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   Chapter 37 No.37

Three Years' War By Christiaan Rudolf De Wet Characters: 10853

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


I go to the Transvaal with President Steyn

On the 26th of February I went with the Government to Duminys Drift, on the Wilge River, and we thus found ourselves again at the farm of Rondebosch.

The Government remained there for a few days, and then President Steyn decided to go into the western parts of the State, where Generals Badenhorst and Nieuwouwdt were then operating. He thought that if he absented himself from the north-eastern districts the English would cease their devastations in that part of the country, for it was well known that the enemy's concentration of forces was principally aimed at the President and myself.

I, however, did not intend to follow his example, but, on the contrary, got myself ready to join the Heilbron commando. By March 22nd all my preparations were made, and I had, alas! to say farewell to my trusty friend-my little waggon! I saw that it must be relinquished-that I could not carry it about with me any longer. I left it at a farm, first taking out my documents and papers; I ordered these to be concealed for greater safety, in a cave on the farm of General Wessels.

The clothes and ammunition of myself and staff had been hidden in this cave for some time.

The following day I joined President Steyn, who told me that he wished me to accompany him in his march to the west. And although it did not agree with my own ideas-principally, because I did not want the enemy to think that I was running away from them-I consented to this plan, and the more willingly because it was some time since I had visited the western commandos.

It was a long journey that lay before us, and I had only the clothes that I was then wearing. I would have sent for another suit had I not heard that the enemy were encamped close to the cave where our treasures lay hidden.[107]

I had therefore to do the best I could with what I had. There was no clothing to be got in the western districts, so that when my present outfit was worn out, I should be compelled to put on "khaki"-although there was nothing I relished less than to rob a prisoner of war.

We started out that same evening in the direction of the railway line. Our party consisted of about two hundred men, composed as follows: the President, with his bodyguard of thirty men, under Commandant H. Van Niekerk, the Government, Commandant Van de Merwe, of Vredefort, my staff and myself.

Before daybreak we got through the Heilbron-Frankfort line of blockhouses without accident; and on the following night (March 5th) we crossed the railway line, between Wolvehoek and Viljoensdrift. Whilst we were occupied there in cutting the telegraph wires, the enemy fired a few rounds on us, at a distance of five hundred or six hundred paces. We approached nearer, and they then opened fire with a Maxim-but without doing any damage.

We continued on our road, past Parijs and Vredefort, towards Bothaville, and we came upon a blockhouse line which extended from Kroonstad to the Vaal River. We rested for two days, to the north of Bothaville; during this time my scouts captured from the enemy eighteen horses, most of which were in good condition.

On the night of March 12th we broke through the blockhouse line, some five miles to the west of Bothaville. When we were about fifty paces from the line, somebody to our left challenged us:

"Halt! Who goes there?"

He challenged us a second time, and then fired.

At once seven or eight sentries fired upon us. Shots also were directed at us from the right. Nevertheless we cut through the barbed wire and crossed in safety, the firing still continuing, until we were about fifteen hundred paces on the far side of the line. Fortunately no one was hit.

Having thus escaped from the last "White Elephant" that we should have to reckon with, the next obstacle to be encountered was the Vaal River. For the President, since we had crossed the Valsch River, had decided to visit De la Rey, in order to place himself under medical advice. His eyes had become very weak during the last fortnight or so, and he thought that Dr. Van Rennenkampf might be able to do something for them.

Thus we had to cross the Vaal River.

But we heard that there was a military post at Commandodrift, where we wanted to cross, and further, that all the other fords were occupied by the English. We should have been in a great difficulty had not one of our burghers, Pietersen, who knew this district thoroughly, brought us across the river by a footpath ford.

We crossed on March 15th. The current was so strong that in places the horses were almost swimming; in other places the river-bed was strewn with huge boulders, over which our steeds had to climb. However, we all managed to get safely over, and arrived at Witpoort on the evening of the 16th. On the following day we joined General De la Rey.

It was a most interesting occasion. We had a hearty reception, several impromptu "addresses" being presented to the President, who in turn spoke to the burghers with much fire and enthusiasm. They were already in the best of spirits, as they might well be, for their General had but recently won victories over Von Donop and Lord Methuen.

Dr. Van Rennenkampf, having examined the President's eyes, said that he must remain for some time under his care. Accordingly I left President Steyn with De la Rey, and, on the third day after our arrival, set out with my s

taff to join General Badenhorst, who was then in the neighbourhood of Boshof. It was becoming more and more important that I should see Badenhorst and Nieuwouwdt, and discuss with them how best they might collect their forces, for I wished to be able to attack the first English column that should enter the western district of the State.

I had received reports that, with the exception of the garrison at Boshof, the west, for the moment, was free from the enemy; and this information caused me no surprise, for I could well believe that they had just "packed up their trunks" in the north.

On the 25th of March I joined General Badenhorst on the Gannapan,[108] thirty miles to the north-east of Boshof. I at once sent an express to General Nieuwouwdt, ordering him to come to me with all speed, and to bring about four hundred and fifty of his men with him. Meanwhile, General Badenhorst received instructions from me to get all his scattered commandos together.[109]

Before there had been time for these orders to be carried out I received, on March 28th, a letter from President Steyn, giving me the following information:

Mr. S.W. Burger, Vice-States President of the South African Republic, had written to President Steyn, saying that he was at Kroonstad, and that he wished to meet the Government of the Orange Free State. He also said that a copy of the correspondence between the Governments of the Queen of the Netherlands and of the King of England had been sent to him by Lord Kitchener.

From this correspondence it appeared that the Netherlands Government (considering the condition of affairs to be exceptional, in that the Boers who were still fighting were unable to negotiate either with the British Government or with the Deputation in Europe) felt justified in offering to act as an intermediary. In this capacity they were prepared to ask the Deputation if they were willing-supposing that a safe conduct could be obtained from England-to go to South Africa, and discuss matters with the Boers, in order to be able subsequently to return to Europe, empowered to conclude a Treaty of Peace, which would be binding both in South Africa and in Europe.

Lord Lansdowne, in the name of the British Government, replied that his Government highly appreciated the humane intentions of the Government of the Netherlands, but that they had made up their minds to abide by their former decision, and not to accept any foreign intervention. Further, that the Deputation could, if they wished, address a request for a safe conduct to the British Government, but that the matter could not be decided in England, until the precise nature of the request, and the grounds on which it was preferred, were fully understood.

Lord Lansdowne also said that the British Government was not quite clear as to whether the Deputation still retained any influence over the Boer leaders in South Africa; that they thought that the power to negotiate for the Orange Free State lay with President Steyn, and, for the Transvaal, with President Burger; and that they considered that the most satisfactory arrangement would be for the leaders of the Boers to negotiate directly with the Commander-in-Chief of the British forces in South Africa, who had been ordered to transmit at once to the British Government any offers or proposals which might be made to him.

Lord Lansdowne concluded by saying that, if the Boers wished to negotiate, it must be in South Africa, and not in Europe. For, if the Deputation were to go to South Africa, at least three months must elapse before anything could be effected, and, as hostilities must continue during this delay, much suffering would be caused.

Vice-President Burger went on to say that when he received a copy of this correspondence he could only conclude that Lord Kitchener, indirectly at least, if not directly, was asking the Boer leaders to negotiate with him. Accordingly, he wrote to Lord Kitchener for a free pass, and, having obtained it, came with his Government by rail to Kroonstad. He now, accordingly, requested President Steyn to let him know when and where the two Governments could meet. He also intimated that he had written to Lord Kitchener, informing him that he wished-after consulting the Government of the Orange Free State-to make a Peace Proposal.

President Steyn told me that when the Free State Government received this letter from President Burger, they had not been able to see their way to refuse what the latter asked, as the promise of a Peace Proposal had already been sent. They had regretted, however, that the Transvaal Government had made use of a safe conduct, and gone through the English lines-not that they had for one moment distrusted the Government-but simply because the proceeding had seemed to have been ill-advised. Nevertheless the Free State, finding itself not only obliged to discuss the matters in question with the Transvaal, but also, conjointly with the Transvaal, to make a Proposal to Lord Kitchener, had appointed a place of meeting in accordance with the request which had been addressed to it.

This was what I learnt from President Steyn's letter.

On the 5th of April the President received another letter from President Burger, arranging that the meeting should take place at Klerksdorp. A safe conduct for the President and Government of the Orange Free State was sent at the same time.

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