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   Chapter 17 No.17

Three Years' War By Christiaan Rudolf De Wet Characters: 14445

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


I Make Lord Kitchener's Acquaintance

On the morning of June the 10th my anticipations were realized by the approach of a large English force from Vredefortweg and Heilbron. Commanded by Lord Kitchener, and numbering, as I estimated, from twelve to fifteen thousand men, this force was intended to drive us from the railway line.

I gave orders that the few waggons which we had with us should proceed in the direction of Kroonstad, to the west of the line; once out of sight, they were to turn sharply to the west, and continue in that direction. This man?uvre, I hoped, would serve to mislead the enemy, who was on the look-out for us.

So much for the waggons. For the rest, I felt that it would never do for us to withdraw without having fired a shot, and I therefore got my men into position on some kopjes (where Captain Wyndham Knight had been four days previously, and which lay to the north of Rhenosterriviersbrug) on my farm Roodepoort, and on the Honingkopjes.

The English, with their well known predilection for a flank attack on every possible opportunity, halted for an hour, and shelled our positions with Lyddite and other guns. This did not have the desired effect of inspiring terror in the burghers who were under my command at Honingkopjes.

Then the enemy began to move. I saw masses of their cavalry making for a piece of rising ground to the north of Roodepoort. As the burghers there were hidden from me, I was unable to observe from where I stood the effect of this flank movement. Knowing that if they were able to give way and to retreat along the river we should have no means of discovering the fact until it was too late and we were surrounded, I came to the conclusion that it was essential for me to go to Roodepoort to assure myself that the cavalry had not yet got round. But it was most important that no suspicion of the danger which threatened us should be aroused in the burghers-anything calculated to weaken their resistance was to be avoided on such an occasion. Accordingly I merely told them that I was going to see how affairs were progressing at Roodepoort, and that in the meantime they must hold their position.

I rode off, and discovered that the English were already so close to our troops at Roodepoort that fighting with small arms had begun. I had just reached an eminence between Roodepoort and the Honingkopjes when I saw that the burghers in the position furthest towards the north-west were beginning to flee. This was exactly what I had feared would happen. Immediately afterwards the men in the centre position, and therefore the nearest to me, followed their comrades' example. I watched them loosening their horses, which had been tethered behind a little hill; they were wild to get away from the guns of the English and from the advance of this mighty force.

It was impossible for me now to go and tell the burghers on the Honingkopjes that the time had come when they too must retreat. My only course was to order the men near me not to effect their escape along the well protected banks of the river, but to the south, right across the stream, by a route which would be visible to burghers on the Honingkopjes. They obeyed my orders, and rode out under a heavy gun and rifle fire, without, however, losing a single man. The men on the Honingkopjes saw them in flight, and were thus able to leave their position before the enemy had a chance of driving them into the river or of cutting them off from the drift.

Unfortunately, seven burghers from Heilbron were at a short distance from the others, having taken up their position in a kliphok.[53] Fighting hard as they were, under a deafening gun-fire from the enemy, who had approached to within a few paces of them, they did not observe that their comrades had left their positions. Shortly afterwards, despairing of holding the kliphok any longer, they ran down to the foot of the hill for their horses, and saw that the rest of the burghers were already fleeing some eight or nine hundred paces in front of them, and that their own horses had joined in the flight. There was now only one course open to them-to surrender to the English.[54]

I ordered the burghers to retreat in the direction of Kroonstad, for by now they had all fled from Roodepoort and Honingkopjes-a name which, since that day, has never sounded very sweet to me.[55]

During the morning I received a report informing me that there were large stores at Kroonstad belonging to the English Commissariat, and that there was only a handful of troops to protect them. I had no thought, however, of attempting to destroy the provisions there, for I felt sure that the British troops, who had but just now put us to flight, would make for Kroonstad. They would know that the stores stood in need of a stronger guard, and moreover they would naturally think that we should be very likely to make an attack at a point where the defence was so weak.

Obviously, under these circumstances, it would never do for us to go to Kroonstad.

Accordingly, as soon as darkness came on, I turned suddenly to the west, and arrived at Wonderheuve late at night. I found there Veldtcornet De Vos with the prisoners of war.

Meanwhile, as I had anticipated, the vast English army marched up along thirty-four miles of railway to Kroonstad. Lord Kitchener, as I heard later on, arrived there shortly after noon on the following day.

We left Wonderheuve early in the morning, and advanced along Rietspruit until we reached the farm of Vaalbank, where we remained until the evening of the next day, June the 13th. That night I saw clearly that it was necessary for us to cross the line if we wanted to keep ourselves and our prisoners out of the clutches of Lord Kitchener; he had failed to find us at Kroonstad, and would be certain to look for us in the country to the west of the line.

I also felt myself bound to wreck this line, for it was the only railway which Lord Roberts could now utilize for forwarding the enormous quantities of stores which his vast forces required.[56] I resolved therefore to cross it at Leeuwspruit, north of Rhenoster River bridge (which the English had recently repaired), and then, in the morning, to attack the English garrisons which had again occupied Roodewal and Rhenoster River bridge.

I had given orders that all the cattle along the railway line should be removed; General Louis Botha had made the same regulation in regard to the country round Pretoria and Johannesburg. If only our orders had been carried out a little more strictly, and if only the most elementary rules of strategy had been observed in our efforts to break the English lines of communication, Lord Roberts and his thousands of troops in Pretoria would have found themselves in the same plight as the Samaritans in Samaria-they would have perished of hunger. It was not their Commander-in-Chief's skill that saved them, not his habit of taking into account all possible eventualities-no, they had to thank the disobedience of our burghers for the fact that they were not all starved to death in Pretoria.

I arranged with General Froneman that he should cross the line at the point I had already selected,

that is to say, north of Rhenoster River bridge, and that in the morning he should attack, from the eastern side, the English who were posted at Leeuwspruit Bridge. I, in the meanwhile, would make my way with a Krupp to the west side of the line, and having found a place of concealment near Roodepoort, would be ready to fall upon the English as soon as I heard that the other party had opened fire on them from the east.

But my plan was to come to nothing. For when, during the night, Froneman reached the line, a skirmish took place then and there with the English outposts at Leeuwspruit railway bridge. At the same time a train arrived from the south, on which the burghers opened such a fierce fire that it was speedily brought to a standstill. General Froneman at once gave orders to storm the train, but his men did not carry out his orders.

Had they done so, Lord Kitchener would have fallen into our hands!

Nobody knew that he was in the train, and it was only later that we heard how, when the train stopped, he got a horse out of one of the waggons, mounted it, and disappeared into the darkness of the night.

Shortly afterwards the train moved on again, and our great opportunity was gone!

General Froneman succeeded in overpowering the garrison at the railway bridge, and took fifty-eight prisoners. He then set fire to the bridge, which was a temporary wooden structure, having been built to replace another similar one, which had been blown up with gunpowder.

Three hundred Kaffirs were also made prisoners on this occasion. They protested that they had no arms, and had only been employed in work upon the railway line. This absence of rifles was their saving. Possibly they had really been in possession of arms, and had thrown them away under cover of the darkness; but the burghers could not know this, and therefore acted upon the principle that it is better to let ten culprits escape than to condemn an innocent man to death.

General Froneman went on towards the east of Doorndraai. He was very well satisfied with his bridge-burning and his capture of prisoners, and in his satisfaction he never gave thought to me.

I waited in my hiding-place, expecting that, as we had agreed, the firing would begin from the east, but nothing happened. I did not care to make an attack on my own account from the west, for my positions were not practicable for the purpose, and being short of men, I feared that such an attempt might end in disaster.

It was now ten o'clock.

A few English scouts appeared on the scene, and four of my men attacked them. One of the enemy was shot, and the rest taken prisoners. And still I did not hear anything from General Froneman.

At last I came to the conclusion that he must have misunderstood my instructions. If that were the case, I must do the best I could myself. Accordingly I opened fire on the English with my Krupp.

Still no news of General Froneman!

Then I ordered my burghers to advance. Our first movement was over the nearest rise to the north-west; we halted for a moment, and then made a dash for Leeuwspruit Bridge-but we found nothing there.

Late in the evening I met General Froneman, and heard from him the narrative which I have given above.

The following day I sent well on to twelve hundred prisoners of war-including Kaffirs-to the President's camp, which lay east of Heilbron. We then advanced to a point on the Rhenoster River, near Slootkraal, remaining in concealment there until the night of the 16th of June. The following morning we occupied some ridges at Elandslaagte, on the look-out for a large English force which was marching from Vredefortweg to Heilbron.

My intention was to give them battle at Elandslaagte, and to hold on to our positions there as long as possible; and then, if we could not beat them off, to retire. If only the burghers had carried out my orders strictly, we should certainly have inflicted heavy losses on the English, even if we had not won a complete victory.

The English had not sent out their scouts sufficiently far in advance, and came riding on, suspecting nothing. We occupied positions on the right and left of the road along which they were advancing, and my orders were that the burghers should let the troops get right between our ridges, which were about three hundred paces from each other, and then fire on them from both sides at once.

Instead of doing this, however, the burghers began to fire when the English were five hundred paces from them-before, that is to say, they had got anywhere near the door of the trap which I had set for them.

The enemy wheeled round, and galloped back for about fifteen hundred paces. They then dismounted, and fired on us. But, having no sort of cover, they were soon compelled to mount their horses again and retire to their guns, which were about three thousand yards from us. These guns now opened a heavy fire upon our ridges; we replied with our three Krupps, with which we made such good practice that we might have been able to hold out there indefinitely, had not a Lyddite and an Armstrong gun happened just then to arrive from Heilbron, which lay about ten miles behind us. Thus attacked both in front and rear, there was nothing to do but retire. Fortunately, we had not lost a single man.

First we rode in a southerly direction, but as soon as we got into cover we struck off to the east, setting our faces towards Heilbron.

Then, to our immense relief, the sun went down. How often during our long struggle for independence had not the setting of the sun seemed to lift a leaden weight from my shoulders! If, on a few occasions, the approach of night has been to our disadvantage, yet over and over again it has been nothing less than our salvation.

We got back safely, under cover of the darkness, to our little camp near Slootkraal, and there remained in hiding until the following day. It was there that Commandant Nel handed in his resignation. In his place the burghers of Kroonstad chose Mr. Frans Van Aard as their Commandant.

That night we set out for Paardenkraal, twenty miles to the north-east of Kroonstad, staying there until the evening of the 19th.

The time for my attack on the railway line having now come, I divided my men into three parties for that purpose. I sent on Commandant J.H. Olivier, who had joined me at Paardenkraal, to Honingspruit Station, General Froneman to America Siding, while I myself made my way to Serfontein Siding.

At daybreak General Froneman wrecked the line near America Siding, and I did the same at other places, also destroying the telegraph poles. Each pole was first shot through with the Mauser, and then pulled until it snapped at the point where the bullet had pierced it.

Things did not go so well with Commandant Olivier. He attacked the station, but, unfortunately, not so early as had been arranged. Consequently he was not able to bring his gun into action before the enemy had observed him. When I came up to him there was a strong English reinforcement from Kroonstad close at hand. We had too few men with us to be able to offer resistance, and had to retreat, returning to Paardenkraal at nightfall.

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