As briefly referred to in the last chapter, there occurred in the early part of February, 1901, what I always regard as one of the most unpleasant incidents of the whole Campaign, and which even now I cannot record without awakening the most painful recollections. I refer to the summary execution of a traitor in our ranks, and inasmuch as a great deal has been written of this tragic episode, I venture to state the particulars of it in full. The facts of the case are as follows:—
At this period of the War, as well as subsequently, much harm was done to our cause by various burghers who surrendered to the enemy, and who, actuated by the most sordid motives, assisted the British in every possible way against us. Some of these treacherous Boers occasionally fell into our hands, and were tried by court martial for high treason; but however damning the evidence brought against them they usually managed to escape with some light punishment. On some occasions sentence of death was passed on them, but it was invariably commuted to imprisonment for life, and as we had great difficulty in keeping such prisoners, they generally succeeded, sooner or later, in making their escape. This mistaken leniency was the cause of much dissatisfaction in our ranks, which deeply resented that these betrayers of their country should escape scot-free.
About this time a society was formed at Pretoria, chiefly composed of surrendered burghers, called the "Peace Committee," but better known to us as the "Hands-uppers." Its members surreptitiously circulated pamphlets and circulars amongst our troops, advising them to surrender and join the enemy. The impartial reader will doubtless agree that such a state of things was not to be tolerated. Imagine, for example, that English officers and soldiers circulated similar communications amongst the Imperial troops! Would such proceedings have been tolerated?
The chairman of this society was a man by the name of Meyer De Kock, who had belonged to a Steenkampsberg field-cornet's force and had deserted to the enemy. He was the man who first suggested to the British authorities the scheme of placing the Boer women and children in Concentration Camps—a system which resulted in so much misery and suffering—and he maintained that this would be the most effective way of forcing the Boers to surrender, arguing that no burgher would continue to fight when once his family was in British hands.
One day a kaffir, bearing a white flag, brought a letter from this person's wife addressed to one of my field-cornets, informing him that her husband, Mr. De Kock, wished to meet him and discuss with him the advisability of surrendering with his men to the enemy. My field-cornet, however, was sufficiently sensible and loyal to send no reply.
And so it occurred that one morning Mr. De Kock, doubtlessly thinking that he would escape punishment as easily as others had before him, had the audacity to ride coolly into our outposts. He was promptly arrested and incarcerated in Roos Senekal Gaol, this village being at the time in our possession. Soon afterwards he was tried by court-martial, and on the face of the most damning evidence, and on perusal of a host of incriminating documents found in his possession, was condemned to death.
About a fortnight later a waggon drove up to our laager at Windhoek, carrying Lieutenant De Hart, accompanied by a member of President Burger's bodyguard, some armed burghers, and the condemned man De Kock. They halted at my tent, and the officer handed me an order from our Government, bearing the President's ratification of the sentence of death, and instructing me to carry it out within 24 hours. Needless to say I was much grieved to receive this order, but as it had to be obeyed I thought the sooner it was done the better for all concerned. So then and there on the veldt I approached the condemned man, and said:—
"Mr. De Kock, the Government has confirmed the sentence of death passed on you, and it is my painful duty to inform you that this sentence will be carried out to-morrow evening. If you have any request to make or if you wish to write to your family you will now have an opportunity of doing so."
At this he turned deadly pale, and some minutes passed before he had recovered from his emotion. He then expressed a wish to write to his family, and was conducted, under escort, to a tent, where writing materials were placed before him. He wrote a long communication to his wife, which we sent to the nearest British officers to forward to its destination. He also wrote me a letter thanking me for my "kind treatment," and requested me to forward the letter to his wife. Later on spiritual consolation was offered and administered to him by our pastor.
Next day, as related in the previous chapter, we were attacked by a detachment of General Kitchener's force from Belfast. This kept me busy all day, and I delegated two of my subaltern officers to carry out the execution. At dusk the condemned man was blindfolded and conducted to the side of an open grave, where twelve burghers fired a volley, and death was instantaneous. I am told that De Kock met his fate with considerable fortitude.
So far as I am aware, this was the first Boer "execution" in our history. I afterwards read accounts of it in the English press, in which it was described as murder, but I emphatically repudiate this description of a wholly justifiable act. The crime was a serious one, and the punishment was well deserved, and I have no doubt that the same fate would have awaited any English soldier guilty of a similar offence. It seems a great pity, however, that no war can take place without these melancholy incidents.