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   Chapter 34 No.34

Three Years' War By Christiaan Rudolf De Wet Characters: 13616

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


My Commando of Seven Hundred Men

Towards the end of September Commandant F.E. Mentz had an engagement with Colonel Byng's column near Heilbron. A portion of this officer's force had held a ridge where there were some Kaffir kraals for cover; and Commandant Mentz had with fifty burghers stormed this ridge, shooting down from thirty to forty of the enemy, and taking twenty-five prisoners. We lost two killed and three wounded. The Frankfort burghers under Commandant Ross had also not been idle, for they had attacked a division of Colonel Rimington's troops with the result that sixteen killed and wounded fell into their hands-among these were seven of the National Scouts.

Thus fighting was taking place all over the country. I do not give any report of the various engagements, as I was not present at them, and, as I have already said, I only wish to record my own experiences. But it will be easily seen, even from the scanty information I can give of these skirmishes, that our small commandos had a splendid record of success.

It is my intention to ask all my Vice-Commanders-in-Chief to narrate their experiences. And when the whole story is told I am convinced that the world will be astonished at what we were able to accomplish.

But however well these small commandos had fought, I myself believed that the time had now come to make a great stroke. With this object in view I gave orders that a number of the burghers should come to Blijdschap, in the district of Bethlehem, under the command of the following officers:-General Michal Prinsloo with Commandants Olivier, and Rautenbach of the Bethlehem Commando; Commandant David Van Coller, who was in command of the Heilbron burghers in the place of Commandant Steenekamp, who had resigned; Commandant Hermanus Botha of Vrede; Commandant Roen of Ladybrand; and Commandant Jan Cilliers of Kroonstad.

By the beginning of November I had a force of seven hundred burghers under me at Blijdschap.[101]

Although the spring was now far advanced, the veldt was in a very backward condition. I therefore ordered the various subdivisions of my commando to go and camp on the different farms in the neighbourhood. I spread the horses over a large area, as they would thus find better pasture and so the sooner recover their strength.

When November was drawing to a close I had an engagement with the English to the south of Lindley. I had with me at that time General Hattingh, General Wessel Wessels, and General Michal Prinsloo.

An English force had encamped two days previously on the farm of Jagersrust, which lies some ten miles to the south-east of Heilbron, and about the same distance from Blijdschap. I had wished to make an attack on them the night they arrived, but they were too near to Heilbron for me to venture on it.

The previous week three columns which came from Winburg and Kroonstad had been operating near the Liebenbergsvlei, and driving a large laager of women before them towards the north-east of the Liebenbergsvlei. But they had now left the laager alone and returned to Kroonstad. The women had arrived at Blijdschap at noon on November 28th on their way back to Lindley.

The morning following, two hours after sunrise, I received a report from General Hattingh, who with Commandant Cilliers and a hundred men was stationed close to Blijdschap. The General reported that the English from Jagersrust were hotly pursuing the women's laager. And it soon appeared that the women were being driven to the west of Blijdschap.

When General Hattingh heard that the English were hard by, he was some twenty minutes' ride from Blijdschap, but he mounted his horse at once and rode there as quickly as he could. On his arrival he immediately gave orders to up-saddle, and, having sent me a second report, he started in pursuit of the enemy.

As soon as I had received General Hattingh's reports, I followed him with General Wessels and a force of only a hundred men. I was at least five miles from General Hattingh, and the English were twelve miles ahead. General Michal Prinsloo was unfortunately a considerable distance away; and thus it was that I could not at once get together my whole force of six hundred burghers.

But General Michal Prinsloo had spent the time in attacking the English force on their left front. Shortly after he had engaged the enemy I came up behind them and delivered an attack on their right. But the veldt was very uneven and high hills and intervening hollows made any co-operation between us impossible, for one force could not tell where the other force was.

Meanwhile General Hattingh had attacked the enemy in the rear and thus compelled them to withdraw their vanguard, which was then not far from the women's laager and had nearly succeeded in capturing it. But now that the whole force of the enemy was opposed to General Hattingh, he was forced to give way and leave his positions. We lost two killed and three wounded. Among the dead was the valiant F.C. Klopper of Kroonstad.

When I, with General Wessels and Commandant Hermanus Botha hurried up, Commandant Hattingh was just on the point of retreating.

The English I saw numbered about a thousand mounted men and they had three guns with them. I determined to make a flank attack, and accordingly marched round to their right, at the same time sending orders to General Prinsloo to get in the rear, or if he preferred in front of the enemy, so that we might make a united attack upon them as they marched in the direction of Lindley.

It now began to rain and a little later a very heavy thunderstorm burst on our heads. This forced the English to halt on the farm of Victoriespruit.

The rain continued to fall in torrents and hindered General Prinsloo carrying out my orders.

And now the sun went down.

As our horses were quite exhausted by the hot pursuit after the English, and the burghers wet through to the skin, I decided to postpone the attack to the following day. I was also influenced in my decision by the consideration that as the English were so far from any point from which reinforcements could come, it was quite safe to let them alone until the morning. Nobody could have foreseen that they would escape that night.

We slept about five miles from them to the north-east, whilst General Prinsloo and his men were not very far away to the south-east.

That night we placed the ordinary outposts, but no "brandwachten."

When on the next morning I sent my scouts out to discover the movements of the enemy, what was my surprise when they reported that they had fled. They had gone, my scouts informed me, towards Heilbron, which was about eighteen miles off, and they had left behind them five laden waggons and one cart; and where they had crossed Karoospruit they

had, very naturally, lightened their waggons, and flour, seed, oats, tarpaulins, and tents marked the point where they had crossed the spruit. The enemy were already so far ahead when I received this report that it was quite out of the question to catch them before they reached Heilbron; so all idea of pursuing them had to be abandoned.

So far as I was able to find out, this column was under the command of Colonel Rimington.

As I was unable now to get in touch with the enemy, I set off with my commando to what was once the town of Lindley. Alas! it could not any more be called a town. Every house was burnt down; not even the church and parsonage were spared.

We found the veldt in very good condition; the early spring rains and the downpours of the previous day had quite revived the grass. And so I decided to remain at Lindley as long as possible, to give our horses a chance of recovering their condition. It was impossible to provide them with forage, for the amount the English had left behind was entirely insufficient as a supply for the large number of horses we had with us.

For ten or twelve days we remained at Lindley, and so the horses had a short breathing time, but not long enough to give the poor animals time fully to regain their strength. In addition to being overworked, some of our horses were suffering from a skin disease which we were quite unable to cure. This disease had never before been known in the Republics.

When I was at Lindley I sent Commandant Johannes Meijer, one of my staff, with forty men, to Cape Colony. With him went that brave soldier, Captain Willem Pretorius, of whom I have made mention previously. If Commandant Meijer had had sufficient time to collect a commando in the Colony, I am sure that he would have proved that the younger generation of Free-Staters, to whom he and Willem Pretorius belonged, possess qualities which were entirely unsuspected before the war began.

On the 8th of December three columns of the enemy appeared from Kroonstad.

It had been my plan to remain at Lindley and wait my chance of dealing with Colonel Baker, for he had under him a certain National Scout, who constantly made raids from Winburg with a band of four or five hundred Kaffirs. A few months previously a division of Commandant Hasebroek's commando had been attacked at Doornberg by this man's Kaffirs, and four burghers had been murdered in a horrible manner. More cases of this nature had taken place, and I only mention this one in passing. I am not in a position to give all the instances, but many of them were sworn to in affidavits, of which copies were sent to Lord Kitchener. The original affidavits fell into the hands of the English; but fresh ones shall be drawn up on my return to South Africa, so that I may be able to prove the statements I have made. The narration of these brutalities I prefer to leave to persons more conversant With the facts than myself. I have only alluded to the subject so as to make it clear why I like to keep my eye on Colonel Baker's column.

I must now continue my story where I left it.

I took up my position to the north-west of Lindley, in front of the columns which approached from Kroonstad. But after a few skirmishes with them, I returned to the east till darkness came on. When night had fallen I went round to the south, behind Kaffirskop, expecting to receive the news that Colonel Baker was coming up from Winburg, for he generally carried on his operations in conjunction with the forces at Kroonstad.

On the following day the enemy marched to Liebenbergsvlei, between Bethlehem and Reitz. Thence they took the road between Lindley and Reitz to Kroonstad.

Piet de Wet, of the National Scouts, was with these columns.

After we had remained two days at Kaffirskop, we crossed the Valsch River. The news then came that a column with a convoy was on the march from Harrismith to Bethlehem.

I felt that it was my duty to attack this column, but, although I advanced with all haste, I was not in time to catch the enemy before they reached Bethlehem. When I saw this, I decided to wait, at a distance of some fifteen miles to the north-east of Bethlehem, for I expected that the column would return to Harrismith.

The troops remained in Bethlehem till the morning of the 18th of December; they then marched out towards Harrismith.

I at once divided my commando into two parts, each consisting of two hundred and fifty men. One of these divisions I posted behind the eastern end of the Langberg, about forty miles from Bethlehem; the other on the banks of the Tijgerkloofspruit, at the point where the road to Harrismith crosses the stream.

I gave strict orders to both divisions that as soon as I opened fire on the English with the Maxim-Nordenfeldt, they were to charge down on them from both sides at the same time.

The enemy, I may mention, were about six or seven hundred men strong, and had two guns.

I myself, with the Maxim-Nordenfeldt, was now on a high round hill, on the eastern side of Tijgerkloof. I was very careful to be out of sight of the English, so that they might get quite close to the burghers before the gun disclosed my presence.

I succeeded in hiding my burghers so successfully that the English did not observe them until they were within about twelve hundred paces of my men in Tijgerkloof.

Some of the enemy's scouts rode on ahead, and when I judged that they must almost immediately see the burghers, I ordered Captain Muller, who was standing behind a rise, to come out of cover and open fire; then I jumped on my horse, and down the hill I went, at full gallop, to my burghers.

I had scarcely covered half the distance, when Captain Muller opened fire on the enemy.

As the sound fell on my ears, it seemed to me that nothing now could save them!

What was now my bitter disappointment when I saw that only one-third of my burghers were charging. The others were keeping under cover, and do what I would I could not drive them out.

Everything went wrong.

When the burghers who were charging the English discovered that the greater part of their comrades had remained, they turned round and retreated. But before this had happened they had attacked the English at four different points.

It had been a short but a very hot engagement.

There was no possibility of inducing my men to charge, and so I thought it wisest to retreat, swallowing my disappointment as best I could.

The burghers re-assembled to the south of the Langberg; and we found that our loss was two killed and nine wounded, of whom two subsequently died.

We could not ascertain the English losses, but we saw their ambulances very busy. We heard afterwards that they had suffered much more severely than we had done.

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