Our first intention was to proceed to Vereeniging, there to join General Botha's forces. At Klip River Station, that preceding Vereeniging, I was ordered, however, to leave my carts behind and proceed with my men to Vaalbank, as the enemy were advancing with forced marches, and had compelled all the other commandos to fall back on Vereeniging.
On our way we met groups of retreating burghers, each of whom gave us a different version of the position. Some said that the enemy had already swept past Vereeniging, others that they could not now be stopped until they reached Johannesburg. Further on, we had the good fortune to encounter General Botha and his staff. The General ordered me to take up a position at the Gatsrand, near the Nek at Pharaohsfontein, as the British, having split their forces up into two parts, would send one portion to cross the Vaal River at Lindeque's Drift, whilst the other detachments would follow the railway past Vereeniging. Generals Lemmer and Grobler were already posted at the Gatsrand to obstruct the enemy's progress.
I asked General Botha how we stood. He sighed, and answered: "If only the burghers would fight we could stop them easily enough; but I cannot get a single burgher to start fighting. I hope their running mood will soon change into a fighting mood. You keep your spirits up, and let us do our duty."
"All right, General," I answered, and we shook hands heartily.
We rode on through the evening and at midnight halted at a farm to give our horses rest and fodder. The owner of the farm was absent on duty, and his family had been left behind. On our approach the women-folk, mistaking us for Englishmen, were terrified out of their wits. Remembering the atrocities and horrors committed in Natal on the advance of the Imperial troops, they awaited the coming of the English with the greatest terror. On the approach of the enemy many women and children forsook their homes and wandered about in caves and woods for days, exposed to every privation and inclemency of the weather, and to the attacks of wandering bands of plundering kaffirs.
Mrs. van der Merwe, whom we met here, was exceedingly kind to us, and gave us plenty of fodder for our horses. We purchased some sheep, and slaughtered them and enjoyed a good meal before sunrise; and each one of us bore away a good-sized piece of mutton as provisions for the future.
Our scouts, whom we had despatched over night, informed us that Generals Lemmer and Grobler had taken up their stand to the right of Pharaohsfontein in the Gatsrand, and that the English were approaching in enormous force.
By nine in the morning we had taken up our positions, and at noon the enemy came in sight. Our commando had been considerably reduced, as many burghers, finding themselves near their homes, had applied for twenty-four hours' leave, which had been granted in order to allow them to arrange matters before the advance of the English on their farms made it impossible. A few also had deserted for the time being, unable to resist the temptation of visiting their families in the neighbourhood.
Some old burghers approached us and hailed us with the usual "Morning, boys! Which commando do you belong to?"
"We would like to see your Commandant," they answered.
Presenting myself, I asked: "Who are you, and where do you come from, and where are you going to?"
They answered: "We are scouts of General Lemmer and we came to see who is holding this position."
"But surely General Lemmer knows that I am here?"
"Very probably," they replied, "but we wanted to know for ourselves; we thought we might find some of our friends amongst you. You come from Natal, don't you?"
"Yes," I answered sadly. "We have come to reinforce the others, but I fear we can be of little use. It seems to me that it will be here as it was in Natal; all running and no fighting."
"Alas!" they said, "the Free Staters will not remain in one position, and we must admit the Transvaalers are also very disheartened. However, if the British once cross our frontiers you will find that the burghers will fight to the bitter end."
Consoled by this pretty promise we made up our minds to do our best, but our outposts presently brought word that the British were bearing to the right and nearing General Grobler's position, and had passed round that of General Lemmer. Whilst they attacked General Grobler's we attacked their flank, but we could not do much damage, as we were without guns. Soon after the enemy directed a heavy artillery fire on us, to which we, being on flat ground, found ourselves dangerously exposed.
Towards evening the enemy were in possession of General Grobler's position, and were passing over the Gatsrand, leaving us behind. I ordered my commando to fall back on Klipriversberg, while I rode away with some adjutants to attempt to put myself in communication with the other commandos.
The night was dark and cloudy, which rendered it somewhat difficult for us to move about in safety. We occasionally fell into ditches and trenches, and had much trouble with barbed wire. However, we finally fell in with General Lemmer's rearguard, who informed us that the enemy, after having overcome the feeble resistance of General Grobler, had proceeded north, and all the burghers were retreating in haste before them.
We rode on past the enemy to find General Grobler and what his plans were. We rode quite close to the English camp, as we knew that they seldom posted sentries far from their tents. On this occasion, however, they had placed a guard in an old "klipkraal," for them a prodigious distance from their camp, and a "Tommy" hailed us from the darkness.—
"Halt, who goes there?"
I replied "Friend," whereupon the guileless soldier answered:
"Pass, friend, all's well."
I had my doubts, however. He might be a Boer outpost anxious to ascertain if we were Englishmen. Afraid to ride into ambush of my own men, I called out in Dutch:
"Whose men are you?"
The Tommy lost his temper at being kept awake so long and retorted testily, "I can't understand your beastly Dutch; come here and be recognized." But we did not wait for identification, and I rode off shouting back "Thanks, my compliments to General French, and tell him that his outposts are asleep."
This was too much for the "Tommy" and his friends, who answered with a volley of rifle fire, which was taken up by the whole line of British outposts. No harm was done, however, and we soon rode out of range. I gave up looking for General Grobler, and on the following morning rejoined my men at Klipriversberg.
It was by no means easy to find out the exact position of affairs. Our scouts reported that the enemy's left wing, having broken through General Grobler's position, were now marching along Van Wijk's Rust. I could, however, obtain no definite information regarding the right wing, nor could I discover the General under whose orders I was to place myself. General Lemmer, moreover, was suffering from an acute disease of the kidneys, which had compelled him to hand over his command to Commandant Gravett, who had proved himself an excellent officer.
General Grobler had lost the majority of his men, or what was more likely the case, they had lost him. He declared that he was unaware of General Botha's or Mr. Kruger's plans, and that it was absurd to keep running away, but he clearly did not feel equal to any more fighting, although he had not the moral courage to openly say so. From this point this gentleman did no further service to his country, and was shortly afterwards dismissed. The reader will now gather an idea of the enormous change which had come over our troops. Six months before they had been cheerful and gay, confident of the ultimate success of their cause; now they were downhearted and in the lowest of spirits. I must admit that in this our officers were no exception.
Those were dark days for us. Now began the real fighting, and this under the most difficult and distressing circumstances; and I think that if our leaders could have had a glimpse of the difficulties and hardships that were before us, they would not have had the courage to proceed any further in the struggle.
Early next morning (the 29th May, 1900) we reached Klipspruit, and found there several other commandos placed in extended order all the way up to Doornkop.
Amongst them was that of General De la Rey, who had come from the Western frontier of our Republic, and that of General Snyman, whom I regard as the real defender and reliever of Mafeking, for he was afraid to attack a garrison of 1,000 men with twice that number of burghers.
Before having had time to properly fortify our position we were attacked on the right flank by General French's cavalry, while the left flank had to resist a strong opposing force of cavalry. Both attacks were successfully repulsed, as well as a third in the centre of our fighting line.
The British now marched on Doornkop, their real object of attack being our extreme right wing, but they made a feint on our left. Our line of defence was very extended and weakened by the removal of a body of men who had been sent to Natal Spruit to stop the other body of the enemy from forcing its way along the railway line and cutting off our retreat to Pretoria.
The battle lasted till sunset, and was especially fierce on our right, where the Krugersdorpers stood. Early in the evening our right wing had to yield to an overwhelming force, and during the night all the commandos had to fall back. My commando, which should have consisted of about 450 men, only numbered 65 during this engagement; our losses were two men killed. I was also slightly wounded in the thigh by a piece of shell, but I had no time to attend such matters, as we had to retire in haste, and the wound soon healed.
The next day our forces were again in full retreat to Pretoria, where I understood we were to make a desperate stand. About seven o'clock we passed through Fordsburg, a suburb of Johannesburg.
We had been warned not to enter Johannesburg, as Dr. Krause, who had taken from me the command of the town, had already surrendered it to Lord Roberts, who might shell it if he found commandos were there. Our larger commissariat had proceeded to Pretoria, but we wanted several articles of food, and strange to say the commissariat official at Johannesburg would not give us anything for fear of incurring Lord Roberts' displeasure!
I was very angry; the enemy were not actually in possession of the town, and I therefore should have been consulted in the matter; but these irresponsible officials even refused to grant us the necessaries of life!
At this time there was a strong movement on foot to blow up the principal mines about Johannesburg, and an irresponsible young person named Antonie Kock had placed himself at the head of a confederacy with this object in view. But thanks to the explicit orders of General L. Botha, which were faithfully carried out by Dr. Krause, Kock's plan was fortunately frustrated, and I fully agree with Botha that it would have been most impolitic to have allowed this destruction. I often wished afterwards, however, that the British military authorities had shown as much consideration for our property.
We had to have food in any case, and as the official hesitated to supply us we helped ourselves from the Government Stores, and proceeded to the capital. The roads to Pretoria were crowded with men, guns, and vehicles of every description, and despondency and despair were plainly visible on every human face.