which I received from the Rev. J.D. Kestell. It was to the following effect:—
The President was much disappointed with the letter of the Transvaal Government; he said that although there had been in the past some surrenders in the Free State, this difficulty had now been overcome. Moreover, although the ammunition had for a long time been scarce, nevertheless, after every fight, there had been enough to begin the next with. To the question, What probability was there of their being able to continue the struggle? he would reply by asking another question—What hope had the two little Republics, at the beginning of the war, of winning the fight against the might of England? If they had trusted in God at the beginning, why did they not continue to trust in Him?
He also pointed out that if the Boer cause was really quite hopeless, the Deputation would have been sure to send word to that effect. Further, he assured the Transvaal Government that if an armistice were to be obtained, and if during it the people of the Free State were to be asked for their opinion, the decision of the burghers who were still in the field would be to continue the war.
He could not approve of the decision of the Transvaal Government to ask Lord Kitchener to allow ambassadors to be sent to Europe, for, by so doing, the Government would be showing its hand to the enemy; he added that he was very sorry that such a decision had been taken without first consulting the Free State.
As to the fear expressed by the Transvaal Government, that the Authorities and the Officers in the field would be left without burghers, the President said, that even if the Government and the Officers of the Free State were to surrender, the nation would not do so. It would be a great misfortune, he added, if the Orange Free State, which had not only lost its property and the lives of many of its burghers but also even its very independence, in the defence of the sister Republic, should now be abandoned by that Republic; that then all confidence in one another and all co-operation between Afrikanders would come to an end for ever: and that, under such circumstances, it would be too much to expect that the African nation should ever be able to rise again. If then the Boers wished to remain a nation, it was absolutely necessary to continue the war.
After having quoted various appropriate passages from the newspapers, the President went on as follows:—
"All these considerations combine to make me believe that we should be committing a National murder if we were to give in now. Brethren! Hold out a little longer. Let not our sufferings and our struggles be in vain; let not our faith in the God of our fathers become a byword. Do all that you can to encourage one another."
The President concluded this very remarkable and powerful letter with the question:—
"Are we again to leave the Colonial burghers in the lurch? God forbid."
We decided to set out for the Transvaal in order to discuss the matter with the Government; and on the evening of the 5th of June we marched four or five miles from Liebenbergsvlei, to a place opposite Verkijkersdorp. We were, all told, between sixty and seventy men, including the staff and part of the bodyguard of President Steyn, the staff of General De la Rey, and eight of my staff officers.
The following morning, an hour and a half after sunrise, a burgher came galloping up to tell us that the enemy had just captured a laager of women.
It seemed impossible to ride over to the rescue of these women, for our horses had still to make the long journey into the Transvaal. I asked our guest, General De la Rey, what he thought about the matter. He at once replied that we must go and liberate the women. As we were already up-saddled in readiness for our march, I had nothing to do but to give the order to start. The President, with his staff and some of the bodyguard, remained behind; while General De la Rey, Commandant Davel and I, with fifty-five men, hurried off. The retired General, Piet Fourie, was also with us.
The enemy had marched with the laager on to a hill near the Kaffir kraal, consisting of four or five huts and a building made of sods.
We first caught sight of the English when we were at a distance of four miles from them; they were then busy drawing up the waggons of the women in rows of ten or twelve. The oxen belonging to the first row stood close against the kraal, as we saw later on; those of the second row being behind them, and so on.
The women told us afterwards that they had asked to be allowed to retire to a place where they would not run the risk of being shot by us (for the English had taken cover barely one hundred paces behind the waggons and were preparing to fight us from there), but that they were ordered to remain behind the soldiers. They were thus exposed to the danger of being hit by us, if we shot a little too high. It was, they said, the most terrible day they had ever spent.
When we came within range of the English, they opened a hot fire upon us. We had to gallop over ground as smooth as a table with no cover until we were close up to them, and protected by a small hill. We left our horses here, and ran as fast as we could up the incline. At the top we were within forty paces of the place where the English were lying in wait for us. As soon as our heads appeared over the brow of the hill they fired on us; but there was only one round fired, for our reply was so sharp and severe that many of them were at once mowed down. The rest jumped up and retreated behind the last row of waggons, several of them, however, being killed during their flight.
Our men dashed through between the waggons, but the English were the first to reach the kraal. They had made loopholes in its walls, through which they now fired on us. The only shelter we had was a Kaffir hut, which as is well known, always has a round wall. There was no chance for us to make loopholes—the wall was too solid—so that if a burgher wanted to shoot he had to expose his whole body, while the English lay ready behind their loopholes to fire on us. So it happened that eleven burghers were killed and seven wounded. Among the dead was Captain Thijnsma, and among the wounded, Lieutenant H. Howell.
In the meantime we had got the waggons away, except the row which was nearest to the kraal, and which were too close to the enemy for us to be able to approach them safely.
No sooner had the English taken refuge in the kraal than the women fled with the waggons; and it is astonishing to relate that only one little boy of thirteen years was killed, and a woman and a girl slightly wounded. One of the burghers whom the English had taken prisoner was also killed.
I have no exact figure as to the losses of the English, but judging from the number of dead and wounded lying on the battlefield, I should say that their casualties must have been about eighty.
The fight lasted from eleven till three o'clock, and then a reinforcement of cavalry, from eight hundred to one thousand men strong, appeared with some guns. The force with which we had been engaged, numbering about two hundred men, belonged to the column which was now coming up. As we could not drive the English from the kraal before the arrival of the reinforcements, we had to give way.
Although I had given orders that all the waggons which had managed to escape should be sent on to Reitz, in the actual event only a few carts went there. The women had left the waggons behind, close to the hill at the foot of the English position, where I could not see them, in order to await the result. They had forgotten what I had told them, namely, that they were to get away as quickly as possible. This order I had given in the expectation that a reinforcement might arrive at any moment.
After I had ordered a few men to bring the wounded into a safe place, I retired with the remainder, some forty-five in number. Among these was Veldtcornet Serfontein and his burghers.
The English now directed their fire upon the women's laager, to compel it to come to a standstill. Whether any of the women and children were killed or wounded I was unable to ascertain, but it was horrible to see the bombs bursting over their heads. Thus the women again fell into the hands of the enemy.
With four of my adjutants and Piet Fourie, I succeeded in driving away quite one thousand five hundred head of cattle. The bombs fell heavily on them also, but I got them safely away. Late that evening we arrived at the spot where we had left President Steyn, only to find that he had gone away. He had been obliged to retreat before the force which the previous evening had been at Duminy Drift, and which had passed near him during the day. The President had accordingly gone some twelve miles in the direction of Lindley.
It was one of the coldest nights we had that winter, and our pack-horses which were carrying the blankets were with the President. It was impossible for us to sleep without any covering on such a night as that, and so we were obliged to march on. We had moreover to look for something to eat, for we had had nothing since breakfast. Our horses had never had their saddles off from the time we went out to fight until we arrived about midnight at the President's camp.
 The previous evening we had received a report of two English camps on the Wilge River: One at Duminy Drift, the other at Steildrift—under General Elliott. They were led by Piet de Wet and other National Scouts.