Christiaan de Wet
THUS Bloemfontein had fallen into the hands of the English; but whatever valuables it contained were spared by the enemy. I did not myself consider the place much superior to any other town, and I would not have thought it a matter of any great importance if it had been destroyed. Still, I felt it to be very regrettable that the town should have been surrendered without a shot.
How can I describe my feelings when I saw Bloemfontein in the hands of the English? It was enough to break the heart of the bravest man amongst us. Even worse than the fall of our capital was the fact that, as was only to be expected, the burghers had become entirely disheartened; and it seemed as if they were incapable now of offering any further resistance. The commandos were completely demoralized. Indeed! the burghers from Fauresmith and Jacobsdal had already returned home from Poplar Grove without asking for permission to do so and now all the others were hurrying back in the greatest disorder to their own districts.
I felt sure that Lord Roberts' troops would remain for some time in the capital, in order to obtain the rest they must have sorely needed. And I now asked myself what I could do whilst the English were remaining inactive. For notwithstanding all that had happened, I had not for a single moment the thought of surrender. It seemed to me that my best course was to allow the burghers, who had now been away from their families for six months, an opportunity to take breath!
After everything had been arranged I went to Brandfort and thence to Kroonstad, at which place I was to meet President Steyn, who had left Bloemfontein the evening before it fell.
On my road to Kroonstad I fell in with General P. J. Joubert, who had come to the Free State, hoping to be able to discover some method for checking the advance of Lord Roberts. He was anything but pleased to hear that I had given my men permission to remain at home till the 25th of March.
"Do you mean to tell me," he asked, "that you are going to give the English a free hand, whilst your men take their holidays?"
"I cannot catch a hare, General, with unwilling dogs," I made reply.
But this did not satisfy the old warrior at all. At last I said:
"You know the Afrikanders as well as I do, General. It is, not our fault that they don't know what discipline means. Whatever I had said or done, the burghers would have gone home; but I'll give you my word that those who come back will fight with renewed courage."
I knew very well that there were some who would not return, but I preferred to command ten men who were willing to fight, rather than a hundred who shirked their duties.
Meanwhile President Steyn had proclaimed Kroonstad as the seat of the Government, so that in future all matters were to be settled there.
On March 10th, 1900 a war council was held, which was attended by from fifty to sixty officers. President Steyn presided; and there sat beside him that simple statesman, grown grey in his country's service-President Kruger.
The chief officers at this council were Commandant General Joubert, Generals De la Rey, Philip Botha, Froneman, C. P. Cronje, J. B. Wessels, and myself. A number of the members of both Governments also put in an appearance at this meeting.
Do not let it be imagined that the object we had in view was to come to an agreement on any peace proposal made by the English. Nothing could have been further from our minds than this. Lord Salisbury's letter to our two Presidents, demanding unconditional surrender, had rendered any thought of peace impossible. On the contrary, we were concerned to discover the best method of continuing the war. We knew, I need scarcely say, that humanly speaking ultimate victory for us was out of the question-that had been clear from the very beginning. For how could our diminutive army hope to stand against the overwhelming numbers at the enemy's command? Yet we had always felt that no one is worthy of the name of man who is not ready to vindicate the right, be the odds what they may. We knew also, that the Afrikanders, although devoid of all military discipline, had the idea of independence deeply rooted in their hearts, and that they were worthy to exist as a Free Nation under a Republican form of Government.
I shall not enter upon all that happened at that meeting. I shall merely note here that besides deciding to continue the war more energetically than ever, we agreed unanimously that the great waggon-camps should be done away with, and that henceforth only horse-commandos should be employed. The sad experience we had gained from six months' warfare, and more especially the great misfortune that had overtaken the big waggon-camp of General Cronje, were our reasons for this new regulation.
I left the meeting firmly determined that, come what might, I should never allow another waggon-camp. But, as the reader will see before he has concluded the perusal of these pages, it was not until many months had elapsed that the waggons were finally suppressed. All the mischief that they were destined to bring upon the African Nation was not yet completed.
One of the effects of this council was to produce an unusually good spirit among the officers and burghers. There was only one thought in my mind, and only one word on every tongue: "FORWARD!"
I proceeded from Kroonstad to the railway bridge at Zand River, and remained there until the 25th of March, when the commandos reassembled. What I had foreseen occurred. The burghers were different men altogether, and returned with renewed courage to the fight. They streamed in such large numbers on this and the following days, that my highest hopes were surpassed. It is true that certain burghers had remained behind. Such was the case with the men from Fauresmith and Jacobsdal, and with a large proportion of the commandos from Philippolis, Smithfield, Wepener, and Bloemfontein. But with these burghers I was unable to deal on account of Lord Roberts' Proclamations, which made it impossible for me to compel the burghers to join the commando; and I decided that I had better wait until I had done some good work with the men I had, before I made any attempt to bring the others back to the commando.
On the 25th of March we went to Brandfort. The arrival of the burghers at the village doubled and even trebled its population. I was forced to close the hotels, as I discovered that my men were being supplied with drink. From this I do not wish the reader to infer that the Afrikanders are drunkards, for this is far from being the case. On the contrary, when compared with other nations, they are remarkable for their sobriety, and it is considered by them a disgrace for a man to be drunk.
Lewis P. Orans, 2009