The beginning of August saw my commandos falling back on Machadodorp. Those of Erasmus and Grobler remained where they were for the time being, until the latter was discharged for some reason or other and replaced by Attorney Beyers. General Erasmus suffered rather worse, for he was deprived of his rank as a general and reduced to the level of a commandant on account of want of activity.
Our retreat to Machadodorp was very much like previous experiences of the kind; we were continually expecting to be cut off from the railway by flanking movements and this we had to prevent because we had placed one of our big guns on the rails in an armour-clad railway carriage. The enemy took care to keep out of rifle range, and the big gun was an element of strength we could ill afford to lose. Besides, our Government were now moving about on the railway line near Machadodorp, and we had to check the enemy at all hazards from stealing a march on us. Both at Witbank Station and near Middelburg and Pan Stations we had skirmishes, but not important enough to describe in detail.
After several unsuccessful attempts, the Boer Artillery at last managed to fire the big gun without a platform. It was tedious work, however, as "Long Tom" was exceedingly heavy, and it usually took twenty men to serve it. The mouth was raised from the "kastion" by means of a pulley, and the former taken away; then and not till then could the gunner properly get the range. The carriage vacuum sucking apparatus had to be well fixed in hard ground to prevent recoil.
The enemy repeatedly sent a mounted squad to try and take this gun, and then there was hard fighting.
One day while we were manœuvring with the "Long Tom," the veldt burst into flames, and the wind swept them along in our direction like lightning. Near the gun were some loads of shells and gunpowder, and we had to set all hands at work to save them. While we were doing this the enemy fired two pom-poms at us from about 3,000 yards, vastly to our inconvenience.
As my commando formed a sort of centre for the remainder, Commandant-General Botha was, as a rule, in our immediate neighbourhood, which made my task much easier, our generalissimo taking the command in person on several occasions, if required, and assisting in every possible way.
The enemy pursued us right up to Wonderfontein Station (the first station south-west of Belfast), about 15 miles from Dalmanutha or Bergendal, and waited there for Buller's army to arrive from the Natal frontier.
We occupied the "randten" between Belfast and Machadodorp, and waited events. While we were resting there Lord Roberts sent us 250 families from Pretoria and Johannesburg in open trucks, notwithstanding the bitterly cold weather and the continual gusts of wind and snow. One can picture to oneself the deplorable condition we found these women and children in.
But, with all this misery, we still found them full of enthusiasm, especially when the trucks in which they had to be sent on down the line were covered with Transvaal and Free State flags. They sang our National Anthem as if they had not a care in the world.
Many burghers found their families amongst these exiles, and some heartrending scenes were witnessed. Luckily the railway to Barberton was still in our possession, and at Belfast the families were taken over from the British authorities, to be sent to Barberton direct. While this was being done near Belfast under my direction, the unpleasant news came that our camp was entirely destroyed by a grass fire.
The Commandant-General and myself had set up our camp near Dalmanutha Station. It consisted of twelve tents and six carts. This was Botha's headquarters, as well as of his staff and mine. When we came to the spot that night we found everything burned save the iron tyres of the waggon wheels, so that the clothes we had on were all we had left us. All my notes had perished, as well as other documents of value. I was thus deprived of the few indispensable things which had remained to me, for at Elandslaagte my "kit" had also fallen into the hands of the British. The grass had been set on fire by a kaffir to the windward of the camp. The wind had turned everything into a sea of fire in less than no time, and the attempts at stamping out the flames had been of no avail. One man gave us a cart, another a tent; and the harbour at Delagoa Bay being still open (although the Portuguese had become far from friendly towards us after the recent British victories) we managed to get the more urgent things we wanted. Within a few days we had established a sort of small camp near to headquarters.
We had plenty to do at this time—building fortresses and digging trenches for the guns. This of course ought to have been done when we were still at Donkerhoek by officers the Commandant-General had sent to Machadodorp for the purpose. We had made forts for our "Long Toms," which were so well hidden from view behind a rand that the enemy had not discovered them, although a tunnel would have been necessary in order to enable us to use them in shelling the enemy. We were therefore obliged to set to work again, and the old trenches were abandoned. The holes may surprise our posterity, by the way, as a display of the splendid architectural abilities of their ancestors.