"The shades of eve were falling fast" as we moved cautiously away from Mapochsberg and proceeded through Landdrift, Steelpoort, and the Tautesberg. At 3 o'clock in the morning we halted in a hollow place where we would not be observed, yet we were still a mile and a half from the enemy's cordon. Our position was now more critical than ever; for should the enemy discover our departure, and General Plumer hurry up towards us that morning, we should have little chance of escape.
During the day I was obliged to call all the burghers together, and to earnestly address them concerning the happenings of the previous day. I told them to tell me candidly if they had lost faith in me, or if they had any reason not to trust me implicitly, as I would not tolerate the way in which they had behaved the day before. I added:—
"If you cannot see your way clear to obey implicitly my commands, to be true to me, and to believe that I am true to you, I shall at once leave you, and you can appoint someone else to look after you. We are by no means out of the wood yet, and it is now more than ever necessary that we should be able to trust one another to the fullest extent. Therefore, I ask those who have lost confidence in me, or have any objection to my leading them, to stand out."
No one stirred. Other officers and burghers next rose and spoke, assuring me that all the rebels had deserted the previous night, and that all the men with me would be true and faithful. Then Pastor J. Louw addressed the burghers very earnestly, pointing out to them the offensive way in which some of them had spoken of their superior officers, and that in the present difficult circumstances it was absolutely necessary that there should be no disintegration and discord amongst ourselves. I think all these perorations had a very salutary effect. But such were the difficulties that we officers had to contend with at the hands of undisciplined men who held exaggerated notions of freedom of action and of speech, and I was not the only Boer officer who suffered in this respect.
About two in the afternoon I gave the order to saddle up, as it was necessary to start before sunset in order to be able to cross the Olifant's River before daybreak, so that the enemy should not overtake us should they notice us. We dismounted and led our horses, for we had discovered that the English could not distinguish between a body of men leading their horses and a troop of cattle, so long as the horses were all kept close together. All the hills around us were covered with cattle captured from our "bush-lancers," and therefore our passage was unnoticed.
We followed an old waggon track along the Buffelskloof, where a road leads from Tautesberg to Blood River. The stream runs between Botha's and Tautesbergen, and flows into the Olifant's River near Mazeppa Drift. It is called Blood River on account of the horrible massacre which took place there many years before, when the Swazi kaffirs murdered a whole kaffir tribe without distinction of age or sex, literally turning the river red with blood.
Towards evening we reached the foot of the mountains, and moved in a north-westerly direction past Makleerewskop. We got through the English lines without any difficulty along some footpaths, but our progress was very slow, as we had to proceed in Indian file, and we had to stop frequently to see that no one was left behind. The country was thickly wooded, and frequently the baggage on the pack-horses became entangled with branches of trees, and had to be disentangled and pulled off the horses' backs, which also caused considerable delay.
It was 3 o'clock in the morning before we reached the Olifant's River, at a spot which was once a footpath drift, but was now washed away and overgrown with trees and shrubs, making it very difficult to find the right spot to cross. Our only guide who knew the way had not been there for 15 years, but recognised the place by some high trees which rose above the others. We had considerable difficulty in crossing, the water reaching to our horses' saddles, and the banks being very steep. By the time we had all forded the sun had risen. All the other drifts on the river were occupied by the enemy, our scouts reporting that Mazeppa Drift, three miles down stream, was entrenched by a strong English force, as was the case with Kalkfontein Drift, a little higher up. I suppose this drift was not known to them, and thus had been left unguarded.
Having got through we rode in a northerly direction until about 9 o'clock in the morning, and not until then were we sure of being clear of the enemy's clutches. But there was a danger that the English had noticed our absence and had followed us up. I therefore sent out scouts on the high kopjes in the neighbourhood, and not until these had reported all clear did we take the risk of off-saddling. You can imagine how thankful we were after having been in the saddle for over 19 hours, and I believe our poor animals were no less thankful for a rest.
We had not slept for three consecutive nights, and soon the whole commando, with the exception of the sentries, were fast asleep. Few of us thought of food, for our fatigue and drowsiness were greater than our hunger. But we could only sleep for two hours, for we were much too close to the enemy, and we wished to make them lose scent of us entirely.
The burghers grumbled a good deal at being awakened and ordered to saddle up, but we moved on nevertheless. I sent some men to enquire at a kaffir kraal for the way to Pietersburg, and although I had no intention of going in that direction, I knew that the kaffirs, so soon as we had gone, would report to the nearest British camp that they had met a commando of Boers going there. Kaffirs would do this with the hope of reward, which they often received in the shape of spirituous liquor. We proceeded all that day in the direction of Pietersburg until just before sunset we came to a small stream. Here we stopped for an hour and then went on again, this time, however, to the left in a southerly direction through the bush to Poortjesnek near Rhenosterkop, where a little time before the fight with General Paget's force had taken place. We had to hurry through the bush, as horse-sickness was prevalent here and we still had a long way before us. It was midnight before we reached the foot of the Poortjesnek.
Here my officers informed me that two young burghers had become insane through fatigue and want of sleep, and that several, while asleep in their saddles had been pulled off their horses by low branches and severely injured. Yet we had to get through the Nek and get to the plateau before I could allow any rest. I went and had a look at the demented men. They looked as if intoxicated and were very violent. All our men and horses were utterly exhausted, but we pushed on and at last reached the plateau, where, to everybody's great delight, we rested for the whole day. The demented men would not sleep, but I had luckily some opium pills with me and I gave each man one of them, so that they got calmer, and, dropping off to sleep, afterwards recovered.
My scouts reported next day that a strong English patrol had followed us up, but that otherwise it was "all serene." We pushed on through Langkloof over our old fighting ground near Rhenosterkop, then through the Wilge River near Gousdenberg up to Blackwood Camp, about nine miles north of Balmoral Station. Here we stayed a few days to allow our animals to rest and recover from their hardships, and then moved on across the railway to the Bethel and Ermelo districts. Here the enemy was much less active, and we should have an opportunity of being left undisturbed for a little time. But we lost 40 of our horses, who had caught the dreaded horse-sickness whilst passing through the bush country.
On the second day of our stay at Blackwood Camp I sent 150 men under Commandants Groenwald and Viljoen through the Banks, via Staghoek, to attack the enemy's camp near Wagendrift on the Olifant's River. This was a detachment of the force which had been surrounding us. We discovered that they were still trying to find us, and that the patrol which had followed us were not aware of our having got away. It appears that they only discovered this several days afterwards, and great must have been the good general's surprise when they found that the birds had flown and their great laid schemes had failed.
My 150 men approached the enemy's camp early in the morning, and when at a short range began pouring in a deadly rifle fire on the western side. The British soldiers, who were not dreaming of an attack, ran to and fro in wild disorder. Our burghers, however, ceased firing when they saw that there were many women and children in the camp, but the enemy began soon to pour out a rifle and gun fire, and our men were obliged to carry on the fight.
After a few days' absence they returned to our camp and reported to me that "they had frightened the English out of their wits, for they thought we were to the east at Roos Senekal, whereas we turned up from the west."
Of course the British speedily discovered where we were, and came marching up from Poortjesnek in great force. But we sent out a patrol to meet them, and the latter by passing them west of Rhenosterkop effectually misled them, and we were left undisturbed at Blackwood Camp.
This left us time to prepare for crossing the railway; so I despatched scouts south to see how matters stood, and bade them return the next day. We knew that a number of small commandos were located on the south side of the railway, but to effect a junction was a difficult matter, and we would risk getting trapped between the columns if we moved at random. The railway and all the roads were closely guarded, and great care was being taken to prevent any communication between the burghers on either side of the line.