TRAVELLING on through empty abandoned country, we overtook some sort of a rearguard by next evening at Viljoensdrift, and in their company we crossed over that night into the Transvaal at Vereeniging. Here there were only a few Irishmen of the dynamite squad, who told us that the 'A.C.C.' was camped a few miles on, and that some of de la Rey's men under General Lemmer were ten miles down the river, but that for the rest the Boers had vanished.
Captain Theron asked me to remain with him, but I refused as I wished to rejoin my brothers, so I said good-bye next morning, and went in search of the 'A.C.C.' This was the last I saw of him, for he was killed a few miles from here; a man who would have made a name for him-self had he lived.
The 'A.C.C.' now decided to join General Lemmer's men, and, after a long ride, we came up with them just in time to see a strong body of English cavalry crossing the Vaal River, cheering loudly at setting foot in the Transvaal again, for it was twenty years since a British soldier had trodden its soil.
They had batteries posted on the Free State side, and, as we had ridden too close up, Lemmer lost three men killed and several wounded, with no corresponding advantage to himself. He thereupon drew off into rougher country where we halted for the night, and next morning, seeing the British troops advancing from the Vaal, we retreated in the direction of Johannesburg, thirty miles away.
By noon we found General de la Rey, with nearly a thousand men, holding some low hills within sight of the mine-stacks. I was surprised that he had managed to keep so many with hills, considering the way in which things were going to pieces, but he had more control over men than any officer who I had thus far seen.
At four o'clock the advance was on us again. Armstrong guns were unlimbered, and we were severely handled. The position we held was a strong one, however, and despite casualties we stood our ground until dark, by which time word came through that we must fall back on the Klip River, a small stream on the outskirts of Johannesburg. We groped our way through the night with hundreds of other men all jostling each other on the narrow road, and, having forded the river, we slept till daybreak. We were now practically backed right up against the city, so close that sightseers and even women came out in cabs and on foot to view the proceedings, and soon after dawn the English came pouring over the ground to the south of the Klip River with horse, foot and guns. As we were watching them, Commandant Gravett, of the Boksburg commando, came riding by asking for volunteers to accompany him to a low ridge just beyond, from which he said we could snake a showing against some English cavalry that had crossed the river and were approaching in our direction. The men of the 'A.C.C.' hung in the wind, for they were sulking over some gibe Gravett had flung at us when we elbowed his people off the road the night before, so only a man lamed Jack Borrius and I went. We rode rapidly forward, reaching the hills just in time to forestall the English horse-men from getting there first. We brought down three, whereupon the rest galloped back through the river, but soon returned reinforced, and they came at us so determinedly that we loosed only a few shots before running for our lives. We came under brisk fire without any Casualties, but my roan horse had a piece clipped from his ear by a rifle bullet before I got back to the 'A.C.C.' in the rear.
My two brothers had been absent since earlier in the morning. For several days the younger one had been ailing, and now he was so ill that Hjalmar and our boy Charley had taken him to Johannesburg, one riding on either side to hold him on his horse. We did not know what was wrong with him, but it subsequently turned out to be typhoid fever from which he barely escaped with his life.
They had not yet returned when I rejoined the 'A.C.C.' and in the meanwhile we were kept busy enough, for the British troops were by now crossing the Klip River in large numbers, deploying on the open ground between us, and before long shelling had commenced. No doubt they knew by now that Johannesburg was theirs for the taking, and they ran no risks with their infantry, confining themselves to most unpleasant gun-fire.
For the first time for many days we, too, had guns in action, and there were several batteries of Creusots blazing away from close by. The gunners suffered terribly, and I counted seven artillerists killed in less than fifteen minutes during one particularly violent burst. We of the 'A.C.C.' were snugly tucked away in a kopje where the shelter was so good that we did not lose a man or a horse, and we passed most of the day idly watching the scene. Shortly before sunset we saw activity away to our right, and there came line upon line of infantry, with guns roaring General de la Rey had his Lichtenburg men there, but although they are reputed the best fighting men in the Transvaal, they were overborne by weight of numbers and were soon riding back in full retreat. This was the last effort to defend Johannesburg. When the line gave, all was over, and during the night de la Rey drew off to the west to his own country, where the doughty old warrior was to fight many another battle in days to come.
All semblance of order or resistance now disappeared. Wherever one looked, men were departing wholesale, and the universal cry was: 'Huis-toe', the war is over. Several of our 'A.C.C.' men deserted at this juncture, but most of them remained, and we fell back that evening to Langlaagte, a suburb of Johannesburg, where we spent the night. My brother Hjalmar and our boy were waiting for me. They had reached Johannesburg railway station, and had succeeded, in spite of the disorder, in getting Amt on board a goods train for Pretoria. They said that all trains were crammed with fugitives, but that they had left him in the care of a man who promised to deliver him into my father's hands. With this they had to be satisfied, but they returned towards the firing very worried as to the outcome, for by now he was delirious. Next morning (it must have been about the Ist or 2nd of June) we saw the British feeling their way into Johannesburg, so we followed the drift of retreating men going round by the eastern side of the town. As we passed the gold-mines that lay on our route, there was a small column of cavalry drawn up not far off watching us go by, who made no attempt to interfere with us, probably thinking that we were refugees and not worth bothering about.
When we got to the main road leading to Pretoria, we found it crowded, with mounted men, wagons and herds of cattle, and we had to make our way through dreadful confusion. To the right was another British column moving parallel with us, which caused our native Charley to remark,
'Baas, those English people don't know the road to Pretoria, so they are coming along with us to make sure,'
and, indeed, I believe that the English could have ridden in amongst us that day without firing a shot, so strong was the conviction that our army was disbanded and the war at an end.
By sunset the 'A.C.C.' worked itself out of the throng and halted at Six-mile Spruit, a rivulet that distance from Pretoria. Commandant Malan intended to wait here until next morning, but my brother and I pushed on as we were anxious to get home and see our father.
We reached Pretoria by ten o'clock, and rode through the deserted streets to our home in the Sunnyside suburb. Here disappointment awaited us, for the place was in darkness and the house was empty. We went to several neighbours to make inquiries. They seemed to think that the enemy was upon them, for it was only after we had tried at several doors that at last a shrinking figure appeared in response to our knocking with rifle-butts, and, seeing who we were, curtly told us that President Kruger and my father had run away, and that Pretoria was to be surrendered to the British in the morning, after which the door was slammed in our faces. We knew the President and my father too well to believe that they had ignominiously run away, and the fact that they had left Pretoria together was proof to us that they had gone to carry on the war, so we returned home, and after stabling and feeding our weary horses, broke open one of the doors and went inside.
We made a roaring fire in the kitchen, at which we cooked a dinner with supplies from the pantry, and then slept in comfortable beds, a change after the freezing nights we had endured of late.
It was nevertheless a dismal homecoming. Our younger brother had been left stranded in a cattle-truck weak and ill, amid the chaos of a general retreat, our other brother was missing, and for all we knew dead, while my father was gone and our home was deserted.
We only heard later that my stepmother and the younger children had been sent to Delagoa Bay and thence by sea up the East Coast of Africa to Holland, where they still are.
Early next morning we set about making plans for the future. First we saddled our horses and rode uptown to find out what was happening. The streets were swarming with leaderless men, knowing even less of the situation than ourselves. Of the 'A.C.C.' there was no trace, and all was utter confusion with looting of shops and supply depots, and a great deal of criticism of our leaders.
After commandeering provisions for our future requirements, we returned home. The British by now were shelling the forts outside the town, and an occasional 'over' fell in our vicinity, but we were accustomed to gun-fire by now, and remained quietly resting until the afternoon.
Towards three o'clock a gaunt figure appeared before us. It was our missing brother Joubert, whom we had given up for lost. He said that his horse had been killed when the 'A.C.C.' were rushed at Kopje-Alleen a fortnight before, but he had succeeded in escaping on foot. After tramping it for many days, he reached Johannesburg in time to board the last outgoing train, which had just brought him to Pretoria. As burghers now came galloping past, shouting that the English were entering by the road above the railway station, I hurried back on horseback to the centre of the town, where I annexed a saddled-horse, from among several standing before a shop that was being looted, and absconded with this remount for my brother. We now prepared to leave, though as a matter of fact the English only occupied Pretoria next day, but, as we did not know that the rumour was premature, we thought it safer to get away in good time.
In the circumstances it seemed best to leave our faithful old native boy behind, as we felt that — with the increasing difficulty of securing horses and food we could no longer indulge in the luxury of a servant, and besides, we needed his animal as an additional pack-horse. The poor fellow piteously entreated us to keep him, but we had to harden our hearts, and, having no money to give him, we allowed him to take from the house as many blankets and other articles as he could carry, and so parted from him after an affecting scene. Our arrangements were easily made. We loaded what we needed from pantry and wardrobes on to our pack-horses, and after a last look round at our home we rode away on the main road leading east, along which many other fugitives were already hurrying.
By dark we had got as far as the big distillery eight or nine miles distant, where we spent the night. By morning so many other horsemen had arrived that there must have been nearly fifteen hundred, few of whom were under officers, and none of whom seemed to know what to do next. My brothers and I rode about, looking for the 'A.C.C.', but, although we round no trace of them, it did not worry us overmuch, and we agreed to remain on our own until we fell in with them again or until we had made further plans. In going round we met Mr Smuts, the State Attorney, off-saddled under a tree with his brother-in-law, P. Krige, who had been one of Isaac Malherbe's men and had been seriously wounded at Spion Kop. I had not seen him since, for he had only just left hospital to avoid being captured in Pretoria by the British.
As Mr Smuts was a member of the Government, we persuaded him to tell us where my father and the President had gone to, and what the general position was. He said that the President and my father were at Machadodorp, a small village on the Pretoria_Delagoa-Bay railway line, at which place they had set up a new capital. So far from making peace, they were determined to carry on the war by means of guerilla tactics. They hoped to stop the rot that had set in, and Mr Smuts himself was starting immediately for the Western Transvaal to reorganize that area, while similar steps would be taken elsewhere; and in the Free State, President Steyn and Christian de Wet had undertaken to pull things together. The Commandant-General, Louis Botha, was lying not many miles away, collecting as many burghers as he could to form the nucleus of a fresh army and everyone was to be directed thither. All this was better news than we had heard for a long time, and already we could see, from the animated way in which the men were standing around their fires talking and laughing, that there was a more hopeful feeling in the air.
My eldest brother and I decided that, before joining a commando, we should seek out my father at Machadodorp, partly to find out his views, and partly to hear whether he knew what had become of our younger brother Arnt. My brother Joubert refused to accompany us and rode away to look for General Botha, so that once more we lost sight of him for many days. Machadodorp lay a hundred and seventy miles due east, and Hjalmar and I set out on the long ride without delay. We did the ninety miles to Middleburg in two days, and here we were lucky enough to get a lift by goods train for the rest of the journey, arriving at Machadodorp by the following morning. This village was for the time being the capital of the Transvaal. Long rows of railway coaches constituted the Government Buildings, where such officials as had not preferred surrender made a show of carrying on the public business of the country. In one of these coaches we found my father installed, and his welcome was a warm one, for he had received no news of us since we had left him in April to go south into the Free State. We were greatly relieved to hear that our brother Arnt was at that moment lying in the Russian ambulance at Watervalonder, in the low country, forty miles down the line. He had arrived delirious some days before, but there was hope of his recovery. My father confirmed what Mr Smuts had told us of the military position, and he said that guerilla war was better suited to the genius of the Boer people than regular field operations. He spoke of George Washington and Valley Forge, and of other seemingly lost causes that had triumphed in the end, and although we did not altogether share his optimism (for we had the memory of demoralized and flying columns fresh in our minds), yet his faith cheered us tremendously.
When we asked after President Kruger we were told that he too was down at Watervalonder, for he was an old and feeble man in these days and was unable to stand the bitter cold up here.
Before returning west in search of General Botha, Hjalmar and I took train down the mountain to see our sick brother. We found him with many wounded men in a hospital improvised by that very Russian ambulance corps which General Joubert had refused to accept, but which had nevertheless come to our assistance.
He was conscious when we got there, and the Russian nurses said that he had turned the corner, although still in grave danger.
At Watervalonder we had our last sight of President Kruger. He was seated at a table in a railway saloon, with a large Bible open before him, a lonely, tired man. We stood gazing at him through the window, but as he was bowed in thought, we made no attempt to speak to him. He left for Portuguese territory not long after, and I never saw him again, for he was taken to Holland on a Dutch man-of-war, and he is still an exile.( He died in Switzerland in 1904.)
We now returned up the Berg to Machadodorp, where we said good-bye to my father, and travelled back to Middleburg by rail to get our horses, which we had left in charge of one of the townspeople.
Here there was a small contingent of German volunteers, about sixty strong, under an Austrian, Baron von Goldeck, whom we had known in Natal. As we had no idea where the 'A.C.C.' had gone, and as one commando was as good as another, we obtained admission to the 'German Corps', as it was somewhat grandiloquently called. Von Goldeck was preparing to ride his men west to scout for General Botha, so we trekked away the next day, going via Balmoral Station, until in three days' time we gained contact with the British patrols on the outskirts of Pretoria.
Lord Roberts was resting his army around the capital, so we spent the next ten days skirmishing over the uneven country to watch his movements. We had several exciting encounters, in the course of which we lost five Germans, but it was an enjoyable time. We lived on what we could forage, and, what with scouting to within sight of Pretoria and raising alarms in the big camps, there was not a dull moment. Then the country got too hot to hold us and we fell back twenty or thirty miles to where General Botha was busy collecting as many men as he could get together. We found him halted near the old battlefield of Bronkhorstspruit, where Colonel Anstruther's force was cut up in the war of 1880. He lay by his saddle on the open veld, and save for a few dispatch-riders and some pack-horses, there was nothing to distinguish his headquarters from any of the other groups of burghers dotted about.
He said we had done well and could now take a holiday, so we rode to a deserted farm some distance off, and remained there quietly for some days.