The veldt was in splendid condition at the foot of Bothasberg, where we had pitched our camp. We found mealies and cattle left everywhere. The enemy did not know where we really were, and could not, therefore, bother us for the time being. Our Government was at Tautesberg, about 12 miles north of Bothasberg, and we received a visit from Acting-President Burger, who brought with him the latest news from Europe, and the reports from the other commandos. Mr. Burger said he was sorry we had to leave the Pretoria district, but he could understand our horses would have all been killed by the sickness if we had stopped at Poortjesnek. As regards the Battle of Rhenosterkop, he expressed the Government's satisfaction with the result.
On the 16th of December we celebrated Dingaan's Day in a solemn manner. Pastor J. Louw, who had faithfully accompanied us during these fatiguing months of retreats and adversity, delivered a most impressive address, describing our position. Several officers also spoke, and I myself had a go at it, although I kept to politics. In the afternoon the burghers had sports, consisting of races on foot and on horseback. The prizes were got together by means of small contributions from the officers. All went well, without any mishaps, and it was unanimously voted to have been very entertaining.
It was a peculiar sight—taking into consideration the circumstances—to see these people on the "veldt" feasting and of good cheer, each trying to amuse the other, under the fluttering "Vierkleur"—the only one we possessed—but the look of which gladdened the hearts of many assisting at this celebration in the wilderness. How could we have been in a truly festive mood without the sight of that beloved banner, which it had cost so many sacrifices to protect, and to save which so much Afrikander blood had been shed.
And in many of us the thought suggested itself: "O, Vierkleur of our Transvaal, how much longer shall we be allowed to see you unfurled? How long, O Lord, will a stream of tears and blood have to flow before we are again the undisputed masters of our little Republic, scarcely visible on the world's map? For how long will our adored Vierkleur be allowed to remain floating over the heads of our persecuted nation, whose blood has stained and soaked your colours for some generations? We hope and trust that so sure as the sun shall rise in the east and set in the west, so surely may this our flag, now wrapped in sorry mourning, soon flutter aloft again in all its glory, over the country on which Nature lavishes her most wondrous treasures."
The Afrikander character may be called peculiar in many respects. In moments of reverse, when the future seems dark, one can easily trace its pessimistic tendencies. But once his comrades buried, the wounded attended to, and a moment's rest left him by the enemy, the cheerful part of the Boer nature prevails, and he is full of fun and sport. If anybody, in a sermon or in a speech, try to impress on him the seriousness of the situation, pointing out how our ancestors have suffered and how we have to follow in their steps, our hero of yesterday, the jolly lad who was laughing boisterously and joking a minute ago, is seen to melt, and the tears start in his eyes. I am now referring to the true Afrikander. Of course, there are many calling themselves Afrikanders who during this War have proved themselves to be the scum of the nation. I wish to keep them distinguished from the true, from the noble men belonging to this nationality of whom I shall be proud as long as I live, no matter what the result of the War may be.
Our laagers were not in a very satisfactory position, more as regards our safety than the question of health, sickness being expected to make itself felt only later in the year.
We therefore decided to "trek" another 10 miles, to the east of Witpoort, through Korfsnek, to the Steenkampsbergen, in order to pitch or camp at Windhoek. Windhoek (wind-corner) was an appropriate name, the breezes blowing there at times with unrelenting fury.
Here we celebrated Christmas of 1900, but we sorely missed the many presents our friends and lady acquaintances sent us from Johannesburg on the previous festival, and which had made last year's Christmas on the Tugela such a success.
No flour, sugar or coffee, no spirits or cigars to brighten up our festive board. This sort of thing belonged to the luxuries which had long ceased to come our way, and we had to look pleasant on mealie-porridge and meat, varied by meat and mealie-porridge.
Yet many groups of burghers were seen to be amusing themselves at all sorts of games; or you found a pastor leading divine service and exhorting the burghers. Thus we kept our second Christmas in the field.
About this time the commandos from the Lydenburg district (where we now were) as well as those from the northern part of Middelburg, were placed under my command, and I was occupied for several days in reorganising the new arrivals. The fact of the railway being almost incessantly in the hands of the enemy, and the road from Machadodorp to Lydenburg also blocked by them (the latter being occupied in several places by large or small garrisons) compelled us to place a great number of outposts to guard against continual attacks and to report whenever some of the columns, which were always moving about, were approaching.
The spot where our laagers were now situated was only 13 miles from Belfast and Bergendal, between which two places General Smith-Dorrien's strong force was posted; while a little distance behind Lydenburg was General Walter Kitchener with an equally strong garrison. We were, therefore, obliged to be continually on the alert, not relaxing our watchfulness for one single moment. One or two burghers were still deserting from time to time, aggravating their shameful behaviour by informing the enemy of our movements, which often caused a well-arranged plan to fail. We knew this was simply owing to these very dangerous traitors.
The State Artillerymen, who had now been deprived of their guns, were transformed into a mounted corps of 85 men, under Majors Wolmarans and Pretorius, and placed under my command for the time being.
It was now time we should assume the offensive, before the enemy attacked us. I therefore went out scouting for some days, with several of my officers, in order to ascertain the enemy's positions and to find out their weakest spot. My task was getting too arduous, and I decided to promote Commandant Muller to the rank of a fighting-general. He turned out to be an active and reliable assistant.