Looking at the matter superficially it seems a very barbarous thing to derail and destroy trains with dynamite, but this was the only course left open to us, since large military stores were being continually brought in by the British from the coast. We honestly regretted that, owing to the derailment and destruction of trains, drivers, stokers, and often innocent passengers were launched into eternity. War is at best a cruel and illogical way of settling disputes, and the measures which the belligerent parties are sometimes compelled to take are of such a character that sentimentality does not enter into any of the calculations of the contending parties.
It should not be necessary to assure my readers that we acted entirely within our rights in derailing and destroying trains. This was the only means we had of breaking the British lines of communication and of interrupting the conveyance of British troops and food.
Moreover, we were more than justified in any act of train-derailment that we committed, by the instructions of Lord Wolseley as expressed in his handbook. In that well-known publication this distinguished soldier actually prescribes the use of dynamite, and even suggests the manner in which it may be employed to the best advantage. But although this train-wrecking was in every degree justifiable, I can assure the reader that we regarded it as a very unpalatable duty. I remember that when Lord Kitchener complained to me about the destruction of a certain train, I sent him a reply to the following effect:—
"That the blowing up and destroying of trains was as distasteful to me as I hoped the burning of our houses was to his Excellency; and that when we derailed trains we entered upon the task with hearts quite as heavy as those which I presumed weighed down his troops when they deported our women and children from their homes to the Concentration Camps."
I shall now describe how we went to work in the matter of capturing trains. That this is not so easy a task as appears to be supposed I shall endeavour to show. Perhaps the best way to exemplify our method of procedure would be to describe a particular instance which occurred in March, 1901, between Belfast and Wonderfontein on the Delagoa Bay Railway. The two stations are approximately 12 miles apart. At either station a garrison had been established, and these were provided with two or three cannons and two armoured trains, which latter were held in readiness to proceed to any place within their immediate sphere of action when anything irregular occurred on the line. They were used besides to carry reinforcements and stores when needed. The armoured train was indeed a very important factor in the British military tactics, and one we had to take fully into account. The railway between these two stations was also guarded by blockhouses. Every morning the British soldiers carefully inspected their particular section of the railway before trains were despatched in any direction. The peril of running trains at night was speedily recognised, and of those that attempted the journey very few indeed escaped capture. On the particular occasion when the incident I am about to relate took place, we were encamped at Steenkampsbergen, enjoying a little remission from the arduous work in which we had been engaged. But we were not idle, and a field-cornetcy of approximately a hundred men was detailed to attempt the capture of a train. I personally reconnoitred the line, and sent a field-cornet with instructions to lay a mine at the most favourable spot for the distasteful operation we were about to perform.
Our modus operandi was to take a Martini-Henri rifle and saw off four inches before and behind the magazine, and then to so file the trigger guard that the trigger was left exposed. Two of the most intelligent burghers were despatched over night with this mutilated rifle and a packet of dynamite to the spot chosen for the mine, while two other burghers kept guard.
Special precautions were taken to prevent footmarks being traced by the British patrols, the burghers walking for a considerable distance on the rails. The mine was prepared by carefully removing the stones from underneath the rails and as cautiously replacing them to again fill up the hole after the instruments of destruction had been adjusted. The trigger was placed in contact with the dynamite, and just enough above ground to be affected by the weight of the locomotive, but so little exposed as to be passed unnoticed. All surplus stones were carried off in a bag and great care was taken to conceal all traces of the mine. Gingerly and cautiously and without leaving any trace of their visit, the burghers now returned to their field-cornet and reported that all was in order. The field-cornetcy took up its position behind a small hill about a mile from the railway, and the men concealed themselves and their horses so ingeniously that their presence was not even suspected by the occupants of the blockhouse close by. According to our information the first train that was to pass next morning was the mail train carrying the European mails, and the prospect of capturing some newspapers and thus obtaining news of the outside world, from which we had been isolated for several months, filled us with pleasant expectation. I especially instructed the field-cornet to obtain newspapers, and to capture as much food and clothing as possible. It being the custom of the British garrisons to send scouts along the railway each day to examine the line, the next morning the track was as usual microscopically inspected, but the scouts failed to discover the trap which we had laid.
Two outpost burghers lay at the top of the hill in the grass, and from their coign of vantage they had a clear view of the railway line.
Ten o'clock in the morning arriving without a train appearing, my men began to grumble. In the excitement of this adventure they had omitted to prepare any food, and they were not now allowed to make fires, because the smoke evolved in culinary operations would have been immediately noticed by the enemy's outpost. We had therefore to remain hungry, or our well-laid plans would have been frustrated. Time passed on, and at 2 o'clock in the afternoon there were still no traces of the expected train. Our horses were saddled up and had been without food since the previous afternoon, and the poor animals also began to show their displeasure by whinnying and stamping their hoofs on the ground. The enemy's scouts had already inspected the line three or four times either by going over it on foot or by using a trolley.
The afternoon was well advanced, and fears were growing in our minds that the mine had been discovered. I should say that it was Sunday afternoon, and that the mine had been laid on Saturday night. This train-wrecking scheme of ours was contrary to the practices of our nation, who regard all such acts on Sunday as a desecration of the Sabbath, but here I will again apply an English precept, "The better the day the better the deed."
About four o'clock my outposts notified to me the approach of smoke, and shortly afterwards we beheld a train coming along. Every man of us mounted his horse, and we sat calmly in the saddle to observe the execution of our plan. We held our breaths. Perhaps the British had detected the mine and removed it, with the result that all our travail would be in vain; or they might possibly have sent a large force of soldiers with cannon on the train to give us a "good hiding" to boot. We watched breathlessly the progress of the train as it rapidly approached the fatal spot, and our hearts thumped wildly as we waited to see the success or failure of our enterprise. We had not long to wait, for with a tremendous shock the mine exploded, overturning the engine, and bringing the train to a standstill.
We now proceeded to storm the train, but I saw the danger of advancing in a mass and shouted to my men to go carefully and spread out. When we were about 500 feet from the train the British fired a volley at us, but in so doing they merely displayed by their firing that there were not many riflemen on the train, and that those that there were shot badly and at random. Thus shown the weakness of the enemy, we stormed with renewed vigour, and on arriving at about a hundred yards distance we dismounted. The defenders did not face our fire long before displaying the white flag. I stopped fire at once and the train was ours.
It was Lieutenant Crossby, of the Remount Department, who waved the white flag, and he now surrendered with about 20 "Tommies."
Among the occupants of the train was an old major, and on his saying that he was very sick, and was on his way to the hospital, we immediately apologised for having disturbed him and for the delay which our little operation had caused him. There were eight sacks of European mail in the train and these we seized. We liberated the "Tommies" after disarming them. The Lieutenant in charge was the sole person detained as a prisoner-of-war, and he was added to six other British officers who were vegetating under our charge. Only a part of the train could be destroyed by us, as one section was occupied by women and children who were being transported to the Concentration Camps.
On the following morning the field-cornet brought me the papers and said with a smile, "You see I have brought you what you required, General." I was overjoyed to obtain tidings from the outside world. The letters were distributed about the laager, and there was abundance of reading matter. I felt rather sorry for the "Tommies" who were being thus mercilessly robbed of their letters, but I consoled myself with the thought that our plight was quite as bad as theirs, for we Boers had had no communication from any members of our families for twelve months, and we felt justified in making the "Tommies" share our misfortune. The Boers did not, however, get much satisfaction out of other men's epistles, and even those who could read English gave up the operation after having perused one or two, and threw away the sackfuls of letters with disappointed faces.
The capture of this train was our second success. Shortly before we had seized a train near Pan Station and had obtained a splendid haul. This particular train was carrying Christmas presents for the British soldiers, and we found a miscellaneous assortment of cakes, puddings and other delicacies. It was very amusing that we should be celebrating Christmas with cakes and puddings which had been intended for our opponents.
A few weeks after we had captured the train carrying the European mails we made another attempt at train wrecking, this time at Wonderfontein Station. All, too, went well on this occasion until we charged, and the British opened fire upon us with cannon. We were not favoured this time by any sort of cover, but had to attack over open ground, exposing ourselves to the heavy fire of the guns and the fusillade of a hundred British riflemen. We had chanced this time upon an armoured train, and the trucks which bore the cannon had remained uninjured. The nut was rather too hard for us to crack, and failing to take the train by storm, we were compelled to retire, after having sustained the loss of three men, of whom one was my brave adjutant, Vivian Cogell. From what I have said I think my readers will agree that the capturing of a train is not always a "cake and ale" operation.