The column had marched to Harrismith.
It was time that I accomplished something further, and I determined that the next blow I struck should be a heavy one. I therefore retired to the north-east of Bethlehem, and concealed my men in the veldt round Tijgerkloof (which was suited to the purpose) whilst I made my plans.
Colonel Firman's brigade was camped between Bethlehem and Harrismith, at Elands River bridge, where he was building the line of blockhouses between the two towns. This camp was so well entrenched that there was no possibility of storming it, and I knew that so long as Colonel Firman thought I was still in the neighbourhood he would not dare to come out and give me an opportunity of attacking him.
I saw that a ruse was necessary to entice him out of his fortress. With this object in view I sent for Commandant Jan Jacobsz, with his fifty men from Witzeshoek. When he joined me I confided my secret to him, and ordered him to go back with his fifty men, and to let Colonel Firman see him doing so. He also had instructions to let some of his veldtcornets ride to the Kaffir kraals, which were close to the English camp, in order to tell these Kaffirs that he had had orders to come to me with fifty men, but that when he arrived I had commanded him to return to his district, because I was going to march with my commando to Winburg.
The following day Colonel Firman's scouts were, as might have been expected, informed by the Kaffirs of what they had heard from the burghers under Commandant Jacobsz; and the day after—that is, the 22nd of December—Colonel Firman's column, about six to seven hundred men strong, marched from Elands River to Tweefontein, half-way between Elands River and Tijgerkloof. On the farm of Tweefontein there was a mountain called Groenkop—which has since, for a reason which will soon be apparent to the reader, received the name of "Christmas Kop."
I gave Commandant Jacobsz orders to come to me with his fifty men on Christmas Eve, but this time with the strict injunction that he must conceal his march from the enemy. I also called up Veldtcornet Beukes, with his fifty men, from Wilge River, in the district of Harrismith. Veldtcornet Beukes was a brave man and trustworthy; he was shortly afterwards promoted to the command of a division of the Harrismith burghers.
My intention was to attack Colonel Firman early on Christmas morning.
Two days previously I had, with General Prinsloo and the Commandant, reconnoitred the neighbourhood of Groenkop, on which Colonel Firman was encamped. I approached as near as possible to the mountain, but could only inspect it from the west, north, and east, but on the following day I reconnoitred it also from the south.
My plan of making the attack early the next morning was somewhat spoilt by the fact that the English had already, on the 21st of December, quitted their camp on the mountain. Thus they had had four days in which to entrench themselves.
Whilst we were reconnoitring the mountain from the south, we saw three horsemen coming cautiously out of the camp, riding in a north-easterly direction, and thus giving us no chance to intercept them. Commandant Olivier and Captain Potgieter now made a détour, so that they could cut off the unsuspecting scouts from their camp, and could also get nearer to the mountain themselves. I knew that by doing so they would draw the fire of the two guns, which would tell me precisely where Colonel Firman's battery stood.
Before these officers could accomplish their purpose they were observed, and seeing that they could not cut off the three men, they turned their horses and galloped back. But when they saw that the three scouts had the temerity to pursue them, they faced round at the first rise and suddenly confronted them. The three (who were Kaffirs), seeing that the tables were turned, hastily wheeled round towards their own camp, but before they could reach it one of their number was caught and shot down. One gun and the Maxim-Nordenfeldt now fired upon our two officers as long as they were in sight, and thus we learnt that the guns were placed on the high western point of the mountain, from which they could shoot in all directions.
Let me describe Groenkop. On its western side was a precipice, on the north and south a steep descent, and on the east a gentle slope which ran down to the plain.
From which side should the attack take place?
Some of the officers were of the opinion that this should take place on the east, where it was the least steep, but I differed from them, for through our field-glasses we could see that the walls of the fort were so built that it was quite clear the enemy had thought that, should they be attacked, it would be from the east. The forts were built in a semicircle towards that side, and although this would be of little importance once the fight had begun (because the defenders had only to jump over the wall to find themselves still entrenched), still it was to the advantage of the attacking party to come from a side where they would not be expected.
These reasons brought me to the conclusion that the English would not be on the look-out for us from the west, and I therefore decided to make the attack from this side, the steep side of the mountain. But I did not then know how steep it really was.
On the western point there were four forts close to each other. Each was sufficient to give shelter to about twenty five men. To the south there were four forts, and to the east three.
The top of the mountain was not more than three to four hundred paces in diameter. To the east in a hollow the convoy was placed, and from every schanze we could rake it with our fire.
I remained on the spot from which I was reconnoitring, and sent word to the commando, in the afternoon of the 24th of December, to come to a certain place at Tijgerkloof, which they could do without being observed. I ordered them to remain there until nightfall, and then to advance within four miles of Groenkop, to the north, where I would meet them.
This was done. I found the commando at the appointed place, and also General Brand and Commandant Karel Coetzee, who had come on a visit that day to my commando. They also took part in the attack. My men consisted of burghers from General Michal Prinsloo, Commandants Hermanus Botha, Van Coller, Olivier, Rautenbach, Koen, Jan Jacobsz and Mears, in all six hundred men. Of these I left one hundred in charge of the Maxim-Nordenfeldt and the pack-horses.
We had not a single waggon with us; every man put what he had with him on his pack-horse, for long we had made it a rule not to be hampered with waggons. Yet whenever we picked up reports of engagements in the camping places of the English we repeatedly saw that they had taken a Boer camp—and their greatest delight was to say that it was one of De Wet's convoys.
They could not have been convoys of mine, because for the last fifteen months I had had no waggon-camp with me. If a waggon-camp was taken, it could only have been one consisting of women, who were flying in order to escape capture by the English, and to avoid being sent to the concentration camps. Everywhere in the State the women were taking to flight, and their terror was increased tenfold when the news came that many a woman and child had found an untimely grave in these camps.
The troops which had not remained with the pack-horses now advanced towards the mountain. Each commando was ordered to ride by itself, and to leave in single file. My orders were that they were to march quietly to the western foot of the mountain; here the horses were to be left behind, and the climb made on foot, the burghers keeping the same order as that in which they had been riding. Should the English, however, discover us before we reached the mountain, we must then storm it altogether, and leave the horses wherever we had dismounted.
We succeeded in coming to the mountain unobserved, and at once began the climb. It was exactly two o'clock in the morning of December 25th, 1901.
When we had gone up about half-way we heard the challenge of a sentry:—
"Halt; who goes there?"
Then followed a few shots.
My command rang out through the night—
The word was taken up by the burghers themselves, and on all sides one heard "Storm! Storm!"
It was a never-to-be-forgotten moment. Amidst the bullets, which we could hear whistling above and around us, the burghers advanced to the top, calling out, "Storm! Storm!"
The mountain, however, was so steep that it can scarcely be said that we stormed it; it was much more of a climb. Often our feet slipped from under us, and we fell to the ground; but in an instant we were up again and climbed on, and on, to gain the summit.
I think that after the sentry heard us, three or four minutes must have elapsed before the troops, who were lying asleep in their tents or on the veldt, were awakened and could come out, because their camp was about a hundred paces distant from our point of attack.
Directly we reached the top the deafening roar of a heavy fight began, and lasted from fifteen to twenty minutes. Shortly before this the Armstrong gun and the Maxim-Nordenfeldt had each fired two shots, but they fired no more; as we reached the top the gunners were shot down at their guns.
After a short but desperate struggle the English gave way, or surrendered, and we took possession of the Armstrong and Maxim-Nordenfeldt.
We continued to fire on the troops, who had retreated to a short distance. Again they gave way, and took up another position a little further on, and so it went on for about two thousand paces, and then the English took to flight.
As we had no horses with us and it was dark, we did not pursue the fleeing enemy, but returned to the camp. The whole engagement lasted, so far as I could judge, for about an hour. I cannot say for certain, because I made no note of the time.
It was a party of Yeomanry with whom we had been dealing, and I must say they behaved very gallantly under exceptionally trying circumstances; for it is always to be expected that when men are attacked during the night a certain amount of confusion must ensue.
It was heartrending to hear the moaning of the wounded in the dark. The burghers helped the doctors to bring the wounded into the tents, where they could be attended to; I gave the doctors as much water as they liked to take for the wounded.
It was greatly to be deplored that the ambulance had been placed in the centre of the camp, for this was the cause of Dr. Reid being fatally wounded.
When the day began to dawn we brought the waggons and guns down the mountain. I sent them in the direction of Langberg, to the west of Groenkop.
The enemy lost about one hundred and sixteen dead and wounded, and two hundred and forty prisoners of war.
Our loss was also heavy—fourteen dead and thirty wounded; among the dead were Commandant Olivier from Bethlehem and Vice-Veldtcornet Jan Dalebout from Harrismith; among the wounded was one of my own staff, Gert de Wet. Later on two more died, one of them being Veldtcornet Louwrens. I appointed Mr. A.J. Bester as Commandant in the place of Commandant Olivier.
Besides one Armstrong and one Maxim-Nordenfeldt, our booty consisted of twenty waggons, mostly ox-waggons, a great quantity of rifle and gun ammunition, guns, tents, five hundred horses and mules, and one waggon laden with spirits, so that the burghers, who were not averse to this, could now satisfy their thirst.
The sun had hardly risen when the enemy opened fire from a mountain two miles to the north-east of Groenkop, where there was a little camp with one gun. If I still had had the same numbers as were with me at the storming of Groenkop, then I could also have taken this little camp. But it was not to be thought of, for some of my men had been sent away with the waggons, and the others—well, every one had a horse that he had taken from the English, and as these horses were in the pink of condition for rapid retreat, I thought it wiser not to call upon the burghers to attack. I ordered them, therefore, to go back after the waggons, and in the evening we camped to the north of Bethlehem. From here, on the following day, I sent the prisoners of war through Naauwpoort into Basutoland.
On the same day I gave orders to General Michal Prinsloo to take the commando and to strike a course between Reitz and Heilbron. I myself paid a visit to President Steyn and General Wessel Wessels, after which I put matters straight in our hospital at Bezuidenhoutsdrift, which was under the charge of Dr. H.J. Poutsma.