I broke the seal of the envelope with some trepidation. I guessed its contents, and a few of my colleagues in the Chamber hung over me almost speechless with excitement, whispering curiously, "Jong, is dit fout?"—"Is this correct. Is it war?"
Everybody knew, of course, that we were in for a supreme crisis, that the relations between Great Britain and our Republic were strained to the bursting point, that bitter diplomatic notes had been exchanged between the governments of the two countries for months past, and that a collision, an armed collision, was sooner or later inevitable.
Being "Fighting-Commandant" of the Witwatersrand goldfields, and, therefore, an officer of the Transvaal army, my movements on that day excited great interest among my colleagues in the Chamber. After reading General Joubert's note I said, as calmly as possible: "Yes, the die is cast; I am leaving for the Natal frontier. Good-bye. I must now quit the house. Who knows, perhaps for ever!"
General Joubert's mandate was couched as follows:—
"You are hereby ordered to proceed with the Johannesburg commando to Volksrust to-morrow, Friday evening, at 8 o'clock. Your field cornets have already received instructions to commandeer the required number of burghers and the necessary horses, waggons, and equipment. Instructions have also been given for the necessary railway conveyances to be held ready. Further instructions will reach you."
Previous to my departure next morning I made a hurried call at Commandant-General Joubert's offices. The ante-chamber leading to the Generalissimo's "sanctum-sanctorum" was crowded with brilliantly-uniformed officers of our State Artillery, and it was only by dint of using my elbows very vigorously that I gained admission to my chief-in-command.
The old General seemed to feel keenly the gravity of the situation. He looked careworn and troubled: "Good-morning, Commandant," he said; "aren't you away yet?"
I explained that I was on my way to the railway station, but I thought before I left I'd like to see him about one or two things.
"Well, go on, what is it?" General Joubert enquired, petulantly.
"I want to know, General Joubert," I said, "whether England has declared war against us, or whether we are taking the lead. And another thing, what sort of general have I to report myself to at Volksrust?"
The old warrior, without looking up or immediately answering me, drew various cryptic and hieroglyphic pothooks and figures on the paper before him. Then he suddenly lifted his eyes and pierced me with a look, at which I quailed and trembled.
He said very slowly: "Look here; there is as yet no declaration of war, and hostilities have not yet commenced. You and my other officers should understand that very clearly, because possibly the differences between ourselves and Great Britain may still be settled. We are only going to occupy our frontiers because England's attitude is extremely provocative, and if England see that we are fully prepared and that we do not fear her threats, she will perhaps be wise in time and reconsider the situation. We also want to place ourselves in a position to prevent and quell a repetition of the Jameson Raid with more force than we exerted in 1896."
An hour afterwards I was on board a train travelling to Johannesburg in the company of General Piet Cronje and his faithful wife. General Cronje told me that he was proceeding to the western districts of the Republic to take up the command of the Potchefstroom and Lichtenburg burghers. His instructions, he said, were to protect the Western frontier.
I left General Cronje at Johannesburg on the 29th September, 1899, and never saw him again until I met him at St. Helena nearly two and a half years afterwards, on the 25th March, 1902. When I last saw him we greeted each other as free men, as free and independent legislators and officers of a free Republic. We fought for our rights to live as a nation.
Now I meet the veteran Cronje a broken old man, captive like myself, far away from our homes and our country.
Then and Now!
Then we went abroad free and freedom-loving men, burning with patriotism. Our wives and our women-folk watched us go; full of sorrow and anxiety, but satisfied that we were going abroad in our country's cause.
Two promising and prosperous Republics wrecked, their fair homesteads destroyed, their people in mourning, and thousands of innocent women and children the victims of a cruel war.
There is scarcely an Afrikander family without an unhealable wound. Everywhere the traces of the bloody struggle; and, alas, most poignant and distressing fact of all, burghers who fought side by side with us in the earlier stages of the struggle are now to be found in the ranks of the enemy.
These wretched men, ignoring their solemn duty, left their companions in the lurch without sense of shame or respect for the braves who fell fighting for their land and people.
Oh, day of judgment! The Afrikander nation will yet avenge your treachery.