Blockhouses were also erected in the northern and south-eastern portions of the Orange Free State. One line from Kroonstad to Lindley was finished towards the middle of December; another from Botha's Pass to Vrede and Frankfort at the end of the year; and a third from Harrismith to Bethlehem shut off, with the portion that had already been built from Fouriesburg to Bethlehem, the grain districts behind Nauwpoort, about the middle of January 1902. People had all kinds of ideas about these blockhouses. Some thought that they did not signify much, and might be compared to the flags which are sometimes planted in front of a flock of sheep. At first the sheep remain within the line, but soon they find that the flags form no insuperable barrier, and then they graze up to, and then to the other side of the flags. Others again could not conceal their fears. The English, they thought, were making the circle narrower, and we should eventually have to flee from place to place until we were overtaken and overwhelmed by superior forces. We soon found that there was truth in both views. The circle was drawn closer and closer. If the English columns were marching about, we had to keep our horses tied at nights to be ready every moment to retire to the right or to the left, so as not to be driven against the blockhouses, or we had to retreat before the enemy until near some line of blockhouses, and then suddenly face about and either pass between our pursuers or go round them. On the other hand, the danger of the blockhouses was not so great as had been feared. Burghers could always pass them on horseback, and sometimes they even did so with carts and herds of cattle. 1902.
The New Year had again come; and with the year new trouble and ever-increasing distress. It was not easy for us, in spite of all that had thus constantly gone against us, to remain hopeful. Now and then we read something in the newspapers, picked up on the spots where the English had encamped, that encouraged us somewhat. What we read of Anglophobia in Germany would cheer us up a little and revive the expectation in us that the war would soon be over. But when we would read in the same papers that the English Government was resolved to continue the war at all costs, and when we were constantly eye-witnesses of the uncivilised manner in which the troops carried on the war, then, as far at least as I was concerned, there appeared to be no prospect of a speedy termination—no sign in our clouded sky that the storm was breaking. "Watchman," so I seemed to cry, "what of the night? what of the night?" and it was as if I always received the answer: "The morning has come, and yet it is night."
What especially did not tend to encourage was the increasing violence with which the English continued their destructive work. This took place in the districts to the east of Lindley, chiefly in the month from 10th January to 10th February. Especially was this the case where the column of Colonel Rimington passed.
Colonel Rimington now passed through portions of the districts of Bethlehem and Harrismith, in the neighbourhood of Reitz. When he came to a farmhouse, the first questions of his officers and soldiers to the housewife were, "Where is your husband? Where is de Wet? Where is Steyn? Where are the Boers?" The woman could honestly reply that she did not know, whereupon they threatened to burn down her house, if she gave no information; and while the conversation was still going on she was summarily ordered to carry out her bedding; the soldiers would then with loaded guns and fixed bayonets storm into the house to seek for Boers, under the beds and in clothes presses. They then smashed the looking-glasses, so that the Boers should make no heliographs of them. Further, they took everything they wanted to: pillow-cases to serve as bags for fruit, etc., sheets, knives and forks, even when these had already been carried out along with the bedding. Pots and pans the housewife might in no case retain, even all the dishes and plates were smashed. Worse still, the woman was robbed of all her food; what the soldiers could not eat, such as flour, was thrown out upon the ground, and trodden under foot in the mud and dirt. Bread was never spared; out of the bin, from the table, or hot from the oven, it was taken, and not a crumb left behind. If there were any meat in pot and pan on the fire, then it was carried off, pot and pan and all. And thus the soldiers took the food out of the children's mouths. The mother remained behind with nothing. If she asked what she was to give her two, three, or six children to eat, the rough retort was, "Ask de Wet that?" "Never," said one woman to me, "was it so hard for me, as when my children cried to me for bread, and I had nothing to give them."
And then the soldiers would ride away to do the same at the next house. The woman left behind at the ruins of her house, took some of the zinc plates, laid them sloping against the wall of her destroyed house, and remained there until her husband came and brought her some food, and made a dwelling for her again, as well as he was able. Besides, all this I have heard from women that fearfully insulting language was used towards them by the rude soldiers. This certainly was not indulged in by all, for, as the woman readily admitted, there were some camps which passed through that were blameless. The armed Kaffirs revelled in being able to address the women familiarly with "thou" and "thee." "Where is your (jou) husband?—If he were here now I would shoot him dead." And they marched through the house as freely as the soldiers did.
It often happened that the soldiers broke into a house late at night, and forced their way even into the bedrooms, where the women lay in bed, under pretext of hunting for hidden Boers.
On the 10th of January the column of Colonel Rimington came to our hospital at Bezuidenhout's Drift. Notwithstanding that Dr. Poutsma had been allowed by Lord Kitchener to come and practise amongst us, and that the Red Cross flag was displayed that morning, as usual, over two of the buildings, and over the ambulance waggon, some soldiers stormed the hospital. This is what Dr. Poutsma, inter alia, says in an affidavit: "In and around the building shots were fired, and about fifteen yards from me, at the back door, a horseman dismounted, and kneeling down fired at me. 'Hands up!' he cried, and notwithstanding that I was, of course, unarmed, and moreover had put up my hands, he continued firing, whereupon I fled into the house. When I got to the kitchen some shots were sent after me, but wonderful to relate, without the intended result, as was the case also with six revolver shots which a captain fired partly at me, partly into the kitchen, and partly into the large sick ward. The captain in question, whose name is unknown to me, was so disappointed at all his shots having missed me, that he sprang towards me with the empty revolver, pushed it under my nose, and shouted, 'I'm damned sorry that I didn't shoot you.'
"Meanwhile the shooting inside the house continued at the three nursing-sisters, the Assistant A. van Toorenenbergen, and at me, and, most horrible of all, at the helpless wounded burghers who lay on their beds. I saw one of the soldiers outside kneeling down, and resting his gun on the window-sill he fired two shots at the wounded burgher Wessels, who, however was not hit, but was covered with dust from the wall beside him, where it was struck by the bullet."
The doctor now went to the veranda, and was there arrested by order of a major. But when the Assistant Mr. van Toorenenbergen shouted, "Doctor, Sister Rautenbach is wounded," he wrenched himself loose, and went into the large sick ward.
"I found the young lady," so Dr. Poutsma declares further, "bathed in her blood. Four bullets had frightfully mutilated her."
The shooting ceased, and the doctor bandaged Miss Rautenbach. Then some officers entered, and then came the sickening: "I am awfully sorry." When Dr. Poutsma afterwards spoke to Colonel Rimington about this occurrence, he expressed his regret that Miss Rautenbach had been wounded, but added that he would not have been sorry in the least had Dr. Poutsma been shot, as one of his own doctors had shortly before been killed by the Boers at Tafel Kop. Further, he said that the Red Cross flag had not been noticed, and that he had never heard anything about a hospital there. He also wished Dr. Poutsma to admit that all that had happened was "an accident," which, as may be supposed, was refused. Not even sacred edifices were spared. At Reitz the troops broke up the floor of the Dutch Reformed Church to make fires with. The churches at Frankfort, Ventersburg, and Lindley were burnt down.
So things went on. About our alleged misdeeds we saw reports in almost every newspaper that we picked up; but we had no opportunity to make known to the world what the English were doing to us.
The English wanted to make an end to the war. They tried all means to attain this object speedily; also proclamations! but proclamations, as they had discovered, had had but little effect on the Boers. Especially had this been the case with regard to the one which had offered the Boers a chance of laying down their arms up to the 15th of September. What other plan could they now devise to end the struggle which, notwithstanding all this devastation, still continued, and appeared likely to continue indefinitely? Surely not another proclamation? No, but a letter! Lord Kitchener wrote a letter, an extract from which was, in the beginning of January 1902, left lying about for the information of the Boers on the farm where the English camps had halted. Lord Kitchener advised the Boers, in this letter, to take the matter into their own hands, because, as he asserted, President Steyn and General de Wet were resolved to ruin them utterly. The Boers should therefore act for themselves and lay down their arms, and he promised them that if they—not one by one, but in small numbers,—a corporal with ten men, a Field-Cornet with twenty-five, and a Commandant with fifty men—surrendered, they would then not be banished. They would, moreover, not lose their remaining cattle, and would, moreover, after the war, receive aid from the British Government to help them up again. How shameful it was that, ever since Nauwpoort, the British Government had been doing its utmost to induce the burghers to commit treason. But all is fair in love and war is their own motto.
This "paper bomb," however, did very little execution. As little notice was taken of it as of the recent proclamation. Our people stood firm.
That our people as a people remained steadfast became more and more evident to me. However much our numbers in South Africa may have become diminished through the deportation of great numbers, and through the still greater numbers who had lost courage and had surrendered, our people as a people still always continued to exist. This the English were anxious to deny. They were fond of asserting that it was only a small fraction of the people that still resisted. This was not the case. It is true that it was only a minority that were still able to continue the struggle; but the heart of the nation, as a whole, was still always faithful. The majority of our prisoners-of-war had remained loyal to the cause. The majority even of those who in their dejection laid down their arms had no desire to remain under British rule. On an earlier page I have indicated what the feeling was on the island of Ceylon, and here I wish to add something which proved to me that in the Bermudas the feeling against England was still stronger, if possible, than in Ceylon.
Shortly after I had got possession of the extract of Lord Kitchener's letter just referred to I read the following description of the prisoners at Bermuda: "Many of them (the prisoners) are irreconcilable, and show their bitterness and hostility in every way. For instance, they have refused to accept for their dead the military honours which are usually accorded the British soldier. The Boer chaplain, the Rev. J. R. Albertyn of Wellington in the Cape Colony, requested, on behalf of the men, that the coffin of a deceased burgher should not be covered with the Union Jack, and that the three volleys usually fired over the soldier's grave should be discontinued."
When I read this my heart leaped for joy. Our people were still one and undivided, I thought. If there were hundreds of our flesh and blood siding with the British, then there were thousands who did not. Even those on whom the depressing influence of imprisonment must have had a baneful effect remained irreconcilable, and showed it in every way.
What also struck me, when reading the newspapers, was how England damaged her own cause; because, in her excessively overbearing attitude, she did not understand the art of being conciliatory.
Four colonists, rebels—so one newspaper related—were brought to the market-place at Cradock. Shortly after their arrival there the commanding officer rode up, ushered in with the music of Rule Britannia. Thereupon the accusations and the sentences against these four men were read. It appeared that all of them had been sentenced to death, but that the sentences of two of them had been commuted to imprisonment for life. Then a royal salute was fired, and the English National Anthem played by the band. What an exhibition, I thought, of England's pride! One would have thought that it was indeed Rule Britannia throughout South Africa. But so far it had not yet got, and the action of England there—the exhibition of the sentenced men in the market-place, the playing of the National Anthem, the firing of a royal salute—all that could have no other effect than to cause race hatred to strike roots still deeper, not only in the Republics, but throughout the whole of South Africa, and to drive every irreconcilable man anew to set his face like a flint against all that is English.
Ten days after Rimington's troops had committed those atrocities in the hospitals, they and several other columns came to the neighbourhood of Reitz, and were even more than usually active. They captured large numbers of cattle, and continued devastating the farms.
Their object was, however, chiefly to capture President Steyn and General de Wet, and also to regain possession of the guns taken by us at Groen Kop, which, since the 25th of December, had been conveyed about from one place to another between Liebenberg's Vlei and Wilge River. Unfortunately they succeeded in this. The guns were captured at Roode Kraal, Liebenberg's Vlei, on the 4th of February. At the same time the English drove General de Wet and a considerable number of burghers through the line of blockhouses between Kroonstad and Lindley. The General passed through without firing a shot, but was not so fortunate when, shortly after, he returned. He then lost several burghers, dead and wounded.
After that we had rest in the neighbourhood of Reitz until the 21st of February; but of this I will give an account in a following chapter.
Saturday, the 8th of February 1902, was a sad day for me. Marthinus Snyman, who had been to Witzieshoek, heard there that my son had died at Ladysmith. On the following Monday I received a letter from my friend the Rev. J. J. Ross, who informed me that he had, about the 20th of January, received a letter from the Rev. Dieterlin containing among other things the following words: "I saw in the papers that young Charles Kestell, aged 17, died in Ladysmith; is he not the son of our friend of Harrismith?" A sword passed through my heart.—But this is not the place in which I must record personal experiences of this kind.