2 On The Brink
Commando by Deneys Reitz

WHEN we reached Pretoria, affairs were moving to a climax. Peremptory notes had been exchanged between the Transvaal and the British Government, and excitement was rising as each cable and its reply was published. Already the Transvaal capital was an armed camp. Batteries of artillery paraded the streets, commandos from the country districts rode through the town almost daily, bound for the Natal border, and the crack of rifles echoed from the surrounding hills where hundreds of men were having target practice. Crowded trains left for the coast with refugees flying from the coming storm, and business was at a standstill.

Looking back, I think that war was inevitable. I have no doubt that the British Government had made up its mind to force the issue, and was the chief culprit, but the Transvaalers were also spoiling for a fight, and, from what I saw in Pretoria during the few weeks that preceded the ultimatum I feel sure that the Boers would in any case have insisted on a rupture.

I myself had no hatred of the British people; from my father's side I come of Dutch and French Huguenot blood, whilst my mother (dead for many years) was a pure-bred Norwegian from the North Cape, so one race was much like another to me. Yet, as a South African, one had to fight for one's country, and for the rest I did not concern myself overmuch with the merits or demerits of the quarrel. I looked on the prospect of war and adventure with the eyes of youth, seeing only the glamour, but knowing nothing of the horror and the misery.

I was seventeen years old and thus too young to be enrolled as a burgher. President Kruger himself solved this difficulty for me. One morning when I was at the Government buildings, I met him and my father in the corridor and I told the President that the Field-Cornet's office had refused to enrol me for active service. The old man looked me up and down for a moment and growled:

'Piet Joubert says the English are three to one—'Sal jij mij drie rooi-nekke lever?' (Will you stand me good for three of them?)

I answered boldly:

'President, if I get close enough I'm good for three with one shot.'

He gave a hoarse chuckle at my youthful conceit and, turning to my father, asked how old I was. When he heard my age he said:

'Well then, Mr State Secretary, the boy must go — I started fighting earlier than that',

and he took me straight to the Commandant-General's room close by, where Piet Joubert in person handed me a new Mauser carbine, and a bandolier of ammunition, with which I returned home pleased and proud.

I saw a good deal of the President in these days as I used to go with my father to his house on the outskirts of the town, where they discussed State matters while I sat listening. The President had an uncouth, surly manner, and he was the ugliest man I have ever seen, but he had a strong rugged personality which impressed all with whom he came in contact. He was religious to a degree, and on Sundays he Preached in the queer little Dopper church he had built across the street, where I sometimes heard him.

There was Mrs Kruger too, whom I often saw with her pails in the yard, for she kept dairy cows and sold milk to the neighbours. Once she brought us coffee while we were looking at a picture of the statue of her husband that was being set up on Church Square. The President was shown dressed like an elder of the Church in a tophat, and the old lady suggested that the hat should be hollowed out and filled with water, to serve as a drinking-fountain for the birds. My father and I laughed heartily on our way home at her simplicity, but we agreed that it was decent of her to have thought of such a thing.

I also knew Piet Joubert, the Commandant-General, for, apart from his visits to Bloemfontein, his son Jan and I were friends, and I sometimes went home with him to talk about the coming war, and his father was generally there. He was a kindly, well-meaning old man who had done useful service in the smaller campaigns of the past, but he gave me the impression of being bewildered at the heavy responsibility now resting upon him, and I felt that he was unequal to the burden.

One afternoon he showed me a cable which he had received from a Russian society offering to equip an ambulance in case of war, and when I expressed my pleasure I was astonished to hear him say that he had refused the gift. He said:

'You see, my boy, we Boors don't hold with these newfangled ideas; our herbal remedies (bossie-middels) are good enough.'

Another time, when describing the festivities at the opening of the Delagoa Bay railway line, which he had attended as Commander-in-Chief, he told me that when the Portuguese paraded a thousand troops in his honour, he had gone down the ranks shaking hands with every one of the soldiers. I liked him very much personally, and to me he was always kind and fatherly, but I felt that he was unfit to lead armies, and it is a great pity that a younger man was not appointed in his place on the outbreak of the war.

And now the days were speeding by and in September of 1899 matters had come to such a pass that British troops were moving up to the western borders of the Transvaal and Free State, and other troops were on the water, while large Boer forces were mobilising on the various fronts. Committees and deputations from the Cape travelled up to make eleventh-hour attempts to avert the catastrophe of war, but it was clear that the die was cast and that neither side was in a mood for further parleying.

My eldest brother (named Hjalmar, after a Norwegian uncle) was away in Europe studying law, and my father had already cabled to him to return. My next brother, Joubert, named after the Commandant-General, was a year older than myself, and although he, too, was ineligible for burgher-rights, he intended volunteering for service, but the two younger ones were put back to school.

Joubert and I had made our preparations long before. Our horses were in good fettle and our saddlebags packed. My brother had a fine upstanding chestnut, and I had a strong little Basuto pony, and we were eager to be off.

Many of the country districts had been called up, but thus far no Pretoria men had gone forward. At last, on September fifth, the first batch from the town was ordered to entrain for the Natal border. The moment we heard of this we took our rifles, fetched our horses from the stable, within ten minutes had saddled up and mounted.

We said goodbye to our stepmother and her children, for my father had remarried years before, and rode up through the town to the Raadzaal to take leave of him. We found him closeted with the President and members of the Executive Council, but we went in and, when we explained why we had come, all rose to shake us by the hand. The old President gave us a solemn blessing, and my father, who had not expected this sudden departure, bade us good_bye in a husky voice and said he knew we would do our best.

From the Government buildings we galloped to the station, where we found a great stir. Hundreds of friends and relatives — had come to see the contingent leave, but, in spite of the crowd on the platform and the loading of baggage and batteries, we were able to truck our animals after which we lent a hand with the stowing of the ammunition and other work.

When all was ready the train pulled out to the sound of the Transvaal National Anthem. There were enthusiastic cheers and the waving of hats and umbrellas by those remaining behind, and we were off to the front in good earnest.

As for my brother and myself, we were not Transvaal burghers, nor had we been called out for service, but we automatically became soldiers of the Boer Army by virtue of having thrown our belongings through a carriage window and clambering aboard, little knowing on how long and difficult a trail this light-hearted enlistment was starting us.