There was clearly no help for it, we had to retreat. I gave orders to saddle up and to follow the example of the other commandos, reporting the fact to the Commandant-General. An answer came—not from Modderspruit this time, but from the station beyond Elandslaagte—that a general retreat had been ordered, most of the commandos having already passed Ladysmith, and that General Joubert had gone in advance to Glencoe. At dusk I left the Tugela positions which we had so successfully held for a considerable time, where we had arrested the enemy from marching to the relief of Ladysmith, and where so many comrades had sacrificed their lives for their country and their people.
It was a sad sight to see the commandos retreating in utter chaos and disorder in all directions. I asked many officers what instructions they had received, but nobody seemed to know what the orders actually were; their only idea seemed to be to get away as quickly as possible.
Finally, at 9 o'clock in the evening we reached Klip River, where a strange scene was taking place. The banks were crowded with hundreds of mounted men, carts and cattle mingled in utter confusion amongst the guns, all awaiting their turn to cross. With an infinite amount of trouble the carts were all got over one at a time. After a few minutes' rest I decided on consulting my officers, that we should cross the river with our men by another drift further up the stream, our example being followed by a number of other commandos.
I should point out here that in retreating we were going to the left, and therefore in perilous proximity to Ladysmith. The commandos which had been investing the town were all gone; and Buller's troops had already reached it from the eastern side, and there was really nothing to prevent the enemy from turning our rear, which had perforce to pass Ladysmith on its way from the Tugela. When we had finally got through the drift late that evening, a rumour reached us that the British were in possession of Modderspruit, and so far as that road was concerned, our retreat was effectually cut off.
Shortly before the War, however, the English had made a new road which followed the course of the Klip River up to the Drakensbergen, and then led through the Biggarsbergen to Newcastle. This road was, I believe, made for military purposes; but it was very useful to us, and our wagons were safely got away by it.
Commandant D. Joubert, of the Carolina Commando, then sent a message asking for reinforcements for the Pretoria laager, situated to the north-west of Ladysmith. It was a dark night and the rain was pouring down in torrents, which rendered it very difficult to get the necessary burghers together for this purpose.
I managed, however, to induce a sufficient number of men to come together, and we rode back; but on nearing the Pretoria Laager, I found to my dismay that there were only 22 of us left. What was to be done? This handful of men was of very little use; yet to return would have been cowardly, and besides, in the meantime our laager would have gone on, and would now be several hours' riding ahead of us. I sent some burghers in advance to see what was happening to the Pretoria Laager. It seemed strange to me that the place should still be in the hands of our men, seeing that all the other commandos had long since retired. After waiting fully an hour, our scouts came back with the information that the laager was full of English soldiers, and that they had been able to hear them quarrelling about the booty left behind by the burghers.
It was now two o'clock in the morning. Our Pretoria comrades were apparently safe, and considerably relieved we decided to ride to Elandslaagte which my men would by that time have surely reached. Our carts were sooner or later bound to arrive there, inasmuch as they were in charge of a field-cornet known to us as one of our best "retreat officers." I think it was splendid policy under the circumstances to appoint such a gentleman to such a task; I felt sure that the enemy would never overtake him and capture his carts. We followed the main road, which was fortunately not held by the enemy, as had been reported to us. On the way we encountered several carts and waggons which had been cast away by the owners for fear of being caught up by the pursuing troops. Of course the rumour that this road was in possession of the English was false, but it increased the panic among the burghers. Not only carts had been left behind, but, as we found in places, sacks of flour, tins of coffee, mattresses and other jettison, thrown out of the carts to lighten their burden.
On nearing Elandslaagte we caught up the rear of the fleeing commandos. Here we learned that Generals Botha and Meyer were still behind us with their commandos, near Lombardsdorp. We off-saddled, exhausted and half starving. Luckily, some of the provisions of our commissariat, which had been stored here during the Ladysmith investment, had not been carried away. But, to our disgust, we found that the Commissariat-Commissioner had set fire to the whole of it, so we had to appease our hunger by picking half-burned potatoes out of a fire.
At 7 o'clock next morning General Botha and his men arrived at Elandslaagte and off-saddled in hopes of getting something to eat. They were also doomed to disappointment. Such wanton destruction of God's bounty was loudly condemned, and had Mr. Pretorius, the Commissioner of Stores, not been discreet enough to make himself scarce, he would no doubt have been subjected to a severe "sjamboking." Later in the day a council of war was held, and it was decided that we should all stay there for the day, in order to stop the enemy if they should pursue us. Meantime we would allow the convoys an opportunity of getting to the other side of the Sunday River.
The British must have been so overjoyed at the relief of Ladysmith that Generals Buller and White did not think it necessary to pursue us, at any rate for some time, a consideration for which we were profoundly grateful. Methinks General Buller must have felt that he had paid a big price for the relief of Ladysmith, for it must have cost him many more lives than he had relieved. But in that place were a few Jingos (Natal Jingos) who had to be released, I suppose, at any costs.
My burghers and I had neither cooking utensils nor food, and were anxious to push forward and find our convoys; for we had not as yet learned to live without carts and commissariat. At dusk the generals—I have no idea who they were—ordered us to hold the "randjes" south of the Sunday River till the following day, and that no burghers were to cross the river. This order did not seem to please the majority, but the Generals had put a guard near the bridge, with instructions to shoot any burghers and their horses should they try to get to the other side; so they had perforce, to remain where they were. Now I had only 22 men under my command, and I did not think these would make an appreciable difference to our fighting force, so I said to myself: "To-night we shall have a little game with the generals for once."
We rode towards the bridge, and of course the guard there threatened to fire on us if we did not go back immediately. My adjutant, however, rode up and said: "Stand back, you ——! This is Commandant Viljoen, who has been ordered to hurry up a patrol at ——" (mentioning some place a few miles away) "which is in imminent danger of being captured."
The guards, quite satisfied, stepped back and favoured us with a military salute as we rode by. When we had been riding a little way I heard someone ask them what "people" they were who had passed over the bridge, and I caught the words: "Now you will see that they will all want to cross."
I do not contend I was quite right in acting in this insubordinate manner, but we strongly objected to being put under the guard of other commandos by some one irresponsible general. I went on that night till we reached the Biggarsbergen, and next day sent out scouts in the direction of the Drakensbergen to inquire for the scattered remains of my commando. The mountains were covered with cattle from the laagers about Glencoe Station. The Boers there were cooking food, shoeing their horses, or repairing their clothes; in fact, they were very comfortable and very busy. They remarked: "There are many more burghers yonder with the General; we are quite sure of that."... "The Commandant-General is near Glencoe and will stop the retreating men."
In short, as was continually happening in the War, everything was left to chance and the Almighty. Luckily General Botha had deemed it his duty to form a rearguard and cover our retreat; otherwise the English would have captured a large number of laagers, and many burghers whose horses were done up. But, whereas we had too little discipline, the English had evidently too much. It is not for me to say why General Buller did not have us followed up; but it seems that the British lost a splendid chance.
Some days went by without anything of note happening. My scouts returned on the third day and reported that my commando and its laager had safely got through, and could be expected the next day. Meanwhile I had procured some provisions at Glencoe, and for the time being we had nothing to complain about.
I was very much amused next day to receive by despatch-rider a copy of a telegram from Glencoe sent by General Joubert to General Prinsloo at Harrismith (Orange Free State) asking for information regarding several missing commandos and officers, amongst whom my name appeared, while the telegram also contained the startling news that my commando had been reported cut up at Klip River and that I had been killed in action! This was the second time that I was killed, but one eventually gets used to that sort of thing.
I sent, by the despatch-rider, this reply:—
"I and my commando are very much alive!" Adding: "Tell the General we want four slaughter oxen."
The following day I received orders to attend a council of war which was to be held at Glencoe Station. The principal object of this gathering was to discuss further plans of operation, to decide as to where our next positions were to be taken, and where the new fighting line would be formed.
We all met at the appointed time in a big unoccupied hall near Glencoe Station, where General Joubert opened the last council that he was to conduct in this world. Over 50 officers were present and the interest was very keen for several reasons. In the first place we all desired some official information about the fate of General Cronje and his burghers at Paardeburg, and in the second place some expected to hear something definite about the intervention of which so much had been said and written of late. In fact many thought that Russia, France, Germany or the United States of America would surely intervene so soon as the fortunes of war began to turn against us. My personal opinion was stated just before the war at a public meeting, held in Johannesburg, where I said: "If we are driven to war we must not rely for deliverance on foreign powers, but on God and the Mauser."
Some officers thought we ought to retire to our frontiers as far as Laing's Nek, and it was generally believed that this proposal would be adopted. According to our custom General Joubert opened the council with an address, in which he described the situation in its details. It was evident that our Commandant-General was very low-spirited and melancholy, and was suffering greatly from that painful internal complaint which was so soon to put an end to his career.
No less than eleven assisting commandants and fighting generals were present, and yet not one could say who was next in command to General Joubert. I spoke to some friends about the irregularities which occurred during our retreat from Ladysmith: how all the generals were absent except Botha and Meyer, while the latter was on far from good terms with General Joubert since the unfortunate attack on Platrand. This was undoubtedly due to the want of co-operation on the part of the various generals, and I resolved if possible, to bring our army into a closer union. I therefore proposed a motion:—
"That all the generals be asked to resign, with the exception of one assistant commandant-general and one fighting general."
Commandant Engelbrecht had promised to second my proposal, but when it was read out his courage failed him. The motion, moreover, was not very well received, and when it was put to the vote I found that I stood alone, even my seconder having forsaken me. As soon as an opportunity presented itself I asked General Joubert who was to be second in command. My question was not answered directly, but egged on by my colleagues, I asked whether General Botha would be next in command. To this he replied: "Yes, that is what I understand—."
And if I am not mistaken, this was the first announcement of the important fact that Botha was to lead us in future.
Much more was said and much arranged; some of the commandos were to go to Cape Colony and attempt to check the progress of Lord Roberts, who was marching steadily north after Cronje's surrender. Finally each officer had some position assigned to him in the mountain-chain we call the Biggarsbergen. I was placed under General Meyer at Vantondersnek, near Pomeroy, and we left at once for our destination. From this place a pass leads through the Biggarsbergen, about 18 miles from Glencoe Station.