It was on Tuesday, 25th of September, that we commenced our work as a mounted force. We rode on until we reached the farm where we had listened to the address of General de Wet. The enemy almost immediately drew our attention. On the other side of the hillock, of which I spoke in connection with the fight on the 14th of August, and on this side of Vecht Kop, a small English force were marching along the main road to Heilbron.
We occupied positions on this little hill and on the ridges to the south-west of it, whence we could see the English. After a while they halted in a hollow, and our cannon opened fire on them. Some confusion ensued, and several minutes elapsed before the English guns were brought into action and began firing on our Krupps. The odds were then too heavy, and our gunners were unable to continue the fight. They were obliged to remove the Krupp out of danger, and before nightfall all the positions were deserted. We halted for the night without off-saddling our horses, on the slopes of a ridge not far from Heilbron, and went early next morning where we expected the English to come along.
We reached a ridge, behind which the English were, but no one seemed inclined to take possession of it, as none knew what it looked like on the other side. General Philip Botha was not with us yet, and the officers who were with us did not lead the men up. They remained below merely urging them on. "Charge, you young fellows!" they cried; but as example is better than precept, they spoke in vain. Only about twenty-five men obeyed.
When these brave fellows gained the top, they opened fire on some British cavalry who had nearly reached the crest of the ridge, and forced them to retreat. They also forced the gunners of an Armstrong to abandon it. But at a distance of eight hundred yards there was another gun, and somewhat farther a Maxim-Nordenfeldt. There was a slight pause. Then the English began from there to bombard our men, and the shells fell not only on the ridge but also on the commando at the back. The brave twenty-five had to retire from the ridge, and the commando was scattered, retreating in confusion past the south of Heilbron, with shrapnel bursting right and left of them. A small number of burghers still made an effort to hold a kopje, but they were driven from it by the shells of the Maxim-Nordenfeldt. Wherever a horseman or a burgher was seen there the shells burst, and so the English paved their way to Heilbron, which they entered before noon. We came to a standstill at Klip River to the east of Heilbron. But not all the burghers stopped there, for so discouraged were a few that they rode away to their farms. General de Wet, who arrived on the scene after the fight, was very indignant about this, and immediately sent some burghers to compel them to return.
And here sat our party—there were five of us, General C. J. de Villiers, his son Christian, Andries Pretorius, my son, and I. Our party, I say, sat by a brook that was honoured by the name of river, and thought of our troubles. We thought also of the demands of Nature, and began to prepare some food. Whatever we might have to eat would be relished, for now for the first time since we had left the waggons were we able to boil some water. But let me here give a description of our manner of life. It can be easily understood that we could not carry much with us on horseback. We had, besides our blankets and some clothes, a kettle and an iron linseed-oil drum, with a handle made of wire. This drum had to do duty as cooking-pot. Besides this we also carried a saucepan. We had only three pannikins between us five, and two had to wait until two had finished. There were also a couple of little bags in which we carried our rations of meat, meal, salt, and coffee. In the drum the meat, and also the mealie-meal porridge, was cooked. The latter we ate together out of the pot, scooping it up with our clasp-knives, in the way the Kaffirs do with their wooden spoons. We afterwards saw that spoons answered better, and so made our own wooden ones. The meat we had to take up with our hands instead of with a fork, and we ate it from the lid of the saucepan or from a slice of bread.
At nights there was nothing but the canopy of heaven over us. Mostly the stars with their friendly light shone brightly on us from on high. Sometimes large masses of clouds floated between them and us, and hid their kindly light. Now and then all was swallowed up in utter darkness, while the thunder roared, and we were drenched to the skin. Whatever the weather might be we spread a skin or a blanket on the grass, with our saddles at our heads to ward off the wind, and slept sound till next morning. General de Villiers had a tanned ox hide with which, in accordance with the custom which had been followed by his father, he had provided himself, and I slept beside him on it. I was in good company. The kindness of General de Villiers and his party I shall never forget.
So things went on from day to day and from month to month; and how swiftly those days and months passed! However monotonous it seemed to exist from one moment to another, and however far off the future seemed, yet the time sped like the flight of an arrow, and the past was swallowed up in the present before we seemed to have time to realise it.
We halted for the night at the farm of Janneke. Next morning I went to sit under the trees to note down my experiences. It was a lovely day. Spring had like a mysterious incomprehensible force wholly changed the face of Nature. The brown grass had been changed to green; the trees were covered with young and tender leaves; the birds chirped in the branches, and the bees hummed around in the blossoms. How restful everything was there! How different from the previous day, when the cannon filled the air with dissonant shrieks, and the shells burst all about us. I could not realise that a terrible war was raging in our land. Everything was so still, so full of rest. Yet it was War, not Peace. Alas! what brought me, a man of peace in every sense of the word, on the field of battle?
On Saturday General Philip Botha joined us. He immediately took the command; but during the first days following, General de Wet had the direction of everything, until we were led by him across the railway, not far from Wolvehoek Station.
We had to travel fast to accomplish this, for news had come that the English were present in large numbers at Elandskop and other places. On Saturday night we rode till twelve o'clock. The following day we assembled for our usual divine service, and when it got dark we again proceeded. We travelled during the whole night. This was slow work on account of the cannon, the ammunition waggons, and a couple of trolleys carrying provisions. How sleepy I became now that we had to keep awake for two nights in succession. It seemed to me sometimes, as I sat on horseback, as if the broad brim of my hat were the roof of a big tent, of which, as sometimes happens when the weather is warm, the sides had been lifted, and that the burghers in front of me were moving on under its roof with a rhythmic motion. I had every now and then to look up to the stars in order to shake off the illusion. We had to wait now and then for those who lagged behind, and then we would throw ourselves on the ground and immediately fall asleep. How fortunate those people must be who have such strong constitutions that they can endure everything without sleep, and apparently never suffer from fatigue. There were such amongst us now. They were ever on the alert and woke up the slumbering ones when it was time to proceed again. Things went thus till daylight broke, when we crossed first the branch line from Wolvehoek to Heilbron, and then the main line. Some of our scouts paid a visit to an English guard and disarmed them.
We had thus fortunately got across the line with all our belongings—all except one or two waggons; among these an ammunition waggon remained behind. When the drivers came near the railway an armoured train had made its appearance, and so they had to turn back. Out of this train fire was opened on those who had already crossed, but no casualty occurred. But I had lost all my clothes. To spare my horses I had placed my little all on the ammunition waggon which remained behind, and now I had nothing more than what I had on and what was in my saddle-bag.
After we had been off-saddled for a while, General de Wet proceeded to Vredefort with his bodyguard. He invited me to accompany him, and I had the pleasure of being in his company for three hours. I asked myself, as I rode by his side, what could be the secret of his power? and it appeared to me that it lay in this—that while he was friendly to all, he was intimate with none. Moreover, as is the case with all great leaders of men, he was as reticent as the Sphinx.
In the afternoon we reached Vredefort. How pleasant it was to me to find myself once more in the house of a brother minister, between the four walls of his study, and to forget for a while the blue canopy of the skies above and the hills and dales below.