After the English forces had retreated from Vaalkrantz across the Tugela, a patrol of my commando under my faithful adjutant, J. Du Preez, who had taken my place for the time being, succeeded in surprising a troop of fifty Lancers, of the 17th regiment, I believe, near Zwartkop, east of the Tugela, and making them prisoners after a short skirmish. Among these men, who were afterwards sent to Pretoria, was a certain Lieutenant Thurlington. It was a strange sight to see our patrol coming back with their victims, each Boer brandishing a captured lance.
Being still in the hospital in feeble health without any prospect of a speedy recovery, I took the doctor's advice and went home to Rondepoort, near Krugersdorp, where my family was staying at the time, and there, thanks to the careful treatment of my kind doctor and the tender care of my wife I soon recovered my strength.
On the 25th of February I received a communication from my commando to the effect that General Buller had once more concentrated his forces on Colenso and that heavy fighting was going on. The same evening I also had a telegram from President Kruger, urging me to rejoin my commando so soon as health would allow, for affairs seemed to have taken a critical turn. The enemy appeared to mean business this time, and our commando had already been compelled to evacuate some very important positions, one of which was Pieter's Heights.
Then the news came from Cape Colony that General Piet Cronje had been surrounded at Paardeberg, and that as he stubbornly refused to abandon his convoy and retreat, he would soon be compelled by a superior force to surrender.
The next morning I was in a fast train to Natal, accompanied by my faithful adjutant. Rokzak. My other adjutant, Du Preez, had meantime been ordered to take a reinforcement of 150 men to Pieter's Heights, and was soon engaged in a desperate struggle in the locality situated between the Krugersdorpers' and the Middleburgers' positions. The situation was generally considered very serious when I arrived near the head laager at Modderspruit late in the evening of the 27th of February, unaware of the unfavourable turn things had taken during the day at Paardeberg, in the Cape Colony, and on the Tugela. We rode on that night to my laager at Potgietersdrift, but having to go by a roundabout way it took us till early next morning before we reached our destination. The first thing I saw on my arrival was a cart containing ten wounded men, who had just been brought in from the fighting line, all yellow with lyddite.
Field-cornet P. van der Byl, who came fresh from the fight near Pieter's Heights, told me that these burghers had been wounded there. I asked them what had happened and how matters stood. "Ah, Commandant," he replied, "things are in a very bad way! Commandant Du Preez and myself were called to Pieter's Heights three days ago, as the enemy wanted to force their way through. We were in a very awkward position, the enemy storming us again and again; but we held our own, and fired on the soldiers at 50 paces. The English, however, directed an uninterrupted gun fire at our commandos, and wrought great havoc. Early Sunday morning the other side asked for a truce to enable them to bury their dead who were lying too close to our positions to be got at during the fighting. Many of their wounded were lying there as well, and the air was rent during 24 hours with their agonised groans, which were awful to hear. We, therefore, granted an armistice till 6 o'clock in the evening." (This curiously coincided in time with Lord Roberts' refusal to General Piet Cronje at Paardeberg to bury his dead).
"The enemy," continued the field-cornet, "broke through several positions, and while we were being fired at by the troops which were advancing on us, we were attacked on our left flank and in the rear. Assistant-Commandant Du Preez, and Field-Cornet Mostert, were both severely wounded, but are now in safe hands. Besides these, 42 of our burghers were killed, wounded, or taken prisoners; we could only bring 16 of our wounded with us. The Krugersdorpers, too, have suffered severely. The enemy has pushed through, and I suppose my burghers are now taking up a position in the "randten" near Onderbroekspruit."
Here was a nice state of things! When I had left my commando 15 days previously, we had had heavy losses in the battle of Vaalkrantz, and now again my burghers had been badly cut up. We had lost over 100 men in one month.
But there was no time to lose in lamenting over these matters, for I had just received information that General P. Cronje had been taken prisoner with 4,000 men. The next report was to the effect that the enemy was breaking through near Onderbroekspruit, and that some burghers were retiring past Ladysmith. I was still in telegraphic communication with the head laager, and at once wired to the Commandant-General for instructions. The answer was:—
"Send your carts back to Modderspruit (our headquarters) and hold the position with your mounted commandos."
The position indicated was on the Upper Tugela, on a line with Colenso. My laager was about 20 miles away from the head laager; the enemy had passed through Onderbroekspruit, and was pushing on with all possible speed to relieve Ladysmith, so that I now stood in an oblique line with the enemy's rear. I sent out my carts to the south-west, going round Ladysmith in the direction of Modderspruit. One of my scouts reported to me that the Free State commandos which had been besieging Ladysmith to the south, had all gone in the direction of Van Reenen's Pass; another brought the information that the enemy had been seen to approach the village, and that a great force of cavalry was making straight for us.
General Joubert's instructions were therefore inexplicable to me, and if I had carried them out I would probably have been cut off by the enemy. My burghers were also getting restless, and asked me why, while all the other commandos were retiring, we did not move. Cronje's surrender had had a most disheartening effect on them; there was, in fact, quite a panic among them. I mounted a high kopje from which I could see the whole Orange Free State army, followed by a long line of quite 500 carts and a lot of cattle, in full retreat, and enveloped in great clouds of red dust. To the right of Ladysmith I also noticed a similar melancholy procession. On turning round, I saw the English in vast numbers approaching very cautiously, so slowly, in fact, that it would take some time before they could reach us. Another and great force was rushing up behind them, also in the direction of Ladysmith.
It must have been a race for the Distinguished Service Order or the Victoria Cross to be won by the one who was first to enter Ladysmith. We knew that the British infantry, aided by the artillery, had paved the way for relief, and I noticed the Irish Fusiliers on this occasion, as always, in the van. But Lord Dundonald rushed in and was proclaimed the hero of the occasion.
Before concluding this chapter I should like to refer to a few incidents which happened during the Siege of Ladysmith. It is unnecessary to give a detailed description of the destruction of "Long Tom" at Lombardskop or the blowing up of another gun west of Ladysmith, belonging to the Pretoria Commando. The other side have written enough about this, and made enough capital out of them; and many a D.S.O. and V.C. has been awarded on account of them.
Alas, I can put forward nothing to lessen our dishonour. As regards the "Long Tom" which was blown up, this was a piece of pure treachery, and a shocking piece of neglect, Commandant Weilbach, who ought to have defended this gun with the whole of his Heidelberg Commando, was unfaithful to his charge. The Heidelbergers, however, under a better officer, subsequently proved themselves excellent soldiers. A certain Major Erasmus was also to blame. He was continually under the influence of some beverage which could not be described as "aqua pura"; and we, therefore, expected little from him. But although the planning and the execution of the scheme to blow up "Long Tom" was a clever piece of work, the British wasted time and opportunity amusing themselves in cutting out on the gun the letters "R.A." (Royal Artillery), and the effect of the explosion was only to injure part of the barrel. After a little operation in the workshops of the Netherlands South African Railway Company at Pretoria under the direction of Mr. Uggla, our gun-doctor, "Long Tom's" mouth was healed and he could spit fire again as well as before. As to the blowing up of the howitzer shortly after, I will say the incident reflected no credit on General Erasmus, as he ought to have been warned by what happened near Lombardskop, and to have taken proper precautions not to give a group of starving and suffering soldiers an opportunity of penetrating his lines and advancing right up to his guns.
Both incidents will be an ugly blot on the history of this war, and I am sorry to say the two Boer officers have never received condign punishment. They should, at any rate, have been called before the Commandant-General to explain their conduct.
The storming of Platrand (Cæsar's Camp), south-east of Ladysmith, on the 6th of January, 1900, also turned out badly for many reasons. The attack was not properly conducted owing to a jealousy amongst some of the generals, and there was not proper co-operation.
The burghers who took part in the assault and captured several forts did some splendid work, which they might well be proud of, but they were not seconded as they should have been. The enemy knew that if they lost Platrand, Ladysmith would have to surrender; they therefore defended every inch of ground, with the result that our men were finally compelled to give way. And, for our pains, we sustained an enormous loss in men, which did not improve in any way the broken spirit of our burghers.