The battle of Machadodorp was expected to take place at any moment, and the general feeling was that this fight should decide the campaign, the more so as the issue was confidently awaited by us. On the second day after Steyn's arrival at Waterval Onder the British attacked. Never before in the history of the war had such a furious bombardment been known. Only those who have witnessed the fierce storms of the tropics can form an idea of the awful unending roar of the lyddite guns as they belched forth one continuous shrieking mass of projectiles into the defenders' trenches. At Waterval Onder the two Governments listened in silent suspense as the sonorous reverberations rolled through the mountains, louder and fiercer yet, till the firm earth shook beneath the shock.
At last came the appalling message that the British were victorious, and our men in full retreat! High hopes had been built on this combat; no wonder if for a while we felt disheartened. The end of regular warfare had been reached; it was imperative that an entire change of tactics be adopted. Steyn was for beginning the guerilla system immediately, in which he was supported by Gravett, Pienaar, and Kemp; Kruger, however, determined to defend the railway to the last. The British lost no time in following up their success. It had been said that they would never venture down these precipitous heights, but, like all other prophecies about this surprising war—except Kruger's, that he would stagger humanity—it turned out false, for down into the infernal mountain pits the enemy thronged after us, with a courage that made us marvel.
The Governments retreated by train to Nelspruit, and thence to Hectorspruit, the commandoes following by rail and road.
Here the forces were divided, those without horses being sent to entrench Komatipoort, while the rest made ready to slip past the approaching enemy's outstretched arms. It was decided that President Kruger should leave for Holland, Schalk Burger acting in his place. Most of the burghers still fighting are Progressives, and therefore politically opposed to Paul Kruger, but there were few who did not feel a sincere sympathy for the venerable President in this, well-nigh the bitterest hour of his stormy life. I say nearly every man still fighting is as fervent a Progressive as the world could wish, and as much opposed to Paul Kruger's policy as the British themselves! Then what are they fighting for? you ask. For independence! Let us gain that, and in one year's time you will see the Transvaal merged into the model Free State, the Switzerland of South Africa!
After Kruger's departure Steyn took leave of the Transvaal Government. His last interview with Botha took place in the open air, in full sight of the burghers. The two conversed in low, earnest tones. Botha looked ill and haggard, he had aged since he had gained his spurs at Colenso; the weight of his responsibility lay heavy upon him.
Louis Botha is idolised by his men—perhaps he has not an enemy in the world—but it is to Steyn, and Steyn alone, that the honour belongs of the resistance still being offered by the Boers. Let not this detract from the merits of those other and equally gallant spirits, leaders or men, who have nobly breasted the waves of adversity; who shall blame them if at times they felt the current overwhelming?
Steyn utters a last cheering word, then shakes Botha's hand, mounts, and rides away at the head of his little escort.
The scene around the station resembles nothing so much as a cattle fair. Near the line stands a policeman, his gaze fixed upon a large box lying at his feet. The box is filled with gold. Ben Viljoen, standing on a waggon, addresses the men, explaining to them what guerilla warfare means. On the other side hats, shirts, and what not are being dealt out with a lavish hand. Some burghers wander off into the bush in search of game, others lie lazily stretched out beneath the trees. Trains crammed with men arrive from the rear, discharge their freights of assorted humanity, and are immediately boarded by the dismounted men destined for Komatipoort. The line is blocked with traffic, trains run anyhow, and it will be some days before everything is ready for our trek to begin.
There being no longer any need for officials, my colleagues volunteered to form themselves into a fighting corps, and did me the honour of selecting me as their leader. The corps, however, lacked accoutrements. I went down to Delagoa Bay. Upon returning, with two other officers, we were arrested at the Portuguese station Moveni.
Although armed with passports signed by the District Governor, we were informed that we would under no circumstances be allowed to recross the frontier. Nor could we obtain permission to return to Lourengo Marques by train. The young Portuguese commandant, a mirror of courtesy, explained that we had either to await further orders there or walk back to the Bay, a distance of fifty miles.
After waiting for several hours we quietly boarded a train coming from Komatipoort, and managed to reach Lourengo Marques unobserved. We still believed that we would contrive to get back somehow sooner or later, but were soon cruelly undeceived. President Kruger, who was the guest of the District Governor, wrote to General Coetser at Komatipoort, asking him not to destroy the bridge and advising him to take refuge in Portuguese territory. Coetser himself, with the few of his men who had fairly decent horses, preferred to follow Botha, who by this time had begun his trek from Hectorspruit, and left General Pienaar in charge of Komatipoort.
Influenced by the arguments of the Portuguese—one of which was that, should the British cross the Portuguese frontier and take the Boers in the rear, Portugal would not be able to prevent it—and by the fact that the positions first chosen for the entrenchments lay within a mile of the frontier and therefore could not be occupied, a Krÿgsraad resolved to follow the President's advice. The bridge had already been mined, the guns placed in position, and everything made ready to give Pole-Carew and the Guards a worthy reception; but fate decided otherwise, and General Pienaar, with some two thousand men, crossed the frontier,—needless to say with what deep regret—thus reducing by one-fifth our forces in the field, a loss which would have been avoided had Steyn's advice been taken and guerilla warfare begun after Machadodorp.
There was thenceforth nothing for us poor ship-wrecked wretches to do than to gaze impotently on our heroic brethren still struggling against the storm. The waves run high, but it is their duty to continue.
And they will continue. Not because they are sure of success, but because it is their duty.