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Three Years' War By Christiaan Rudolf De Wet Characters: 8281

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


The Oath of Neutrality

Arriving at Rhenosterpoort, I found there Commandant F. Van Aard, with his commando. He told me that after I had left the laager, the burghers had not been troubled again by the English. He had gone on to Waterberg, and after having stayed there for a short time, he had returned to the laager. He still had some of his waggons with him, but in many cases the oxen had been so exhausted that the waggons had to be left behind, the burghers returning on horseback, or even on foot. He also told me that Vice-Commander-in-Chief Steenekamp had, just before my arrival, crossed the line in the direction of Heilbron, in which district there were then no English.

Generals Fourie and Froneman, with Hertzog, were also at Rhenosterpoort, having left their commandos behind, in the district of Winburg.

They had much to tell me which I had heard already, but which I now obtained at first hand. It appeared that the burghers who had been taken prisoner with General Prinsloo had been sent to Ceylon, notwithstanding the promise that had been given them that their property would be safe, and that they would be allowed to return to their farms.

It was now that I conceived the great plan of bringing under arms all the burghers who had laid down their weapons, and taken the oath of neutrality, and of sending them to operate in every part of the State. To this end I went with these officers to the other side of the railway line, in order to meet General Philip Botha in the country to the south-east of Heilbron, and also, if possible, General Hattingh, who was in command of the Harrismith and Vrede burghers.

We succeeded in crossing the railway between Roodewal and Serfontein siding, but not without fighting. Before we came to the railway line the English opened a cross fire on us from the north-east, from the direction of Roodewal; and almost directly afterwards another party fired on us from the south. We succeeded, however, in getting through with the waggons which Commandant Van Aard had with him, but we lost one man killed, and three wounded.

On the following day I gave Commandant Van Aard the order to go to his district (Midden Valsch River) in order to give his burghers an opportunity of getting their clothes washed, and of obtaining fresh horses, if any were to be had. For although the enemy already had begun to burn down our houses, and to carry away our horses, things had not as yet reached such a pitch that the columns spared nothing that came in their way.

Commandant Van Aard started off on his errand, but alas! a few days afterwards I heard that he-one of the most popular of all our officers-had been killed in a fight near his own farm between Kroonstad and Lindley. He was buried there, where he had fallen, on his own land.

And now began the great work which I had proposed to accomplish.

I gave instructions to Vice-Commander-in-Chief Piet Fourie to take under his charge the districts of Bloemfontein, Bethulie, Smithfield, Rouxville, and Wepener, and to permit the burghers there, who had remained behind, to join us again. He was not, however, to compel anybody to do so, because I was of opinion that a coerced burgher would be of no real value to us, and would besides be untrustworthy. The following officers were to serve under Fourie: Andrias, Van Tonder and Kritzinger. The last-named had been appointed in the place of Commandant Olivier, who had been taken prisoner at Winburg.[70]

I had appointed Judge Hertzog as a second Vice-Commander-in-Chief, to carry out the same work in the districts of Fauresmith, Philippolis and Jacobsdal. He had under him Commandant Hendrik Pretorius (of Jacobsdal) and Commandant Visser. The latter was the man who, when the burghers from Fauresmith, even before the taking of Bloemfontein, had remained behind, broke through with seventy or eighty troops. He had always behaved faithfully and valiantly until, in an engagement at Jagersfontein, he gave up his life, a sacrifice for the rights of his nation. His name will ever be held in honour by his people.

These two Vice-Commanders-in-Chief had no easy

task to perform. In fact, as every one will admit, it was a giant's burden that I had laid upon their shoulders. To lighten it a little I made the following arrangement: I sent Captain Pretorius, with a small detachment, in advance of General Fourie, to prepare the road for him, and Captain Scheepers to do the same for Judge Hertzog. The first had to say: "Hold yourselves in readiness! Oom Pieter![71] is coming." The other had to say: "Be prepared! The Rechter[72] is at hand!"

All went well. General Fourie set to his task at once and did excellent work. He had not been long in his division before he had collected seven hundred and fifty men, and had had several skirmishes with the enemy. It was on account of his acting so vigorously that the English again put garrisons into some of the south-eastern townships, such as Dewetsdorp, Wepener, and others.

With General Hertzog things went even better. He had soon twelve hundred men under arms. General Fourie had not succeeded in getting together an equally large force in his division, because many burghers from these districts had been taken prisoner at the time of the surrender of Prinsloo. General Hertzog also fought more than one battle at Jagersfontein and Fauresmith.

I ought to add that after I had crossed the Magaliesberg I had sent Veldtcornet C.C. Badenhorst, with twenty-seven men, on a similar errand to the districts of Boshof and Hoopstad. I promoted him to the rank of commandant, and he soon had a thousand troops under him, so that he was able to engage the enemy on several occasions. He had not been long occupied in this way, before I appointed him Vice-Commander-in-Chief. The reader who has followed me throughout this narrative, may very naturally ask here how it could be justifiable for nearly three thousand burghers thus to take up arms again, and break their oath of neutrality? I will answer this question by another-who first broke the terms of this oath?-the burghers or the English military authorities? The military authorities without any doubt; what other answer can one give?

Lord Roberts had issued a proclamation saying that, if the burghers took an oath of neutrality, and remained quietly on their farms, he would give them protection for their persons and property. But what happened? He himself ordered them to report to the British military authorities, should any Boer scout or commandos come to their farms, and threatened them with punishment if they did not do so. Old people also who had never stirred one step from their farms were fined hundreds of pounds when the railway or telegraph lines in their neighbourhood were wrecked. Besides, instead of protection being given to the burghers, their cattle were taken from them by the military, at prices they would never have thought of accepting, and often by force. Yes; and from widows, who had not even sons on commando, everything was taken away. If then the English, on their part, had broken the contract, were not the burghers perfectly justified in considering themselves no longer bound by the conditions which the oath laid on them?

And then if one goes further into the matter, and remembers that the English had been employing such people as the National Scouts, and had thus been arming men who had taken the oath of neutrality, how can one think that the Boer was still under the obligation of keeping his oath?

There is also the obligation which every one is under to his own Government; for what Government could ever acknowledge an oath which their citizens had no right to take?

No! taking everything into consideration, no right-minded burgher could have acted otherwise than to take his weapons up again, not only in order to be faithful to his duty as a citizen, but also in order not to be branded as a coward, as a man who in the future could never again look any one in the face.

I arranged various matters at Doornspruit, in the district of Kroonstad, on the 23rd of September, 1900, and then went from there in the direction of Rietfontein, in order to meet the commando which I had ordered to be at Heilbron on the 25th.

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