Christiaan de Wet
IN the month of September, 1899, the burghers of the Orange Free State were notified, under the Commando Law, to hold themselves in readiness to go on active service at the shortest possible notice.
Before proceeding any further I should like to explain that portion of the Commando Law which dealt with commandeering. It stipulated that every burgher between the ages of sixteen and sixty must be prepared to fight for his country at any moment; and that, if required for active service, he must provide himself with a riding-horse, saddle and bridle, with a rifle and thirty cartridges-or, if he were unable to obtain a rifle, he must bring with him thirty bullets, thirty caps, and half a pound of powder-in addition he must be provisioned for eight days. That there should have been an alternative to the rifle was due to the fact that the law was made at a time when only a few burghers possessed breech-loading rifles—achterlaaiers, as we call them.
With reference to the provisions the law did not specify their quality or quantity, but there was an unwritten but strictly observed rule amongst the burghers that they should consist of meat cut in strips, salted, peppered, and dried, or else of sausages and "Boer biscuits" (Small loaves manufactured of flour, with fermented raisins instead of yeast, and twice baked). With regard to quantity, each burgher had to make his own estimate of the amount he would require for eight days.
It was not long after they were notified to hold themselves ready that the burghers were called up for active service. On the 2nd of October, 1899, the order, came. On that day the Veldcornets, or their lieutenants, visited every farm and commandeered the men.
Amongst the commandeered was I ; and thus, as a private burgher, I entered on the campaign. With me were my three sons-Kootie, Isaac, and Christiaan.
The following day the men of the sub-district of Krom Ellenborg, in the district of Heilbron-to which I belonged mustered at Elandslaagte Farm. The Veldcornet of this sub-district was Mr. Marthinus Els, and the Commandant of the whole contingent Mr. Lucas Steenekamp. It soon became known that the War Commission had decided that our commando was to proceed as rapidly as possible to the Natal frontier, and that with us were to go the troops from Vrede and Harrismith, as well as some from Bethlehem, Winberg, and Kroonstad. Carrying out these orders, we all arrived at Harrismith six days later.
Commando life now began in real earnest.
The eight days during which the burghers had to feed themselves were soon over, and now it was the duty of the Government to provide for them.
It may be interesting to mention here that the British commissariat differed greatly from ours. Rations were served out daily to their troops. Each soldier received the same quantity and the same quality as his comrade. Our methods were very different, except as regards flour, coffee, sugar, and other articles of that nature. The British soldier, for instance, received his meat ready cooked in the form of bully-beef (blikkiescost we called it), whilst the burgher received his meat raw, and had to cook it as best he could.
Before I leave this subject I may be forgiven if I describe the method of distributing meat to the burghers. After it had been cut up, the Vleeschkorporaal ( Officer in charge of the meat-literally, Flesh-corporal) handed out the pieces-a sufficiently responsible task, as it proved, for, as the portions differed much in quality, it became of the first importance that the Vleeschkorporaal should be a man whose impartiality was above suspicion. To avoid any temptations to favouritism, this useful personage used to turn his back on the burghers, and as the men came up in turn he would pick up the piece of meat which lay nearest to hand and, without looking round, give it to the man who was waiting behind him to receive it.
This arrangement should have been satisfactory to all, but it sometimes happened that some burgher, whom fortune had not favoured, made no effort to conceal his discontent, and thus squabbles frequently occurred. Then the Vleeschkorporaal, fully convinced of his own uprightness, would let his tongue go, and the burgher who had complained was a man to be pitied. But such quarrels only occurred early in the campaign. By the time that the Vleeschkorporaal had been a few weeks at his work he had gained a considerable knowledge of human nature, and the injustice of his fellows no longer troubled him. Accordingly he allowed the complaints of the men to go in at one ear and at once to come out at the other. The burghers, too, soon became convinced of the foolishness of their conduct, and learnt the lesson of content and forbearance.
As I have already stated, the burgher had to boil or roast his own meat. The roasting was done on a spit cut in the shape of a fork, the wood being obtained from a branch of the nearest tree. A more ambitious fork was manufactured from fencing wire, and had sometimes even as many as four prongs. A skilful man would so arrange the meat on his spit as to have alternate pieces of fat and of lean, and thus get what we used to call a bont span (Literally, a team of oxen which are not all of the same colour).
The burghers utilized the flour supplied to them in making cakes ; these they cooked in boiling fat, and called them stormiagers (Storm-hunters ; so-called from being rapidly cooked), or maagbommen (Stomach-bombs-a reflection on their wholesomeness).
Later on, the British, finding that by looting our cattle they could get fresh meat for nothing, were no longer forced to be content with bully beef. They then, like ourselves, killed oxen and sheep; but, unlike us, were very wasteful with it. Often, in the camping places they had vacated, we found the remains of half-eaten- oxen, sheep, pigs, and poultry.
But I shall not go further into this matter. I leave it to other pens to describe how the British looted our property, wantonly killed our cattle, and devastated our farms. In the course of this narrative my intention is to mention only those cases which I saw with my own eyes. The reader, perusing them, may well pause in surprise and cry out, "Can such things be possible?" To such a question I have only one answer --"They actually occurred, and so my only course is to record them."
But enough of these digressions. Let me return to my proper subject-the story of my own experiences and doings in the great struggle which took place between Boer and Briton.
As I have already said, I had been commandeered, and, together with the other burghers of the Heilbron commando, had just reached Harrismith, on the road to the south-eastern frontier.
During our stay there the other commandos, in obedience to Commando Law, joined us, and we proceeded to elect a Commander-in-Chief. The Commandants present were Steenekamp, of Heilbron; Anthonie Lombaard, of Vrede; C. J. de Villiers, of Harrismith ; Hans Nande of Bethlehem; Marthinus Prinsloo, of Winburg; and C. Nel, of Kroonstad. The result of the voting was that Prinsloo was chosen for the supreme command.
Then the burghers of Winburg selected Mr. Theunissen as their Commandant. He fulfilled his duties admirably, until he was' made a prisoner of war. This happened when he was leading a courageous attack at Paardeberg in order to relieve General Piet Cronje.
From Harrismith our commando advanced to within six miles of the Natal-Free State frontier, and camped not far from Bezuidenhoutspas, in the Drakensberg. This imposing range of mountains, which then formed the dividing line between Boer and British territory, slopes down gently into the Free State, but on the Natal side is very steep and precipitous.
The day after we had elected our Commander-in-Chief I was sent by Commandant Steenekamp, with a small detachment of burghers, to the Natal frontier. I saw nothing of the English there, for they had abandoned all their positions on the frontier shortly before the beginning of the war. When I returned in the evening I found that the burghers had chosen me, in my absence, as Vice-Commandant (A Vice-Commandment has no duties to fulfil so long as the Commandant is himself in camp and fit for work) under Commandant Steenekamp.
It was at five o'clock on the afternoon of that day-the 11th of October, 1899-that the time, which the ultimatum allowed to England, expired. The British had not complied with the terms which the South African Republic demanded-the time for negotiations had passed, and war had actually broken out.
On this very day martial law was proclaimed by the Governments of the two Republics, and orders were given to occupy the passes on the Drakensberg. Commander-in-Chief Prinsloo despatched Steenekamp that night to Bezuidenhoutspas. Eastwards from there the following commandos were to hold the passes :-Bothaspas was to be occupied by the commando from Vrede; Van Reenen's Pass by the commandos from Harrismith and Winburg; and Tintwaspas by the commando from Kroonstad. Westwards, the burghers from Bethlehem were to guard Oliviershoekpas.
Commandant Steenekamp was very ill that night, and was unable to set out ; he accordingly ordered me to take his place and to proceed forward with six hundred burghers.
Although I had only to cover six miles, it cost me considerable thought to arrange everything satisfactorily. This was due to the fact that real discipline did not exist among the burghers. As the war proceeded, however, a great improvement manifested itself in this matter, although as long as the struggle lasted our discipline was always far from perfect. I do not intend to imply that the burghers were unwilling or unruly; it was only that they were quite unaccustomed to being under orders. When I look back upon the campaign I realize how gigantic a task I performed in regulating everything in accordance with my wishes.
It did not take me long to get everything arranged, and we made an early start.
It was impossible to say what might lie before us. In spite of the fact that I had visited the spot the day before, I had not been able to cross the frontier The English might have been on the precipitous side of the mountains under the ridge without my being any the wiser. Perhaps on our arrival we should find them in possession of the pass, occupying good positions and quite prepared for our coming.
Everything went well with us, however, and no untoward incident occurred. When the sun rose the following morning the whole country, as far as the eye could reach, lay before us calm and peaceful.
I sent a full report of my doings to Commandant Steenekamp, and that evening he himself, although still far from well, appeared with the remaining part of the commando. He brought the news that war had started in grim earnest. General De la Rey had attacked and captured an armoured train at Kraaipan.
Some days after this a war council was held at Van Reenen's Pass under Commander-in-Chief Marthinus Prinsloo. As Commandant Steenekamp, owing to his illness, was unable to be present, I attended the council in his place. It was decided that a force of two thousand burghers, under Commandant C. J. de Villiers, of Harrismith, as Vice-Vechtgeneraal, should go down into, Natal, and that the remaining forces should guard the passes on the Drakensberg.
Let me say, in parenthesis, that the laws of the Orange Free State make no allusion to the post of Vechtgeneraal (Fighting general).
But shortly before the war began the Volksraad had given the President the power to appoint such an officer. At the same session the President was allowed the veto on all laws dealing with war.
As Commandant Steenekamp was still prevented by his health from going to the front, I was ordered, as Vice-Commandant of the Heilbron commando, to proceed with five hundred men to Natal.
It soon became apparent that we had been sent to Natal with the object of cutting off the English who were stationed at Dundee and Elandslaagte. We were to be aided in our task by the Transvaalers who were coming from Volksrust and by a party of burghers, from Vrede, all under the command of General Roch.
We did not arrive in time to be successful in this plan. That there had been some bungling was not open to question. Yet I am unable to assert to whom our failure was due whether to the Commandants of the South African Republic, or to Commander-in-Chief Prinsloo, or to Vechtgeneraal de Villiers. For then I was merely a Vice-Commandant, who had not to give orders, but to obey them. But whoever was to blame, it is certainly true that when, early in the morning of the 23rd of October, I cut the line near Dundee, I discovered that the English had retreated to Ladysmith. It was General Yule who had led them, and he gained great praise in British circles for the exploit.
If we had only reached our destination a little sooner we should have cut off their retreating troops and given them a very warm time. But now that they had joined their comrades at Ladysmith, we had to be prepared for an attack from their combined forces, and that before the Transvaalers, who were still at Dundee, could reinforce us.
The British did not keep us long in anxiety.
At eight o'clock the following morning-the 24th of October-they came out of Ladysmith, and the battle of Modder Spruit (Sometimes referred to as the battle of Rietfontein) began. With the sole exception of the skirmish between the Harrismith burghers and the Carabineers at Bester Station on the 18th of October, when Jonson, a burgher of Harrismith, was killed-the earliest victim in our fight for freedom-this was the first fighting the Free Staters had seen.
We occupied kopjes which formed a large semicircle to the west of the railway between Ladysmith and Dundee. Our only gun was placed on the side of a high kop on our western wing. Our men did not number more than a thousand-the other burghers had remained behind as a rearguard at Bester Station.
With three batteries of guns the English marched to the attack, the troops leading the way, the guns some distance behind. A deafening cannonade was opened on us by the enemy's artillery, at a range of about 4,500 yards. Our gun fired a few shots in return, but was soon silenced, and we had to remove it from its position. Small arms were our only weapons for the remainder of the contest.
The English at once began as usual to attack our flanks, but they did not attempt to get round our wings. Their object appeared to be to keep us in small parties, so that we should be unable to concentrate a large force anywhere.
Meanwhile the troops which were making the attack pushed on closer and closer to us. The country was of such a nature that they were able to get quite near to us without coming under our fire, for small kloofs (Water-courses) and other inequalities of the ground afforded them excellent cover. But when they did show themselves they were met by such a frightful and unceasing fire that they could not approach nearer than two hundred paces from our lines.
The brunt of the attack was borne by the burghers from Kroonstad, who, under Commandant Nel, formed our western wing. More to the east, where I myself was, our men had less to endure. But every burgher, wherever he might be, fought with the greatest courage. Although there Were some who fell killed or wounded, there was no sign of yielding throughout the whole battle, and every one of our positions we successfully held.
Till three o'clock in the afternoon we kept up our rifle fire on the English, and then we ceased, for the enemy, realizing the impossibility of driving us out of our positions, withdrew to Ladysmith. Shortly afterwards we were able to go over the battlefield. There were not many dead or wounded to be seen; but burghers who had been stationed on the high kop previously mentioned had seen the English remove their wounded during the engagement.
We ourselves had eleven men killed and twenty-one wounded, of whom two subsequently died. This loss touched us deeply, yet it was encouraging to notice that it had not the effect of disheartening a single officer or burgher.
Just as the battle began Mr. A. P. Cronje arrived on the scene. He had been nominated by the President as Vechtgeneraal, and had taken over the command from Vice-General C. J. de Villiers. He was most useful in this engagement. When it was over I agreed with him in thinking that our forces were too weak to pursue the retreating English troops. As soon as I was able to leave my position it gave me great pleasure to shake hands with him, for he was an old friend and fellow-member of the Volksraad. It was pleasant to greet him as Vechtgeneraal. He was the son of a valiant officer who had fought in the Basuto war of 1865 and 1866. He had reached the age of sixty-six years, an age when it is very hard for a man to have to stand the strain which the duties of a Vechtgeneraal necessarily entail.
Lewis P. Orans, 2009