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   Chapter 14 No.14

Three Years' War By Christiaan Rudolf De Wet Characters: 16806

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


The English Swarm over our Country

On April 25th we arrived at Alexandri?, six miles from Thaba'Nchu. The latter place was already occupied by English outposts. General Philip Botha now joined me; he had been engaging the enemy in the triangle formed by Brandfort, Bloemfontein and Thaba'Nchu. My commandos numbered some four thousand men, and I decided that it was time to concentrate my forces.

Lord Roberts was about to carry out the plans which he had formed at Bloemfontein, namely, to outflank us with large bodies of mounted troops. He attempted to do this to the north-east of Thaba'Nchu, but at first was not successful. On a second attempt, however, he managed, after a fierce fight, to break through our lines. It was during this action that Commandant Lubbe was shot in the leg, and had the misfortune to be taken prisoner. At Frankfort also, Lord Roberts met with success, and General De la Rey was forced to retreat northwards.

I was now firmly convinced, although I kept the belief to myself, that the English would march to Kroonstad; and I could see, more clearly than ever, the necessity of operating in their rear. I had suggested to President Steyn when he had visited us at Alexandri?, that I should proceed to Norvalspont, or even into Cape Colony, but he was against any such project. This, however, was not because he disapproved of my suggestion in itself, but because he feared that the Transvaalers might say that the Free-Staters, now that their own country was in the enemy's hands, were going to leave them in the lurch. Yet in spite of his opposition, I had ultimately to carry out my own ideas, for, even if I was misunderstood, I had to act as I thought best. I can only say that each man of us who remained true to our great cause acted up to the best of his convictions. If the results proved disastrous, one had best be silent about them. There is no use crying over spilt milk.

We now pushed our commandos forward to Zand River. At Tabaksberg General Philip Botha had a short but severe engagement with Lord Roberts' advanced columns. I was the last of the Generals to leave Thaba'Nchu.

I was very anxious to prevent the "granary"[37] of the Orange Free State from falling into the hands of the English; with this object in view, I left behind me at Korannaberg General De Villiers, with Commandants De Villiers, of Ficksburg, Crowther, of Ladybrand, Roux, of Wepener, and Potgieter, of Smithfield, and ordered the General to carry on operations in the south-eastern districts of the Free State.

This valiant General did some fine work, and fought splendidly at Gouveneurskop and Wonderkop, inflicting very serious losses upon the English. But nevertheless he had to yield to the superior numbers of the enemy, who ultimately gained possession of the "granary" districts. But he made them pay for it dearly.

General De Villiers followed the English to Senekal and Lindley, and at Biddulphsberg, near the first named village, he again engaged them successfully, killing and wounding many of them. But a grave misfortune overtook us here, for the General received a dangerous wound on the head.

There was still another most deplorable occurrence. In some way or other the grass caught fire; and as it was very dry, and a high wind was blowing, the flames ran along the ground to where many of the English wounded were lying. There was no time to rescue them; and thus in this terrible manner many a poor fellow lost his life.

General De Villiers' wound was so serious, that the only course open was to ask the commanding officer of the Senekal garrison to let him have the benefit of the English doctors' skill. This request was willingly granted, and De Villiers was placed under the care of the English ambulance. Sad to say, he died of his wound.

Some time later I was informed that the man who had carried the request into Senekal was ex-Commandant Vilonel, who was then serving as a private burgher. A few days later he surrendered, so that one naturally inferred that he had arranged it all during his visit to Senekal.

Shortly after he had given up his arms, he sent a letter to one of the Veldtcornets, asking him to come to such and such a spot on a certain evening, to meet an English officer and himself. The letter never reached the hands of the person to whom Vilonel had addressed it; and instead of the Veldtcornet, it was Captain Pretorius with a few burghers, who went to the appointed place. The night was so dark that it was impossible to recognize anybody.

"Where is Veldtcornet-?" asked Mr. Vilonel.

"You are my prisoner," was Captain Pretorius' reply, as he took Vilonel's horse by the bridle.

"Treason! treason!" cried poor Vilonel.

They brought him back to the camp, and sent him thence to Bethlehem. A court-martial[38] was shortly afterwards held at that town, and he was condemned to a long term of imprisonment.

In the place of General De Villiers I appointed Deacon Paul Roux as Vechtgeneraal. He was a man in whom I placed absolute confidence. As a minister of religion he had done good service among the commandos, and in the fiercest battles he looked after the wounded with undaunted courage. His advice to the officers on matters of war had also been excellent, so that he was in every way a most admirable man. But his fighting career unfortunately soon came to an end, for he was taken prisoner in a most curious way near Naauwpoort, when Prinsloo surrendered.

I must now retrace my steps, and give some account of what I myself had been doing during this time.

I proceeded to the west of Doornberg, and only halted when I reached the Zand River. What memories does the name of that river bring back to me! It was on its banks that in 1852 the English Government concluded a Convention with the Transvaal-only to break it when Sir Theophilus Shepstone annexed that country on the 12th of April, 1877. But this Convention was re-established by Gladstone-greatest and noblest of English statesmen-when he acknowledged the independence of the South African Republic.

Here on the banks of this river, which was so pregnant with meaning, we should stand, so I thought, and hold the English at bay. But alas! the name with all its memories did not check the enemy's advance.

On the 10th of May Lord Roberts attacked us with his united forces; and although his losses were heavy, he succeeded in breaking through our lines near Ventersburg, at two points which were held by General Froneman. And thus the English were free to advance on Kroonstad.

I gave orders to my commando to move on to Doornkop, which lies to the east of Kroonstad. I myself, with Commandant Nel and some of his adjutants, followed them when the sun had set. We rode the whole of that night, and reached the township on the following morning. We immediately arranged that the Government should withdraw from Kroonstad, and that very day it was removed to Heilbron. President Steyn, however, did not go to Heilbron, but paid a visit to General Philip Botha, whose commando had held back the English outposts some six miles from Kroonstad.

The President, before leaving the town, had stationed police on the banks of the Valsch River with orders to prevent burghers from entering the dorp[39]; he had only just crossed the drift before my arrival. I came upon some burghers who, as they had been ordered, had off-saddled at the south side of the river, and I asked them if they had seen the President. As they were Transvaalers, they answered my question in the negative.

"But has nobody on horseback crossed here?" I said.

"Oh, yes! the Big Constable[40] crossed," one of them replied. "And he told us not to pass over the drift."

"What was he like?" I inquired.

"He was a man with a long red beard."

I knew now who the "Big Constable" had been; and when I afterwards told the President for whom he had been taken, he was greatly amused.

General Philip Botha discussed the state of affairs with me, and we both came to the conclusion that if Lord Roberts attacked us with his united forces, his superior numbers would render it impossible for us to hold our disadvantageous positions round Kroonstad. We had also to take into consideration the fact that my commando could not reach the town before the following day. Whilst we were still talking, news arrived that there was a strong

force of cavalry on the banks of the Valsch River, six miles from Kroonstad, and that it was rapidly approaching the town.

On hearing this, I hastened back to the south of the township, where a body of Kroonstad burghers had off-saddled, and I ordered them to get into their saddles immediately, and ride with me to meet the enemy. In less time than it takes to describe it, we were off. As we drew near to the English we saw they had taken up a very good position. The sun had already set, and nothing could be done save to exchange a few shots with the enemy. So, after I had ordered my men to post themselves on the enemy's front till the following morning, I rode back to Kroonstad.

When I arrived there, I found that the last of the Transvaal commandos had already retreated through the town and made for the north. I at once sent orders to the burghers, whom I had just left, to abandon their positions, and to prepare themselves to depart by train to Rhenosterriviersbrug.

At Kroonstad there was not a single burgher left. Only the inhabitants of the township remained, and they were but too ready to "hands-up."

One of these, however, was of a different mould. I refer to Veldtcornet Thring, who had arrived with me at Kroonstad that morning, but who had suddenly fallen ill. On the day following he was a prisoner in the hands of the English.

Thring was an honourable man in every way. Although an Englishman by birth, he was at heart an Afrikander, for he had accepted the Orange Free State as his second fatherland. Like many another Englishman, he had become a fellow-citizen of ours, and had enjoyed the fat of the land. But now, trusty burgher that he was, he had drawn his sword to defend the burghers' rights.

His earliest experiences were with the Kroonstad burghers, who went down into Natal; later on he fought under me at Sanna's Post and Mostertshoek, and took part in the siege of Colonel Dalgety at Jammersbergsdrift. He had stood at my side at Thaba'Nchu and on the banks of the Zand River. I had always found him the most willing and reliable of officers, and he had won the respect and trust of every man who knew him.

He was faithful to the end. Although he might well have joined our enemies, he preferred to set the seal of fidelity upon his life by his imprisonment. Long may he live to enjoy the trust of the Afrikander people!

I remained late that evening in the town. It was somewhat risky to do so, as the place was full of English inhabitants, and of Afrikanders who did not favour our cause. In fact, I was surrounded by men who would have been only too pleased to do me an injury.

I said farewell to Kroonstad at ten o'clock that night, and was carried to Rhenosterriviersbrug, thirty-four miles from Kroonstad, by the last train that left the town. But before I departed, I took care that the bridge over the Valsch River should be destroyed by dynamite.

In the meantime, those portions of the Heilbron and Kroonstad commandos which had gone into Natal at the beginning of the war, received orders to leave the Drakensberg. Obeying these orders they joined me, and, with my other troops, had occupied splendid positions on either side of the railway line. Commandant General Louis Botha was also there with his Transvaal burghers, having arrived in the Free State a few days previously. Captain Danie Theron was still with me as my trustworthy scout, and he constantly kept me informed of Lord Roberts' movements.

For a few days Lord Roberts remained at Kroonstad, but about the 18th of May he again began to move his enormous forces. He sent out four divisions. The first he despatched from Kroonstad to Heilbron; the second from Lindley to the same destination; the third from Kroonstad to Vredefort and Parijs, and the fourth from Kroonstad along the railway line.

The two Governments had agreed that Commandant General Louis Botha should cross the Vaal River, and that we Free-Staters should remain behind in our own country. And this was carried out, with our full approval.

The Governments had also decided that even if the English entered the Transvaal, the Free State commandos were not to follow them. I had long ago wished that something of this nature should be arranged, so that we might not only have forces in front of the enemy, but also in their rear. Thus the orders of the Governments exactly coincided with my desires.

Lest any one should think that the Transvaalers and the Free-Staters separated here on account of a squabble, or because they found that they could not work harmoniously together, let me state that this decision was arrived at for purely strategic reasons. We had now been reduced to a third of the original number of forty-five thousand burghers with which we had started the campaign. This reduction was due partly to Cronje's surrender, and partly to the fact that many of our men had returned to their farms. How, then, could we think of making a stand, with our tiny forces, against two hundred and forty thousand men, with three or four hundred guns? All we could do was to make the best of every little chance we got of hampering the enemy. If fortune should desert us, it only remained to flee.

To flee-what could be more bitter than that? Ah! many a time when I was forced to yield to the enemy, I felt so degraded that I could scarcely look a child in the face! Did I call myself a man? I asked myself, and if so, why did I run away? No one can guess the horror which overcame me when I had to retreat, or to order others to do so-there! I have poured out my whole soul. If I did fly, it was only because one man cannot stand against twelve.

After the Transvaalers had crossed the Vaal River, I took twelve hundred men to Heilbron, where there was already a party of my burghers. General Roux with other Free-Staters was stationed east of Senekal, and the remainder of our forces lay near Lindley. But the commandos from Vrede and Harrismith, with part of the Bethlehem commando, still remained as watchers on the Drakensberg.

When I arrived at Heilbron, late at night, I received a report that fighting was taking place on the Rhenoster River, between Heilbron and Lindley, and that General J.B. Wessels and Commandant Steenekamp had been driven back. But on the following morning, when the outposts came in, they stated that they had seen nothing of this engagement. I immediately sent out scouts, but hardly had they gone, before one of them came galloping back with the news that the enemy had approached quite close to the town. It was impossible for me to oppose a force of five or six thousand men on the open plain; and I could not move to suitable positions, for that would involve having the women and children behind me when the enemy were bombarding me. I had therefore to be off without a moment's delay. I had not even time to send my wife and my children into a place of safety.

Our whole stock of ammunition was on the rail at Wolvehoek. I had given orders to Mr. Sarel Wessels, who had charge of the ammunition, to hold himself in readiness to proceed with it by rail, through the Transvaal, to Greylingstad as soon as he received orders to do so.

But now the ammunition could not remain there, as Sir Redvers Buller was gaining ground day by day towards the veldt on the Natal frontier and the ammunition would thus be in danger of being taken. Therefore there was nothing left for me but to get it through by way of Greylingstad Station. It had to be done, and,-I had no carriages by which I could convey it, as I had not sufficient hands to take carriages from the trucks.[41] There was only one way (course) open; the commandos from Smithfield, Wepener and Bethulie still had, contrary to the Kroonstad resolution, carriages with them at Frankfort; I hastened to that village and sent the necessary number of these carriages under a strong escort, to fetch the ammunition from Greylingstad.

In order to do this responsible work I required a man whom I could trust. Captain Danie Theron was no longer with me, because he, being a Transvaaler, had gone with General Louis Botha. But there was another: Gideon J. Scheepers.[42] To him I entrusted the task of reconnoitring the British, so that the carriages which were going to fetch the ammunition could do in safety what they were required to do, and I knew that he would do it.

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