We now came into the Lichtenburg district, within a day's ride of Mafeking and the Bechuanaland border. This was General de la Rey's military area, but he was farther south at the time, and we only met an occasional roving patrol of his.
Beyers had a mind to raid Mafeking, but before he could do so a messenger arrived from the east with orders from General Botha to bring all his men to the Emlelo district. This meant transferring our force right across the breadth of the Transvaal, a matter of three hundred miles. Fortunately our horses were in good condition, thanks to the abundant rains and consequent good grazing, so we prepared to start at once. We now began our long march, riding eastward until some days later we reached back to the Magaliesberg Valley once more, close to where we had taken General Clements's camp. Since that event the English had apparently decided to garrison this fertile stretch, for we found a strong force a few miles down, busily constructing a fortified camp as though they intended to hold the valley permanently.
We left the camp alone, but for a few hours we lay on a ridge overlooking the troops who sent some shells at us, one of which killed a Waterberg mall within a few yards of me. While we were halted here, I rode across the valley to the farmhouse near General Clements's camp to see my friend Jan Joubert, who had been left there with our other seriously wounded, after the fight. Although not yet out of danger, he was on the mend, and he told me that the British were treating them very well. A surgeon came over nearly every day, and medical orderlies were on duty to tend to their wants. They had brought his old mother from Pretoria to be with him, and officers frown the camp down the valley often brought them fruit and other luxuries. I did not stay long for fear of a stray English patrol, and rode back after a hurried greeting. I did not hear what happened to him afterwards, but I believe that he made a complete recovery.
We now resumed our march, making for the railway line between Johannesburg and Pretoria. This had to be carefully approached as the track was patrolled night and day by armoured trains.
The A.C.C. was sent ahead to reconnoitre, and after an absence of twelve hours we reported back that the crossing was practicable. On our return journey to rejoin the main commando at the hill called Swart Kop, we found a suspicious-looking native watching our movements, and arrested him for further inquiry. We interrogated hint closely, without getting any evidence that he was a spy, but for safety's sake we kept him by us during the night, intending to release him next morning. Just before daybreak, however, while I was lying asleep by my saddle, I heard shouts, and looking up, saw the prisoner running as fast as he could go towards Swart Kop Hill. Several of our men were already astir, and as he would not stop when called, they dropped the unfortunate savage dead in his tracks, for which I was sorry, but in the circumstances it could not be helped.
That evening we started-off on an all-night march for the Johannesburg railway, which we struck soon after sunrise. The A.C.C. were scouting well in advance, so we were the first to cross the metals. As we were riding over, an English trooper come cantering up to see who we were, and he was considerably taken aback when he found out. We relieved him of his horse, rifle, and equipment, and told him to go off, a command which he obeyed with alacrity, and when we saw him last he was marching steadily for Johannesburg.
On the far side of the line stood a small homestead, out of which several more soldiers came tumbling. They all surrendered except one man, who made a bid for liberty by running into an orchard, but we shot him dead before he had gong far. At the same moment a trolley came down the line from Kaalfontein Station, and as the crew tried to turn back, we fired on them, killing one and wounding a native. The dead man turned out to be a railway-ganger, as were the other four white men with him. They were on their morning round of inspection, so we let the survivors go after telling them that it was their own fault for not halting when challenged.
Our main commando now coming up, some of the burghers foolishly rode along the track towards the station, with the result that they left three men killed and several wounded in the hands of the garrison there. Our whole force now being across the line, we rode to a large farm over the rise to off-saddle.
This crossing of the railway proved a relatively simple matter, but later on in the war, when the English had completed their blockhouse system, it became increasingly difficult; and from all accounts it required something like a pitched battle to negotiate a passage over the Transvaal and Free State lines, though in the Cape Colony I saw none of this.
While we were resting at the farm, patrols were sent out, and in less than an hour one of these came galloping back to say that a strong force of English was approaching from Johannesburg. Scarcely had they returned, when we heard a succession of loud bangs and the roar of shells tearing _ overhead.
Our horses were out grazing, so that there was a good deal of confusion before we had the frightened animals collected, but we managed to saddle up and get away without loss, our whole force moving in a north-easterly direction with the English following. We could hardly have fought them on such open ground, armed as they were with field-guns, but in any case our object was to effect junction with the Commandant-General, so we made no pretence of standing. The troops tried to head us off, and an armoured train from Pretoria made a belated appearance, firing heavy Lyddite shells, but with our greater mobility we left the soldiers far behind, and by midday were able to come to rest after our long ride.
Next day we trekked to Olifantsfontein, where the seven A.C.C. men had been killed the year before. At this place I suffered a most serious loss, for a young fellow claimed the pony which I had brought from the English camp after the Magaliesberg fight. He brought me and the horse before General Beyers, to whom he proved that it had belonged to his father, who was among those killed that morning during de la Rey's attack. I could not but admit the justice of his case, and handed over the pony, but this left me with only my old roan, a narrow margin of safety in these days when to be horseless meant almost certain capture.
At Olifantsfontein, General Botha came up with a small escort. He looked thinner than when I had last seen him in the Lydeaburg Mountains four months ago, but he was full of energy and confidence. He told us that Lord Roberts had decided to bring the Boers to their Knees by a series of drives, in which vast numbers of troops were to sweep across the country like a dragnet. To that end, all through this month of January (1901) they were assembling fifty thousand men along the Johannesburg-Natal railway line, ready to move over the high veld on a front of sixty or seventy miles, with tile intention of clearing the Eastern Transvaal, after which the process was to be repeated elsewhere, until every one was dead or taken.
The Boers were as yet mercifully unaware that this new system was to include the burning of farms, the destruction of crops and herds, and the carrying into concentration camps of their wives and children, but they were soon enough to learn that the British had taken the dread decision of laying waste the two republics, regardless of the suffering of the non-combatant population, and ignorant of the fact that these methods, so far from subduing the Boers would merely serve to stiffen their resistance.
Two days after General Botha had ridden away, the storm broke upon us. As the sun rose, the skyline from west to east was dotted with English horsemen riding in a line that stretched as far as the eye could see, and behind this screen every road was black with columns, guns, and wagons slowly moving forward on the first great drive of the war.
General Beyers, when he grasped the situation, divided his force in two, and rode away with one half to find the left flank of the enemy, while the rest of us were told to do what we could in front of the advance.
Far away, to our left, parties of General Botha's men were visible from rise to rise, scattered specks before the great host.
All that day we fell back, delaying the enemy horsemen by rifle-fire as far as possible, and breaking away when the gun-fire grew too hot. This went on till sunset without heavy losses on our side, despite the many batteries brought into play from every knoll and kopje. Once I saw my brother disappear from sight as a shrapnel shell burst on him, but he rode out laughing, he and his horse uninjured.
During the course of the morning, pillars of smoke began to rise behind the English advance, and to our astonishment we saw that they were burning the farmhouses as they came. Towards noon word spread that, not only were they destroying all before them, but were actually capturing and sending away the women and children.
At first we could hardly credit this, but when one wild-eyed woman after another galloped by, it was borne in on us that a more terrible chapter of the war was opening.
The intention was to undermine the morale of the fighting men, but the effect was exactly the opposite, from what I saw. Instead of weakening, they became only the more resolved to hold out, and this policy instead of shortening the war, prolonged it by a year or more.
The Times History of the War says:
The policy of burning down farmhouses and destroying crops as a measure of intimidation had nothing to recommend it and no other measure aroused such deep and lasting resentment. The Dutch race is not one that can be easily beguiled by threats, and farm-burning as a policy of intimidation totally failed, as anyone acquainted with the Dutch race and the Dutch history could have fore seen. Applying this system against a white race defending their homes with a bravery and resource which has rightly won the admiration of the world was the least happy of Lord Roberts' inspirations and must plainly be set down as a serious error of judgment....
Towards dark the chase slowed down. It rained steadily all night, and we spent a miserable time lying in mud and water on the bare hillsides. At daybreak we were all on the move again, but, owing to the rain and the heavy going, the English could only crawl in our wake, and we had little difficulty in keeping our distance. By now, the news had spread that the English were clearing the country, wide the result that the entire civil population from the farms was moving
The plain was alive with wagons, carts, and vehicles of all descriptions, laden with women and children, while great numbers of horses, cattle, and sheep were being hurried onward by native herd boys, homes and ricks going up in flames behind them.
General Botha directed all non-combatants, wagons, and live-stock to make for Swaziland, and he ordered us to give way before the troops, and let them expend their blow in thin air.
Owing to these measures the drive went to pieces during the next few days. The British could not maintain a continuous front over the increased distances, and the troops were left groping about after the elusive Boer forces, which easily evaded the lumbering columns plodding through the mud far in the rear.
The drive caused an immense amount of material damage to farmhouses and crops, and much live-stock was taken, but so far as its effect on the burghers went it was a complete failure, for it left them more determined than ever to continue fighting.
As soon as the main pressure of tile drive had eased, we of the A.C.C. were deputed to patrol the areas around Bethal and Ermelo, and although we did much hard riding on the flanks of various columns that were trekking along, we had no actual fighting, I now suffered the loss of my dear old roan horse. One morning he came staggering and swaying up to me from the grazing-ground, and I saw at once from his caving flanks and glassy eyes that he was stricken with the dreaded horse-sickness, from which scarcely one animal in a hundred recovers. Nosing against me he seemed to appeal for help, but he was beyond hope, and in less than an hour, with a final plunge, he fell dead at my feet. This was a great sorrow, for a close bond had grown up between us in the long months since the war started, during which he had carried me so well.
I had to leave him, for as he fell, English scouts came swarming over the rise. I threw my saddle on a borrowed mount, and galloped away with the rest, and as my brother was absent on patrol with both his horses, I was forced to rely upon a succession of loaned animals, but there was no help for it.
On his return a week later he unselfishly made over the 'Malpert' to me, and we now spent some time scouting over the plains in small parties to see what the English were doing, for, although the drive had petered out, large columns were still aimlessly wandering over the country, and our orders were to keep count of them. We had several sharp brushes with their outposts, and one evening were caught by a burst of shrapnel which blew a Carolina man to pieces within an arm'slength of me, and wounded his horse so severely that I had to shoot it.
After thoroughly scouring the countryside as far as the Swaziland border, our various A.C.C. patrols reassembled at a place called Klipstapel, said to be the highest and coldest spot in the Transvaal. That same day instructions came from General Botha that the A.C.C. were to be with him by midnight, as he was going to attack an English force camped near Lake Chrissie.
The attack took place, but we were held in reserve. We heard the sound of heavy firing shortly before dawn, and a rumour passed that the camp was taken. This proved only partly correct, for by sunrise came the trampling of many riderless horses, followed later by galloping riders, who told us that, although they had succeeded in overrunning the camp, the English troop horses had stampeded, creating such confusion in the dark, that our men gave way when success was practically in their grasp.
As it grew light, we could see the English camp lying intact below, and, as the troops turned several guns on us, and on such others as were in sight, we went scurrying away for the shelter of a neighbouring valley, where we found General Botha and most of his men. There was dejection in the air, for our loss overnight had been heavy, about forty killed and many wounded, with nothing to show for it.
But General Botha was not discouraged, for he addressed us, saying there were bound to be ups and downs, and he talked the men into a better frame of mind without any trouble.
After this, he split up his commandos. We had to live by foraging for sheep that were roaming about the veld, and by gathering maize from the unharvested fields, so he hived us off into smaller bodies, for easier provisioning.
As the drive had gone to pieces and there was no immediate need for our further services in the Eastern Transvaal, he ordered Beyers to take his men north to the new storm-centre in tile Waterbergen, which the English were now penetrating and from which urgent calls for help had come.
Most of Beyers's men were Waterbergers, so it was only natural to send them up to the threatened parts, but we of the A.C.C. were a mixed community, a sort of Foreign Legion, not hailing from any particular area. As, moreover, we were not over-fond of General Beyers, we decided instead to return west and rejoin General de la Rey, especially as messages had come that there, too, another great drive was in progress.
Beyers accordingly started on his long march without us, and we took our leave of General Botha next day. After some days' riding over the plains we got back to the country between Pretoria and Johannesburg, in order to recross the railway line.
This time the track was better guarded, for we found numerous little camps on either side, and the line was closely patrolled by mounted men.
Jan Nagel, our commandant, sent me with another man after dark to find a convenient crossing. We crawled right up to Irene Station, ten miles from Pretoria, passing within a few yards of the tents there, and a thousand yards down we found a suitable spot in a hollow.
We were at this all night, returning to the A.C.C. at a neighbouring farm by daybreak. Here we rested quietly until dark, and my companion and I then led the commando over the railway line without any trouble. We rode on all night, reaching our former haunts near the Swart Kop by morning.
We were now back in the Skurwe-bergen country near Johannesburg, where we had taken refuge before, and here we rested for seven or eight days, as the British troops rarely visited these broken hills.
This mistake proved our undoing, for the area is notoriously unhealthy for horses during the rainy season, and our animals began to die so rapidly that, by the time we made for higher ground, more than half the A.C.C. were dismounted, but as the 'Malpert' and my brother's toll-free chestnut had escaped the contagion thus far, we were still in the saddle.
Jan Nagel decided that we must reach General de la Rey's commandos in the west, in the hope of getting fresh horses, so we started off, a miserable band, most of the men on foot, carrying their saddles and equipment on their backs, and the rest of us not knowing when we should be doing the same.