26 — The Lost Cause
Commando by

ON the surface things looked prosperous. Five months ago we had come into this western country hunted like outlaws, and to-day we practically held the whole area from the Olifants to the Orange River four hundred miles away, save for small garrison towns here and there, whose occupants could not show themselves beyond the range of their forts without the risk of instant capture at the hands of the rebel patrols told off to watch them, while we roamed all the territory at will we had enjoyed a number of successes which the British probably regarded as minor incidents, but which our men looked upon as important victories and all this had greatly raised their spirits. Unfortunately, while matters stood thus well with us, the situation in the two Republics up north was far otherwise. Lord Kitchener's relentless policy of attrition was slowly breaking the hearts of the commandos. We had been out of touch with them for so long that we did not realize the desperate straits to which they had come, and our men judged the position from our own more favourable circumstances. Personally, I was not quite so sanguine, for, from such English newspapers as had come my way, I had learned something of the true state of affairs, but I hoped that all would yet be well and I kept my thoughts to myself.

Towards the end of April (1902) I rode out one afternoon with Duncker and Nicolas Swart to snipe at the English posts on the other side of O'Okiep, and, as we were returning to our horses, we saw a cart coming along the road from the south with a white flag waving over the hood. Galloping up, we found two British officers insides who said that they were the bearers of a dispatch from Lord Kitchener.

We took them to Concordia, our pickets amongst the hills riding down from all sides to hear what it was about, but the officers professed ignorance of the contents of their message, although I had an uneasy suspicion of the truth.

When we reached Concordia, General Smuts took them inside his house and remained closeted with them for some time, after which he came out and walked away into the veld by himself in deep thought. We knew then that there was grave news.

That evening he showed me the dispatch. It was a communication from Lord Kitchener to say that a meeting - between the English and Boer leaders was to be held at Vereeniging, on the banks of the Vaal River, with a view to discussing peace terms, and he was summoned to attend. A safe-conduct was enclosed, under which he was to proceed through the English lines to Port Nolloth, where he would be taken by sea to Capetown, and from there by rail to the Transvaal.

All this was ominous, and he spoke forebodingly of the future, but, in spite of the shadow that hung over us, one item almost made me forget the darker side, for the safe-conduct provided for a Secretary and an Orderly, and he said that I was to go with him as one of these. I was so delighted at the prospect of going on a journey like this that for the time being I gave thought to little else.

The men were the real tragedy. They had endured against great odds, facing years of peril and hardship without pay or reward, and they still had so much faith in the cause for which they were fighting that, when the news trickled through next day that General Smuts was to go to a peace conference, they were convinced that the British were suing for terms and were ready to restore our country.

It was pitiful to listen to their talk, and to see their faces light up when they spoke of having won through at last, and I, for one, had not the heart to disillusion them, or even to hint at a result other than favourable, so steadfast was their trust.

General Smuts set to work at once. Next morning a messenger was sent into O'Okiep, to advise the garrison that both sides were to refrain front active military operations while the Congress lasted, and the two British officers went on ahead to Steinkopf, to warn the relief force collecting there that we were shortly passing through their-pickets.

The day after that the commando came in from the out-lying posts to say good-bye to their leader. The men paraded before the Court House, each man sitting his horse, rifle at thigh, while General Smuts addressed them. He briefly told them of the object of his going, and asked them to be prepared for disappointment if need be, but there were only cheers and shouts of courage, as they pressed from all sides to wish him farewell.

I steered through the throng to shake hands with such as I could reach, waving to others beyond, and in this way I saw the last of many good friends and companions.

We set off next day, escorted by a small patrol. I left my spare horses, rifle, and gear with Nicolas Swart and Edgar Duncker, my best friends, whom I have not met again We reached van Deventer's commando that afternoon where they were watching the troops that had-come up from the sea, and for the last time we spent a night around camp fires. In the morning we made ready to pass into the English lines. As we started, General Smuts told me that his brothers law, Krige, was the other man to accompany him, and he said we were to arrange amongst ourselves which was to be Secretary and which Orderly, so I chose to be Orderly, as I thought it meant an aide-de-camp, and left my companion to be Secretary. Soon after that we saddled our horses, said good-bye to van Deventer and his men, and rode down the valley towards the English lines. Far down we were met by Colonel Collins, who commanded the relief expedition. Here our escort took over our horses, and, after singing our Commando Hymn, and firing a farewell volley into the air, they wheeled round and galloped cheering away towards their own side, to the manifest interest of the English officers and troopers lined up beside the road. With them went the last of our free life and all that it had meant to us.

A cart was brought, in which General Smuts, Krige, and I were driven to a large camp standing beside the railway line, where a guard of honour was drawn up to receive us, behind which crowds of soldiers had gathered to see the Boer Emissaries. I now discovered that I had made a mistake, and that an Orderly was an officer's batman, whereas a Secretaryship carried commissioned rank. Krige was invited into Colonel Collins's tent with General Smuts, while I was led to the servants' mess, and when, an hour later, a train stood ready to take us to Port Nolloth he and General Smuts were ceremoniously ushered into a first-class compartment, whilst I was put aboard an open cattle-truck with the luggage. However, being in an enemy camp and travelling by rail for the first time for nearly two years was so exciting that it made no difference to me where I was, and Krige and I appreciated the humorous side of our respective positions. Whenever he looked out of the carriage window and saw me sitting in the truck behind, he roared with laughter, and so did I, at his having become an officer, and I a servant.

When the train drew up at the next station there was another guard of honour for General Smuts and his Secretary, who were taken in to a grand luncheon, whilst I for-gathered with the batmen in the kitchen behind. At the next halting-place I underwent record promotion. There was an officer of the Hussars, Captain Barclay, who had been deputed to accompany us to the coast, and having seen me standing about, he asked General Smuts who I was. The General explained that on commando there were no social distinctions, but that he had brought me along because he thought my father might be at the Conference. Captain Barclay telephoned up the line to Colonel Collins, to say that a son of the Transvaal State Secretary was of the party as an orderly, and he presently came to me and said,

'Young man, you are Chief-of-Staff to General Smuts; come along and join us.'

He jokingly assured me that the promotion from batman to field rank in the course of one morning was the quickest known in any army.

Towards evening we reached Port Nolloth, a dreary little seaport, where many troopships lay at anchor. One of these, the Lake Erie, was under steam, and even as the train ran into the station, a boat set out to fetch us.

This was the end of our long roving. We stood on the quayside, silently looking back on the way we had come, each busy with his own thoughts. I do not know what was in the minds of my companions, but perhaps they, too, were thinking of the long road we had travelled, of camp-fires on mountains and plains, and of the good men and splendid horses that were dead.

With heavy hearts we got into the boat that was to take us to the ship, and the moment we were on board they weighed anchor, and we sailed southward.

In spite of our mission, the voyage was one of great pleasure to me. After years of rough fare and hard living, we had luxurious cabins, with soft beds to lie on; a steward with coffee in the morning, a bath ready prepared and food such as I had almost forgotten the existence of All this seemed like a dream, and I enjoyed every moment of it.

We reached Capetown in five days, and were tran-shipped to Simonstown on board the battleship Monarch, Captain Parkes, and here again we spent a week in comfort, for officers and men vied with each other in their efforts to welcome us. The British, with all their faults, are a generous nation, and not only on the man-of-war, but throughout the time that we were amongst them, there was no word said that could hurt our feelings or offend our pride, although they knew that we were on an errand of defeat.

At length orders came for us to go north. We were rowed ashore after dark to a landing-stage below the Simonstown railway station, and taken to a train that was standing ready. We were hurried through the suburbs of Capetown and then switched on to the main line at Salt River Junction, to find ourselves at Matjesfontein in the Karroo next day. Here General French came to see us, a squat, ill-tempered man, whom we did not like, although he tried to be friendly. He sat talking to us for an hour or more trying to draw General Smuts, who had no difficulty in parrying his clumsy questions. When he made no head-way, he became more natural and spoke of his experiences during the war, in the course of which he told us how narrowly we had missed capturing him that night below the Stormbergen.

From Matjesfontein we continued our journey, travelling at night only, an armoured train puffing ahead all the way, its searchlight sweeping the veld. Each day we were side-tracked at some lonely spot till dark, and thus made slow progress. I have been told that we were purposely delayed lest, coming from the Cape where the outlook was brighter, we might persuade the Transvaalers that things were not so bad as they seemed. For this reason Lord Kitchener did not wish us to appear amongst them until matters had gone too far for them to turn back. However that may be, it took us the better part of a week to reach Kroonstad in the Northern Free State, where Lord Kitchener was to meet us. Soon after our arrival he rode up to the station on a magnificent black charger, followed by a numerous suite, including turbaned Pathans, in Eastern costume with gold-mounted scimitars.

His retinue waited outside while he came into our compartment to talk. He was anxious to bring the war to a close, for he referred again and again to the hopelessness of our struggle, telling us that he had four hundred thousand troops in South Africa against our eighteen thousand. He said that he was prepared to let the burghers retain their horses and saddles in recognition or the fight that they had made, and that the British Government would help to rebuild the destroyed farmhouses, the burning of which he defended on military grounds.

General Smuts taxed him with having unfairly executed our men in the Cape, and this, too, he justified, on the plea that we had used khaki uniforms to decoy his soldiers.

Before going he told us that we were to proceed to the Eastern Transvaal, to find General Botha, and that the conference at Vereeniging would only take place after that.

Accordingly, from Kroonstad, still escorted by an armoured train, we crossed the Vaal River into the Transvaal. We went through Johannesburg at night, and here they turned us east on to the Natal line, until we came to the town of Standerton, where we left the train and travelled by cart along a block-house line that ran straight over the high veld. At intervals there were small English camps, at each of which the troops turned out and treated us with courtesy.

We journeyed for a day and a half, until we reached a point where a party of horsemen sent by General Botha was awaiting us. They had brought spare horses, so we left the cart with the troopers, and, striking across country, travelled for two days over bare and deserted plains, to the place where the Commandant-General was expecting us. Here about three hundred men were assembled. They were delegates from every commando in the Eastern Transvaal, come to elect representatives to the Peace Congress to be held at Vereeniging, and nothing could have proved more clearly how nearly the Boer cause was spent than these starving, ragged men, clad in skins or sacking, their bodies covered with sores, from lack of salt and food, and their appearance was a great shock to us, who came from the better-conditioned forces in the Cape. Their spirit was daunted, but they had reached the limit of physical was endurance, and we realized that, if these haggard, emaciated men were the pick of the Transvaal commandos, then the war must be irretrievably lost.

Food was so scarce that General Botha himself had only a five strips of leathery biltong to offer us, and he said that, but for the lucky chance of having raided a small herd of cattle from the British a fortnight before, he would have been unable to hold the meeting at all.

I inquired at once for news of my father and my three brothers. General Botha gave me word of my father. He told me that he was with one of the northern commandos, and would in all probability be at the coming Conference. He could tell me nothing of my brothers, but by asking among the men, I learned that my eldest brother, Hjalmar, had been captured by the Australians more than a year before, and that my second brother, Joubert, was taken prisoner whilst lying ill of malarial fever in the low country, apparently not long after I had last seen him at the Warm Baths, towards the end of 1900, I could find out nothing about my youngest brother Arnt.

Next day the elections were held. Even in adversity the Boer instinct for speeches and wordy wrangling asserted itself, and the time was passed in oratory, and with nominations and re-nominations of candidates, but by evening the complicated balloting was finished, and some thirty delegates elected.

Next morning the gathering dispersed, the men riding off on their hungry-looking horses to rejoin their distant units, while General Botha and the successful deputies started back for the English block-house line.

We arrived here by the following evening. The troops supplied us with food, for we were famishing, and we now returned along the block-houses to Standerton, the soldiers everywhere standing respectfully to attention as our tattered cavalcade went by. At Standerten we entrained for Vereeniging. This is a small mining village on the banks of the Vaal River, where, nearly two years before, I had watched the Irishmen burning the railway stores during the retreat from the south.

The British had prepared a large tented camp for our reception, and almost the first man I saw as we entered was my father, shaggy and unkempt, but strong and well, and our greeting after so long a parting was deep and heartfelt.

And now the delegates came in from the rest of the Transvaal and from the Free State. Every leader of note was there. General de la Rey, Christian de Wet, President Steyn, Beyers, Kemp, and many others, the best of the Boer fighting-men. We learned from General de Wet that my younger brother had been serving under him for more than a year, and that he was still safe and sound, so we were all accounted for. Although two were prisoners of war, we had been luckier than the majority of families, most of whom were mourning their dead, whereas all five of us were still alive.

I know little of the actual Peace Conference as I was not a delegate, but the outcome was a foregone conclusion. Every representative had the same disastrous tale to tell of starvation, lack of ammunitions horses, and clothing, and of how the great block-house system was strangling their efforts to carry on the war. Added to this was the heavy death-roll among the women and children, of whom twenty-five thousand had already died in the concentration camps, and the universal ruin that had overtaken the country. Every homestead. was burned, all crops and live-stock destroyed, and there was nothing left but to bow to the inevitable.

After prolonged debates the Conference suspended its sittings for a day, whilst General Botha, my father, general de la Rey and others went to Pretoria to conclude the final treaty with Lord Kitchener and Lord Milner.

On their return peace was an accomplished fact.

Of the sting of defeat—I shall not speak, but there was no whining or irresponsible talk. All present accepted the verdict stoically, and the delegates returned quietly to their respective commandos, to make known the terms of surrender. I was spared the ordeal of returning to break the news to our men in the Cape, for my father insisted upon my remaining with him when General Smuts went south. When he came to take leave of me, he said that he dreaded the task of telling the men, and our hearts were heavy at he thought of the disappointment awaiting them. We shook hands for the last time, and then he, too, was gone.

My father was sent into the low country, to arrange for the bringing in of the commando with which he had been serving. We travelled by rail to Balmoral Station on the Delagoa Bay line, and from there on horseback into the wild country through which my brother and I had ridden in search of General Beyers, earlier in the war. After two days hard going we found the camp, and my father had the unpleasant duty of telling the men that all was over. Most of them took it calmly, but some cursed and vowed hat they would never surrender. My father, although he had himself voted against peace at the Conference, pointed out to them that they should either submit to what had been done, or leave the country, as he intended doing. This quieted the more turbulent, and we started back next day for Balmoral, where the men were to hand in their rifles. this depressing ceremony was presided over by an English officer, seated at a table beneath the trees, with a regiment of troops in reserve close by. Despite his protests, our men fired away their ammunition into the air, smashed their rifle-butts and sullenly flung the broken weapons down, before putting their names to the undertaking which each man was called upon to sign, that he would abide by the peace terms.

When my father's turn came, he handed over his rifle to the officer in charge, but refused to sign. He said that although he was one of the signatories to the Peace Treaty, he had told Lord Milner at the time that he was setting his hand to the document in his official capacity as State Secretary of the Transvaal and not as a private individual, and Lord Milner had accepted his signature on that basis.

The officer pointed out that he would not be allowed to remain in the country, and my father agreed. I had no very strong convictions on the subject, but I had to stand by him, so I also refused to sign, and was told that I would be put across the border, which troubled me little, as I was eager to see more of the world.

When all was over, the men rode off on their different ways, to search for what remained of their families and ruined homes.

My father and I went to Balmoral Station, where a message had been received from Lord Milner confirming the order that we were to be deported, but qualifying it to the extent of allowing my father a fortnight in which to settle his affairs in Pretoria. And so we returned, after more than two years of wandering. We found our home in the possession of a British General with sentries outside who forbade approach. Our household goods had disappeared, and had it not been for the hospitality of a friend we should have gone roofless. During this time my younger brother came riding in from the Free State, six inches taller than when I last saw him, and none the worse for his long adventure. He, too, decided to go, and so, towards the end of June, we went into self-imposed exile.

As we were waiting on the border at Komati Poort, before passing into Portuguese territory, my father wrote on a piece of paper a verse which he gave me.

It ran:

SOUTH AFRICA
Whatever foreign shores my feet must tread,
My hopes for thee are not yet dead.
Thy freedom's sun may for a while be set,
- But not for ever, God does not forget.

And he said that until liberty came to his country he would not return.

He is now in America and my brother and I are under the French flag in Madagascar.

We have heard of my other two brothers. The eldest has reached Holland from his Prison camp in India, and the other is still in Bermuda awaiting release.

Maritz and Robert de Kersauson are with us in Madagascar. We have been on an expedition far down into the Sakalave country, to see whether we could settle there.

General Gallieni provided us with riding-mules and a contingent of senegalese soldiers, as those parts are still in a state of unrest. It was like going to war again, but all went quietly, and we saw much that was of interest lakes and forests; swamps teeming with crocodiles, and great open plains grazed by herds of wild cattle. But for all its beauty the island repels one in some intangible manner, and in the end we shall not stay.

At present we are eking out a living convoying goods by ox-transport between Mahatsara on the East Coast and Antananarive, hard work in dank fever-stricken forests, and across mountains sodden with eternal rain; and in my spare time I have written this book.

Antanarive,
Madagascar
1903.