During the first days of November, 1900, we went from Pietersburg to Witnek, about nineteen miles north of Bronkhorst Spruit, in the Pretoria district. We had enjoyed a fortnight's rest, which had especially benefited our horses, and our circumstances were much more favourable in every respect when we left Pietersburg than when we had entered it.
The Krugersdorp Commando had been sent to its own district, from Pietersburg via Warmbad and Rustenburg, under Commandant Jan Kemp, in order to be placed under General De la Rey's command. Most of the burghers preferred being always in their own districts, even though the villages scattered about were in the enemy's hands, the greater part of the homesteads burnt down and the farms destroyed, and nearly all the families had been placed in British Concentration Camps; and if the commanding officers would not allow the burghers to go to their own districts they would simply desert, one after the other, to join the commando nearest their districts.
I do not think there is another nation so fondly attached to their home and its neighbourhood, even though the houses be in ruins and the farms destroyed. Still the Boer feels attracted to it, and when he has at last succeeded in reaching it, you will often find him sit down disconsolately among the ruins or wandering about in the vicinity.
It was better, therefore, to keep our men somewhere near their districts, for even from a strategical point of view they were better there, knowing every nook and cranny, which enabled them to find exactly where to hide in case of danger. Even in the dark they were able to tell, after scouting, which way the enemy would be coming. This especially gave a commando the necessary self-reliance, which is of such great importance in battle. It has also been found during the latter part of the War to be easier for a burgher to get provisions in his own district than in others, notwithstanding the destruction caused by the enemy.
Commandant Muller, of the Boksburg Commando, one of those who were lucky enough to escape the danger of being caught through the half-heartedness of the previous commandant (Dirksen), and had taken his place, arrived at Warmbad almost the same moment. He proceeded via Yzerberg and joined us at Klipplaatdrift near Zebedelestad.
I had allowed a field-cornet's company, consisting of Colonial Afrikanders, to accompany President Steyn to the Orange Free State, which meant a reduction of my force of 350 men, including the Krugersdorpers. But the junction with the Boksburg burghers, numbering about 200 men, somewhat made up for it.
We went along the Olifant's River, by Israelskop and Crocodile Hill, to the spot where the Eland's River runs into the Olifant's River, and thence direct to Witnek through Giftspruit.
The grass, after the heavy rains, was in good condition and yielded plenty of food for our quadrupeds. Strange to say, nothing worth recording occurred during this "trek" of about 95 miles. About the middle of November we camped near the "Albert" silver mines, south of Witnek.
Commandant Erasmus was still in this part of the country with the remainder of the Pretoria Commando. Divided into three or four smaller groups, they watched in the neighbourhood of the railway, from Donkerhoek till close to Wilgeriver Station, and whenever the enemy moved out, the men on watch gave warning and all fled with their families and cattle into the "boschveldt" along Witnek.
It was these tactics which enabled the British Press to state that the Generals Plumer and Paget had a brilliant victory over Erasmus the previous month; for, with the exception of a few abandoned carts at Zusterhoek, they could certainly not have seen anything of Erasmus and his commando except a cloud of dust on the road from Witnek to the "boschveldt."
I had instructions to reorganise the commandos in these regions and to see that law and order were maintained. The reorganisation was a difficult work, for the burghers were divided amongst themselves.
Some wanted a different commando, while others wanted to keep to Erasmus, who was formerly general and who had been my superior, round Ladysmith. He, one of the wealthiest and most influential burghers in the Pretoria district, did not seem inclined to carry out my instructions, and altogether he could not get accustomed to the altered conditions. I did all I could in the matter, but, so far as the Pretoria Commando was concerned, the result of my efforts was not very satisfactory. Nor did the generals who tried the same thing after me get on with the reorganisation while Erasmus remained in control as an officer. A dangerous element, which he and his clique tolerated, was formed by some families (Schalkwyk and others) who, after having surrendered to the enemy, were allowed to remain on their holdings, with their cattle, and to go on farming as if nothing had happened. They generally lived near the railway between our sentry stations and those of the enemy. These "voluntarily disarmed ones," as we called them, had got passes from the enemy, allowing them free access to the British camps, and in accordance with one of Lord Roberts' proclamations, their duty, on seeing any Boers or commandos, was, to notify this at once to the nearest English picket, and also to communicate all information received about the Boers. All this was on penalty of having their houses burnt down and their cattle and property confiscated. Sometimes a brother or other relative of these "hands-uppers" would call on them. The son of one of them was adjutant to Commandant Erasmus, and shared his tent with him, while the adjutant often visited his parents during the night and sometimes by day; the consequence being that the English always knew exactly what was going on in our district. This situation could not be allowed to go on, and I instructed one of my officers to have all these suspected families placed behind our commandos. Any male persons who had surrendered to the enemy out of cowardice were arrested.
Most of them were court-martialled for high treason and desertion, and giving up their arms, and fifteen were imprisoned in a school building at Rhenosterkop, which had been turned into a gaol for the purpose. The court consisted of a presiding officer selected from the commandants by the General, and of four members, two of whom had been chosen by the General and the President, and two by the burghers.
In the absence of our "Staats-procureur," a lawyer was appointed public prosecutor.
Before the trial commenced the President was sworn by the General and the other four members by the President. The usual criminal procedure was followed, and each sentence was submitted for the General's ratification.
The court could decree capital punishment, in which case there could be an appeal to the Government.
There were other courts, constituted by the latter, but as they were moving about almost every day, they were not always available, and recourse had then to be taken to the court-martial.
The fifteen prisoners were tried in Rhenosterkop churchyard. The trial lasted several days, and I do not remember all the particulars of the various sentences, which differed from two and a half to five years' imprisonment, I believe with the option of a fine. The only prison we could send them to was at Pietersburg, and there they went.
The arresting and punishing of these people caused a great sensation in the different commandos.
It seems incredible, but it is a fact that many members of these traitors' families were very indignant about my action in the matter, even sending me anonymous letters in which they threatened to shoot me.
Although there was less treason after the conviction of these fifteen worthies had taken place, there always remained an easy channel in the shape of correspondence between burghers from the commandos and their relatives within the English fighting lines, carried by kaffir runners. This could not be stopped so easily.
On the 19th of November, 1900, I attacked the enemy on the railway simultaneously at Balmoral and Wilgeriver, and soon found that the British had heard of our plan beforehand.
Commandant Muller, who was cautiously creeping up to the enemy at Wilgeriver with some of his burghers, and a Krupp gun, met with a determined resistance early in the morning. He succeeded, indeed, in taking a few small forts, but the station was too strongly fortified, and the enemy used two 15-pounders in one of the forts with such precision as to soon hit our Krupp gun, which had to be cleared out of the fighting line.
The burghers, who had taken the small forts in the early morning, were obliged to stop there till they could get away under protection of the darkness, with three men wounded. We did not find out the enemy's losses.
We were equally unfortunate near Balmoral Station, where I personally led the attack.
At daybreak I ordered a fortress to be stormed, expecting to capture a gun, which would enable us to fire on the station from there, and then storm it. In fact we occupied the fort with little trouble, taking a captain and 32 men prisoners, besides inflicting a loss of several killed and wounded, while a score more escaped. These all belonged to the "Buffs," the same regiment which now takes part in watching us at St. Helena. But, on the whole, we were disappointed, not finding a gun in the fort, which was situated to the west of the station. Two divisions of burghers with a 15-pounder and a pom-pom were approaching the station from north and east, while a commando, under Field-Cornet Duvenhage, which had been called upon to strengthen the attack, was to occupy an important position in the south before the enemy could take it up, for during the night it was still unoccupied.
Our 15-pounder, one of the guns we had captured from the English, fired six shells on the enemy at the station, when it burst, while the pom-pom after having sent some bombs through the station buildings, also jammed. We tried to storm over the bare ground between our position and the strongly barricaded and fortified station, and the enemy would no doubt have been forced to surrender if they had not realised that something had gone wrong with us, our guns being silent, and Field-Cornet Duvenhage and his burghers not turning up from the south. The British, who had taken an important position from which they could cover us with their fire, sent us some lyddite shells from a howitzer in the station fort. Although there was a good shower of them, yet the lyddite-squirt sent the shells at such a slow pace, that we could quietly watch them coming and get under cover in time and therefore they did very little harm.
At eight o'clock we were forced to fall back, for although we had destroyed the railway and telegraphic communications in several places over night, the latter were repaired in the afternoon, and the enemy's reinforcements poured in from Pretoria as well as from Middelburg. I observed all this through my glass from the position I had taken up on a high point near the Douglas coal mines.
Amongst the prisoners we had made in the morning was a captain of the "Buffs," whose collar stars had been stripped off for some reason, the marks showing they had only recently been removed. At that time there were no orders to keep officers as prisoners-of-war, and this captain was therefore sent back to Balmoral with the other "Tommies," after we had relieved them of their weapons and other things which we were in want of. I read afterwards, in an English newspaper, that this captain had taken the stars off in order to save himself from the "cruelties of the Boers."
This, I considered, an unjust and undeserved libel.