We passed to the south-east of Reitz and came to the farm Inloop, belonging to Mr. Gert van Rensburg. On our way thither I left the commando to go to the office of Landdrost Serfontein, in order to visit the unfortunate de Lange there, who was sentenced to death by a court-martial for high treason. I found him in very sad circumstances; but he was sustained by religion. He passed all his time in prayer and in reading the Bible.
Unfortunately his sentence was not carried out on the appointed day. He was taken to Reitz, his grave was ready, everything was prepared for the enactment of the sad tragedy; but the persons who had to carry out the sentence did not appear. Two days later, on the 21st of December, he was shot while kneeling before his grave in prayer.
General Wessel Wessels had been charged with the sending of a party of men to execute the sentence, but on that day when this had to be done all his attention was occupied by the English near Tafel Kop. The English were busy building blockhouses from the Drakensberg to Vrede, and General Wessels was waiting for an opportunity to attack them. On the following day the opportunity came. There were three forces of British, when General Wessels, supported by the Commandants Ross and Botha, gave orders that one of these forces should be attacked. He had about a hundred and thirty or forty men, while the force attacked were in far greater numbers, and were provided besides with two Armstrong guns, two Maxim-Nordenfeldts, and one Maxim.
Our burghers galloped over a bare plain for nearly three and a half miles, up to the enemy, who were on a kopje. The English let them come up to six hundred yards, and then opened fire on them with shrapnel. Their Maxims also and their rifles came into play. But the burghers were not to be checked. Soon they were so close that they silenced the guns by shooting down the gunners. They then charged up close to the enemy, and there were in some cases hand-to-hand encounters, some of the combatants striking one another with their rifle-butts.
The English were stubborn and fought very bravely; but in a short time everything was in the hands of our burghers. Some of the English took to flight, and very many were killed and wounded.
All the field-pieces were now in possession of General Wessels; but before they could be got away, one of the other two columns turned up from the direction of Paardenberg. This force was repulsed thrice, and our burghers would have got off with the guns had not the third force appeared from the direction of Wilge River.
The only thing to be done now was to gallop out, and abandon the captured cannon. This was only done with the greatest difficulty. The one column was a thousand yards to the right, and the other a hundred to the left; some of the troops were already immediately in front of our men. But fortunately they got through without casualty. Unhappily, however, five men had been killed and four wounded in the storming of the kopje.
Immediately after Assistant Commandant de Kock came in contact on the farm Beginsel with the column, which had come up as a reinforcement from Wilge River. He undoubtedly caused them some considerable loss, for five ambulance waggons were later on busy with the casualties there. Commandant de Kock had, however, also to retire before this column, after he had engaged it for an hour and a half, because a reinforcement made its appearance, and directed the fire of their cannon at him. He had no casualties. We found out afterwards that the force which General Wessels attacked was that under Major Damant, while the one that attacked Commandant de Kock was commanded by Colonel Rimington.
Christmas Day had come again. I was not so low-spirited as on the last celebration of this memorable day. This must be ascribed to the fact that we spent the day pleasantly at Liebenberg's Vlei at the house of Mr. Juri Kemp. I could never have believed that, after a long struggle of two years and two months, we should be able to see such abundance on a table as that which Mrs. Kemp and her daughters provided there. It could not have been surpassed in times of peace. Notwithstanding the want of sugar, the sweet was not absent. The bees had supplied that. It did us good, in the midst of our troubles, to enjoy some pleasant hours, and we did not forget the religious character of the day. In the morning we held service at "Fanny's home," and in the afternoon at Mr. Kemp's house.
In the midst of all this joy I did not know that my son was dead eleven days. It was the same thing over again that evening when we, at some distance from this pleasant scene, were ready again to retire to rest on the grass. Before we did so a rumour came that General de Wet had captured a camp of the enemy early that morning. His report of this event reached the President the following morning. From this report, and from what I heard from the mouths of many who were in the fight, I give the following account of the attack:—
The English were building blockhouses from Harrismith to Bethlehem, and their advance force, 580 strong, under command temporarily of Major Williams, was camped at Groenkop on the farm Tweefontein in the district of Bethlehem. General de Wet had, since he had collected the large commando, sought for an opportunity to come in contact with the enemy. After what had occurred at Lindley, and a fight later near Langberg, which however had not been a success for us, he had as yet done nothing. When, however, Christmas was approaching, he thought that it would be the right time for him to act, and the force at Groenkop drew his attention. He reconnoitred himself, and resolved to make an attack on the night between the 24th and 25th December. He gave the necessary orders late in the night of the 24th, and General Prinsloo and the Commandants marched out with him to the hill.
It was a bright moonlit night, and there was some danger that the advancing force might be seen from above long before the hill could be reached. But fortunately there were clouds floating in the air, which everywhere threw shadows upon the plain, over which the commando had to pass, and it reassured the burghers when they thought that the several divisions might look from the hills like patches of shadow below. There were dongas near the foot of the hill. Our men passed safely through these, and a little farther on they dismounted and began the ascent.
It was then two o'clock in the morning. The Heilbron and Kroonstad burghers, under the Commandants van Coller and Celliers, ascended on the left towards the north, whilst the men of Bethlehem, under General Prinsloo and Commandant Olivier, formed the right wing. In the centre were the men of Vrede and Harrismith, under Commandants Hermanus Botha and Jan Jacobsz, together with Commandant Mears and his men. The burghers were in the best of spirits. They climbed the hill, the one striving to pass the other. "It was splendid to see how they charged," one man said to me. "They went up like a swarm of locusts." There were three encampments of sandstone over which our men had to pass before they could get to the top. Over the first they had clambered, when there came the usual "Halt! who goes there?" Then the sound of a whistle was heard, and immediately thereupon the enemy began to fire. Our burghers advanced with all the more determination over the other two ledges of sandstone, shouting, "Merry Christmas," etc., and rushed upon the entrenchments. The English fired twice with grapeshot and several times with the Maxim-Nordenfeldt, but those who were serving the guns were killed, wounded, or forced to surrender, as was the case with one who was just putting a belt into the Maxim-Nordenfeldt. The forts were soon taken, excepting one on the right hand, and it was from it that most of our burghers who fell were shot; as soon, however, as General Prinsloo noticed the heavy fire from that fort, he stormed and soon silenced it.
Our burghers now fired on the tents, and many English were killed and wounded in them. Many also fled half dressed from the tents, forming, as they ran, movable targets for our men.
"Within half an hour," so General de Wet stated in his report, "all the forts were taken, and the cannon and the whole of the camp were in our hands. The enemy fled, fighting all the while, to at least two or three hundred yards outside their camp, and the fight continued for another hour and a half.... I must say that I have never seen better fighting against an entrenched place. Our officers and burghers literally marched right through the camp. The booty consisted of a 15-pounder Armstrong, a Maxim-Nordenfeldt, a Maxim, and many Lee-Metford rifles. Much ammunition, twenty-seven waggons, laden with all kinds of provision; overcoats, blankets, and about 500 horses and mules were captured." Poor Tommy!—Yes, let me speak tenderly of him, however I might otherwise express myself when speaking in the abstract of the English people, or in the concrete of Chamberlain, Milner, and many officers of the British army,—poor Tommy had received his plum-pudding, tobacco, and new uniform (Christmas presents), and on the evening before he had made a parcel of them and laid it at his pillow with the object of putting it on and enjoying it in the morning. For many a Tommy the morning light did not dawn, and for not one of them came the enjoyment of his Christmas fare.
Our loss was considerable. "We have," so General de Wet reported, "to mourn the loss of fourteen men—heroes!—dead; amongst whom are the gallant Commandant Olivier of Bethlehem, Field-Cornet M. Lourens of the ward, Lower Bethlehem, and Assistant Field-Cornet Jan Dalebout of Harrismith." Besides Field-Cornet Dalebout I personally had to lament the death of another Harrismith man, Jacob Kok.
The number of our wounded was 32. The loss of the enemy was great: 24 were taken prisoners, and, excepting the few who succeeded in escaping, the rest were either wounded or killed. Major Williams was also amongst the killed.
General Brand and Commandant Coetzee, who had just come from the west on a visit to General de Wet, took part in the fight, and their services were highly valued by the General.
At eight o'clock an English reinforcement came from Elands River bridge; but by that time our people had already gone off with the booty. The prisoners-of-war were partially "shaken out" and sent over the Basuto border.
Prisoners-of-war released!—What a strange war this war of ours was. We had no ammunition but that which we got from the enemy; hardly any clothes but those provided us by our adversaries. And when we took soldiers prisoners, then—they were set free!