In September, 1901, after having organized the commandos north of Lydenburg, I went back with my suite to join my burghers at Olifant's River, which I reached at the beginning of September. The enemy had left General Muller alone after the affair with the Hussars. Reports were coming in from across the railway informing us that much fighting was going on in the Orange Free State and Cape Colony, and that the burghers were holding their own. This was very satisfactory news to us, especially as we had not received any tidings for over a month. I again sent in a report to our Commandant-General relating my adventures.
We had much difficulty in getting the necessary food for the commandos, the enemy having repeatedly crossed the country between Roos Senekal, Middelburg, and Rhenosterkop, destroying and ravaging everything. I therefore resolved to split up my forces, the corps known by the name of the "Rond Commando" taking one portion through the enemy's lines to Pilgrimsrust, North of Lydenburg, where food was still abundant. Fighting-General Muller was left behind with the Boksburg Police and the Middelburg Commando, the Johannesburg corps going with me to Pilgrim's Rest, where I had my temporary headquarters. We had plenty of mealies in this district and also enough cattle to kill, so that we could manage to subsist on these provisions. We had long since dispensed with tents, but the rains in the mountain regions of Pilgrim's Rest and the Sabi had compelled us to find the burghers shelter. At the alluvial diggings at Pilgrim's Rest we found a great quantity of galvanized iron plates and deals, which, when cut into smaller pieces, could be used for building. We found a convenient spot in the mountains between Pilgrim's Rest and Kruger's Post, where some hundreds of iron or zinc huts were soon erected, affording excellent cover for the burghers.
Patrols were continually sent out round Lydenburg, and whenever possible we attacked the enemy, keeping him well occupied. We succeeded in getting near his outposts from time to time and occasionally capturing some cattle. This seemed to be very galling to the English, and towards the end of September we found they were receiving reinforcements at Lydenburg. This had soon become a considerable force, in fact in November they crossed the Spekboom River in great numbers, and at Kruger's Post came upon our outposts, when there was some fighting. The enemy did not go any further that night. The following day we had to leave these positions and the other side took them and camped there. Next day they moved along Ohrigstad River with a strong mounted force and a good many empty waggons, evidently to collect the women-folk in that place. I had to proceed by a circuitous route in order to get ahead of the enemy. The road led across a steep mountain and through thickly grown kloofs, which prevented us from reaching the enemy until they had burnt all the houses, destroyed the seed plants, and loaded the families on their carts, after which they withdrew to the camp at Kruger's Post. We at once charged the enemy's rearguard, and a heavy fight followed, which, however, was of short duration. The English fled, leaving some dead and wounded behind, also some dozens of helmets and "putties" which had got entangled in the trees. We also captured a waggon loaded with provisions and things that had been looted, such as women's clothes and rugs, a case of Lee-Metford ammunition and a number of uniforms. Some days after the enemy tried to get through to Pilgrim's Rest, but had to retire before our rifle fire. They managed, however, to get to Roosenkrans, where a fight of only some minutes ensued, when they retired to Kruger's Post. They only stopped there for a few days, marching back to Lydenburg at night time just when we had carefully planned a night attack. We destroyed the Spekboom River bridge shortly after, thus preventing the enemy's return from Lydenburg to Kruger's Post in a single night. Although there is a drift through the river it cannot be passed in the dark without danger, especially with guns and carts, without which no English column will march. Every fortnight I personally proceeded with my adjutants through the enemy's lines near Lydenburg to see how the commando in the South were getting on and to arrange matters.
The month of November, 1901, passed without any remarkable incidents. We organized some expeditions to the Delagoa Bay Railway, but without much success, and during one of these the burghers succeeded in laying a mine near Hector's Spruit Station during the night. They were lying in ambush next day waiting for a train to come along when a "Tommy" went down the line and noticed some traces of the ground having been disturbed which roused his suspicions. He saw the mine and took the dynamite out. Two burghers who were lying in the long grass shouted "Hands up." Tommy threw his rifle down and with his hands up in the air ran up to the burghers saying, before they could speak, "I say, did you hear the news that Mrs. Botha gave birth to a son in Europe?"
They could not help laughing, and the "Tommy," looking very innocent, answered:
"I am not telling you a fib."
One of the burghers coaxed him by telling him they did not doubt his word, only the family news had come so prematurely.
"Well," returned "Tommy," "Oi thought you blokes would be interested in your boss's family, that's why I spoke."
The courteous soldier was sent back with instructions to get some better clothes, for those he had on his back were all torn and dirty and they were not worth taking.
The expedition was now a failure, for the enemy had been warned and the sentries were doubled along the line.
In December, 1901, we tried an attack on a British convoy between Lydenburg and Machadodorp. I took a mounted commando and arrived at Schvemones Cleft after four days' marching through the Sabinek via Cham Sham, an arduous task, as we had to go over the mountains and through some rivers. Some of my officers went out scouting in order to find the best place for an attack on the convoy. The enemy's blockhouses were found to be so close together on the road along which the convoy had to pass as to make it very difficult to get at it. But having come such a long way nobody liked to go back without having at least made an effort. We therefore marched during the night and found some hiding places along the road where we waited, ready to charge anything coming along. At dawn next day I found the locality to be very little suitable for the purpose we had in view, but if we were now to move the enemy would notice our presence from the blockhouses. We would, therefore, either have to lie low till dusk or make an attack after all. We had already captured several of the enemy's spies, whom we kept prisoners so as not to be betrayed. Towards the afternoon the convoy came by and we charged on horseback. The English, who must have seen us coming, were ready to receive our charge and poured a heavy fire into us from ditches and trenches and holes in the ground. We managed to dislodge the enemy's outerflanks and to make several prisoners, but could not reach the carts on account of the heavy fire from a regiment of infantry escorting the waggons. I thought the taking of the convoy would cost more lives than it was worth, and gave orders to cease firing. We lost my brave adjutant, Jaapie Oliver, while Captain Giel Joubert and another burgher were wounded. On the other side Captain Merriman and ten men were wounded. I do not know how many killed he had.
We went back to Schoeman's Kloof the same day, where we buried our comrades and attended to the wounded. The blockhouses and garrisons along the convoy road were now fortified with entrenchments and guns, and we had to abandon our plan of further attacks. It was raining fast all the time we were out on this expedition, which caused us serious discomfort. We had very few waterproofs, and, all the houses in the district having been burnt down, there was no shelter for man or beast. We slowly retired on Pilgrim's Rest, having to cross several swollen rivers.
On our arrival at Sabi I received the sad tidings that four burghers named Stoltz had been cruelly murdered by kaffirs at Witriver. Commandant Du Toit had gone there with a patrol and found the bodies in a shocking condition, plundered and cut to pieces with assegais, and, according to the trace, the murderers had come from Nelspruit Station.
Another report came from General Muller at Steenkampsberg. He informed me that he had stormed a camp during the night of the 16th December, but had been forced to retire after a fierce fight, losing 25 killed and wounded, amongst whom was the valiant Field-Cornet J. J. Kriege. The enemy's losses were also very heavy, being 31 killed and wounded, including Major Hudson.
It should not be imagined that we had to put up with very primitive arrangements in every respect. Where we were now stationed, to the north of Lydenburg, we even had telephonic communication between Spitskop and Doornhoek, with call-offices at Sabi and Pilgrim's Rest. The latter place is in the centre of the diggers' population here, and a moderate-sized village. There are a few hundred houses in it, and it is situated 30 miles north-east of Lydenburg. Here are the oldest goldfields known in South Africa, having been discovered in 1876. This village had so far been permanently in our possession. General Buller had been there with his force in 1900 but had not caused any damage, and the enemy had not returned since. The mines and big stamp-batteries were protected by us and kept in order by neutral persons under the management of Mr. Alex. Marshall. We established a hospital there under the supervision of Dr. A. Neethling. About forty families were still in residence and there was enough food, although it was only simple fare and not of great variety. Yet people seemed to be very happy and contented so long as they were allowed to live among their own people.