A band of about thirty Transvaalers, mostly from Potchefstroom, who had been attached to De Wet for some time, now decided to go on ahead and join Liebenberg's commando, near their native town. As De Wet had no intention of moving forward just yet, I joined my brother Transvaalers. Bidding adieu to our Free State comrades, we crossed the Vaal. Just beyond the river we were joined by two or three others, who had with them as prisoner a British sergeant. This fellow had been in charge of a band of native police, whose insolence had terrorised the women and children for miles around, until a body of Boers came along and routed them out of the district, capturing their leader. What became of the blacks I do not know, but it must be remembered that the Transvaal natives are Boer subjects, and liable to be shot if caught aiding the British. The feeling against the sergeant was very bitter.
"Oh, you're the Kafir chief, are you?" said one of our men to him.
"Ho, yuss, h' I'm the Kefir ginnyril," responded the flattered cockney, with an irritating grin.
"I'd like to Kafir general you through the head," said the disgusted Boer promptly. The sickly grin faded, and the threat was not carried out.
Towards afternoon a heavy rain began to fall. There was no shelter for us, and we pushed along, wet and cold. Then night came, and the road, now transformed into a rushing torrent, was only shown us by the lurid lightning flashes that continually rent the heavens. And we had a sick man on the trolley, for whom this exposure was a serious matter. But finally we reached a farmhouse, occupied by an old woman. Her eyes filled with tears when she saw us, and she thanked the Lord that He had spared her to behold once more the defenders of her country. Near by was an empty building. We outspanned and off-saddled, turning our animals loose, as we knew they would not stray far in such a blinding storm. The sick man was hastily carried in and laid upon some dry blankets.
Then we made half a dozen roaring fires with some mealie cobs that we found lying in the house, stripped ourselves, and held our boots and clothing over the fire till they were fairly dry. By this time the water boiled; we drank some coffee, then made up beds on the floor and slept till morning. It was a bit of a struggle to get into our damp things when we awoke, but as we rode along our clothes dried and our spirits rose. Then Potchefstroom came in sight, but, alas! it was held by the enemy.
"What would my poor mother say," said one young fellow, "if she knew I was so near!"
"Oh, my wife and children!" sighed another.
"Cheer up, boys!" interrupted the commandant. "Our country first, you know."
That afternoon we joined a small commando lying near the railway between Potchefstroom and Frederikstad. It numbered barely a hundred men, but they had with them a bomb-Maxim and a Krupp. At midnight we got orders to march for the hills near Frederikstad, where we arrived at dawn. Here we were reinforced by a score of burghers, and we continued our way, keeping in a parallel with the railway, but behind some intervening hills. Presently a scout came in and reported the enemy in sight.
"Forward!" ordered the commandant, and forward we raced along through the veld, keeping a look-out for holes. One youngster's horse went down, the rider turning a beautiful somersault. Shouts of laughter greeted his exploit, but he quickly remounted, and was one of the first to reach the hill for which we were making, and which dominated the railway. Keeping the Nordenfeldt in reserve, we opened fire with Krupp and small-arms on the advance guard of the enemy.
We did not know at the time that we were tackling Lord Methuen and five thousand men, but such was the case. Of course we made a very poor show; what can you expect? But anyhow, we engaged them for about two hours. Then their cavalry came on with a rush, and we were compelled to give way. It was only with the greatest difficulty that we saved the guns, and we only succeeded in doing so, I presume, because the enemy were not aware of our real numbers. Our waggons fled to one side of the line whilst we remained on the other, with absolutely nothing to eat. By buying a few eggs and other small produce from the natives we managed to subsist until the third day, when we crossed the railway, marched all night, and rejoined our waggons at dawn. To slaughter sheep and cook porridge did not take long; hearty is the only word to describe the meal we made. Then we moved round and joined Liebenberg, who, with six hundred men, had just retaken Klerksdorp without firing a shot. But then, the place was garrisoned by only forty English, and resistance would have been of no avail.
We hung about the neighbourhood of Potchefstroom for about two weeks, anxiously waiting for the word to be given to attack the town, but Liebenberg confined his tactics to making an appearance in sight of the town and retreating as soon as the enemy came out to give battle. This kept the enemy on the qui vive, it is true, but it also tired out our horses, and we soon grew weary of it. We had several lively little skirmishes, however. One day about forty of us were detached to go and bombard a British gun which stood on the other side of the town, whilst the rest of our commando approached the town on this side. We were sitting down quite comfortably under a tree below our gun, eating bread and dripping, listening to the duel and smiling at the high aim of the British gunners, when the look-out shouted—"Here's the enemy behind us!"
The gun was rapidly limbered up and we rode to the top of the hill. Across the valley about a hundred horsemen were stealthily stealing up Vaal Kop, evidently with the intention of taking us in the rear. We halted and gave them a couple of shells, to which they very promptly replied.
"Commandant," said one of my comrades, "let's charge them. They're not too many for us."
"No," was the reply; "it's best to be prudent."
"Well, I'm going to have a smack at them, anyway! Coming along?" he shouted to me, and without waiting for a reply, started down the valley. I followed him, and we cut across over the loose stones at a breakneck pace, not making straight for the enemy, but for a rocky ridge whence our fire could reach them. As we climbed the ridge we were joined by two others. When we got to the top we saw about forty horsemen in the valley beyond.
"Fifteen hundred yards!" shouted Frank, and we let them have it. Round and round they turned in a confused circle, like a flock of worried sheep. Then they rode away to the right, straight into a morass, back again, and finally retreated in amongst the bushes on the slope of the hill, whence they favoured us with a few well-aimed shots in reply. The whole thing had lasted barely five minutes, but we had each emptied about fifty cartridges, so we felt quite happy. As we left the shelter of the hill and rode back across the valley, their companions on top of the hill turned a Maxim on us, but the bullets all went high, singing overhead like a flight of canaries. Going up on the other side, I took a piece of bread out of my pocket, and was just trying to persuade myself to offer our two companions some, when crack! crack! came a couple of Nordenfeldt shells right behind us. It didn't take us long to get over the hill, the vicious little one-pounders crackling and fizzling round us all the while.
On the other side a comical sight met our eyes. The whole veld was full of scattered Boers retiring in all directions, with a shell bursting in between them every now and then, luckily without any effect. A few hundred yards away stood the cart of our clergyman, who was frantically trying to unharness his mules and inspan horses in their place. He was so nervous that his fingers refused to undo the straps, so we dismounted and effected the exchange for him. As soon as the last strap was buckled he lashed up and drove away, too excited even to say thank you.
We were so accustomed to retreating by this time that it seemed extraordinary to see a man lose his head so easily. The British shells pursued us till we were out of sight, but the only casualty was when a shell passed so close to Van der Merwe, the mining commissioner of Johannesburg, that the concussion knocked him off his horse.
That evening Jonas came into camp. Jonas is quite a character in his way. When the British entered Potchefstroom he, with four followers, took up a position on a kopje about six miles out of town, and a thousand yards from the Johannesburg road. Whenever a convoy or a body of British came along Jonas and his merry band would open a furious fusillade, causing the unhappy enemy no end of inconvenience. It is a fact that he carried on this game for months, unhindered.
After his day's work Jonas would lay aside rifle and bandolier, don his overcoat, and stroll into town to see his family.
He was challenged by a sentry on one occasion, but Jonas reproved him so severely and bluffed him so completely, that the poor fellow broke into an abject apology, whereupon Jonas very condescendingly promised to say no more about the matter.