Christiaan de Wet
UP to the 9th of December I had only been a Vice Commandant, but on the morning of that day I received a telegram from States-President Steyn, asking me to go to the Western frontier as Vechtgeneraal ("Fighting General").
This came as a great surprise to me, and I telegraphed back to the President asking for time to think the matter over. To tell the truth, I should have much preferred to have gone through the campaign as a private burgher.
Almost immediately after this there came another telegram-this time from Mr. A. Fisscher, a member of the Executive Council, and a man whom I respected greatly on account of his official position. He urged me not to decline the appointment, but to proceed at once to the Western borders. I did not know what to do. However, after deliberating for a short time, and with great difficulty overcoming my disinclination to leave my present associates, I decided to accept the post offered to me. Commandant Steenekamp was kind enough to allow me to take with me fourteen men, with whom I had been on especially friendly terms; and, after a few parting words to the Heilbron burghers, in which I thanked them for all the pleasant times I had passed in their company, I left the laager.
It was heart-breaking to tear myself away from my commando: that 9th of December was a day which I shall never forget.
The following morning I arrived, with my staff, at Elandslaagte Station, on our way to Bloemfontein. A special train, provided by the Transvaal authorities, at the request of my Government, was waiting for us, and we started without a moment's delay. As we journeyed on, the conductor would sometimes ask me whether I should like to stop at such and such a station, but my answer was always :
"No! no! hurry on!"
But when we got as far as Viljoen's Drift, there was an end to my "special train!" In spite of the Government's orders that I was to be sent forward without delay, I had to wait six hours, and then be content to travel as an ordinary passenger.
At Bloemfontein we found everything ready for us, and at once started on our journey of sixty or seventy miles to Magersfontein, where we arrived on December the 16th.
During the time I had spent in travelling, three important engagements had taken place, namely those of Colenso, Magersfontein and Stormberg. At Colenso, the English had suffered heavy losses, and ten guns had fallen into our hands. Magersfontein also had cost them dear' and there General Wauchope had met his fate; while at Stormberg seven hundred of them had been taken prisoners, and three of their big guns had been captured by us.
At Magersfontein were six or seven thousand Transvaal burghers under General Piet Cronje, with General De la Rey as second in command. Thus it fell to my lot to take over the command of the Free-Staters. The Commander-in Chief of these Free State burghers, as well as of those who were camped round Kimberley, was Mr. C. J. Wessels; Mr. E. R. Grobler commanded at Colesberg, and Mr. J. H. Olivier at Stormberg.
I spent my first few days at Magersfontein in organizing the Free State burghers. When this task had been accomplished, General De la Rey and I asked General Cronje's permission to take fifteen hundred men, and carry on operations in the direction of Hopetown and De Aar with the intention of breaking Lord Methuen's railway communications. But Cronje would hear nothing of the scheme.
Say what we would, there was no moving him. He absolutely refused to allow fifteen hundred of his men to leave their positions at Magersfontein, unless the Government found it impossible to procure that number of burghers from elsewhere. Thus our plan came to nothing.
Shortly afterwards De la Rey was sent to the commandos at Colesberg, and I succeeded him in the command of the Transvaalers at Magersfontein. The Government then put General Wessels in sole command at Kimberley, and gave General Cronje the chief command over the Free State burghers at Magersfontein. Thus it was that I, as Vechtgeneraal, had to receive my orders from Cronje. I had the following Commandants under me: Du Preez, of Hoofstad; Grobler, of Fauresmith; D. Lubbe, of Jacobsdal; Piet Fourie, of Bloemfontein; J. Kok and Jordaan, of Winburg; Ignatius Ferreira, of Ladybrand; Paul de Villiers, of Ficksburg; Du Plessis, and, subsequently, Commandant Diederiks, of Boshof.
The English had entrenched themselves at the Modder River, we at Magersfontein. There was little or nothing for us to do, and yet I never had a more troublesome time in my life. I had all the Transvaalers under my orders, in addition to the burghers of the Free State, and the positions which I had to inspect every day extended over a distance of fifteen miles from end to end. I had to listen to constant complaints; one of the officers would say that he could not hold out against an attack if it were delivered at such and such a point; another, that he had not sufficient troops with him, not to mention other remarks which were nonsensical in the extreme.
In the meantime, the enemy was shelling our positions unceasingly. Not a day passed but two of their Lyddite guns, dropped shells amongst us. Sometimes not more than four or five reached us in the twenty-four hours; at other times from fifty to two hundred, and once as many as four hundred and thirty-six.
In spite of this, we had but few mishaps. Indeed, I can only remember three instances of any one being hurt by the shells. A young burgher, while riding behind a ridge and thus quite hidden from the enemy, was hit by a bomb, and both he and his horse were blown to atoms. This youth was a son of Mr. Gideon van Tonder, a member of the Executive Council. Another Lyddite shell so severely wounded two brothers, named Wolfaard, Potchefstroom burghers, that we almost despaired of their lives. Nevertheless, they recovered. I do not want to imply that the British Artillery were poor shots. Far from it. Their range was very good, and, as they had plenty of practice every day, shot after shot went home. I ascribe our comparative immunity to a Higher Power, which averted misfortune from us.
I had not been long at Magersfontein before I became convinced that Lord Methuen was most unlikely to make another attack on our extensive positions. I said nothing of this to any of the burghers, but on more than one occasion, I told General Cronje what I thought about the matter.
"The enemy," I repeated to him over and over again, he will not attack us here. He will flank us." But Cronje would not listen to me.
The presence of women in our laager was a great hindrance to me in my work. Indeed, I opened a correspondence with the Government on the matter, and begged them to forbid it. But here again my efforts were unavailing. Later on, we shall see in what a predicament the Republican laagers were placed through the toleration of this irregularity.
Meanwhile, the inevitable results of Cronje's policy became more and more apparent to me, and before Iona we had to suffer for his obstinacy in keeping us to our trenches and schanzes (shelter-mound of earth and boulders).
Lewis P. Orans, 2009