During the first days of August, 1901, the enemy seemed more determined than ever to effect my capture, or sweep me out of the Cape Colony, Very large forces concentrated on my commando, and pressed us so hard that our only safety lay in retreating to the Orange Free State. So hot was the pursuit that for forty-eight hours our horses were not once off-saddled.
On the 14th we arrived on the banks of the Orange River, near to Venterstad. We found the drift guarded by a small garrison of Hottentots that offered slight resistance. After a short skirmish they surrendered, and we waded safely through the stream. We were again on Free State soil, in our native land, where we knew almost every inch of the country.
Fording the river brought us no immediate relief; it rather increased our dangers. For we were now between two railway lines, each strongly guarded by blockhouses, while the space between the two lines was so confined and limited, that (with columns at our rear) we could not venture to delay there a day or two. So we had to cross one of these lines the same night. We decided upon the Springfontein-Bethulie line and thither directed our steps.
At about 8 A.M. we came in sight of the line, at a point six miles from Springfontein Junction. The sun had already risen. It was a bright morning, but our prospects were dark and ominous. We were confronted by a line studded with blockhouses and fenced in on both sides, while two armoured trains were belching forth clouds of steam and smoke in the distance. Behind us, and not far to our rear, the British columns were drawing nearer. We could but choose between two alternatives--surrender, or cut the wire at any cost. The former we could hardly give a thought; the latter must be done, and was successfully executed.
Our first attempt failed. The burghers, who had no cover, retreated when fire was opened upon them from the blockhouses. We fell back to a small hill not far from the line, and there we made up our minds that we shall cross. Commandant Louis Wessels--certainly one of the most intrepid and fearless officers of the whole Boer Army--made direct for the two railway gates, near which a blockhouse had been erected. These gates he opened, so that the burghers could proceed without any obstruction. Then in the face of blockhouses on every side, guards and armoured trains, we passed over the line. We were exposed to a shower of bullets, and to a terrific pom-pom fire, from the armoured train, but, to our amazement, without any effect. But for a few horses shot down, we would have achieved our object without any losses. The men marvelled and said Providence had protected them; the enemy probably attributed it to ill-luck and bad shooting. Both may be correct.
While passing over the line one of the men, accidentally or out of fright, had dropped and left his gun behind. He was ordered back, and had to pick it up under a storm of bullets. We could not afford to leave rifles behind. This was my first experience in crossing the British lines in daytime. Some time later I was to have a similar experience, which, as far as my person was concerned, proved less successful, indeed, almost fatal.
In regard to the blockhouse system, we need only make these general remarks. The blockhouses along the railway and fighting lines of the British, as well as in and round garrisoned places, played a most prominent part in bringing the war to an end. It was at all times difficult and dangerous to attack them; and to force their occupants to surrender involved greater loss of life on our part than we could prudently face. The only way we could destroy them was to approach them as near as possible during the night, and locate a dynamite bomb on or near them. In this way some of them have been blown up. It seems a barbarous process, but is not war, at its very best, barbarous, brutal, and unbefitting civilized nations?
As a means of capturing the burghers, they were a failure. Our commandoes, when driven against them, always had sufficient pluck and courage to cut the wires between them, and so they crossed the lines at almost any point they pleased. That we have crossed and recrossed them frequently is proof enough that they were, in this respect, not a success. The barbed wire fences, however complicated, were easily cut.
As a means of capturing the women and children, and especially the cattle, sheep and horses, they served the purpose well. It was almost impossible to drive a flock of sheep or a herd of cattle, not to mention horses, over these lines during the day. The women with the old and aged would retreat with the cattle and sheep until they came in touch with the blockhouses, and were then often captured, one and all.
If it had not been for these little shanties all over the two republics, it would have taken the British forces double if not treble the time to have so thoroughly exhausted the late republics of food supplies. When the republics were cut up into so many small sections it became impossible to protect our foodstuffs.
From the railway line we went to Rouxville district, where we enjoyed a rest of ten days. But on the 1st of September the enemy came in large numbers and till the 22nd of October harassed us almost daily.
As I was anxious to return to the commandoes I left behind in the Cape Colony, I thought it feasible to cross the fighting line, and take my commando to Ladybrand district, where the enemy would probably leave us unmolested for a while, and where the veldt provided ample food for our horses. Thither we directed our steps, and for a month we saw no signs of the British.
On the 23rd of November we were again south of the Bloemfontein-Ladybrand fighting line, and on our way to the Cape Colony. My first intention was to ford the Orange River near Aliwal North, but I soon realised that we would be incurring too great a risk in trying to cross the river there, for about twenty or twenty-five columns were then sweeping the southern districts of the Orange Free State. Now if the river was in flood these columns could press us against it, and we would then be in an awful predicament. So I resolved to cut the wire of the main line near Springfontein Junction, and from there march in the direction of Zanddrift, west of Philippolis.
Before that could be accomplished we had to beat our track through the columns already mentioned. And what a hearty reception they gave us! In one day we had to pass no fewer than eleven of these. And they did lift us up--so much so that we scarcely lighted on the ground. Even now I wonder how we contrived to escape these columns. We were fortunately provided with a number of picked horses, to which we must largely ascribe our salvation.
In what a dreadful state we found the country east of the lines! It resembled more a howling wilderness, a haunt of wild beasts, than an habitation of human beings. It was cleared of all stock; no living thing, and not a single burgher of other commandoes came in view. So thoroughly was the country cleared of all necessaries of life, that for six days we had to subsist on corn, coffee, and honey found in the mountains, for the bee-hives at the farms were all destroyed. On the 7th day, having cut the wire near Springfontein, we found large numbers of springbucks in Fauresmith district, and though our supply of ammunition was very limited, we could still afford to spare as many cartridges as would provide sufficient food for men reduced to starvation's point.
On the 15th of December we arrived at the river, and were ready to intrude once more upon British territory. During the day the river was carefully reconnoitred, so as to ascertain the best place to ford it. At nightfall we headed for it, and at 9 P.M. the commando was on its banks. In deep silence lest the guards woke up on the other side, and shielded by the wings of darkness, we began to ford the stream. Heavy rains had fallen higher up the river, in consequence of which the stream was so swollen that our horses had to swim about 150 yards. The men who could not swim had to rely exclusively on their horses, and clung to these for all life was worth. It was a very dark night, and as we only spoke in whispers, we succeeded in crossing the river, unobserved by the sentinels or guards, purposely stationed there to prevent our entering the Cape Colony. We were wet to the skin, six of the men were without clothes, some lost their horses, and others their rifles and bandoliers, but none their lives. We were indeed glad that we had attained our object. But we did not know what was in store for us.
At dawn we left the river, and moving southwards we soon encountered the enemy not far from the river. From early in the morning till late in the afternoon we were engaged by the enemy. At sunset we could off-saddle and rest our tired horses for a short while, and a hasty meal was prepared.
At dusk we mounted again, and rode till 11.30 that evening, to get some fodder. We arrived at a farm at midnight, but unfortunately it was already occupied by the enemy. We had no sooner fastened our horses and were lying down to rest, when the enemy began firing at us. We resaddled at once, and left the farm as quickly and quietly as possible. One of the burghers was wounded in the arm, the rest came out unhurt.
We now went in search of another farm, for it was a necessity that our horses should get some fodder. The night was very dark, and, being unacquainted with that part of the country, we began wandering, and we did wander until the guide and most of the men were asleep on their horses--wandered till we had described a circle and found ourselves, after a three hours' ride, almost at the very farm we had left that night. If it had not been for the flickering lights of the enemy's camp-fires, we should not have known where we were, and certainly would have been quite close to them the next morning. When we saw these lights, hardly three miles away, then we woke up.
I then took the lead, and brought the commando to the farm we were in search of.
At sunrise we arrived there, off-saddled, and gave our horses fodder. The pickets were put out, and breakfast was prepared. But, alas! before we could eat, the enemy was upon us, and our intended feast was converted into a prolonged fast. So near was the foe, and so rapidly did they advance, that we had scarcely time to saddle and seize the nearest ridges. If it had not been for the marvellous celerity of the Boer, many of the men would have been captured at that farm.
This was the 16th of December, 1901. The day I never shall forget in my life's history, and in the history of the Anglo-Boer War. The sun rose in splendour that morning, casting his rays upon me--a man in the prime of life, full of energy and martial ambition. At eventide the scene was changed! Weary, wounded and bleeding on a lonely plain, shrouded in darkness, I lay, no more the man of the day, or of bygone days, but weak and helpless as a babe.
Though I had taken part in many hot engagements, both as burgher and commander, and had been in many tight corners, yet I do not recollect a day in which we were so brought to bay, when we were so hard pressed as that day. Early in the morning it was evident that the enemy had but one design that day, and that was to force me to surrender. My commando was about eighty strong. On my flanks were continually two British columns, whilst a third one was following up at my rear. With such a small number of men at my disposal, and three columns to oppose, it was next to impossible to offer successful resistance. We had hardly taken up a position when the flanking columns would come round, and we had either to abandon the position or allow ourselves to be shut in. Thus we were compelled to retreat from one to another position, under the rays of a December sun, which seemed to set everything on fire, through a country so parched and dry that one hardly found a drop of water to quench one's thirst, and that from early morn till sunset without a morsel of food! That was enough to break down the strongest man.
A little before sunset the ominous Cape Railway line stared us in the face. We were again precisely in the same plight as on the 15th of August, when we had to cut the wire near Springfontein Junction, only with this difference--that the danger was much more imminent, the enemy forming a semi-circle at my back, and before me was a line more strongly fenced and better guarded than the first. But happily the armoured train was not on the scene. As we were so successful in our first undertaking, we determined to pass the enemy's line again in daylight. In fine, we had to cut the wire or surrender. The latter was more repulsive than the former.
As my commando was now very near the line, there was not a moment to lose. The enemy was advancing swiftly, and the armoured train might appear at any time. Commandant Louis Wessels, Veldt Cornet Fraser, Landman and myself proceeded with the utmost speed ahead of the commando to cut the wire, in order that the progress of the commando should not be impeded in the least.
As we approached the line a sharp cross-fire from the blockhouses was directed against us; but we all reached the fence safely and began cutting the wire as quickly as possible.
The enemy, knowing only too well who were trying to cut the wire, poured volley after volley upon us. The bullets seemed to strike everywhere and everything but ourselves. Let the reader imagine himself exposed to such a fire, between two forts about 800 yards apart on a level track of ground, and forming there in the centre a target for rifles, and he will realise, to some extent, our situation at that moment. But this was not all. To intensify our peril we met with thick steel wire which the scissors refused to cut. We were delayed; the whole commando arrived, and was checked by this wire.
What an embarrassment! I ordered the men to spread, dismount, and fire at the blockhouses until we had done the cutting. This was promptly done. Having, been exposed to the enemy's fire for some minutes, we succeeded at last in cutting that wire also. I then signalled the men to pass. And once more the incredible occurred. On a plain between blockhouses 800 yards apart, exposed to an incessant cross-fire, all the burghers passed the line, in broad daylight, without receiving so much as a scratch. Some horses were shot down, others were wounded, but the men crossed safely. Some distance from the line Lieutenant Bolding was wounded mortally.
I waited at the line till all, with the exception of eight or ten whose horses had given in, were over and then followed the commando. But looking back once more, I beheld one of my men trudging on foot across the line. At once I decided to go back and lend him a helping hand. I rode back, and was again exposed to the same fire from which we had just escaped. This time there was to be no escape. While returning, one of my officers--Fraser--who saw me going back, came to volunteer his services. He would not have me exposed to the enemy's fire, and urged me to go back immediately--he would see to the burgher.
Accepting his generous offer, I rode back. But no sooner had I turned my horse, than I felt a shock. In the twinkling of an eye a bullet had passed through the muscles of my left arm and through my lungs, missing the heart by a mere hair-breadth. It happened all so suddenly that for the first few seconds I hardly knew that I was wounded. I remained in the saddle for a time, until some of the men could attend to me. Gently they took me from my horse, placed me in a blanket, and carried me along to a safe spot.
It was now eventide, the shadows were deepening, and darkness was hiding us from the vision of the foe. At first I was determined to accompany the commando some distance from the line to a place where I could safely remain till recovered. I, however, soon realised the serious nature of the wound, and that if it were not well attended to, mortification was sure to set in, and that would cost me my life. The men too considered it absolutely impossible for me to accompany them any longer, and deemed it advisable that I should be sent into the British hospital for medical treatment.
And then came the parting moment, the moment when I had to bid adieu to the men whom I had led, and with whom I had fought against our common foe for so long a time. In the life of every man there comes a day, an hour, or even a moment, which he never can forget. That parting moment, reader, was one in my life I never shall forget. My officers, adjutants, secretary, and some other burghers gathered round me for the last time as I sat on the ground supported by one of them. As they bade me farewell--yea, perhaps for ever--the tear-drops sparkled in their eyes, and gushed down their cheeks. Yes, we all did weep and shed tears of deep sorrow--tears not such as "angels weep," but such as men can weep who love one another, and had fought in one common cause.
I could not speak to the men as I would, for I was too weak. Still I wished them God-speed for the future, and exhorted them to be very courageous and to do their duty faithfully, as befits men, to the last. I told them my work was done. I had given my blood, and might be called upon to give my life for my country. If so, I hope to be prepared to bring that offering too. More I could not do. My secretary then knelt and commended me in prayer to the care and protection of our gracious God and Father.... Then we parted.
My war career had ended. No more fighting, no more retreating, no more roaming over the veldt, by day and night, exposed to blasting summer winds or chilling winter frosts. For two years and two months I had seen active service. During that time I had tried to acquit myself conscientiously of my duties as a man. No sacrifice was too great, and no obstacle appeared insuperable for the cause in which I was engaged. Looking back upon the past I observe how often I have fallen short and failed--failed as a burgher and as a leader. And though I do not wish for another war, I believe I should try to do better were I to live through it again.
Two of my adjutants--Pieter Hugo and Landman--had remained with me. One of them instantly went to the nearest railway station, about three miles off, to call for an ambulance. Till 1 A.M. I lay bleeding in the veldt. Then the British ambulance arrived. When the doctor saw me he had very little hope that I would recover. As I was too weak to be removed by waggon, I was put on a stretcher and carried to a small field hospital, not far from the spot where I was wounded.
How soon I knew that I was no more a free man! First of all I was stripped of all my belongings, including watch, chain, and money, etc. At my urgent request the watch and chain and also a certain amount of my money were restored to me.
The following morning an ambulance train took me to Naauwpoort Junction. On the way I had to part with my blanket. And one of the nurses actually wanted my ring, saying that I might as well give it to her, as it would be taken from me. This I refused to part with, remarking that I didn't believe any one would act so shamefully as to rob me of my ring. In this I was correct.
Arrived at Naauwpoort, I was carried to the hospital, where I was laid up for three weeks. A screen was posted before my bed, and at my feet stood a sentinel with fixed bayonet. I was to be completely isolated from the rest of mankind. Imagine my feelings at having this functionary at my feet, watching over me and staring in my face day and night. It was enough to drive me mad. When I could endure it no longer I entreated one of the sisters to offer my guard a seat, somewhere out of my view, for his penetrating and unbroken gaze was putting too great a strain on my already shattered nerves. Surely there was no chance whatsoever for me to escape, for I could hardly move myself. Besides, the hospital was so well fenced in and strongly guarded, that all escape was impossible. My request was partly granted; but I was forbidden to speak to any one, except to the nurses and the doctor. Neither was any one allowed to address me. And so the time dragged on heavily and wearily. The first few days I suffered intensely, gradually the pain decreased, and I became stronger.
After I had spent three weeks in the hospital I was ordered to Graaff Reinet. I rose, and dressed with the assistance of the nurses. To my astonishment six khakis entered my room. One of these had a pair of handcuffs. To my query as to what his intentions were he replied: "You must be handcuffed." "Well, and where do you want to put them on?" I asked him, for my wounded arm was still supported by a sling. "I must put them on somewhere," he replied bluntly. So I suggested that I would lie down on the stretcher and have them fastened to my feet. I was beginning to lose my temper, and expressed myself in somewhat forcible language. Fortunately an officer then appeared on the scene with whom I remonstrated about the treatment I was being subjected to. The officer, shrugging his shoulders, said: "'Tis orders, and they must be executed." It seemed such a disgraceful action that I could not help remarking: "That is why the Boers will not surrender. If wounded officers, entrusted to your care, are treated thus, what must the private expect?" At last I was allowed to go--unhandcuffed.
Placed in an armoured truck, I was taken to Graaff Reinet Gaol. My experiences there shall be related in the next chapter. Had I suffered much up to this time, greater suffering and more anxious moments were awaiting me.
Before leaving this subject I would sincerely thank the doctors and sisters, who evinced such great interest and attended so well to my case while laid up in the Naauwpoort Hospital.