"The adventures of this handful of resolute men led by General Smuts forms one of the most interesting episodes in the whole course of the guerilla war."—The Times History, v, 302.
THE place of our meeting with General Smuts and his commando was in sight of the little village of Sastron, about fifteen miles from the Orange River, and his intention was to march nearer that day, and cross during the night. By noon a start was made, and towards five in the evening we could see a dark line in front of us marking the gorge, at the bottom of which runs the river between high mountain walls.
Unfortunately this was not all that we saw. our side of the canyon was held for miles in each direction by a cordon of British troops, stationed there to bar our way. Whenever a footpath led down the cliffs, there stood a tented camp, and the intervening ground was patrolled by strong bodies of mounted men who clearly knew of our coming.
On seeing this, General Smuts led us back into a range of hills, where we waited until next day, whilst men were sent in search of some neighbouring outpost to act as guides. - At dusk a young officer named Louis Wessels arrived with fifty men, a hard-bitten crew, with whom he had been operating for over a year.
He reported enemy columns closing in on us from the rear, and said that unless we were able to effect a crossing that night, we should be trapped. He said, moreover, that the river was everywhere difficult, owing to the depth of the gorge and the perpendicular cliffs, but he had brought with him a veteran of the Basuto wars who knew of a path which might be practicable.
General Smuts decided to start at once, and in the falling dark our force rode out, accompanied by Vessels and his men, who agreed to enter the Colony with us we travelled on, hour after hour in the dark, over rough ground, and then, towards three in the morning, we caught a glint of white far below, where the Orange River boiled and eddied in its narrow channel. It was yet night when we commenced the final descent, but after toiling down the precipitous path to which our guide had brought us, and along which assuredly no other mounted troops had ever passed, we reached the edge of the water. In single file we began to cross the river, a strong and turbulent mountain torrent, not broad, but so swift that our horses could scarcely maintain their footing, and as dawn lit the cliffs above, the hindmost man was through, and I stood in the Cape Colony at last
After a short halt we took a path that led to the top of the cliffs opposite, by a deep cleft, up which we tugged our leg-weary animals, until, far above, we emerged on a wide grass-covered tableland, pleasantly dotted with native villages and herds of cattle at pasture.
We were now actually on British territory, but the country here lies in an angle between the Free State, Basutoland, and Cape boundaries, and the region seemed exclusively occupied by Basutos, for there were no European habitations in sight.
As soon as we gained the top, we scattered into small parties, riding from one native village to another, in quest of tobacco and fodder for our horses. While we were thus ranging, a body of mounted Basutos, about three hundred strong, came moving swiftly towards us. Some were armed with rifles, others carried battle-axes, assegais and knob-kerries, which they brandished in the air as they approached. We did not know what to make of this, but we thought that they could not be contemplating an unprovoked attack on a white force equal to their own. General Smuts,. -therefore, contented himself with sending word for the various foraging parties to close in, and the commando continued on its way without paying much attention to the horsemen, who at a shouted word from their leader came to a halt on a knoll close by, where they sat their horses in silence, watching the Boers pass.
At this stage, my uncle and I, with five others whose names I did not know, lagged behind to feed our horses from the grain-baskets to be found in every native village, and as we were not frightened by the Basuto parade, which we put down to curiosity, we allowed the commando to get a considerable way ahead of us. At length, seeing that we were being left too far behind, we mounted and followed our men, the last of whom were just vanishing over the edge of the tableland by a road leading to the plain -below.
By the time we could look down, the bulk of the commando was already at the bottom. They were riding along -a road flanked on the left by a ledge of overhanging natural rock, part of the footwall of the tableland which they had just quitted, and on the right by a Mission Church and a long rubble fence, separating the road from fields and gar-dens. A force moving down this enclosed alleyway could be easily ambushed, and we were alarmed to see that the Basutos had left their horses above, and were scrambling down the final shelf of rock overhanging the road, crawling forward to the edge, to look straight down on our men riding unconsciously below. We expected to see them open fire on the crowded ranks at any moment. Indecision, however, came over the natives; they began nudging one another as if each wanted someone else to start shooting, and by the time that they had made up their minds the opportunity was gone, for the commando was already debouching from the confined space of the road into the open plain. My fellow-stragglers and I were worse off, for although the Basutos had hesitated to attack the larger force, their intentions were clearly hostile, and we wondered how they would deal with our little band left isolated in the rear.
After hurried consultation we decided to follow on, and attempt to catch up with the commando, so we began to descend the slope. We reached the bottom unmolested, but as we passed the church beside the road we caught sight of many dark faces pressed against the window-panes, and white eyeballs peering at us from within. Then came a deafening crash, as a volley was fired at us point-blank from the building, sending showers of splintered glass about our heads. Fortunately the native is a notoriously bad marksman, for he generally closes his eyes when he pulls the trigger, so not one of us was hit, although the range was under ten yards. When the Basutos lying on the rocky shelf overhanging the road heard the volley, they took courage and also opened fire. The five men with us did the only reasonable thing under the circumstances. They dug their spurs in and rode off as fast as they could, but my uncle with his usual impetuosity loosed his pack animal, swung his horse in behind a massive boulder that had calved from the ledge above, and jumped to the ground. I had to follow suit, relinquishing my own led-horse, and riding in behind the rock, a huge cube that leaned against -the parent crag in such a manner as to give us cover against the Basutos overhead as well as from those firing through the shattered windows of the church across the way. We opened fire in turn at the church, but we saw at once that our position was untenable. Immediately above, the natives were excitedly shouting as they fired at our retreating companions, and at such of the rearmost commando men -as were still within range.
Already we could hear the voices of several of them craning over to get at us from above. With some of the enemy standing on the roof, as it were, and others shooting from the church not fifteen yards off, we realized that to remain here could have only one ending, and we prepared to mount once more, although our chances of escape seemed desperate.
Looking down the road, we could now see only two of our men, riding for their lives across the fields, for they had succeeded in leaping the dividing wall. The other three men were nowhere to be seen, but two dead horses lay in the road, and a third was galloping riderless in the distance. This looked bad, but no other course was open to us, so we leapt into the saddle and rode out from the sanctuary of the fallen rock. The moment we did so, the natives in the church saw us, and redoubled their fire, while those on the bank above raised blood-curdling yells and also fired.
As we sped past, more natives rose from behind the fence lining the road. Fortunately these last were armed only with assegais and knobkerries, which came whirring about our ears. In this pandemonium we took every moment to be our last, but we ran the gauntlet safely for perhaps sixty yards, when the road fell suddenly into a deep spruit which neither of us had noticed in our excitement. It meant salvation although at first it looked as if it only meant more danger, for, riding down, we saw some fifteen or twenty natives squatted in a circle, intent upon something that lay on the ground between them. before they could do more than spring to their feet and strike blindly at us, we were through. Instead of riding up the opposite bank of the spruit, where we should come under fire again, we galloped along the bed under cover of the high banks, until we were able to emerge out of range.
Of the five men who had been with us, the two whom we had seen making across country got clean away, but the other three were either killed on the road, and then dragged into the spruit, or else they were destroyed on reaching there, for we learned long after that their bodies were found on the causeway, dreadfully mutilated by the natives for medicine, in accordance with their barbarous custom. I have little doubt that when my uncle and I rode down amongst them, they were busy at their grisly task of dissection, which we ourselves so narrowly missed.
We were out of danger now, but the prospect was not reassuring. True, we had got off without a scratch, but our pack animals were gone with most of our gear, and looking over our saddle-horses. we were dismayed to find that they were both badly wounded. My brown mare had been hit by a jagged missiles that had smashed her lower jaw, and my uncle's horse had a bullet through the crupper and another through the hindsleg. I put my poor animal out of her misery at once, but my uncle thought that his might recover (which it did). I shouldered any saddle, and, leading the injured horse, we advanced on foot, dolefully speculating upon our future, for we had only a wounded horse and a handful of cartridges between us in this inhospitable country.
Far away we could see the commando posted on a ridge, to cover the retreat of those who were still in danger, for some of the men had been within range when the firing started on us at the church, and there were several wounded painfully making their way across the plain.
When at last we reached the commando and had time to look around, my uncle and I had a pleasant surprise, for there stood our two led-horses safe and sound, with our blankets and cooking-tins intact. They must have fled straight on when we loosed them on the road, and they had overtaken the commando while we were fighting below the shelf. Now they were contentedly ranged in line with the rest of the horses behind the hill, as if nothing out of the common had happened, so at any rate we still had a riding-horse apiece.
While we were halted here, we saw that another party of ten or twelve men was in difficulties. They, too, had got separated from our main body, while foraging on the table-land earlier in the morning, but no one had missed them until now when we heard the sound of distant firing and saw them riding into view two miles away, hotly pursued by numbers of mounted Basutos.. They were in grave danger, for between them and ourselves ran a deep ravine, towards which they were being shepherded, and as the ravine seemed impassable, it looked for a time as if we should have to stand by helpless and see them killed. In order to do what we could, the whole commando mounted and rode to the edge of the chasm, and here; fortunately, we found a piece of high ground from which we over-looked the scene on the other side, and were able to drop our bullets among the advancing natives with such good effect that they reined in. This gave the cornered men time to search the cliff for a way down, which they succeeded in finding under cover of our fire, and ultimately they rejoined us without casualties.
This final episode reduced my ammunition to four rounds, and indeed many of the rest were no better off, for the long chase to which they had been subjected during their dash through the Free State had depleted their bandoliers to such an extent that the question was becoming a very serious one for a column such as ours, starting to invade hostile territory.
After this we halted for an hour to give the wounded men a rest, and to enable those whose horses had been killed to get remounted. There were seven men hit, and, as we had no lint, bandages, or medical supplies, there was little that we could do for them.
After a while the injured men were placed in their saddles, and we trekked away, with several bands of natives hovering in our rear, as if they contemplated a further attack, but in the end they retired- After a wearisome ride we got beyond the area of the Native Reserve, and towards afternoon we came across the first European farmhouse, where we left our wounded to be fetched in by the British.
We rested our exhausted animals till dusk, and then, saying good-bye to the wounded men in the house, we rode on for five or six miles before camping.
For months past we had experienced an unbroken spell of fine weather, bitterly cold at night, but cloudless sunshine by day. Now, however, there was a change, and it came on to rain heavily, so that we spent the long hours of darkness dismally lying in mud and water. This weather, coming on top of the crowded events of the last twenty-four hours, gave us our first taste of what was awaiting us in the Cape Colony, and thus early we began to appreciate the fact that our road was likely to be a thorny one.
Next morning the sky cleared somewhat, although a penetrating drizzle continued for most of the day, through which we rode shivering, our thin clothing being but little protection. My own wardrobe was typical; a ragged coat and worn trousers full of holes, with no shirt or underwear of any kind. On my naked feet were dilapidated rawhide sandals, patched and repatched during eight months of wear, and I had only one frayed blanket to sleep under at night. Few of the men were better off, and we looked with apprehension on the change of weather, for it meant that the rainy season was upon us, with its attendant hardships, the full extent of which we were yet to learn.
Our course during this day took us through more settled parts, and for the first time we looked at farms and homesteads untouched by the hand of war. There were men peacefully working in the fields, and women and children standing unafraid before their doors as we passed, a very different picture from that to which we were accustomed in the devastated republics.
The people were almost exclusively of Dutch origin so they gave us unselfish hospitality. In the matter of clothing they were hardly able to assist us, on account of the military embargo which prevented them from buying more than certain quantities, but gifts of coffee, sugar, salt and tobacco were ungrudgingly made, and the first slice of bread and butter and the first sip of coffee I had tasted for a year almost made the long journey worth while.
In spite of the bad weather, our first day among a friendly population was a pleasant experience, which put the men in good spirits, and I dare say we posed a little before the womenfolk, laughing and whistling as we rode along.
Our course, later in the afternoon, took us up a mountain-pass, and when we reached the top towards evening, we could see in the distance the comfortable hamlet of Lady Grey nestling to the left, while in a glen below was the old familiar sight of a British column, crawling down the valley. This gave us no anxiety, for, being without wheeled transport of any kind, we turned across the heath and easily left the soldiers far behind.
That night it rained again, and a cold wind drove against us from the south. Our commando presented a strange appearance as we wound along; we had no raincoats, so we used our blankets as cloaks against the downpour, and the long line of draped horsemen looked like a tribe of Red Indians on the warpath.
Long after dark we came to a halt, spending a wretched wet night, and at dawn, cold and miserable, we trekked over bleak country, the biting wind in our faces, until at four in the afternoon we came to rest near a place ominously called Moordenaar's Poort (The Murderer's Way). The rain how ceased, and, a passing herdboy having told us that English troops were camped a few miles off, General Smuts decided to go and see them for himself He took with him two young Freestaters who had joined him on the way down, and another man named Neethling from Pretoria an old friend of mine. With these he left, saying that he would be back by dark. At sunset he had not returned, and for hours we anxiously waited for him until, shortly before midnight, he walked in among us on foot and alone. He had been ambushed by a British patrol, who had killed all three of his escort and all the horses, he alone escaping down a nullah. Had he been killed I believe that our expedition into the Cape would have come to a speedy end, for there was no one else who could have kept us together. The commando was divided into two portions commanded by Jacobus van Deventer( Later Sir Jacobus van Deventer in the Great War.) and Ben Bouwer respectively, both good fighting-men but neither of them possessing the personality or the influence over men that General Smuts had, to save us from going to pieces during the difficult period upon which we were now entering.
We spent the night where we lay, and there was more trouble before daylight, for a porcupine came grunting through our lines, with the result that the horses stampeded in a body. They thundered off in the dark, crashing through fences and undergrowth in blind terror, and at sunrise there was not an animal to be seen.
With an English force in the vicinity this was a serious predicament, for they would make short work of us if we were dismounted, so all hands turned out to hunt for the horses. Luckily a few of the men had hobbled their mounts, which prevented them from going as far as the rest, and as these were run to earth in a hollow not far away, they were used to track the others, and after three or four uneasy hours, expecting to see the English appear at any moment, we brought back all the missing horses safe and sound.
We now travelled on for the next three days across windy barrens, heading south-west. The weather grew more and more tempestuous as we went, and we suffered severely from the cold, and from the intermittent rains that accompanied us. Both horses and men began to show signs of distress. The animals looked thin and gaunt, and the man sat on their saddles pinched, shivering, and despondent, for South Africans are peculiarly susceptible to the depressing effects of bad weather. They can stand cold and other hardships as well as anyone, but continued lack of sunshine soon makes them miserable, and for the time being we were a dispirited band, wishing we had never come.
By day we were wet and cold, and the nights were evil dreams. Dry fuel was almost unprocurable, and after a weary day we had to spend the hours of darkness cowering together to snatch a little sleep on some muddy mountainside, or in an equally sodden valley.
Soon we were losing horses freely, and not a trek was made without some wretched animals being left behind with tuckered flanks and drooping heads, waiting for the end.
We had three days of this, but our real troubles were only beginning.
Towards sunset one evening we came in sight of the village of Jamestown, and saw a strong English column to our right, so General Smuts moved us on. It grew pitch-dark, and a driving rain smote straight in our faces. The night was so black that it was impossible to see even the man immediately before one, and the cold so bitter that we became stiff and numbed, and it was only with difficulty that we could drag our horses along, for we were ordered to go on foot to husband their strength.
When I was crossing a spruit, my sandals stuck in the heavy pot-clay and came to pieces when I tried to with-draw them, and it was only by cutting corners from my blanket and wrapping one about each foot that I was able to go on at all. Our guide, a young man from a local farm, had lost his bearings, so we had to grope our way through icy rain for five hours, until we could continue no longer, and stood huddled together ankle-deep in mud and water, praying for sunrise.
When it grew light, over thirty horses lay dead from exposure, besides others abandoned overnight, and our spirits, low before, were at zero now.
The rain continued pitilessly until midday, when the sky cleared and the blessed sun shone upon us once more. We moved forward, and not far away saw a large farmhouse and outbuildings containing plenty of fuel. Soon we were warming our numbed bodies, and cooking our first hot meal for days.
The housewife at the farm gave me a pair of old-fashioned elastic-sided boots, and I unearthed an empty grain-bag in which I cut a hole for my head, and one at each corner for my arms, thus providing myself with a serviceable great-coat. My appearance caused much laughter, but I noticed that during the next few days, whenever we passed a barn, grain-bags were in great demand, and soon many of the men were wearing them.
As the people here told us that there was an English force in the neighbourhood, we moved on later in the afternoon, first saying good-bye to Louis Wessels, the young Free State officer and his men, who turned back from here as they had only come thus far to see our force well launched into the Colony. I believe that they reached their own country again in safety.
We continued for an hour, and then halted in a valley. Whilst we were idly resting in the grass two field-guns banged at us from a hill, and shells came tearing overhead. More followed and, taken by surprise, we leaped into the saddle and made for the cover of a line of hills to the rear.
The artillery was poor, and neither man nor horse was hit.
Once in safety, we put our animals out of harm's way, and climbed up to see what the English meant to do. We could now see a column of horse coming down towards us, around a spur that had previously hidden them from view.
There were about six hundred of them, and they had with them two fifteen-pounder Armstrong guns, and several Pompoms which unlimbered and opened fire, while their horsemen cautiously approached us. After a time they quickened pace as though to attack, but coming under our fire, they took cover behind some farmhouses and kraals.
In spite of the shelling, and a lively exchange of rifle-fire, there were apparently no casualties on either side, and the affair terminated after dark. I did not fire a shot on account of the state of my cartridge belts, and the others fired no more than was necessary to stave off the enemy, because, as I said before, the ammunition question was an exceedingly serious one.
When the light went out we withdrew to a farm close by,— hoping for a real rest this time as we had not enjoyed a full night's sleep since we crossed the Orange River, more than a week before.
We did not get that night's rest, for at three o'clock next morning we were ordered up in the dark, and started in a cold drizzle of rain on a record march. Our men were weakened by long privations, our ammunition had dwindled to vanishing-point, and our horses were in the last stages of exhaustion, yet during the next six days, beset on all sides, we marched and fought, and in the end successfully got through.