Daring the event to the teeth ...
And danger serves among them.
Come, let us make an honourable retreat,
Though not with bag and baggage.
The above heading may seem strange, and yet we presume that most officers, as well as many privates, who had taken a leading part in the late South African War can record many instances where they escaped by the skin of the teeth.
How often a shell exploded like a thunder-clap in one's immediate vicinity! How many a bullet just missed its mark as by a hair's breadth, whizzing past the ear with lightning speed! Well I remember how, on one occasion, a shell exploded right overhead with such tremendous force that both rider and horse rolled in the dust by the violent concussion produced by the explosion. The burghers, some distance away, watching me, thought that would be the last of Kritzinger. To their surprise I rose again, shook off the dust, mounted my steed, and rode on to the position they were defending.
At present I shall not dwell on deliverances from the fire-spouting machines of modern warfare, but confine my remarks to such escapes as were connected with attempts on the part of the enemy, either to secure my person or capture my commando. Here again I shall only cite some instances; to relate all will be tedious to reader and writer alike.
In the beginning of July, 1901, just a few days after we had so successfully attacked and taken James Town, we arrived at a farm situated on the banks of the Kraai River, eighteen miles from Lady Grey. Here was the enemy's opportunity.
The owner of the farm--Van der Merwe, a most loyal colonist--was not at home, but, as we learnt afterwards, had gone to Lady Grey, or to the nearest English column, to announce the presence of my commando in his neighbourhood. Of this unfriendly deed we were altogether unaware.
As soon as we had off-saddled, our scouts were sent out in different directions. In the evening they returned with the report that for miles around us no traces of the enemy were to be seen. The pickets for the night were then put out on the three main roads leading to the farm, which was in a valley almost entirely encompassed by high and rugged mountains.
With my pickets out I felt at ease. I went to the farm-house, had dinner, got a room, and laid myself down to enjoy the night's rest, on which the enemy was soon to intrude so violently.
About 2 A.M. one of the pickets came to the laager to report a noise, which sounded like the tramp of horses, but he could not, on account of the intense darkness, see any objects. Warned by this report, we began to make preparations for an attack. Veldt Cornet Kruger was at once ordered to ascertain the truth of the report. But before he had left the camp one of the burghers came back and assured us that it was a herd of cattle.
Thus reassured, we betook ourselves to rest. Rest? No, certainly not. The foe is at hand. No sooner had we wrapped ourselves up in the blankets when, behold! rifle reports grated on our ears. The herd of cattle was nothing else than Colonel Scobell's column. Alas! our pickets had been cut off and hence could not report on the enemy.
Imagine our position! I began dressing as fast as I could, faster than ever before in my life. So near was the enemy, that when I reached the back door of the house in which I slept they had already entered by the front door. Had it not been for some plucky burghers the enemy would have completely cut off my exit and I would have been captured.
Fortunately the way was still open at the back door. What a scene I witnessed outside! Friend and foe were so intermingled, and engaged in hand-to-hand fight, that it was impossible to distinguish the one from the other. Right in front of the door the gallant Commandant Calmon Cächet was wrestling with an opponent that proved too strong for him. Next to him a certain Grobler had floored his man, and was handling him so roughly that the poor fellow called for help. The one who was too strong for Cächet left him to render assistance to his brother in adversity. Grobler then left his prey, and both he and Cächet seized their rifles and made for better regions.
Thinking that it might be only a patrol of the enemy that had come upon us incidentally and not intentionally, I tried hard to get the rather panic-stricken burghers into action. At a gate through which they had to pass I stopped them, and ordered them back. We soon noticed, however, how serious our position was; in fact, that we were surrounded on every side, and would have to fight our way through and out.
At about 3.30 A.M. the British brought their guns into action. The mountains resounded with the explosion of the shells, and the night was illuminated by the flashes of the guns. The fireworks were magnificent beyond description, but ... we had no inclination to admire them under such circumstances.
The next morning we counted our losses: ten burghers were captured, two wounded and one killed. One hundred and thirty horses were missing, most of the men were without saddles, and only a few had blankets.
This was indeed a surprise, and yet we were astonished that, after all, any of us did escape. So eager was the enemy to secure my person, that they did not attend to the burghers, whom they had disarmed, but simply flung their rifles aside and left them to themselves. The men, thus disarmed, instantly picked up their rifles and "trapt," i.e., ran off. Thus very few of them were without rifles the following day.
Our feelings cannot be easily described. There were forty-six men who had to go on foot. A large number had no saddles. I lost all my horses. The only hope we entertained was that the British Government would soon restore our property. What we regretted most was the loss of our men.
Two of our pickets were caught, the remaining six, when charged and cut off, had taken refuge in a deep ditch, where they remained until the enemy had left, and then found their way back to the commando.
My next escape, though not exposed to the enemy's fire, and perhaps not even known to them, was probably the narrowest I had during the whole campaign.
We were again hard pressed by two columns. Our horses being very tired, we were obliged to rest them for a short while, even at the risk of falling into the hands of the enemy. Our way led through a valley, bordered on both sides by huge mountain ranges which for at least six miles ran parallel.
On the side of the road, half-way up the valley, was a farmstead where we off-saddled and gave our horses some fodder. The two columns which were on our track had been coming nearer. Fortunately darkness was setting in. When the front column was a short distance from us, we saddled and went to a dense bush close to the road. In that bush we delayed, till the first column had passed us and advanced some distance. As the second was only one or two miles behind the first, and as we were not sure whether it would also pass, we fell in behind the first; there was but one road.
We were now between two columns. We rode on as quietly as we could, hardly a whisper was heard. The slightest noise on our part could betray our presence. We were so close to the front column that we could distinctly hear the rumbling of wheels and the tramp of horses. Should the progress of the column be in any way obstructed, hereby causing a standstill, the one at our rear would inevitably press us upon the front one. What cold drops of perspiration rolled over my forehead! How I held my breath! Who shall describe the anxiety of such moments? There was but one way open--the way to the stars and the Throne beyond the stars. Before and behind us the foe, on both sides mountains, so steep and rugged that it would be folly even to attempt to climb them. Wistfully we looked up.
After riding some distance we met a native that belonged to the front column. He had tarried a little too long. We addressed him in English, and thus put him off the scent altogether. Mistaking us for English, he told us all he knew about the different columns. In this way we rode along, gradually approaching the extremity of the two ranges. Out at last! How relieved we felt can hardly be imagined. Once more we breathed freely. The poor native! How startled he was when he discovered his mistake, and learnt that he was then a prisoner, and had to accompany us.
On the 13th of October, 1901, the enemy had very ingeniously laid a trap for me, and had almost drawn me into it.
At that time we were in the district of Wepener, a village on the Basutoland border. Several British columns were then operating in that district. As so many were concentrated there, it was extremely hazardous and difficult for small commandoes, such as ours, to move during the daytime. The space between the Caledon River and Basutoland in which we could move becoming daily more and more circumscribed and limited, we determined to cross the Caledon River. Besides, we heard that the river was rising, and so were anxious to ford it before it was in flood.
On the evening of the 12th of October we set out in the direction of the river. At 10 P.M. we arrived at a farm, where we halted till 1 A.M. It was our intention to stop at this farm for the night, but owing to some strange foreboding of imminent danger I resolved to leave; and at 1 A.M. gave orders to saddle. As it was a very dark and cold night, some of the burghers felt reluctant to leave, and I heard them saying, "What is up again to-night with General Kritzinger? Surely we are perfectly safe here! Why trek again in the bitter cold at midnight?" But my orders had to be obeyed, and at 2 A.M. we were on the march.
Five of the men, who could not find their horses in the dark, were left behind to seek them when it was light. At daybreak that farm was surrounded and shelled by the enemy. Had we remained there we would have been in a sad plight; the five men were all captured. We escaped, but there was another trap for the next day. We off-saddled at a farm three miles from the river. Commandant Wessels, three burghers and myself rode to the Drift--"Basters Drift"--to see whether the stream was still fordable.
Little dreaming that the enemy was concealed on the opposite bank of the river, behind the ruins of an old homestead, and was watching us as we gradually approached the river, we entered the stream and waded through it. Arrived on the opposite side we sent one of the men back to call the commando, for the river was rising rapidly. The other two burghers were sent to reconnoitre ahead, while Wessels and myself remained on the bank of the river.
Scarcely had the two men left us, when we were startled by rifle reports close by. We jumped up, ran to our horses, and saw that we were hardly 100 yards away from the enemy. All we could do was to recross the river, and that had to take place in a shower of bullets. Let one imagine himself in a swollen river, so deep that his horse has to swim now and then, and the foe on the bank directing an incessant fire on him, and he will realise to some extent our position. We reached the bank safely, but had to do another 800 yards to get out of harm's way.
The two men we had sent ahead--what became of them? Alas! they rode into the jaws of death, for when they discovered the enemy they were hardly 15 yards from them. "Hands up!" resounded from behind the wall. The men, rather than surrender and sacrifice their commando, made an ill-fated attempt at escape. In the twinkling of an eye they were shot down. The one--a young Trichard from Cradock--was dead on the spot; three bullets penetrated his body. The other--young Wessels from Winburg--was wounded in the leg and captured.
These two brave young men were the means of saving Wessels and myself either from being captured or shot. And not only that, but their gallant action, in which the one forfeited his life, and the other a limb, proved the salvation of the whole commando. If they had surrendered Wessels and I would probably have gone in the same direction, and the commando would have followed, and so all of us would have been in a terrible predicament. But they had risked their lives to save us from certain destruction.
Failing to ford the river at that drift, we proceeded down-stream with the hope of crossing it somewhere else. To our disappointment the river had risen to such a degree that the only transit still left could be a bridge. Now there was but one far down the stream, and it was very doubtful whether that was not held by the enemy. Anyway, we were going to try, and so marching almost all the whole night we arrived at the bridge a little after sunrise. How glad we were to find the bridge still unoccupied! We had just reached it in time, for half an hour after we had gone over the British took possession of it. They had now completed their cordon; but we--were out of the circle.
On the 22nd of the same month we were once again in tight corners--surrounded by three columns.
As we found no rest either for ourselves or our animals in the south-eastern districts of the Orange Free State, we resolved to go to the Winburg and Ladybrand districts.
The enemy had pitched their camps all along the main road from Reddersburg to Dewetsdorp, and from there to Wepener. These stations were from six to eight miles apart, and formed a kind of fence. Through this line we had to pass, as well as the blockhouse line extending from Bloemfontein to Ladybrand, via Thaba 'Nchu.
We left at dusk, got safely through the camp-line, and rode on till 2 A.M., when we arrived at a certain farm. We went to the house to make inquiries as to the enemy. A woman opened the door, and on learning who we were, informed us that a quarter of an hour from her home an English column was encamped. How disgusting! We had been in the saddle from sunset to 2 A.M. and here we were, just a quarter of an hour from the enemy. We thought and hoped that we were then at least twelve miles from the nearest column. Why not engage them? the reader might ask. Well, we did. But our horses, which had to live on the tender grass-shoots, needed a rest very badly; we could hardly use them. Besides, there was a blockhouse-line to pass the following night, and this one was still 24 miles off.
We proceeded another three miles, to be at least four miles from that column. At about 2.30 we off-saddled. Being not quite at ease we rose after a short rest and re-saddled. Two scouts were sent to a hill close by. To their surprise they found the enemy's pickets stationed on the same kopje, at the foot of which the British camp was pitched. Having said "good-morning" to each other in military fashion the two returned with the unwelcome news that the enemy was just next door. We had slept side by side without knowing of each other. Ignorance was bliss that night.
This column--about 200 strong--on discerning us, at once prepared for action. Though very tired, we took up positions and began to engage the advancing foe. We succeeded in checking their progress, and certainly had the best of the situation till noon, when the scene was changed. My scouts returned with the alarming report that two other columns were advancing on us from Thaba 'Nchu.
I saw that we could not afford to lose a moment, for the two columns were not far apart, nor at any great distance from us. If we should continue the fight with the one the others would meet and we would be surrounded. Hence I gave instructions to the men to fall back. The report reached us unfortunately too late--our exit was already cut off. The enemy had occupied positions all around us, and there we were, right in the centre of a circle whose circumference consisted of an unbroken line of enemies. My secretary, who had never before been in such a circle, asked me: "Now, General, what now? What is our next move?" "We must charge that column in front of us," I replied, and, suiting the action to the word, we went off as fast as our tired horses could go, making straight for the enemy. This was too much for them; they first halted, and then--retreated to a ridge about 1700 yards to their left. This retreat afforded us an exit. We were, however, exposed to a cross-fire for fully three miles, but it proved ineffectual, for only one burgher was slightly wounded.
If the enemy had not retreated that day, or had only occupied a certain brook, through which we had to pass, it would have been impossible for us to escape. But if there were no ifs there would not have been such a lamentable war in South Africa. Neither would such unpardonable blunders have been committed.
We were glad that the enemy had allowed us to pass. That night we crossed the fighting-line near to Sprinkhaan's Nek, where General De Wet and his men had such a hot reception.
BETWEEN TWO RIVERS AND FIVE COLUMNS.
On the evening of the 14th of March, 1901, my commando crossed the Tarka River, after which Tarka Stad is named. As heavy rains were falling we bivouacked not far from the river. There in the veldt, without any shelter, we spent a miserable night, for we were exposed to incessant showers, which drenched us to the very skin. But there was something even worse in store for us the following day.
Having crossed the Tarka River, we were between that river and another called Vlekpoort River, which flows into the Tarka some six miles from where we had forded the latter.
The following morning we rode to a farm near by. There we off-saddled, fed our horses, and began to prepare our breakfast. How stiff, cold and hungry we were! We could hardly wait until the meat was thoroughly broiled. Just as we began to satisfy the pangs of hunger the scouts came back, and once more it was "opzaal! opzaal!" (saddle! saddle!). We knew what it meant. The enemy was on our heels.
Two columns were on our right flank, between the two rivers. One had followed us up, and was then on the banks of the Tarka River; another was encamped in front of us on the banks of the Vlekpoort River; whilst a fifth was stationed near the confluence of the two streams. Thus five columns all around us; and the problem to be solved was, how to get out of the net.
This problem we solved in a practical manner. We occupied at once the strongest positions we could find, and, fortunately for us, between the rivers were natural positions so strong, that, with a small number of men, it was possible to hold one's own against great odds. These positions we seized, and were determined to stand or fall thereby. We would fight to the last cartridge, and then try and break through the cordon during the night.
In the meanwhile the enemy had drawn nearer. At about 8 A.M. the fighting commenced. From different directions shell after shell was hurled upon us. Again and again the enemy charged us, but was beaten back with greater loss to themselves than to us. Retreat? We could not. Surrender? That was out of the question; so from morn till sunset we clung to our positions, as though we were tied to them, and defended our persons as resolutely as possible.
Just as the sun was setting we stormed one of the enemy's positions. And although three of the burghers were wounded, the rest succeeded in expelling the enemy. Our way was now open; when darkness set in we could recross the Tarka. A pom-pom fire was opened upon us from the column on our left flank as we crossed the stream, which was then so high that our horses had to swim. Owing to the darkness none were injured.
The following day we had the pleasure of capturing the Commandant of Tarka Stad with his escort. The enemy was so sure of our surrender that a report was sent to Tarka Stad to the effect that we were quite surrounded, and that they hoped to deliver us the following morning at 8 o'clock. And as they might require some more ammunition to force us to surrender, the military must forward some.
The commandant of the village was taking this ammunition out when we met him. His men, riding in twos and threes at some distance apart, were disarmed by us without wasting bullets on them. At last the commandant, who happened to be some distance behind, came riding up to us. As he came on I rode up to him and said in a friendly tone: "Old chap, you'd better let me have your gun." Thinking that I was imposing upon him, he said: "Come along; don't play the fool!" When I had assured him that I was in earnest he remarked: "But surely you are not a Boer. Kritzinger's commando is the only one in the district, and that is surrounded." Then taking the report out of his pocket he said: "Just read this--'Kritzinger surrounded, will be captured and brought in to-morrow.'" Imagine his astonishment on learning that he was then addressing the very man whom he had hoped to meet as a prisoner-of-war.
He handed me his rifle. After that we had a long conversation, and enjoyed a drink together, as though we had never been at war.
The ammunition and horses were confiscated, and came in very useful after the engagement of the previous day. The commandant and his party were then dismissed.
AGAINST THE RAILWAY.
Towards the end of July, 1901, large forces of the enemy had concentrated upon my commando. Our only salvation then lay in crossing the Port Elizabeth railway line, near which we then were.
After a day's fighting we set out to the line, but to our great disappointment and embarrassment we found the line securely guarded by armoured trains, which made it impossible for us to cross during the day.
The enemy had followed us up, and there was no chance of retracing our steps. All we could do was to resist the foe till it was dark, and then try to escape. This we did, and succeeded in repelling the enemy. The burghers fought bravely, but at sunset they were forced to evacuate their positions and withdraw to a mountain next to the railway line.
This was our last position. We could go no farther. In front of us was the railway, behind and on our flanks the British columns. Indeed, an uncomfortable situation! We fought until it was quite dark; then the firing ceased, and we had time to plan an escape. And this is what we did. At 11 o'clock that evening numerous fires were kindled on the top of the mountain. We knew that these fires would be misleading; the enemy, as long as they saw the lights, would think that we were still on the mountain, and, being less watchful, we might slip through.
At 12 o'clock we saddled. We were going to try to pass through the enemy's line. On we rode, silently and guided by the sentinels' fires; we knew exactly which spots to avoid. Every moment brought us nearer to our doom or deliverance. Shall we succeed or not? we anxiously asked ourselves. Unnoticed we passed the foe and were free once more.
The next morning only the ashes of our fires were surrounded. As a shower of rain had fallen the same night, wiping out the footprints of our horses, the British certainly wondered what became of us. The Boers had again disappeared so mysteriously.
I shall conclude this chapter with two striking incidents. On the 13th of August, 1901, we came in conflict with the British forces in the district of Venterstad, Cape Colony. During the engagement I observed that the enemy was bent on a certain position which, if seized, would enable them to surround us. Now the Boer never likes to be surrounded. There is nothing that he dreads so much as a siege. To keep my way open, I took a number of burghers, and with these occupied the position referred to. Having stationed them there I rode back to the hill where I had been before. Unfortunately this hill had been deserted in the meanwhile, and was then held by the enemy.
Seeing a number of horses at the base of the hill I concluded that the burghers were still there and thus rode on without the slightest apprehension. Arrived at the foot of the hill, I looked up, and to my astonishment saw a large greyhound with the men. This made me suspicious. One of them at once called out: "Hands up! Come here, you beggar!" I was with the wrong party. Surrender? Verily not. I turned my horse, gave spurs, and off we went, horse and rider carried, as it were, by bullets which whistled past my head with deafening noise. For a considerable distance I was exposed to this shower of bullets. My horse received two wounds, but brought me out unscathed. That night I was cut off from the commando, and all the burghers thought that I was shot or captured. To their delight and surprise I joined them the next day again. That same day I was to have as marvellous an escape as the day before.
From early morn we were engaging the foe. While the fight was going on I took nine men to occupy a certain hill. This hill was already in the possession of the enemy, but we were not conscious of that, and thus unwittingly rode on to our doom.
The enemy had carefully hidden on the hill, and without challenging us opened a terrible fire upon us just as we arrived at the foot of the hill. Seeing that we were only a small party it certainly was not manly on their part to fire before challenging us. All the men but one were instantly wounded or killed, and their horses shot down. One of them escaped on foot. Strange--perhaps incredible to some--I came out with my horse and that uninjured.
At the close of the war I met the officer who was in command on that hill. He told me that as we came riding up to the hill he recognised me and told his men: "There, Kritzinger is coming; let us make sure of him." I happened to be riding a black horse, taken from one Captain King. That horse was so well known to the enemy that at a great distance they could recognise me.
These are some of the narrow corners in which we found ourselves during the war. I could multiply them, but 'tis needless. They will give the reader some idea of what we often had to pass through.