During the season the veldt in the Transvaal is in the very worst condition, and the animals are then poorer than at any other period. We had, moreover, the very worst of luck, kept as we were in the coldest parts of the country from June till September, and the rains had fallen later than usual. There was, therefore, scarcely any food for the poor creatures, and hardly any grass. The bushveldt through which we were now trekking was scorched by an intolerable heat, aggravated by drought, and the temperature in the daytime was so unbearable that we could only trek during the night.
Water was very scarce, and most of the wells which, according to old hunters with us, yielded splendid supplies, were found to be dried up. The veldt being burned out there was not a blade of grass to be seen, and we had great trouble in keeping our animals alive. From time to time we came across itinerant kaffir tribes from whom we obtained handfuls of salt or sugar, or a pailful of mealies, and by these means we managed to save our cattle and horses.
When we had got through the Crocodile River the trek was arranged in a sort of military formation enabling us to defend ourselves, had we been attacked. The British were already in possession of the railway up to Kaapmuiden and we had to be prepared for pursuit; and really pursuit by the British seemed feasible and probable from along the Ohrigstad River towards Olifant's Nek and thence along the Olifant's River.
Our original plan was to cross the Sabi, along the Meritsjani River, over the mountains near Mac Mac, through Erasmus or Gowyn's Pass and across Pilgrim's Rest, where we might speedily have reached healthier veldt and better climatic conditions. President Steyn had passed there three days previously, but when our advance guard reached the foot of the high mountains, near Mac Mac, the late General Gravett sent word that General Buller with his force was marching from Spitskop along the mountain plateau and that it would be difficult for us to get ahead of him and into the mountains. The road, which was washed away, was very steep and difficult and contained abrupt deviations so that we could only proceed at a snail's pace.
Commandant-General Botha then sent instructions to me to take my commando along the foot of the mountains, via Leydsdorp, while he with his staff and the members of the Government would proceed across the mountains near Mac Mac. General Gravett was detailed to keep Buller's advance guard busy, and he succeeded admirably.
I think it was here that the British lost a fine chance of making a big haul. General Buller could have blocked us at any of the mountain roads near Mac Mac, and could also have swooped down upon us near Gowyn's Pass and Belvedere. At the time of which I write Buller was lying not 14 miles away at Spitskop. Two days after he actually occupied the passes, but just too late to turn the two Governments and the Commandant-General. It might be said that they could in any case have, like myself, escaped along the foot of the mountains via Leydsdorp to Tabina and Pietersburg, but had the way out been blocked to them near Mac Mac, our Government and generalissimo would have been compelled to trek for at least three weeks in the low veldt before they could have reached Pietersburg, during which time all the other commandos would have been out of touch with the chief Boer military strategists and commanders, and would not have known what had become of their military leaders or of their Government. This would have been a very undesirable state of affairs, and would very likely have borne the most serious consequences to us. The British, moreover, could have occupied Pietersburg without much trouble by cutting off our progress in the low veldt, and barring our way across the Sabini and at Agatha. This coup could indeed have been effected by a small British force. In the mountains they would, moreover, have found a healthy climate, while we should have been left in the sickly districts of the low veldt. And had we been compelled to stay there for two months we would have been forced to surrender, for about the middle of October the disease among our horses increased and so serious was the epidemic that none but salted horses survived. The enteric fever would also have wrought havoc amongst us.
Another problem was whether all this would not have put an end to the war; we still had generals left, and strong commandos, and it was, of course, very likely that a great number of Boers driven to desperation would have broken through, although two-thirds of our horses were not fit for a bold dash. Perhaps fifteen hundred out of the two thousand Boers would have made good their escape, but in any case large numbers of wagons, guns, etc. would have fallen into the British hands and our leaders might have been captured as well. The moral effect would have caused many other burghers from the other commandos to have lost heart and this at a moment, too, when they already required much encouragement.
This was my view of the situation, and I think Lord Roberts, or whoever was responsible, lost a splendid opportunity.
As regards my commando at the foot of the Mauch Mountains we turned right about and I took temporary leave of Louis Botha. It was a very affecting parting; Botha pressed my hand, saying, "Farewell, brother; I hope we shall get through all right. God bless you. Let me hear from you soon and frequently."
That night we encamped at Boschbokrand, where we found a store unoccupied, and a house probably belonging to English refugees, for shop and dwelling had been burgled and looted. After our big laager had been arranged, Boer fashion, and the camp fire threw its lurid light against the weird dark outline of the woods, the Boers grouped themselves over the veldt. Some who had walked twenty miles that day fell down exhausted.
I made the round of the laager, and I am bound to say that in spite of the trying circumstances, my burghers were in fairly cheerful spirits.
I discussed the immediate prospects with the officers, and arranged for a different commando to be placed in the advance guard each day and a different field-cornet in the rear. Boers conversant with the locality were detailed to ride ahead and to scout and reconnoitre for water.
When I returned that night to my waggon the evening meal was ready, but for the first time in my life I could eat nothing. I felt too dejected. My cook, Jan Smith, and my messmates were curious to know the reason I did not "wade in," for they always admired my ferocious appetite.
It had been a tiring day, and I pretended I was not well; and soon afterwards I lay down to rest.
I had been sitting up the previous evening till late in the night, and was therefore in hopes of dropping off to sleep. But whatever I tried—counting the stars, closing my eyes and doing my best to think of nothing—it was all in vain.
Insurmountable difficulties presented themselves to me. I had ventured into an unhealthy, deserted, and worst of all, unknown part of the country with only 2,000 men. I was told we should have to cover 300 miles of this enteric-stricken country.
The burghers without horses were suffering terribly from the killing heat, and many were attacked by typhoid and malarial fever through having to drink a lot of bad water; these enemies would soon decimate our commando and reduce its strength to a minimum. And for four or five weeks we should be isolated from the Commandant-General and from all white men.
Was I a coward, then, to lie there, dejected and even frightened? I asked myself. Surely, to think nothing of taking part in a fierce battle, to be able to see blood being shed like water, to play with life and death, one could not be without some courage? And yet I did not seem to have any pluck left in me here where there did not seem to be much danger.
These and many similar thoughts came into my head while I was trying to force myself to sleep, and I told myself not to waver, to keep a cool head and a stout heart, and to manfully go on to the end in order to reach the goal we had so long kept in view.
Ah, well, do not let anybody expect a general to be a hero, and nothing else, at all times; let us remember that "A man's a man for a' that," and even a fighting man may have his moments of weakness and fear.
The next morning, about four o'clock, our little force woke up again. The cool morning air made it bearable for man and beast to trek. This, however, only lasted till seven o'clock, when the sun was already scorching, without the slightest sign of a breeze. It became most oppressive, and we were scarcely able to breathe.
The road had not been used for twenty or thirty years, and big trees were growing in our path, and had to be cut down at times. The dry ground, now cut up by the horses' hoofs, was turned into dust by the many wheels, great clouds flying all round us, high up in the air, covering everything and everybody with a thick layer of ashy-grey powder.
About nine o'clock we reached Zand River, where we found some good water, and stayed till dusk. We exchanged some mealies against salt and other necessaries with some kaffirs who were living near by the water. Their diminutive, deformed stature was another proof of the miserable climate obtaining there.
There was much big game here; wild beasts, "hartebeest," "rooiboks" (sometimes in groups of from five to twenty at a time), and at night we heard the roaring of lions and the howling of wolves. Even by day lions were encountered. Now, one of the weakest points, perhaps the weakest, of an Afrikander is his being unable to refrain from shooting when he sees game, whether such be prohibited or not. From every commando burghers had been sent out to do shooting for our commissariat, but a good many had slipped away, so that hundreds of them were soon hunting about in the thickly-grown woods. The consequence was that, whenever a group of them discovered game, it seemed as if a real battle were going on, several persons often being wounded, and many cattle killed. We made rules and regulations, and even inflicted punishments which did some good, but could not check the wild hunting instincts altogether, it being difficult to find out in the dark bush who had been the culprits.
Meanwhile the trek went on very slowly. On the seventh day we reached Blyde River, where we had one of the loveliest views of the whole "boschveldt." The river, which has its source near Pilgrim's Rest and runs into the great Olifant's River near the Lomboba, owes its name to trekker pioneers, who, being out hunting in the good old times, had been looking for water for days, and when nearly perishing from thirst, had suddenly discovered this river, and called it Blyde (or "Glad") River. The stream at the spot we crossed is about 40 feet wide, and the water as pure as crystal. The even bed is covered with white gravel, and along both banks are splendid high trees. The whole laager could outspan under their shade, and it was a delightful, refreshing sensation to find oneself protected from the burning sun. We all drank of the delicious water, which we had seldom found in such abundance, and we also availed ourselves of it to bathe and wash our clothes.
In the afternoon a burgher, whose name I had better not mention, came running up to us with his clothes torn to tatters, and his hat and gun gone. He presented a curious picture. I heard the burghers jeer and chaff him as he approached, and called out to him: "What on earth have you been up to? It looks as if you had seen old Nick with a mask on."
The affrighted Boer's dishevelled hair stood on end and he shook with fear.
He gasped: "Goodness gracious, General, I am nearly dead. I had gone for a stroll to do a bit of hunting like, and had shot a lion who ran away into some brushwood. I knew the animal had received a mortal wound, and ran after it. But I could only see a yard or so ahead through the thick undergrowth, and was following the bloodstained track. Seeing the animal I put down my gun and was stepping over the trunk of an old tree; but just as I put my foot down, lo! I saw a terrible monster standing with one paw on the beast's chest. Oh, my eye! I thought my last hour had come, for the lion looked so hard at me, and he roared so awfully. By jove, General, if this had been an Englishman I should just have "hands-upped," you bet! But I veered round and went down bang on my nose. My rifle, my hat, my all, I abandoned in that battle, and for all the riches of England, I would not go back. General, you may punish me for losing my rifle, but I won't go back to that place for anything or anybody."
I asked him what the lion had done then, but he knew nothing more. Another burgher who stood by, remarked: "I think it was a dog this chap saw. He came running up to me so terrified that he would not have known his own mother. If I had asked him at that moment he would not have been able to remember his own name."
The poor fellow was roused to indignation, and offered to go with the whole commando and show them the lion's trail. But there was no time for that, and the hero had a bad time of it, for everybody was teasing and chaffing him, and henceforth he was called the "Terror of the Vaal."
We should have liked to have lingered a few days near that splendid and wholesome stream. We wanted a rest badly enough, but it was not advisable on account of the fever, which is almost invariably the penalty for sleeping near a river in the low veldt. One of the regulations of our commando forbade the officers and men to spend the night by the side of any water or low spot. It would also have been fatal to the horses, for sickness amongst them and fever always coincide. But they did not always keep to the letter of these instructions. The burghers, especially those who had been walking, or arriving at a river, would always quickly undress and jump into the water, after which some of them would fall asleep on the banks or have a rest under the trees. Both were unhealthy and dangerous luxuries. Many burghers who had been out hunting or had been sent out provisioning, stayed by the riverside till the morning, since they could dispense with their kit in this warm climate. They often were without food for twenty-four hours, unless we happened to trek along the spot where they were resting. To pass the night in these treacherous parts on an empty stomach was enough to give anybody the fever.
When we moved on from Blyde River many draught beasts were exhausted through want of food, and we were obliged to leave half a dozen carts behind. This caused a lot of trouble as we had to transfer all the things to other vehicles, and field-cornets did not like to take up the goods belonging to other field-cornets' burghers, the cattle being in such a weak condition that it made every man think of his own division. No doubt the burghers were very kind to their animals, but they sometimes carried it too far, and the superior officers had often to interfere.
The distance from Blyde River to the next stopping place could not be covered in one day, and we should have no water the next; not a very pleasant prospect. The great clouds of dust through which we were marching overnight and the scorching heat in the daytime made us all long for water to drink and to clean ourselves. So when the order came from the laager commandants: "Outspan! No water to-day, my boys, you will have to be careful with the water on the carts. We shall be near some stream to-morrow evening," they were bitterly disappointed.
When we got near the water the following day eight burghers were reported to be suffering badly from the typhoid fever, five of them belonging to the men who were walking. We had a very insufficient supply of ambulance waggons. I had omitted to procure a great number of these indispensable vehicles on leaving Hector's Spruit, for there had been so many things to look after. We were lucky to have with us brave Dr. Manning, of the Russian Ambulance, who rendered us such excellent assistance, and we have every reason to be thankful to H.M. the Czarina of Russia for sending him out. Dr. Manning had the patients placed in waggons, which had been put at his disposal for this purpose, but notwithstanding his skilled and careful treatment, one of my men died the following day, while the number of those who were seriously ill rose to fifteen. The symptoms of this fatal illness are: headache and a numb feeling in all the limbs, accompanied by an unusually high temperature very often rising to 104 and 106 degrees during the first 24 hours, with the blood running from the patient's nose and ears, which is an ominous sign. At other times the first symptom is what is commonly called "cold shivers."
We proceeded slowly until we came to the Nagout River, where the monotony and dreariness of a trek through the "boschveldt" were somewhat relieved by the spectacle of a wide stream of good water, with a luxurious vegetation along the banks. It was a most pleasant and refreshing sight to behold. For some distance along the banks some grass was found, to which the half-starved animals were soon devoting their attention. It was the sort of sweet grass the hunters call "buffalo-grass," and which is considered splendid food for cattle. We pitched our camp on a hill about one mile from the river, and as our draught-beasts were in want of a thorough rest we remained there for a few days. We had been obliged to drive along some hundreds of oxen, mules, and horses, as they had been unfit to be harnessed for days, and had several times been obliged to leave those behind that were emaciated and exhausted.
From the Nagout River we had to go right up to the Olifant's River, a distance of about 20 miles, which took us three days. The track led all along through the immense bush-plain which extends from the high Mauch Mountains in the west to the Lebombo Mountains in the east; and yet one could only see a few paces ahead during all these days, and the only thing we could discern was the summit of some mountain on the westerly or easterly horizon, and even the tops of the Mauch and Lebombo Mountains one could only see by standing on the top of a loaded waggon, and with the aid of a field-glass. This thickly-wooded region included nearly one-third of the Transvaal, and is uninhabited, the white men fearing the unhealthy climate, while only some miserable little kaffir tribes were found about there, the bulk being the undisputed territory of the wild animals.
The Olifant's River, which we had to cross, is over 100 feet wide. The old track leading down to it, was so thickly covered with trees and undergrowth that we had to cut a path through it. The banks of the river were not very high, thus enabling us to make a drift without much trouble. The bed was rocky, and the water pretty shallow, and towards the afternoon the whole commando had crossed. Here again we were obliged to rest our cattle for a few days, during which we had to fulfil the melancholy duty of burying two of our burghers who had died of fever. It was a very sad loss and we were very much affected, especially as one left a young wife and two little children, living at Barberton. The other one was a young colonial Afrikander who had left his parents in the Cradock district (Cape Colony) to fight for our cause. We could not help thinking how intensely sad it was to lose one's life on the banks of this river, far from one's home, from relatives and friends, without a last grasp of the hand of those who were nearest and dearest.
The Transvaaler's last words were:—
"Be sure to tell my wife I am dying cheerfully, with a clear conscience; that I have given my life for the welfare of my Fatherland."
We had now to leave some draught cattle and horses behind every day, and the number of those who were obliged to walk was continually increasing, till there were several hundred.
Near Sabini, the first river we came to after leaving Leydsdorp we secured twenty-four mules which were of very great use to us under the circumstances. But the difficulty was how to distribute them amongst the field-cornets. The men all said they wanted them very urgently, and at once found the cattle belonging to each cart to be too thin and too weak to move. Yet the twenty-four could only be put into two carts, and I had to solve the difficulty by asserting my authority.
It was no easy task to get over the Agatha Mountains and we had to rest for the day near the big Letaba, especially as we had to give the whole file of carts, guns, etc., a chance of forming up again. Here we succeeded in buying some loads of mealies, which were a real God-send to our half-starved horses. I also managed to hire some teams of oxen from Boers who had taken up a position with their cattle along the Letaba, which enabled us to get our carts out of the Hartbosch Mountains as far as practicable. The task would have been too fatiguing for our cattle. It took us two days before we were out of these mountains, when we camped out on the splendid "plateau" of the Koutboschbergen, where the climate was wholesome and pleasant.
Here, after having passed a whole month in the wilderness of the low veldt, with its destructive climate, it was as though we began a new life, as if we had come back to civilisation. We again saw white men's dwellings, cultivated green fields, flocks of grazing sheep, and herds of sleek cows.
The inhabitants of the country were not a little surprised, not to say alarmed, to find, early one Sunday morning, a big laager occupying the plateau. A Boer laager always looks twice as large as it really is when seen from a little distance. Some Boer lads presently came up to ask us whether we were friends or enemies, for in these distant parts people were not kept informed of what happened elsewhere.
"A general," said a woman, who paid us a visit in a trap, "is a thing we have all been longing to see. I have called to hear some news, and whether you would like to buy some oats; but I tell you straight I am not going to take "blue-backs" (Government notes), and if you people buy my oats you will have to pay in gold."
A burgher answered her: "There is the General, under that cart; 'tante' had better go to him."
Of course I had heard the whole conversation, but thought the woman had been joking. The good lady came up to my cart, putting her cap a little on one side, probably to favour us with a peep at her beauty.
"Good morning. Where is that General Viljoen; they say he is here?"
I thought to myself: "I wonder what this charming Delilah of fifty summers wants," and got up and shook hands with her, saying: "I am that General. What can I do for 'tante'?"
"No, but I never! Are you the General? You don't look a bit like one; I thought a General looked 'baing' (much) different from what you are like."
Much amused by all this I asked: "What's the matter with me, then, 'tante'?"
"Nay, but cousin (meaning myself) looks like a youngster. I have heard so much of you, I expected to see an old man with a long beard."
I had had enough of this comedy, and not feeling inclined to waste any more civilities on this innocent daughter of Mother Eve, I asked her about the oats.
I sent an adjutant to have a look at her stock and to buy what we wanted, and the prim dame spared me the rest of her criticism.
We now heard that Pietersburg and Warmbad were still held by the Boers, and the road was therefore clear. We marched from here via Haenertsburg, a little village on the Houtboschbergrand, and the seat of some officials of the Boer Mining Department, for in this neighbourhood gold mines existed, which in time of peace give employment to hundreds of miners.
Luckily, there was also a hospital at Haenertsburg, where we could leave half a dozen fever patients, under the careful treatment of an Irish doctor named Kavanagh, assisted by the tender care of a daughter of the local justice of the peace, whose name, I am sorry to say, I have forgotten.
About the 19th of October, 1900, we arrived at Pietersburg, our place of destination.