The next morning a big cloud of dust arose. "De Engelse kom" (the English are coming) was the cry. And come they did, in overwhelming numbers. We fired our cannon at their advance guard, which had already passed Machadodorp: but the British main force stayed there for the day, and a little outpost skirmishing of no consequence occurred.
A portion of the British forces appeared to go from Belfast via Dullstroom to Lydenburg, these operations being only feebly resisted. Our commandos were now parcelled out by the Commandant-General, who followed a path over the Crocodile River bridge with his own section, which was pursued by a strong force of Buller's.
I was ordered to go down the mountain in charge of a number of Helvetia burghers to try and reach the railway, which I was to defend at all hazards. General Smuts, with the remnant of our men went further south towards the road leading to Barberton. Early the next morning we were attacked and again obliged to fall back. That night we stayed at Nooitgedacht.
The Boer position at and near Nooitgedacht was unique. Here was a great camp in which 2,000 English prisoners-of-war were confined, but in the confusion the majority of their Boer guards had fled to Nelspruit. I found only 15 burghers armed with Martini-Henry rifles left to look after 2,000 prisoners. Save for "Tommy" being such a helpless individual when he has nobody to give him orders and to think for him, these 2,000 men might have become a great source of danger to us had they had the sense to disarm their fifteen custodians (and what was there to prevent them doing so?) and to destroy the railway, they would have been able not only to have deprived my commando of provisions and ammunition, but also to have captured a "Long Tom." There was, moreover, a large quantity of victuals, rifles, and ammunition lying about the station, of which nobody appeared to take any notice. Of the crowd of officials who stuck so very faithfully to the fugitive Government there was not one who took the trouble to look after these stores and munitions.
On arrival I telegraphed to the Government to enquire what was to be done with the British prisoners-of-war. The answer was: "You had better let them be where they are until the enemy force you to evacuate, when you will leave them plenty of food."
This meant that there would be more D.S.O's or V.C's handed out, for the first "Tommies" to arrive at the prisoners' camp would be hailed as deliverers, and half of them would be certain of distinctions.
I was also extremely dissatisfied with the way the prisoners had been lodged, and so would any officer in our fighting line have been had he seen their condition and accommodation. But those who have never been in a fight and who had only performed the "heroic" duty of guarding prisoners-of-war, did not know what humanity meant to an enemy who had fallen into their hands.
So what was I to do?
To disobey the Government's orders was impossible. I accordingly resolved to notify the prisoners that, "for military reasons," it would be impossible to keep them in confinement any longer.
The next morning I mustered them outside the camp, and they were told that they had ceased to be prisoners-of-war, at which they seemed to be very much amazed. I was obliged to go and speak formally to some of them; they could scarcely credit that they were free men and could go back to their own people. It was really pleasant to hear them cheer, and to see how pleased they were. A great crowd of them positively mobbed me to shake hands with them, crying, "Thank you, sir; God bless you, sir." One of their senior officers was ordered to take charge of them, while a white-flag message was sent to General Pole-Carew to send for these fine fellows restored to freedom, and to despatch an ambulance for the sick and wounded. My messenger, however, did not succeed in delivering the letter, as the scouts of the British advance-guard were exceedingly drunk, and shot at him; so that the prisoners-of-war had to go out and introduce themselves. I believe they were compelled to overpower their own scouts.
Ten days afterwards an English doctor and a lieutenant of the 17th Lancers came to us, bringing a mule laden with medical appliances and food. The English medico, Dr. Ailward, succeeded, moreover, in getting through our lines without my express permission.
Next morning I accompanied an ambulance train to transport the wounded British to the charge of the British agent at Delagoa Bay. Outside Nooitgedacht I found four military doctors with a field ambulance.
"Does this officer belong to the Red Cross?" I asked.
"No," was the answer, "he is only with us quite unofficially as a sympathetic friend."
"I regret," said I, "that I cannot allow this thing; you have come through our lines without my permission; this officer no doubt is a spy."
I wired at once for instructions, which, when received read: "That as a protest against the action of the English officers who stopped three of our ambulances, and since this officer has passed through our lines without permission, you are to stop the ambulance and dispatch the doctors and their staff, as well as the wounded to Lourenco Marques."
The doctors were very angry and protested vehemently against the order, which, however, was irrevocable. And thus the whole party, including the Lancers' doctor, were sent to Lourenco Marques that very day. The nearest English General was informed of the whole incident, and he sent a very unpleasant message the next day, of which I remember the following phrases:—
"The action which you have taken in this matter is contrary to the rules of civilised warfare, and will alter entirely the conditions upon which the War was carried on up to the present," etc.
After I had sent my first note we found, on inspection, some Lee-Metford cartridges and an unexploded bomb in the ambulance vans. This fact alone would have justified the retention of the ambulance.
This was intimated again in our reply to General Pole-Carew, and I wrote, inter alia: "Re the threat contained in your letter of the ... I may say I am sorry to find such a remark coming from your side, and I can assure you that whatever may happen my Government, commandants, and burghers are firmly resolved to continue the War on our side in the same civilised and humane manner as it has hitherto been conducted."
This was the end of our correspondence in regard to this subject, and nothing further happened, save that the English very shortly afterwards recovered five out of the eight ambulances we had retained.