While the great events recorded at the end of my last chapter were in progress, I paid a visit to the Harrismith burghers, who were under the command of Commandant Jan Jacobsz, and also to some of the Bethlehem men. On my return I learnt that the enemy were occupied in building a line of blockhouses from Heilbron to Frankfort.
It has always seemed to me a most unaccountable circumstance that England—the all-powerful—could not catch the Boers without the aid of these blockhouses. There were so many other ways in which the thing might have been done, and better done; and the following incident, which occurred during the war, serves to show that this policy of the blockhouse might equally well have been called the policy of the blockhead.
On the 27th of February, 1902, the English made one of their biggest "catches" in the Free State. They had made a great "kraal"—what they themselves call a "drive"—and stood, "hand in hand," one might almost say, in a ring around us, coming from Heilbron, Frankfort, Bethlehem, and Harrismith, and stretching, on the Transvaal side, from Vrede to the Drakensberg.
Narrower and narrower did the circle become, hemming us in more closely at every moment. The result was that they "bagged" an enormous number of men and cattle, without a solitary burgher (or, for the matter of that, a solitary ox) having been captured by means of their famous blockhouse system.
The English have been constantly boasting in the newspapers about the advantages of their blockhouses, but they have never been able to give an instance of a capture effected by them. On the contrary, when during the last stages of the war it happened, as it often did, that they drove some of our men against one or other of the great blockhouse lines which then intersected the country, and it became necessary for us to fight our way through, we generally succeeded in doing so. And that, with fewer casualties than when, as in the instance I have just given, they concentrated their forces, and formed a circle around us.
The English then were busy when I returned from the south in building a blockhouse line from Heilbron to Frankfort. They accomplished this speedily, and then proceeded to the construction of other similar lines, not being contented until they had "pegged out" the country as follows:—
On the Natal frontier there was a line from Vrede to Bothaspas, continued westward by a series of forts to Harrismith, whence the line went on, still westward, to Bethlehem, and thence down to the Basutoland border at Fouriesburg.
Kroonstad was made, so to speak, the "axle," whence a series of "spokes" proceeded; one to the north-east, to Vrede; a second to the north-west, through Driekopjes Diamond Mine, to Winkledrift, and thence down the Rhenoster River to its confluence with the Vaal; a third, to the south-east, to Lindley; and a fourth, to the south-west, along the railway line, to the frontier of Cape Colony.
In the western districts there was a line along the left bank of the Valsch River to the point where it joins the Vaal, and another (also terminating at the Vaal River) starting from Zand River railway bridge, and running parallel to the Zand River. There was also a line from Boshof, across the Cape Colony frontier, to Kimberley.
Last, but not least, came the "White Elephant" with which the reader is already acquainted—the line from Bloemfontein to Ladybrand, through Thaba'Nchu.
All these lines were in the Free State. I make no mention here of the thousands of miles of similar blockhouse lines, which made a sort of spider's web of the South African Republic.
The blockhouses themselves were sometimes round, sometimes angular, erections. The roofs were always of iron. The walls were pierced with loop-holes four feet from the ground, and from four to six feet from one another. Sometimes stone was used in the construction of these walls, at other times iron. In the latter case the wall is double, the space of from six to nine inches between the inner and the outer wall being filled with earth.
These buildings stood at a distance of from a hundred to a thousand paces from one another; everything depended upon the lie of the ground, and the means at the enemy's disposal; a greater distance than a thousand paces was exceptional. They were always so placed that each of them could be seen by its neighbours on both sides, the line which they followed being a zigzag.
Between the blockhouses were fences, made with five strands of barbed wire. Parallel with these was a trench, three feet deep and four to five feet across at the top, but narrower at the bottom. Where the material could be procured, there was also a stone wall, to serve as an additional obstacle. Sometimes there were two lines of fences, the upper one—erected on the top of the earth thrown up from the trench—consisting of three or four strands only.
There was thus a regular network of wires in the vicinity of the blockhouses—the English seemed to think that a Boer might be netted like a fish. If a wild horse had been trapped there, I should like to have been there to see, but I should not have liked to have been the wild horse.
The building of these blockhouses cost many thousands of pounds, and still greater were the expenses incurred in providing the soldiers in them with food, which had to be fetched up by special convoys. And it was all money thrown away! and worse than thrown away! for when I come to describe how I broke through these blockhouse lines (see next page), the reader will see that this wonderful scheme of the English prolonged the war for at least three months.
Let us turn now to another, and a more successful device of the enemy.
From the first weeks of the winter, 1901—the reader must remember that our winter commences in May—the English began to make night attacks upon us; at last they had found out a way of inflicting severe losses upon us, and these night attacks grew more and more frequent during the last period of the war. But they would never have thought of them at all, if they had not been instructed in them by the National Scouts—our own flesh and blood!
These tactics were not always successful. It sometimes happened that the English got "cornered"; sometimes they had to "right about turn" and run for their lives. The latter was the case at Witkopjes, five miles to the south of Heilbron, and again, near Makenwaansstad. But on only too many occasions they managed to surprise troops of burghers on their camping places, and, having captured those who could not run away, they left the dead and wounded on the ground.
We soon discovered that these night attacks were the most difficult of the enemy's tactics with which we had to deal.
Sometimes the burghers, surprised by a sudden visit from the English at such an unconventional hour, found it necessary to run away at once as fast as their legs would carry them, so that they often arrived at the nearest camp without their hats. Indeed a series of these attacks produced such a panic among our men that I have known a Boer lose not only his hat, but also his head.
I come now, in the regular course of my narrative, to an engagement between my burghers and an English force which had marched from Bethlehem to Reitz, a distance of thirty miles. This force was guided by a son of one of the Free State Members of Parliament, and, marching all night, reached Reitz just as the day began to dawn. This was a smart piece of business; and though the guide to whom its success was due was my enemy, I fully appreciated the skill which he then displayed.
The English captured ten or twelve burghers at Reitz, whither they had perhaps gone in search of the President.
I was ten miles to the west, on the farm of Blijdschap, and did not receive reports of what had happened until towards noon.
What was I to do? I could not call up men from Heilbron, Bethlehem, Vrede, or Harrismith: it would have been at least twenty-four hours before they could have arrived. All I could do was to summon Veldtcornet Vlok with some of the Parijs commandos and Veldtcornet Louwrens, and Matthijs De Beer, and the men. With these and my staff we would not number more than sixty or seventy all told.
I at once gave orders to these veldtcornets to meet me at a certain place, and they were there by the appointed hour.
My intention was to deliver a flank attack upon the English while they retreated during the night; for, as they only numbered five hundred men, I felt sure that they would not care to remain thirty miles away from their column, but would fall back upon Bethlehem.
In the afternoon I marched to within a short distance of Reitz, in order to discover the enemy's plans; then, immediately after sunset, I sent a few burghers quite close to the town, with orders to meet me again at a certain point about two thousand paces to the south, and to inform me whither the enemy were going to march. The scouts returned at ten o'clock that night, and reported that the enemy was on the march towards Harrismith. In order to reach this town they would have to start by the Bethlehem road, from which the Harrismith road forks, at about eight thousand paces from the town.
Our horses stood ready up-saddled; I had only to give the order to mount.
I meant to cross the Bethlehem road and go to a deep hollow which I knew of near the Harrismith road; then, when the English appeared against the horizon, we would fire at them.
But my scouts had blundered. The English were not going to Harrismith after all. For as we came to the Bethlehem road, we nearly stumbled over them. They were riding quietly along only a short distance from us. As we were galloping they knew of our proximity before we were aware of theirs, and when we were less than two hundred paces from them they opened fire.
They all heard me, but they did not all obey. About fifty of the most valiant of them galloped straight at the enemy. The rest fled.
After a short but fierce engagement we were forced to retire, as six of our men had been hit. Fortunately, their wounds were but slight, the most severe being that of my son Isaac, who had been shot through the leg below the knee.
We rode away a short distance, and saw looming through the darkness a company of horsemen approaching us from Reitz. I thought at first that they were some of my own burghers—the ones who had taken to their heels—but it turned out to be General Wessel Wessels, who was nearer than I knew with his staff, in all some twenty men. I, however, could muster seventy, and we decided to cut off the retreat of the enemy. But they had, in the meantime, been riding on so fast that we did not reach them until it had grown quite light. An engagement, short and fierce as the last, ensued, but as the enemy was from six to seven times as strong as we were, and had a gun and a Maxim-Nordenfeldt with them, we could not stand against them, and had to let them go on their road.
We were fortunate in suffering no loss there, and while the English marched on to Bethlehem we rode off in the opposite direction.
We had now a short period of repose. The English were so busy building blockhouses that they had no time to fight us. Our poor horses were in a miserable condition, for so little rain had fallen that the grass was very dry and sapless. But at least we could now give them the rest which they sorely needed.