In the month of July, 1901, we found ourselves once more on the scene of our former struggles, and were joined here by General Muller, who had completed his mission south of the railway. This district having been scoured for three weeks by thirty thousand English soldiers, who had carefully removed and destroyed everything living or dead, one can imagine the conditions under which we had to exist. No doubt from a strategical point of view the enemy could not be expected to do otherwise than devastate the country, but what grieved us most was the great amount of suffering this entailed to our women and children. Often the waggons in which these were being carried to imprisonment in the Concentration Camps were upset by the unskilful driving of the soldiers or their kaffir servants, and many women and children were injured in this way.
Moreover, a certain Mrs. Lindeque was killed by an English bullet near Roos Senekal, the soldiers saying that she had passed through the outposts against instructions. Small wonder, therefore, that many of our women-folk fled with their children at the enemy's approach, leaving all their worldly possessions behind to fall a prey to the general destruction. We often came across such families in the greatest distress, some having taken shelter in caves, and others living in huts roughly constructed of half-burnt corrugated iron amongst the charred ruins of their former happy homes. The sufferings of our half-clad and hungry burghers were small compared to the misery and privations of these poor creatures. Their husbands and other relations, however, made provision for them to the best of their ability, and these families were, in spite of all, comparatively happy, so long as they were able to remain amongst their own people.
Our commandos were now fairly exhausted, and our horses needed a rest very badly, the wanderings of the previous few weeks having reduced them to a miserable condition. I therefore left General Muller near the cobalt mines on the Upper Olifant's River, just by the waggon drift, whilst I departed with 100 men and a pom-pom to Witpoort and Windhoek, there to collect my scattered burghers and reorganise my diminished commando, as well as to look after our food supplies. At Witpoort the burghers who had been under the late Field-Cornet Kruge, and had escaped the enemy's sweeping movements, had repaired the mill which the English had blown up, and this was now working as well as before. A good stock of mealies had been buried there, and had remained undiscovered, and we were very thankful to the "bush-lancers" for this bounty.
Still, things were not altogether "honey." Matters were rather in a critical state, as treachery was rampant, and many burghers were riding to and fro to the enemy and arranging to surrender, the faithful division being powerless to prevent them. We had to act with great firmness and determination to put a stop to these tendencies and within a week of our arrival half a dozen persons had been incarcerated in Roos Senekal gaol under a charge of high treason. Moreover we effected a radical change in leadership, discharging old and war-sick officers and placing younger and more energetic men in command.
Several families here were causing considerable trouble. When first the enemy had passed through their district they had had no opportunity of surrendering with their cattle. But when the English returned, they had attempted to go to the enemy's camp at Belfast, taking all their cattle and moveables with them. At this the loyal burghers were furious and threatened to confiscate all their cattle and goods. Seeing this, these families, whom I shall call the Steenkamps, had desisted from their attempt to go over to the enemy and had taken up their abode in a church at Dullstroom, the only building which had not been destroyed, although the windows, doors and pulpit had long disappeared. Here they quietly awaited an opportunity of surrendering to the enemy, whose camp at Belfast was only 10 or 12 miles distant. We were very anxious that their cattle and sheep, of which they had a large number, should not go to the enemy, but we could bring no charge of treachery home to them, as they were very smooth-tongued scoundrels and always swore fealty to us.
I have mentioned this as an example of the dangerous elements with which we had to contend amongst our own people, and to show how low a Boer may sink when once he has decided to forego his most sacred duties and turn against his own countrymen the weapon he had lately used in their defence. Such men were luckily in the minority. Yet I often came across cases where fathers fought against their own sons, and brother against brother. I cannot help considering that it was far from noble on the part of our enemy to employ such traitors to their country and to form such bodies of scoundrels as the National Scouts.
Amongst all this worry of reorganising our commandos and weeding out the traitors we were allowed little rest by the enemy, and once we suddenly found them marching up from Helvetia in our direction. A smart body of men, chiefly composed of Lydenburg and Middelburg men, and under the command of a newly-appointed officer, Captain Du Toit, went to meet the enemy between Bakendorp and Dullstroom. Here ensued a fierce fight, where we lost some men, but succeeded in arresting the enemy's progress. The fight, however, was renewed the next day, and the British having received strong reinforcements our burghers were forced to retire, the enemy remaining at a place near the "Pannetjes," three miles from Dullstroom.
The English camp was now close to our friends, the Steenkamps, who were anxiously waiting an opportunity to become "hands-uppers." They had, of course, left off fighting long ago, one complaining that he had a disease of the kidneys, another that he suffered from some other complaint. They would sit on the kopjes and watch the fighting and the various manœuvres, congratulating each other when the enemy approached a little nearer to them.
I will now ask the reader's indulgence to describe one of our little practical jokes enacted at Dullstroom Church, which was characteristic of many other similar incidents in the Campaign. It will be seen how these would-be "hands-uppers" were caught in a little trap prepared by some officers of my staff.
My three adjutants, Bester, Redelinghuisen, and J. Viljoen, carefully dressed in as much "khaki" as they could collect, and parading respectively as Colonels Bullock, "Jack," and "Cooper," all of His Majesty's forces, proceeded one fine evening to Dullstroom Church, to ascertain if the Steenkamps would agree to surrender and fight under the British flag. They arrived there about 9 p.m., and finding that the inmates had all gone to sleep, loudly knocked at the door. This was opened by a certain youthful Mr. Van der Nest, who was staying in the church for the night with his brother. J. Viljoen, alias "Cooper," and acting as interpreter between the pseudo-English and the renegade Boers, addressed the young man in this fashion:—
"Good evening! Is Mr. Steenkamp in? Here is a British officer who wishes to see him and his brother-in-law."
Van der Nest turned pale, and hurried inside, and stammering, "Oom Jan, there are some people at the door," woke up his brother and both decamped out of the back door. Steenkamp's brother-in-law, however, whom I will call Roux, soon made his appearance and bowing cringingly, said with a smile:—
"Good evening, gentlemen; good evening."
The self-styled Colonel Bullock, addressing "Cooper," the interpreter, said: "Tell Mr. Roux that we have information that he and his brother wish to surrender."
As soon as "Cooper" began to interpret, Roux answered in broken English, "Yes, sir, you are quite right; myself and my brother-in-law have been waiting twelve months for an opportunity to surrender, and we are so thankful now that we are able to do so."
"Colonel Bullock": "Very well, then; call your people out!"
Roux bowed low, and ran back into the church, presently issuing with three comrades, who all threw down their arms and made abeyance.
The "Colonel": "Are these men able to speak English?"
Roux: "No, sir."
The "Colonel": "Ask them if they are willing to surrender voluntarily to His Majesty the King of Great Britain?"
The burghers, in chorus: "Yes, sir; thank you very much. We are so pleased that you have come at last. We have wished to surrender for a long time, but the Boers would not let us get through. We have not fought against you, sir."
The "Colonel": "Very well; now deliver up all your arms."
And whilst the pseudo-colonel pretended to be busy making notes the burghers brought out their Mausers and cartridge-belts, handing them over to the masquerading "Tommies."
Roux next said to the "Colonel": "Please, sir, may I keep this revolver? There are a few Hollanders in the hut yonder who said they would shoot me if I surrendered; and you know, sir, that it is these Hollanders who urge the Boers to fight and prolong the War. Why don't you go and catch them? I will show you where they are."
Resisting an impulse to put a bullet through the traitor's head, the "Colonel" answered briefly: "Very well, keep your revolver. I will catch the Hollanders early to-morrow."
Roux: "Be careful, sir; Ben Viljoen is over there with a commando and a pom-pom."
The "Colonel" (haughtily): "Be at ease; my column will soon be round him and he will not escape this time."
The women-folk now came out to join the party. They clapped their hands in joy and invited the "Colonel" and his men to come in and have some coffee.
The "Colonel" graciously returned thanks. Meanwhile a woman had whispered to Roux: "I hope these are not Ben Viljoen's people making fools of us."
"Nonsense," he answered, "Can't you see that this is a very superior British officer?" Whereat the whole company further expressed their delight at seeing them.
The "Colonel" now spoke: "Mr. Roux, we will take your cattle and sheep with us for safety. Kindly lend us a servant to help drive them along. Will you show us to-morrow where the Boers are?"
Mr. Roux: "Certainly, sir, but you must not take me into dangerous places, please."
The "Colonel": "Very well; I will send the waggons to fetch your women-folk in the morning."
Roux gathered together his cattle and said: "I hope you and I shall have a whiskey together in your camp to-morrow."
The "Colonel" answered: "I shall be pleased to see you," and asked them if they had any money or valuables they wished taken care of. But the Boers, true to the saying, "Touch a Boer's heart rather than his purse," answered in chorus: "Thank you, but we have put all that carefully away where no Boer will find it."
They all bid the "Colonel" good-bye, the "Tommies" exchanging some familiarities with the women till these screamed with laughter, and then the "Colonel" and his commando of two men remounted their big clumsy English horses and rode proudly away. But pride comes before a fall, and they had not proceeded many yards when the "Colonel's" horse, stumbling over a bundle of barbed wire, fell, and threw his rider to the ground. Just as he had nearly exhausted the Dutch vocabulary of imprecations, the Steenkamps, who fortunately had not heard him, came to his assistance and with many expressions of sympathy helped him on his horse, Roux carefully wiping his leggings clean with his handkerchief. After proceeding a little further the "Tommies" asked their "Colonel" what he meant by that acrobatic performance. Whereat the "Colonel" answered: "That was a very fortunate accident; the Steenkamps are now convinced that we are English by the clumsy manner I rode."
The next morning my three adjutants arrived in camp carrying four new Mausers and 100 cartridges each, and driving about 300 sheep and a nice pony. The same morning I sent Field-Cornet Young to arrest the brave quartette of burghers. He found everything packed in readiness to depart to the English camp, and they were anxiously awaiting Colonel Bullock's promised waggons.
It was, of course, a fine "tableau" when the curtain rose on the farce, disclosing in the place of the expected English rescuers a burgher officer with a broad smile on his face. They were, of course, profuse in their apologies and excuses. They declared that they had been surrounded by hundreds of the enemy who had placed their rifles to their breasts, forcing them to surrender. One of them was now in so pitiable a condition of fear that he showed the field-cornet a score of certificates from doctors and quacks of all sorts, declaring him to be suffering from every imaginable disease, and the field-cornet was moved to leave him behind. The other three were placed under arrest, court-martialled and sentenced to three months' hard labour, and to have all their goods confiscated.
Two days later the English occupied Dullstroom, and the pseudo-invalid and the women, minus their belongings, were taken care of by the enemy, as they had wished.