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   Chapter 24 No.24

Three Years' War By Christiaan Rudolf De Wet Characters: 14246

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


My March to the South

The horses of the burghers were in a very weak condition; and as the Boer is only half a man without his horse-for he relies on it to get him out of any and every difficulty-I had now to advance, and see if I could not find some means of providing my men with horses and saddles. I went on this errand in the direction of Zandriviersbrug to the farm of Mr. Jacobus Bornman.

Here, however, I divided the commandos. General Froneman, with the Vrede and Heilbron burghers, I sent back to cross the railway lines between the Doorn and Zand Rivers, with orders to operate in the northern districts of the State. I took with me Commandant Lategan of Colesberg, with about one hundred and twenty men, and Commandant Jan Theron, with eighty men, and proceeded on the 10th or 11th of November across the railway line between Doorn River and Theronskoppen, with the intention of executing my plan of making an inroad into the Cape Colony.

We wrecked the railway line and blew up a few small bridges, and then proceeded in the direction of Doornberg, where I met Commandant Hasebroek and his burghers. I sent orders to General Philip Botha to come with the Harrismith and Kroonstad burghers, which he had with him. They arrived about the 13th of November.

We then marched, with about fifteen hundred men, in the direction of Springhaansnek, to the east of Thaba'Nchu. At the northern point of Korannaberg, Commandant Hasebroek remained behind, waiting for some of his men to join him.

We took with us one Krupp with sixteen rounds-that was our whole stock of gun ammunition!

By the afternoon of the 16th we had advanced as far as Springhaansnek. The English had built a line of forts from Bloemfontein to Thaba'Nchu and Ladybrand. And just at the point where we wanted to pass them, there were two forts, one to the south and the other to the north, about 2,000 paces from each other, on the shoulder of the mountain.

My first step was to order the Krupp to fire six shots on one of these forts; and, very much to the credit of my gunners, almost everyone of these shots found its mark. Then I raced through.

All went well. The only man hit was Vice-Assistant-Commandant Jan Meijer, of Harrismith, who received a wound in the side. He was shot while sitting in a cart, where he had been placed owing to a wound which he had received a few days before, in the course of a hot engagement, which General Philip Botha had had at Ventersburg Station.

We now rode on through Rietpoort towards Dewetsdorp, staying, during the night of the 17th of November, at a place on the Modder River. The following day we only went a short distance, and halted at the farm of Erinspride.

On the 19th I made a point of advancing during the day, so as to be observed by the garrison at Dewetsdorp.

My object was to lead the garrison to think that we did not want to attack them, but wished first to reconnoitre the positions. This would have been quite an unnecessary proceeding, as the town was well known to me, and I had already received information as to where the enemy was posted.

The garrison could only conclude that we were again flying, just as we were supposed to have done-by readers of English newspapers-at Springhaansnek. They would be sure to think that after reconnoitring their positions at Dewetsdorp we had gone on to Bloemfontein. Indeed, I heard afterwards that they had sent a patrol, to pursue us to the hills on the farm of Glengarry, and that this patrol had seen us march away in the direction of Bloemfontein. In fact the enemy seemed to have a fixed impression that I was going there. I was told that they had said: "De Wet was either too wise or too frightened to attack Dewetsdorp; and if he did, he would only be running his head against a wall." And again, when they had received the telegram which informed them that I had gone through Springhaansnek, they said: "If De Wet comes here to attack us, it will be the last attack he will ever make."

We came to the farm of Roodewal, and remained there, well out of sight, the whole of the 20th of November. Meanwhile our friends (?) at Dewetsdorp were saying: "The Boers are ever so far away."

But on the evening of the same day I marched, very quietly, back to Dewetsdorp, and crept up as close as I dared to the positions held by the enemy's garrison. My early days had been spent in the vicinity of this town, which had been named after my father by the Volksraad; and later on I had bought from him the farm[74] where I lived as a boy.

By day or by night, I had been accustomed to ride freely in and out of the old town; never before had I been forced to approach it, as I was now, like a thief! Was nothing on this earth then solid or lasting? To think that I must not enter Dewetsdorp unless I were prepared to surrender to the English!

I was not prepared to surrender to the English. Sooner than do that I would break my way in by force of arms.

At dawn, on the 21st of November, we took possession of three positions round the town.

General Botha, who had with him Jan and Arnoldus Du Plessis as guides, went from Boesmansbank to a tafelkop,[75] to the south-east of the town. On this mountain the English had thrown up splendid schanzes, and had also built gun forts there, which would have been very advantageous to us, if we had only had more ammunition. The English had undoubtedly built these forts with the intention of placing guns there, and thus protecting the town on every side should danger threaten. But they did not know how to guard their own forts, for when General Botha arrived there he found only three sentries-and they were fast sleep! Two of them escaped, leaving their clothes behind, but the third was killed.

Commandant De Vos and I occupied a position on the ridge which lies to the north of the town; from this point we could shoot into the town at a range of about 1,600 paces.

Commandant Lategan was stationed on the hill to the west of the town, close to the farm of Glengarry, whose owner, Mr. B.W. Richter-father of my valiant Adjutants, B.W. and Jan Richter-must have been much surprised that morning when he discovered that something very like an attack was being made on Dewetsdorp.

The enemy held strong positions on points of the ridge to the south-east (above the Kaffir location) to the south-west and to the north-west. Their schanzes were built of stones, and provided with trenches. On the top of the schanzes sandbags had been placed, with spaces left between them for the rifles.

Of Major Massey, who was in command, and his force, consisting of parts of the Gloucestershire regiment, the Highland Light Infantry, and the Irish Rifles, five hundred all told, I have only to say that both commanding officer and men displayed the greatest valour.

Although Commandants Hasebroek and Prinsloo had not arrived, nevertheless I had as many as nine hundred men. But I was obliged to send a strong patrol to Roodekop, eighteen miles from us in the direction of Bloemfontein, in order to receive reports in time, should reinforcements be com

ing up to the help of the English. I had also to send men to keep watch out towards Thaba'Nchu, Wepener and Reddersburg; nor could I leave the President's little camp (which I had allowed to proceed to the farm called "Prospect") without some protection. Thus it was that of my nine hundred men, only four hundred and fifty were available for the attack.

It delighted me to see how courageous our burghers were at Dewetsdorp. As one watched them creeping from schanze to schanze, often without any cover whatever, and in danger at every moment of falling under the enemy's fire, one felt that there was still hope.

On the first day we advanced until we were close to the schanzes on the south-east and on the north; we remained there during the night in our positions, our food being brought to us.

The second day, November 22nd, firing began very early in the morning, and was kept up until the afternoon. Our most advanced burghers, those of Harrismith, had come to within about one hundred paces of the first schanze.

I saw one of our men creeping on till he was close under the enemy's fort. Directly afterwards I observed that rifles were being handed over the schanze to this man. Later on it appeared that the man who had done this valiant deed was none other than Veldtcornet Wessels, of Harrismith. He was subsequently promoted to the rank of Commandant, to take the place of Commandant Truter; later on again, he became Vice-Commander-in-Chief.

Our burghers could now enter this fort without incurring much danger. But they had hardly done so, when the two English guns, which had been placed to the west of the town, opened fire on them. When this happened, I gave orders to my men that a great schanze of the English, about eighty paces from the one which we had just taken, should be stormed. This was successfully carried out by Veldtcornet Wessels, who had with him about twenty-five men. The enemy meanwhile kept up a heavy fire on our storming party, from some schanzes which lay still further away; our men, therefore, had nothing left them but to take these also. Then while our men kept in cover behind the fort which they had just taken, the English left the schanzes upon which the storming party had been firing so fiercely; this, however, Veldtcornet Wessels and his burghers did not know, because, after having rested a little, and desiring to renew the attack, they only saw that everything was quiet there, and that they were now only under the fire of guns from the western forts, which lay right above the town. I also had not observed that the forts had been abandoned.

Just as the sun was setting, and when it was too late to do anything, General Philip Botha, with his two sons, Louis and Charlie, rushed up to Veldtcornet Wessels and told him what the real state of affairs was.

I now saw columns of black smoke rising from the mill of Mr. Wessels Badenhorst, to the south of the town. Everybody was saying: "The English are burning their commissariat; they are going to surrender!"

The English had a strong fort on the north, near the place where Commandant De Vos was stationed. In order to take this schanze one would have been obliged to cross 200 metres of open ground. Moreover, it was so placed that it was the only part of the English possession which De Vos's guns commanded. Accordingly, when the sun had gone down, I sent orders to him that he was to storm this schanze before daybreak on the following morning.

My orders were duly carried out.

Commandant De Vos crept stealthily up to the fort, and was not observed by the enemy until he was close to them. They then fired fiercely on him, killing two of his burghers, but our men would not be denied; they leapt over the schanze and compelled the enemy to surrender. The English losses on this occasion were six killed, a few wounded, and about thirty taken prisoner.

While this was going on, Veldtcornet Wessels, in accordance with orders which I had given him the previous evening, had taken possession of the river bank exactly opposite to the town, which he was now preparing to storm.

The English had only a few schanzes to the west of him, and these were not more than two hundred paces off.

I had been to the laager at "Prospect" the night before, with the intention of returning so as to be in time for the storming of the town. I had arranged to go there very early in the morning, because my journey could be accomplished with much less risk if carried out in the dark. Unfortunately, however, daylight overtook me when I had got no further than the Kaffir location, and I had to race from there, over country where I had no sort of cover, to the ravine near the town. From this ravine to where Veldtcornet Wessels was waiting for me on the river bank, I rode in comparative safety.

The reader can easily imagine how delighted I was to meet again the Dewetsdorp folk, to whom I was so well known. But I could not show myself too much. That would not have been safe. After I had visited three houses-those of the Schoolmaster, Mr. Otto, of Mr. Jacobus Roos, and of old Mr. H. Van der Schijf-and had partaken in each of a cup of coffee, I hurried off to my burghers.

The remaining English schanzes had been so well constructed that their occupants could still offer a very stubborn resistance, and they did so. It was not until about three o'clock on the afternoon of the 23rd of November that we saw the white flag go up, and knew that the victory was ours.

We took four hundred and eight prisoners, amongst whom were Major Massey and seven other officers. We also took fifty Kaffirs. Two Armstrong guns with more than three hundred rounds of ammunition, some waggons, horses and mules, and a great quantity of Lee-Metford cartridges also fell into our hands.

We never knew the exact numbers of the English dead and wounded, but they must have lost something between seventy and one hundred men.

Our own loss was heavy. Seven of the burghers were killed and fourteen wounded; most of these, however, slightly.

The sun had already set before we had put everything in order, and it was late in the evening when we returned to our laager at "Prospect." There I received a report that a great column was marching from the direction of Reddersburg, in order to relieve Major Massey-but they were too late!

Very early the following morning we made preparations to intercept the advance of this column. We took up positions to the west of Dewetsdorp, and the day was spent in exchanging shots with the enemy's guns. During the night we remained in our positions, but when the sun rose I discovered that the column, which was already too strong for us, was expecting a reinforcement, and as no attack was attempted on their side, I decided to leave the position quietly, and to march on. My inroad into Cape Colony must no longer be delayed.

Our positions at Dewetsdorp were so situated that I could leave them unnoticed. I thought it well, however, to leave behind a small number of burghers as a decoy, so that the English should not pursue us at once.

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