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
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
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
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
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
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
Are these historical events not fully
recorded in other books, by other writers more competent
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
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
“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
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
They listened, speechless, as the
shell burst on Schanskop Fort, on the Sunnyside hill,
just beyond Harmony, with an explosion that shook
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
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.