At Crocodile Gat Station the situation was no better than at Nelspruit, and the same might be said of Kaapmuiden. Many of the engine drivers, and many of the burghers even, who were helping in destroying the barrels of spirits at the stations, were so excited (as they put it) through the fumes of the drink, that the strangest things were happening. Heavily-laden trains were going at the rate of 40 miles an hour. A terrible collision had happened between two trains going in different directions, several burghers and animals being killed. Striplings were shooting from the trains at whatever game they saw, or fancied they saw, along the line, and many mishaps resulted. These things did not tend to improve matters.
It was not so much that the officers had lost control over their men. It seemed as if the Evil Spirit had been let loose and was doing his very best to encourage the people to riotous enjoyment.
Hector's Spruit is the last station but one before you come to the Portuguese frontier, and about seventeen miles from Ressano Garcia. Here every commando stopped intending of course to push on to the north and then to cross the mountains near Lydenburg in a westerly direction. The day when I arrived at Hector's Spruit, President Steyn, attended by an escort of 100 men, went away by the same route. Meanwhile General Buller was encamped at Glyn's mines near Spitskop and the Sabi River, which enabled him to command the mountain pass near Mac Mac and Belvedere without the slightest trouble, and to block the roads along which we meant to proceed. Although the late Commandant (afterwards fighting General) Gravett occupied one of the passes with a small commando, he was himself in constant danger of being cut off from Lydenburg by a flank movement. On the 16th of September, 1900, an incident occurred which is difficult to describe adequately. Hector Spruit is one of the many unattractive stations along the Delegoa Bay railway situated between the great Crocodile river and dreary black "kopjes" or "randjes" with branches of the Cape mountains intervening and the "Low Veldts," better known as the "Boschveldt." This is a locality almost filled with black holly bushes, where you can only see the sky overhead and the spot of ground you are standing on. In September the "boschveldt" is usually dry and withered and the scorching heat makes the surroundings seem more lugubrious and inhospitable than ever.
The station was crowded with railway carriages loaded up with all sorts of goods, and innumerable passenger carriages, and the platform and adjoining places filled with agitated people. Some were packing up, others unpacking, and some, again, were looting. The majority were, however, wandering about aimlessly. They did not know what was happening; what ought to be done or would be done; and the only exceptions were the officers, who were busily engaged in providing themselves and their burghers with provisions and ammunition.
I now had to perform one of the most unpleasant duties I have ever known: that of calling the burghers together and telling them that those who had no horses were to go by train to Komati Poort, there to join General Jan Coetser. Those who had horses were to report themselves to me the next morning, and get away with me through the low fields.
Some burghers exclaimed: "We are now thrown over, left in the 'lurch,' because we have not got horses; that is not fair."
Others said they would be satisfied if I went with them, for they did not know General Coetser.
Commandant-General Botha did not see his way to let me go to Komati Poort, as he could not spare me and the other commandos. Those of the men who had to walk the distance complained very bitterly, and their complaints were well-founded. I did my best to persuade and pacify them all, and some of them were crying like babies when we parted.
Komati Poort was, of course, the last station, and if the enemy were to drive them any further they would have to cross the Portuguese border, and to surrender to the Portuguese; or they could try to escape through Swaziland (as several hundreds did afterwards) or along the Lebombo mountains, via Leydsdorp. But if they took the latter route then they might just as well have stayed with me in the first place. It was along this road that General Coetser afterwards fled with a small body of burghers, when the enemy, according to expectations, marched on Komati Poort, and met with no resistance, though there were over 1800 there of our men with guns.
A certain Pienaar, who arrogated unto himself the rank of a general on Portuguese territory, fled with 800 men over the frontier. These, however, were disarmed and sent to Lisbon.
The end of the struggle was ignominious, as many a burgher had feared; and to this day I pity the men who, at Hector's Spruit, had to go to Komati Poort much against their will.
Fortunately they had the time and presence of mind to blow up the "Long Tom" and other guns before going; but a tremendous lot of provisions and ammunition must have fallen into the hands of the enemy.
At Hector's Spruit half a score of cannon of different calibre had been blown up, and many things buried which may be found some day by our progeny. Our carts were all ready loaded, and we were prepared to march next morning into the desert and take leave of our stores. How would we get on now? Where would we get our food, cut off as we were from the railway, and, consequently, from all imports and supplies? These questions and many others crossed our minds, but nobody could answer them.
Our convoys were ready waiting, and the following morning we trekked into the Hinterland Desert, saying farewell to commissariats and stores.
The prospect was melancholy enough. By leaving Hector's Spruit we were isolating ourselves from the outer world, which meant that Europe and civilisation generally could only be informed of our doings through English channels.
Once again our hopes were centred in our God and our Mausers.
Dr. Conan Doyle says about this stage of the war:—
"The most incredulous must have recognised as he looked at the heap of splintered and shattered gunmetal (at Hector's Spruit) that the long War was at last drawing to a close."
And here I am, writing these pages seventeen months later, and the War is not over yet. But Dr. Doyle is not a prophet, and cannot be reproached for a miscalculation of this character, for if I, and many with me, had been asked at the time what we thought of the future, we might have been as wide of the mark as Dr. Doyle himself.