Oft expectation fails, and most oft there where most it promises.
Up to the 27th February, 1900, the Republican arms were on the whole successful. The Boers fought well and many a brilliant victory crowned their efforts, and encouraged them to continue their struggle for freedom. True, they had to sacrifice many noble lives, but that was a sacrifice they were prepared to make for their country. Fortune smiled on them; as yet they had met with no very serious reverses. Magersfontein, Stormberg, Colenso, Spion Kop, were so many offerings of scarce vanquished Boers to the veiled Goddess Liberty. But towards the end of February, 1900, clouds gathered over the Republics. The tide of fortune was turned; disaster after disaster courted the Boer forces; blow after blow struck them with bewildering force. Then came the news of Cronje's capture. No sooner had we crossed the Orange River during the retreat from Stormberg than we learnt that stunning news of the disaster at Paardeberg on the 27th of February--the anniversary of Amajuba. Cronje captured--the General in whom we had placed such implicit confidence and on whom we relied for the future! Cronje captured--the man who had successfully checked the advance of the English forces on Kimberley at Magersfontein; the hero of many a battle; the man who knew no fear! His men captured--the flower and pick of the Boer forces, with all their guns, and brave Major Albrecht as well!
Many a burgher who up to that fatal day had fought hopefully and courageously lost hope and courage then. Some, we regret to say, were so disconsolate that they renounced their faith in that Supreme Being in whose hands are the destinies of nations. Their reliance on their country's God ended with Cronje's capture, as though their deliverance depended solely upon him. This, however, does not appear so strange when one recollects that the Boers could not afford to lose so many of their best men at a time when all were precious for their country's safety. As to the siege itself, we, not having been in it, cannot enter into its details. One of the besieged, who, in spite of a terrific bombardment and repeated attacks by the enemy, kept a diary of the events of each day, gives this striking description on the 10th and last day:
"Bombardment heavier than usual. The burghers are recalcitrant and in consequence the General's authority wanes rapidly. There is hardly any food, the remaining bags of biscuits are yellow from the lyddite fumes, so is everything, damp and yellow. The stench of the decomposed horses and oxen is awful. The water of the rivers is putrid with carrion. A party of men caught three stray sheep early on the morning of the 10th. In haste they killed them and started to skin them desperately; but they had half done when a lyddite shell bursting close to them turned the mutton yellow with its fumes and it had to be abandoned reluctantly. The sufferings of the wounded are heartrending. Little children huddled together in bomb-proof excavations are restless, hungry and crying. The women are adding their sobs to the plaintive exhortations of the wounded. All the time the shelling never abates. The arena of the defenders is veneered. Nearly every man, woman and child is lyddite-stained. The muddy stream is yellow. The night was an awful one. For two days the men are without food, but worse still are the pestiferous air, the loathsome water, and the suffering of the wounded. It is too much for flesh and blood. The morning of the 27th February saw the first white flag hoisted by a Boer general. It was a woeful sight when 3600 Boers, undisciplined peasants, reluctantly threw down their rifles among the wreck of the shells and ambled past the English lines. They had withstood the onslaught of 80,000 British troops with modern death-dealing implements of war, and, towards the end of the siege, about 1000 guns were brought to bear upon them."
How far this disaster can be attributed to General Cronje is difficult to say. The following considerations may, however, throw some light on its causes.
During the early part of the war we hardly realised the great value and necessity of good scouting. It was only after General Cronje and his men had fallen into the hands of the enemy that a regular scouting corps was organised and placed under the control of the brave Danie Therou.
Lord Roberts's forces were almost on Cronje's laager before they were perceived, and unfortunately they were even then entirely under-estimated and consequently thought light of. Flushed by the victory at Magersfontein, the General did not contemplate the possibility of such a bitter reverse. He was going to strike another hard blow at the enemy--he did strike it, but at too great a cost. Had he realised his position the first or second day after the siege was begun, he might still have escaped. The convoy would have been captured, but the men would have been saved. The old gentleman was determined to hold all, and consequently lost all.
So far the General deserves censure and is accountable for the disaster which had such a far-reaching and bad moral effect on the rest of the burghers. The only sweet drop contained in the bitter cup extended to us was the fact that Cronje and his burghers surrendered as men, and not as cowards. Once surrounded and brought to bay they resisted every attack with admirable fortitude and valour. Surrounded along the banks of the Modder River, at a spot where they had no cover at all, exposed to a terrific cannonade and charged by thousands of the enemy from time to time, these farmers fearlessly repelled every onslaught. It was one thing to surround them, another thing to capture them. They were not to be taken with cold hands. The enemy, especially the Canadians, had to pay a great price before the white flag announced Cronje's unconditional surrender.
During the siege attempts were made by General De Wet to relieve Cronje, but none succeeded. Several of the relieving forces, including the pick of the Winburg Commando with Commandant Theunissen, were themselves surrounded and captured in trying to break through the lines of the besiegers.
To intensify the gloom, Ladysmith, which was daily expected to fall, was relieved on the day of Cronje's surrender. For certain reasons the late Commandant-General P. Joubert had evacuated the positions round Ladysmith and retreated to the Biggar's Range. General Louis Botha, who was engaging Buller's relieving forces at Colenso, was then also compelled to retreat.
After Cronje's capture the way to Bloemfontein and Pretoria lay open. The Boers made one more stand at Abraham's Kraal, where the enemy suffered heavily, but carried the day by their overwhelming numbers. After the British occupied Bloemfontein the Transvaal burghers became reluctant to offer battle in the Free State, on the ground that there were no positions from which they could successfully check the ever-advancing foe. Many of the Free Staters were discouraged and hopeless; but rest renewed their strength and zeal, and they shortly returned to the struggles.
The second disaster which befell the two Republics was the ignominious and cowardly surrender of Prinsloo, which took place on the 1st of August, 1900. For various reasons this surrender was more keenly felt by the Boers than that of Cronje. The one, though he might have blundered, nevertheless acted the part of a brave, though obstinate, man; the other that of a coward.
Some six weeks after the occupation of Bloemfontein the British troops resumed their northward march, and so quickly did they advance, almost day and night, that Pretoria was soon occupied. What this rapid movement meant, we could not quite understand. Did Lord Roberts think that the occupation of Pretoria would terminate hostilities? The British forces in their swift march to the Transvaal capital left Free State burghers behind them as they advanced. These men rallied again under General De Wet and seriously threatened the English line of communications, capturing seven hundred of the British at Roode Wal.
Large forces under Hector MacDonald and Bruce Hamilton recrossed the Vaal in order to crush the Free Staters. Then Prinsloo surrendered. Having accompanied the commandos that surrendered under him, we will relate the story of that most sad incident of the War.
On the occupation of Bethlehem by the British in the beginning of July, 1900, the Boer commandos, under General De Wet, retreated to the Wittebergen, a mountain range to the south-east of Bethlehem, forming a semi-circle round Fouriesburg, a small village on the Basutoland border. This range, with its towering peaks and steep slopes, formed an impregnable stronghold. The burghers thought that, once behind those heaven-high mountains, with all the passes in their possession, with abundant war supplies, and all the necessaries of life, they would resist successfully every attack. The camps were pitched at the base of the mountains. The burghers began at once to make turf-bulwarks for the guns, and trenches for themselves, in the various passes.
General De Wet, who did not seem quite at ease in this enclosure or kraal, for such it was, organised the Bethlehem-Heilbron burghers into a commando 2500 strong and left with these in the direction of Heilbron. General Roux from Senekal was instructed to organise another commando, 1000 or 1200 strong, and advance with that in the direction of Bloemfontein. For some reason or other, General Roux's departure was delayed, and so he with all his men fell into Prinsloo's meshes.
On Monday, 23rd July, the enemy made a general attack on all the Boer positions, except Naauwpoort Pass. These attacks, though very determined, were unsuccessful. From sunrise to sunset the firing never ceased. The burghers in Slabberts Nek, where we happened to be, were subjected to a dreadful cannon fire. This pass was guarded by Captain Smith with two Krupp guns and Lieutenant Carlblom with a pom-pom. Upon these guns the English directed two Howitzers and six Armstrongs. Here, just before sunset, the gallant Captain Rautenbagh was blown to pieces by a lyddite shell, which exploded in front of him.
Thus repulsed by day, the enemy succeeded in scaling the heights to the left of the Boers at Slabberts Nek by an unguarded footpath during the night. As soon as the crimson light of a July dawn had exposed the frost-covered ridges, the dark overcoats on the left of the Boer positions revealed the unwelcome fact that the enemy had gained their object of the day before, and had outflanked the Boers.
Not only at Slabberts Nek, but also at Reliefs Nek the Boers were outflanked the same night. At the latter pass a number of Highlanders had occupied the rocky heights during the stillness of the night, so that when the Boer pickets discovered them the next morning they found the enemy commanding a position higher than their own, which they forthwith abandoned. The enemy, now in possession of two mountain passes, forced the Boers to evacuate all the other passes, by threatening an attack on our rear and surrounding us. So on Tuesday morning, at about 9 A.M., the commandos quitted the mountains and fell back on Fouriesburg.
Our situation was becoming hourly more and more embarrassing. There was just one thing to be done, and that was to move as quickly as possible all along the base of the mountain range, and to seize a pass called Naauwpoort Nek farther northwards. That pass was not yet occupied by the enemy, and there it was possible to secure a safe exit; and higher up the mountain range, at the farm of Salmon Raads, was another pass which could be reached in due time.
If Prinsloo had, in his heart, desired to save his commandos, he could have done so easily. But no sooner had we left the mountains than we noticed that strange whispers were passed from man to man; we heard it said that a further prolongation of the war was absolutely useless; that many of the officers and burghers were tired of it, and would like to go home. In short, we saw what was coming, and anticipated the surrender.
When the commandos arrived at Naauwpoort Pass they found their exit cut off there by the enemy. Instead of hastening on to the next pass, the officers held a council of war to discuss the situation, or, more correctly, to deliberate on a surrender. The meeting lasted almost all night. Some of the officers were deadly opposed to a surrender; others--and they were the majority--were in favour of it. Nothing, however, was decided at that meeting, for a Hoofd Commandant had first to be elected before any steps could be taken.
A second meeting of officers for the purpose of electing a Chief Commandant was next held. In that meeting Prinsloo was elected Chief Commandant, but, as not all the officers were present, some of them being still in the positions, it was beforehand agreed that the man elected by that meeting should have no authority before the votes of the absent officers were taken, and when their votes came in it was found that General Roux, and not Prinsloo, was elected.
The latter, however, entered into negotiations with the enemy before this question as to whom was to be Chief Commandant was settled. He first asked for an armistice, which was refused. Then he asked for terms, to which General Hunter replied: "Unconditional surrender is demanded." Prinsloo, well aware that the burghers would not surrender unconditionally, pleaded and insisted on terms.
At this juncture Vilonel, the deserter, who had been sentenced for five years' imprisonment for high treason, but who was, unfortunately, released, appeared on the scene. He came from the British lines, met Prinsloo, and officiated as intermediary between Generals Hunter and Prinsloo. Something in the shape of terms was drawn up, but these terms, if tested and analysed, amounted to unconditional surrender. As soon as Prinsloo was in possession of these conditions, he forwarded a report to the different commandants that he had been successful in obtaining good terms from the English, and that they must evacuate their positions so as to arrange for a surrender. This report was sent on to Commandant Potgieter of Smithfield with instructions to forward it to the next commandant.
General Roux, on learning of Prinsloo's doings, at once dispatched a report to the different commandos notifying to them that Prinsloo had no right to negotiate with the enemy, to ask for or accept terms for a surrender. Also, that the burghers must on no account abandon their positions. He, so the report ran, would personally go to protest against the illegal surrender. The General went, but did not return. Why he went himself, and did not send one of his adjutants with a written protest, seems still very strange to us. He was warned not to go. General Fourie's last words to him were: "Good-bye, General; I greet you, never to see you again in the Boer ranks." He did not heed the warning, and so we lost one of our bravest and best leaders.
Unfortunately, General Roux's report fell into the hands of Commandant Potgieter, who, siding with Prinsloo on the question of a surrender, had it destroyed whilst Prinsloo's was forwarded. This settled the whole affair. The positions were evacuated, and in part occupied by the enemy. Still, at the eleventh hour, there was a possibility of escape. The long trail of waggons would have been captured, but most, if not all, the burghers could have found their way out. But no, they were to be duped by a set of unscrupulous officers. They were told they could get all they desired, except their independence. All could go home, each would get a horse-saddle and bridle, their private property would not be confiscated, and they would be allowed to follow their agricultural and pastoral pursuits undisturbed. And the poor officers--well for them that there were no extenuating terms, no mercy. So, at least, said Commandant Polly de Villiers, of the Ficksburg Commando. He, when posing as a martyr, announced these conditions to the burghers, who, after such long separation from their families, found it impossible to withstand such charming terms. Sorrowfully were they disillusioned after they had laid down their arms.
To make the surrender a complete success, all sorts of rumours were freely circulated. The burghers were told that all who did not surrender would be shot as rebels when captured, that the pass, higher up the mountains, was guarded by twenty-five lyddite guns, so that every exit was cut off by the enemy. When these reports were brought to bear on men already depressed and discouraged it did not require great pressure to effect their surrender. Still, if these men had not been misled, if they had known that Ceylon and India would be the final destination of many of them, they never would have surrendered, and very few of them would have been captured there and then. All this they found out when it was too late.
These unfortunate burghers we do not wish to criticise too severely. The officers were to blame. Many of them certainly fell into the hands of the enemy through no fault of their own. There were, however, some who were only too ready to lay down their arms, and these were the majority. They did not act the part of men; for they deserted shamefully those who still struggled bravely for freedom. Nor am I willing to judge these. Let conscience speak to such as these.
Some officers, animated by a truer love of their country, protested strongly against such an illegal and shameful surrender. One of these, General Olivier of the Rouxville Commando, called his burghers together and told them plainly what he thought. He warned them not to place too much credence in British promises, and promised that those who would follow him he would lead out safely. Of his whole commando--about four hundred strong--scarcely seventy followed him. The others surrendered.
Besides attending to his men, General Olivier also took charge of most of the Boer guns, which were to have formed no mean part of the booty, for Prinsloo had promised the British some thirteen guns, one pom-pom, and a few maxims with all their ammunition. In the pass at Salmon Raads, General Hector MacDonald met Olivier with the guns. He at once ordered him to go no farther, as he was a surrendered man. Olivier tarried as long as it pleased him, and then proceeded, taking the guns along with him.
Of all the Boer forces concentrated in the Wittebergen, only about six hundred did not surrender. To secure these also every means were resorted to. No fewer than three times were messengers sent to them with reports from the enemy. At first we were courteously invited to return and surrender. To prove to us the validity of the surrender, all the papers bearing on the negotiation from first to last were forwarded to us. The excellent conditions granted to the surrendered burghers were also transmitted to us. In these conditions we observed that the surrendered burghers would each be provided with a horse to ride to their destination, which would be Winburg, till further orders. We saw also that they would be kept as prisoners-of-war until the war was over, which meant, though they did not suspect it then, two years longer. Their private property was to be respected. How the last condition was violated is well known.
Olivier and his men were, however, not to be easily ensnared. He politely rejected the proffered terms, stating at the same time that Prinsloo's surrender was illegal. A few days later, and lo! in the distance we beheld another flag-of-truce, a second report. The polite request had failed, intimidation must now be tried--that might succeed better. We were admonished urgently to come back at once, and surrender without further delay. Failing that, we must not expect to receive such generous and lenient treatment as would be extended to those surrendered already. All our goods would be confiscated, etc.
On receiving this report, Olivier sent back the somewhat curt and abrupt reply: "That if the British wanted his rifle they would have to capture him as a man, for he would not surrender like an old woman. And he would receive no more white flags on this matter." Consequently the third messenger was sent back without being interviewed.
So much for the Prinsloo disaster. It was a sad one for those still struggling against overwhelming odds. Many a heart beat low, and many a sigh was heaved. That was an "unkind cut," which wounded the hearts of thousands. Many a one, even of those who stood to the last day, never recovered from the effects of that shock. They fought bravely, and did their duty towards their country, but hope for an ultimate victory was dead within them.
And those who surrendered, what lessons they had to learn! Even to-day, a year after the close of the war, some of them have not reached their homes, but are on lonely islands, and in distant India, while many have passed away to the unseen world on those foreign shores. Those that came back, what did they find? A country strewn with ruins, their homes destroyed and burnt, and their sheep and cattle stabbed and shot lying in heaps upon the ground. What a sad sight did greet their eyes! How many of their beloved families were missing, having died in the Concentration Camps. But when they reflect on the past the saddest thought should be their vanished freedom.
The next ordeal through which the Republicans had to pass began with the denudation of the two States. As arms alone could not subdue the Boers, some other expedient had to be tried--the starvation process was resorted to; all food-stuff had to be destroyed or removed, so that the burghers should not obtain sustenance. The country had to be cleared of cattle and sheep--in fact, of everything which could keep the Boers alive. This was considered the most feasible way of defeating the so-called marauding bands of armed Boers.
But what about the women-folk, if the country is to be cleared? Well, these must go to Concentration Camps, from which so many never returned. We do not wish to dwell on the sufferings of Boer women and children; but what we are proud to note is that when military operations were conducted against the weak and defenceless, the burgher was touched to the centre of his heart. Call a Boer by what name you please, but of this be assured--he is a man who, above all, loves his family, and has pride and pleasure in his home, be it never so humble. When, therefore, a destructive policy was adopted, who shall realise fully what passed through the minds of these as they stood watching the lurid flames of their burning homes, and heard how in the camps their families were dying in scores? Cronje's capture, Prinsloo's surrender, and all the hard fighting they had to do, seemed but trifles as compared to this, by far the saddest, phase of the South African War.
Another dark day, and the curtain drops. We refer to that day when the documents were signed and peace was concluded. Then, indeed, the darkness seemed tangible Who shall number the tears shed on that day--tears of men, women, and even children? Tears of men who had fought for almost three years, who had sacrificed their all, who had but one object in view, one ideal to pursue; who loved liberty and independence, with an amazing love. Tears of women, who had spent many months either in camps, or in the open veldt; women whose husbands and sons had fallen in the war, whose infants were laid low in many a graveyard. Tears of children, who had lost their parents, children who never more would know the love of a mother, the protection of a father. With one voice the whole people lamented the loss of their beloved Fatherland.
And how did the officers who had to subscribe to these terms of peace feel? Let one[A] who was present speak:
"Never shall I forget what I witnessed there. General De Wet showed that there was no chance any longer of continuing the struggle ... I see him yet, that unyielding man, with his piercing eyes, his strong mouth and chin--I see him there still, like a lion fallen into a snare. He will not, he cannot, but he must give up the struggle! I still see the stern faces of the officers, who up to that moment had been so unbending. I see them staring as if into empty space. I see engraved upon their faces an indescribable expression, an expression that seemed to ask: 'Is this the bitter end of our sufferings and our sorrows, of our faith and our strong crying to God?' How great was their emotion! I saw the lips of men quiver who had never trembled before a foe. I saw tears brimming in eyes that had been dry when they had seen their dearest laid in the grave....
"Everything was as silent as death when acting President Burger took the pen in his hand. I looked at my watch; it was five minutes past eleven on the 31st day of May in the year 1902.
"President Burger signed. President Steyn was not there. Our hearts bled at the thought that he had been seized by a dangerous malady; and yet it seemed to me that something was owed to that malady, since it prevented the President of the Orange Free State from doing what would have caused him the greatest pain in the world. He had said once: 'To set my hand to a paper to sign away the Independence of my people--that I shall never do.' Sad circumstances, which he might then almost have called fortunate, had brought it about that what he would not do, that he could not do. The document was signed! All were silent in that room where so much had been spoken."
We quote the terms of peace in full:--
"His Excellency General Lord Kitchener, and His Excellency Lord Milner, on behalf of the British Government, and Messrs. M.T. Steyn, J. Brebner, General C.R. De Wet, General C. Olivier, and Judge J.B.M. Hertzog, acting as the Government of the Orange Free State, and Messrs. S.W. Burger, F.W. Reitz, Generals Louis Botha, J.H. de la Rey, Lucas Meyer, and C. Krogh, acting as the Government of the South African Republic, on behalf of their respective burghers, desirous to terminate the present hostilities, agree on the following articles:--
"I. The burgher forces in the field will forthwith lay down their arms, handing over all guns, rifles, and munitions of war in their possession or under their control, and desist from any further resistance to the authority of His Majesty King Edward VII., whom they recognise as their lawful Sovereign. The manner and details of this surrender will be arranged between Lord Kitchener and Commandant-General Botha, Assistant Commandant-General Delarey, and Chief Commandant De Wet.
"2. All burghers in the field outside the limits of the Transvaal or Orange River Colony, and all prisoners of war at present outside South Africa, who are burghers, will, on duly declaring their acceptance of the position of subjects of His Majesty King Edward VII., be gradually brought back to their homes as soon as transport can be provided and their means of subsistence ensured.
"3. The burghers so surrendering or so returning will not be deprived of their personal liberty or their property.
"4. No proceedings, civil or criminal, will be taken against any of the burghers so surrendering or so returning for any acts in connection with the prosecution of the war. The benefit of this clause will not extend to certain acts contrary to the usage of war which have been notified by the Commander-in-Chief to the Boer Generals and which shall be tried by court-martial immediately after the close of hostilities.
"5. The Dutch language will be taught in public schools in the Transvaal and Orange River Colony where the parents of the children desire it, and will be allowed in courts of law when necessary for the better and more effectual administration of justice.
"6. The possession of rifles will be allowed in the Transvaal and Orange River Colony to persons requiring them for their protection, on taking out a licence according to law.
"7. Military administration in the Transvaal and Orange River Colony will at the earliest possible date be succeeded by Civil Government, and, as soon as circumstances permit, representative institutions, leading up to self-government, will be introduced.
"8. The question of granting the franchise to natives will not be decided until after the introduction of self-government.
"9. No special tax will be imposed on landed property in the Transvaal and Orange River Colony to defray the expenses of the War.
"10. As soon as conditions permit, a Commission, on which the local inhabitants will be represented, will be appointed in each district of the Transvaal and Orange River Colony, under the presidency of a Magistrate or other official, for the purpose of assisting the restoration of the people to their homes, and supplying those who, owing to war losses, are unable to provide for themselves, with food, shelter, and the necessary amount of seed, stock, implements, etc., indispensable to the resumption of their normal occupations. His Majesty's Government will place at the disposal of these Commissions a sum of three million pounds sterling for the above purposes, and will allow all notes issued under Law No. I, of 1900, of the South African Republic, and all receipts given by officers in the field of the late Republics, or under their orders, to be presented to a Judicial Commission, which will be appointed by the Government; and if such notes and receipts are found by this Commission to have been duly issued in return for valuable considerations, they will be received by the first named Commissions as evidence of war losses suffered by the persons to whom they were originally given. In addition to the above named free grant of three million pounds, His Majesty's Government will be prepared to make advances on loan for the same purposes, free of interest for two years, and afterwards repayable over a period of three years with three per cent. interest. No foreigner or rebel will be entitled to the benefit of this clause."
Statement read by Lord Milner to the Boer delegates:--
"His Majesty's Government must place it on record that the treatment of Cape and Natal Colonists who have been in rebellion, and who now surrender, will, if they return to their Colonies, be determined by the Colonial Governments, and in accordance with the laws of the Colonies, and that any British subjects who have joined the enemy will be liable to trial under the law of that part of the British Empire to which they belong.
"His Majesty's Government are informed by the Cape Government that the following are their views as to the terms which should be granted to British subjects of Cape Colony who are now in the field, or who have surrendered, or have been captured since the 12th of April, 1901: With regard to rank and file, that they should all, upon surrender, after giving up their arms, sign a document before the Resident Magistrate of the District in which the surrender takes place, acknowledging themselves guilty of High Treason, and that the punishment to be awarded to them, provided they shall not have been guilty of murder, or other acts contrary to the usages of civilised warfare, should be that they shall not be entitled for life to be registered as voters, or to vote at any Parliamentary Divisional Council, or Municipal election.
"With reference to Justices of the Peace and Field Cornets of the Cape Colony, and all other persons holding an official position under the Government of the Cape Colony, or who may occupy the position of Commandant of rebel or burgher forces, they should be tried for High Treason before the ordinary court of the country, or such special court as may be hereafter constituted by Law, the punishment for their offence to be left to the discretion of the Court, with this proviso, that in no case shall the penalty of Death be inflicted.
"The Natal Government are of opinion that rebels should be dealt with according to the Law of the Colony."
To the Boer, although he had been suffering the manifold miseries of the battlefield for over two years, such terms made peace a tragedy. Bitterness was mixed with his cup of happiness when he found himself once more united to his family.
[Footnote A: Rev. Kestell, 'Through Shot and Flames.']
[Illustration: MR. R. MCDONALD.]