As soon as it was dark enough, Kemp led us off in the direction of the English camps, between which he intended passing. We were skilfully guided, for we slipped through a gap between two camps, passing so close that we could hear the murmur of voices, and could see the forms of soldiers outlined against their fires. No alarm was raised until we were through, when there was some shouting and firing which did no damage. Once, we had put the camps behind us the men were ordered to march on foot to spare their horses, for we had been on the move for over thirty hours, with no rest worth mentioning.
As I still had a limp, I gradually fell behind; and to make matters worse, my poor little mare was delivered of a still-born foal. With this travail coming upon her she had borne the long treks so unfalteringly, that I had not even known that there was anything wrong with her, but now her strength was gone. After a while she staggered to her feet, and as I could not risk remaining in too close proximity to the English camps, whose fires were still visible in the distance, I led her slowly forward. By this time the rest of our men had long since vanished in the darkness, and I had to plod on alone for an hour or two, dragging my horse behind me, until she could go no farther, when I decided to halt till morning. It was bitterly cold - so cold that earlier in the evening I had heard the men say that it was the coldest night they had ever known. As I could find no fuel for a fire, I wrapped my blanket round my shoulders and sat with chattering teeth until sunrise. When it grew light I found myself on a cheerless expanse, with a view that extended for many miles, but there was no sign of the commando.
By a distant thorn tree, however, I found four of my German friends, huddled together against the cold. They said that they had missed me during the night, and, knowing that I was crippled, they had generously remained behind to wait for me.
After collecting what fuel we could in such barren country, we built a small fire to fry some meat, and then set out on the spoor of the commando, making slow progress, for my companions' horses were not in very much better condition than my own. By nine or ten o'clock in the morning, ominous pillars of dust rising in the rear warned us that the English columns of last night were turning in our direction.
The troops were not as yet in sight; but considering the state of our animals, we stood a poor chance of keeping ahead of them once their scouts topped the skyline, so we hurried on as best we could. Just as we were beginning to see an occasional horseman far behind us, we providentially came on the Harts River. It was more of an earth crack across the plain than a river. No trees stood on its edge, and fifty yards off the banks were invisible, but it was our salvation, for hardly were we and our horses out of sight in the dry bed below, when the troops came swarming towards the river. All went well, however. The English, when they reached the bank, set to digging gradients for their guns and wagons, and, although it was hours before they got their transport through, during which time we anxiously peered over the top in fear of discovery, we had the satisfaction before dark, of seeing the tail of their convoy vanish over the horizon.
This was good as far as it went, but the question was bow to catch up again with our own people, though the fact of being temporarily cut off was not of vital importance having regard to the fluid nature of guerilla warfare, and we were not greatly troubled on that score, our worst anxiety being the weak state of our horses.
For the next three or four day we toiled on behind the enemy, who in turn were following our men. We kept some distance to the rear, only moving when the dust-clouds ahead of us showed that the English were advancing too, and in this manner we crawled along on foot, leading our horses by the reins.
One evening a burgher rode up, the first we had seen since the night we dropped behind. He told us that General de la Rey had dispersed his commandos into smaller bands, owing to the pressure from converging British columns. These bands, he said, were by now scattered all over the Western Transvaal, waiting for the end of the drive.
After taking a look at our animals, he said he thought we stood a poor chance of finding Mayer and the other Germans, then he rode off on business of his own, leaving my companions and myself to digest the information received. They were for attempting to work north to the milder climate of the bush-veld, in order to escape the infernal cold of these open plains. They said, as far as Mayer was concerned, we could always find him again once the winter was over, and in any case it mattered little if we didn't.
Seeing that they attached no particular moral value to the necessity of rejoining our unit, I now sprang on them my long-cherished scheme of making for the Cape Colony. They stared at me in surprise when I first broached the subject, but after I had explained my views, and had pictured the Cape to them as a land of beer for the taking at every wayside inn, they became eager converts, and we agreed to start without delay.
The four Germans were a mixture The eldest, Herman Haase, was a man of about forty-five, in looks the typical sausage-eater of the English comic papers, but, as I found out, a kindly, good-natured gentleman, a Johannesburg merchant, who had been in the field from the beginning. He was the last man one would have suspected of a liking for war, as his talk was all of his wife and family, and the joys of home life.
Next came W. Cluver, a clever, cynical Berlin student, who told me many interesting things of life in the old world; then there was Pollatchek, also a Berlin student, who had come out to fight for the Boers, as on a crusade. He told me that his initial ardour had long since evaporated, but he liked the life of adventure and so had remained, a pleasant, cheerful fellow whom I grew to like very much.
Lastly, there was a farmhand named Wiese, a clumsy, slow-witted rustic, but brave enough. With these four men my lot was now cast. Wiese and Cluver did not get very far, but with Haase and Pollatchek I was long associated, although they turned back in the end.
Our preparations for going to the Cape were quickly made. We slaughtered a stray sheep, and cut the meat into strips for drying in the wind (as we had no salt), and we ground a quantity of maize into meal in a small coffee-mill that Haase carried on his saddle-tree, and next morning we started.
On the evening of our first day out, we had an exciting interlude. Another of de la Rey's men who, like ourselves, had been left stranded in the rear of the British drive rode up to see who we were. He said he had been lurking around here for some days, seeking an opportunity to regain the commandos. While stripping mealie cobs in a field that afternoon, he had seen a native ride from a 'stad' close by to meet an English patrol. The native had conferred with the an officer in command for some minutes, after which the patrol went off. As the native was obviously a spy in British pay, the newcomer suggested that we should try to capture him after dark. Accordingly, about nine o'clock that night, we started on foot for the kraal, going quietly so as not to frighten our quarry. When we reached the village, however, we found the headman and all his followers on the 'qui vive'. They denied all knowledge of the spy, so our guide cut matters short by seizing the Induna by the throat, threatening to shoot him. On being thus roughly handled, he wrested himself free and shouted loudly, 'Help, help, the Boers are killing me!' In a moment we were surrounded by thirty or forty braves, most of them brandishing assegais and knobkerries in our faces.
They began leaping and dancing about us, uttering fierce yells and menaces, while some tore thatch from the huts, lit it at a fire, and held it aloft instead of torches. From beyond the circle of angry savages came the cries of the women, urging them to kill the white men, and things began to look unpleasant. We could have opened fire, but the space inside the stockade was cramped and they were far superior in numbers. Moreover, all through the war the Boers had observed an unwritten law that it was a white man's quarrel, and that the native tribes were to be left alone. For these reasons we did not fire, but closed up, and slowly backed out through the gateway by which we had entered. Once free of the enclosure we had no trouble in safely reaching our camping-place, much annoyed at the poor figure we had cut. To add to our humiliation, at dawn next morning we saw a native boldly riding from the 'stad' and when we sent a few shots after him, he waved a defiant arm and disappeared over the rise.
Having thoroughly bungled the affair, de la Rey's man took his leave of us, and we continued on our way.
For several days we were unable to travel in a direct line, for we found the countryside alive with British troops moving in all directions, and we calculated that we saw twenty-five thousand of them before we got clear. It was plain from the way in which they swept forward on an enormous front that they were conducting another of their drives, but as we did not see a single burgher, or the vestige of a commando during all this time, they must have had little to show for their activity. Clearly General de la Rey was resorting to his usual tactics of avoiding these huge concentrations of troops by scattering his men until the blow was spent.
My knowledge of veld-craft brought our party safely through to the Vaal River, for my early experience was of value, and we threaded and twisted successfully between the enemy columns, never having occasion to fire a shot. Once we were held up for half a day while a body of English troops camped within hail of where we lay hidden in a patch of thorn. Another time Cluver and I tried to ambush two officers, but he showed himself too soon and they got away. In the course of these operations we had to jettison Heinrich Wiese. His horse gave in and he himself had blistered feet, so we abandoned him near an English column, where he was sure to be picked up and cared for. My leg was on the mend, but we suffered a great deal from the cold at nights. Otherwise we almost grew to enjoy the excitement of dodging the enemy forces and patrols, and the Germans said that it was the best time they had had in the war.
At length, on the fifth or sixth day, we breasted the long rise at Leeuwdoorn, from which the country slopes down to the Vaal River, and we saw the wide plains of the Free Slate stretching beyond. We slept a night in an unburnt farmhouse on the Transvaal side, and next morning, as we were riding off, we saw a body of English approaching, so we climbed a kopje to see what their plans were.
The soldiers made for the farm we had just vacated, and soon smoke and flames were issuing from door and windows. As we looked on, two old fellows rode up from the direction of the Vaal River, and joined us on the hill. They reminded me of my former commander, General Maroola, and his brother, for they both wore rusty bell-toppers, and the tails of their ancient claw-hammer coats flapped in the breeze as they came. With a curt greeting they dismounted and sat down on the rocks, silently watching the work of destruction below. for a long time neither of them spoke, and it was only when the roof fell in amid a shower of sparks, that the elder of the two sighed and turning to the other said:
'Brother John, there go those teak-wood beams I brought from Pretoria after the Jameson Raid.'
This was his sole comment on the loss of his home, then the couple remounted their horses to ride back to the river.
As we were also going there, we fetched our animals and overtook them, learning on the way that they were making for a women's laager halted beside the water.
We found that the laager consisted of about thirty wagons, with perhaps three or four times that number of women and children, all under the care of our two worthies. Now that the British were capturing the civil population it had become the practice for the women on the farms, when hostile forces approached, to load what they could on their wagons, and join hands with others similarly situated, in order to form a joint laager. Once the immediate danger was past they returned to what was left of their homes, to subsist as best they could, rather than be taken for internment to the British concentration camps. We rested at the laager for a few hours, while one of the old church-wardens rode out to see what the English were doing. He came galloping back to say that about fifteen hundred English horsemen were on the river bank eight miles higher up. In view of this it was decided that the laager must cross through to the Free State shore, and immediately all was in a bustle. There was a ford of sorts close by, over which we helped the women to get the wagons, but it was pitiful to see them standing waist deep in the icy water, tugging at the wheels, and urging on the oxen in their anxiety to put the river between themselves and the column. After working hard for nearly two hours, we had the whole laager safely over. We then waded back to the Transvaal bank to fetch our horses, and on our return found the wagons under way, making across the unlimited open country of the Free State that stretches southward for hundreds of miles.
The Germans and I remained resting under the trees to dry our clothes, and slept the night a few miles farther on.
In the morning the Englishmen came moving down the river, and by nine o clock they were fording the stream into the Free State, so we made off, and for the next three days rode leisurely along, following the south bank of the river, and warning the women on the farms, as we passed, that the troops were behind.
I took this route as I had decided to make for the neighbourhood of Hoopstad, a village and district that I knew well, 3 of my brothers and I had camped and hunted here as boys.
I counted on finding the herds of semi-wild horses that used to frequent the river, that we might remount ourselves, for there was small chance of the horses we rode being able to last out the bitter winter that was upon us. We found the homesteads along the river bank intact, but as the bulk of the male population of these parts had been captured with old General Cronje at Paardeberg more than a year ago, the farms were for the most part tenanted by women and children. They told us that an occasional British column had marched through during the past six or eight months, but thus far the policy of farm-burning and the removal of the civilian population had not been put into operation here.
This happy condition was now coming to an end, for pillars of smoke were rising far behind us, and at night the sky was reddened with the glare of burning homesteads, to tell the unfortunate inhabitants that their long immunity-was over.
The women took the matter bravely, although there were tears and weeping at times, but each family, as soon as they realized the danger, fetched the oxen, inspanned their wagon, and trekked away south across the plains, out of harm's way.
At length we came to Hoopstad town. The place was deserted, the English garrison, for some unexplained reason, having set fire to their stores and marched away two days before. That same afternoon a solitary German trader rode in from the south-east, where he was serving with a small Boer commando. He proved a useful ally, as he showed us a quantity of maize concealed in an underground receptacle, on which we fed our horses for some days, enabling the wretched animals to pick up condition a little.
Our new acquaintance said he must now return to his commando, and he suggested that we should accompany him. He said that the horses running on the veld were so shy that, unless we got assistance, we should never succeed in catching any of them, as all fences were down throughout the district. We agreed to go with him and, travelling over endless rolling plains, within a few days reached the force to which he was attached. This consisted of twenty men under an officer of the now defunct O.F.S. Artillery. They made us welcome, but shook their heads when we mentioned horses, and indeed we found next day that we might as well have tried to catch antelopes. There were lots of horses roaming about, but when the men spread out, the mustangs went racing away, manes and tails in the wind, and, in spite of our endeavours, we failed to capture a single one of them. It appeared that the British troops had been firing on them with machine-guns and rifles, ever since they discovered that General de la Rey was getting remounts from here, which accounted for their bedevilment. In any case they were too fleet for us, and, as there were no wires to stop them, we gave up the business for fear of foundering the horses we had.
We spent a week with our friends. They were a ragged crew carrying a queer assortment of weapons, and what little ammunition they had they reserved for shooting game, which abounded, and they seemed quite happy so long as they could keep out of the hands of the British.
They gave us unfavourable news of the grazing to the south, so I determined to make for the mountain country farther east, where, I was told, the grass would be better, and where we might procure fresh horses, as de la Rey himself had latterly been sending thither in search of remounts.
So, when we had shot enough springbok and blesbok for biltong, the three Germans and I set out once more. On the night after we started, a bitter cold wind drove across the plains. We were halted beside a water-hole without shelter for man or beast, with the result that, towards morning, my little grey mare broke loose, maddened by the pelting earth and pebbles. She fled down the storm and I never saw her again.
One of our late friends had given Pollatchek a horse, which he made over to me, so the loss of my own, serious as it was, did not prevent my going on. Having ridden out the blizzard without further damage, we pushed on going roughly east by south. We passed Kopje-Alleen, where my brothers had been ridden down with the 'A.C.C.' last year.
It is a curious isolated hill visible for sixty miles around. As a boy I had sat on its summit watching the game-covered plains below, and now, as then, great herds of antelope and troops of wildebeest were grazing at its foot.
I climbed to the top, partly for old times' sake and partly to see whether the land was clear, but there was really no need for anxiety, as we were in empty country.
The farmhouses stood abandoned, the fields lay unploughed, and we saw neither human beings nor domestic animals, even the natives having fled.
We rode through this unpeopled waste until, some days later, we fell in with a party of Freestaters near the Sand River railway bridge There were nine of them under a Field-Cornet named Botha. They had been trying to derail a train, but the English were building block-houses along here and their attempt had failed, so Botha and his men were returning to their own haunts in the mountain ranges to the east. As we were bound for that region our-selves, we joined them. At eleven o'clock that night we set out to cross the railway line (the main line coming up from Bloemfontein to Johannesburg). The cold was intense and the darkness so thick that those in front had constantly to shout and whistle to give those behind their bearings. After we had been going for some hours we found that Cluver was missing. We called and whistled and fired shots, but got no reply, so Pollatchek and I rode back to look for him. We retraced our steps for more than a mile, and then, as the directing shouts of the others were growing fainter, we reluctantly rejoined our companions. The trouble was that Cluver was subject to epileptic fits. Three or four times since being with us he had fallen into convulsions, and we supposed one of these attacks had come upon him while he was lagging behind. The night was so freezing that to lie unconscious on the ground meant certain death, but Field-Cornet Botha said it was essential to cross the block-house line before it drew light, and, as we were still a long way from the point at which he intended to slip over, he insisted upon our pushing on, so we continued our journey, some-what heartlessly I admit, but we could not afford to lose the chance of getting through under the guidance of men who knew the lie of the block-houses.
Towards four in the morning we reached a hollow between two fortified posts, and crossed the line without any trouble. We clever heard of Cluver again, and I have no doubt that he was dead by morning, for he was not strong enough to have survived that winter night in the open.
By sunrise we were well into the foothills beyond the railway, and now for two days we rode east into increasingly mountainous country, until we reached a lonely farm lying high up amid the crags near Wonder Kop. At this place Botha and his men had their lair. From here they made periodic raids down to the plains, and they must have given a good account of themselves, judging by what they told us, and by their horses, weapons, and equipment, all of which were of British origin. Small private bands like this were common enough-in the Free State nowadays, remnants of larger forces that had dwindled away under the misfortunes of war.
Botha told me that he had at one time commanded over three hundred men. Many of them had been killed or captured, others had surrendered, and others again had left him to join larger commandos in the north. He clung to his title of Field-Cornet, and as two of his men called themselves Corporals, the rank and file of his army consisted of but six men. We had reached a very snug haven. The owners of the fame were gone, but there was plenty of good clean straw in the barns to lie on, and in a cave in the cliff over-hanging the-homestead was a store of wheat, a welcome change from our eternal diet of maize, while in the valleys below half-savage pigs were to be had for the shooting.
Moreover, there was a huge copper cistern, and, as water and fuel were plentiful, we could prepare a hot bath as often as we liked, a rare luxury in this freezing weather.
For ten days the two Germans and I revelled in the unaccustomed joy of good food, cleanliness, and comfortable sleeping quarters, but then I became restless once more. I succeeded in converting Field-Cornet Botha and his followers to my scheme of raiding into the Cape Colony They were at first disinclined to move so far from their beloved mountains, but eventually a swung them round, and about the end of June (we were vague as to dates and time) we started down the mountains and headed due west, intending to recross the railway line to the plains beyond, and then make a wide detour round Bloemfontein to strike the Orange River somewhere near Ladysmith. On the morning after our departure from the farm, as we were descending the pass near Breslersflat, a young fellow named Jacobus Bosman came riding up. When we told him that we were going to the Cape he said he would come too. As he was one of the Cape rebels who had joined the Boers during their temporary occupation of Colesberg in the beginning of the war, I advised him to stay where he was, for if he were captured on British territory, it would go hard with him. He said he would take the risk, so we en-listed him, but my warning was justified, for he was taken and hanged, as will be seen later on.
After three days of steady progress we were back on the open plains, within sight of the Bloemfontein-Johannesburg railway line, and we scouted round for a suitable crossing. This was becoming more and more difficult to find, now that the English were perfecting their block-house system.
As I spent the rest of the war roving the Cape Colony, I did not experience the full effect of this network, but I have heard that it caused the Free State and Transvaal Commandos great trouble, and in the end contributed largely to the break-up of the Boer resistance.
There were working parties of soldiers dotted along the railway track, engaged in putting up these block-houses, but we had no difficulty in galloping across the metals, despite a fairly heavy rifle-fire, and, having safely negotiated the line, we rode on, passing not far north of Brand-fort village. Towards dark we came on a field of maize into which we turned our weary horses, and here we spent the night.
Next morning, just before sunrise, we beard the crack of distant rifle-shots, and shortly after two burghers rode by. They pulled up to say that an English column was coming our way, and they advised us to go along with them_they were making for a women's laager not far away, to warn them of the enemy's approach_so we caught our horses-and rode off. one of these men, Piet Marais, was an old acquaintance whom I had known as a compositor in a newspaper office at Bloemfontein. He had since inherited money and had bought a farm near by, which he and his companion had been about to visit when they came on the advance-guard of the British force.
As the sun rose we were able to see the column crawling along the road some miles behind. We judged them to be fifteen hundred horsemen, with a string of wagons, and several guns. The women's laager consisted of some fifty wagons and carts, with over two hundred women and children, the collective non-combatant population of the district.
On hearing our news, they began to pack up; the poultry were run to earth, children and household effects were rapidly stowed, and in a very short time the laager was moving off. Women trotted alongside the teams with whips and quirts, while the children peered out anxiously from beneath the hoods at the dust-clouds in the distance, which betokened the approaching enemy. Fortunately the going was easy on these undulating plains, and the wagons made good headway in the direction of the Vet River, lying ten miles north.
By now other men were riding up in twos and threes from various points, until we were about forty strong, and we began to practise our old tactics of galloping across the front of the English advance to fire a few shots, and then falling back to repeat the process farther on, as soon as the shell-fire grew too hot.
This served its purpose sufficiently well to give the laager time to get away, and after a few hours we had no fears for their safety.
Towards three in the afternoon the English halted. We could see them turning out their animals to graze, so we rode up to a kopje near by, where we lay resting under the trees while our horses ready-saddled cropped the grass close by. Before long we heard a clatter, and jumping to our feet, saw a troop of mounted soldiers coming at a gallop.
Our look-out lad not troubled to keep awake, and the horsemen were within six hundred yards of us before we heard them. As they had two pom-poms with them, we loosed only a single volley, and then ran for our horses.
Rifle bullets were soon spitting about our ears and shells were bursting farther on, but as we were riding wide no one was hit, although once, when we were bunched together at a gap in a fence, a shell pitched right among us and killed a led-horse, whose blood was spattered in my face.
We spread out once more, and sprinted for the shelter of the Vet River banks, two or three miles beyond, and here we gave our winded animals time to recover. The British made no further attempt to advance that day, realizing perhaps that we had the heels of them. After satisfying ourselves of their intentions, we crossed over the north bank by a bridle-path, to build fires and cook a meal, for we had eaten nothing that day, and after dark we trekked down-stream for a few miles, to be in safety. Burghers, who had ridden away earlier to see how the women's laager was getting on, returned to say that all the wagons had escaped, so we spent an easy night under the thorn trees beside the water.
At sunrise yesterday's English approached as far as the river, where they came to rest. Our little party from the mountains thought that we had come far enough out of our course, so we decided to double back behind the column in order to resume our journey southwards. We took our leave of the Freestaters after hearing from them of an insure mountable barrier that we should meet at the Modder River, where, they said, the English had a line of fortified posts that would stop our progress to the south.
Recrossing the Vet River, we rode back along the way we had come the day before, and the soldiers halted along the stream did not even send a shell at us when we skirted round their camp.
We were getting short of ammunition, so during the next two days we followed the road by which the English force had travelled, to pick up Lee-Metford cartridges. The English soldiers were notoriously careless with their ammunition. If a round or two dropped from their bandoliers they would never trouble to dismount, as they knew they could get more, and at their halting-places one could almost always find cartridges lying spilt in the grass. So much was this the case that latterly it had become a regular practice to trail the columns, sometimes for a week on end, to glean these crumbs from the rich man's table, and I doubt if the British ever realized to what an extent the Boers were dependent upon this source of replenishment.
We followed the road back until we came once more in sight of Brandfort village, by which time we had picked up nearly a hundred rounds. Satisfied with this we now turned west, and then south-west, towards the Modder River.