From March to December, 1901, the area of war operations was limited exclusively to the two Republics. All the British forces were concentrated there. Gradually the fact dawned upon us that, unless we contrived to draw the British forces, in some way or other, off the Republics, the latter would eventually be exhausted of all provisions, which would necessitate their surrender. They could not for ever supply Boer commandoes and British columns with provisions, especially when farming pursuits were so disturbed and hampered by the enemy. It became quite clear that, in the event of a long campaign, our whole salvation would be in the Cape Colony. There we would be drawing on the enemy's resources, and the British Government would indirectly be supporting us in compensating colonists for losses sustained by Boer commandoes. An additional advantage, should the scene of operations be transferred from the Republics to the Cape Colony, would be that many colonists would enlist in our ranks. There we should be constantly recruited, and our commandoes would increase rather than decrease. That was an advantage not to be despised, for our forces were getting daily weaker in the states.
[Illustration: GENERAL CHRISTIAN DE WET.]
With such facts before him, General De Wet planned a second invasion of the Cape Colony towards the close of the year 1901. By the end of November we met him with his forces, about 1500 strong, in the district of Bethulie. After a few days' fighting with the forces of General Knox on the farms Goede Hoop and Willoughby, we left for the Orange River, which we intended to ford at Odendaal's Stroom, a drift fifteen miles below Aliwal North.
As heavy rains began to fall, we were anxious to reach the river before it was in flood. Day and night through rain and mud we ploughed on towards the river. When we reached the Caledon River we saw that the water was rising rapidly, and began to fear that the Orange River, which was still thirty miles off, would be impassable. Well, we were going to try. We increased our speed, and left behind scores of tired horses and mules.
The 1st of December, at sunset, we arrived on the banks of the river. But what a disappointment! A rolling mass of water before us, so deep and strong that there was no chance to pass through. And there we were between two rivers in flood, with a narrow strip of country between them, and thousands of the enemy on our track. We knew that the English could seize the bridges, of which there are but a few, and could then be reinforced from all parts of the country to hem us in so closely that escape would be impossible. De Wet would at last be "cornered" and forced to surrender--so, at least, the enemy thought. Our situation seemed, nay was indeed, very critical.
To delay and wait for the fall of the river was out of the question. For not only would it take at least fifteen days before the river would have subsided to such a degree that we could hope to ford it, but De Wet's old friend, General Knox, was at his heels. All we could do was to march up the Caledon. That river, being much smaller than the Orange River, would sooner fall and afford us a way of escape. Our hopes were realised. De Wet found a ford where he and his whole commando passed through. Once more he was a free man. We accompanied him for some distance up the river, until we came to the farm of one Smith. Here Captain Scheepers, Captain Fouché and myself left the main body and went with our commando, consisting of about 300 men in all, in the direction of Rouxville, where, on the 13th of December, we captured 150 of the 2nd Brabants, who were sent to and for us.
While in the Rouxville district we received a message from De Wet that we should enter the Colony as soon as possible, and that he would try to follow us up. He was, however, prevented from carrying out his intentions. It seemed as if Providence had so ordained it that he should not cross the Orange River, or, even crossing it, should not sojourn for a long time in the land of the enemy. For no sooner had he passed the Caledon, than the enemy concentrated on him and succeeded in driving him back through Sprinkhaan Nek to the northern districts of the Orange Free State.
This, however, afforded us a chance of slipping through on to British soil. In the night of the 15th of December, at 2 A.M., we forded the Orange River at a point five miles below Odendaal's Stroom. It was a dark night, and the water was still very high, but we all reached the opposite bank in safety. There we came upon the guard of the drift, as they were indulging in a game of cards. One was wounded, two ran away and eight were captured. They did not expect us to cross the river at 2 A.M., and were thus taken unawares.
We were now once more in British territory. But what a contrast between this and our first invasion in the beginning of the war! No large commandoes, no waggons, and no guns. We were only 300 men--a raiding band, as some contemptuously called us--with one Maxim, and even that proved too cumbersome, for we soon cast it into a pool. Instead of waggons and tents we had only our horses and mackintoshes, and some were even without the latter. No large supplies of ammunition; our bandoliers were almost all half empty.
The morning of the 16th of December, then, found us in the Cape Colony. We had made up our minds to spend at least some months in the enemy's country. Come what may, we would not return to the Orange Free State. If the British had the right to stay in the Republics, why should we not tarry awhile in the Colony? From the river we made a forced march to Venterstad, a small village lower down the stream. We needed an outfitting, and thought that that would be the most likely place where we would get it. We only had to surprise the garrison, about 50 strong, and we would have all we wanted. In this we were quite successful. The garrison, or town-guard, soon hoisted the white flag.
We could now fill our bandoliers, and requisition the necessary articles in clothing, boots, etc. But the enemy was not slow to follow us. We were just allowed sufficient time to take all we required, and then the columns came to remind us that we were strangers and intruders.
As we have related our experiences in other chapters, we shall not here enter into details. For at least seven months, after we had crossed the river, the enemy continually harassed us. We hardly enjoyed a single day's rest. During the day we had to fight, and during the night we had to trek. One thing was plain: the enemy was determined to silence us completely. That they did not succeed is almost passing strange. If 300 Britishers were to have entered the two republics, would they have proceeded very far?
General Hertzog had, at the same time, invaded the western province of the Cape Colony, but, being far away from the railway line, the British did not worry him very much. They all seemed to conspire against my small band, and had the additional advantage of railways on every side of us. Deeper and deeper into the heart of the Colony we were driven. We marched in a southern direction. Whither? We did not know, only forward. And so far did we push on that at length the vast expanse of the Indian Ocean loomed in the distance, and reminded us that it was time to retrace our steps, for we could certainly go no farther on horseback. So we slipped through the pursuing columns, and returned to the districts of Jansenville, Graaff-Reinet and Cradock.
In February we were not so hotly pursued. De Wet had entered the Cape Colony from the north-west; and like a magnet he drew most of the British forces irresistibly to him. This gave us a short rest, which was, alas! only too short. For De Wet, as well as Hertzog, had to fall back on the Orange Free State, and with redoubled energy the British came upon us like a mighty avalanche. The reader can hardly realise what we had to undergo these first eight months in the Cape Colony.
It was a bitter disappointment to learn how De Wet had fared and that both he and Hertzog had abandoned the Cape Colony. We knew it was not their fault and so did not blame them. Still we were resolved to hold out as long as possible. Gradually it went better; the colonists began to enlist and our numbers swelled. We could now form other commandos, and despatch these in various directions, and that prevented the enemy from concentrating all their forces on us. At last we had gained such a strong footing in the Colony that to expel us all was simply an impossibility.
And how did General De Wet fare when he crossed the Orange River on the 11th of February, 1901? The following account given by one who accompanied him will give the reader some idea of the unsuccessful attempt at invasion.
"MY DEAR K.,--We are just back from the Cape Colony, and no doubt you will be anxious to hear all about our recent experiences. I daresay you have followed us all the while in thought, and have carefully studied the papers to ascertain our movements and learn what we were doing. As we have little faith in newspaper war-reports, I shall take the trouble to give you a full account of our short-lived colonial invasion.
"You will be surprised, and perhaps sorely disappointed, to hear that De Wet's and Hertzog's commandoes are all back in the Orange Free State. This means that you are going to have now ever so much harder times, for the enemy will certainly concentrate their forces on your small commando, to clear you out of the Cape Colony as soon as possible. The odds, of course, will be so great to contend against, that, humanly speaking, you will be bound to retreat across the Orange River. Still I trust that you will not follow our example, but will find the Colony quite large enough to baffle the enemy in their attempts to capture you. And as the British have already exerted themselves in vain for over three months to oust you, we entertain the hope that you will maintain your ground till reinforced.
"On the 11th of February we, i.e., General P. Fourie's division, crossed the Orange River at Zanddrift, west of Philippolis. De Wet had taken possession of the drift the previous day, so our way was open, and as the river was low it was not difficult to ford it. With the exception of a few mules we sustained no losses. It was somewhat like a picnic, the burghers were as gay as could be. Being a very hot day they spent most of the time in the water. The guns and some other vehicles were dragged through the river by teams composed of sprightly young men. It was a sight to see 70 or 80 men before a gun or waggon in the stream. I could not help thinking in what a plight these would be should the enemy suddenly appear on the banks of the river. That, indeed, would be a surprise worth beholding. At sunset we were all on British soil.
"After the burghers had taken supper the whistle was blown and the oft-repeated command, 'opzaal,' sounded in their ears. That night we did not make a long trek, for both horses and men felt equally tired after the day's exertions. Still we had to cover at least eight miles, for it was not quite safe so near to the river. There were columns behind and columns in front of us, and columns on every side. After a wearisome march over a rugged and uneven road, if road it could be called, with intense darkness enveloping us, we finally reached the halting-place.
"The following morning at sunrise we started for Bezuidenhoud's farm, which was close by. There the burghers received their instructions from De Wet. With regard to their conduct in the Cape Colony it was pointed out to them that they should treat the colonists in such a way as would ensure their friendship. On no account were they to molest the peaceful neutral British subjects, for they were not at war with the colonists. They were also forbidden to take anything from British subjects without paying the proper value for the thing required. There were some more injunctions, which have escaped my memory. No wonder that one should forget when chased as we were. I believe these orders were, as a rule, obeyed. In fact I should say we erred in adhering so strictly to them, for we met some ultra-loyalists who would not give or sell us so much as a morsel of food. Now when any one is hungry, and people will neither give nor sell, what else can he do than help himself? If he does not, it is his own fault should he starve. At a certain farm we offered a sovereign for one bucket of meal, but all in vain; when we asked the woman for a glass of water, she pointed us to a spring some distance off. Shameful, is it not! Next time we shall, I am afraid, not be so over-polite. One learns a lot every day.
"At 11 A.M. our scouts reported that they had sighted two columns about 7 miles from us. And now our troubles and hardships commenced. What we anticipated and dreaded had actually taken place. The enemy had occupied all the passes in front of us, preventing us thereby from crossing the railway at the intended point between Norval's Pont and Colesberg. We had now to go in that barren and desolate part of the Colony where one is entirely dependent upon forage, and where, unfortunately for us, none was to be had.
"I expected that the British would intercept us. They knew about De Wet's intended invasion; and had every facility by rail for mobilising and seizing all the points of consequence. Whilst we had to ride all the way from Winburg district, they had the advantage of being transported by rail--an advantage which can hardly be over-estimated.
"Encumbered with guns and waggons, we could not dodge the enemy. We either had to seize the passes or proceed in a direction which might lead to fatal results. To do the former appeared impossible to De Wet, and so the latter course was reluctantly adopted. If it were not for the convoy, we would have achieved our object and would have entered those districts where commandoes could exist.
"The enemy was engaged till dusk. We had no casualties; but Commandant Ross and a number of his men were cut off. They managed to reach the Orange Free State safely. How they found their way through the various columns, I can't say--a Boer, if need be, can retire wonderfully well! At sunset our convoy almost fell into the hands of the enemy. What a pity it did not! It would have saved us so much needless trouble, and we would have been far better off without it.
"Most of the night we remained in the saddle. The General was anxious to get as far away as possible from the columns, to rest his horses for a few hours. But the British, so it seemed, were resolved that neither we nor our horses should have a rest, for early the next morning they were on our heels. We could not offer any resistance, because we had no positions, and could not recklessly expose ourselves to the enemy's fire without any cover at all. On the open plain our horses would have been swept away by the enemy's guns, and in a short time we would have been all infantry. Hence, on their approach we withdrew, hoping to find a place where we could make a stand. Unfortunately we failed to find the wished-for positions. For miles and miles the country is just one vast plain; when you get to the end of that plain you may find a ridge, a hill or slight elevation, which, however, did not signify much. The enemy could easily outflank and surround us, if we did not abandon it in time. With eyelids "heavy and dim," and bodies "weary and worn," exposed to the dazzling rays of a burning sun, we rode on, driven occasionally as a herd of cattle. At last night fell and we could enjoy a short rest.
"The next morning the same story was repeated: the English hot on our track--no rest for body or soul. The country being as flat as the part we had traversed the previous day, we had to march again the whole day under a burning sun. Now and then we dismounted for a few minutes, in order that our horses might snatch a few mouthfuls of grass.
"At the hour of sunset there was something to relieve the monotony of fleeing all day. Two burghers--bread spies as we call them--had gone ahead to buy some bread at a farm where a party of the enemy was stationed. Not aware of that, they rode up to the house, with the result that one got captured, while the other returned under a hail of bullets at a breakneck pace to relate the fate of his comrade. De Wet immediately sent in a note asking the enemy to surrender, since they numbered only about twenty. They answered shortly: 'We won't.' They were then charged, and up went the white flag without their firing a single shot.
"For the night we bivouacked at that farm. The British columns were now scarcely four miles from us. We dreaded a night attack, but, owing to incessant rain, both parties seemed only too glad to stay where they were. Here we had the advantage of hills and ridges, where we could stand and face the foe.
"At sunrise the enemy's guns and Maxim-Nordenveldt began to play on these ridges. Our guns had been placed in position, too, and responded sharply. We succeeded in beating off the enemy's attacks till 11 A.M., then we were outflanked and had to evacuate our positions. Their losses must have been great. Two of our men fell in the action.
"From there we marched in the direction of the railway line, which we intended to cross that night near Houtkraal station. We were about seven miles from the line, and were very anxious to pass over. We were afraid that the English would send on their forces by rail to guard the line and march upon us from in front, which, if done, could result in our complete annihilation. Besides, we intended, as soon as we were on the other side of the line, to divide our force into several commandoes and let these take different courses so that the enemy would not be able to concentrate any longer all their men on us. Thus wearily we dragged on through mud and rain to the line.
"To prevent armoured trains from cutting off our transit, men were sent ahead to destroy the line at two points. Here again we committed a few blunders for which we had to suffer. In the first instance the line was blown up at too early an hour that night, long before we were ready to pass over. The explosions reported our presence, and the armoured trains were despatched to restore the line. Then again, owing to the darkness the points where the line was destroyed were not sufficiently far apart. This we discovered when the enemy's guns began to roar and their shells exploded in our midst.
"Before reaching the line there was something to get through--a swamp at least 1500 paces broad. One can hardly have an idea what this swamp was like, and how much trouble it cost us and our poor animals to get through it. This was a veritable 'Slough of Despond.' It was covered with water from one side to the other, and we had to wade through knee deep, and sometimes the water reached to our loins. The water was no serious obstacle, but the ground was of a morass-like nature that our animals sank in to their knees and often to their girths. Most of the burghers had to dismount and lead their horses. Every now and then a horse would stumble, and down came the rider splashing in the mud and water. I led my faithful 'Klein Booi' all the way, walking knee deep through mud and water. Just think how we must have looked the following morning, with clogs of mud attached to our clothes, hands and faces, while our horses were baptised in mud! The waggons and guns gave us most trouble. It was quite impossible to get these through the swamp. They stuck in the mud, with draft animals and all. We had as many as fifty oxen before one waggon, but they could not move it an inch. Some mules sank in so deep that they could not extricate themselves, and were left to die in the mud!
"At daybreak the guns, De Wet's waggonette and a few carts were through the swamp; the rest of the convoy was still in it. General Fourie and a hundred burghers were left with the waggons while the commando proceeded to the line. At sunrise we were safely on the other side of the line, where we waited for Fourie. Suddenly, and very unexpectedly, a shell exploded in our midst, like a thunderbolt from a clear sky. I looked about to see whence it came; but before my eyes detected the armoured trains, another and yet another shell dropped in our midst. I say in our midst, for we were riding in close formation when these horrible projectiles were hurled upon us. As our horses were very tired and the veldt soaked through and through by the heavy rains, we could not scatter, nor ride fast, as we usually do when exposed to cannon fire in the open veldt. Thus slowly we rode on under this cannonade. And how wonderful none were injured! The hand of the invisible omnipresent God must have shielded us. At last we were out of the cannon's reach. Meanwhile the line had been repaired, the armoured trains moved freely up and down. Fourie, five other officers, and about a hundred burghers were now cut off from the commando. The burghers found their way back to the Free State; the officers followed us up, but, alas! met us only when we were on the point of recrossing the Orange River.
"In what a sorry plight we now were! Some of our ablest officers severed from us at a time when they were most needed. Their absence caused the greatest confusion, for now there were numbers of men without any officers. Besides, it was then impossible to carry out the idea of splitting up the commando without officers. Hence we were to be driven along by the overwhelming numbers at our rear. How many there were is hard to tell, but we caught up some of their despatches, from which we learnt that there were no fewer than fourteen columns in pursuit of us.
"Gradually we drifted into the most deplorable and wretched conditions. Our animals, owing to lack of fodder, began to give in. Scores of these we had to leave behind, some of them in excellent condition, but so starved that they could proceed no farther. The result was that hundreds of burghers had to walk, and they suffered most. How I felt for these unfortunates! They walked and walked until, exhausted and footsore, many a one dropped down along the road-side. There were those whose clothes were torn to fragments by the brambles through which they forced their way. They presented an appearance which evoked one's compassion.
"These men had to confront another enemy--hunger. They scarcely found time to prepare a meal, for when they arrived at the halting-place the first word they heard was, as a rule, "opzaal!" Thus footsore, battered, and with empty stomachs, these fellows had to march for miles and miles to escape the enemy's grip.
"I admired their power of endurance, patience, and determination. But admiration was not enough. I parted with all my horses, giving them to men who could walk no longer, and so walked on myself, until, footsore and exhausted, I too could go no farther. It was a pleasure to minister in this way to men who loved their country.
"If it were not for this determination on the part of De Wet's forces to keep out of the hands of the enemy, hundreds would have been captured, yet I believe not more than 250 prisoners were taken. As we went on our numbers gradually diminished. Those who were unable to keep pace with the main body broke off in small parties and found their way back to the Orange Free State.
"By the 19th we had pushed on as far as Brak River, about twelve miles from Prieska. Here we met with another disappointment, which almost proved fatal to our whole commando. The river was in flood and no transit possible. In what a dreadful plight we were! Hardly eight miles behind us the British columns were stationed in crescent shape; in front was the swollen Brak River, and nine miles to our right was the Orange River, and that in flood. Here at least it seemed as if De Wet would be caught, and though he escaped, this certainly was one of the tightest corners in which he ever found himself.
"About two hours before sunset we heard that the enemy was rapidly approaching us. Anxiously we asked ourselves, Whither now? We could not return, we could not ford the river; to proceed up-stream would expose us to the risk of being quartered against the river. There was but one course to follow, and that an extremely hazardous one. We could march down the Brak River as far as the Orange River, and then proceed along the latter. Between us and the enemy there was then a ridge, extending parallel with the Orange River. Behind this ridge we would be out of the enemy's view. Should they reach this elevation before it was dark, we would be pressed, with fatal consequences to ourselves, against a swollen river. But here darkness proved our salvation once more. We proceeded down the Brak River and up the Orange River. When the enemy came to the ridge mentioned it was so dark that they could see no traces of us.
"De Wet had now decided to fall back on the Orange Free State. To many of us this was a bitter disappointment; but we saw that nothing else could be done under the circumstances. With tired horses and many burghers on foot we could not hope to circumvent the enemy. Others, especially those who had suffered most in walking, were enraptured at the idea of going back to the Free State. Their drooping spirits revived, and with renewed courage they started on the homeward march.
"The whole of that night we trekked along the banks of the Orange River, parallel to the British columns. We tried one ford after the other, but to our dismay the stream was impassable. The following day we were not only behind the enemy, but had outstripped them by nine miles. To gain more on them we kept up the march almost unbroken the whole day. And what a day it was! We had to walk from twelve to fifteen miles without a drop of water. Once we came to a forsaken well. The water was of a greenish hue, bitter and stagnant--a real Marah--but we drank to quench our thirst and moisten our parched lips.
"On the 22nd we had proceeded to a point six miles beyond the confluence of the Vaal and Orange Rivers. Here we found a small boat, and began at once to transport the dismounts. We knew that these, once across the river, would be in a safer position. Day and night we were engaged in taking these over; but the work progressed very slowly, for the boat could only take ten or twelve men at a time, and, besides, was so leaky that two had constantly to throw out the water. After 250 men had been ferried across the stream the approach of the enemy was announced, and so near were they that some of us had to depart in an almost half-naked state. About 80 burghers had to hide in the river until the storm was over. Almost all the vehicles were left behind while the main force retreated up the river.
"Fortune favoured me; I was among the lucky ones who found a seat in the boat as she was returning for the last time. Willie Louw and myself were appointed to supervise the boat, less the transport of the men be retarded in some way or other. For some time we worked together, and then Willie left me to manage alone. Though I was anxious to cross myself, I could not then leave the boat. When the report of the enemy reached us the burghers, eager to get through, stormed the boat from all directions. They forgot that if all want to get into the boat nobody will get across the river. What must be done? As there was no time for much deliberation I jumped in and expostulated with an excited crowd. None heeded, each pressed forward to get a place in the boat. I was finally compelled to threaten them with my revolver, but all in vain. No one was afraid. I believe they knew too well that I would not pull the trigger. One looked me straight in the face as I pointed the instrument to him and said, 'My dear fellow, you may shoot if you wish--I am not afraid; but I want to get through.' He completely disarmed me. I had no more threats.
"With an overcrowded boat we were at last on the stream, and finally reached the opposite bank, just as the enemy was beginning to shell De Wet's forces on the other side. It was indeed a relief to me, but we had to march another fifteen miles without water, exposed to scorching heat. At length we found some muddy water. Lying next to our horses we sipped up water so thick and muddy that we could hardly swallow it.
"As to De Wet's further movements I can hardly give you full particulars. He was followed up by the enemy, and had to abandon his guns the following day. Trying one drift after the other he succeeded at last in fording the river between Norval's Pont and Zanddrift; and so after seventeen days he was back in the Free State.
"Here you have a sketch of our attempt to invade British dominions. I have omitted many things of less interest. I wonder what you will think of all this. Looking back upon our adventures, it is, of course, easy to point out all the errors and blunders we have committed. We should, for instance, never have encumbered ourselves with a convoy and guns, which hampered our movements and were of very little service to us. Then again, we should not have crossed the river in one commando, but should have divided the force into at least twelve or fifteen commandoes, and these should have entered the Colony at different points, all moving in different directions, then the enemy could not have concentrated their hosts on us as they did. Besides, our discipline and organisation was poor, and it is a well-known fact that a thousand in disorder can accomplish less than two hundred well-organised men. But it is useless to dwell on these points. 'Tis easier to criticize the past than to forecast the future. Experience costs a great deal.
"Has our attempt been a complete failure? In many respects I should say it has. We have succeeded, however, in drawing the enemy out of the Free State, which was our chief object. And, though it did not cost them many lives, yet their following us in such desolate regions must have proved very expensive, and must have been a source of great hardship to themselves. If that be a consolation to know that we have not suffered alone, we have, then, at least one comfort.
"Brak River was the last nail in our coffin. If we only could have forded that, we would not have been ousted. On the other side of the river we would have found not only grass for our tired horses, but would also have been able to find remounts. Hertzog's commando was not far off, and they were strongly mounted, and could have rendered us great assistance.
"The president, who accompanied us, remained cheerful to the last, and, just as a common burgher, partook in all our troubles. Such a man we may well be proud of, and, I need hardly say, that we love and honour him all the more.
"As to the conduct of the burghers we need only remark that it was beyond praise. One never heard them grumble or murmur either against De Wet or any other officer. No rebellious complaints or threats were flung at the heads of those in authority. This, indeed, is typical of the Boer. He endures suffering and hardship with a submissive spirit and with a dignity which is remarkable. We do not marvel at this, for are they not formed of that stuff of which martyrs have been made in bygone years? And does not the blood of the French Huguenot course through the veins of many a one, while others are animated by the dauntless spirit of that little nation that combated the once mighty Spain for eighty years, and so achieved that honour and distinction which has secured for them an abiding place in the history of nations? Such men, who are willing to suffer and sacrifice all for freedom's sake, surely deserve to succeed at last.--Yours fondly,