The English could not endure the thought that we had their guns in our possession. And, accordingly, when General Michal Prinsloo came near the Liebenbergsvlei, on the road between Reitz and Heilbron, he met a strong force of the enemy which had come from Kroonstad. The English then had a taste of what it was like to be under the fire of our artillery; and so well did the gunners do their work that the enemy were forced to retreat. This occurred shortly before sunset on the afternoon of the 28th of December.
But the forces in front of General Prinsloo were too strong for him, and so when night came he marched past, and the following morning was twelve miles to the south-west of them.
The enemy advanced against the position which General Prinsloo had occupied the previous day, quite unaware that he was now in their rear. In the meantime the General was watching their movements from behind, and quietly enjoying their mistake.
I left the hospital that afternoon, and crossing the Liebenbergsvlei to the rear of the English, I joined the Heilbron commando.
The following day the enemy retreated to the farm of Groenvlei, which lies just to the north of Lindley. They remained there for a few days awaiting large reinforcements.
"I quite understand your plan," I said to myself, as I set to work to split up the great force which the enemy were concentrating. And with this object in view I sent each Commandant to his own district, believing that by dispersing my own men I should again induce the English to divide their troops into smaller parties. Commandant Mears, with his fifty men, I ordered to remain with the guns and the artillery, and to guard them by very careful scouting.
In less than a fortnight seven large columns of the enemy were operating in the district between Heilbron and Bethlehem and Harrismith. These columns burnt all the houses within their reach, and those which had been spared before were now given over to the flames. And not only were the houses destroyed, but every head of cattle was taken.
Towards the end of January, 1902, still more columns arrived and a "drive" began.
I remained in the neighbourhood until the 2nd of February and stationed Commandant Mears with the guns to the east of the Wilge River. The English formed a circle round him, but he succeeded in getting the guns away in safety. When he was out of their clutches, I sent him orders to bring the guns through the blockhouse line between Lindley and Bethlehem, and then to push on towards Winburg.
It was my intention, on arriving there, to collect as rapidly as possible a commando from the men of Bethlehem, Kroonstad, and Winburg, and to attack the first column that gave me a chance of doing so.
Commandant Mears carried out my orders at once. A force of the enemy had been waiting for him for three or four days at the farm of Fanny's Home, on the Liebenbergsvlei. But before the sun had risen, a strong force under Colonel Byng had surrounded him and forced him to abandon the guns. And not only were the guns lost, but Captain Muller and thirteen gunners were taken prisoner.
Thus the guns had not been of much benefit to us, for the English had kept us so constantly on the move that it had been impossible to use them.
The forces of the enemy between Harrismith and Vrede had formed a line extending from the Harrismith-Bethlehem blockhouses to the blockhouses between Vrede, Frankfort and Heilbron. And now the troops were advancing in close contact with each other, hoping thus to force us against one or other line of blockhouses.
Nearer and nearer they came, until at noon on February the 5th we saw them to the east of Liebenbergsvlei. As I was watching their movements from the top of Elandskop, I was informed by heliogram from Blaauwkop and Verkijkerskop that there was a cordon of the English from Frankfort to a spot between Bethlehem and Lindley.
The intention of the enemy appeared to be to drive us against the Heilbron-Kroonstad blockhouses and the railway line. We had therefore to be prepared to fight our way through the blockhouses. And these, as I found out lately, had been greatly strengthened.
On the 6th of February I was on the march, intending to advance to Slangfontein, to the west of Heilbron. I sent orders to Commandants Mentz, Van der Merwe, and Van Coller, to take a portion of Commandant Bester's burghers, telling them to go to Slangfontein. For I hoped to break through at some point or other that night.
Still nearer the enemy came, marching almost shoulder to shoulder.
The Commandants Van Coller and Van der Merwe did not go to Slangfontein. They broke through the English columns near Jagersrust, and crossed the Heilbron-Frankfort blockhouse line, where they put a few soldiers to flight, not, however, without a loss of two burghers, who were killed.
Neither did the burghers under Veldtcornets Taljaart and Prinsloo arrive. They preferred to go their own way—and all were captured with the exception of twenty-eight men. But this misfortune was not due to the blockhouses. On the contrary, they were taken prisoners when they were attempting to hide themselves in small bodies. In this way more than a hundred burghers fell into the hands of the English.
There were now with me Commandant Mentz, and portions of the commandos of Commandants Bester, Cilliers, and Mears.
That afternoon we marched to a farm which was twelve miles from the Lindley-Kroonstad line of blockhouses. When it was quite dark, we left the farm with the intention of breaking through this line before daybreak. There had been five or six hundred head of cattle with us, but, without my being aware of it, they had gone astray in the darkness.
We intentionally left the path, because we thought that the English would be most vigilant at points where paths crossed the line.
Suddenly we found ourselves at a wire fence. The darkness was so thick, that it was only after we had cut the wire that we discovered that we were close to a blockhouse. Although the house was not more than a hundred paces from us, we could hear and see nothing. When we were some four hundred paces on the other side of the line of the blockhouses, I sent a burgher back to see if all the men and cattle had crossed safely—for we were riding in a long trail, and amongst us were old men and youngsters of only ten years, or even less. These boys would have been taken away from their mothers had they stayed at home; and thus the only way to keep them from captivity was to let them join the commandos.
The burgher soon returned, and told me that the whole commando and all the cattle had crossed the line. Then I marched forward again.
At break of day we were close to the Valsch River. Here I made a short halt, in order to allow the stragglers to come up. It was then that a man came to me who had been riding far behind, and had thus not seen that we had cut the wire. He was probably one of those who quite needlessly feared a blockhouse line.
"General, when shall we come to the blockhouses?" he asked me.
"Oh! we are through long ago!" I answered.
It did not require any deep insight, I can assure you, to see how delighted this burgher was that we were safely out of it!
We discovered now that the cattle had not crossed the line. When I investigated the matter more closely, I found that they had gone astray before we reached the blockhouses. But it was impossible to wait for them, and there was nothing left but to proceed without them.
When we arrived at the Valsch River, there was a sound of shouting behind us, and presently the cattle appeared coming over a rise. I heard from the drivers that they had lost their way, and had only reached the blockhouses at daylight. But they had succeeded in breaking through under a fierce rifle fire. Twenty head of cattle had been killed or wounded, and one of the men's horses had been shot under him.
The burghers who had accomplished this valiant deed were: Jan Potgieter, Gert Potgieter, Jzoon, and Wessel Potgieter—all from the district of Heilbron.
I have, myself, seen a report in an English paper of my breaking through the blockhouse line. This paper declared that I had driven a great herd of cattle in front of me to break down the fencing!... This is the way the English write the reports.
This breaking through of my cattle inspired the English, at least so I thought, to dig trenches everywhere. But they were again wrong; for although a vehicle might have some difficulty before the trench was filled in, no riders, pedestrians, or cattle would have been stopped for a moment.
And now we marched on, till we reached a spot about fourteen miles to the south of the blockhouse line; and there we remained for three days.
Whilst we were waiting here, I sent two burghers back to the blockhouse line, to discover in what direction the English columns had marched, so that I might know where I should go myself. Now, less than ever, was it advisable to make night marches, for our horses were in a very poor condition.
The day following I received a heliographic message from these burghers, who were now on the other side of the line. They signalled that I could come on with my commando, since the English columns had returned to Kroonstad and Heilbron.
When night came I started on my way back. I did not go (as before) to the east of Lindley, but to the farm of Palmietfontein, which lies to the west. When we were close to the line, I sent some burghers in advance to cut the wire. But this time there was a reception ready for us, which we certainly would rather have been without! This was to be ascribed to the fact that instead of only two scouts, as I had ordered, about ten had gone to reconnoitre. So large a number had attracted the attention of the enemy, and the guards had concentrated at the spot where we wished to break through.
Thus before my commando reached the line a fierce fire was opened on it from two sides. Yet notwithstanding this the wires were cut and we reached the other side, but not without loss. One of my burghers was killed, and one wounded. A boy of ten was also killed, and another of seven severely wounded. We could not ascertain the losses of the enemy.
It was terrible that children should be exposed to such dangers; but, as I have already said, if we had not taken them with us they would have been captured. During the very "drive" I have just described, two children who had remained at home with their mothers were taken prisoner by the English. One of these was a boy of nine, the little son of Jacobus Theron. Notwithstanding the prayers and entreaties of the poor mother, he was torn from her and carried away. In the same way another boy, twelve years old, whose name I do not know, was dragged from his mother's arms.
The chronicling of such inexplicable cruelties I leave to other pens. I have drawn attention to them to make it clear that it was not without good cause that children joined the commandos. Some of these little ones became a prey to the bullets of the enemy, and the South African soil is stained by the blood of children slain by England.
With the exception of the sad incidents I have described, we came through in safety.
I afterwards heard that Lord Kitchener had on this occasion gone to Wolvehoek Station in order to see President Steyn and myself carried away in the train to banishment! But his calculations were not altogether correct.
A Higher Power had willed it otherwise.
The burghers had now returned to their own districts. I myself went to a farm in the neighbourhood of Elandskop belonging to Mr. Hendrick Prinsloo—the rooije. After I had been there a few days I heard that a strong column was approaching Lindley from Kroonstad. During the night of the 17th of February this column attacked some burghers who were posted less than four miles from Elandskop, with the object—as I heard later—of catching me. And they would have been quite successful in their attempt had I been sleeping in the house where their information led them to believe they would find me. But as a matter of fact, I seldom, if ever, slept in a house, for to tell the truth, there were scarcely any houses left to sleep in! The women who had escaped capture lived in narrow shelters, which had been made by placing corrugated iron sheets on what was left standing of the walls that remained.
I crossed the Liebenbergsvlei on the 18th of February, and proceeded to the farm of Rondebosch, which stands to the north-east of Reitz. There I met the Government.
And now another big "drive" took place. The English columns marched to the south of the Kroonstad-Lindley blockhouse line in the direction of Bethlehem. Other troops came from Heilbron, and advanced to the north of the Heilbron-Frankfort line, driving Commandant Ross across this line to the south.
Nearer and nearer these two great divisions approached each other, until at last they stretched without any break from the Bethlehem-Lindley to the Frankfort-Vrede line of blockhouses. On the 21st of February the whole column moved towards Vrede and Harrismith.
It seemed to me that my best plan would be to go with President Steyn and the Government to the Witkopjes, which lay between Harrismith and Vrede, and then to break through the English columns near Vrede or Harrismith, or, if it proved impossible to do so at these points, at least to force a way through somewhere.
On this occasion we had a great deal more difficulty in escaping from the English than we had had during the previous "drive." Not only had we to deal with these large forces behind, but also with thousands of troops which were now approaching from Villiersdorp, Standerton, Volksrust, and Laingsnek, and which were extended across the country in one continuous line. The whole cordon thus formed consisted, as the English themselves acknowledge, of sixty thousand men.
And again on this occasion they did not attempt to drive us against one or other of the blockhouse lines, but they came, column on column, from all sides, and formed a big circle round us. They thus made it quite apparent that they had lost all faith in their blockhouses.
I only received news of the approach of these reinforcements on the evening of the 22nd of February, after they had passed the blockhouses. The report was brought to me by Commandant Hermanus Botha, a party of whose burghers had been driven across the Vrede-Frankfort line during the previous night. I have already stated that some of the burghers under Commandant Ross had shared the same experience, and now they were retreating before the English. I also heard that Commandant Mentz had gone eastwards, in the belief that the forces behind him would move to the west, but that unfortunately the columns also moved to the east, so that he jumped into the lion's mouth, which was only too ready to close!
We marched that night to Cornelius River, and the day following to Mr. James Howell's farm at Brakfontein. It was my intention to break through somewhere between Vrede and Bothaspas.
But my scouts brought me word in the evening that there was a very poor chance of success in that neighbourhood, for the columns had concentrated there. Other scouts, however, reported that there was a small opening at Kalkkrans, on the Holspruit; and so I decided to march to Kalkkrans.
When the sun had set I left Brakfontein and started on my road to Kalkkrans, with the firm determination to force my way through there, cost what it might. If I failed in the attempt I knew that it would mean an irretrievable loss, for not only should I myself be captured, but also President Steyn and the whole Government.
I had with me a portion of the Harrismith burghers, the commandos from Vrede and Frankfort, and sections of the commandos from Standerton and Wakkerstroom, these latter under Commandant Alberts. This Commandant had come to these districts to obtain horses for his burghers; he was obliged to be content with the wild horses of the veldt, for there were no others to be had.
Beside the above burghers, I had with me old men and children, and others who were non-combatants. These had joined the commando to escape falling into the enemy's hands.
Altogether I had well-nigh two thousand persons with me. Commandant Mentz was, like myself, enclosed in the "drive," but some distance away. General Wessels, Commandant Beukes, and some of the Bethlehem burghers were in the same predicament to the west of us. I did not know for certain where these officers were placed, and therefore I could not inform them of my plan to break through that night, for I had only come to this determination after the sun had set. But I felt sure that they would at all costs make their way through the cordon.
Commandant Jan Meijer had met me at Brakfontein, but one party of his burghers was still six miles to the south. When I decided to break through, I sent him orders to follow me; and this he was quite capable of doing, as he was well acquainted with this part of the country. My orders were that the mounted men were to proceed in advance, taking with them my little waggon drawn by eight mules.
This waggon had accompanied me into Cape Colony, and since that time—for fourteen weary months—had never left me. I had even taken it with me when, a fortnight previously, I had broken through the blockhouse lines.
Behind the horsemen came the aged and the sick, who occupied the remaining vehicles, and lastly the cattle, divided into several herds.
In this order we rode on.
When we were approaching the spot at which I expected to find the enemy, I ordered Commandant Ross and one hundred men, with Hermanus Botha and Alberts, and portions of their commandos, to go on ahead of us.
After passing through Holspruit we inclined to the west, as the road to the east would, according to my scouts, have led us right into the English camp. But it was not with one camp only that we had to deal: the English were everywhere: a whole army lay before us—an army so immense that many Englishmen thought that it would be a task beyond the stupid and illiterate Boer to count it, much less to understand its significance. I will pander to the English conception of us and say, "We have seen them: they are a great big lot!"
We had hardly moved three hundred paces from where we had crossed Holspruit, when the English, lined up about three hundred yards in front of us, and opened fire. We saw that they did not intend our flight to be an easy one.
Before we had reached the "spruit," and while crossing it, the burghers had kept pushing ahead and crowds had even passed us, but the enemy's fire checked them and they wheeled round.
Only the men under Commandants Ross, Botha, and Alberts did not waver. These officers and their veldtcornets with less than one hundred men stormed the nearest position of the enemy, who were occupying a fort on the brow of a steep bank.
I shouted to my command: "Charge."
I exerted all my powers of persuasion to arrest the flight of my burghers; even bringing the sjambok into the argument.
Two hundred and fifty were all that I could bring back to the fight, whilst, as I have said, the Commandants had a hundred with them when they charged; the rest, regardless of my attempts to stop them, fled.
I was also without my staff, some of whom had remained under the fire of the enemy awaiting my orders as to what was to be done with my little waggon. Others, amongst whom was my son Kootie, who was then acting as my secretary, had followed me, but had got lost in the confusion of the moment.
This confusion arose from the fact that the burghers imagined that they had got through at the first attempt, but had found themselves again fired at from the front. Meanwhile, I hurried to and fro, encouraging the burghers in their attempts to break through. When thus engaged I came across two of my staff, Albertus Theunissen and Burt Nissey. To them I gave the order: "Get the waggon through at all costs." I also found my son, Isaac, and kept him with me. The English now were firing not only from in front but also on our right, and there was nothing for it but to clear a road for ourselves, and this we eventually succeeded in doing, and in about forty minutes had at last broken through.
The enemy had dug trenches, thirty to forty paces from each other, which served as schanzes. In each of these trenches were placed ten to thirty men. They had also a Maxim-Nordenfeldt, which, at first, kept up a hot fire; but soon was silenced as the gunners were shot down. The rest of the troops retired with the gun, but had to leave the caisson behind them. It was evident to me from the way in which they fired that the English were retreating, and so I dispatched two men to tell the burghers, who had gone back, to come on; but this they did not do, thinking perhaps that they could discover a safer route on the following evening. This was short-sighted policy on their part, for the circle within which they were caught was daily becoming narrower, and it was plain that on the third day the enemy would be so close that all hope of escape would be gone.
The two burghers did not return, and we went on without them, taking with us our wounded—twelve in number. Two of these, whose injuries were serious, had been placed by some of my staff on my waggon; one was Van der Merwe, a member of President Steyn's bodyguard; the other was a boy of thirteen years old, named Olivier.
We hurried on, and came, shortly after sundown, to the farm called "Bavaria," on the Bothasberg. There Van der Merwe died.
The boy had already been relieved from his sufferings. Thus, once again, the soil drank the blood of a child.
Eleven of my men were left dead on the battlefield. We had to leave them there, for to recover their bodies might have meant the sacrifice of more lives.
When the burghers and I forced our way through the storm of bullets, we had with us President Steyn, the Members of the Government, and the Rev. D. Kestell, minister of the Dutch Reformed Church at Harrismith.
The greater part of the English, indeed all of them, so far as we could observe, remained, during the 24th, on the spot where we had left them. We found out, later on, that we had broken through their lines at the point where Colonel Rimington's force was stationed.
The following day the columns departed. We then went to bury our dead, but found that the enemy had already done so. But as the graves which they had made were very shallow, we dug them deeper.
During that night (the 25th) another force of burghers, to the number of about three hundred and fifty, broke through the English cordon. Our men only lost two killed, and eleven wounded.
Besides those already mentioned, the burghers under General Wessel Wessels and Commandant Mentz were also among those who escaped of the two thousand troops surrounded by the enemy.
With the others it fared but ill.
The English closed in, and the circle became narrower and narrower.
On the 27th of February, 1902—"Majuba Day"—Commandant Van Merwe and four hundred men fell into the hands of the enemy.
On that very day, in the year 1881, the famous battle of Majuba had been fought. Nineteen years afterwards, on the same day of the same month, we suffered a terrible defeat at Paardeberg, where we lost General Piet Cronje and a great force of burghers.
And now the 27th of February had come round again, and this time it was the twenty-first anniversary of Majuba that we were celebrating. The day of our coming of age had thus arrived, if I may be allowed to say so. But instead of the Republics now attaining their majority—as they should have done, according to all precedent—minority would have been a more fitting word to describe the condition in which we now found ourselves—for, through the losses which we had just sustained, we were minus not only a large number of burghers, but also an enormous quantity of cattle, which ought to have served as food to our commandos and families, but which the enemy had captured.
The cattle which had just been taken from us had formed the greater part of our cattle in this district. We had always been able, until now, to get them safely away; the unevenness of the veldt here was greatly in our favour. This time we could not. How am I to explain the inexplicable? We had sinned—but not against England!
 We had heliographic communication between Elandskop and Blaauwkop, which formed a connecting link between Bethlehem and Lindley; and from Blaauwkop we had communication with Verkijkerskop. There was also heliographic communication between Bethlehem and Lindley, and Biddulphsberg, across the line of blockhouses.
 "Rooije" is the Taal for "red."
 In this I was correct. They contrived to break through where the enemy were more scattered.
 Also my son, Jacobus (Kootie). He has now returned from St. Helena, whither he had been sent as a prisoner, and we have met. He tells me that on the night when I broke through, he wanted to come with me, but was unable to do so, because his horse had been shot under him.