When the British retreated from Spion Kop it was to move down to Colenso once more. Taking the Boschrand, after a feeble defence, they were enabled to command our positions on the other side, and succeeded in crossing the Tugela unhindered.
Why we surrendered the river so easily and then defended Pieters' Heights so obstinately is explained by the fact that, owing to the British advance on Kimberley, the idea had become general that we should have to give up Ladysmith in any case, and therefore our men were drawn back from the river preparatory to a general retirement. Pieters' Heights were held till everything was ready, and then the retirement was effected without even an attempt at pursuit by the enemy.
When the Pieters' Heights fighting began I was ordered thither. Going through the Klip River, our heavily laden waggon stuck fast. We quickly obtained the loan of another span of mules and hitched them on in front, but the double team only succeeded in breaking the trek-chain. There was nothing for it but to outspan and carry the heavy loads up the steep bank. At this we toiled till midnight. Too tired to catch the mules and haul the waggon out, we went to sleep, leaving that operation for the morning.
Before we woke, however, another waggon came along. Finding the road blocked by ours, the driver roared at us to clear the way immediately. We were not going to rise so early just to please him, so we answered him that if he was in a hurry he could pull the waggon out himself. This he was obliged to do, in order to get past. We then thanked him, and gently told him that if he had addressed us in a decent manner in the beginning he would have spared himself all his trouble. We meekly added the hope that this little lesson would not be lost upon his wayward mind. His remarks cannot be reproduced here, but it was plain that he felt very much as little States do sometimes when taken in hand by one of the great Powers and subjected to a little kind cruelty.
After reloading the waggon we went on, and reached Pieters in due course. The first thing that drew my attention was the sight of one of my young colleagues standing under the verandah of the telegraph office, his face a picture of grief. His father had been killed that morning.
Going a few miles further, I took charge of the telegraph office in Lukas Meyer's laager. Meyer, a grand-looking man, formerly possessed much influence, being at one time President of the New Republic, a State founded by himself in a tract of country granted him and his followers by a Kafir chief for assistance rendered during an intertribal war. This small republic, soon incorporated with the Transvaal, was thenceforth represented in the First Volksraad by its former president, Louis Botha becoming its member for the Second Chamber. At the battle of Dundee Botha distinguished himself. Meyer did not. Then the former gained fresh laurels at Colenso, and this finally gave him the precedence over Meyer, General Joubert himself, on his death-bed, expressly asking that Botha should be appointed his successor. Meyer, then, was in charge of this laager, Botha had command of the whole line, and Commandant General Joubert was at headquarters near Ladysmith.
Daily the British regiments stormed, and daily they melted away before the fire of our men. The stench arising from the unburied corpses soon made the whole hill reek. The British asked for an armistice to bury their dead, and this was granted by the commandant to whom the request was made. When Botha heard of this he at once informed the enemy that the matter had been arranged without his knowledge, and that he could grant no armistice. I think this is the only case on record where an armistice has ever been refused by us, although armistices were asked for many times by the British.
The combatants, who during the interval had been chatting together most amicably, were quickly recalled to their respective positions, and the slaughter recommenced, continuing until one fine afternoon the enemy took the Krugersdorp commando's position, thus rendering our whole line untenable. A council of war was immediately called, to take place that evening, as it was impossible for our officers to leave the shelter of their trenches during daylight.
Soon after sunset the various officers began to arrive. First came riding into camp, alone and unnoticed in the darkness, that incomprehensible man, Schalk Burger, now Acting President. He entered the tent moodily, nodded to us, and squatted down in the corner, absorbed in thought. My colleague and I were just making a meal of coffee and biscuit. We expressed our regret that we had no chair to offer him, asking him to accept a cup of coffee instead. This he did, in silence. Silence was his strong point.
Masterful Lukas Meyer next entered, and after him came the pride of the army, Louis Botha, soldier and gentleman, followed by several officers. A general council of war was now held, General Joubert being consulted by telegraph throughout the discussion. There was no sleep that night for the telegraphists who had to transmit the queries and replies to and from headquarters.
When the discussion was at its height, information was received that the Johannesburg laager was surrounded by the enemy. This laager now constituted our right wing. This intelligence was soon contradicted, but not before it had exercised a considerable influence upon the decision arrived at, which was to abandon Ladysmith. The minutes of this council of war, could they be published, would probably make most interesting reading, and be of great value to the impartial historian.
At two in the morning we inspanned; at sunrise we were over Klipriver and trekking past Ladysmith.
The road was one long string of waggons, each straggling on at the pleasure of its owner. Horses, thanks to the criminal neglect of those responsible, were already becoming scarce, and groups of men, many of them wounded, sadly stumbled along, carrying their unwieldy bundles of blankets, their little kettles, their knapsack, rifle and bandolier. Some trudged along with a saddle slung over the back, hoping to loot a mount by the wayside.
We did not travel far that day, but the next the march became more rapid, every vehicle putting its best wheel foremost. A heavy rain fell as Elandslaagte was reached, adding to the general depression. Whilst the majority kept to the road, those who had no other means of conveyance entrained here for Glencoe. The commissariat stores were being hastily cleared out, what could not be loaded being set alight. The last train that left that evening carried the dynamiters, who destroyed the bridges after passing over them.
After a weary ride in the open trucks, seated on sacks of bread, a drizzling rain soaking down upon us, we reached Glencoe. The platform and station buildings were crowded with the sleeping forms of the weary burghers, who, as yet unused to retreating, were somewhat mixed in more senses than one. Louis Botha was still near Ladysmith with the rearguard, most of the other chiefs were coming by road, and there was no one on the spot to back up General Joubert in his attempts to reorganise the confused and ever-growing mass of undisciplined men. The retreat, in fact, threatened to degenerate into a reckless flight.