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   Chapter 27 No.27

Three Years' War By Christiaan Rudolf De Wet Characters: 30387

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


I Again Attempt to Enter Cape Colony

I was now about to make a second attempt to march into Cape Colony. I had great fears that my plans would leak out, since I was obliged to mention them to the commandants. But I was not able to confine all knowledge of my future movements entirely to the commandants. For I had sent many a burgher home to fetch a second horse; and the burghers began to make all sorts of guesses as to why they had to fetch the horses; and one could hear them mutter: "We are going to the Colony."

But nevertheless they were all in good spirits, with the exception of some, who had for commander a most contradictory and obstinate officer.

By January the 25th nearly the whole of my commandos had assembled; only General Philip Botha, with the burghers from Vrede under Commandant Hermanus Botha, had yet to arrive in order to complete our numbers; and he had been prevented coming.

President Steyn and the Government decided to go with me and my two thousand burghers.

At Doornberg the council of war was called together by the Government. President Steyn then communicated to the meeting that his term of office would soon expire. He pointed out that the provisions of the law designed to meet this contingency could not be carried out, because a legally constituted Volksraad could not be summoned at the present moment.

The council of war decided to propose a candidate to the burghers without any delay, at the same time giving them the option of nominating candidates of their own. Further, it was decided that the candidate who should be elected should be sworn in as Vice-States President, and retain that title until the time arrived when the condition of the country should make it possible to hold an election in conformity with the law.

After the voting had taken place, it was found that the former President, Marthinus Theunis Steyn, had been unanimously re-elected.

At the burghers' meeting the voting resulted in the same way, except at a meeting at which Mr. Cecil Rhodes was proposed as a candidate. This proposal was not seconded!

President Steyn was declared elected. And he was then sworn in.

The executive Raad now consisted of the President, as chairman, with T. Brain, Secretary of State, W.J.C. Brebner, Secretary of State, A.P. Cronje, Jan Meijer and myself as members. Mr. Rocco De Villiers was Secretary of the War Council, and Mr. Gordon Fraser, Private Secretary to the States President.

No States-Procureur had been appointed since Mr. Jacob De Villiers had been taken prisoner at Bothaville; but the Council appointed Mr. Hendrik Potgieter, Landdrost of Kroonstad, as Public Prosecutor.

Various causes had made it impossible for a legally constituted Volksraad to sit. Some members had, as we called it, "hands-upped"; others had thought that they had done quite enough when they had voted for the war. I would be the last to assert that they had done wrong in voting thus. The whole world is convinced that, whatever the Boers might have done, England was determined to colour the map of South Africa red! And England succeeded beyond her expectations! For South Africa was stained with the blood of burghers and defenceless women and children, and with the blood of English soldiers who had died in a quarrel for which they were not responsible, and which could have been avoided!

There were other members-and I had no patience with them-who had said: "We will give our last drop of blood for our country," and then had taken good care that no one should have a chance of getting even the first drop! They preferred to remain quietly at home, and wait for the English to come and make them prisoners of war!

Only a minority of the members had remained faithful to our cause, and these did not constitute a quorum; and so no sitting could take place. This small party, as far as I can recollect, consisted of the following ten members: C.H. Wessels Bishop, Chairman; Wessel Wessels (Vrede); J.B. Wessels (Winburg); A.P. Cronje (Winburg); Jan Steijl (Bloemfontein); Jan Meijer (Harrismith); J.J. Van Niekerk (Fauresmith); Daniel Steyn (Heilbron); Hendrik Ecksteen (Vrede); and Hendrik Serfontein (Kroonstad).

We marched from Doornberg on the 26th of January to Commandant Sarel Hasebroek's farm, which is eight miles to the north of Winburg.

There was a strong English force seven or eight miles to the east of Winburg, and another body of the enemy eleven or twelve miles still further to the east. In addition, a column was marching northwards from Ventersburg, west of our position.

It was perfectly plain that the enemy were aware of our intentions; but this, as I have already said, could not be helped. Our army was so constituted that no secret could be kept; and I decided for the future to tell no one of any further plans I might form.

On the 27th of January I reconnoitred to the east of Winburg, and took care to let myself be seen, for I wished to make it appear that it was my intention to proceed in that direction in the evening. Meanwhile I secretly sent my scouts to the west.

That night I marched to the west of Winburg, crossing the branch railway without meeting with any opposition, and arrived on the following morning at the Vet River-to the south of the town. We did not advance very fast,[81] as we expected that we should soon once more have to face the difficulty of marching with exhausted horses.

In the afternoon we continued our way till we had passed Tabaksberg. The following morning, January 28th, I received a report that the English were advancing in two divisions. I ordered my burghers to up-saddle and to occupy positions to the east of Takasberg.

The enemy's right wing was to the east, and we stationed ourselves on some ridges that lay in front of them, but were unable to deliver an attack. We charged their left wing, however, and captured a Maxim-Nordenfeldt, which was in perfect order, at the cost of one killed and three wounded. Our other losses amounted to a very small number.

As to the enemy's losses, they took some of their dead and wounded away, but they left behind them several of their dead at the spot where we had captured the gun.

To remain there and continue the fighting the next day could not even be thought of; for if we had waited the English would have had time to bring up reinforcements, and my plan of entering Cape Colony would have been rendered impossible.

Our position was difficult enough. The enemy were at our heels, and we had to get away as best we could. In front of us there was the line of fortifications from Bloemfontein to Ladybrand, which had been greatly strengthened since we had forced our way through it at Springhaansnek. It was impossible to get through at Springhaansnek now.

I decided to march towards Thaba'Nchu. But in order to deceive the English I sent a strong patrol on the following day in the direction of Springhaansnek, ordering them to make no attempt to conceal their movements.

I could advance for eight miles without attracting the enemy's notice; but if I had gone further I should have been seen from the forts. I need scarcely say that it was greatly to my advantage not to give the English a chance of seeing me. And so when we had covered eight miles we off-saddled. If I had allowed the English to discover what I was doing they would have brought up troops from Thaba'Nchu, Sanna's Post and Bloemfontein; and these troops in combination with the force behind me might have put me into a very awkward position.

My old friend, General Knox, whose duty it had been to prevent me entering Cape Colony on a previous occasion, was again entrusted with the same task. Any person who has had dealings with this General will acknowledge that he is apt to be rather a troublesome friend; for not only does he understand the art of marching by night, but he is also rather inclined to be overbearing when he measures his strength with that of his opponents.

And now, as we were in camp, congratulating ourselves that we were safe for the time being, my scouts reported that this same General Knox was approaching. I at once ordered the burghers to up-saddle, and to inspan the ten waggons we had with us laden with ammunition and flour.

I left behind me a portion of my commando under General Fourie, whose duty it was to check General Knox, whilst I myself was going forward to clear a road through the enemy's forts.

It was lucky for us that General Knox had been deceived by the strong patrol I had sent in the direction of Springhaansnek, and that he had come to the conclusion that my commando was marching to the same place. He therefore started off in that direction and continued until he discovered his mistake. Then he turned aside and came in contact with General Fourie. Our men held him back for a few hours, and lost two men, very badly wounded in the engagement.

Whilst this was occurring I had reached the forts between Thaba'Nchu and Sanna's Post. When I was there a reinforcement of cavalry approached from the direction of Bloemfontein.

I immediately opened fire (with a gun and a Maxim-Nordenfeldt at a range of 4,000 paces) on the fort, which obstructed my road. After we had fired a few shots the English abandoned that fort and fled to the nearest fort to the east. Shortly afterwards this fort was also abandoned.

The fort to the west was captured by Commandant Steenekamp and the Heilbron burghers. They succeeded in taking a few prisoners; but most of the enemy fled to Sanna's Post. Only one of the Heilbron burghers was wounded-Piet Steenekamp, the son of the Commandant.

And now our road was clear; and we passed through! General Fourie joined us two hours after sunset. Then we marched on to Dewetsdorp[82] where we arrived on January 31st.

General Knox, I heard, proceeded to Bloemfontein; thence he sent his troops to the railway bridge across the Orange River, near Bethulie. He was now aware that we were determined to enter the Colony at all costs, and so he stationed troops everywhere to turn us back. He placed forces not only at Bethulie railway bridge, but also at Springfontein, and Norvalspont. Thus he could easily prevent us crossing at the fords.

I had now to find some trump card which would spoil the game he was playing!

I ordered General Froneman to proceed from the source of the Kaffir River in the direction of Jagersfontein Road Station, to the west of Dewetsdorp: General Fourie I despatched in the direction of Odendaalsstroom, on the Orange River, to the farm of Klein Kinderfontein, to the west of Smithfield.

I then sent scouts to the neighbourhood of Odendaalsdrift. They told me that there was an English patrol at the drift, and that they had heard that the enemy expected that we should try and cross into Cape Colony at that spot.

The following day I ordered a patrol to ride up and down the river; and I caused a report to be spread to the effect that I considered it too dangerous to cross the Orange River below its junction with the Caledon, owing to the river being already very full and quite unfordable if there was any rain at all; and that I had for this reason decided to recall General Froneman, and to take Odendaalsstroom by force, or else to attack the enemy at the Aliwal-north Bridge.

I felt quite sure that this rumour would reach General Knox that very day, for he had plenty of friends in the neighbourhood of the Caledon and the Orange River.

General Froneman had orders to march in the direction of Zanddrift, which is about half-way between Norvals Pont railway bridge and that of Hopetown. He succeeded in capturing a train close to Jagersfontein Road Station, by the simple device of blowing up the line both in front of it and behind it. In this train the burghers found a great quantity of things they greatly needed.

It should not be forgotten that there were scarcely any factories in South Africa, and this was more especially the case in the two Republics. And, as all imports had been stopped for some considerable time, it was natural that any booty which consisted of such things as saddles, blankets and ammunition was very acceptable.

When the burghers had helped themselves to what they wanted, the train was burnt.

For the space of a day I remained quiet, so that I might be quite sure that the English had received the report I had spread.

I soon discovered that my plan had been quite successful. The English marched off in the direction I wished, believing, no doubt, that the rumours they had heard were true; whilst I, on the evening of the 5th of February, 1901, took some of the burghers, with the guns and waggons, to a spot between the stations of Springfontein and Jagersfontein, and the following day remained in hiding.

I left General Fourie behind me with a horse-commando, with orders to remain there for two days, and to carry on man?uvres in the direction of Odendaalsstroom.

I crossed the railway line that evening without any mishap to my force, but to my great sorrow the valiant Lieutenant Banie[83] Enslin, one of the best of my scouts, was severely wounded the same night, and fell into the hands of the English. He had ridden in advance with one of Theron's Scouting Corps, with the object of finding a favourable spot where he could lead us across the railway. The night was very dark, and he had lost his way. We crossed, as I have already said, without hindrance; but he and his companions rode into an outpost of the enemy a few miles to the north. The English opened fire on them, with the unhappy result that the estimable Banie was so seriously wounded that he had to be left behind. His comrades joined us the following morning, bringing the sad news with them.

We now continued our march at as rapid a pace as was possible; but the road was so soaked by rain that it was difficult for the oxen and the mules to draw the waggons and the guns.

On the 8th of February we overtook General Froneman at Lubbesdrift, six miles to the north of Philippolis. We pushed on that evening towards Zanddrift, which we reached on the 10th of February. Then we crossed over into Cape Colony.

When we had crossed the river, I received a report from my scouts that there were about twenty of the enemy in a strong schanze on a kopje, which was about half an hour's march further up stream. I gave orders that a veldtcornet and twenty-five men, among whom was one of my staff, Willem Pretorius, should go and capture the schanze.

The veldtcornet preferred not to approach beyond a certain distance, and consequently Willem Pretorius and four other men were left to do the work.

Willem climbed the hill from one side, and the others, dividing into two, climbed it from the other side at two different points. They were met by a severe fire from the fort, but when they got to close quarters up went the white flag, and the English shouted "We surrender!"

Thus Willem Pretorius and four burghers captured twenty prisoners and a like number of horses, saddles, bridles, rifles and bandoliers, not to mention some three thousand cartridges.

When the veldtcornet at

last arrived with his twenty men, he certainly proved himself very useful in carrying away the booty!

This veldtcornet was shortly afterwards "Stellenbosched."[84] I then nominated in his place Willem Pretorius[85] as veldtcornet.

We left the river that afternoon behind us, and marched south to Mr. Bezuidenhout's farm. The following day we waited there for General Fourie to join us. He arrived the next day-and now we were ready to begin the game once more!

Our position was embarrassing, for not only was there a large English force at General Fourie's heels, but also there were two strong columns on the north from Colesberg, which were making for Hamelfontein. And these two columns were some twelve miles from us.

I at once set out in the direction of Hamelfontein, and the following day I discovered that the enemy's columns had divided into two parties; one of them had gone in a westerly direction, whilst the other was marching straight towards us. Meanwhile the force which had pursued General Fourie had crossed the river at Zanddrift.

My intention had been to divide my force into three divisions directly I arrived in the Colony. But I had been obliged to wait till General Fourie could join me; and when he had come, there was such large numbers of the enemy on every side that they gave me no opportunity of carrying out my original intention.

I may mention here that Lieutenant Malan, who became afterwards Commandant, and ultimately Vechtgeneraal, had penetrated into the Colony with fifty or sixty men, and had advanced considerably farther than I had done.

That afternoon I ordered the small waggon to proceed to a point between Philipstown and Petrusville.

We had several slight skirmishes with the English; and at sunset we nearly fell into their hands, but fortunately we were successful in holding the enemy in check until our small laager had passed.

During that night we marched to Hondeblaf River. The following morning we found that there was no grass for the horses, for the locusts had eaten it all. The horses, poor creatures, were very hungry, and also much exhausted by all those forced marches. When we had been at Winburg, the pasture had been very poor although it had rained every day. This, of course, was very good for the veldt; but unfortunately it did not rain grass-the veldt required time to produce it.

All this was most unlucky. Already some of my men had to go on foot, and there were no horses to be obtained in that district.

The number of my burghers had now been diminished by nearly six hundred men. Commandant Prinsloo had remained behind with three hundred men, Vice-Commandant Van Tonder with one hundred, and lastly, Commandant De Vos at the Orange River with two hundred.

There was now only one course open to us-and that was to cross as quickly as possible the railway line near Hopetown, for if an English force was brought down by rail, it would mean our utter destruction.

We accordingly moved away at once from Hondeblaf River. The following day the English were again hot on our track. I ordered General Fourie and General Froneman to oppose the enemy, for it was necessary that something should be done to save our rearguard from being cut off. These Generals had several sharp engagements with the English, resulting in the capture of a number of prisoners, and a considerable loss in dead and wounded to the English.

After we had been on the march for a short time, a "Broodspioen"[86] came rushing up to me. (Had not my scouts been riding in a different direction they would have given me notice of his proximity.) He told me that he and a friend of his of the same calling had gone to a farm near by to buy bread, but when they had approached the house, a number of English soldiers appeared at the door and called out "hands up!" His friend had been captured, but he having been some fifteen paces from the house, had managed to escape under a hail of bullets. He had had to gallop one thousand paces before he could get out of range behind a ridge that stretched between us and the farm. I ordered the burghers to halt behind the ridge, and sent a small body of men ahead to determine the strength of the enemy. We could now see that the English had hidden their horses behind some fruit-trees. When they caught sight of our men on the top of the ridge, they took up positions behind kraals and a dam-wall not far from the house, knowing well that escape was impossible.

I thought it best to send a note to this handful of men, advising them to surrender, for I did not wish that any of my burghers' lives should be sacrificed in an unnecessary attack. Whilst I was writing the letter they punctuated it by an incessant fire, to which the burghers replied by a few shots, although none of the enemy were visible. As soon, however, as my despatch rider appeared with a white flag, their firing ceased. The answer they returned left something to be desired-"We shall not surrender!"

I immediately ordered fifty of my men to attack them. Hardly had I given the order, when a number of young burghers sprung on their horses and galloped at break-neck pace towards the kraals.

And now there was an end to all boasting, for without firing a single shot the enemy surrendered.

We took twenty prisoners there, and an equal number of rifles and bandoliers. The horses we captured-again twenty in number-were in excellent condition, and all up-saddled. We now had made ninety men our prisoners since we crossed the Orange River.

The joy of the Broodspioen, who had been for fifty minutes in the hands of the English, was very great; and I believe he never returned again to his very doubtful profession.

The following day we came to a farm about six miles to the east of Houtkraal Station, which we christened Moddervlei,[87] on account of the experience we had on the night following our arrival.

The great English force was close behind us, and when night fell the enemy were not more than five miles from us.

It was at the hour of sunset, shortly before we came to the swamp, which I shall presently describe, that my scouts came across fifteen of the enemy. When the English saw our men they turned round at once. But they did not get away before one was shot from his horse, and another seriously wounded, and several of them taken prisoner.

I now sent two patrols to blow up the railway, seven miles at each side of the point where I intended to cross. I had no wish that an armoured train should appear and prevent my crossing.

But, before we could reach the railway line a swamp lay in our way. This swamp was about one thousand paces broad, and was covered knee deep with water, and in some places even deeper; for heavy rain had fallen during the afternoon. The water, however, would have been a matter of very little consequence, had it not been that the bottom of the swamp was of such a nature that the horses sank in it up to their knees, and even sometimes up to their girths. But we fourteen hundred riders had to get over it somehow or other!

Let the reader try to picture to himself the condition of the swamp when the last burgher had crossed!

Many of the men lost their balance as their horses struggled in the mud, and several of the burghers had to dismount and lead their poor tired-out animals.

The guns and the waggons caused us a great deal of trouble. We inspanned thirty oxen to each gun; but if it got stuck fast in the mud, fifty oxen were sometimes not sufficient to move it.

At last we got the guns through, and succeeded in getting a trolley, and the little waggon which carried my documents and papers, safely to the other side. But the ammunition and flour-waggons were impossible to move when they had once entered the swamp.

It was a night which I shall never forget!

We had now to determine what we should do with the waggons. The day would soon break and we could only cross the railway line when darkness covered our movements. It would be disastrous to us if, while we were still between the swamp and the railway, troops should be brought up by rail from De Aar and Hopetown.

It was perfectly clear that those who had crossed the swamp must go on. And so I advanced, at the same time giving General Fourie orders to remain behind with a hundred of the men whose horses were less exhausted than those of the other burghers, and to try to get the waggons through. In the event of the enemy arriving before his task was completed, I told him to leave the waggons and make his escape to the south.

Having given these orders, I proceeded with my commando to the railway line. Only the weakest of the horses were with us, so that many of my burghers had to go on foot.

The ninety prisoners we had taken were with me. I could not release them, because I did not want them to tell the enemy how exhausted our horses were. Should the English know this they would know exactly where our weak point lay.

I pitied the poor "Tommies," but what else could I do but order them to march with me? I treated them as well as I could, and made no difference between them and the burghers. And after all, many of our own men had to go on foot.

Any delay was dangerous, and so we hurried on as fast as possible. When we reached the railway line, day had already begun to break. Fortunately, we met with no opposition; the patrols had followed my orders and broken the line.

When the sun rose one could see what a terrible condition the burghers were in. On every man's face utter exhaustion could be read. But how could it have been otherwise? The men had had fighting to do the previous day, and had only once been able to off-saddle, and that not long enough to cook a piece of meat. Rain had also been falling in torrents, and most of the men were wet to the skin, for very few of them had waterproofs. And to make matters still worse, the burghers were covered with the mud from the swamp that still clung to them.

Twenty-four hours had passed without the men being able to lie down and rest; and sleep, of course, had been entirely impossible.

Three miles beyond the railway line I gave orders to off-saddle, although there was no grass for the horses. Hardly had we dismounted when I was told that we should find grass about one hour's ride further on. And so we mounted again, fatigued though we were, and found pasture at last for the poor animals. I thought it better that the masters should endure more hardships than that the horses should go without grass. We were rewarded for our short ride by the knowledge that our horses had something to eat, and we could sleep in peace without having to think that our animals were starving.

But before we could sleep hunger compelled us to kill a sheep which we had bought from a farmer living near. In that part of Cape Colony sheep-farming is almost the only occupation, and so well adapted is this district for rearing sheep that it is quite an exception to see a lean one. It may interest some of my readers to know that the African sheep has a very remarkable peculiarity; it possesses a huge tail, which sometimes weighs as much as ten pounds.

We were unable to obtain bread, and our flour had remained behind in the waggons. The sound of an explosion had told us that General Fourie had not been able to save them, and that by now they must have been burnt.

I heard later on that General Fourie had been attacked by the English and had not been able to set fire to the waggons himself. But the English, so my scouts informed me, had done the work for him, and so thoroughly that they had also burnt some of their own waggons which had got into the swamp.

After we had helped ourselves to a good "African boutspan," and had slept with our saddles as pillows, we were all in good spirits again, although we could not forget our experiences in the swamp.

The burghers whom I had with me were of the right stamp, and were prepared to sacrifice everything for the freedom of the people. If any one had asked them whether they were ready to undergo any further hardships, they would have replied that a hundred swamps would not discourage them. They knew that freedom was a pearl of such value that no man since the world began had been able to set a price upon it.

When General Fourie had abandoned the waggons, he retreated to the south, crossing the railway at De Aar. He joined me again near Petrusville when I was returning to the Free State.

As the English had to march round the swamp, leaving their waggons behind, we were not pressed for time, or obliged to march very far. We took advantage of this respite to give our horses a little rest.

I now proceeded to the west of Hopetown, in the direction of Strijdenburg. The following day the English were again on our heels in greater numbers than ever, and advancing more speedily than before. I was obliged to engage their vanguard for nearly the whole of that day.

That evening we arrived at a spot about ten or twelve miles to the north-west of Strijdenburg. Here I left Commandant Hasebroek behind with three hundred men, till the following morning, with orders to watch the enemy and hold them back if necessary. This would give my burghers who were on foot, or whose horses were exhausted, a chance of getting away.

I might here explain to the uninitiated our methods of checking the advance of the enemy.

The burghers who had the best horses would remain behind any rise or kopje they could find in the neighbourhood. When the enemy approached and saw ahead of them two or three hundred burghers they would halt and bring their guns (which were usually placed in the middle of the column) to the front. When they had got the guns in position, they would bombard the ridge behind which the burghers were stationed. But as our men had no wish to remain under fire, they would then quietly withdraw out of sight. But the English would continue bombarding the hill, and would send flanking parties to the right and left. Sometimes it would take the English several hours before they could make sure that there were no Boers behind the rise.

It was tactics such as the above that gave my burghers who were handicapped by the condition of their horses, time to retreat.

It sometimes happened, in these rearguard actions, when the position was favourable, that the enemy were led into an ambush, and then they were either captured or sent racing back under our fire to bring up their guns and main force. Had we not acted in some such way as this, all my men would have been taken prisoner in this and in many other marches.

The large forces which the English on all occasions concentrated round me deprived me of any chance of fighting a great battle; and I could only act in the way I did.

If the reader is eager to know how it was that I kept out of the enemy's hands until the end of the war, I can only answer, although I may not be understood, that I ascribed it to nothing else than this:-It was not God's will that I should fall into their hands.

Let those who rejoice at my miraculous escapes give all the praise to God.

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