About this time President Steyn arrived from the Orange Free State and had joined President Kruger, and the plan of campaign for the future was schemed. It was also decided that Mr. Schalk Burger should assume the acting Presidentship, since Mr. Kruger's advanced age and feeble health did not permit his risking the hardships attendant on a warlike life on the veldt.
It was decided Mr. Kruger should go to Europe and Messrs. Steyn and Burger should move about with their respective commandos. They were younger men and the railway, would soon have to be abandoned.
We spent the first weeks of September at Godwan River and Nooitgedacht Station, near the Delagoa Bay railway, and had a fairly quiet time of it. General Buller had meanwhile pushed on with his forces via Lydenburg in the direction of Spitskop and the Sabi, on which General Botha had been compelled to concentrate himself after falling back, fighting steadily, while General French threatened Barberton.
I had expected Pole-Carew to force me off the railway line along which we held some rather strong positions, and I intended to offer a stout resistance. But the English general left me severely alone, went over Dwaalheuvel by an abandoned wagon-track, and crossed the plateau of the mountains, probably to try and cut us off through the pass near Duivelskantoor. I tried hard, with the aid of 150 burghers, to thwart his plans and we had some fighting. But the locality was against us, and the enemy with their great force of infantry and with the help of their guns forced us to retire.
About the 11th of September I was ordered to fall back along the railway, via Duivelskantoor and Nelspruit Station, since General Buller was threatening Nelspruit in the direction of Spitskop, while General French, with a great force, was nearing Barberton. It appeared extremely likely that we should be surrounded very soon. We marched through the Godwan River and over the colossal mountain near Duivelskantoor, destroying the railway bridges behind us. The road we followed was swamped by the heavy rains and nearly impassable. Carts were continually being upset, breakdowns were frequent, and our guns often stuck in the swampy ground. To make matters worse, a burgher on horseback arrived about midnight to tell us that Buller's column had taken Nelspruit Station, and cut off our means of retreat. Yet we had to pass Nelspruit; there was no help for it. I gave instructions for the waggons and carts (numbering over a hundred), to push on as quickly as possible, and sent out a strong mounted advance guard to escort them.
I myself went out scouting with some burghers, for I wanted to find out before daybreak whether Nelspruit was really in the hands of the enemy or not. In that case our carts and guns would have to be destroyed or hidden, while the commando would have to escape along the footpaths. We crept up to the station, and just at dawn, when we were only a hundred paces away from it, a great fire burst out, accompanied by occasional loud reports. This somewhat reassured me. I soon found our own people to be in possession burning things, and the detonations were obviously not caused by the bursting of shells fired from field-pieces. On sending two of my adjutants—Rokzak and Koos Nel—to the station to obtain further details, they soon came back to report that there was nobody there except a nervous old Dutchman. The burgher, who had told me Nelspruit was in the hands of the enemy, must have dreamt it.
The conflagration I found was caused by a quantity of "kastions" and ammunition-waggons which had been set afire on the previous day, while the explosions emanated from the shells which had been left among their contents.
The enemy's advance guard had pushed on to Shamoham and Sapthorpe, about 12 miles from the railway, enabling the whole of my commando to pass. We arrived at Nelspruit by eight o'clock. That day we rested and discussed future operations, feeling that our prospects seemed to grow worse every day.
The station presented a sad spectacle. Many trucks loaded with victuals, engines, and burst gun-carriages—everything had been left behind at the mercy of the first-comer, while a large number of kaffirs were plundering and stealing. Only the day before the Government had had its seat there, and how desolate and distressing the sight was now! The traces of a fugitive Government were unmistakable. Whatever might have been our optimism before, however little inclination the burghers might have felt to surrender, however great the firmness of the officers, and their resolve to keep the beloved "Vierkleur" flying, scenes like those at Nooitgedacht, and again at Nelspruit, were enough to make even the strongest and most energetic lose all courage. Many men could not keep back their tears at the disastrous spectacle, as they thought of the future of our country and of those who had been true to her to the last.
Kaffirs, as I said, had been making sad havoc among the provisions, clothes and ammunition, and I ordered them to be driven away. Amongst the many railway-waggons I found some loaded with clothes the fighting burghers had in vain and incessantly been asking for, also cannon and cases of rifle ammunition. We also came across a great quantity of things belonging to our famous medical commission, sweets, beverages, etc. The suspicion which had existed for some considerable time against this commission was, therefore, justified. There was even a carriage which had been used by some of its members, beautifully decorated, with every possible comfort and luxury, one compartment being filled with bottles of champagne and valuable wines. My officers, who were no saints, saw that our men were well provided for out of these. The remainder of the good things was shifted on to a siding, where about twenty engines were kept. By great good luck the Government commissariat stock, consisting of some thousands of sheep, and even some horses, had also been left behind. But we were not cheered.
Among the many questions asked regarding this sad state of affairs was one put by an old burger:
"Dat is nou die plan, want zooals zaken hier lyk, dan heeft die boel in wanhoop gevlug." ("Is that the plan, then? For from what I can see of it, they have all fled in despair.")
I answered, "Perhaps they were frightened away, Oom."
"Ja," he said, "but look, General, it seems to me as if our members of the Government do not intend to continue the war. You can see this by the way they have now left everything behind for the second time."
"No, old Oom," I replied, "we should not take any notice of this. Our people are wrestling among the waves of a stormy ocean; the gale is strong, and the little boat seems upon the point of capsizing, but, it has not gone down as yet. Now and then the boat is dashed against the rocks and the splinters fly, but the faithful sailors never lose heart. If they were to do that the dinghy would soon go under, and the crew would disappear for ever. It would be the last page of their history, and their children would be strangers in their own country. You understand, Oom?"
"Yes, General, but I shall not forget to settle up, for I myself and others with me have had enough of this, and the War has opened our eyes."
"All right, old man." I rejoined, "nobody can prevent you surrendering, but I have now plenty of work to do; so get along."
Burghers of different commandos who had strayed—some on purpose—passed us here in groups of two or ten or more. Some of them were going to their own districts, right through the English lines, others were looking for their cattle, which they had allowed to stray in order to evade the enemy. I could only tell them that the veldt between Nelspruit and Barberton up to Avoca, was, so far as I had been able to discover, full of cattle and waggons belonging to farmers who now had no chance of escaping. Everybody wanted some information from the General.
About half a score of burghers with bridle horses then came up. There was one old burgher among them with a long beard, a great veldt hat, and armed with a Mauser which seemed hardly to have been used. He carried two belts with a good stock of cartridges, a revolver, and a tamaai (long sjambok). This veteran strode up in grand martial style to where I was sitting having something to eat. As he approached he looked brave enough to rout the whole British army.
"Dag!" (Good morning.) "Are you the General?" asked the old man.
"Yes, I have the honour of being called so. Are you a field-marshal, a Texas Jack, or what?"
"My name is Erasmus, from the Pretoria district," he replied, "and my nine comrades and myself, with my family and cattle, have gone into the bush. I saw them all running away, the Government and all. You are close to the Portuguese border, and my mates and I want to know what your plans are."
"Well," Mr. Erasmus, I returned, "what you say is almost true; but as you say you and your comrades have been hiding in the bush with your cattle and your wives, I should like to know if you have ever tried to oppose the enemy yet, and also what is your right to speak like this."
"Well, I had to flee with my cattle, for you have to live on that as well as I."
"Right," said I; "what do you want, for I do not feel inclined to talk any longer."
"I want to know," he replied, "if you intend to retire, and if there is any chance of making peace. If not, we will go straight away to Buller, and 'hands-up,' then we shall save all our property."
"Well, my friend," I remarked, "our Government and the Commandant-General are the people who have to conclude peace, and it is not for you or me, when our family and cattle are in danger, to surrender to the enemy, which means turning traitor to your own people."
"Well, yes; good-bye, General, we are moving on now."
I sent a message to our outposts to watch these fellows, and to see if they really were going over to the enemy. And, as it happened, that same night my Boers came to camp with the Mausers and horses Erasmus and his party had abandoned. They had gone over to Buller.
The above is but an instance illustrating what often came under my notice during the latter period of my command. This sort of burgher, it turned out, invariably belonged to a class that never meant to fight. In many cases we could do better without them, for it was always these people who wanted to know exactly what was "on the cards," and whenever things turned out unpleasantly, they only misled and discouraged others. Obviously, we were better off without them.