Our first and best positions were now obviously the kopjes which stretched from Donkerhoek past Waterval and Wonderboompoort. This chain of mountains runs for about 12 miles E. and N.E. of Pretoria, and our positions here would cut off all the roads of any importance to Pietersburg, Middelburg, as well as the Delagoa Bay railway. We therefore posted ourselves along this range, General De la Rey forming the right flank, some of our other fighting generals occupying the centre, whilst Commandant-General Botha himself took command of the left flank.
On the 11th of June, 1900, Lord Roberts approached with a force of 28,000 to 30,000 men and about 100 guns, in order, as the official despatches had it, "to clear the Boers from the neighbourhood of Pretoria." Their right and left flanks were composed of cavalry, whilst the centre was formed of infantry regiments; their big guns were placed in good positions and their field pieces were evenly distributed amongst the different army divisions.
Towards sunset they began booming away at our whole 13 miles of defence. Our artillery answered their fire from all points with excellent results, and when night fell the enemy retired a little with considerable losses.
The battle was renewed again next day, the enemy attempting to turn our right with a strong flanking movement, but was completely repulsed. Meanwhile I at Donkerpoort proper had the privilege of being left unmolested for several hours. The object of this soon became apparent. A little cart drawn by two horses and bearing a white flag came down the road from Pretoria. From it descended two persons, Messrs. Koos Smit, our Railway Commissioner and Mr. J. F. de Beer, Chief Inspector of Offices, both high officials of the South African Republic. I called out to them from a distance.
"Halt, you cannot pass. What do you want?"
Smit said, "I want to see Botha and President Kruger. Dr. Scholtz is also with us. We are sent by Lord Roberts."
I answered Mr. Smit that traitors were not admitted on our premises, and that he would have to stay where he was. Turning to some burghers who were standing near I gave instructions that the fellows were to be detained.
Mr. Smit now began to "sing small," and turning deadly pale, asked in a tremulous voice if there were any chance of seeing Botha.
"Your request," I replied, "will be forwarded." Which was done.
An hour passed before General Botha sent word that he was coming. Meanwhile the battle continued raging fiercely, and a good many lyddite bombs were straying our way. The "white-flaggists" appeared to be very anxious to know if the General would be long in coming, and if their flag could not be hoisted in a more conspicuous place. The burghers guarding them pointed out, however, that the bombs came from their own British friends.
After a while General Botha rode up. He offered a far from cordial welcome to the deputation.
Dr. Scholtz produced a piece of paper and said Lord Roberts had sent him to enquire why Botha insisted on more unnecessary bloodshed, and why he did not come in to make peace, and that sort of thing.
Botha asked if Scholtz held an authoritative letter or document from the English general, to which the Doctor replied in the negative.
Smit now suggested that he should be allowed to see Mr. Kruger, but Botha declared, with considerable emphasis, "Look here, your conduct is nothing less than execrable, and I shall not allow you to see Mr. Kruger. You are a couple of contemptible scoundrels, and as for Dr. Scholtz, his certificate looks rather dubious. You will go back and give the following message to Lord Roberts:—
"That this is not the first time messages of this description are sent to me in an unofficial manner; that these overtures have also sometimes been made in an insulting form, but always equally unofficially. I have to express my surprise at such tactics on the part of a man in Lord Roberts' position. His Lordship may think that our country is lost to us, but I shall do my duty towards it all the same. They can shoot me for it or imprison me, or banish me, but my principles and my character they cannot assail."
One could plainly see that the conscience-stricken messengers winced under the reproach. Not another word was said, and the noble trio turned on their heels and took their white flag back to Pretoria.
Whether Botha was right in allowing these "hands-uppers" to return, is a question I do not care to discuss, but many burghers had their own opinion about it. Still, if they had been detained by us and shot for high treason, what would not have been said by those who did not hesitate to send our own unfaithful burghers to us to induce us to surrender.
I cannot say whether Lord Roberts was personally responsible for the sending of these messengers, but that such action was extremely improper no one can deny. It was a specially stupendous piece of impudence on the part of these men, J. S. Smit and J. F. de Beer, burghers both, and highly placed officials of the S. A. Republic. They had thrown down their arms and sworn allegiance to an enemy, thereby committing high treason in the fullest sense of the word. They now came through the fighting lines of their former comrades to ascertain from the commanders of the republican army why the whole nation did not follow their example, why they would not surrender their liberty and very existence as a people and commit the most despicable act known to mankind.
"Pretoria was in British hands!" As if, forsooth, the existence of our nationality began and ended in Pretoria! Pretoria was after all only a village where "patriots" of the Smit and de Beer stamp had for years been fattening on State funds, and, having filled their pockets by means of questionable practices, had helped to damage the reputation of a young and virile nation.
Not only had they enjoyed the spoils of high office in the State Service offices, to which a fabulous remuneration was attached, but they belonged to the Boer aristocracy, members of honourable families whose high birth and qualities had secured for them preference over thousands of other men and the unlimited confidence of the Head of State. Little wonder these gentlemen regarded the fall of Pretoria as the end of the war!
The battle continued the whole day; it was fiercest on our left flank, where General French and his cavalry charged the positions of the Ermelo and Bethel burghers again and again, each time to be repulsed with heavy losses. Once the lancers attacked so valiantly that a hand-to-hand fight ensued. The commandant of the Bethel burghers afterwards told me that during the charge his kaffir servant got among the lancers and called upon them to "Hands up!" The unsophisticated native had heard so much about "hands up," and "hands-uppers," that he thought the entire English language consisted of those two simple words, and when one lancer shouted to him "Hands up," he echoed "Hands up." The British cavalryman thrust his lance through the nigger's arm, still shouting "Hands up," the black man retreating, also vociferously shrieking "Hands up, boss; hands up!"
When his master asked him why he had shouted "Hands up" so persistently though he was running away, he answered: "Ah, boss, me hear every day people say, 'Hands up;' now me think this means kaffir 'Soebat' (to beg). I thought it mean, 'Leave off, please,' but the more I shouted 'Hands up' English boss prod me with his assegai all the same."
On our right General De la Rey had an equally awkward position; the British here also made several determined attempts to turn his flank, but were repulsed each time. Once during an attack on our right, their convoy came so close to our position that our artillery and our Mausers were enabled to pour such a fire into them that the mules drawing the carts careered about the veldt at random, and the greatest confusion ensued. British mules were "pro-Boer" throughout the War. The ground, however, was not favourable for our operations, and we failed to avail ourselves of the general chaos. Towards the evening of the second day General Tobias Smuts made an unpardonable blunder in falling back with his commandos. There was no necessity for the retreat; but it served to show the British that there was a weak point in our armoury. Indeed, the following day the attack in force was made upon this point. The British had meantime continued pouring in reinforcements, men as well as guns.
About two o clock in the afternoon Smuts applied urgently for reinforcements, and I was ordered by the Commandant-General to go to his position. A ride of a mile and a half brought us near Smuts; our horses were put behind a "randje," the enemy's bullets and shells meantime flying over their heads without doing much harm. We then hurried up on foot to the fighting line, but before we could reach the position General Smuts and his burghers had left it. At first I was rather in the dark as to what it all meant until we discovered that the British had won Smuts' position, and from it were firing upon us. We fell down flat behind the nearest "klips" and returned the fire, but were at a disadvantage, since the British were above us. I never heard where General Smuts and his burghers finally got to. On our left we had Commandant Kemp with the Krugersdorpers; on the right Field-Cornet Koen Brits. The British tried alternately to get through between one of my neighbours and myself, but we succeeded, notwithstanding their fierce onslaught, in turning them back each time. All we could do, however, was to hold our own till dark. Then orders were given to "inspan" all our carts and other conveyances as the commandos would all have to retire.
I do not know the extent of the British losses in that engagement. My friend Conan Doyle wisely says nothing about them, but we knew they had suffered very severely indeed. Our losses were not heavy; but we had to regret the death of brave Field-Cornet Roelf Jansen and some other plucky burghers. Dr. Doyle, referring to the engagement, says:
"'The two days' prolonged struggle (Diamond Hill) showed that there was still plenty of fight in the burghers. Lord Roberts had not routed them," etc.
Thus ended the battle of Donkerhoek, and next day our commandos were falling back to the north.