We rode all through the night with our weary and hungry horses. It was a cold night for this time of the year. The wind that blew from the south seemed to cut right through us. We progressed very slowly, as is always the case by night; and this night we seemed to go more slowly than ever, for besides the usual delay caused by the waggons and tired horses, there were many burghers on foot.
How slowly we went! Zwartlapberg, which we knew we had to pass, loomed a dark and undefined mass on the distant horizon, and seemed to come no nearer. And we began to fear that we should not be able to pass through Sprinkhaans Nek before daylight. And so it proved. For after we had ridden for hours, all too soon the morning star arose and a long low arc of light suffused all the eastern sky with crimson. Rapidly—more rapidly than we wished—the darkness had vanished, and plains at the foot of the mountain we were making for lay all revealed in the growing light of day. We crossed through a rivulet, and when the sun rose we were marching over the slopes below Zwartlapberg. Though we had hoped to reach that spot before it became light, our fears had somehow calmed down as we were riding along there. Was it the daylight that vanquished the apprehensions and uncertainties of night?
But there was a cause for being at ease. The Bethlehem Commando had gone on ahead, and had passed through. We should no doubt manage the passage. So, without perturbation, the laager went forward, slow but determined, when—Boom!
We hear the thunder of a cannon fired from Zwartlapberg, and a shell bursts on the ground near the front waggons. A second shell soon follows, and then a third and a fourth; and the mounted men and those on foot, the waggons and the carts, immediately wheel from the mountain and race away, scattered and in confusion, all over the plain to the west, to get out of range of the cannon.
About three or four miles from the road on which we had been travelling we came to a standstill. We can now collect our scattered senses. We discuss the situation. The state of affairs is not encouraging. Let us see how they stand.
We are certain now to meet with resistance from the forts in front of us. From the rear the English are advancing in great numbers. To the right and left it is just the same, for there too we shall come in contact with the enemy.
What is to be done now? Some say we must remain where we are, others that we must get through the nek at all costs. President Steyn declares we must go through, and General Fourie has already expressed the same opinion, and as neither General de Wet nor General Philip Botha are present at the moment, this officer puts himself at the head of the commando and bravely rides on.
The whole commando, waggons and carts, mounted men and those on foot, follow him. Like a great stream they advance, as far as possible from the cannon on Zwartlapberg and as near as possible to the mountains to the west of the nek.
There were three English forts on the left (of which two could fire on us), and two on the lowest ridges of Zwartlapberg. We must now pass in between these. We proceed, not knowing what there is in store for us. We think we are going to our death, or at least that we shall be wounded. Onward, onward flows the great stream of men on horseback and on foot, of waggons and carts. Some burghers put their spurs into their horses and gallop ahead. They take possession of a Kaffir kraal and open a heavy fire on the right-hand forts.
In the meanwhile the great laager treks on and approaches to the nek, nearer and nearer. General de Wet, accompanied by General Botha, now appears on the scene and takes on himself the further conduct of the passage. There is a deafening rattle of Mausers, to which the British Lee-Metfords reply. We reach the nek, over which we pass, and find ourselves in reaped wheat-fields, which makes it difficult for the waggons and carts to proceed; but the worn-out animals are relentlessly driven onward.
Some of the burghers take position behind the wheat-stacks here, and direct a heavy fire on the forts to the right, while the Bethlehem men, who passed through the nek at daybreak, occupy themselves with the forts to the left, and with a force coming from Thaba 'Nchu.
The bullets whistle over our heads and strike the ground all along the route we have to go. The clatter of our rifle fire fills the air. This, and the general confusion, affects the men in different ways, which can clearly be read on their countenances. Here one sees indifference, there calm resolve, yonder fear and alarm, which so paralyse the fearful that they abandon all their food, blankets, coats. But all press on! After two hours the great stream of waggons and carts and men has passed through Sprinkhaans Nek.
We ask ourselves, whence the courage which inspired us to face so determinedly what was before us? whence the strength which upheld our worn-out horses? The enemy thought they had hemmed us in, which indeed was the case. They were in front of us and in our rear, to our right and to our left. But God was not willing that we should fall into their hands.
We had just emerged from the wheat-fields when the English hurled shells at us, but it was marvellous to see how these shells exploded in the open spaces between the burghers, without doing any harm.
At length, at about eleven o'clock, we halted, so that our poor brutes, after having been in harness and under saddle for sixteen hours, could now enjoy a long drink.
Here the Bethlehem burghers joined us. They related to us how they had come through the nek early in the morning, before dawn, and had been fired upon, as they were passing close to the forts, with the loss of two of their number. This was a matter of regret to us all; but a feeling of gratitude prevailed, for, excepting these two killed, and two more wounded in making the passage, and a few horses killed and wounded, we had come—it was a marvel to us—unharmed through Sprinkhaans Nek.