It was now March, 1901. For some time our burghers had been complaining of inactivity, and the weary and monotonous existence was gradually beginning to pall on them. But it became evident that April would be an eventful month, as the enemy had determined not to suffer our presence in these parts any longer. A huge movement, therefore, was being set on foot to surround us and capture the whole commando en bloc.
It began with a night attack on a field-cornet's force posted at Kruger's Post, north of Lydenburg, and here the enemy succeeded in capturing 35 men and a quantity of "impedimenta;" the field-cornet in question, although warned in time, having taken no proper precautions. By the middle of April the enemy's forward movement was in full swing. General Plumer came from Pietersburg, General Walter Kitchener from Lydenburg, and General Barber from Middelburg. They approached us in six different directions, altogether a force of 25,000 men, and the whole under the supreme command of General Sir Bindon Blood.
No escape was available for us through Secoekuniland on the north, as the natives here, since the British had occupied their territory, were avowedly hostile to us. To escape, therefore, we would have to break through the enemy's lines and also to cross the railway, which was closely guarded.
The enemy were advancing slowly from various directions. All our roads were carefully guarded, and the cordon was gradually tightening around us. We were repeatedly attacked, now on this side, now on that, the British being clearly anxious to discover our position and our strength. In a sharp skirmish with a column from Lydenburg my faithful Fighting-General Muller was severely wounded in his shoulder, and a commando of Lydenburgers had been isolated from me and driven by the enemy along Waterfal River up to Steelpoort, where they encountered hostile tribes of kaffirs. The commandant of the corps after a short defence was obliged to destroy his guns, forsake his baggage, and escape with his burghers in small groups into the mountains.
Our position was growing more critical, but I resolved to make a stand before abandoning our carts and waggons, although there seemed little hope of being able to save anything. In fact the situation was extremely perilous. As far as I could see we were entirely hemmed in, all the roads were blocked, my best officer wounded, I had barely 900 men with me, and our stock of ammunition was very limited.
I have omitted to mention that early in April, when we first got an inkling of this move I had liberated all the British officers whom I had kept as prisoners at Middelburg, and thus saved the British authorities many a D.S.O. which would otherwise have been claimed by their rescuers.
The British around us were now posted as follows: At Diepkloof on the Tautesberg to the north-west of us; at Roodekraal, between Tautesberg and Bothasberg, to the west of us; at Koebold, under Roodehoogte; at Windhoek, to the east of us; at Oshoek, to the north-east; and to the north of us between Magneetshoogte and Klip Spruit. We were positioned on Mapochsberg near Roos Senekal, about midway between Tautesberg and Steenkampsberg. We had carts, waggons, two field-pieces, and a Colt-Maxim.
We speedily discovered that we should have to leave our baggage and guns, and rely mainly on our horses and rifles. We had placed our hospitals as well as we could, one in an empty school-building at Mapochsberg with 10 wounded, under the care of Dr. Manning; the other, our only field-hospital, at Schoonpoort, under the supervision of Dr. H. Neethling. Whether these poor wounded Boers would have to be abandoned to the enemy, was a question which perplexed us considerably. If so, we should have been reduced to only one physician, Dr. Leitz, a young German who might get through with a pack-horse. Many officers and men, however, had lost all hope of escape.
It was about the 20th of April when the British approached so close that we had to fight all day to maintain our positions. I gave orders that same night that we should burn our waggons, destroy our guns with dynamite, and make a dash through the enemy's lines, those burghers who had no horses to mount the mules of the convoy. Hereupon about 100 burghers and an officer coolly informed me that they had had enough fighting, and preferred to surrender. I was at that time powerless to prevent them doing so, so I took away all their horses and ammunition, at which they did not seem very pleased. Before dusk our camp was a scene of wild confusion. Waggons and carts were burning fiercely, dynamite was being exploded, and horseless burghers were attempting to break in the mules which were to serve them as mounts. Meanwhile a skirmish was going on between our outposts and those of the enemy.
It was a strange procession that left Mapochsberg that night in our dash through the British lines. Many Boers rode mules, whilst many more had no saddles, and no small number were trudging along on foot, carrying their rifles and blankets on their shoulders. My scouts had reported that the best way to get through was on the southern side along Steelpoort, about a quarter of a mile from the enemy's camp at Bothasberg. But even should we succeed in breaking through the cordon around us, we still had to cross the line at Wondersfontein before daybreak, so as not to get caught between the enemy's troops and the blockhouses.
About 100 scouts, who formed our advance-guard, soon encountered the enemy's sentries. They turned to the right, then turned to the left; but everywhere the inquisitive "Tommies" kept asking: "Who goes there?" Not being over anxious to satisfy their curiosity, they sent round word at once for us to lie low, and we started very carefully exploring the neighbourhood. But there seemed no way out of the mess. We might have attacked some weak point and thus forced our way through, but it was still four or five hours' ride to the railway line, and with our poor mounts we should have been caught and captured. Besides which the enemy might have warned the blockhouse garrisons, in which case we should have been caught between two fires.
No; we wanted to get through without being discovered, and seeing that this was that night hopeless, I consulted my officers and decided to return to our deserted camp, where we could take up our original positions without the enemy being aware of our nocturnal excursion.
Next morning the rising sun found us back in our old positions. We despatched scouts in all directions as usual, so as to make the enemy believe that we intended to remain there permanently, and we put ourselves on our guard, ready to repel an attack at any point on the shortest notice.
But the enemy were much too cautious, and evidently thought they had us safely in their hands. They amused themselves by destroying every living thing, and burned the houses and the crops. The whole veldt all round was black, everything seemed in mourning, the only relief from this dull monotony of colour being that afforded by the innumerable specks of khaki all around us. I believe I said there were 25,000 men there, but it now seemed to me as if there were almost double that number.
We had to wait until darkness set in before making a second attempt at escape. The day seemed interminable. Many burghers were loudly grumbling, and even some officers were openly declaring that all this had been done on purpose. Of course, these offensive remarks were pointed at me. At last the situation became too serious. I could only gather together a few officers to oppose an attack from the enemy on the eastern side, and something had to be done to prevent a general mutiny. I therefore ordered a burgher who seemed loudest in his complaints to receive 15 lashes with a sjambok, and I placed a field-cornet under arrest. After this the grumblers remained sullenly silent.
The only loophole in the enemy's lines seemed to be in the direction of Pietersburg on the portion held by General Plumer, who seemed far too busy capturing cattle and sheep from the "bush-lancers" to surround us closely. We therefore decided to take our chance there and move away as quickly as possible in that direction, and then to bear to the left, where we expected to find the enemy least watchful. Shortly before sunset I despatched 100 mounted men to ride openly in the opposite direction to that which we intended to take, so as to divert the enemy's attention from our scene of operations, and sat down to wait for darkness.