We were awakened the next morning while it was still dark. I roamed about in the gloom searching for my errant Rosinante. After describing half a dozen circles I returned to the waggon, to find the missing steed no longer astray, but peacefully grazing away about six feet from the aforesaid vehicle. It was a demon of a horse, no doubt about that. We upsaddled and stood shivering in the cold, our ears and noses fast becoming frostbitten, and waited for the body of the column to catch up to us, for it now appeared that everyone had gone to sleep where he pleased the night before. De Wet was in a furious rage.
"I told them we were to be in Heilbron at sunrise!" he shouted. "I wish the British would catch and castrate every one of them, so that they may be old women in reality."
His railing did not accelerate the approach of the loiterers, and it was long after sunrise when we finally made a start for Heilbron—nine miles distant. When we neared the town Scheepers, myself, and another went forward to reconnoitre. What was our surprise to find that the whole place was full of English! They had suddenly entered the town the night before. I at once went back and informed De Wet, who ordered the column to halt and outspan. Testing the telegraph line, I found that whereas there were no British signals audible, our own signals from Frankfort could be heard very plainly. The Frankfort telegraphist was busy calling Heilbron, not knowing that the town had again changed masters. As his was an ordinary Morse instrument I could not communicate with him, but I did the next best thing by cutting the wire. The presence of the enemy in Heilbron was a check for us. We did not expect Colville to come forward so rapidly. It was necessary to modify our plan of campaign, and De Wet and several of the commandants rode to a farm some six miles away to consult with the President, who had pitched his tent at that spot. Scheepers was still away scouting. His men made no effort to prepare any food, and as I was beginning to suffer from hunger the situation was anything but pleasant for me. It is hard to realise the amount of selfishness which generally prevails in a laager or commando. It is a case of everyone for himself. There is no regular distribution of rations every day, as in other armies. The commando is divided into messes of about ten men each. To this mess is given every now and then a live ox and a bag of meal. The ox is killed and cut into biltong, and the meal baked into stormjagers, a kind of dumpling fried in dripping. Now Scheepers' little corps, which consisted of half a dozen men, was probably not very well off itself in the matter of provisions—in any case, they offered me none. The commissariat consisted of nothing but oxen and meal, cold comfort for me. I rode back a couple of miles to a spot where a field telegraph office had been opened. Standing in the open veld under the telegraph line was a Cape cart, under the cart a telegraph instrument. This was the office.
"Can you give me anything to eat?" I asked the telegraphist, one of our most capable men.
"Very sorry," he answered; "I've been here for a week, and no one has troubled to send me any food. I've managed to get a loaf of bread from that farm yonder now and then, but their supply is exhausted, and I don't know what to do next."
"Why don't you ask the President's party for food? We all know they fare well enough."
"I've sent them message after message, but can get no satisfaction. All they think about is the amount of work they can get out of me. Little they care what my troubles are!"
This was really a shameful state of affairs, and I began to grow disgusted with the whole business. Not satisfied with refusing to supply him with food, a passing commando had stolen his cart-horses, so that he had no means of leaving the spot.
It was a clear case of selfish and brutal neglect. I condoled with the poor fellow, and rode back to the laager. De Wet was still absent. It appeared that we were going to lie there for days, instead of the whole expedition being over in a day or two. After thinking the matter over, I decided to return to Frankfort and carry out my intention of going back to the Transvaal. Upon reaching Frankfort I explained the matter to the Postmaster-General, adding that the expedition would probably take a couple of weeks, by which time the Free State would already be cut off from the Transvaal, and my return rendered impossible. He urged upon me, however, to postpone my departure. During the day a telegram arrived from De Wet, saying he had now decided to move forward, and asking that I should accompany him. So convinced was I that his attempt would end in a fiasco, in spite of his knowledge of the enemy's movements, that I persuaded the chief to send another in my place. De Wet was extremely annoyed, but I was foolish enough to insist. Judge of my regret when, a week or so later, we heard of the magnificent blow delivered at Roodewal. After this sudden swoop De Wet returned to the vicinity of Heilbron. The chief and I drove out to his camp. It was interesting to see his entire band clad in complete khaki, with only the flapping, loose-hanging felt hats to show their nationality. Wristlets, watches, spy-glasses, chocolate, cigarettes, were now as common as in ordinary times they were rare. Heliographic and telegraphic instruments by the cartload. No doubt about it, Roodewal came at an opportune moment. Roberts was pressing Botha hard in front, and this stunning blow at his lines of communication compelled him to pause. Think of his forces fighting through that rigorous winter, wearing only their summer uniforms! No wonder their ardour grew cool!
Theron's corps now came through from the Transvaal and joined De Wet. Theron, dissatisfied with his treatment by the Transvaal Government, was here received with open arms. His hundred and fifty young fellows were as keen as ever; it did one's eyes good to see one corps at least where discipline was not despised. Theron was a slightly built young lawyer, with an expression of the deepest sadness, due to the premature decease of his fiancée. He took care of his men, fed and horsed them well, led them into hot corners and saw them safely out again. Terrible indeed must be the engagement when one of Theron's men is abandoned by his comrades. "No cowards need apply" was the motto of the band, held together by an esprit de corps without equal; and no cowards did. When the corps passed Frankfort Theron commandeered a horse from an alleged British subject. The latter threatened to appeal to the Government, and came into town for the purpose, vowing vengeance on Theron's devoted head.
"I enjoy myself," said Theron to me, "when they threaten me. It is when they come to me with soft words that I cannot resist."
As a matter of fact, the Government sustained Theron's action, and the owner of the animal was obliged to ask Theron to take two others for it. This he agreed to do, and thus ended the only instance of which I know in which the Free State Government allowed anything to be commandeered from a British subject.
The capture of the Yeomanry took place about this time. There have been several attempts to explain this affair. It was said in our laagers at the time that Colonel Sprague, immediately after his surrender, remarked to our commandant that he would shoot the Lindley telegraphist if he could get hold of him, because the latter had tampered with his message asking for reinforcements. This was quite possible, for at this time most of the British telegrams passed through our hands before reaching their destination. If I might venture to express an opinion, formed at the time, I should say that General Colville was absolutely free from any blame in connection with the capture of the Yeomanry—an incident to which we attached very little importance, being interested merely in the military qualities of our opponents, and in their social rank not at all.
When Rundle's force was at Senekal and Brabant's Horse at Harmonia every one of their telegrams was read by a telegraphist attached to one of the commandoes lying in the vicinity. Several of these messages were in cipher, it is true, but many of them were not. It was largely owing to information thus obtained that the British sustained a rather severe check when they advanced against our positions near Senekal. One would think the enemy would have taken strict precautions against their plans leaking out in this manner, but I presume we were considered rather too dense for that kind of thing.
The affair of Roodewal decided Roberts to send back a strong column to keep us off his flanks. It was only infantry, and we got quite tired of waiting for it to reach us. It reached Villiersdorp eventually, and we fell back from Frankfort towards Bethlehem—the new headquarters. It was with heavy hearts that we said good-bye to our kind friends in Frankfort, for well we knew by this time what the passage of a British column meant for the defenceless non-combatants—houses broken down and burnt, children and greybeards torn from their families, and all the other useless and unnecessary cruelties that have broken so many lives, converted so many joyous homesteads into tombstones of black despair, and imprinted into the very souls of many Afrikanders an ineradicable loathing and hatred of everything British. As Boadicea felt towards the Roman, so feels many a Boer matron to-day against the Briton, and when Britons shall have followed Romans into the history of the past, the Afrikander race shall write an epitaph upon their cenotaph. Ambition! By that sin fell the angels, and by that sin fall the Angles. But oh, the pity of it! For of all the nations that in turn have risen and waxed great upon the surface of the globe, there are none for whose ideals the Boers feel more sympathy than for those of the British. It is the paralysing difference between the ideal and the real that is creating the gulf which threatens our eternal separation.