In our retreat northwards the English did not pursue us. They contented themselves by fortifying the position we had evacuated between Donkerhoek and Wonderboompoort. Meantime our commandos proceeded along the Delagoa Bay Railway until we reached Balmoral Station, while other little divisions of ours were at Rhenosterkop, north of Bronkhorst Spruit.
I may state that this general retreat knocked the spirit out of some of our weaker brethren. Hundreds of Boers rode into Pretoria with the white flag suspended from their Mauser barrels. In Pretoria there were many prominent burghers who had readily accepted the new conditions, and these were employed by the British to induce other Boers within reach, by manner of all sorts of specious promises, to lay down their arms. Many more western district Boers quietly returned to their homes. Luckily, the Boer loves his Mauser too well to part with it, except on compulsion, and although the majority of these western Boers handed in their weapons, some retained them.
They retained their weapons by burying them, pacifying the confiding British officer in charge of the district by handing in rusty and obsolete Martini-Henris or a venerable blunderbuss which nobody had used since ancestral Boer shot lions with it in the mediæval days of the first great trek. The buried Mausers came in very useful afterwards.
About this time General Buller entered the Republic from the Natal side, and marched with his force through the southern districts of Wakkerstroom, Standerton, and Ermelo. Hundreds of burghers remained on their farms and handed their weapons to the British. In some districts, for instance, at Standerton, the commandant and two out of his three field-cornets surrendered. Thus, not only were some commandos without officers, but others entirely disappeared from our army. Still, at the psychological moment a Joshua would appear, and save the situation, as, for instance, in the Standerton district, where Assistant-Field-Cornet Brits led a forlorn hope and saved a whole commando from extinction. The greatest mischief was done by many of our landdrosts, who, after having surrendered, sent out communications to officers and burghers exhorting them to come in.
The majority of our Boer officers, however, remained faithful to their vow, though since the country was partly occupied by the British it was difficult to get in touch with the Commandant-General or the Government, and the general demoralisation prevented many officers from asserting their authority.
Generals Sarel Oosthuizen and H. L. Lemmer, both now deceased, were sent to the north of Pretoria, to collect the burghers from the western districts, and to generally rehabilitate their commandos. They were followed by Assistant-Commandant General J. H. De la Rey and State Attorney Smuts (our legal adviser). It was at this point, indeed, that the supreme command of the western districts was assumed by General De la Rey, who, on his way to the north, attacked and defeated an English garrison at Selatsnek.
The "reorganisation" of our depleted commandos proceeded very well; about 95 per cent. of the fighting Boers rejoined, and speedily the commandos in the western districts had grown to about 7,000 men.
But just a few weeks after his arrival in the West Krugersdorp district, poor, plucky Sarel Oosthuizen was severely wounded in the battle of Dwarsvlei, and died of his wounds some time after.
General H. Lemmer, a promising soldier, whom we could ill spare, was killed soon after while storming Lichtenburg under General De la Rey, an engagement in which we did not succeed. We had much trouble in replacing these two brave generals, whose names will live for all time in the history of the Boer Republics.
It is hardly necessary to dwell on the splendid work done by Assistant-Commandant-General De la Rey in the western districts. Commandant-General Botha was also hard worked at this stage, and was severely taxed reorganising his commandos and filling up the lamentable vacancies caused by the deaths of Lemmer and Oosthuizen.
I have already pointed out that General De la Rey had taken with him the remainder of the burghers from the western districts. The following commandos were now left to us:—Krugersdorp and Germiston, respectively, under the then Commandants J. Kemp and C. Gravett, and the Johannesburg police, with some smaller commandos under the four fighting generals, Douthwaith, Snyman (of Mafeking fame), Liebenberg, and Du Toit. The last four generals were "sent home" and their burghers with those of Krugersdorp, Germiston, Johannesburg, Boksburg and the Mounted Police, were placed under my command, while I myself was promoted to the rank of General. I had now under me 1,200 men, all told—a very fair force.
I can hardly describe my feelings on hearing of my promotion to such a responsible position. For the first time during the War I felt a sort of trepidation. I had all sorts of misgivings; how should I be able to properly guard the interests of such a great commando? Had I a right to do so? Would the burghers be satisfied? It was all very well to say that they would have to be satisfied, but if they had shown signs of dissatisfaction I should have felt bound to resign. I am not in the habit of blinking at facts; they are stern things. What was to become of me if I had to tender my resignation? I was eager and rash, like most young officers, for although the prospects of our cause were not brilliant and our army had suffered some serious reverses, I still had implicit faith in the future, and above all, in the justice of the cause for which we were fighting. And I knew, moreover, that the burghers we now had left with us were determined and firm.
There was only one way open to me: to take the bull by the horns. I thought it my duty to go the round of all the commandos, call the burghers together, tell them I had been appointed, ask them their opinion on the appointment, and give them some particulars of the new organisation.
I went to the Krugersdorp Commando first. All went well, and the burghers comprising the force received me very cordially. There was a lot of questioning and explanations; one of the commandants was so moved by my address that he requested those who were present to conclude the meeting by singing Psalm 134, verse 3, after which he exhorted his fellow burghers in an impassioned speech to be obedient and determined.
The worst of it was that he asked me to wind up by offering a prayer. I felt as if I would gladly have welcomed the earth opening beneath me. I had never been in such a predicament before. To refuse, to have pleaded exoneration from this solemn duty, would have been fatal, for a Boer general is expected, amongst other things, to conduct all proceedings of a religious character. And not only Boer generals are required to do this thing, but all subordinate officers, and an officer who cannot offer a suitable prayer generally receives a hint that he is not worthy of his position. In these matters the burghers are backed up by the parsons.
There was, therefore, no help for it; I felt like a stranger in Jerusalem, and resolved to mumble a bit of a prayer as well as I could. I need not say it was short, but I doubt very much whether it was appropriate, for all sorts of thoughts passed through my head, and I felt as if all the bees in this world were buzzing about my ears. Of course I had to shut my eyes; I knew that. But I had, moreover, to screw them up, for I knew that everybody was watching me. I closed my eyes very tightly, and presently there came a welcome "Amen."
My old commando was now obliged to find a new commandant and I had to take leave of them in that capacity. I was pleased to find the officers and men were sorry to lose me as their commandant, but they said they were proud of the distinction that had been conferred upon me. Commandant F. Pienaar, who took my place, had soon to resign on account of some rather serious irregularities. My younger brother, W. J. Viljoen, who, at the time of writing, is, I believe, still in this position, replaced him.
At the end of June my commandos marched from Balmoral to near Donkerhoek in order to get in touch with the British. Only a few outpost skirmishes took place.
My burghers captured half a score of Australians near Van der Merwe Station, and three days afterwards three Johannesburgers were surprised near Pienaarspoort. As far as our information went the Donkerhoek Kopjes were in possession of General Pole-Carew, and on our left General Hutton, with a strong mounted force, was operating near Zwavelpoort and Tigerspoort. We had some sharp fighting with this force for a couple of days, and had to call in reinforcements from the Middelburg and Boksburg commandos.
The fighting line by this time had widely extended and was at least sixty miles in length; on my right I had General D. Erasmus with the Pretoria commando, and farther still to the right, nearer the Pietersburg railway, the Waterberg and Zoutpansberg commandos were positioned. General Pole-Carew tried to rush us several times with his cavalry, but had to retire each time. Commandant-General Botha finally directed us to attack General Hutton's position, and I realised what this involved. It would be the first fight I had to direct as a fighting general. Much would depend on the issue, and I fully understood that my influence with, and my prestige among, the burghers in the future was absolutely at stake.
General Hutton's main force was encamped in a "donk" at the very top of the randt, almost equidistant from Tigerspoort, Zwavelpoort and Bapsfontein. Encircling his laager was another chain of "randten" entirely occupied and fortified, and we soon realised what a large and entrenched stretch of ground it was. The Commandant-General, accompanied by the French, Dutch, American and Russian attachés, would follow the attack from a high point and keep in touch with me by means of a heliograph, thus enabling Botha to keep well posted about the course of the battle, and to send instructions if required.
During the night of the 13th of July we marched in the following order: On the right were the Johannesburg and Germiston commandos; in the centre the Krugersdorp and the Johannesburg Police; and on the left the Boksburg and Middelburg commandos. At daybreak I ordered a general storming of the enemy's entrenchments. I placed a Krupp gun and a Creusot on the left flank, another Krupp and some pom-poms to the right, while I had an English 15-pounder (an Armstrong) mounted in the centre. Several positions were taken by storm with little or no fighting. It was my right flank which met with the only stubborn resistance from a strongly fortified point occupied by a company of Australians.
Soon after this position was in our possession, and we had taken 32 prisoners, with a captain and a lieutenant. When Commandant Gravett had taken the first trenches we were stubbornly opposed in a position defended by the Irish Fusiliers, who were fighting with great determination. Our burghers charged right into the trenches; and a hand-to-hand combat ensued. The butt-ends of the guns were freely used, and lumps of rock were thrown about. We made a few prisoners and took a pom-pom, which, to my deep regret, on reinforcements with guns coming up to the enemy, we had to abandon, with a loss of five men. Meanwhile, the Krugersdorpers and Johannesburg Police had succeeded in occupying other positions and making several prisoners, while half a dozen dead and wounded were left on the field.
The ground was so exposed that my left wing could not storm the enemy's main force, especially as his outposts had noticed our march before sunrise and had brought up a battery of guns, and in this flat field a charge would have cost too many lives.
We landed several shells into the enemy's laager, and if we had been able to get nearer he would certainly have been compelled to run.
When darkness supervened we retired to our base with a loss of two killed and seven wounded; whereas 45 prisoners and 20 horses with saddles and accoutrements were evidence that we had inflicted a severe loss upon the enemy. So far as I know, the Commandant-General was satisfied with my work. On the day after the fight I met an attaché. He spoke in French, of which language I know nothing. My Gallic friend then tried to get on in English, and congratulated me in the following terms with the result of the fight: "I congratuly very much you, le Général; we think you good man of war." It was the first time I had bulked in anyone's opinion as largely as a battleship; but I suppose his intentions were good enough.
A few days afterwards Lord Roberts sent a hundred women and children down the line to Van der Merwe Station, despite Botha's vehement protests. It fell to my lot to receive these unfortunates, and to send them on by rail to Barberton, where they could find a home. I shall not go into a question which is still sub judice; nor is it my present purpose to discuss the fairness and unfairness of the war methods employed against us. I leave that to abler men. I shall only add that these waifs were in a pitiful position, as they had been driven from their homes and stripped of pretty nearly everything they possessed.
Towards the end of July Carrington marched his force to Rustenburg, and thence past Wonderboompoort, while another force proceeded from Olifantsfontein in the direction of Witbank Station. We were, therefore, threatened on both sides and obliged to fall back on Machadodorp.