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   Chapter 16 No.16

Three Years' War By Christiaan Rudolf De Wet Characters: 19169

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


Roodewal

The ammunition arrived safely, and towards the end of May I made my way to a certain hill, some twelve miles from Heilbron, to which we had given the name of Presidentskopje, and where Commandants Steenekamp and J.H. Olivier were posted.

Here I left the greater part of my commandos. But I myself, on the 2nd of June, set out in the direction of Roodewal Station, taking with me six hundred burghers, mounted on the best horses that were to be obtained. I reached the farm of Leeuwfontein the same night, and found it an excellent place in which to hide my men out of sight of the Heilbron garrison. The farm stood about nine miles to the south of that town.

The following evening we moved on as far as Smithsdrift, which is a drift on the road from Heilbron to Kroonstad. There again I concealed my men.

On the afternoon of the next day, June the 4th, news was brought me that a convoy was on its way to Heilbron from Rhenoster River. This convoy encamped that evening at the distance of a mile from the farm of Zwavelkrans; the spot chosen was about five hundred paces from the Rhenoster River, and quite unprotected.

Before sunrise I sent a party of burghers down to the river, some five hundred paces from where the convoy was encamped, and by daybreak we had entirely surrounded the enemy.

No sooner had the sun appeared than I despatched a burgher with a white flag to the English officer in command. I ordered my messenger to inform the officer that he was surrounded, that escape was out of the question, and that if he wished to avoid unnecessary bloodshed, his only course was to surrender.

ROODEWAL.

FROM A SKETCH BY THE AUTHOR.

On hearing this one of their men came to me with the object of demanding certain conditions. It goes without saying that my answer was-"Unconditional surrender!"

He asked for time to communicate this to the officer in command. I granted this request, and he returned to the convoy.

We were not left in suspense for long. The white flag was hoisted almost immediately, and two hundred Bergschotten,[45] with fifty-six heavily laden waggons, fell into our hands.

Fortunately, all this occurred out of sight of Roodewal Station and Heilbron, and, as not a single shot had been fired, I had no reason so far to fear that there was any obstacle in the way of my main project-the capture of the valuable booty at Roodewal.

I at once returned with my capture to the spot where we had been the previous night. General Philip Botha conducted the prisoners and the booty to the President's camp, returning to our laager on the following morning.

On the evening of the 6th of June I started on my road to Roodewal. At Walfontein I divided my troops into three parties. The first party, consisting of three hundred men with one Krupp, I despatched under Commandant Steenekamp to Vredefort Road Station, with orders to attack it the following day at sunrise. General Froneman, with Commandants Nel and Du Plooij, were in command of the second party, which consisted of three hundred burghers, with two Krupps and one quick-firing gun. My orders were that, at daybreak, they were to attack an English camp which was lying a mile to the north of the railway station at Rhenoster River, and close to some brick-coloured ridges. The third party I commanded myself. It consisted of Commandant Fourie and eighty burghers, with one Krupp; and with this force I pushed on to Roodewal Station.

At Doorndraai I left behind me a few waggons, with twenty men to guard them. I had previously stationed a hundred burghers there, with the object of keeping in touch with the enemy.

The information which Captain Scheepers had gained while scouting was amply sufficient to show me how the land lay.

Although I had heard that there were not more than fifty of the enemy at Vredefort Road Station, I had nevertheless sent three hundred burghers there. This was because I was aware that the main English force lay to the north of the station, so that these fifty men might be reinforced at the shortest possible notice. The numbers which General Froneman had to encounter were much greater, and the enemy held safe positions. But as General Froneman was himself able to take quite as good positions, I only gave him the same number of troops as I had assigned to Commandant Steenekamp. I also gave orders that two guns should proceed with him.

I was informed that there were only one hundred of the English at Roodewal, but that these hundred were very securely entrenched. My information was, however, at fault, for I discovered later on that there were at least double that number.

I arrived at Roodewal very early in the morning of the 7th of June. I brought my men up to within eight hundred paces of the station, and ordered them to unharness the horses which were attached to the Krupp, and to place it in position.

But listen! There is the crack of rifles in the distance! That must be the sound of the enemy's fire on General Froneman. Again, and yet again, the sound meets my ears. Then all is quiet once more.

It was still two hours before the sun would rise, and I took full advantage of the opportunities which the darkness gave me. I ordered four of my burghers to approach as close to the station as was possible, and to find out everything they could about the enemy's position. Following my directions, they crept with extreme caution towards the English lines, until only a hundred paces separated them from the station. They returned before it was light, and brought back word that unless the enemy had thrown up unusually high schanzes, there must be an untold quantity of provisions piled up there. Everything had been very quiet, and they had seen no one stirring.

The day now began to dawn, and as soon as it was light I sent a message to the enemy demanding their surrender. The answer came back at once. On the back of my note these words had been written:

"We refuse to surrender."

I instantly opened a hot fire upon them, bringing the Krupp as well as the Mausers into action. But the reply of the enemy was no less severe.

We had no cover. There was only a shallow pan[46]-so shallow that it scarcely afforded protection to the horses' hoofs! A thousand paces to the north-west of the railway I had observed a deep pan where the horses would have had better cover, but even there our men would have been just as exposed as they now were. I had decided against taking up my position in this pan, because I should have been obliged to cross the line to reach it, and in doing so should have run the risk of being observed by the English.

Thus it was that the burghers were compelled to lie flat down in order to afford as little mark as possible to the enemy. But the men who served the Krupp were naturally unable to do this; and, seeing that the gun must be moved, I gave this order: "Inspan the gun, gallop it three thousand paces back; then blaze away again as fiercely as you can!"

Under a hail of bullets the horses were attached to the gun. Whilst this was being done, I ordered my men to fire upon the English entrenchments with redoubled energy, and thus, if possible, prevent the enemy from taking careful aim.

Incredible though it may appear, Captain Muller got the gun away without a single man or horse being hit. When he had covered three thousand paces, he halted, and turning the Krupp on the enemy, he shelled them with good effect.

At about ten o'clock, General Froneman succeeded in forcing the English troops which he had attacked to surrender. I therefore ordered the two Krupps which he had with him to be brought up with the utmost despatch. At half-past seven they arrived, and immediately opened fire on the English.

When the enemy had been under the fire of three guns and eighty Mausers for an hour, they thought it best to hoist the white flag. We accordingly ceased firing, and I rode out towards the station. Before I had reached it, I was met by two of the officers. They told me that they were willing to surrender, on condition that they were allowed to retain their private property and the mail bags, for it appeared that there were two English mails under their charge.

I replied that so far as their private belongings were concerned, they were welcome to keep them, as I never allowed the personal property of my prisoners to be tampered with in my presence.[47] But I told them that the letters were a different matter, and that I could not allow them to reach their destination-unless they were directed to a bonfire!

There was nothing left for the officers to do, except to agree to my terms then and there; for had they hesitated even for a moment, I should certainly have stormed the station.

But they wisely surrendered.

On our arrival at the station, we were all filled with wonder at the splendid entrenchments the English had constructed from bales of cotton, blankets and post-bags. These entrenchments had been so effectual that the enemy's loss was only twenty-seven killed and wounded-a remarkably small number, when it is remembered that we took two hundred of them prisoners.

I had expected that our booty would be large, and my expectations were more than realized. To begin with, there were the bales of clothing that the English had used as entrenchments. Then there were hundreds of cases of necessaries of every description. Of ammunition, also, there was no lack, and amongst it there were projectiles for the Naval guns, with which Lord Roberts had intended to bombard Pretoria

.

Some of the burghers attempted to lift these gigantic shells, but it took more than one man to move them.

I read in the newspapers afterwards that I had inflicted a loss of three quarters of a million sterling on the English Government-let that give the extent of my capture.

But at that moment we did not realize how much harm we had done to them. We had little time for anything which did not directly forward our cause. I was, however, very sorry that I could not carry away with me the blankets and boots which we found in large quantities, for they would have been most valuable for winter use. But there was no time for this, as the English held the railway and could at any moment bring up reinforcements from Bloemfontein, from Kroonstad, or from Pretoria. So, as I could not take the booty away with me, I was obliged to consign it to the flames.

But before I did this I gave the burghers permission to open the post-bags, and to take what they liked out of them. For in these bags there were useful articles of every description, such as underclothing, stockings, cigars and cigarettes.

Very soon every one was busy with the post-bags-as if each burgher had been suddenly transformed into a most zealous postmaster!

Whilst my men were thus pleasantly occupied, two prisoners asked me if I would not allow them also to open the post-bags, and to investigate their contents. I told them to take just what they fancied, for everything that was left would be burnt.

It was a very amusing sight to see the soldiers thus robbing their own mail! They had such a large choice that they soon became too dainty to consider even a plum-pudding worth looking at!

Although I had ordered my men to wreck the bridges both to the north and to the south of us, I still did not feel secure-any delay on our part was fraught with danger, and the sooner we were off the better.

But before we could start, I had to find some method of removing the ammunition which I wished to take with me. Since I possessed no waggons available for this purpose, my only course was to order my burghers to carry away the quantity required. But my burghers were busily engaged in looting.

Those who have had any experience of our commandos will not need to be told that it was a difficult task to get any men to help me in the work. I did succeed, however, in dragging a few of the burghers away from the post-bags. But the spirit of loot was upon them, and I was almost powerless. Even when I had induced a burgher to work, he was off to the post-bags again the instant my back was turned, and I had to go and hunt him up, or else to find some other man to do the work. Yet, in spite of this, I succeeded in removing the gun and Lee-Metford ammunition. We carried away some six hundred cases of this ammunition,[48] and hid it at a spot about three hundred paces from the station.

When the sun set, the burghers were again on the march. But what a curious spectacle they presented!

Each man had loaded his horse so heavily with goods that there was no room for himself on the saddle; he had, therefore, to walk, and lead his horse by the bridle. And how could it be otherwise? For the burghers had come from a shop where no money was demanded, and none paid!

But the most amusing thing of all was to watch the "Tommies" when I gave them the order to march. The poor Veldtcornet, who was entrusted with the task of conducting them to our camp, had his hands full when he tried to get them away from the booty; and when at last he succeeded, the soldiers carried such enormous loads, that one could almost fancy that every man of them was going to open a store. But they could not carry such burdens for long, and soon they were obliged to diminish their bulk, thus leaving a trail of parcels to mark the road they had taken!

And now it was time for the fire to do its work, and I ordered fifteen men to set the great heap of booty alight. The flames burst out everywhere simultaneously-our task was completed.

In an instant we had mounted our horses and were off.

When we had covered fifteen hundred paces, we heard the explosion of the first shells, and wheeled round to view the conflagration. The night was very dark, and this rendered the sight that met our eyes still more imposing. It was the most beautiful display of fireworks that I have ever seen.

One could hear, between the thunder of the big bombs, the dull report of exploding cordite. Meanwhile the dark sky was resplendent with the red glow of the flames.

I must now give some description of General Froneman's engagement to the north of Rhenosterriviersbrug.[49]

The firing we had heard before sunrise came from the English outposts, as they were retreating to their camp. The burghers and the English had both seized positions on small hills and in abandoned Kaffir kraals.[50]

Although the English had very good positions, and out-numbered our men by two to one, they found it impossible to hold out against our fire. They had no guns, whilst we possessed, as the reader knows, two Krupps and a quick-firing gun, which latter had the same effect as a Maxim-Nordenfeldt. Thus the enemy was forced to surrender; and five hundred of them were taken prisoner, among whom were Captain Wyndham Knight and several other officers. Their casualties amounted to the large total of one hundred and seventy killed and wounded, Colonel Douglas being one of the killed.

Commandant Steenekamp had also met with success, for he had captured the English camp at Vredefortweg Station, and taken thirty prisoners, without firing a shot.

Thus we had made eight hundred of the enemy our prisoners, and destroyed an enormous amount of their ammunition, and this with scarcely any loss on our side. At Roodewal only two of my men had been wounded, whilst General Froneman had lost but one killed-a burgher named Myringen-and two slightly wounded.

It had been a wonderful day for us-a day not easily forgotten.

We were deeply thankful for our success. Our only regret was that it had been impossible for us to keep more of the clothing and ammunition. But although we had not been able to retain it, neither had the enemy. It was winter, and we had managed to burn their warm clothing. The English would certainly feel the want of it; and some time must elapse before they could receive a fresh supply from Europe.

Undoubtedly Lord Roberts would be very angry with me; but I consoled myself with the thought that his anger would soon blow over. I felt sure that after calm consideration he would acknowledge that I had been altogether within my rights, and that he had been rather unwise in heaping together at one place so large a quantity of insufficiently protected stores. He should have kept his supplies at Kroonstad, or, better still, at Bloemfontein, until he had reconstructed all the railway bridges which we had blown up on the line to Pretoria. Lord Roberts had already begun to trust the Free-Staters too much; and he had forgotten that, whatever else we may have been thinking about, never for a single moment had we thought of surrendering our country.

I received a report the following day that thirty English troops had been seen eight miles to the west of Roodewal, and moving in the direction of Kroonstad. I despatched General Froneman with thirty of the burghers to fetch them in.

The next day, which was the 9th of June, I went with our prisoners to within three miles of the railway, and left them there under Veldtcornet De Vos,[51] ordering him to conduct them the rest of the way.

It was now my duty to bring away the ammunition which I had left at Roodewal and to put it into some safe place. With this in view, I sent the Commandants, when night had fallen, to Roodewal, each with two waggons, and ordered them to bring it to my farm at Roodepoort, which was three miles away from the railway bridge over the Rhenoster River.

There was a ford near my farm with sandy banks; and I told the Commandants to bury the ammunition in this sand, on the south side of the river, and to obliterate all traces of what they had done by crossing and re-crossing the spot with the waggons. I found out subsequently that the Commandants had left some of the ammunition behind at Roodewal.

Before I conclude this chapter I have to record an event which filled me with disgust.

Veldtcornet Hans Smith, of Rouxville, contrived to have a conversation with Captain Wyndham Knight, who, as I have already stated, was one of our prisoners. The Veldtcornet obtained from him a "free pass" to Kroonstad through the English lines, and also a written request to the British authorities there to allow him and twenty burghers to proceed without hindrance to Rouxville. Alas! that any Free State officer should be capable of such conduct!

Captain Wyndham Knight will be held in high esteem by all who truly serve their country, for he was a man who never deserted the cause of his fatherland, no matter what dangers he encountered.

Veldtcornet Hans Smith with his twenty burghers decamped on the night of the 10th of June, but some days had passed before I discovered the mean trick he had played.

It was far easier to fight against the great English army than against this treachery among my own people, and an iron will was required to fight against both at once. But, even though one possessed an iron will, such events caused many bitter moments; they were trials which, as an African proverb[52] says, no single man's back was broad enough to carry.

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