On the 27th of November, 1900, our scouts reported that a force of the enemy was marching from the direction of Pretoria, and proceeding along Zustershoek. I sent out Commandant Muller with a strong patrol, while I placed the laager in a safe position, in the ridge of kopjes running from Rhenosterkop some miles to the north. This is the place, about 15 miles to the north-east of Bronkhorst Spruit, where Colonel Anstruther with the 94th regiment was attacked in 1881 by the Boers and thoroughly defeated. Rhenosterkop is a splendid position, rising several hundred feet above the neighbouring heights, and can be seen from a great distance. Towards the south and south-east this kopje is cut off from the Kliprandts (known by the name of Suikerboschplaats) by a deep circular cleft called Rhenosterpoort.
On the opposite side of this cleft the so-called "banks" form a "plateau" about the same height as the Rhenosterkop, with some smaller plateaux, at a lesser altitude, towards the Wilge River. These plateaux form a crescent running from south-east to north of the Rhenosterkop. Only one road leading out of the "bank" near Blackwood Camp and crossing them near Goun, gives access to this crescent. On the west side is a great gap up to Zustershoek, only interrupted by some "randjes," or ridges, near the Albert silver mines and the row of kopjes on which I had now taken up a position.
The enemy's force had been estimated at 5,000 men, mostly mounted, who, quite against their usual tactics, charged us so soon as they noticed us. Muller had to fall back again and again. The enemy under General Paget, pursued us as if we were a lot of game, and it soon became apparent that they had made up their mind to catch us this time. I sent our carts into the forest along Poortjesnek to Roodelaager, and made a stand in the kopjes near Rhenosterkop.
On the 28th—the next day—General Paget pitched his camp near our positions, shelling us with some batteries of field guns till dusk. The same evening I received information that a force under General Lyttelton had marched from Middelburg and arrived near Blackwood Camp. This meant that our way near Gourjsberg had been cut off. All we could do was to keep the road along Poortjesnek well defended, for if the enemy were to succeed in blocking that as well, we would be in a trap and be entirely cut up.
There was General Paget against us to the west, to the south there was Rhenosterkop with no way out, and General Lyttelton to the east, while to the north there was only one road, running between high chains and deep clefts. If General Paget were to make a flanking movement threatening the road to the north, I should have been obliged to retire in hot haste, but we were in hopes the General would not think of this. General Lyttelton only needed to advance another mile, right up to the first "randts" of the mountain near Blackwood Camp, for his guns to command our whole position, and to make it impossible for us to hold it. I had, however, a field-cornet's company between him and my burghers, with instructions to resist as long as possible, and to prevent our being attacked from behind, which plan succeeded, as luck would have it. My Krupp and pom-pom guns had been repaired, or rather, patched up, though the former had only been fired fourteen times when it was done up.
I placed the Johannesburgers on the left, the Police in the centre, and the Boksburgers on the right. As I have already pointed out, these positions were situated in a row of small kopjes strewn with big "klips," while the assailant would have to charge over a bare "bult," and we should not be able to see each other before they were at 60 to 150 paces distant.
Next morning, when the day dawned, the watchmen gave the alarm, the warning we knew so well, "The Khakis are coming!" The horses were all put out of range of the bullets behind the "randts." I rode about with my officers in front of our positions, thus being able to overlook the whole ground, just at daybreak.
It gave me a turn when I suddenly saw the gigantic army of "Khakis" right in front of us, slowly approaching, in grand formation, regiment upon regiment, deploying systematically, in proper fighting order, and my anxiety was mingled with admiration at the splendid discipline of the adversary. This, then, was the first act in the bloody drama which would be played for the next fifteen hours. The enemy came straight up to us, and had obviously been carefully reconnoitring our positions.
General Paget seemed to have been spoiling for a fight, for it did not look as if he simply meant to threaten our only outlet. His heavy ordnance was in position near his camp, behind the soldiers, and was firing at us over their heads, while some 15-pounders were divided amongst the different regiments. The thought of being involved in such an unequal struggle weighed heavily on my mind. Facing me were from four to five thousand soldiers, well equipped, well disciplined, backed up by a strong artillery; just behind me my men, 500 at the outside, with some patched-up guns, almost too shaky for firing purposes.
But I could rely on at least 90 per cent. of my burghers being splendid shots, each man knowing how to economise his store of ammunition, while their hearts beat warmly for the Cause they were fighting.
The battle was opened by our Krupp gun, from which they had orders to fire the fourteen shells we had at our disposal, and then "run." The enemy's heavy guns soon answered from the second ridge. When it was broad daylight the enemy tried his first charge on the Johannesburg position, over which my brother had the command, and approached in skirmishing order. They charged right up to seventy paces, when our men fired for the first time, so that we could not very well have missed our aim at so short a distance, in addition to which the assailants' outline was just showing against the sky-line as he was going over the last ridge. Only two volleys and all the Khakis were flat on the ground, some dead, others wounded, while those who had not been hit were obliged to lie down as flat as a pancake.
The enemy's field-pieces were out of our sight behind the ridge which the enemy had to pass in charging, and they went on firing without any intermission. Half an hour later the position of the Johannesburg Police, under the late Lieutenant D. Smith, was stormed again, this time the British being assisted by two field-pieces which they had brought up with them in the ranks and which were to be used as soon as the soldiers were under fire. They came to within a hundred paces. One of these guns, I think, I saw put up, but before they could get the range it had to be removed into safety, for the attacking soldiers fared equally badly here as on our left flank.
Then, after a little hesitation, they tried the attack on our right flank again, when Commandant Muller and the Boksburgers and some Pretoria burghers, under Field-Cornet Opperman held the position, but with the same fatal result to the attackers. Our fifteen-pounder, after having been fired a few times, had given out, while our pom-pom could only be used from time to time after the artilleryman had righted it.
I had a heliograph post near the left-hand position, one near the centre and the one belonging to my staff on our extreme right. I remained near this, expecting a flank movement by General Paget after his front attacks had failed. From this coign of vantage I was able to overlook the whole of the fighting ground, besides which I was in constant touch with my officers, and could tell them all the enemy's movements.
About 10 o'clock they charged again, and so far as I could see with a fresh regiment. We allowed them to come up very closely again and once more our deadly Mauser fire mowed them down, compelling those who went scot-free to go down flat on the ground, while during this charge some who had been obliged to drop down, now jumped up and ran away. If I remember rightly, it was during this charge that a brave officer, who had one of his legs smashed, leant on a gun or his sword, and kept on giving his orders, cheering the soldiers and telling them to charge on. While in this position, a second bullet struck him, and he fell mortally wounded. We afterwards heard it was a certain Colonel Lloyd of the West Riding Regiment. A few months after, on passing over this same battlefield, we laid a wreath of flowers on his grave, with a card, bearing the inscription: "In honour of a brave enemy."
General Paget seemed resolved to take our positions, whatever the sacrifice of human lives might be. If he succeeded at last, at this rate, he might find half a score of wounded burghers and, if his cavalry hurried up, perhaps a number of burghers with horses in bad condition, but nothing more.
Whereas, if he had made a flanking movement, he might have attained his end, perhaps without losing a single man.
Pride or stupidity must have induced him not to change his tactics. Nothing daunted by the repeated failures in the morning, our assailant charged again, now one position and then another, trying to get their field-pieces in position, but each time without success. At their wits' end, the enemy tried another dodge, bringing his guns right up to our position under cover of some Red Cross waggons. The officer who perceived this, reported to me by heliograph, asking for instructions. I answered: 'If a Red Cross waggon enters the fighting lines during the battle, it is there on its own responsibility.' Besides, General Paget, under protection of the white flag, might have asked any moment or an hour, or longer, to carry away his many unfortunate wounded, who were lying between two fires in the burning sun.
When the Red Cross waggon was found to be in the line of fire, it was put right-about face, while some guns remained behind to fire shrapnel at us from a short distance. They could only fire one or two shots, for our burghers soon put out of action the artillerists who were serving them. Towards the afternoon some of my burghers began to run short of ammunition, I had a field-cornet's force in reserve, from which five to ten men were sent to the position from time to time, and this cheered the burghers up again.
The same attacking tactics were persisted in by General Paget all day long, although they were a complete failure. When the sun disappeared behind the Magaliesbergs, the enemy made a final, in fact, a desperate effort to take our positions, the guns booming along while we were enveloped by clouds of dust thrown up by the shells.
The soldiers charged, brave as lions, and crept closer to our positions than they had done during the day.
But it seemed as if Fate were favouring us, for our 15-pounder had just got ready, sending his shells into the enemy's lines in rapid succession, and finding the range most beautifully. The pom-pom too—which we could only get to fire one or two shells all day long, owing to the gunner having to potter about for two or three hours after each shot to try and repair it—to our great surprise suddenly commenced booming away, and the two pieces—I was going to say the "mysterious" pieces—poured a stream of murderous steel into the assailants, which made them waver and then retire, leaving many comrades behind.
On our side only two burghers were killed, while 22 were wounded. The exact loss of the enemy was difficult to estimate. It must, however, have amounted to some hundreds.
Again night spread a dark veil over one of the most bloody dramas of this war. After the cessation of hostilities, I called my officers together and considered our position. We had not lost an inch of ground that day, while the enemy had gained nothing. On the contrary, they had suffered a serious repulse at our hands. But our ammunition was getting scarce, our waggons, with provisions, were 18 miles away. All we had in our positions was mealies and raw meat, and the burghers had no chance of cooking them. We therefore decided, as we had no particular interest in keeping these positions, to fall back that night on Poortjesnek, which was a "half-way house" between the place we were leaving and our carts, from which we should be able to draw our provisions and reserve ammunition.
We therefore allowed General Paget to occupy these positions without more ado.
I have tried to describe this battle as minutely as possible in order to show that incompetence of generals was not always on our side only.
I have seen from the report of the British Commander-in-Chief, published in the newspapers, that this battle had been a most successful and brilliant victory, gained by General Paget. People will say, perhaps, that it was silly on my part to evacuate the positions, and that I should have gone on defending them the next day. Well, in the old days this would have been done by European generals, but no doubt they were fighting under different circumstances. They were not faced by a force ten times their own strength; not restricted to a limited quantity of ammunition; nor were they in want of proper food or reinforcements. The nearest Boer commando was at Warmbad, about 60 miles distant. Besides, there was no necessity, either for military or strategical reasons, for us to cling to these positions. It had already become our policy to fight whenever we could, and to retire when we could not hold on any longer. The Government had decided that the War should be continued and it was the duty of every general to manœuvre so as to prolong it. We had no reserve troops, so my motto was: "Kill as many of the enemy as you possibly can, but see you do not expose your own men, for we cannot spare a single one."
On the 30th of November, the day after the fight, I was with a patrol on the first "randts," north-east of Rhenosterkop, just as the sun rose, and had a splendid view of the whole battlefield of the previous day. I saw the enemy's scouts, cautiously approaching the evacuated positions, and concluded from the precautions they were taking that they did not know we had left overnight. Indeed, very shortly after I saw the Khakis storming and occupying the kopjes. How great must have been their astonishment and disappointment on finding those positions deserted, for the possession of which they had shed so much blood. A number of ambulance waggons were brought up and were moving backwards and forwards on the battlefield, taking the wounded to the hospital camp, which must have assumed colossal proportions. Ditches were seen to be dug, in which the killed soldiers were buried. A troop of kaffirs carried the bodies, as far as I could distinguish, and I could distinctly see some heaps of khaki-coloured forms near the graves.
As the battlefield looked now, it was a sad spectacle. Death and mutilation, sorrow and misery, were the traces yesterday's fight had left behind. How sad, I thought, that civilised nations should thus try to annihilate one another. The repeated brave charges made by General Paget's soldiers, notwithstanding our deadly fire, had won our greatest admiration for the enemy, and many a burgher sighed even during the battle. What a pity such plucky fellows should have to be led on to destruction like so many sheep to the butcher's block!
Meanwhile, General Lyttelton's columns had not got any nearer, and it appeared to us that he had only made a display to confuse us, and with the object of inducing us to flee in face of their overwhelming strength.
On the 1st of December General Paget sent a strong mounted force to meet us, and we had a short, sharp fight, without very great loss on either side.
This column camped at Langkloof, near our positions, compelling us to graze and water our horses at the bottom of the "neck" in the woods, where horse-sickness was prevalent. We were, therefore, very soon obliged to move.
About this time I received a report to the effect that a number of women and children were wandering about near Rhenosterkop along the Wilge River. Their houses had been burnt by order of General Paget, and we were asked to protect these unfortunate people.
Some burghers offered to ride out at night time to try and find them, and the next morning they brought several families into our camp. The husbands of these poor sufferers were on duty in the neighbourhood, so that they were now enabled to do the needful for their wives and children. I put some questions to some of the women, from which it appeared that although they had besought the English not to burn their clothes and food, yet this had been done. Some Australians and Canadians, who had been present, had done their best to save some of the food and clothes, and these Colonials had shown them much consideration in every respect, but, the women added, a gang of kaffirs, who were ordered to cause this destruction, were behaving in the most barbarous and cruel manner, and were under no control by the British soldiers.
I felt bound to protest against these scandalous acts of vandalism, and sent two of my adjutants to the English camp next day with a note of about the following tenour:—
"To GENERAL PAGET, commanding H.M's. forces at Rhenosterkop.
"It is my painful duty to bring under your Honour's notice the cruel way in which the troops under your command are acting in ill-treating defenceless women and children. Not only their homes, but also their food and clothes, are being burnt. These poor creatures were left in the open veldt, at the mercy of the kaffirs, and would have died of starvation and exhaustion but for our assistance. This way of treating these unfortunate people is undoubtedly against the rules of civilised warfare, and I beg to emphasise that the responsibility for this cruelty will be entirely yours. You may rest assured that a similar treatment of our families will not shorten the duration of the War, but that, on the contrary, such barbarities will force the burghers to prolong the struggle and to fight on with more bitterness and determination than ever."
The two despatch carriers whom I sent to the British General under a white flag were taken for spies, and however much they tried to establish their identity, General Paget was not to be convinced, and had them arrested, detaining them for three days. Their horses were used every day by the English officers, which I consider far from gentlemanly. On the third day my two adjutants were again taken before the general, and cross-examined, but no evidence could be found against their being bona-fide messengers. Paget told them that my despatch was all nonsense, and did not give them the right to enter his lines under the white flag, adding, while he handed them a letter addressed to me:
"You can go now; tell your General that if he likes to fight I shall be pleased to meet him at any time in the open. You have killed some of my Red Cross people, but I know it was done by those 'damned' unscrupulous Johannesburgers. Tell them I shall pay them for this!"
Before my adjutants left, a certain Captain —— said to one of them:
"I say, what do your people think of the fight?"
"Which fight do you mean?" asked the adjutant.
"The fight here," returned the captain.
"Oh," remarked the adjutant, "we think it was rather a mismanagement." To which the captain replied: "By Jove! you are not the only people who think so."
The contents of General Paget's letter were short and rough; "The responsibility for the suffering of women and children rests on the shoulders of those who blindly continue the helpless struggle," etc., etc.
I may say here that this was the first time in this War the English officers treated my despatch riders under the white flag in such a manner, giving me at the same time such a discourteous answer.
No doubt we have had generals acting like this on our side, and I admit that we did not always stand on etiquette.
As already stated, part of the enemy's forces were camping out near Poortjesnek, so close by that we had to shift our laager and commando to a more healthy part on account of the horse-sickness. The enemy installed a permanent occupation at Rhenosterkop, and we moved into the Lydenberg district, where we knew we should find some wholesome "veldt" on the Steenkamps Mountains. We went through the forest near Maleemskop via Roodekraal, to the foot of Bothasberg, where we had a few weeks' rest.