During the retreat of our army to the frontier of the Transvaal Republic nothing of importance occurred. Here again confusion reigned supreme, and none of the commandos were over-anxious to form rearguards. Our Hollander Railway Company made a point of placing a respectful distance between her rolling-stock and the enemy, and, anxious to lose as few carriages as possible, raised innumerable difficulties when asked to transport our men, provisions and ammunition. Our generals had meantime proceeded to Laing's Nek by rail to seek new positions, and there was no one to maintain order and discipline.
About 150 Natal Afrikanders who had joined our commandos when these under the late General Joubert occupied the districts about Newcastle and Ladysmith, now found themselves in an awkward position. They elected to come with us, accompanied by their families and live stock, and they offered a most heartrending spectacle. Long rows of carts and wagons wended their way wearily along the road to Laing's Nek. Women in tears, with their children and infants in arms, cast reproachful glances at us as being the cause of their misery. Others occupied themselves more usefully in driving their cattle. Altogether it was a scene the like of which I hope never to see again.
The Natal kaffirs now had an opportunity of displaying their hatred towards the Boers. As soon as we had left a farm and its male inhabitants had gone, they swooped down on the place and wrought havoc and ruin, plundering and looting to their utmost carrying capacity. Some even assaulted women and children, and the most awful atrocities were committed. I attach more blame to the whites who encouraged these plundering bands, especially some of the Imperial troops and Natal men in military service. Not understanding the bestial nature of the kaffirs, they used them to help carry out their work of destruction, and although they gave them no actual orders to molest the people, they took no proper steps of preventing this.
When our commando passed through Newcastle, we found the place almost entirely deserted, excepting for a few British subjects who had taken an oath of neutrality to the Boers.
I regret to have to state that during our retreat a number of irresponsible persons set fire to the Government buildings in that town. It is said that an Italian officer burned a public hall on no reasonable pretext; certainly he never received orders to that effect. As may be expected of an invading army, some of our burgher patrols and other isolated bodies of troops looted and destroyed a number of houses which had been temporarily deserted. But with the exception of these few cases, I can state that no outrages were committed by us in Natal, and no property was needlessly destroyed.
On our arrival at Laing's Nek a Council of War was immediately held to decide our future plans.
We now found ourselves once more on the old battlefields of 1880 and 1881, where Boer and Briton had met 20 years before to decide by trial of arms who should be master of the S. A. Republic. Traces of that desperate struggle were still plainly visible, and the historic height of Majuba stood there, an isolated sentinel, recalling to us the battle in which the unfortunate Colley lost both the day and his life.
I was told off to take up a position in the Nek where the wagon-road runs to the east across the railway-tunnel, and here we made preparations for digging trenches and placing our guns. Soon after we had completed our entrenchments we once more saw the enemy. They were lying at Schuinshoogte on the Ingogo, and had sent a mounted corps with two guns to the Nek. Although we had no idea of the enemy's strength, we were fully prepared to meet the attack; the Pretoria, Lydenburg and other laagers were posted to the left on the summit of Majuba Hill, and other commandos held good positions on the east. But the enemy evidently thought that we had fled all the way back to Pretoria, and not expecting to find the Nek occupied, advanced quite unconcerned. We fired a few volleys at them, which caused them to halt in considerable surprise, and, replying with a little artillery fire, they quickly returned to Schuinshoogte. We had, however, to be on our guard both day and night. It was bitterly cold at the time and a strong easterly wind was blowing.
Next day something occurred which afforded a change to the monotony of our situation, namely, the arrival from Pretoria of Mr. John Lombaard, member of the First Volksraad for Bethel. He asked permission to address us and informed us that we need only hold out another fortnight, for news from Europe had reached them to the effect that the Great Powers had decided to put an end to the War. This communication emanating from such a semi-official source was believed by a certain number of our men, but I think it did very little to brighten up the spirits of the majority, or arouse them from the lethargy into which they seemed to have fallen. A fortnight passed, and a month, without us hearing anything further of this expected intervention, and I have never been able to discover on whose authority and by whose orders Mr. Lombaard made to us that remarkable communication.
Meantime, General Buller did not seem at all anxious to attack us, perhaps fearing a repetition of the "accidents" on the Tugela; or possibly he thought that our position was too strong. For some reason, therefore, Laing's Nek was never attacked, and Buller afterwards, having made a huge "detour," broke through Botha's Pass. Meanwhile, Lord Roberts and his forces were marching without opposition through the Orange Free State, and I was ordered to proceed to Vereeniging with my commando. We left Laing's Nek on the 19th of May, and proceeded to the Free State frontier by rail.