III To The Frontier
Commando by Deneys Reitz

OUR officer, or Field-Cornet, as he was called, was Mr Zeederberg, a coach contractor, and the rank and file were mostly young fellows from the Civil Service and the legal offices and shops in the town. Few of them had ever seen war, or undergone military training, but they were full of ardour, and in spite of cramped quarters and rough fare, we were like schoolboys as we clanked along.

After a monotonous journey of three days, often broken by interminable halts, we reached Saildspruit, a small station about ten miles front the Natal border, where we detrained. There were great numbers of burghers from the country districts already encamped on the plain, on either side of the railway line, and the veld on all sides was dotted with tents and wagon-laagers. On the left of the track stood a large marquee over which floated the vierkleter flag of the Transvaal, indicating General Joubert's headquarters. Both he and his wife were thus early on the scene, it being her invariable custom to accompany her husband in the field.

When we had detrained our horses, and helped to ground the guns, we moved away to where a halting-ground was assigned us. We off-saddled in the tall grass, and after building fires, and preparing supper, spent our first night in the open. For the next ten days we lay here enjoying the novelty of our surroundings, as if we were on a pleasure jaunt, rather than seriously awaiting the coming of war. One evening my brother and I received a pleasant surprise, for there arrived in camp an old native servant of ours, grinning from ear to ear at having found us. His name was Charley, a grandson of the famous Basuto chief, Moshesh. He had been a family retainer ever since I can remember, first in the Free State and then in the Transvaal whither he had followed us. Latterly he had been on a visit to Umbandine, King of the Swazis, but, learning that there was to be a war, he returned at once to Pretoria, and my father sent him on to us. He was more than welcome, for we could now turn over to him our cooking and the care of the horses, duties which we had been Performing ourselves up to then; moreover, he had brought me a splendid roan which my father had sent me, as he feared that the Basuto pony would not be up to my weight.

Every morning my brother and I had our horses fetched from the grazing-ground and rode out to visit neighbouring camps and laagers, eager to see all that we could. We saw the stream of fresh contingents arriving daily by rail, or riding in from the adjacent countryside, and watched with never-ending interest the long columns of shaggy men on shaggy horses passing by.

At the end of the week there must have been nearly 15,000 horsemen collected here, ready to invade Natal, and we told ourselves that nothing could stop us from reaching the sea.

Our military organization was a rough one. Each commando was divided into two or more field-cornetcies, and these again were subdivided into corporalships. A field-cornetcy was supposed to contain 150 to 200 men, and a corporalship nominally consisted of 25, but there was no fixed rule about this, and a popular field-cornet or corporal might have twice as many men as an unpopular one, for a burgher could elect which officer he wished to serve under, and could even choose his own commando, although generally he would belong to one representing the town or district from which he came.

In the Pretoria commando, we divided ourselves into corporalships by a kind of selective process, friends from the same Government department or from the Saran part of the town pooling their resources in the way of cooking utensils, etc., and in this manner creating separate little groups that in course of time came to be recognized as military units. One of the number would be elected corporal, to act as the channel through which orders were transmitted from above, and much the same system held in all the other commandos. The commissariat arrangements were equally simple. Our Field-Cornet would know the approximate member of men under his command, and in order to maintain supplies all he needed to do was to send a party to the food depot, stacked beside the railway line, where they would break out as many bags of meal, sugar, and coffee as they considered necessary, load them on a wagon, and dump them in the middle of the camp for each corporalship to satisfy its requirements. The meat supply consisted of an immense herd of cattle on the hoof, from which every commando drew as many animals as wanted for slaughter purposes. This system, though somewhat wasteful, worked fairly well; the men were plainly but adequately fed on much the same diet as they were accustomed to at home, and there was little grumbling. Officers and men had to supply their own horses, rifles, clothing, and equipment, and nobody received any pay.

Ever since the Jameson Raid the Transvaal Government had been importing large quantities of Mauser rifles from Germany, which were sold to the burghers at a nominal figure, and as great stores of ammunition had likewise been accumulated, the commandos were very efficiently equipped. The two republics had mobilized between 60,000 and 70,000 horsemen, at this moment distributed west and east, ready to invade the Cape Colony and Natal at the given word. This great force, armed with modern weapons, was a formidable fighting machine which, had it been better led, might have made far other history than it did.

How many troops the British had in South Africa I do not know, but they were pouring reinforcements into the country, and I think our leaders underestimated the magnitude of the task on which they were embarked.

So far as our information went in regard to Natal, the nearest British troops lay at the town of Dundee, some fifty miles away. This force we subsequently found to be about 7,000 strong, and still farther south at Ladysmith they had another 6,000 or 7,000 men, but with fresh troops being landed every day it was difficult to say how soon the scales would dip against us.

On the 10th of October a great parade was held in honour of President Kruger's birthday. We mustered what was than probably the largest body of mounted men ever seen in South Africa. It was magnificent to see commando after commando file past the Commandant-General, each man brandishing hat or rifle according to his individual idea of a military salute. After the march-past we formed in mass, and galloped cheering up the slopes where Piet Joubert sat his horse beneath an embroidered banner. When we came to a halt he addressed us from the saddle. I was jammed among the horsemen, so could not get close enough to hear what he was saying, but soon word was passed that an ultimatum (written and signed by my father) had been sent to the British, giving them twenty-four hours in which to withdraw their troops from the borders of the Republic, failing which there was to be war.

The excitement that followed was immense. The great throng stood in its stirrups and shouted itself hoarse, and it was not until long after the Commandant-General and his retinue had fought their way through the crowd that the commandos began to disperse.

The jubilation continued far into the night, and as we sat around our fires discussing the coming struggle, we heard singing and shouting from the neighbouring camps until cock-crow.

Next day England accepted the challenge and the war began. Once more the excitement was unbounded. Fiery speeches were made, and General Joubert was received with tumultuous cheering as he rode through to address the men. Orders were issued for all commandos to be in readiness, and five days' rations of biltong and meal were issued. Flying columns were to invade Natal, and all transport was to be left behind, so my brother and I were Obliged to send our native boy to the central laager where the wagons were being parked until they would follow later.

My brother and I had joined hands with some friends from our Pretoria suburb of Sunnyside, and after a few days we had become merged ill a larger body, of which five brothers, named Malherbe, were the leading spirits. We chose Isaac Malherbe, the eldest of them, to be our Corporal, and a better man I never met. We soon came to be known as 'Isaac Malherbe's Corporalship'. He was about thirty-five years old, dark complexioned, silent and moody, but we looked up to him because of the confidence which he inspired. His brothers were brave men, too, but he stood head and shoulders above us all. After his death on the Tugela we found that he was a man of considerable means whose wife and two small daughters were left well provided for.

War was officially declared on October 11th. At dawn on the morning of the 12th, the assembled commandos moved off and we started on our first march.

As far as the eye could see the plain was alive with horsemen, guns, and cattle, all steadily going forward to the frontier. The scene was a stirring one, and I shall never forget riding to war with that great host.

It has all ended in disaster, and I am writing this in a strange country, but the memory of those first days will ever remain.

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