The following morning we had to continue our journey to the Transvaal. It being necessary to keep out of sight of the enemy, we marched first a short distance to the south, and then went south-east. After a few days we reached Vrede. There Commandant Manie Botha spared us a few burghers who knew this part of the country well to serve as guides across the railway line. We headed to the north of Volksrust, and on the second evening after we had left Vrede, we struck the railway line at a spot which was guarded by an outpost. They opened fire on us at once. General De la Rey and I then came to the decision that after the burghers had exchanged a few shots, we would quietly retreat a short distance, and then, with a sweep, try and cross the line at another spot. This ruse was successful and we crossed unobserved. But the first of our men had hardly got seventy paces from the railway line, when a fearful explosion of dynamite took place, not thirty paces from the spot where we had crossed. Whether this was managed by electricity or whether the hindmost horses had struck on the connecting wire of some trap set by the enemy, I cannot say; at all events, we escaped with only a fright.
On the fourth day after this we met the Transvaal Government and held a conference at once, in accordance with the letter mentioned in my last chapter. It grieved us much that things should have taken this turn, for it nearly always happened that somehow matters of this sort came to the ears of the English.
But the Transvaal Government had again taken courage, as they had received an answer to the cable which they had sent to the Deputation, which answer instructed them to hold out; and also because two successful battles had taken place shortly before—one fought by General Kemp, and the other by Commandant Muller. We remained there for two days, and after it had been settled by the two Governments that the war should be continued with all our might, and also that days of thanksgiving and humiliation should be appointed, we went away accompanied by the genial and friendly Commandant Alberts, of Standerton, who brought us across the Natal-Transvaal railway. Captain Alberts was renowned as a valiant soldier; we now also found him to be a most sociable man. He beguiled the time with agreeable narratives of events in which he had taken part, and almost before we realized it we had reached the railway line. We crossed in safety and took a hearty farewell of our friendly Commandant and his burghers.
On our march to Zilverbank—a farm on the Waterval River—I did not require any guide, for I knew the surroundings, having lived there for two years. After breakfast on the following morning we went on to within four or five miles south of Hexrivier farm, about three miles to the north of the Vaal River. There we off-saddled; and shortly after General De la Rey took leave of us. He wanted to cross the railway at a place between Vereeniging and Meyerton Station. This would lead him by a shorter road to his commandos than if he went through the Free State. Our farewell was affectionate—all the more so because we did not know whether we should see each other again on this earth. Then we continued on our way with light hearts; having been inspirited, not only by the pleasant company of the last few days, but also by the decision taken by the two Governments, that, come what might, our independence should not be sacrificed by us.
I crossed the Vaal River at Villiersdorp and remained there that evening and through the following day. Then President Steyn and I parted. He went to Bezuidenhoutsdrift, and I, by way of Frankfort, to the Heilbron commando. I remained at Frankfort for one night, with Commandant Ross and his men, and had a very enjoyable time.
With the Heilbron people I stayed a few days only, because I had important work to accomplish in the Winburg district; to this district therefore I went.
As the commandos were now so scattered there was enough work for each of us in his own district, and I had much more riding to do than formerly. I found Commandant Hasebroek and his men at Doornberg a few days later. Whilst there I received from President Steyn a report of his narrow escape at Reitz, on the 11th of July, 1901, when he and some of his bodyguard escaped, whilst, unfortunately, Commandant Davel and all the members of the Government, except Mr. W.C.J. Brebner, who was absent, were taken prisoners.
From Winburg I paid a visit to Vice-Commandant-in-Chief J. Hattingh, of the Kroonstad commando, and then went to President Steyn. My joy in finding that the President was safe, was only equalled by my grief at the loss of such old friends as General Cronje, Member of the Executive Council; General J.B. Wessels; T. Brain, Secretary to the Government; Commandant Davel; Rocco De Villiers, Secretary to the Executive Council; Gordon Fraser, Private Secretary to the President; MacHardy, Assistant Secretary; Pieter Steyn, brother of the President and Veldtcornet of the staff; and my other friends in the bodyguard. It was sad to think that such men were prisoners, and were lost to us so long as the war continued. We had become rather accustomed to such experiences, but what made this so hard to bear was that treachery had a hand in it—when the English took the Government and President Steyn's bodyguard prisoners, they had had a Free State burgher as their guide.
The vacant posts in the Government had now to be filled up, and the President appointed the following persons:—In the place of A.P. Cronje, General C.H. Olivier, as Member of the Executive Council; and in place of Mr. T. Brain, Mr. W.C.J. Brebner, as Government Secretary. Mr. Johannes Theron he appointed Secretary to the Executive Council, instead of Mr. Rocco De Villiers; and Mr. B.J. Du Plessis Private Secretary to himself in place of Mr. Gordon Fraser.
The President also decided to have, in future, only thirty burghers as his bodyguard, and appointed Captain Niekerk as their Commandant.