I HAD last seen General de la Rey during our great retreat through the Free State. Since then he had been busy in the western Transvaal raising fresh commandos, and infusing new spirit into the fighting men by his ceaseless activity, and by the great affection they had for this wonderful old man. Only two days before he had fallen upon and captured the British convoy that we had seen on fire beyond the berg, and now he had crossed over to this side with four hundred men, to strike another blow.
An English commander, General Clements, was camped round a bend of the mountain about nine miles off, with many troops, wagons, and guns, and when Beyers arrived General de la Rey was quick to seize the opportunity-for combined attack.
A plan of action was soon arranged. De la Rey with his horsemen was to rush the English camp at dawn from the landward side, while we were to return up the pass and make our way along the mountain-top under cover of night, until we could fire down on the enemy from the cliffs.
Having completed his dispositions, de la Rey rode away in the dark to find his own men, and soon the whistles blew for us to saddle our horses. General Beyers led us up the road down which we had come an hour or two before, but when we reached the head of the pass we changed direction ace picking our way eastwards along the boulder-strewn crest; of tile range. We had to lead our animals, for riding was out of the question over the uneven surface and progress was slow.
Towards morning, tired and sleepy, we were halted for an hour, to enable de la Rey's guides who had accompanied us to reconnoitre. When they returned they reported that General Clements's camp stood at tile base of tile mountain and was held by about five hundred soldiers. On the cliffs above, close to where we now lay, was a force of equal strength entrenched behind sangars and breastworks in case of overhead attack. These men we were to deal with while de la Rey's men fell upon those below.
General Beyers, whatever his faults, was a bold and resourceful leader, and he made immediate preparations for the assault. Ordering 211 horses to be left behind, he passed word that we were to advance on foot. We knew no drill, so it was difficult to keep alignment in the semi-darkness, but we got ourselves sorted out into some kind of extended order and moved forward in a long ragged front.
We of the A.C.C. were on the extreme right at the edge of the cliff, with a drop of five or six hundred feet below us. Beyers was with us, and to our left walked the Waterbergers, and beyond them the Zoutpansberg men. Before we had gone far, dawn lit the mountain-tops, and with it came a fierce rifle-fire from the enemy schanses some distance ahead.
We had gone without sleep for two days and two nights, so that our spirits were low, and our advance came at once to a halt. Our line fell down behind rocks, and whatever shelter was to be had, leaving General Beyers walking alone, his revolver in one hand and a riding-switch in the other, imploring us to go on, but we hugged our cover against the hail of bullets lashing around us.
From where I lay on the tops of the crags, I could look straight down into the English camp hundreds of feet below. I could almost have dropped a pebble upon the running soldiers and the white-tented streets and the long lines of picketed horses.
As I looked down on the plain, from behind a jutting shoulder of the mountain came winging into view a force of mounted men who galloped hard for the English camp. It was General de la Rey timing his attack to synchronize with our own. They closed in, and for a moment it seemed as if they would overwhelm the British, but then the soldiers rushed to their posts opening heavy fire. The plain became dotted with fallen men and horses, and the attack wavered and broke. The survivors turned towards the shelter of the buttress whence they had come, and in less than ten minutes the assault was over.
The troops facing us on the mountain now made a mistake.
Like ourselves, they were able to look down at the attack, and when they saw our men retire in confusion they set up loud shouts of triumph. Stung by their cries, our whole force, on some sudden impulse, started to its feet and went pouring forward. There was no stopping us now, and we swept on shouting and yelling, men dropping freely as we went.
Almost before we knew it, we were swarming over the walls, shooting and clubbing in hand-to-hand conflict. It was sharp work. I have a confused recollection of fending bayonet thrusts and firing point-blank into men's faces; then of soldiers running to the rear or putting up their hands, and, as we stood panting and excited within the barricades, we could scarcely realize that the fight was won.
Our losses were severe. On the ground across which we had charged lay a trail of dead and wounded, and yet more by the schanses.
In all we had about twenty-five men killed and some seventy wounded, and we shot down nearly a hundred of the English, besides taking as many more prisoners. But it was a heavy price to pay for success, even in this strange affair in which our men who had been cowering disorganized behind the rocks suddenly flung themselves upon a fortified enemy with a furious desire to silence their shouts of triumph.
(Of this attack The Times story of the War gives the following account:
In a bold reckless fashion for which there was no precedent since the attack on Wagon Hill a year earlier, and which was a startling novelty to the troops present, the Boers rushed forward on foot, cheering and shouting as they ran. Indifferent to loss, with great skill and dash . . . they shot down most of the British officers, rolled up the pickets and, in spite of a stout resistance, mastered the position after killing and wounding ninety-seven officers and men. )
We had now taken the main defences, but scattered rifle shots were coming from a nest of granite boulders to the rear, and General Beyers ordered Krause, Commandant of the A.C.C., to clear the place. Krause took a dozen of us, and we worked our way forward in short rushes. But he grew impatient and told us to close in more quickly. The result was disastrous, for as we rose a salvo rang out which brought down four of our men. Having fired this parting volley, the soldiers, of whom there were only six, went running towards the mouth of the ravine which led down a cleft to their camp below.
I hit one of them through the thigh, and Krause shot another dead, but the rest escaped. We walked back to see the extent of the damage, and it was bad enough. My old school fellow Jan Joubert, son of Piet Joubert the late Commandant-General, had a bad chest wound, and the other three men were dead. Two of them were young brothers named Koekemocr, about eighteen and nineteen years old, who had been with the A.C.C. since the Free State days. I also went to see the soldier whom I had shot. He had a nasty wound, but he was bandaging it himself with the first-aid pad which they all carried, and he said he could manage. He was a typical Cockney, and bore use so little ill will that he brought out a portrait of his wife and children, and told me about them. I made him comfortable, and left him cheerfully smoking a cigarette. Jan Hubert was badly hurt, a portion of his rifle-stock having been blown into his lung, so Krause asked me to take a water-bottle from one of the dead soldiers, and go down into the ravine in search of water. I got a flask and went down the slope to the mouth of the gorge. Unknown to us there was a path to the English camp, along which reinforcements were climbing up to dislodge us. I saw twenty or thirty soldiers already near the top, standing in a group not a stone's-throw from me, while many more were coming on behind in single file.
I fired at once and dropped a man, the remainder disappearing amongst the trees. From here they opened fire on me, and I in turn had to take cover, dodging from rock to rock to get back to Krause. On hearing my news he took a number of men, and we ran down just in time to see the path crowded with soldiers. We lost no time in pouring close-range volleys into their midst. In less than a minute only dead and wounded were left; more than twenty men of the Imperial Yeomanry of London lying in the space of a few yards.
This was the final clearing, and we now had the camp below at our mercy, for we were able to fire into it without opposition. Soon we could see the occupants retiring with their guns, and we descended the ravine and entered the camp.
In passing by the intake of the gorge, I found the soldier whom I had killed. I was horrified to see that my bullet had blown half his head away, the explanation being that during one of our patrols near the Warm Baths I had found a few explosive Mauser cartridges at a deserted trading-station, and had taken them for shooting game. I kept them in a separate pocket of my bandolier, but in my excitement had rammed one of them into the magazine of my rifle without noticing it. I was distressed at my mistake, but there is not a great deal of difference between killing a man with an explosive bullet, and smashing him with a Lyddite shell, although I would not knowingly have used this type of ammunition. I flung the remainder into the brook that ran by, now red with the blood of dead men lying in the water.
Having sent back for our horses, we hastened down the path into the camp.
On my way down the gorge I found two wounded officers beside the track, one with his thumb shot away and the other with a broken arm. As I came up I heard one of them remark: 'Here comes a typical young Boer for you', and they asked me whether I understood English. I told them 'Yes', and the man with the thumb said:
'Then will you tell me why you fellows are continuing the war, because you are bound to lose?'
'Oh, well, you see, we're like Mr Micawber, we are waiting for something to turn up.'
They burst out laughing and the one said:
'Didn't I tell you this is a funny country, and now here's your typical young Boer quoting Dickens.'
The camp was filled with supplies of all kinds, and such a smashing of cases, and ransacking of tents and wagons, had not been seen since we looted the Dundee camp long before. While we were at this, General Beyers came riding among us in a rage, and ordered us to follow the enemy, but we thought otherwise. We considered that the object of the attack was to capture supplies, and not soldiers, as soldiers would have to be liberated for want of somewhere to keep them, and besides, if we went off, we might return to find the camp already looted during our absence. So we attended to the matter in hand, more especially as de la Rey's horsemen had recovered from their setback earlier in the morning, and could be seen stringing out across the veld towards where Clements and the balance of his troops were withdrawing down the valley in the direction of Pretoria. We told ourselves that we had done our part in the day's work, and that they could do the rest.
My brother brought my roan and his own two riding-horses down the ravine, and we took two more horses from the English lines, where many stood picketed.
Searching out saddles and wallets to match, we loaded our caravan with spoil in the shape of tea, coffee, salt, sugar, food, clothing, books and other luxuries of which we had long been deprived. Then we followed the other men who, having taken what they wanted, were riding along the foot of the mountain to the spot below the Old Wagon Pass from which we had started the evening before.
Thus ended our share in the fight.
The A.C.C. had lost five men killed and five wounded Among the latter was our Commandant Krause with a bullet in his foot, and my Corporal Jan Nagel, with his right shoulder-blade badly shattered. A French gentleman adventurer, Georges de Gourville, who belonged to us, was also badly wounded, but the worst was Jan Joubert, who was carried down to the English camp with the other serious cases, and left there until the British could be asked to send them surgical aid, for we had neither drugs nor doctors.
My brother and I had a glorious feast, and then, having gone without rest for forty-eight hours, we slept the clock round.
Next day, such of the dead as had been carried down the mountain by friends or relations were buried in a single large grave that I helped to dig. General de la Rey was present and he addressed us in eloquent words that moved many to tears, for besides being a fighter he had a fine gift of simple speech.
Here we remained for several days, during which time my brother and I enjoyed high living, after the straight diet of meat and maize on which we had subsisted for so long. We were refitted from head to heel, we carried a Lee-Metford rifle apiece, in lieu of our discarded Mausers, and above all we were well found in horseflesh. My gentle loyal old roan was as flourishing as ever, and I had a fine little chestnut pony, which I had chosen in preference to the larger but less reliable chargers in the English camp. I gave the other horses away in order to reduce our stable to manageable proportions; my brother had the two horses which he had brought with him from the north. One was a toll-free chestnuts (Among the Boers a chestnut horse with white face and four white stockings is called toll-free, there being a tradition that in the old days horses thus marked went through the toll-gates free of charge.)
And the other was the strangest horse I have ever known. My father had purchased him in the Lydenburg district from a homegoing burgher, who omitted to tell us that he was possessed of the devil. He indulged in such extraordinary antics that the police at the Government laager had declared him insane, and christened him 'Malpert' (the mad horse). Sometimes he would allow a single man to walk up and catch him without trouble, but at other times we had to turn out the whole Government from the Vice-President downward to form a cordon around him. He would pretend to be quietly grazing, but as soon as he was completely hemmed in, he would look up in assumed surprise and start to back against the ring, kicking and lashing so furiously that we had to give way, when he would go capering off, heels in air, to crop the grass near by. If another cordon were made he would repeat his performance, until he left the men helpless between cursing and laughing. The only persons for whom he had any respect were my brother Arnt and myself He was afraid of me because once at the Lydenburg Camp, after he had twice kicked his way through I leaped at him from a distance of several feet and flung my arms about his neck. He reared and bucked and tried to bite and roll, but I locked my legs around his, so that he could not shake me off, and in the end I bested him. With my brother he was tractable, because he had doctored him for a badly ulcered back, and the 'Malpert' showed his gratitude by obeying him. His reputation had followed him down south, and he was quite an institution among the commandos. Often we would hear a warning cry 'Look out, here comes the "Malpert",' and the burghers would scatter beyond reach of his heels. Nevertheless, his tricks and pranks were taken good-humouredly, for he had magnificent staying-powers and the men looked upon him with the admiration that born horsemen have for a good animal, and as for Arnt and myself, we had a very soft spot in our hearts for this queer outlaw.
Well mounted as we were, my brother and I felt that we could ride anywhere and be ready for anything, and we looked forward-with interest to the next move. General de la Rey, restless as usual, had gone off, leaving us behind with General Beyers. On Dingaans Day, December 16th, he and the reverend Mr Kriel held a religious gathering on a neighbouring hill. They invited all to join in piling a cairn of stones like that raised at Paawrde-Kraal in 1880, during the first English war. My brother and I thought the proceedings somewhat theatrical and kept away, but so far as I know the beacon is still standing in testimony of vain hopes.
On the following day General French, the English cavalry leader, was reported to be moving up the Hekpoort valley from Pretoria, and General Beyers marched out to meet him.
Near Hekpoort the A.C.C. was ordered to take post in a range of hills skirting the valley, to guard our main body against surprise. We spend an uneasy night on a rocky crest overlooking the broad 'Moot' as it is called, and at day-break next morning we saw an English force of three or four thousand horsemen approaching. We had strict orders from Buyers to keep out of sight, so Krause led us into a gorge to hide our horses, after which we climbed up and peered over the rocks to view the enemy advance. The valley here lies four or five miles broad, and the British scouts were strung across it from side to side, their nearest horsemen passing so close beneath us that we could easily have shot them down. We could see General Beyers's men riding to occupy a line of hills farther up the valley, and before long they were hotly engaged. We had a fine view of the fight, but our interest in the spectacle was dampened by the fact that by now the British were between ourselves and our parent body, so that if General Beyers fell back we should be left isolated in the rear.
And as the gun-fire increased and the troops began to mass, we saw our men running for their horses and galloping away. This was not unexpected, considering the heavy odds, but nevertheless there went the commando, pursued hotfoot by the English, and here were we stranded far behind.
Krause decided to recover contact by riding round the left flank of the troops, but we fell foul of so many of their patrols, and were so often shelled by Pompoms and field guns, that we were forced to take refuge in the parallel hills. From here we could make out our men about six miles off, moving west from the valley, white puffs of shrapnel breaking over them as they went, and horsemen hard on their heels.
Krause now led us into the broken country north-west of Johannesburg (Skurwe-bergen), where a small force like ours could lie in hiding for a while, and by dark we were well within the region of its tumbled hills.
Although the rainy season was overdue, we had thus far experienced only sunny days, but now the weather broke, and for the next six days it rained without ceasing. We sought out a lonely farmhouse, and here we lay over, waiting for the deluge to lift. The farm was deserted, but sheep were straying near, and dry fuel was stacked in the barns, so we fared moderately well.
Georges de Gourville, the Frenchman, had insisted on accompanying us in spite of his wound, and he nearly died here, my brother and I nursing him through his fever. On the evening of the sixth day the clouds thinned, and we decided to set out that night in quest of General Beyers.
We had no idea where he was, but we counted on finding him sooner or later, so we started off immediately after dark. We rode all night, save for short halts, and towards morning came to a farm where a woman told us that General French was camped close by with his columns. She said that the English had given up the chase after Bevers and were on their way back to Pretoria, but had got weather-bound by the rains and were waiting for dry roads before going on.
On hearing this, Commandant Krause in his impetuous way rode off with only two other men to look around, and that was the last we ever saw of them. He and his companions must have ridden straight into the arms of the English, because soon after they left we heard a few distant shots and then silence. We waited until daylight, after which we decided to go on without him.
As a heavy mist hung over the veld, we made our way carefully, and it was as well that we did so, for when my brother and I with another man turned aside to water our horses at a dam lying off the road, four English troopers came riding out of the fog and let their horses drink about a hundred yards away. We gazed at each other suspiciously in the uncertain light, and then one of the soldiers shouted: 'Look out, those men are Boers', and pulling round they galloped away. We dismounted and fired before the mist swallowed them, bringing two to the ground. Riding up, we found one dead and the other rolling in agony, but both their horses had bolted after the others. While we were trying to help the wounded man the mist lifted somewhat, and a large English camp was outlined close by. We could hear our men splashing over the muddy ground in haste to get away, for they too had caught sight of the camp.
Bugles started calling and we caught glimpses of soldiers scurrying for their horses, so we galloped away, guided by the tracks lying clear across the sodden veld.
After a long ride we caught them up, and, when the sun broke through a little later and the fog dissolved, we could see some five -hundred English horsemen coming towards us, but had no difficulty in outpacing them, for in spite of our long night's journey their heavy troop horses were no match for our hardier and lighter mounts.
Krause having been captured, we were now leaderless, but with the Boers each man is practically his own commander, so the loss did not weigh heavily upon us and, having shaken off our pursuers, we rode along westward at our leisure, until in two days time we came on General Beyers and his men camped around the source of the Mooi River in the district of Potchefstroom.
Beyers appointed Corporal Jan Nagel to be our new Commandant, a popular choice, for, although a rough and illiterate man, he was well liked. He was still suffering from the wound received on the berg, but had remained in the saddle nevertheless.
We passed Christmas Day undisturbed, but next morning an English column came from the direction of Potchefstroom, and as there was no object in fighting except on ground of our own choosing, General Beyers gave them the satisfaction of thinking that we were running away, and at dark we drew off to spend the night near the village of Ventersdorp. From here we moved about at random, seeking for a chance to strike, but no favourable opening presenting itself, we saw the year 1901 in without further incident.