A derelict town--The district--Entertainments--British "commandos"--Hertzog's Adjutant--Back to Springfontein-- Vlakfontein--The scene of a disaster--Caledon River--Edenburg-- Stranded traction engines--Ventershoek--"Commandos" again.
Col. du Moulin moved out of Springfontein on the 21st of July to take over the district which had been assigned to him, and which lay west of the line, and north of the Orange River, round about the town of Philippolis. He had under him about 600 men of the Sussex, nearly all mounted, and a section of the 7th Battery (Capt. Geoghegan and Lieut. Chamier), besides the pom-pom.
Philippolis, which for the next two months was used as the headquarters and rendezvous of the column, lies at the head of a valley some 15 miles west of the railway. The usual stone Church looks down the usual main street of one-storied tin-roofed buildings. Two other parallel streets and a few cross roads make up the town. It is surrounded by bare veldt; a eucalyptus or two and a couple of rows of cypress down the main street are the only trees to be seen for miles round.
At this time there were still a few inhabitants remaining, although most of the houses were quite empty. At first, here as elsewhere, the town had been left undisturbed under authorities appointed by the British; but, when the local commandos again took up arms, authorities and townspeople had alike to be brought in to the line; and now the last of them was to be removed, Lord Kitchener's order being not to leave a living thing. For if inhabitants were left, food must be left too; and what was food for the inhabitants was food also for the local commandos--or the fragments of them that lurked in the hills round. Besides this, information, more valuable even than food, would be spread as to the movements of columns. The supreme object at this juncture was to make life impossible for the Boers under arms.
It was a strange sight, this derelict town. Doors were open, and it was possible to turn out of the silent street into a house, where the very music lay as it had been left upon the piano in the sitting room: to sit down at the piano and try a few bars, momentarily expecting the owner to appear and protest against such intrusion. Yet the only representative of the owner would be perhaps the watch dog lying in the yard where it had been necessary to shoot him, when the house was searched (very likely with success) for ammunition. The town was placed out of bounds for the troops of the column.
The Boers of the neighbourhood were not in very high feather. Except for bodies of men passing through from the surrounding districts, they consisted only of small parties of a dozen or less, living precariously upon the much-cleared country. They had established a certain number of depôts to which they could come for grain, but beyond these there was very little food to be found; and nearly all the farms were empty.
Colonel du Moulin's task, therefore, consisted of netting as many stray Boers as possible, and destroying all stock, grain, cooking utensils, and anything else that would help to support life, besides being prepared to meet any commando that should attempt to cross the district.
For these purposes he divided the column into three sub-columns or "commandos" of about 150 men each, under Major Church. Capt. Gilbert, and Capt. Montrésor. Two of these were always in the field, while one was usually resting in Philippolis. In order to enliven the time of the resting "commando," he detailed a few men with a bent in that direction as permanent entertainers, and these used to give nightly performances in the Town Hall, with the help of one of the many pianos in which the town abounded. Songs, dramatic sketches, and clog-dances used to form items of the programme.
During the first week (which was cold and snowy) a number of farms were cleared. Twenty-five sacks of wheat were found by the Colonel, bricked up at the farm Poortje. The dam there was destroyed, as was done in other cases. On August the 4th the ox convoy bringing supplies from Springfontein joined the three "commandos" at Brandkraal. Lieut. Bidder and 2nd Lieut. Cole from the 3rd Battalion of the Regiment arrived with it.
For the next month the "commandos" worked up and down the district with comparatively little incident, picking up a few prisoners here and there, and sending in refugees. Captain (now Brevet-Major) Gilbert searched the kloofs along the Orange River: there were several families living there, who supplied food to the fighting Boers, and these were transported to the line. In one place the Major was just leaving a valley that he had searched in vain, when the strange behaviour of a horse directed his attention to a large bush. Investigation followed, and from the recesses of the bush emerged an entire family of three generations.
By surprise visits at night to likely places, Major Gilbert also captured a number of armed Boers--on the 11th of August in particular two raids resulted in the taking of thirteen prisoners.
On the 16th Major Church's "commando" chased a party of twenty Boers, who had come to unearth a store of boots they had buried near Tafelkop. A signalling piquet on Tafelkop disturbed them as Major Church was coming up, and the Boers got away through Otterspoort, after being turned out of the farm there by the pom-pom.
On the 17th of August, information was received that 200 Boers under Kritzinger were at Buonapartfontein, on the east of the line, working north with horses very done up. Orders were sent round at once to the three "commandos" to hurl themselves across the line, and they accordingly met at Driekuil Siding early on the 18th. Kritzinger had, however, already moved north, pursued by Gorringe's column--the information being twenty-four hours late.
On the 25th of August Major Gilbert's "commando" captured Cronje, Adjutant and Chief of Scouts to Hertzog, the local Commandant. The actual capture was effected by Liliveld, a Colonial Scout attached to the column, who did some brilliant work.
That same evening, Major Gilbert, who had been talking to Cronje, told him to follow him across the camp, wishing for some reason to shift his quarters. The Major carried his hand in his pocket. The Boer, who looked very white and anxious, suddenly said "Well, when are you going to do it." He thought he was being taken out to be shot, and that the Major had his hand on his revolver. It appeared that the Commandants had persuaded their men that the Proclamations as to surrender, published at this time, were only decoys, and that any man surrendering would be shot. Cronje said that many would come in if they knew they would be well treated. "We shall have a score to settle with the Commandants when the War is over," he added.
He was one of the men chased by Major Church a few days before. "They had had nothing to eat for twenty-four hours," he said, "and had bolted another 25 miles." He was offered good pay to act as guide to the column, but to his credit he refused.
On the 30th of August, Captain Montrésor and Lieut. Morphett, with thirteen men, surrounded the Jansfontein Hills in the dusk, and crept up just before dawn, by starlight. They captured four Boers with rifles on the top without a shot being fired. Captain Montrésor's "commando" returned to Philippolis on the 5th of September with twelve prisoners.
On the 31st of August, two Boers with rifles came in to surrender to Major Church at Osfontein. They had been living for a fortnight in a cave near, that contained the household treasures of Ospoort farm--clothes, dried fruit, a violin, pillows and a coffee machine. There was also a little ammunition, the remains, perhaps, of a larger supply.
Later in the day Boers were reported on a neighbouring hill, which was accordingly surrounded, Major Church taking one party, Captain Montgomery and Lieut. Harden another. Eight men were captured and seventeen rifles. They had no idea a British force was near, the camp being very well hidden. They had orders from Herzog not to stay long in the district, as there was no food. One of them was a Secret Agent of the British.
Two days afterwards, Major Church came upon and destroyed another Boer supply depôt consisting of two large tin-lined boxes hidden among bushes, and containing eight sacks of wheat and stores of all kind. Round about were rough beds of heather and branches, and fire holes for cooking.
On the 17th of September orders were received for the whole column to march in to Springfontein, and entrain for the North. Rain had been falling heavily for a week, and the roads were almost impassable. The oxen were weak with overwork, lung disease and inoculation; dead oxen lay every few yards of the way. Relief wagons were sent to meet the convoy, the end of which struggled painfully in to Springfontein at nine o'clock on the night of the 19th. This convoy, which had been working backwards and forwards between Philippolis and the line with supplies for the column, was left at Springfontein when the column moved North. Lieut. De La Pryme, A.S.C., who had admirably managed the supply arrangements, accompanied the column.
On the 19th September news arrived of the disaster at Vlakfontein, not far from Thabanchu, in which two guns of U battery, and their escort of newly-raised Mounted Infantry, were taken. General Bruce Hamilton's troops were accordingly despatched into the district round the scene of action. The Sussex column entrained during the 20th, and the work of hauling and shoving recalcitrant mules and horses into trucks went on all that night by the light of flares. There was a sharp frost at dawn; the helmets of men who had slept upon the ground were white, and the ditch by the railway was covered with ice. The sixth and last train reached Bloemfontein on the evening of the 21st; the column marched for Vlakfontein itself, after being inspected by General Tucker, and on the 23rd camped close to the scene of the fight.
The Boers and their prisoners had of course gone, but there were many traces of what had occurred.
In a kloof in a long low kopje lay two dead gunhorses. The ground all round was trampled down, probably by the horses of the escort, which had perhaps been put there under cover when the action began. The guns had come into action on the slope of the ridge against a kopje to the north, as the marks made by the spades shewed. Boers had apparently crept up from the direction of Slangfontein farm (which lay to the south), and had taken the position in rear.
On the top of the ridge were a number of bayonets, some artillery harness, haversacks, canteens, bandages stained with blood and other traces of the fight. Little heaps of cartridge cases behind stones here and there shewed where men had made a stand. The graves of four soldiers were found--so shallow that it was necessary to dig them afresh. The gun tracks led away from the ridge towards Slangfontein farm.
It was found afterwards that the officer in charge of the guns had indeed made a fine stand. The escort, consisting of untried Mounted Infantry, had not supported him. Attacked in front and rear, he fought the guns till the last moment, and then died beside them. His gunners, and a few of the escort who held out, were shot down almost to a man. The officer was Lieut. Otter Barry, R.A., whose brother is now (December, 1906) Adjutant of the 2nd Battn. of the Royal Sussex Regiment.
At this farm, a newly-made grave in the family burial ground aroused the suspicions of Major Gilbert. It was opened in spite of the protests of the inhabitants, and was found to contain nearly fifty rifles. Some more rifles and gun harness were in the dam. The people of the farm were removed, as well as a wounded Boer who was there. Most of the farms in the district were occupied at the time.
The tracks of the guns were followed for the next two days, without however catching up the enemy. The Boers put their prisoners over the Basuto border and dispersed; the column halted at Jammersberg Bridge on the Caledon River. Its strength at this time was 800 Europeans, 220 natives (drivers, etc.), 830 horses and 540 mules.
The District was swept by various columns (those of Lowrie Cole, Hamilton, Plumer and Williams) during the following week, without any great result. Col. du Moulin's column arrived at Edenburg on the 6th of October, and left the next day for the new district which had been assigned to it, in the familiar ground south of Dewetsdorp and east of Reddersburg. Before settling down to work, an expedition was made to the North to protect a convoy of coal on its way from Bloemfontein to some traction engines, which were stranded on the veldt for lack of fuel. The escort to the convoy consisted of the mounted men of the Third Battalion of the Royal Sussex Regiment under Capt. the Hon. J. S. R. Tufton.
Ackerman's commando was met on the evening of the 9th, but did not wait. A terrific rain storm that night covered his retreat.
One of the guns lost at Vlakfontein had already been recovered, and the second, with harness, was found on the 12th at Weltevreden. Reddersburg was reached next day, and building materials were collected in the town, with a view to establishing a fortified camp and depôt at a convenient centre.
During the expedition north, much stock had been collected, and the inhabitants of farms brought in. At one of the farms, a mad woman who objected to clothing was kept in the stable, and presented a difficult problem to the officer sent to clear it. The people of the house refused to assist in any way; some Kaffir women, however, dressed the poor wretch, who proved, indeed, on the return journey, the only cheerful member of the party.
Colonel du Moulin decided to make his headquarters at Ventershoek, a farm 11 miles S.E. of Reddersburg, surrounded on three sides by high ridges. On each of these a permanent piquet was established, for which a stone fort was constructed. Roads were made to these forts, and the two guns were sent up.
Two ranges of hills met at Ventershoek, one from the north-east and the other from the north; and the Camp lay between them at their point of junction. The piquets thus commanded the flat country to the south and west, the ridges dropping abruptly down into wide plains.
The column was again divided into "commandos," Major Gilbert and Captain Montrésor being assigned 200 men each, and a pom-pom and maxim respectively. On the 17th of October these "commandos" moved out--Major Gilbert to Hardewater, Captain Montrésor to Mooifontein. At Hardewater, a lofty hill (the end of the N. E. range) gave a magnificent view over the surrounding country; and here Major Gilbert remained. The Boers were said to be massing in the East of the Colony, and moving towards the line; and a sharp look-out was kept from the top of Hardewater Hill, on which the helio had some busy days. No one was seen, however, except men of other columns, who answered the enquiring flash.
Before leaving Hardewater, it was discovered that every drop of water used in camp came first over the body of a sheep that had fallen into a cutting some months before. No one appeared to be any the worse!
In a farm near, a notice, of which the following is a translation, had been left for the column:--
11th October, 1901. "Droogfontein.
"May it herewith be notified to every British Officer and to all men that the true Africanders, who are still under arms, are determined to sacrifice themselves for the freedom of their Country, and with God's help they will defend themselves till the last man is killed or captured.
"N. C. P. in the name of true Africanders."