Read CHAPTER I - THE SCENE OF ACTION of The Petticoat Commando Boer Women in Secret Service , free online book, by Johanna Brandt, on ReadCentral.com.

When, on October 11th, 1899, shortly before 5 o’clock in the afternoon, martial law was proclaimed throughout the Transvaal and Orange Free State, South Africa, and after the great exodus of British subjects had taken place, there remained in Pretoria, where the principal events recorded here took place, a harmonious community of Boers and sympathisers, who for eight months enjoyed the novel advantage of Boer freedom under Boer martial law.

The remaining English residents were few in number, and kept, to all appearance, “strictly neutral,” until the morning of June 5th, 1900, when the British troops poured into the capital.

The two people chiefly concerned in this story, mother and daughter, lived in Sunnyside, a south-eastern suburb of Pretoria, on a large and beautiful old property, appropriately called Harmony, one of the oldest estates in the capital.

This historical place consisted of a simple, comfortable farm-house, with a rambling garden a romantic spot, and an ideal setting for the adventures and enterprises here recorded.

At the time our story opens, the owner, Mrs. van Warmelo, was living alone on it with her daughter, Hansie, a girl of twenty-two, the diarist referred to in the Introduction.

The other members of the family, though they took no part in those events of the war which took place within the capital, were so closely connected with the principal figures in this book that their introduction will be necessary here.

The family consisted of five, two daughters and three sons. The elder daughter was married and was living at Wynberg near Cape Town, the younger, as we have seen, was with her mother in Pretoria during the war, while of the sons, two, the eldest and the youngest, Dietlof and Fritz, were on commando, having left the capital with the first contingent of volunteers on September 28th.

The third brother, Willem, who had been studying in Holland when the war broke out, had, with his mother’s knowledge and permission, given up his nearly completed studies and had come to South Africa, to take part in the deadly struggle in which his fellow-countrymen were engaged.

In order to achieve his purpose, he had taken the only route open to him, the eastern route through Delagoa Bay, and had joined his brothers in the field, after a brief sojourn with his mother and sister at Harmony.

Considering the circumstances under which he had joined the Boer forces and the sacrifice he had made for love of fatherland, it was particularly sad that he should have been made a prisoner at the last great fight at the Tugela, the battle of Pieter’s Height in Natal, on February 27th, after a very short experience of commando life.

He was lodged in the Maritzburg jail at this time, where things would have gone hard with him, but for the loving-kindness of his cousin, Miss Berning, now Lady Bale, who frequently visited him with her sister, and provided him with baskets of fruit and other delicacies, which helped greatly to brighten the long months of his imprisonment.

Later on, through the influence of his brother-in-law, Mr. Henry Cloete, of “Alphen,” Wynberg, he was released on parole, and allowed to return to Holland to complete his studies. His name therefore will no more appear in these pages.

He was “out of action” once and for all, and could not be made use of, even when, later on, through the development of the events with which this book deals, his services were most required by his mother and sister.

The other two brothers, as we have said, had left Pretoria with the first volunteers.

It is strange that the first blood shed in that terrible war should have been that of a young Boer accidentally shot by a comrade.

As a train, laden with its burden of brave and hopeful burghers, steamed slowly through the cutting on the south-eastern side of Pretoria, volleys of farewell shots were fired.

It is customary to extract the bullets from the cartridges on such occasions, but one of the burghers must have omitted to do this, with the result that the bullet, rebounding from the rocks, penetrated a carriage window, and seriously wounded one of the occupants.

Was this event prophetic of a later development of the war, when, as we shall see, Boer shed the blood of brother Boer in the formation of the National Scouts Corps?

Mrs. van Warmelo was a “voor-trekker,” a pioneer, in every sense of the word. As a girl of fourteen she had left Natal with her parents and had “trekked,” with other families, through the wild waste of country, into the unknown and barbaric regions in which she was destined to spend her youth.

She had watched the growth of a new country, the building up of a new race. She had known all the hardships and dangers of life in an unsettled and uncivilised land, had been through a number of Kaffir wars and could speak, through personal experience, of many adventures with savage foes and wild beasts. Her children knew her stories by heart, and it is not to be wondered at that they grew up with the love of adventure strong in them. And above all things, they grew up with a strong love for the strange, rich, wild country for which their forefathers had fought and suffered.

Mrs. van Warmelo was the eldest daughter of a family of sixteen. Her father, Dietlof Siegfried Mare, for many years Landdrost of Zoutpansberg, that northern territory of the Transvaal, was a direct descendant of the Huguenot fugitives, and was a typical Frenchman, short of stature, dark, vivacious, and exceedingly humorous, a man remembered by all who knew him for his great hospitality and for the shrewd, quaint humour of his sayings.

Some years after their arrival in Zoutpansberg, Mrs. van Warmelo had married a Hollander, a young minister of the Dutch Reformed Church. Of him it is not necessary to speak in this book.

He had taken his part in the first Anglo-Boer war and had passed away in Heidelberg, Transvaal, leaving to the people of his adopted fatherland and to his children a rich inheritance in the memory of a life spent in doing noble deeds a life of rare self-sacrifice.

His family had left Heidelberg a few years after his death, and had taken up their abode in the capital in order to be near Mrs. van Warmelo’s married daughter, Mrs. Cloete, who then lived close to Harmony, in Sunnyside.

It was a wild, romantic suburb in those days, being still almost entirely in its natural state. Grass-covered hills, clumps of mimosa, and other wild trees, with here and there an old homestead picturesquely situated in isolated spots, were all there was to be seen.

Of all the private properties in this suburb, Harmony was the most overgrown and neglected when Mrs. van Warmelo first took possession of it.

It was bounded at the lower, the western end, by the Aapies River, a harmless rivulet in its normal state almost dry, in fact, during the winter season but in flood a most dangerous and destructive element, overflowing its banks and sweeping away every obstruction in its wild course.

The property was overgrown with rank vegetation and reminded one of the impenetrable forest abode of the “Sleeping Beauty” of fairy-tale fame.

Friends wondered that Mrs. van Warmelo had the courage to live alone with her daughter Hansie in such a wild and desolate spot, and they wondered still more when they heard of the alarming experience the two ladies had the very first night they spent in their new home.

On their arrival, there were still workmen busy repairing the house, and Mrs. van Warmelo pointed out to one of them that the skylight above the bathroom door had not yet been put in. The man nailed a piece of canvas over it, with the remark that that would do for the night, and that he would put in the skylight on his return the next day. Mrs. van Warmelo was only half satisfied, but left the matter there.

During the night one of her own servants, a sullen, treacherous-looking native, recently in her employment, entered the bathroom by putting a ladder against the door and tearing away the canvas from the skylight.

He must then have unlocked the door on the inside, striking about a dozen matches while he was in the room, and carried various portmanteaux out into the garden, where he slashed them open at the sides and overhauled their contents for money and valuables.

Early the next morning Mrs. van Warmelo was roused by old Anne Merriman, the only woman servant on the place, who came in from the garden with articles of wearing apparel which she had picked up under the trees, and which she held up to the astonished gaze of her mistress. On investigating further, they found the garden littered with articles of clothing, valuable documents, and title-deeds, which the thief had thrown aside as worthless, in his search for money.

The only things of value which he had taken with him were a set of pearl ear-rings and brooch, and a beautiful lined “kaross,” or rug, made of the skins of wild South African animals. Nothing was seen of him again, but Mrs. van Warmelo immediately got a revolver and kept watch for him, hoping, yet fearing, that he would return for more plunder.

This was a sad beginning, and old Anne added to their fears by predicting every imaginable calamity to the inhabitants of Harmony. She was gifted with second-sight, so she said, and often saw a man in grey about the place; his presence “boded no good,” and old Anne soon after left the place, with many warnings to her mistress to follow her example, before she could be overtaken by disaster.

All this had taken place long before the war broke out. Harmony had in the meantime been vastly improved, the dense undergrowth having been cut away, and the row of enormous willow trees, with which the house was overshadowed, having been removed, while large flower and vegetable gardens had been laid out, where once a jungle-like growth of shrubs and rank grass had abounded.

Much of the natural beauty still remained, however, and Harmony was a favourite resort for many people in Pretoria. Young and old visited the place, especially during the summer months when the garden was laden with its wealth of fruit and flowers; and of these friends of the family many figure in these pages, while some do not appear at all, having had no part in the stirring events with which this book deals.

Amongst the most frequent visitors at Harmony were the Consul-General for the Netherlands, Mr. Domela-Nieuwenhuis and his wife, and other members of the Diplomatic Corps with their families.

These friendships had been formed before the war, and it was only natural that they should have been strengthened and deepened by the trying circumstances of the years during which the country was convulsed by such unspeakable tragedies.

Although the position held by these men debarred them from taking any part whatsoever in the events of the war, their sympathies were undoubtedly with the people of South Africa. They suffered with and for their friends, and they must frequently have been weighed down by a sense of their powerlessness to alleviate the distress around them, which they were forced to witness; but they were, without exception, men of high integrity, and observed with strict honour the obligations laid upon them by their position of trust.

Needless to say, they were not aware of the conspiracies which were carried on at Harmony; to this day they are ignorant of the dangers to which the van Warmelos were exposed and the hazardous nature of many of the enterprises in which mother and daughter were engaged, and I look forward with delight to the privilege of presenting each of these gentlemen with a copy of this book, in which they will find so many revelations of an unexpected and startling nature.

It is not my intention to go into the details of the first encounters with the enemy, nor to describe the siege-comedy of Mafeking, where Baden-Powell, as principal actor, maintained a humorous correspondence with the Boers; nor of Kimberley, where Cecil Rhodes said he felt as safe as in Piccadilly; nor of Dundee, where the Boers were said to have found a large number of brand-new side-saddles, originally destined to be used by British officers on arrival at the capital, where they hoped to take the ladies of Pretoria riding, but ultimately consigned to the flames by the indignant brothers and lovers of those very ladies; nor of the fine linen, silver, cut-glass, and fingerbowls found and destroyed by the Boers in the luxurious British camp at Dundee. I shall not dwell upon the glorious victories of the first months, the capture of armoured trains, the blowing up of bridges, the besieging of towns, the arrival in Pretoria of the first British prisoners and the long sojourn of British officers in captivity in the Model School from where, incidentally, Winston Churchill escaped in an ingenious way and the crushing news of the first Boer reverses at Dundee and Elandslaagte.

Are these historical events not fully recorded in other books, by other writers more competent than myself?

A three-volume book would hardly contain the experiences Hansie had, first in the Volks Hospital in Pretoria and later in the State Girls’ School, as volunteer nurse, but I shall pass over the events of the first eight months of war under Boer martial law and introduce my reader to that period in May 1900 shortly before the British took possession of the capital.

The two remaining brothers van Warmelo were at this time retreating with the now completely demoralised Boer forces, before the terrific onslaughts made upon them by the enemy.

Blow after blow was delivered by the English in quiet succession on their forced march from Bloemfontein to Pretoria, and it was on May 25th that the roar of Boer cannon reached the capital for the first time.

Looking south-east from Harmony, Mrs. and Miss van Warmelo were able to watch the Boer commandos pouring into the town straggling would be a better word, for there was no one in command, and the weary men on their jaded horses passed in groups of twos and threes, and in small contingents of from fifty to a hundred.

Mrs. van Warmelo fully expected to see her sons among the number and made preparations to welcome them, for under the roar of cannon the fatted turkey had been killed and roasted and a large plum-pudding made.

Suddenly two men on horseback turned out of the wayside and rode straight up to the gate.

“Perhaps these men are bringing us news of our boys,” Mrs. van Warmelo said to her daughter, who was watching them with anxiety at her heart.

The men dismounted at the gate and walked up to the two women, leading their horses slowly over the grass.

No one spoke until the men were a few yards off, when Hansie exclaimed, with unbounded joy and relief, “Why, they are our boys!”

With unkempt hair and long beards, covered with dust, tattered and weary, no wonder mother and sister failed to recognise them at first!

When the first greetings were over, the young men gave what news they could stupefying news of the advance of the enemy in overwhelming numbers, and of the flight and confusion of what remained of the Boer forces.

“What are you going to do?” their mother asked.

“Rest and feed our horses first of all, mother,” Dietlof, the elder, replied. “They are worn out and unfit for use. And when we have equipped ourselves for whatever may be in store for us, we must join some small commando and escape from the town. Little or no resistance is being offered by our men, and it is evident that Pretoria will not be defended. All we can do is to escape before the English take possession.”

Mrs. van Warmelo then told her sons of the retreat of the President from the capital, with the entire Government, by the eastern railway route.

The greatest consternation had been caused by this flight at first, but subsequent events went to prove that this was the wisest course which could have been pursued.

In this decision the President had been urged by his wife, and Mrs. van Warmelo went on to tell how the brave old lady had said to her in an expressive way, on the occasion of her last visit at the President’s house:

“My dear friend, do not fear. No Englishman will ever lay his hand on the coat-tails of the President.”

It is quite impossible to describe the confusion that ensued during the next few days.

No one knew what to do; there were no organised Boer forces to join, there was no one in command, and, after long deliberation, the two young men, urged by mother and sister, came to the conclusion that, whatever other men might be doing, their duty was to get out of Pretoria and join whatever band of fighting burghers there might still be in the field.

The same spirit of determination not to fall into the hands of the enemy while the Boer Government was free, and could continue organising the war, prevailed amongst most of the men in Pretoria, and daily small parties could be seen leaving the town, in carts, on horseback, on bicycles, and even on foot. Where they were going and when they would return no one knew.

On the morning of June 4th, the necessary preparations for the departure of the young men having been made, as they were sitting at what proved to be their last meal together for such long and terrible years, they were suddenly startled by the sound of cannon-firing and the whistling of a shell through the air.

They listened, speechless, as the shell burst on Schanskop Fort, on the Sunnyside hill, just beyond Harmony, with an explosion that shook the house.

It was followed by another and yet another.

So little were the inhabitants of Pretoria prepared for this that everyone at first thought that the shells were being fired, for some unaccountable reason, by the Boers, from the Pretoria Forts, until a few of them burst so close to the houses that the fragments of rock and shell fell like hail on the iron roofs. The other members of the family followed Mrs. van Warmelo into the garden: and when it became evident that the enemy was bombarding the Pretoria Forts, the two young men immediately saddled their horses and rode out in the direction in which they thought it most likely that some resistance would be offered, after having advised their mother and sister to flee to some place of refuge in the centre of the town.

There was no doubt that Harmony was directly in the line of fire, and as the great shells went shrieking and hurtling through the air, the very earth seemed to shake with the force of each explosion.

Mrs. van Warmelo hastily packed a few valuables into a hand-bag, and fled into town with her daughter, leaving their dinner standing almost untouched on the table. On their way to town, they found many terrified women and children huddled under bridges for safety.

The bombardment continued all the afternoon, and ceased only when darkness fell.

That night, when the van Warmelos returned to their deserted home, they found the house still standing and no trace of the bombardment except pieces of shell lying in the garden.

They were much surprised a few hours later, by the return of their two warriors, weary and desperate after a hopeless attempt to keep back the English with a handful of burghers, and the news they brought was to the effect that Pretoria was to be surrendered to the enemy the next morning. Once more they expressed their determination to escape to the Boer lines, wherever they might be.

Only a few hours’ rest for them that night and then they rode away at dawn, in the Middelburg direction, on that dark and dreadful June 5th.

It was Fritz’s twenty-second birthday on that cruel mid-winter’s morn, and when Hansie saw him again he was a man of twenty-six, with the experiences and suffering of a lifetime resting on his shoulders.

The fate of the two young men remained a mystery to their dear ones for many months of agonising suspense, and they pass out of these pages for a time while we turn our attention to the relation of events within the capital.