I may say that the barbed wire fences by which the blockhouses were encompassed, constituted very formidable obstacles to our attacks. Our men were comparatively few, and we could not afford to lose any of them in futile attempts to capture strongly garrisoned British forts. Moreover, there were many other ways of inflicting damage on the enemy that did not lay us open to so much danger.
Heavy and continuous rains had been experienced for some time, and the rivers and spruits were greatly swollen. The whole of the Lydenburg district, in which we were operating, was besides enveloped in a thick mist, and both these causes rendered reconnoitring very difficult and perilous, as we never knew how near the enemy's patrols might be.
About the 15th of January, 1902, I obtained information that our Government were being chased all over the country, and had now encamped at Windhoek near Dullstroom, to the south of Lydenburg. At the same time I received an order from Acting-President Schalk Burger, stating that he wished to see me. This latter intelligence was very acceptable, for I was anxious to renew acquaintance with the President, and with a personal friend of mine, Mr. J. C. Krojk, who was attached to the Field Government. Therefore, on receiving this instruction, I set out from Pilgrim's Rest accompanied by Adjutants Nel, Coetzee, Bester, and Potgieter, for the place where the Government were encamped. I little expected as I rode along that this would be my last and most fateful expedition.
I calculated that I should be away eight days, and, wishing to be present at any active operations that might be conducted, I instructed my brother, whom I left in charge of my forces, to make no attack during my absence. After leaving Pilgrim's Rest, I and my companions rode briskly forth along the path past Dornbock, Roodekrans and Kruger's Post. We encamped at the latter place at night-fall. Next day we again set out, and having succeeded in passing the British forts and blockhouses to the north of Lydenburg, we came upon the Spekboom River. This river was so swollen by the recent rains that no fording was possible, and we were only able to cross by making our horses swim. At one o'clock we reached Koodekraus, and off-saddled there. This place is about 15 miles to the west of Lydenburg. At dawn the next day, after having reconnoitred the country in the neighbourhood, we proceeded cautiously in the direction of Steenkampsberg until we were meet by messengers, who told us precisely where our Government was to be found. That evening we found our locomotive Administration encamped at Mopochsburgen, to which place they had retreated before a hostile column, which was operating from Belfast.
The greetings that were exchanged were of the heartiest character, and we sat chatting round the camp fires far into the night. That we had much to talk about and many stories to relate of the vicissitudes of war needs no saying. I personally received the very lamentable tidings that my sister, her husband, and three of their children had died in the Concentration Camp at Pietersburg.
Two days after we arrived, the Government received a report from General Muller stating that two hostile columns were approaching. We had not long to wait. The enemy attacked us in the afternoon, but did not succeed in driving us from our position. We were not, however, in a position to sustain a long battle, owing to scarcity of ammunition. Many of our burghers had only five cartridges left and some had not even one. Therefore, that same night—I think it was the 21st of January although I had lost count of dates—the Government, whom I accompanied, departed and proceeded to the Kloof Oshoek, between Dullstroom and Lydenburg. The weather was very unpropitious, rain falling in torrents, and as may be understood, we were in a sad plight. We were protected by nothing except our mackintoshes, and greatly envied a member of the party who was the proud possessor of a small piece of canvas.
It had been decided that the Government should proceed on the 25th of January from Oshoek to Pilgrim's Rest, but the information that the British were not pressing their pursuit, caused them to give up this project, for it was thought advisable to await the enemy's next move. I should here mention that the further the Government were chased, the more difficult they found it to keep up communications with the Commandant-General and the Orange Free State Government. With the latter, however, despatches were being exchanged concerning very important matters which I consider as still improper to disclose. The Government having determined not to proceed, I decided to bid farewell, and to proceed with my attendants on the way to Pilgrim's Rest.
Accordingly, on the 25th of January, we left the Government at Oshoek and rode along to Zwagerhoek, where we remained till sundown. We were now nearing the enemy's country, and so, having carefully reconnoitred the ground, we set forth cautiously at dusk. Two young Boers, who were also on the road to Pilgrim's Rest, had meanwhile joined us, and, including my kaffir servant, our party comprised eight persons. We soon passed the fateful spot where Commandant Schoenman had been captured in the early part of the War, and forded the Spekboom River.
I am not superstitious, but I must confess that somehow or other I experienced considerable disquietude about this time, and felt cold shivers running down my back. We were just approaching Bloomplaats, which is about two and half miles to the west of Lydenburg, when we observed something moving. A deadly silence enveloped the country, and the brightly-shining moon gave a weird appearance to the moving objects in the distance which had attracted our attention. Our suspicions were aroused and we went in pursuit, but soon lost sight of the object of our quest. We discovered afterwards that our suspicions were well-founded, and that the moving objects were kaffir spies, who returned to the British lines and reported our approach. Having failed in this enterprise we returned to the road, I riding in advance with Adjutant Bester, the others following. Presently we approached a deep spruit, and having dismounted, we were cautiously leading our horses down the steep bank, when suddenly we found ourselves the centre of a perfect storm of bullets. We were completely taken by surprise, and almost before we realised what had happened, we found ourselves confronted by two rows of British soldiery, who shouted "Hands up," and fired simultaneously. Bullets whistled in every direction. The first volley laid my horse low, and I found myself on the ground half stunned. When I recovered somewhat and lifted my head, I discovered myself surrounded, but the dust and the flash of firing prevented me from seeing much of what occurred. It seemed hopeless to attempt escape, and I cried excitedly that I was ready to surrender. So loud, however, was the noise of shouting that my cries were drowned. One soldier viciously pressed his gun against my breast as if about to shoot me, but thrusting the barrel away, I said in English that I saw no chance of escape, that I did not defend myself, and there was no reason therefore why he should kill me. While I was talking he again drove his rifle against me, and I, having grasped it firmly, a very animated argument took place, for he strongly resented my grasping his gun. Outstretching my hand I asked "Tommy" to help me up, and this he did. I afterwards learned that the name of my assailant was Patrick, and that he belonged to the Irish Rifles.
Four or five soldiers now took charge of me, and at my request consented to conduct me to an officer. Just as they were about to lead me away, however, they all fell flat upon their chests, and directed their fire at an object, which turned out later to be a bush. I very soon discovered that the "Tommies" were not very circumspect in their fire, and I sought safety by lying on the ground. Having discovered the innocent nature of their target, my guards conducted me before one of their officers, a young man named Walsh, who seemed to belong to the British Intelligence Department. This officer enquired, "Well, what is it?" I answered him in his own language, "My name is Viljoen, and not wishing to be plundered by your soldiers, I desire to place myself under the protection of an officer." He was quite a minor officer this Mr. Walsh, but he said kindly, "All right, it is rather a lucky haul, sir; you look quite cool, are you hurt?" I replied that I was not hurt, though it was a miracle that I was still alive, for a bullet had struck my chest, and would have penetrated had my pocket-book not stopped it. The fact was, that my pocket-book had served the providential service of the proverbial bible or pack of cards. Bester was with me, and not seeing my other adjutants, I enquired what had become of them. Walsh did not reply at once, and one of the "Tommies" standing close by said, "Both killed, sor." This information was a terrible blow to me.
Major Orr, of the Royal Irish Regiment, was in charge of the force that had captured me, and presently I was taken before him. He greeted me most courteously and said, "I believe we are old friends, General Viljoen; at least you captured some of my comrades in that regrettable affair at Belfast." I was greatly touched by Major Orr's kindness, and asked that I might see those of my men who had been killed. He immediately consented, and led me a few paces aside. My gaze was soon arrested by a heartrending spectacle. There on the ground lay the two lifeless forms of my brave and faithful adjutants, Jacobus Nel and L. Jordaan. As I bent over their prostrate bodies my eyes grew dim with the sad tears of my great bereavement. Major Orr stood uncovered by my side, touched by my deep emotion and paying homage to the brave dead. "These men were heroes," I said to him with broken voice. "They followed me because they loved me, and they fearlessly risked their lives for me several times." The good Major was full of sympathy, and made provision for the decent burial of my poor comrades at Lydenburg.
Bester and I were now conducted under an escort of 150 soldiers with fixed bayonets to the village, which was two and a half miles off. We reached Lydenburg very wet and gloomy, after having waded through a drift whose waters reached up to our armpits. Major Orr did his best to console us both with refreshment and kind words.
Our procession was presently joined by an officer of the British Intelligence Department, and this gentleman told me that he knew of the approach of my party, and that the chief object of the British in attacking us was to capture our itinerant Government, who they learned were to accompany us. He was very anxious to know where the Government was, and whether it was intended that they should pass that way. But I answered his queries by telling him that it was quite unworthy of a gentleman to put such questions to me, and to attempt to exploit my most unfortunate position.
Arriving at the village, I was treated with great courtesy, and was introduced by Major Orr to Colonel Guinness, the commanding officer. Colonel Guinness declared that he regarded it as an honour to have a man of my rank as a prisoner-of-war, and that we had fought so frequently that we were quite old friends. I thanked him for his compliment, expressing, however, my regret that we had renewed acquaintance under such unfortunate circumstances.
"That is the fortune of war," said the Colonel. "You have nothing to be ashamed of, General." We were treated very well by our captors, and were given accommodation in the apartments of my old friend Captain Milner, who now filled the office of Provost-Marshal. My meeting with this gentleman was very cordial, and we sat up till nearly daybreak relating our different adventures since we had last met at Roos Senekal, where the worthy Captain was made prisoner by me. He assured me that his regiment entertained the highest respect for me and my burghers, and that they appreciated the fact that we had fought fairly and gallantly and had well-treated our prisoners-of-war. Bester and I remained under Milner's care throughout our stay at Lydenburg, and I shall always remember with gratitude the kindness extended me by the officers of the Royal Irish Regiment.