XXII - Moss-Trooping
Commando by Deneys Reitz

NEXT morning we rode out of the mountain country into the open plains of the Karroo. In the face of great odds we had broken across the successive barriers placed in our way, and although we had still many troubles to meet, the English had failed to turn us back. We now slowly marauded southwards. At the village of Maraisburg, a large number of troops was waiting for us, but General Smuts skilfully led the commando through at night without firing a shot, and we continued unmolested.

During this time the 'Rijk Section'' came into its own. Our share in the attack on the 17th Lancers had enhanced our reputation, and in this open country our services as scouts were in greater demand, so we ranged far a head hospitably entertained by the Dutch-speaking population, and philosophically tolerated by the English farmers with whom we came in contact.

In our fine khaki tunics, and on our well-found horses, our appearance had undergone such a transformation that when asked at the English farmhouses who we were, our stock witticism was to say that we were 'English-killing Dragoons'. we thoroughly enjoyed it after all the hard-ships of the past.

The weather had improved, the long winter was over, and cloudless sunny days put still further heart into us. Then we had another stroke of luck, for we were joined by Field-Cornet Botha with twenty-five men, the remnant of a band of free-lances that had been roaming the midlands, until their numbers had so dwindled that they had been forced into hiding among the mountains. Hearing of our passage they had hastened to find us, and practically re-placed our wastage since coming into the Cape.

But we had to abandon Raubenheimer, whose thigh had been smashed during the last fight, and a day or two later we had to leave Cohen behind, as his wound became gangrenous.

Besides being a brave man, Cohen must have been a bit of a wag, for I subsequently read in an English newspaper that when he was captured and asked by a British officer why he, a Jew and a Uitlander, was fighting for the Boers, he replied that he was fighting for the Franchise.

The next loss was heavier for me. My friend Jacobus Bosman, who had so loyally stood by me when the others turned back in the Free State, was taken ill with some malignant fever. He gamely tried to keep up but we had to leave him delirious at a farm. I went off with a heavy heart, for I knew that he was doubly in danger. If the disease spared him, the English would be waiting with a charge of high treason, and my fears were only too well founded, for about three weeks later I read that he had been sentenced to be hanged as a rebel at Graaf Reinet.

He was the first of our 'Rijk Section' men to meet a humiliating death by execution, but not the last, for three more were destined to stand before a firing party, and also other members of the commandos

Two days after we had left Bosman behind, we reached the foot of a high mountain range, the name of which I have forgotten. There was a road running into a narrow defile called Lily Kloof into which the 'Rijk Section' was sent scouting. We rode up the gorge for some distance, until we saw an English foraging party going off, each man with sheaves of oats tied to his saddle. Ben Coetzee killed one of them, a local farmer named Brown, who had joined the troops, and the rest of the patrol raced off. A woman ran out of a cottage to warn us that there were English strongly posted at a narrow point farther up, so we turned back to report to General Smuts. Some miles west lies an equally deep ravine, through which we now tried to find a way, but here again we were warned that the route was held. General Smuts said that he as not going to squander men in forcing his way, when there were other means of crossing, so we retraced our steps, and that night, led by a local guide, we picked our way over the range by a bridle-path. It was a long march with no chance of sleep, but dawn found us on the far slopes, in the English-speaking, district of Bedford. From here there was a glorious view, across deep mountain valleys and green uplands of one of the loveliest and most fertile parts of South Africa. We had left all serious pursuit so far behind that for the next few days we rode leisurely on our way, while the men scattered about, visiting farmhouses and enjoying themselves.

The inhabitants took our coming in good part, and there was never any sign of ill feeling, although they hoped that we should get rounded up, and told us so.

We saw an occasional Defence Force patrol, which, however, gave us no anxiety, for they were local levies merely-keeping their eye on us, and there was no trouble until one afternoon when a column of horse showed on a hill and opened long-range fire in our direction. Not wishing to be involved in fighting other than of our own making, we turned up a defile that wound into a mass of rugged mountains before us. These were the Great Winterbergen, and we halted at sunset amid gorgeous forest-covered steeps, where we built huge log-fires, and spent a comfortable night, greatly taken with the fine country we had reached.

Next day our path ran through even more beautiful scenery. Around us was primeval forest, and through an occasional tunnel in the trees we glimpsed green fields and white homesteads in the valleys far below.

The following morning, while halted in a picturesque glade, a woodsman in a log cabin told us of a tavern and trading-station at the foot of a pass leading down close by. The men were all for going to see what was to be had, and towards sunset we reached the bottom, where stood a substantial wayside inn flanked by well-stocked warehouses.

So little were we expected in this remote part, that no effort had been made to remove the goods to the protection of the nearest military post, which was generally done when we were approaching, and the owner suffered from our visit, for we were masters by now in the gentle art of commandeering. I would not have mentioned this excursion had it not cost us the life of another member of the 'Rijk Section'.

There was plenty of beer and spirits at the inn, and although few of the men had tasted liquor for a year or more, there was no drunkenness, but Piet de Ruyt, our Hollander companion, took too much, and when the commando moved away at dusk, he was left asleep unnoticed.

Weeks later we learned that he had been discovered in a room, and as, like most of us, he was dressed in a British uniform. the poor fellow was executed, in all probability before his fuddled brain had time to take in what was happening.

Neither then, nor for weeks later, did we know that the death penalty attached to the wearing of khaki, and although after a while rumours reached us through the country people that our men were being executed, these stories left us doubting and perplexed. We could not believe that the English were resorting to the shooting of prisoners, and it was only after many had been executed that we learned of Kitchener's proclamation ordering the death of all Boers caught in khaki. As far as I know no steps were ever taken by the military to acquaint us with its contents.

From the foot of the Winterbergen we rode on for some hours in the dark, by a footpath winding across a bush-covered plain, and we camped in all open space for the night. At daybreak we made out the little village of Adelaide in the distance, but, as it seemed to be strongly garrisoned, we left it alone, and continued all that day slowly making south through broken country.

Here again the inhabitants were chiefly English-speaking farmers, who submitted with good grace to our depredation, for we slaughtered what sheep we required, and helped ourselves freely from their larders and orchards. Towards evening a column came following us from Adelaide, halting when we halted, and moving when we moved, and when after dark we went into camp, their fires were soon winking at us five or six miles away. During the afternoon an armed Colonial had ridden up from a farm with a story that he wished to fight the English. He rode a spirited horse and spoke fluent Dutch, and as he seemed genuine he took us in, but now, while we were off-saddling by a pool, he suddenly pulled his horse round and galloped away. He was gone before anyone could give chase, and, as he was obviously a spy sent to learn our intentions, we re-saddled and rode on for an hour or two before resting for the night.

Next day we bore away in a somewhat more westerly direction, reaching the Great Fish River by sunset. We crossed at a ford, and a mile or two beyond, at Commadaga Station, we passed over the railway line that comes up from Port Elizabeth through the midlands. As there were no block-houses we had no difficulty in getting to the other side after dark, and then, as our horses were tired, General Smuts ordered us to camp at a farmhouse five or six hundred yards beyond. We had scarcely turned our animals out to graze, when an armoured train came puffing up, the beams of its powerful searchlight sweeping the veld, but, as we lay in a fold of the ground, the crew could not see us although they must have suspected our presence, for they sent a number of shells howling into the night, only one of which came within measurable distance of us. It burst harmlessly near by, but we thought that we had been discovered, and ran to find our horses, with the result that there was a good deal of bumping and confusion in the dark before we realized that the English were shooting at random. Then we had a good laugh at ourselves, and spreading our blankets slept in peace till daybreak.

From here we headed south-west, riding at our ease through the district of Somerset, until by sunset we made the foot of the Zuurbergen, the last great escarpment before the country drops away to the sea.

We were by now within fifty miles of Algoa Bay. I do not know what General Smuts's intentions were at any stage of our expedition, for he was a silent man, but I think that at this particular juncture he was contemplating a sudden raid on Port Elizabeth, for next morning, when we saw what looked like over three thousand troops coming after us, he kept us quietly resting at the foot of the mountain, instead of slipping away east or west as he could easily have done. These troops had been brought by rail, and had detrained at Commadaga Station, where we had crossed two nights before, and from their converging front it looked as if they hoped to bring us to bay against the slopes of the range.

We watched them slowly approaching for most of the day, until their scouts were almost within rifle-range, and then General Smuts led the way straight up the steep slope behind us. We spent the night on the crest of the first of the great parallel hogbacks that constitute the Zuurbergen.

From the point where we reached the top, we looked on a world of more mountains, line upon line of high ranges, each separated from the next by deep wooded gorges, and the prospect of being driven into these fastnesses was not inviting. However, with troops closing in on us from the rear, there was no help for it, so we built fires and camped.

On the way up Jack Borrius and I had met a native herd-boy, who informed us that there was a big troop of horses in a neighbouring kloof. On all our journey through the Cape we had not found a single riding-horse on any of the farms, as the English had cleared the country to prevent us from getting remounts, and the boy said over five hundred horses had been collected by the military within the last few days, on hearing of our approach. Accordingly Jack and I left the commando before daybreak and followed the ridge for some miles, until we found a practicable descent down which to lead our horses into the kloof which the native had pointed out. At the bottom we came on a deserted homestead, with the ground trampled by many hoof marks, but a Red Kaffir, who appeared out of the forest, told us that a patrol had come the day before, and driven all the animals away to the coast. We therefore gave up the idea of finding them and, turning our mounts into a paddock, stretched ourselves under a shady tree and fell asleep.

Some hours later we were waked by a couple of men who had ridden out in search of food. They roused us and told us to listen. Bumping to our feet, we heard the sound of distant rifle-fire coming from the quarter where we had lefts the commando that morning. It was clear that they were fighting, and before long we caught sight of our men on the slope of the next range, crawling like ants up a steep side. They were miles off, but we could see that all was not well with them, for they were strung out in a disorderly line and the firing was coming from an enemy force some where out of view.

We caught our horses and led them up the range which the commando was climbing, and on getting above we could see our men hurrying towards us along the top. It took more than an hour for them to come up with us, and then we learned that while they were encamped a number of English had unexpectedly opened fire on them.

After an interchange of shots the commando had fallen back deeper into the mountain, with only one man wounded and a few horses killed. The wounded man was badly injured about the face, but had come on. We were now on the second range. From here we saw many English horsemen riding about on the first crest. When came opposite us, with only the deep kloof, through which we had passed, lying between, and then opened fire upon us with several machine-guns and a field-piece. I do not know how they had succeeded in dragging those up the mountain, but there they were barring the way should we try to break back, while behind us lay mile upon mile of tumbled forest-clad mountains and gorges.

The immediate danger from the troops was not pressing as we had good cover for ourselves and our horses, but now a fresh-complication set in.

Up to now we had found so little difficulty in commandeering supplies from the farms we passed, that no one ever thought about the next day, with the result that when we unexpectedly found ourselves in a wild region without habitations, the men had little or no food with them, and were already beginning to feel hungry. Scattered about stood a strange growth known as 'Hottentot's bread' (Encephelartos Altensteinii, a wild fruit not unlike a large pineapple. It is edible only at certain seasons of the year, but coming from the north, we did not know this, and as one of the men sampled it and found it to his liking, many unfortunately followed suit.

I had not eaten any, and returning to the firing-line, after going to tie up some horses that had broken loose, I was astonished to find more than half our men groaning and retching on the ground in agony, some apparently at their last gasp. General Smuts was worse than the rest, so, with half our number out of action, we were also leaderless, for he was lying comatose.

The horsemen of the strong enemy force before us were even now descending the opposite slope to attack us, while behind were mountain wastes stretching as far as we could see. We had no food, and could not move without abandoning the sick, so our position was critical.

For the moment our most urgent concern was the soldiers advancing towards us. They had by now reached the bottom of the kloof, and some of them, leaving their horses behind, were already swarming up, firing as they came.

Commandant van Deventer was too ill to take charge, but Ben Bouwer, though bad, was able to order every man who could still handle a rifle to extend along the top. It was nearing sunset, and the light was uncertain, so I do not think we did much damage with our shooting, but it served to turn our assailants, for they went back to their horses, and then climbed up the other side, until their camp fires began to shine in the dark, which meant that they were settling down for the night.

Those of us who had been lining the forward crest now had time to look around, and what we saw was not comforting. The sick men were worse than ever. General Smuts was very bad indeed, and van Deventer, his second in command, not much better. From the groans and cries on all sides it was clear that the sufferers could not travel, and there was nothing to do but to wait, although it was urgently necessary to get away before daylight would enable the English to surround us. I shall not soon forget that night. It was dark, and a chill wind blew from seaward. We dared not light a fire, and those of us who were not ill from the poisoned fruit were starving. We knew that if the men did not recover in time to avoid the pursuing column, our expedition into the Cape would come to a speedy end next morning, and we sat beside the sick men not knowing when we might be fallen upon. However, as the darkness slowly passed, one man after another recovered sufficiently to stagger to his feet and towards dawn there were not more than twenty unable to stand. General Smuts was still prostrate, but able to take in the position, and he gave orders that the men who could not help themselves were to be tied to their saddles, and that the commando was to march deeper into the mountains. He himself had to be held on his horse, and we started off in the dim light, following a game-track that led down into the next gorge. At the bottom we halted to rest the sick men, and then crawled up the far slope, which was almost as steep as the place we negotiated on the night of our retreat from the Stormbergen.

Bringing up the sick men was a difficult task, made more difficult by the fact that the English troops had actually dragged their gun to the top of the second range where we had spent the night, and opened fire on us as we were climbing. The distance was so great that only a few shells fell among us, their chief effect being to spur the men to greater activity and rouse the invalids, some of whom asked to be lifted to the ground, for they did not relish the idea of being trussed up in the circumstances.

As one of the last to gain the top, as I had led my horse and mule very slowly, a few yards at a time, to save their legs. But when I got above and chanced to look back, I was surprised to see that General Smuts was still lying below; with three or four men attending him, while down the path above them came a number or English scouts trailing the spoor which the commando had made. At the rate at which the scouts were descending they would soon come on General Smuts and his men, and I realized that there was no time to be lost. I tied my two animals to the nearest tree, and rushed and slid to the bottom unharmed by the bullets of the scouts. When the men with General Smuts heard the firing overhead they lifted him to his horse, and were already starting, a couple on each side to hold him, by the time I got down.

We did not follow the commando, as we should have presented too easy a mark, but kept away to the right where there was a gully up which we could make our way unseen. When we reached the top I fetched my two animals, and we followed on to find the commando waiting for us in a glade.

We were now in the very heart of the mountains, so far from any farms that buffalo were seen, and their tracks and mud-wallows were frequent. Not one of the sick men had died and most of them were better, perhaps because of the shaking and movement. General Smuts and a few other cases were, however, still in danger, and it was decided to spend the day here, as our scouts reported that the enemy had turned back, and it was thought necessary to give the sick a long rest before continuing. The trouble now was to get food. Parties were sent out in search of native kraals, for smoke had been seen rising from a distant part of the forest, and here, after struggling for hours through dense under-growth, we found a few poverty-stricken huts whose in-habitants had fled. They belonged to a destitute tribe of Red Kaffirs, but we unearthed a supply of millet, enough to give the commando some sort of a meal.

In the afternoon we moved deeper into the mountains, and, breasting a high grass-covered shoulder, caught a distant view, thirty-five miles away, of white sand-dunes, and of a grey haze, which was the Indian Ocean. We were elated, for we knew that we had now penetrated farther south than any other commando during the war, and that we were the first to come within sight of the coast.

After dark, camped on a height, we could see the lights of Port Elizabeth shining far off, and this strengthened our belief that General Smuts, in spite of his illness, still intended to go there. Next morning we went down into a beautiful valley filled with yellow wood trees, centuries old, and here we camped for the rest of the day, still subsisting on boiled millet.

One of our men recognized this part, having hunted buffalo and elephant here long before, and he said that he remembered a path running south, by which we could get out of the mountains into the valley of the Sunday River, where we might take the small village of Bayville.

On hearing this a small party, mostly 'Rijk Section', was made up to raid the place. Unluckily both my animals had strayed into the forest, and I had to follow on long after the others had gone. I tracked them until I got clear of the mountains into the wide valley, down whose centre the Sunday River runs to the sea. But the floor of the valley was dense scrub, ten or twelve feet high, in which I got completely bushed, so I had to work my way back with difficulty, reaching the commando at dark, tired and disgusted.

Jack Borrius and his buccaneers had not yet returned, but that night we marched on, as we had exhausted our grain supply.

We led our horses in the dark between high ranges; along a well-beaten path that twisted down a valley, until towards daybreak we reached the Sunday River, at a point still closed in by the mountains, but where, in a clearing, lay a well-stocked farm.

General Smuts remained pale and weak, but he sent for me and thanked me for having come down to warn him two days before.

Some time after sunrise Cornelius Vemlaas, Henry Rittenberg and I were ordered to scout up the course of the river, and we set out on what proved to be my companions' last ride. After following the stream and making inquiries from occasional natives, we learned that there were some white men off-saddled close by, and going thither came on Jack Borrius and his detachment, halted under the trees. Jack himself was suffering from terrible wounds. They had entered Bayville unopposed, but on their way back they fell foul of an English patrol, and, in the ensuing encounter, a bullet had entirely blown away his left eye, leaving nothing but a cavity filled with dried blood. In addition his right hand was smashed to pulp, but he had refused to be left behind, and we found him lying in great pain, but determined to remain with the commando. While we were busy with him, General Smuts rode up. He told Ben Coetzee to take over command of the 'Rijk Section', and ordered him to reconnoitre down a lateral valley, to see whether it would bring us out of the mountains, as he intended to enter the lower Sunday River Valley.

Ben Coetzee took with him Rittenberg and myself together with Vermaas and one of van Deventer's men, named van Onselen, who volunteered to come. We five went ahead carefully picking our way, and discovered late in the afternoon that the valley we were in ran to a dead end, against what we took to be the final range of the Zuurbergen.

Coetzee kept van Onselen with him, and told the three of us from the 'Rijk Section' to climb the height ahead, and see what lay on the far side. As we began to lead our horses up the slope, we heard a shout, and van Onselen overtook us, with a message to say that I was to return, as Coetzee thought my horse looked poorly, and that van Onselen was to go in my stead. The fact that my grey pony had a staring coat saved my life, for the three men, on reaching the top, walked straight into the arms of an English force lying in ambush there, and, as they were dressed in khaki uniforms, were executed out of hand. They lie buried where they fell, their graves being the most southerly of any of our republican dead.

We only knew of their actual fate long afterwards. For the moment all we heard was a burst of firing, and looking up we saw large numbers of soldiers on the skyline, so we rode back along the valley full of anxiety.

At dusk we met the commando coming in our direction, and when we told General Smuts that our progress was barred, he halted us for the night.

At daybreak next morning, while we were saddling our horses, the troops opened fire from above our heads. No one was hit, but we were forced to retire back into the deeper part of the mountains, instead of getting out into the open country to the south. During the retreat we lost three more men. They were looking for their horses when the firing began and, as no one noticed their absence, they were left behind. According to an English newspaper which we saw afterwards, one of them was hanged as a rebel British subject, the sixth man of our force to be executed, not counting the three that had been murdered by the Basutos.

As I have said before, we had not heard of Lord Kitchener's proclamation against the wearing of British uniforms, and I went about wearing Lord Vivian's khaki tunic, with regimental badge and buttons, and the 17th Lancers skull and cross-bones in my hat, not a little proud of my well-earned trophies, and never dreaming that I was under sentence of death. We made a long trek through the kloofs of this wild region until, after midday, we found a disused ass, made, I was told, by Sir Harry Smith in the 'fifties during the native wars.

This pass ran up a dark ravine, flanked with dense timber, and heavily overgrown with brushwood, but otherwise in good preservation. Its chief drawback was that it led north wards over the mountains back to the plains of the Karroo, from which we had come, whereas our endeavour had been to break seawards; but with the English column of that morning pressing steadily in our rear, we had to go wherever there was an opening. We started to ascend the pass, not knowing if another force was waiting for us above. If so we should have been trapped, but luckily this particular loophole had not been closed, and we found the top clear. Edgar Duncker and I, who were scouting in advance, saw a human skeleton beside the road, a relic or some past tragedy, and we placed the grinning skull on a log as a warning to our pursuers.

Not- far from the top was a space of level ground with the ruins of an old building, and the remains of walled gardens and orchards, and as we could see the English troops halted in a glade far below, General Smuts stopped too for he and others were still very ill. The sick and wounded, with poor Jack Borrius, withdrew to a distance, while the rest of us turned our horses out to graze and lolled about at our ease, admiring the grand forest scenery and enjoying the luxury of our beautiful surroundings.

Then some half-savage cattle came out of the woods and we shot several, and had the added satisfaction of eating our fill around big fires. Afterwards, most of the men stretched themselves under the trees, at peace in this pleasant place.

But towards five in the afternoon we began to bestir ourselves. Ben Coetzee, Nicolas Swart and I sat basking in the sunshine on a wall not far from where the pass came out. Suddenly, while we were talking, we saw the foremost ranks of a body of horsemen appear at the head of the gorge, not a hundred yards away. Shouting an alarm, we seized our rifles and ran down, followed by the men who had been lying close by. The English must have been under the impression that we had gone straight on over the berg, for they were riding in a compact body of thirty or more with no advance-guards, and evidently our presence here was as great a surprise to them as their sudden appearance was to us, but we were the first to recover ourselves, and started to fire as we ran.

The English could not deploy on the narrow road, so they pulled round, and made back as fast as they could, for the ground above and below was so steep that they had to keep to the causeway, down which they poured in disorder.

They seemed to be boring and pushing each other frantically under our fire, horses and men toppling over the edge of the road, and crashing into the timber beneath. The road became obstructed with dead and wounded horses, for we were firing into the brown, and we could hear angry shouts, as those behind tried to pass. Only a few men reached the bottom, where I caught a glimpse of them lashing their horses, as they rode through a clearing below. The rest abandoned their animals, and took cover in the forest, directing at us so hot a fire that we dared not climb down to get at the ammunition of the dead and wounded, nor at the holsters or wallets of the fallen horses. The main English column, that had been halted at the foot of the pass, now moved nearer, and when their fire was added we withdrew to the top to avoid casualties, and escaped without any .

After dark we went down the far side of the mountains, still following Sir Harry Smith's road, and daylight found us back in the Somerset district. We had now left the mountains on the same side on which we had entered them five days before, and, although we had failed to break out to the south, we were all heartily pleased to be clear at last of this appropriately named range.

As soon as it was light we halted at a farm for a few hours, and here General Smuts called us together. He said that we had reached a turning-point in the expedition, and he told us that from now onward he was going to make for the Atlantic seaboard, and the old-established- districts of the South-Western Cape. After thanking the men for the way in which they had borne themselves, he told us that he was dividing our force, partly to mislead the English columns, and partly for easier provisioning, as the inhabitants of the districts through which we had passed had complained that so large a force as ours was too severe a tax upon them. Accordingly he proposed to send Commandant van Deventer off with approximately half the commando, while he himself would take command of the rest. Both units were to advance independently of each other, and ultimately reunite in the far west.

He still looked pale and ill, but his spirit was undaunted and at midday he ordered those of us who were remaining with him to saddle our horses, and we rode away amid cheers and farewells front van Deventer's men, Who were to start later. We went on until sundown, then halted for the night in a thorn-covered hollow. Next morning we struck across a wide plain, with alternating patches of bush and open country, over which we continued till noon, when we came to rest in a wide tree-covered bottom.

Percy Wyndall and Frits Balogh, of the 'Rijk Section', were sent to a neighbouring rise on outpost duty, and from where we lay we could see them beneath a tree evidently enjoying a quiet chat, their horses cropping the grass behind. Before long a dozen English troopers rode out of the thicket in the rear and surrounded them before our eyes;

The distance between us was perhaps half a mile, and when we realized what had happened, we of the 'Rijk Section' (now reduced to six) rushed for our horses and, followed by a few others who happened to have their horses at hand, galloped up the slope. The soldiers were so intent upon their prisoners that they did not see us until we were close by, when they loosed a ragged volley, and leaping into their saddles, abandoned the two captives, and made off.

Shouting to the rescued men to follow, we rode straight after the patrol, and got to within thirty or forty yards of them, bringing three to the ground. Two more, whose horses were hit, surrendered, but the rest scattered in the bush.

A friend of mine, Jack Baxter, one of Bouwer's men was riding next to me, and he and I singled out one of the flying soldiers. We got near enough to order him to halt, but he rode on, not heeding our shouts. We fired at him but missed, for shooting from the saddle is trick-work and he might have escaped had he not been brought up by a wire fence across his path. He jumped to the ground, and leaving his horse, climbed through the fence and disappeared into a patch of scrub. Almost at once his bullets were singing about our ears. Fortunately for us his marksmanship was poorer than his courage, and Baxter and I had time to dash our horses out of sight into a thicket. We dismounted, and, tying our animals, started to stalk him down. Crawling through the fence, we wormed our way from tree to tree, until we located him. As we could take no risks with such a resourceful opponent, we emptied our magazines at the spot where we had seen movement. Silence followed, and after a few more shots to make sure, we went up to find him lying face down, riddled with bullets, but still clutching his rifle. We smashed his weapon, and shared the contents of his ammunition-belts, after which we returned to fetch our horses and his, and rode back, feeling almost regretful at the way in which we had hunted down so brave a man.

The rest of our storming party were collected around the soldiers who had been killed. The prisoners and wounded were there, too, and after depriving the living and the dead of their boots (an unpleasant but necessary task, for there was continual shortage of footwear amongst our men), we rode back to rejoin the commando.

In the course of our return journey Ben Coetzee and Edgar Duncker branched away on their own, and soon after, hearing several shots, we galloped in their direction. When we came up we found them sitting their horses in considerable agitation, while on the ground lay an officer and a trooper, both dead. It appeared that shortly after leaving us, as they rounded a piece of thorn bush, they ran into a small English patrol. So unexpected was the encounter that they were alongside before they could think, and Duncker, on the spur of the moment, called out, 'Don't fire, we are the 17th Lancers' The officer in charge, a Captain Watson, said, 'I don't believe you; all Smuts's men are dressed in khaki. Put up your Hands.' Then Coetzee and Duncker, both of whom carried Webley revolvers fired simultaneously, killing Captain Watson and one of his men, and seriously wounding another, who, however, got away with the rest.

This was a very unlucky incident, for the wearing of British uniforms had without doubt been the proximate cause of the death of these two men, and although we knew nothing as yet of Lord Kitchener's proclamation, General Smuts pulled a long face when he was told of the business. Indeed, long afterwards, when we met Lord Kitchener himself, he cited this very case in defence of the execution of so many of our men for wearing khaki.

Well the harm was done, and I can only say that none of us ever wore captured uniforms with the deliberate intention of decoying the enemy, but only out of sheer necessity.

We met no more soldiers that day, and towards afternoon the commando moved to a camping-place ten miles farther on. Next morning, while scouting ahead, I met a British ambulance-wagon with a doctor and several stretcher-bearers, on their way to fetch in the wounded of the day before. The Medical Officer already knew the manner of Captain Watson's death, for he spoke heatedly of murder, and abuse of military uniforms, although he made no mention of the proclamation, perhaps thinking that we knew about it. After this we went steadily west for some days without anything happening of importance, except that one evening we came in sight of a tiny hamlet called Hobsonville, where there was a small garrison of a dozen men, with whom the 'Rijk Section' and two or three more had a sharp brush, one of Bouwer's men being shot through the thigh. To avoid further damage we galloped in among the houses, in time to see the defenders rush for their horses, and make good their escape, as they had seen the commando coming on behind.

There were two well-stocked shops, and a quantity of military stores, so we did quite well out of the place, and spent the night feasting on tinned food and other luxuries.

In this manner we journeyed slowly on, until at length we reached the Port-Elizabeth_Graaf-Reinet railway line which we crossed at night, an armoured train sending a few shells to speed us on our way. Next day we saw the town of Aberdeen, lying seven or eight miles distant, and as there was a large camp on the outskirts, we did not need the local farmers to tell us that there was trouble ahead.

We put the strength of the troops at about fifteen hundred, so we rode up to a large farm, to keep them under observation. They were not yet ready, but by the activity in their lines, we knew that they would soon be after us, especially as their patrols kept hanging about in the offing most of the day.

That afternoon we moved on, bearing slightly north for the Camdebo Mountains, ten or fifteen miles away. We reached the foot next day, by which time a long English column was marching on our tracks, while various smaller bodies were skirting round the base of the range, in an encircling movement. General Smuts did not wish to get involved in a fight against heavy odds, so we started up the mountain by a gorge, and at sunset reached a high saddle, over which we passed.

Unfortunately the fine weather which we had enjoyed of late now changed. It turned bitterly cold, and a biting rain set in, and when darkness overtook us we had to halt on the rear slope for fear of falling over precipices. The icy water came down in torrents all night and there was no hope of a fire, so we sat before our horses until dawn, cold and drenched. Commandant Bouwer and two others were so benumbed, that when it grew light we had to carry them down in blankets to a valley, where we at last succeeded in getting fires alight, while General Smuts, Jack Borrius, and the rest of the sick and wounded must have endured agony that night.

It was still raining when we marched over a bleak up-land, apparently uninhabited. To the north lay a world of barren-looking peaks and heights draped in heavy clouds, a sight that made our hearts sink, for, with an English column in our rear, it seemed as if we were in for another spell of cold and hungry mountaineering.

By midday the rain had stopped, and the sun showed through, and after plodding for hours over sodden turf, we came upon a farm with fuel to dry our clothes, and a flock of sheep for supplies.

A picket had been led behind at the neck which we had crossed the night before, and these men rode in after a time to say that the English column was nearing the top.

General Smuts sent the 'Rijk Section' and other patrols to look for a way down the south face of the mountain, for he liked the idea of being forced higher up as little as we did.

We rode to what seemed a likely kloof, but when we got to the edge and peered down, an enemy force lay waiting for us below. The other parties brought similar reports. All the exits from the tableland were guarded and our position unpleasantly resembled that on the Stormbergen. However, things shaped better this time, for here again the owner of the farm where we had halted (and whose sheep we had freely slaughtered) volunteered to lead as to a bridle-path, and after five or six miles brought us out on another high saddle, over which a faint goat-track led to the bottom. As soon as it was dark, we took our horses along the easy gradient, and got down in an hour or two without trouble. In order to shake off the columns more effectively, and to get clear of the terrible cactus-belt that girdles the foot of the mountains, we trekked on till day-break.

This cactus (prickly pear) was brought from Central America about fifty years ago, and found the Karroo such congenial soil that there are now vast tracts rendered valueless by it. Our way now ran through a veritable forest of this vile growth, standing twenty feet high in places.

Soon after sunrise we reached the Kareega River, which rises in the mountains which we had just left, and runs due south across the plains.

We camped for the day on its wooded banks, seeing no sign of the English. In the course of the morning the 'Rijk Section', with the exception of my uncle and myself (and Jack Borrius), rode off to forage. I could not go, because General Smuts ordered me to ride through the river to a rise beyond, to watch the country towards Aberdeen. Before leaving I asked my uncle to look after my riding- mule during my absence, and that was the last I ever saw of either of them. It was well that I went off on my Arab pony, for his fleet legs were to be my salvation that day. I kept watch on the hill for many hours without seeing anything of note, but when General Smuts sent a messenger up in the afternoon to say that I was to remain until half an hour before sunset, I sent back a warning that I could not tell what might be going on at the river, as the heavily timbered banks made it impossible to see along its course.

When I judged from the height of the sun that my time was over, I rode down to the river, on my way back to where the commando was camped on the opposite side. Near the ford in a clearing stood a farmhouse, and, being thirsty after my long spell in the hot sun, I touched there to ask for a cup of coffee. The old lady inside was eager to grant my wish, but, as the kettle was not boiling, she asked me to sit down while she piled more wood on the fire. I knew that the commando was moving at sunset, so I decided not to wait, and, bidding her good-bye, rode off.

I had not gone thirty yards when I heard the trample of many horses, and, glancing over my shoulder, saw a swarm of English troopers gallop into the glade and surround the house.

Had I still been seated there, I should have been caught in full khaki, and that would have been the end of me, but out here in the open my English tunic saved me, for the soldiers took me for one of their own men, and let me ride away. Seeing this, I went slowly until I was out of sight among the trees, and then rode all out to rouse the commando.

I crossed the ford, and, as I breasted the other bank, looked back to see that the English had discovered their mistake and were streaming behind me like hounds on a hot scent. My grey pony was equal to the occasion and I was able to keep well ahead of my pursuers, firing alarm shots as I went, for I knew that if all these troops came on our commando unprepared and off-saddled among the trees, with their horses out at graze, there might be a serious disaster.

I had still about six hundred yards to go, and when I rode in among our men I was relieved to find that they were rushing about the thorn trees bringing in their horses.

There was not a moment to lose, for, at the rate at which the English were approaching, they would be there long before the horses could be brought in and saddled. About fifteen or sixteen men, however, were mounted, having had their animals by them, and General Smuts called to them to ride forward and delay the oncoming enemy until the rest were ready.

With Commandant Bouwer at our head, we galloped back, but, before we had gone far, a hundred or more English horsemen came charging at us. We jumped to the ground and fired, upon which the troopers opened out and also dismounted, giving rapid fire and obliging us to fall back behind the wall of a small dam, that very opportunely stood dose by.

From here we were in a more favourable position to rake them, which we did so effectively that the men withdrew into denser bush, from which they fired heavily, but we kept our heads well down and had no casualties.

Thus far we had satisfactorily carried out our orders to hold up the enemy until the commando was collected, but we could see parties of English horsemen filtering round us through the bush in constantly increasing numbers, and, to make matters worse, they were unlimbering a field-gun on rising ground to our left. In a few moments shells were bursting overhead, against which the wall offered little or no protection, so Bouwer, boldly riding on to the crest of the dam, scanned the country to the rear, until he saw the commando move from the clearing where we had left them which meant that our task was accomplished. When he called out that the commando was making fast down the river to the south, we retreated at once. As soon as the English saw us go, they came in hot pursuit.

The sun was setting-and the short twilight giving way to darkness, otherwise it would have gone harder with us than it did. The troops were on our heels, yelling and firing as they pounded behind, and, had there been more daylight, I think we should all have been captured.

My khaki uniform saved me for the second time that day, for a batch of troopers rode by in the dusk, and, mistaking me for one of their men, shouted that I was to hurry, but passed on without taking further notice.

Owing to the bush, both English and Boers got separated into smaller groups, and single horsemen and parties of twos and threes were galloping about. It was soon quite dark, and, to avoid being further accosted, as there were soldiers in front and-behind me, I halted in a copse to let them through. I waited for a long time, until the hue and cry had died down and I could see camp fires springing up ahead, which showed that the English were halting for the night.

I could not tell how my companions had fared, but my own position was sufficiently difficult, for I was alone with the enemy across my path and the commando gone.

When I thought that the soldiers had settled down, I cautiously rode on, picking my way with difficulty through the bush, for it was a dark night. After an hour or two I had skirted round their camp, and was following the course of the river once more.

At length I saw the gleam of a lighted window, and, stealing up, peered in to see five of our rearguard party of that afternoon standing in conversation with the inmates of the house.

I joined them at once, eager to hear news of the rest of our band, but they knew nothing, nor did they know what had become of the commando. As it was useless trying to pick up the spoor on so dark a night, and as our horses were tired, we got some food, and went a little distance to sleep amongst the trees, confidently expecting to overhaul our men next day. Shortly before sunrise we saddled up and crossed the river towards a conical hill lying on the other side, from which we should be able to see over the plains.

As we rode on, we found two more of our men, who had escaped from last night's affair, and had also taken to the thickets on the banks. There were now eight of us, and, when we got to the foot of the hill, we left our horses and climbed up. As we reached the top the sun was rising, and, like sailors adrift in a boat, we anxiously scanned the horizon for a sign of the commando, but the country to the south lay open before us without a horseman in view.

General Smuts must have ridden all night, for although we could see for half a day's journey, he and his men had vanished, and difficult weeks were to elapse before we found them again.

« NEXT » « Commando » « Library » « Home »