WE struggled along for two days, making west, and losing more horses as we went, until we found our way barred by a body of troops stationed on the height known as Ramagothla, from which they had a wide view over the surrounding country.
Hampered as we were with dismounted men, we could not venture into sight across the open, so we turned north to the friendly refuge of the Magaliesbergen that we could see once more on the far horizon.
By stealing down kloofs and valleys, we made the foot of the mountains unobserved, reaching the very spot where the 'Old Wagon Pass' comes down, the same road along which we had travelled from the Waterbergen, two months before.
On this march the 'Malpert' showed signs of distress, his staring coat and lagging steps telling only too plainly that his course was spent.
A column of English horse was near, so we had to hurry up the pass as it grew dark, and I was obliged to leave him in an orchard below, to give him this slight chance of recovery. Next morning, on looking over the cliffs, I saw him lying dead. He had been game to the end—'puure paert' (an 'all-horse') — as the men called him, and my brother and I climbed down to pay a last visit to his poor emaciated carcass.
On our return Nagel discussed the situation. With more horses dying every day, our prospect of safely crossing the open plains and reaching General de la Rey was a poor one, and he suggested that we should return to the hill country from which we had just come. He said that we could wait there until word was got through to General de la Rey, who would doubtless send sufficient fresh horses to enable us to join him.
About half the men agreed to this, but the others refused. They said de la Rey was short of horses himself, and, with winter approaching once more, they preferred making north over the mountain-range for the warmer climate of the bush-veld. My brother and I decided to go north, too, although for a different reason. I was without horse, and he might be so at any moment, so we decided to find my father, as we counted on him to fit us out again, after which we would return south.
There was very little discussion and no ill feeling, for Nagel was a sensible man, and that same afternoon all was concluded. He, and those who were accompanying him, said good-bye, and filing down the pass again were soon lost to view. With him went de Gourville the Frenchman, the two sons of our late Commandant Alan, Fred Hancock, an old Bloemfontein school-fellow, and many other friends and companions, none of whom I ever saw again.
I think most were hunted down, or shot out, before they could obtain remounts, for, as I was to discover, their hopes of getting horses from General de la Rey were practically nil as he had none to give.
The men who had chosen for the north now started over the mountains, some on horseback, the majority on foot, and thus ended the A C.C..
My brother and I were in no hurry, so we remained resting among the boulders that night.
My father was somewhere in the Lydenburg country, and this was three hundred miles away, no easy journey with a single horse between us, but we reckoned that by riding and walking in turn we should find him in the end, and we hoped that as a member of the Government he would be able to recondition us.
Next day we loaded our gear on the chestnut, and descended the north side of the Magaliesbergen into the great valley which we had crossed with Beyers the night that we found the burning convoy.
We reached the bottom in the afternoon, by which time the A.C.C. men who were travelling the same road had long since disappeared, leaving us seemingly alone in the broad rift. Towards evening, however, we came on an ox-wagon, outspanned in a patch of scrub, and owned by a stout-hearted old Boer lady who told us that she was on her way to the bush country. Her husband was fighting with de la Rey, and as the English were harrying and burning in the west she had thrown her belongings on a wagon, and, leaving the farm to look after itself, she had crossed the Magaliesbergen with her children and a native herdboy. She said she was going north at once, and offered us a lift. As this would save us much walking, we helped to fetch and yoke the oxen, and started off overjoyed at this timely relief. Before we had gone many yards, however, I remembered that by some oversight I had forgotten my saddlebags where we had halted that morning on our way down the mountain: a slight matter that altered the whole subsequent course of the war for me.
Saddlebags were scarce and valuable, and moreover mine contained a supply of salt that I had been lucky enough to discover at a deserted farm the week before, so it was agreed that my brother would go on with the wagon, while I returned up the pass on his horse to retrieve the missing articles. We thought that I should easily be able to catch up next day, so, leaving the wagon to jolt along, I trotted the chestnut back along the road towards the mountain.
By the time I reached the spot where I had left my wallets it was dark, so I built a fire and spent the night there. At daybreak when I untied the hobbles of the horse he savaged my arm, a sure sign that he was not himself, for ordinarily he was gentle, but I saddled up none the less and rode him down the mountain and halfway across the floor of the valley, by which time the tell-tale flecks of foam at his nostrils showed that the horse-sickness was on him. Seeing an empty farmhouse not far away, I led him there and kept him in the shade (which is said to be the only chance), but in less than an hour he was dead.
I could see up the northern road for ten miles or more, with no sign of the wagon, and, as the sun was blazing down, I decided to rest in the house until it grew cooler, before walking on in search of my brother.
The farmhouse had apparently been used as a place of call for English supply columns, coming and going between Rustenburg and Pretoria, for there was a litter of empty tins and other debris outside and the floors within were strewn with cigarette-ends, matches, and other marks of recent occupation. In going through the rooms looking for a cool spot, I found an unopened packet of newspapers on the floor, and as I had not seen a paper for over nine months I lost no time in reading them. I learned for the first time that Queen Victoria was dead; that there was a war in China; that Lord Roberts had been superseded by Lord Kitchener; and I read of a great many other events that had been passing in the outside world. What interested me most was ail account of a Boer commando that was raiding far down into the Cape Colony, and I resolved at once to go south in search of them.
It was not so clear how I was to set about this, for the Cape lay many hundreds of miles away, and I was alone and on foot. But my mind was made up and, abandoning all thought of overtaking my brother, I threw my saddle across my shoulders, and carrying my rifle in one hand, and my cooking-tin in the other, I started back on a Journey that was to take me very far indeed.
As I trudged along the road I had come, clouds of dust rising from the direction of Pretoria warned me that an English column or convoy was approaching, so I took to the bush and spent the night there. Starting long before daylight next morning, I reached the foot of the Magaliesbergen once more, at the Old Wagon Pass, and here I found about fifty Rustenburg men who had come in overnight They were horseless like myself, owing to the ravages of horse-sickness, and, having observed the approach of the English troops, they, too, had made for the shelter of the Berg.
By climbing a little distance we could follow the movements of the soldiers, whom we made out to be about three thousand strong, with guns and many wagons, all making in our direction. We fled up the heights to a gorge near the top, where we lay secure, but the weather took a turn for the worse and it rained for eight days and nights without stopping, during which time we had no shelter but over-hanging rocks. It was impossible to find dry fuel, so we existed on biltong without a mouthful of anything warm.
We could not descend the mountain, because parties that went down reported that both north and south there was not a dwelling or a barn within reach that was not occupied by weather-bound English troops, who had been driven in from all directions to take cover against the unprecedented downpour. The knowledge that our opponents were comfortably housed merely added to our misery, and every time that the clouds and mist swayed aside we could see smoke cheerfully ascending from every building and shack below.
When the rain ceased, after a dreadful week, we impatiently watched the troops getting under way, and then made haste down the north side of the mountain, to re-occupy some of the farms which they had vacated.
My boots meanwhile had rotted and I had to climb down the sharp slopes on my bare feet, which became so swollen and blistered that I lay for a fortnight in a tobacco shed to which I was carried. The men were kind to me, one old 'takhaar' actually walking twenty miles to fetch a piece of leather of which he knew, to make me a pair of rawhide sandals which served me for many a month to come.
These burghers were Doppers, a religious sect said to be somewhat like the Quakers. They held strange views on many things, but for all their primitive ways they were brave, unspoilt men.
Among them were some who had been serving with General de la Rey before they lost their horses, and they now began to discuss the possibility of returning to him.
This meant crossing over the Magaliesbergen to the south once more and going thence on foot over the open plains of the high veld, at the mercy of the first mounted enemy patrol that caught sight of us, so that it would not be at all plain sailing.
However, after discussing the pros and cons of the venture, thirteen of us decided to take the risk, in spite of the warnings of those remaining behind.
The prospect of a two-hundred-mile march on foot, burdened with our saddles and other belongings, was not an attractive one, but we began our preparations. While out after game one morning I chanced to pass the derelict English wagon-convoy that had been burnt last year, and looking over the remains I had an inspiration. There was not a single whole wagon, but it seemed to me that by taking an undamaged wheel here and there, and axles and planks from other parts, we might piece together a composite vehicle.
Returning to my companions, I put forward this suggestion, which was so well received that they went off in a body to inspect the skeleton convoy, and in two days' time had built up a strange-looking but quite trustworthy wagon.
The question of transport animals was just as easily solved. In a deep kloof some miles away ran a large herd of cattle, kept hidden there by General de la Rey's orders, as a reserve supply depot for his commandos in the west. We visited the cattle-guards, and got a dozen good trek oxen from them.
My fellow-travellers were born stockmen, who could tell at a glance which animals were trained to the yoke, and after a trial run they could even tell the exact place at which each ox bad previously pulled in the span, so they quickly selected an excellent team, with which we returned to complete our plans by rough-hewing sufficient yokes and curing the necessary straps and riems. In a few days' time all was ready, and loading up our goods we said good-bye to the rest of the Rustenburg men, and with our improvised wagon jolted up the Old Wagon Pass on our journey of discovery.
We climbed over the mountain range in one day, reaching the orchard where poor 'Malpert' had died, in time to see the English still crowning the rise at Ramagothla. The night was black with heavy rain under cover of which we crawled on to the open plain, hurrying the oxen past the camp until by daylight we were well out of sight in the folds of the hills, cold, drenched, and weary, but pleased with the good progress that we had made. We found ourselves on the scene of recent fighting, for the ground was littered with rotting carcasses of horses and mules, and there were newly made graves.
I heard later that Mr Smuts, the State Attorney, had here besieged a force of Australians, who defended themselves so bravely that they beat off our people with loss.
We now travelled onward for several days through devastated country. The counterpart of the great drive we had witnessed in the east had since rolled over this area, leaving behind it only blackened ruins and trampled fields, so that our course lay through a silent unpeopled waste, across which we navigated our wagon like a lonely ship at sea.
My companions were big heavily bearded men of the old school, who looked on me as something of an alien, for I was town-bred, and they did not always understand my ways, but they were simple kindly souls and we got on well together. The Boers had their full share of laggards, but they had a full share, too, of steadfast yeomen such as these; men whose farms were lying in ruins, whose wives and families were scattered they knew not where, but who, unpaid and unbidden, returned to risk their lives in the fighting that swayed continually backward and forward over the western plains, and I got a truer insight into the fine courage and high qualities of their fighting-men during this journey than at any other time of the war.
On our fourth or fifth day out, a woman came walking towards us with her two small children and a native servant girl. She told us that she had been sheltering for the past ten days in a wooded kloof where her wagon was hidden, but the oxen having strayed into the open had been captured by passing soldiers, so that she was stranded She said that General de la Rey s wagon-laager was camped at a place called Rietpan, near Tafel Kop, so, ascertaining that she was in no immediate want, we turned south-east, coming in view of the shimmering waters of the pan by noon next day. There was a considerable number of wagons on the shore of the lakes with many horses and cattle out at graze, and we were just congratulating ourselves on having at last found de la Rey when we saw a sudden stir—men began to run for their horses, and oxen were rapidly driven in, and, as we realized that something was amiss, we halted our wagon to await events.
Soon horsemen came riding furiously past, followed after an interval by the wagons and carts, also urged forward in a panic. We managed to stop one rider, who only stayed long enough to say that the English were upon us. We looked in vain for any sign of the enemy, but assuming that they must be near, we turned our tired oxen, and rattled along behind the retreat, which did not slow down until we had covered about six miles. Then horsemen from the rear overtook us with word that the alarm had been a false one.
All concerned had the grace to look ashamed of the stampede, but there was at any rate some excuse for them, as de la Rey had been severely handled early that morning in a surprise attack, in which he had lost over a hundred men. Some of his wounded, galloping up to the wagons, had precipitated a rout among the drivers, cattle-guards, and camp-followers, who formed the bulk of the laager.
In the afternoon General de la Rey himself rode in with his men, and he used withering language.
We now went into laager at Tafel-Kop, where de la Rey's commando and the wagons remained for the next few days. There were about a thousand mounted men and perhaps two hundred wagons. A few of these were used to bring maize from the Magaliesberg foothills, but the majority belonged to non-combatant refugees. De la Rey looked with an unfavourable eye on these and their vehicles, and the men said that the old man prayed to the Almighty night and morning for the enemy to relieve him of this incubus.
I saw a good deal of him at this time, as he held a daily levee beside his cart, where all were free to hear his views.
Attached to his person was a prophet, van Rensburg, a strange character, with long flowing beard and wild fanatical eyes, who dreamed dreams, and pretended to be possessed of occult powers. I personally witnessed one of the lucky hits to which he owed his reputation, for one morning while we were congregated around the General's cart, van Rensburg was expounding his latest vision to a hushed audience. It ran of a black bull and a red bull fighting and goring each other, until at length the red bull sank defeated to its knees, which he interpreted to mean that the British would soon be in like case. As he stood before us, his arms outstretched and his eyes ablaze, he suddenly called Out: 'See, who comes?'; and, looking up, we made out a distant horseman spurring towards us front the cast. We waited in silence for the rider. When he came up, travel-stained and weary, he produced a letter from General Botha, hundreds of miles away.
When General de la Rey opened and read it, his face lighted up, and in a voice ringing with emotion he said: 'Men, believe me, the proud enemy is humbled' (Die trotse vijand se nek is gebuig). He went on to tell us that the letter contained news that the English had proposed a peace conference. Coming immediately upon the prophecy, it was a dramatic moment and I was impressed, even although I suspected that van Rensburg had stage-managed the scene. Of General de la Rey's sincerity there could be no doubt, for he was not a man to stoop to subterfuge, and I knew that he firmly believed in the seer's predictions.
These tidings created a great deal of stir and excitement during the next few days, and many of the men thought that the war was as good as over.
A peace conference did in fact take place a little later between General Botha and Lord Kitchener, but it proved abortive, and the only immediate result was to establish van Rensburg's reputation more firmly than ever.
I asked General de la Rey for a horse, but he said I should have to wait until parties he had sent into the Free State had returned, and, indeed, I could see for myself, from the number of dismounted men with the laager, that he was unable to assist me, so in the meanwhile my companions and I clung to our wagon and team, taking turns at herding the oxen and foraging for maize. Like everyone else, we had to find ourselves in food, excepting meat, which was supplied from a communal drove.
By this time my clothes had fallen from my body, owing to the rains, and my entire wardrobe consisted of a blanket and a pair of sandals, so that, as it was towards the end of March by now, with winter coming on, I felt the cold pretty severely. General de la Rey had noticed my scanty attire, and one morning he walked over to our wagon with a pair of breeches and a coat, a gift I much appreciated, for he could have been none too well supplied himself, but it was of a piece with his natural kindliness and consideration towards all.
From Tafel Kop, after some days, he rode off with the mounted men, and we poor infantrymen and other camp-followers were ordered to a place ten miles away, where there was better grazing for the trek-oxen. Here we remained, my prospects of reaching the Cape Colony looking pretty uncertain, although I was as determined as ever to get through.
On the 3rd of April, or the day we calculated to be that date, the wagon crew and myself were busy preparing a dinner to celebrate my birthday with an ox-tongue and a few odds and ends that we had managed to collect. Suddenly there came the crash of a field-gun, followed by the roar of a shell exploding close by, and almost immediately some of de la Rey's horsemen came riding out of the heavy mist that lay over all the country. They were riding hard to warn us that the English were coming. In a moment there was a wild rush to fetch the oxen, and fortunately the fog was so thick that none of the other shells fell among us and the entire wagon-laager was able to get under way without being seen.
To the sound of small-arm fire where our horsemen were engaged in the mist, the convoy spread out for better speed, each wagon striking out a course of its own, without regard to the others. The fog held, and heavy rain setting in still further decreased the visibility, so that my companions and I got clean away, although at times the English horsemen splashed past so close to us that we could hear them shouting to each other for their bearings.
The bulk of de la Rey's fighting men were not in the vicinity at all, but only some twenty or thirty of them had been approaching, the wagon-laager, for a few days' rest, when they unexpectedly stumbled on an English force that was stalking the convoy under cover of the mist. But for this we should have been taken by surprise, and I doubt if a single man would have escaped. As it was, the warning we received enabled us to escape wholesale capture, but it was touch and go, for the boom of the guns, the splutter of rides through the fog, and the hallooing and galloping sounded very near. As a matter of fact a number of wagons were taken, although we did not know it at the time. As for our party, we ran beside the team, keeping the oxen at a trot, and as our wagon was light, carrying only our saddles and cooking-tins, we made good progress. The other wagons and carts were almost immediately lost sight of in the mist, but we forged ahead by ourselves, and towards evening reached broken ground to the north, where we were safe enough.
We built a large fire on the banks of a stream and resurrected the remains of my birthday-dinner, which had come along in a leather bag. Afterwards my companions stood in a circle round the blaze, and solemnly sang hymns of thanksgiving for our escape. Then we camped for the night.
Next morning as it grew light, other wagons came crawling over the plain, also making for the safety of the hills, so we yoked our oxen and joined them, heading for a valley in the heart of the rugged tract known as the 'Swart Ruggens', where we found the remnant of our laager assembled.
We could not yet tell how many wagons had fallen into the hands of the enemy. Nearly half were missing, but most of these drifted in during the next day or two, and in the end it was found that less than a dozen had come to grief.
While we were camped in the valley, General de la Rey came up with some of his men to see how the convoy had fared, and, before riding back to the fighting area, he left orders for the wagons to proceed to a spot some thirty miles away, where there were two hundred horses from the Free State, which were to be given out by ballot to the dismounted men of the laager.
Many English columns were moving west at this time in continuance of a drive they were making, but we were able to trek along in comparative safety behind the line of their advance, and in due course reached our destination Here we found a patrol that had come up from the Free State in charge of the remounts. The animals were mostly unbroken mares, and, as there were over three hundred horseless men, the drawing of lots was followed with keen interest.
I drew a blank, but no less than nine of our original wagon party got a horse apiece. I was cast down at the result, although we were comforted by an assurance that further horses were expected, and those of us who were unsuccessful in the drawings had at least the fun of seeing the winners break in their mounts, a diverting spectacle.
Nearly two hundred horses were bucking and squealing at the same time, their riders biting the dust in all directions, while we sat on the wagon-rails cheering them on. It was wonderful how quickly the men mastered their unruly steeds, so that by the third day practically every animal was broken to the saddle, and the newly mounted force could ride off to the war.
With them went the nine men from our wagon, leaving the rest of us to wonder disconsolately when we should sit astride a saddle again, and leaving me to wonder as well whether, at this rate, I should ever see the Cape.
The wagon-laager was now instructed to return to the Swart Ruggen Hills from which we had come, so we lumbered slowly back, halting after some days at the head of a beautiful stream that gushed from the rocks. Here we went into permanent camp, and the place soon became a sort of base depot for de la Rey's fighting commandos. The sick and wounded were brought here, and there was a steady influx of horseless men drifting in from the plains, and of men who had left the firing-line for a rest.
Our numbers varied from two hundred to over four hundred at times, and so securely were we hidden that not once did the British troops come near us, although their columns were ranging far and near over the adjoining open country. Two days-after our arrival at the new camp I tried to smash a log for fuel by bringing down a heavy stone on top of it. The stone came back at me like a shot from a catapult, breaking my right tibia halfway between knee and ankle, and for three weeks I lay in great pain and discomfort with splinters of bone working their way out from a suppurating wound.
Luckily there were some Germans here, marooned like the rest of us for want of horses, and one of them had a working knowledge of surgery. Thanks to him and to a healthy constitution, I was at length able to hobble about, so I was doubly fortunate in having his assistance, and in being left in peace by the British while I was incapacitated. By now all but one of our original wagon complement had received horses and ridden away, and all the Germans except two were gone, and it began to look as if I was to become a professional camp-follower, for winter was upon us, and the arrival of more horses from the Free State was very unlikely.
A chance turn, however, brought me relief. One morning, soon after I was able to limp around, a small party of Germans rode into camp under command of a little hunch-backed Field-Cornet named Mayer. At this time there was still in the field a German contingent about thirty strong, with Mayer at its head. In a sense they were the direct descendants of Baron von Goldeck's force, with whom I had served the year before; for although most of the Baron's men had melted away during the retreat to the Portuguese border, some of them had remained, and had collected themselves into a self-contained little commando forming part of General de la Rey's army.
Mayer had heard that there were a few of his compatriots stranded at the wagon-laager, so he had brought some spare horses to remount them. This stood me in good stead, for there were only two horseless Germans left in camp, the others having drawn animals in the lottery and ridden off, and Mayer agreed to let me have a little grey mare on condition that I joined him. The wound in my leg was still far from healed, but as I could not afford to miss the chance I made over my half-share in our wagon and team to the only remaining member of our original and company; and with my leg in a splint accompanied the Germans when they set out on their return to de la Rey's forces.
It was a harsh journey. My leg throbbed and ached at every stride, and the winter had set in with great severity. I had not felt the cold so much in the seclusion of the valley where we had been camped up to now, but out in the open it was a different matter. By day clouds of dust and biting winds drove across the bleak plains, and at night we could hear the crackle of ice forming on the pools, as we lay shivering beneath our threadbare blankets. From now lay onward, indeed, until the end of the cold season, five long months ahead, we endured great hardship and suffering, for never, even in the memory of the oldest man, had there been so prolonged a spell of bitter weather all over South Africa.
For three days we rode on without meeting anyone. Another great drive was in progress with de la Rey's men hanging on to its flanks, the country behind being left wasted and ruined. At length we came on some of his commandos in the ridges near the village of Hartebeestpoort, where they lay in attendance on a large concentration of English troops, said to number twelve thousand. Here we found the balance of Mayer's Germans, with whom we took post in the line that had been established in a half-moon before the enemy columns. For the moment the troops were resting, so we lay watching their camps, guns and convoys, waiting for them to make the first move.
They sent shells over us at times, but were obviously holding their hand until they were ready, an event to which we looked forward with considerable misgiving, as there were only about six hundred burghers present, the last of de la Rey's men being elsewhere engaged.
But the General himself was with us and, happening to ride past one afternoon while my leg was being dressed by one of the Germans, he sent me off to a kind of field hospital that he had established some miles back. I found it in a ruined farmhouse, with a young Hollander doctor doing what he could for the sick and wounded under his care. It was a cheerless place, with only dried grass to lie on, and in the absence of medicines or bandages there was little enough comfort for the patients. They were mostly lighter cases, as the serious casualties were left for the British ambulances to pick up. Amid all the cruelty of farm-burning and the hunting down of the civilian population, there was one redeeming feature, in that the English soldiers, both officers and men, were unfailingly humane. This was so well known that there was never any hesitation in abandoning a wounded man to the mercy of the troops, in the sure knowledge that he would be taken away and carefully nursed, a certainty which went far to soften the asperities of the war.
A few days after I joined the hospital we heard the sound of heavy gunfire about nine in the morning, and realized that the expected attack had come. I had kept my horse by me all the time, so I saddled and rode back to where I had left the Germans in the firing-line, while the doctor loaded his charges on a mule-wagon and made off to safer quarters. When I reached our men I saw the English attacking away to our left. Under cover of a severe bombardment their cavalry rode cheering towards a spot in our position a mile away, and broke through almost at once.
We of the German contingent were merely spectators, but we were close enough to see the men at the threatened point run for their horses and take to flight. Here and there a man went down, but our casualties were not heavy, as there had been scarcely any resistance in face of the shell-fire to which we could not reply, and when the burghers on either side of the breach saw what was happening, they too fetched their horses and beat a retreat. Naturally the Germans and I went as fast as the rest, to join the stream that flowed to the rear. We fell back until two in the afternoon, when the English gave up the chase and we were able to come to a halt in a bush-covered hollow, where General de la Rey addressed us in his half-humorous half-serious manner, and soon he had the men laughing and making light of their misfortunes.
We rested our horses here until dark, and then rode west for several hours, as there was word of further columns converging upon us.
There had been a magnificent double-tailed meteor in the sky of late, the two streamers of which looked like the letter 'V', and van Rensburg, the General's Prophet, had been giving out that this stood for 'Vrede' (peace), but on this night as we rode along, I heard a boyish voice from the darkness ahead call out:
'Mijnheer van Rensburg, that letter V up there does not mean Vrede, it means Vlug (retreat).'
There was wry laughter in the ranks at this sally, which the discomfited oracle bore in meek silence, although it did not diminish his output of prophecies, which continued right up to the peace.
We spent a cold night beside a pan, and at daybreak could make out a large body of English troops in the distance, but we could not tell whether they were our pursuers of yesterday or a fresh column. In any case they were too far away to cause us any immediate anxiety, so we shot some oxen (a number from the Sarger communal herd having accompanied us) and began to prepare breakfast.
After this General de la Rey divided us into two parties. With half the men he rode south, and before sunset we heard the boom of guns thirty miles away, where the indomitable old man was once more attacking an enemy column.
He left Commandant Jan Kemp in command of the rest of us, with orders to carry out a raid into the territory of Bechuanaland, with a view to capturing a supply train on the Rhodesian railway line. Accordingly, for the next two days, we rode on through barren country, until we reached a point on the Harts River, from which we were to make a night march to our objective.
Mayer asked leave to scout in advance with his men, a request that was granted, so we started two hours ahead of our main body, riding through the Cunana Native reserve until, at four in the morning, we crossed the British border. The railway ran only a mile or so beyond, and we soon reached the metals. We started tearing up the track, with poles from a neighbouring fence for our only tools. Presently Mayer handed me a pair of pliers, and told me to climb up one of the telegraph standards and cut the wires, no easy task with my sore leg. As I was swarming up, there came a sudden volley from a culvert about fifty yards away. I slid down and in a moment we were on our horses, and away, for now that we were discovered there was no hope of surprising a train.
We rode back to a hill half a mile in the rear, to wait for daylight. When we got there we found a little native village nestling behind it, and went there to get information as to the number of soldiers guarding the line below. It was growing light as we rode through the gateway of the thorn enclosure surrounding the 'stad', and when we entered, two khaki-clad white men rushed out of a hut, rifle in hand, followed by a native also armed. Mayer was off his horse at once, firing almost before he touched the ground. He hit the native through the chest, and the other two men put up their hands. This single shot caused a panic in the village. The natives grabbed their karosses, mats, babies, and whatever else they could lay hands on, and fled down the slope in the direction of the railway line to seek protection from the British troops, the women setting up a long-drawn wail as they ran.
Mayer ordered me to head off the fugitives, so I galloped round to get in front of them. Unfortunately three or four of the Germans had lagged behind on the way up from the railway line, and, when they saw the rush of natives coming at them in the uncertain light, they opened fire, thinking themselves attacked. Before I could stop the shooting, they killed four and wounded several others, nearly getting me too.
We did what we could for the wounded and had them carried back to the huts, greatly upset at what had happened, for there were two women amongst the dead.
The white men captured in the kraal turned out to be renegades (National Scouts) from Potchefstroom. They were handed over later on to General de la Rey, who had them both executed, I believe.
It had by now grown fully light, and we could see Kemp's men approaching through the bush. They were riding in small parties, making for the railway line, so we sent off a man to warn them that the English were there, but before the messenger got halfway, shells came screeching through the air from a hill beside the line. So far from expecting to be shelled, we had believed this part of the railway to be unguarded, but we could now make out quite a considerable number of tents among the trees and, as the gun kept dropping shells near us, Kemp ordered a withdrawal, and we trekked back into the Transvaal after a profitless venture.
We rode thirty miles that day, reaching Leeuwpan by nightfall, where we found General de la Rey awaiting us. He said there were several English columns halted in a semicircle ahead, and he instructed Kemp to get out of their way that night. Having told us what to do, he rode away with his handful of retainers, and I did not see the doughty old warrior again, for from that night our roads lay far apart.