25 — The Last Phase
Commando by

GENERAL SMUTS now made further plans.

To the north, one hundred and fifty miles away, lay the important copper-mining centre of O'Okiep, with its subsidiary villages of Springbok and Concordia. These places were held by British garrisons, and he decided to look them up. So far as I could gather, his intention was not so much to capture the towns, as to lure a relief expedition thither, for he calculated that, if he threatened them, the British would be compelled to hurry a force round by the sea to their assistance. He would then break away south, and make for the old settled districts around the Cape. Thus at any rate was the rumour current among us, and the men were enthusiastic at the thought of raiding down towards Table Bay. They even talked of taking Capetown itself, and we on the staff were cheered, as we rode to tell the outlying patrols and corporalships that they were to gather once more.

After a few days the whole commando was assembled, and we faced north on a long journey through the barren rugged country of Namaqualand.

Owing to difficulties of food-supply and water, we were , presently split into Smaller parties, each with instructions to . make for a point in the Kamiesbergell. General Smuts and his staff travelled by a separate route to the Leliefontein Mission Station, which we reached in six days.

We found the place sacked and gutted, and among the rocks beyond the burned houses lay twenty or thirty dead Hottentots, still clutching their antiquated muzzle-loaders. This was Maritz's handiwork. He had ridden into the station with a few men, to interview the European missionaries, when he was set upon by armed Hottentots, he and his escort narrowly escaping with their lives. To avenge the insult, he returned next morning with a stronger force and wiped out the settlement, which seemed to many of us a ruthless and unjustifiable act. General Smuts said nothing, but I saw him walk past the boulders where the dead lay, and on his return he was moody and curt, as was his custom when displeased.

We lived in an atmosphere of rotting corpses for some days, for we bad to wait here for news that our forces had arrived within striking distance of the copper-mills; then we moved nearer. At Silverfountains we found Bouwer with his men, as well as Maritz and a considerable number of local rebels, but, as van Deventer's commando was still absent, I was sent in search of him.

I started at daybreak one morning on what was the longest unbroken spell of riding and fighting that I had during the war, for I did not rest or sleep for eighty hours. I rode all that day, continually changing horses (I had my two spare mounts alongside), and making inquiries from farmers and shepherds. With the help of a guide I located van Deventer by midnight, and on receipt of my message he took the road at once. I had to travel back with him through that night and for most of the next day until, towards sunset, we reached General Smuts and the rest of our force at Silvermountains. Having now been in the saddles for thirty-six hours, I hoped for a rest, but at dusk the whistles blew, and the commando started off for the villages of Springbok, thirty miles away. our course ran at first among rough hills, through which we made slow progress, and then across more open country, until, by four in the morning, we closed in on the village, the different sections moving round to prearranged posts, under the guidance of local farmers, who had volunteered to lead them.

Springbok lies about three miles from O'Okiep, which is the same distance from Concordia, and all three were held by mixed garrisons of British troops and Hottentot levies. Each place was to be attacked in turn, and Springbok came first. its defenders only numbered about one hundred and twenty, but they occupied three well-built forts on high ground, whose loopholes commanded all approaches, so that the disproportion of fighting strength (we had about four hundred men) was not so great as it seemed, particularly as we had to detach nearly half our men to watch Concordia and O'Okiep, in case of a sortie.

Whenever there was any fighting, the staff were re-absorbed into the ranks as ordinary privates, so I was now under Commandant Bouwer, with a detached party, whose instructions were to occupy a low neck over which the main road from O'Okiep crosses into Springbok.

Each contingent filed off quietly in the dark to its allotted post, our orders being to invest the place, but to make no frontal attack, as it was expected that the forts would surrender when they found themselves isolated.

No. 1 Fort, which we were to deal with, was a large round-house, standing on the slag-heap of a mine-shaft. It was heavily loopholed, and the approaches were obstructed by barbed-wire entanglements, so that although less than three dozen men were holding it, they had a clear sweep in all directions, and its capture would be by no means easy without our losing a number of men.

No. 2 Fort lay Some hundreds of yards farther away on a low hill, and No. 3 was built on rock overlooking the streets and houses at the far side of the village.

Our party of about forty strong made its way to the neck under a guide, and halted to consult. The night was black, and, as none of us knew exactly where our fort lay, although the guide said it was close by, we decided to send a small patrol to investigate. There were two Irishmen with us, Lang and Gallagher, members of Bouwer's commando, and, with the Irish love of explosives, they had ferreted out a quantity of dynamite and fuses from some outlying mine the day before, with which they had made half a dozen hand-grenades. They were eager to try these, and volunteered to go forward with Edgar Duncker and myself. Leaving the rest behind the neck, we groped our way on until we could make out the dim outline of a wall, where-upon the Irishmen drew the blanket they had brought over their heads, and ignited the fuses of two of the bombs.

The moment the fuses took, the blanket was flung aside, and the projectiles went sizzling through the air, while we hugged the ground to await the result. The bombs blew up simultaneously with a crash and we rushed forward to find that they had exploded harmlessly in an empty cattle-kraal.

The noise, however, brought the enemy to life, for we heard a hoarse 'Halt! Who comes there?' out of the darkness ahead, followed by a crash of musketry, by the light of which we saw the fort, fifteen or twenty yards away, with every port-hole belching fire. One bullet struck the top of the kraal wall as I was looking over, and the fragments of lead and nickel splashed into my face. I thought at first that I was blinded, but I got off lightly, the punctures being only skin-deep, and I had the pieces of metal removed next day with a knife.

In the meanwhile, as the fire was heavy, we remained crouching under cover of the kraal, loosing an occasional shot, but making no attempt to advance on the fort, as we were already nearer than we liked. By now there was also fierce rifle-fire from the other forts, showing that there, too, our men had stirred up hornets' nests, and, when there was a slight lull on our front, we bolted back for the shelter of the neck behind which the others were halted.

General Smuts rode up out of the dark as we were discussing our next move, and, as it was clearing dawn, he ordered us to stay here and see that no one entered or left the fort during the coming day. Having given his instructions, he went off to visit the other posts, and our men distributed themselves amongst the rocks to watch for day-light, while I carried out a small operation of my own. Taking advantage of the still uncertain light, I slipped away, and crawled to a rise at the back of the fort. Here I searched out a convenient stone within forty yards of the enemy, and lay down to wait until the visibility was good enough for shooting. As soon as the sun was well up, I began putting bullets into the loopholes, until I had almost emptied my bandoliers.

The soldiers in the round-house tried hard to locate me, but there was a shrub screening my hiding-place, and, although an occasional bullet flattened itself close by, I lay undetected. When I had nearly finished my ammunition, I wormed my way from rock to rock until I was safe behind the slope and able to rejoin my companions, satisfied that I had given the occupants of the fort an unpleasant time. This was my birthday, the third I had spent in the war, and we passed the rest of the day making more hand-grenades, as we were determined to try again that night.

General Smuts paid us another visit, and, after watching our efforts, told us to send dynamite round to our men at the other two places, which he thought should also be bombed. As soon as it was dark we made ready. Commandant Bouwer came up with some more men, and it was arranged that a smaller party should again go forward to throw the dynamite, after which the others would make a dash at the fort.

Commandant Bouwer, the two Irishmen, and Duncker and I formed the advance-guard. Carrying our boots in our hands for greater silence, we felt our way to the foot of the mound on which the fort stood. Quietly scaling the slope, we reached the outer circle of wire entanglements, without an alarm being raised, and, as we could get no farther, we crouched below the rim, and each lit and threw a bomb. Nearly all of them burst on the roof, and there followed a second or two of dead silence, which we took to mean that the men inside were dead or stunned, but, as we were preparing to climb the wires, a roll of fire flashed along the loopholes and sent us tumbling pell-mell down for cover. The moment the explosions had taken place the balance of our party had rushed through the dark, in order to push home the attack, and they were scrambling up just as we came down, so that there was a collision, which brought us to the bottom in a heap, where we lay laughing helplessly, before we could disentangle ourselves. Despite the stream of bullets, General Smuts now came to us, and, after having climbed the embankment to look at the fort, told Bouwer to remain where he was, without making a direct assault, as the soldiers were bound to surrender sooner or later. Of this, however, there was no immediate sign, for, so far from surrendering, they were shouting strongly flavoured remarks at us, as an accompaniment to their rifle-fire, so we sat down below the rubble-heap to await developments.

During all this time there was firing from the other two forts, and after a while we heard a dull explosion at No. 2, followed by cheers from our men. Soon word was shouted that Albert van Rooyen, of our staff, had breached it with a single bomb that brought about the surrender of the defenders. From what we had seen of No. 3 in daylight, we judged it to be the most difficult of all, for it stood on a high rock, like a castle on the Rhine, and we had not much hope that it would be easily overcome. Before long, however, a bomb went off there too, and we heard the voice of Ben Coetzee calling out to the soldiers to give in. After a short interval there was more cheering, and No. 3 had also surrendered. We shouted to tell the men in No. 1 Fort, but they replied by jeers and volleys. We flung our remaining bombs at them, without apparent effect, and although, as we found afterwards, the steel girders of the roof were buckled, yet they braved it out.

As our stock of grenades was exhausted, General Smuts told me to make my way round the outside of the village to No 3, to bring back dynamite from Maritz, who must have plenty left. I slipped away into the dark, escaping the bullets, but, instead of going wide, I ran as fast as I could through the streets, past the darkened houses.

When I reached No. 3, I saw light shining through the loopholes above, so I climbed the narrow sandbagged stairway and got through the steel trap-door that gave access to the inside, and here I found Maritz and some of his men sorting out ammunition and firearms by lantern light.

The English had hit on the same idea as ourselves for making had-grenades, and there were several dozen home-made bombs very similar to ours, only smaller.

A curious feature (of the operations around O'Okiep) was the use, first by the Boers, and then in retaliation by the defenders, of dynamite bombs. (The Times History of the War )

Filling a bag with as many as I could carry I accompanied Maritz to where his prisoners were collected at an hotel near by. There were about thirty including the Officer in command of the village. I asked him to give me a letter to No. 1 garrison advising them to lay down their arms. This he flatly refused to do. He told me that he had been obliged to surrender his own fort because part of it was built jutting over on wooden beams, and some of our men had got underneath it and were placing dynamite, so that resistance was useless, but he said that, if the men in No. 1 were able to hold out, then good luck to them.

The most I was able to get from him was a pencilled note, scribbled on the bar counter, and addressed to a Mr Stewart who was in command there, to say that 2 and 3 had been taken, and that he must act according to circumstances.

With this and the bombs, I returned once more through the streets and reached No. 1 mound in safety. When I told general Smuts that I had a note for Mr Stewart, he said I was to climb up and give it to him. This was more easily said than done, for, when I reached the top, the wire entanglements stopped me, and the soldiers, moreover, were still firing. However, I stood up, and called out, 'Mr Stewart, Mr Stewart, here is a letter for you'. At this there was silence, followed by a murmur of voices consulting within, and then a gruff voice asked what I wanted with Mr Stewart. I said I wanted him to surrender, whereupon I was told to go to hell, and there was a renewed burst of firing, which I only escaped by leaping down.

As a matter of fact, although we did not know it, Mr Stewart had been lying dead inside the round-house for many hours, and his men were holding out by themselves.

General Smuts, finding them resolute, ordered us to fling the bombs which I had brought. We did this, but they were too light, and only produced more sarcastic remarks and more firing, so he ordered Commandant Beuwer to withdraw his men to the neck, as thirst and hunger would subdue the garrison in the end. When the men slipped back I made off into the town again, for on my return journey through the streets I had heard the stamping of horses in a stable, and had decided to fetch them out.

After groping about the main street for some time, I found the stable, and, striking a match, saw two fine animals at a manger. While I was bringing them away I heard a horseman approaching in the dark. As he passed I seized his reins, and brought him to a standstill, at the same time digging the muzzle of my rifle into his side. He proved to be a British officer, a Lieutenant Mcintire, who told me, when he had got over his surprise, that he had been away on a long patrol towards the Orange River for over a week.

He had heard the sound of firing as he neared Springbok, but did not know that the place had been surrounded.

I relieved him of his horse, a sporting Lee-Metford, and a Webley revolver (a weapon which I had long coveted), and, as the hotel at which Maritz and his men were celebrating was brilliantly lit up, I directed my prisoner thither, for I did not wish to be bothered with him. He pretended to go there, but I discovered afterwards that he had doubled back, and made his way past our men to O'Okiep, where I had word of him a few days later, when I went in to demand its surrender.

As for the rest of his patrol, I could hear by the jingling of bits and trampling of hoofs that they were waiting for their officer close by in the dark, so I yelled at them in Dutch and fired several shots, which sent them galloping back, and at sunrise our men rounded them up in a kopje a mile or two away, their horses being too done up to go farther.

I led my three captured horses along and as I went I stumbled on Edgar Duncker looking for a shop to loot. We joined hands and going along the street saw an open, lighted doorway. Here we found a room full of soldiers, with their rifles still in their hands. When we appeared some stood to attention, and one of them said that they were the defenders of No. 1 Fort, that had so stubbornly denied us. They had held out for as long as they could, but their water-supply had long since given out, and they had been forced by thirst to vacate the block-house. Finding that our men had gone from below, they had marched silently into the town, hoping to find a dwelling-house provided with water-tanks where they could carry on the fight. When we appeared, they realized how forlorn was their hope of further resistance, and, after Duncker and I had helped them to find some drinking water in a yard behind, we took them to join their fellows at the hotel.

We were anxious to see the inside of No. 1 Fort, so we got a lantern, and, taking one of the soldiers to lead the way, went to inspect it. The entrance was a zig-zag passage, built high with sandbags, and the doorway was so low that we had to crawl inside. From floor to roof stood a huge iron water-cistern, occupying most of the cramped space. It had been pierced by so many bullets that the water had run out, and in the end the men had been obliged to leave. On a sort of firing-platform lay several dead men. One was Mr Stewart, and another was a young local volunteer named van Couvorden, son of a doctor from Holland. Both had been shot through the head, and our guide said that they had been killed by a sniper from a rock, which he pointed out to me, when it grew light. It was the very rock from which I had fired the morning before, and this left little doubt in my mind that these two men had fallen to my rifle.

The whole village was now in our hands. Certainly we had far outnumbered the soldiers, but nevertheless it was good work done, for we had captured over a hundred prisoners, and a large stock of rifles, ammunition, and supplies, without the loss of a single man killed or wounded and this against fortified works. General Smuts took up his quarters after daybreak in a large dwelling-house, and we members of the staff busied ourselves with collecting food-stuffs and stores for the use of our mess.

As I had gone for three full days and nights without sleep or rest, I now sought out a bed and turned in without removing my boots. I slept for twenty-four hours, and did not wake until the morning of the next day, when I found my friend Nicolas Swart sitting on the bed beside me. He was almost recovered from his wounds, and had just arrived from the south. He said that General Smuts had taken van Deventer's and Bouwer's men against the neighbouring town of Concordia, but had left special instructions that I was not to be disturbed, so they had gone away without me. Nicolas promised to take care of my spare horses and other belongings, so I saddled my mare Jinny, and rode after them.

When I reached Concordia, five miles away, it had just surrendered. About one hundred and fifty prisoners were taken, a motley collection of volunteers and Hottentot levies, with many rifles, and an abundance of clothing and other supplies.

In view of this success, General Smuts sent P. Mullar and myself to O'Okiep, the largest of the three mining places, with a letter demanding its surrender.

We set off at a gallop with a white cloth on a whipstick, and as the place lay only four miles away, we were soon approaching it. I saw at once that here was a harder nut to crack, for a ring of block-houses and wire entanglements stood all around the town, and inside the circle was a large central fort, flanked by a strong redoubt on a conical hill. As we rode up to the nearest block-house on the plain, half a dozen soldiers ran forward, and when I told them that we had a letter from our General demanding their surrender, one of them shipped the stock of his rifle and said, 'Surrender! Surrender be damned; we're Brumma-gem boys, we're waiting for ye,' which also seemed unpromising. As we sat our horses, an infuriated officer rushed up from the next block-house, and violently abused us. He was an officer, but no gentleman, for he blustered and swore, and at the point of his revolver ordered us to put up our hands, while he went through our pockets. When I protested that we were under the flag of truce, he violently told me to hold my tongue, and, blindfolding us, marched us into town on foot, to a running fire of angry comment at our effrontery in daring to demand their surrender. I answered him at intervals, until he clapped his revolver to my forehead, and threatened to blow my brains out if I uttered another word, when I began to suspect that we had to do with a madman, and held my tongue.

The climax came when his eyes fell on my horse, being led behind us. I had taken the saddle from lieutenant Mclntyre, whose name was marked on the holsters, and the fact that I had come into their lines on a British saddle, and a horse marked with the British broad-arrow, threw him into a fresh paroxysm, and, bawling obscene oaths, he hustled and jostled us along as if we were common malefactors. He was the most disagreeable, in fact the only disagreeable, Englishman whom I met in the war, for, with this one exception, I had no unpleasant word from officer or private in all the time that we were out against them. At length we reached some sort of a camp, to judge by the sounds around us, and here we were left sulkily standing for about an hour, still subjected to abuse. Then a different stamp of man rode up, a superior officer, at whose approach our tormentor faded away, not to reappear. The newcomer was furious when he heard of our treatment, and he at once led us into a tent, and gave us each a cigar and a cooling, drink. When, after some time, a reply arrived from Colonel Shelton, the officer in command of O'Okiep, our host personally helped us to mount our horses (for we were still blindfolded), and accompanied us to a point beyond the outer defences. There he uncovered our eyes and bade us a friendly good-bye.

The reply we brought from Colonel Shelton was couched in more elegant language than that received earlier in the morning from the Brummagem boys, but it was to much the same effect, for it said that he had plenty of men and munitions in the town, and that we could do as we liked.

When we handed this answer to General Smuts, he decided on a blockade. He said he did not very much care whether he took 0'0kiep or not, as he had all the arms, ammunition, and horses that he wanted, but he was going to make a show of besieging the place, until a relief force arrived, after which he would decide what to do next.

In order to judge for himself how the land lay, he took a patrol out within half an hour of our return. We rode forward until we reached a line of hills overlooking the town. From here we could see troops paraded on an open space close to the main fort, and it seemed that they were being addressed by an officer. This was probably Colonel Shelton, for heliograph messages from him to the relief force, intercepted later, showed that he was given to oratory, and high-flown phrases about England's far-flung Empire and the upholding of the flag.

We opened fire at fifteen hundred yards, and, although we could not see that we had hit anyone, we cleared the parade ground in a few seconds, the soldiers running to their stations, and returning our fire from the blockhouses. If we did no damage below, I drew blood nearer at hand. A large flock of goats was coming up the slope of the hill from the direction of the town, in charge of a Hottentot herdboy. When the firing started, he turned the animals back towards the English lines, so I ran down to within shouting distance, and beckoned him to drive the goats up our way, but, instead of obeying, he, bravely enough, urged them back the faster. As it would have been foolish to allow so valuable a meat-supply to escape, I was obliged to shoot, but I aimed low, and brought him to earth with a bullet through his leg. Then I chased the flock to our side of the hill, with shots from the town spattering about. The wounded herdboy crawled down to the block-house fence, and was fetched in on a stretcher, and I daresay he re-covered. As a result of his inspection General Smuts decided that it would be worth his while to bomb some of the defences. He said that by pressing we should force the authorities to dispatch reliefs round by sea from Capetown . Already there was a heliograph winking away towards Port Nolloth on the coast, no doubt asking for help, and his forecast ultimately proved correct in every particular, for in a few days we had word that ships were arriving with a considerable force.

We now returned to our headquarters at Concordia, and, as there was a supply of dynamite and fuses at the copper-mine, we once more set about making bombs.

That night a party of Maritz's men was sent against two block-houses that had been marked down during the day. One of them was the redoubt on a high sugar-loaf kopje, the other was to the right on a somewhat lower ridge.

The assaulting party consisted of twenty men, and as they were under Ben Coetzee, my old friend, I joined them when they met after dark. We started from Concordia, and, when we reached the spot from which we had watched the town that afternoon, we left our horses behind, and worked our way on foot over broken ground to the ridge on which the smaller block-house was situated. We crawled stealthily upward until we were challenged by a sentry, with his 'Halt! Who goes there?' Ben immediately lit and flung a bomb, timing it so well that it brought down a section of the block-house wall, out of which the garrison of ten men came tumbling. They belonged to the Warwickshire Regiment, and, although none of them were killed, all were shaken and dazed. We sent the prisoners, rifles and ammunition to the rear under escort, and then set out to look for the second work on the hill. It was so dark that we lost our bearings and presently found ourselves in the town's cemetery.

After yet more floundering we were challenged and fired at from Fort Shelton, the main stronghold of O'Okiep, situated in the village. We retreated, intending to make back for our horses, but as we went we were halted for the third time, a voice calling to us from somewhere high above our heads. Rifle shots followed, in the glare of which we made out the block-house for which we were looking. Ben Coetzee said we must climb up to it, and we did so unharmed, for the shooting was wild. As soon as we got under cover of the rock-capped summit, we lobbed our remaining bombs on to the roof and against the loopholed wall without making any visible impression, the soldiers within continuing to fire. Then we wormed our way down to our horses, and home to Concordia by midnight.

When General Smuts got our report in the morning, he ordered another raid against the same block-house for the next night. This time Commandant Bouwer supplied the bombers, and I went with them. We left our horses at the same place after dark, and again climbed up. We threw more than a dozen bombs, but in vain; the men within maintained an unceasing fire; the dynamite seemed ineffective, and we had to return empty-handed. Our efforts must have been anxiously followed by the rest of the O'Okiep garrison, for, as we scrambled down, there came a hail through the darkness, 'No. 4 Blockhouse, how are you, lads?' to which a voice replied, 'No. 4 Blockhouse is a-a-all right' and there was much cheering in the town below.

Next morning General Smuts said that the block-house was of no value to us, but that, as we had committed ourselves to taking it, we must carry the work, and he ordered Maritz to go in person. With him went the Marquis de Kersauson, a young French adventurer who had been his constant associate since the war began. I went too, and, as before, we were challenged, but reached the ledge in safety. The first thing Maritz did was to stand on another man's shoulders in order to calculate the throwing distance.

He then climbed down and fastened three bombs together, weighing about twenty pounds. No other man could have hoped to throw so heavy a missile that length, but standing precariously on the shoulders of one of his men, he lit the fuse and hurled the triple grenade right on the roof. The fuse flared and sizzled for a second or two, lighting up the scene for many yards around, and then there was a tremendous roar, and stones and sandbags went flying in all directions. Silence followed, and realizing that the defenders were dead or stunned, we helped each other on to the rocky platform and, crawling over and under the wire entanglements, rushed the entrance passage. From within we heard groans and a muffled voice, 'Stop throwing; stop throwing,' so we crowded in. Striking matches, we saw that the roof was blown down upon the soldiers. A few were dead, and the rest lay on the ground stunned. About half were Warwicks and the rest Hottentot levies. The sergeant in command, on recovering, told us they were the original garrison who had been there since our first attack, having specially asked to remain, and certainly they had acquitted themselves well. The dead and injured men were removed, also the arms and ammunition, and then we placed the remaining sticks of dynamite in the loopholes, and blew No. 4 Block-house into still further ruin before we returned to Concordia.

As the other works and block-houses around O'Okiep could only be approached over level ground bare of cover, General Smuts forbade any further bombing expeditions, and contented himself with investing the town, until such time as the relief force arrived. We had captured some two hundred prisoners in the other two villages and a large stock of supplies, so we could afford to rest for the present, and the next two weeks were spent quietly. I thoroughly enjoyed the lull, and commandeered a small cottage in Concordia to set up housekeeping with Duncker and Nicolas Swart, who was not yet completely recovered from his wounds and required attention. We pressed several Hottentot prisoners into our service as grooms and cook-boys, and as there was plenty of food in the military and mining depots, and sheep and goats in the hills to be had for the fetching, we lived well. General Smuts and the rest of the staff took another building in the village, while Bouwer and Maritz, with their men, lay camped in small parties in the hills around O'Okiep, and van Deventer's commando was posted twenty miles west astride the rail way line that comes up from Port Nolloth, to watch the progress of the relief expedition which was now assembling. And so we waited quietly for the order to break away south, on what would have been the most dramatic stroke of the war.