We spent the next few weeks in entrenching and fortifying our new positions. General Botha had left with some men for the Orange Free State which Lord Roberts, having relieved Kimberley, was marching through. General Joubert died about this time at Pretoria, having been twenty-one years Commandant-General of the South African Republic. He was without doubt one of the most prominent figures in the South African drama.
General Botha now took up the chief command and soon proved himself to be worthy of holding the reins. He enjoyed the confidence and esteem of our whole army, a very important advantage under our trying circumstances.
Assisted by De Wet he was soon engaged in organizing the commandos in the Orange Free State, and in attempting to make some sort of a stand against the British, who were now marching through the country in overwhelming numbers. In this Republic the burghers had been under the command of the aged General Prinsloo, who now, however, had become so downhearted that the supreme command was taken from him and given to General De Wet. Prinsloo surrendered soon after, in doing which he did his people his greatest service; it was, however, unfortunate that he should have succeeded in leading with him 900 burghers into the hands of the enemy.
In the Biggarsbergen we had nothing to do but to sleep and eat and drink. On two separate occasions, however, we were ordered to join others in attacking the enemy's camp at Elandslaagte. This was done with much ado, but I would rather say nothing about the way in which the attacks were directed. It suffices to say that both failed miserably, and we were forced to retire considerably quicker than we had come.
Our generals, meantime, were very busy issuing innumerable circulars to the different commandos. It is impossible for me to remember the contents of all these curious manifestos, but one read as follows:—
"A roll-call of all burghers is to be taken daily; weekly reports are to be sent to headquarters of each separate commando, and the minimum number of burghers making up a field-cornetship is therein to be stated. Every 15 men forming a field-cornetship are to be under a corporal; and these corporals are to hold a roll-call every day, and to send in weekly detailed reports of their men to the Field-Cornet and Commandant, who in his turn must report to the General."
Another lengthy circular had full instructions and regulations for the granting of "leave" to burghers, an intricate arrangement which gave officers a considerable amount of trouble. The scheme was known as the "furlough system," and was an effort to introduce a show of organisation into the weighty matter of granting leave of absence. It failed, however, completely to have its desired effect. It provided that one-tenth of each commando should be granted furlough for a fortnight, and then return to allow another tenth part to go in its turn. In a case of sick leave, a doctor's certificate was required, which had to bear the counter-signature of the field-cornet; its possessor was then allowed to go home instead of to the hospital. Further, a percentage of the farmers were allowed from time to time to go home and attend to pressing matters of their farms, such as harvesting, shearing sheep, etc. Men were chosen by the farmers to go and attend to matters not only for themselves but for other farmers in their districts as well. The net result of all this was that when everybody who could on some pretext or other obtain furlough had done so, about a third of each commando was missing. My burghers who were mostly men from the Witwatersrand Goldfields, could of course obtain no leave for farming purposes; and great dissatisfaction prevailed. I was inundated with complaints about their unfair treatment in this respect and only settled matters with considerable trouble.
I agree that this matter had to be regulated somehow, and I do not blame the authorities for their inability to cope with the difficulty. It seemed a great pity, however, that the commandos should be weakened so much and that the fighting spirit should be destroyed in this fashion. Of course it was our first big war and our arrangements were naturally of a very primitive character.
It was the beginning of May before our friends the enemy at Ladysmith and Elandslaagte began to show some signs of activity. We discovered unmistakable signs that some big forward movement was in progress, but we could not discover on which point the attack was to be directed. Buller and his men were marching on the road along Vantondersnek, and I scented heavy fighting for us again. I gathered a strong patrol and started out to reconnoitre the position. We found that the enemy had pitched their camp past Waschbank in great force, and were sending out detachments in an easterly direction. From this I concluded that they did not propose going through Vantondersnek, but that they intended to attack our left flank at Helpmakaar. This seemed to me, at any rate, to be General Buller's safest plan.
Helpmakaar was east of my position; it is a little village elbowed in a pass in the Biggarsbergen. By taking this point one could hold the key to our entire extended line of defence, as was subsequently only too clearly shown. I pointed this out to some of our generals, but a commandant's opinion did not weigh much just then; nor was any notice taken of a similar warning from Commandant Christian Botha, who held a position close to mine with the Swaziland burghers.
We had repeated skirmishes with the English outposts during our scouting expeditions, and on one occasion we suddenly encountered a score of men of the South African Light Horse.
We noticed them in a "donk" (a hollow place) thickly covered with trees and bushes, but not before we were right amongst them. It appears they mistook us for Englishmen, while we thought at first they were members of Colonel Blake's Irish Brigade. Many of them shook hands with us, and a burgher named Vivian Cogell asked them in Dutch: "How are you, boys?"
To which an Englishman, who understood a little Dutch, answered: "Oh, all right; where do you come from?"
Vivian replied: "From Viljoen's commando; we are scouting."
Then the Englishman discovered who we were, but Vivian gave the man no time for reflection. Riding up to him, he asked: "What regiment do you belong to?"
"To the South African Light Horse," answered the Englishman.
"Hands up!" retorted Vivian, and the English-Afrikander threw down his gun and put up his hands.
"Hands up! Hands up!" was the cry now universally heard, and although a few escaped, the majority were disarmed and made prisoners. It had been made a rule that when a burgher captured a British soldier he should be allowed to conduct him to Pretoria, where he could then obtain a few days' leave to visit his family. This did much to encourage our burghers to make prisoners, although many lost their lives in attempting to do so.
The next day, General Buller marched on Helpmakaar, passing close to our position. We fired a few shots from our Creusot gun, and had several light skirmishes. The enemy, however, concentrated the fire of a few batteries on us, and our guns were soon silenced.
General L. Meyer had arrived with some reinforcements close to Helpmakaar, but the position had never been strengthened, and the sole defending force consisted of the Piet Retief burghers, known as the "Piet Retreaters," together with a small German corps. The result was easy to predict. The attack was made, and we lost the position without seriously attempting to defend it. Buller was now, therefore, in possession of the key to the Boer position in Natal, a position which we had occupied for two months—and could therefore, have fortified to perfection—and whose strategic importance should have been known in its smallest details. I think our generals, who had a sufficient force at their disposal, of which the mobility has become world-famed, should have been able to prevent such a fiasco as our occupation of the splendid line of defence in the Biggarsbergen turned out to be.
Here, for the first time in the war, General Buller utilised his success, and followed up our men as they were retreating on Dundee. He descended by the main waggon track from Helpmakaar, and drove the commandos like sheep before him. I myself was obliged to move away in hot haste and join the general retreat. Once or twice our men attempted to make a stand, but with little success.
When we reached Dundee the enemy gradually slackened off pursuit, and at dark we were clear of them. Satisfied with their previous day's success, and sadly hampered by their enormous convoys, the English now allowed us to move on at our leisure.