How the routine of life at Harmony
was broken in upon by news “from the front”
that April month in 1901, I shall endeavour to relate.
Hansie coming home one morning from
a shopping expedition, found her mother in a state
of suppressed excitement.
Everything was as much as possible
“suppressed” in those days goodness
only knows why, for surely it would have been better
for the nervous and highly strung mind if an occasional
outburst could have been permitted. Hansie suffered
from the same complaint, and had to pay most dearly
in after years for the suppression of her deepest
There is a Dutch saying which forcibly
expresses that condition of tense self-control under
circumstances of a particularly trying nature.
We say we are “living on our nerves,” and
that describes the case better than anything I have
Our heroines, like so many other sorely
tried women in South Africa, were “living on
their nerves,” those wise, understanding nerves,
so knowing and so delicate, which form the stronghold
of the human frame.
The external symptoms of this state
were only known by those who lived in close and constant
intercourse with one another. Hansie therefore
knew, by an inflection in her mother’s voice,
that something out of the way had happened when she
“I have had a note from General Maxwell.”
“Indeed! What does he say?”
“He writes that Dietlof has
been made a prisoner, and he encloses a telegram from
the Assistant Provost-Marshal at Ventersdorp, in the
name of General Babington, to say that Dietlof is well,
as was Fritz when last seen. See for yourself.”
Hansie grabbed yes, grabbed the
papers from her mother’s outstretched hand.
“‘When last seen?’
Mother, what can that mean? Why have the boys
“That is what I should like
to know,” her mother answered. “I
wonder how we can find out. We must ask to see
General Maxwell at once.”
That afternoon the two women called
at the Government Buildings and were shown into the
He seemed to be expecting a visit
from them, and Mrs. van Warmelo apologised for troubling
him, reminding him of the promise he had made on the
occasion of their very first visit to him, that he
would help them if they came to him in any trouble.
This he remembered perfectly.
“What is it you want me to do?” he asked.
“If you will be so good, we
want a permit to visit our prisoner in the Johannesburg
Fort, where he will probably be kept until he is sent
to Ceylon or where-ever he may have to go.”
“Certainly; I will do this with
the greatest pleasure. But first we must wire
and find out his whereabouts. I’ll see about
the matter and let you know at once.”
Thanking him gratefully, mother and
daughter took their leave.
“We should have asked permission
to take a box of clothes and other little necessaries
for our boy,” the mother said.
“Yes, what a pity we did not
think of it! But surely there could be no objection
to that! Let us get everything ready at least,
and ask permission when we hear from General Maxwell
The largest portmanteau in the house
was overhauled and carefully and thoughtfully packed
by the mother’s yearning hands.
No article of comfort was overlooked,
no detail of the wardrobe considered too small for
her closest attention and care.
Presently Hansie came with her
contribution, a thick exercise-book and a couple of
“Put these in, mother, if you
still have room. I am going to ask Dietlof to
write down all his adventures in this book for us to
read afterwards. It will help him to get through
his time of imprisonment.”
(This small act, I may add here, led
to the publication of her brother’s book, Mijn
Kommando en Guerilla-Kommando leven On
Commando, in the English edition which
was begun in Ladysmith and written in the Indian Fort
at Ahmednagar and smuggled out to Holland under conditions
of such romantic interest: the first book on the
war, written during the war and devoured by
the public in Holland long before it was allowed to
reach South African shores a book famed
for its moderation and its truth, direct, sincere
That Saturday night poor Mrs. van
Warmelo never closed her eyes. She feared, and
she had good reason to fear, that her son would pass
through Johannesburg, and be transported to some foreign
isle, before a word of greeting and farewell could
be made by her. The thought of the morrow’s
Sabbath rest and inactivity intensified her fears.
The first thing she said to Hansie next morning was:
“You must go to General Maxwell
and ask whether there is no news for us.”
“But, mother, this is Sunday!”
“I know that. You will have to go to his
“Oh, I could not possibly do
that. What does he care about our anxieties?
Besides, I think it would be most indiscreet.”
“I don’t care,” shortly.
In the end Hansie had to go, and when
once she had made up her mind she looked forward with
some pleasure to her little adventure, for there was
no one of the officials known to her for whom she had
a more sincere regard than General Maxwell. His
house was but a few minutes’ walk from Harmony,
and Hansie, looking up at the gathering clouds, hoped
that she could be home again before the approaching
storm broke loose.
Our “brave” heroine trembled
when she rang the bell, for all her distaste of the
task had returned with redoubled force, but her self-confidence
was soon restored under the genial warmth of the General’s
He did not seem to be the least annoyed
or displeased at this intrusion on his Sabbath privacy.
And he was quite alone not, as Hansie had
feared to find him, surrounded by a crowd of officers.
He told her that though he had not
been able to get news of her brother direct, he knew
that a large number of prisoners had arrived at the
Johannesburg Fort from Ventersdorp. He thought
her brother would probably be amongst them, and gave
her special permits to Johannesburg and back, and
also a letter of introduction to the Military Governor
in Johannesburg, asking him as a personal favour to
assist the ladies in their quest.
“If I were you, I would not
wait for definite news, but go to-morrow on the chance
of finding him. Delay might bring you great disappointment.
But, tell me, Miss van Warmelo, are you not glad that
your brother has been captured and is out of danger
“Glad? No, how can I be
glad? It means a man less on our side and
he is a man, I can assure you. If all
the Boers were as brave and true and such
unerring marksmen the war would soon be
The Governor looked disturbed.
“It seems to me a strange thing
for a girl like you to feel so strongly. Are
all your women such staunch patriots?”
“Not all, perhaps, but there
are many who feel even more strongly than I do.”
The General kept her there and talked
of many things, asked her innumerable questions on
the country and its people, and drew her out upon
the subject of the war.
Outside, the elements were raging,
for the storm had broken loose, and the rain came
down in torrents, while the crashing thunder pealed
Hansie looked anxious, and the Governor said:
“It will soon be over. Are you afraid?”
“Oh no, I love our storms; but
my mother is alone at home, and she does not.”
She told him, toying with her permits,
of her curious collection of passes and other war-curios,
and he left the room with a friendly
“Perhaps I can find something
for you too,” returning with a button from his
coat and a colonel’s crown.
“The storm is over; let us see
what damage has been done,” and he led the way
into the garden, showed her the flowers, asked the
names of shrubs unknown to him.
“Oh, mother, the English must
not be so good to us! It is not right to accept
favours at their hands, for it places us in a false
position. Don’t ever ask me to go to General
“Of course not. I quite
agree with you, but I am very glad to have those permits.
Did you ask about the portmanteau and box?”
“Yes. He said it was all
right, and promised to give permits, so that they
need not be examined.”
They did not leave for Johannesburg,
after all, on Monday, for a full list of the names
of prisoners from Ventersdorp arrived, but there was
no van Warmelo among them.
Telegrams were sent right and left,
but there was something strange about the whole affair,
and no satisfactory answers could be got until five
days after the first tidings had reached Harmony.
The prisoner was at Potchefstroom.
Two more days of suspense and a note
from Major Hoskins came, enclosing a telegram “Van
Warmelo leaving to-morrow for Fort Johannesburg.”
Great rejoicings! The women had
begun to fear that their hero had been whisked away
to some remote portion of the globe, without one word
General Maxwell’s letters of
introduction acted like a charm when presented at
the various military departments in the Golden City.
Colonel Mackenzie, the Military Governor,
gave the women a letter of introduction to the O.C.
troops, who directed them to the Provost-Marshal,
Captain Short, informing them that they would find
him at his office in the Fort.
The Provost-Marshal did not know that
more prisoners from Ventersdorp were expected that
day. He thought there must be some mistake unless yes,
there would be another train at 5 o’clock that
The ladies were advised to call again
on Sunday morning and drove to Heath’s Hotel,
where they had taken up their quarters. How quiet
and deserted the Golden City looked! How bleak
and desolate, with the first breath of winter upon
Poor Hansie had a shocking cold, and
as she drove through the silent streets with her mother
all the miseries of the past eighteen months came
crowding into her aching heart and throbbing brain.
What would the meeting be like to-morrow?
Would he be changed? And what would he have to
tell? The question still remained whether he
would be allowed to tell them anything about the war
Suddenly a brilliant thought flashed
into Hansie’s mind.
“Oh, mother, let us go to the
Braamfontein Station and see the train arrive.
I know we won’t be allowed to speak to him, but
we may at least wave our hands and look at
Her mother was delighted with the
thought, and at 4 o’clock that afternoon they
took a cab to Braamfontein Station.
The train had been delayed, and would
be in at 6 instead of 5 o’clock, so they were
told, but, for fear of having been misinformed, they
decided to wait at the station.
Cold, dusty, pitiless, the keen wind
blew on that unfriendly platform. There was no
ladies’ waiting room in fact, it seemed
as if the rooms had all been utilised for other, perhaps
It is incredible the amount of suffering
that can be crowded into one hour of waiting!
Thank God, at last the train steamed in.
Armed troops and an unusually large
number of passengers alighted on the platform, but
there was not a prisoner to be seen. The desperate
women walked up and down, keenly scrutinising every
face they passed, until they heard a well-known, highly
excited voice calling out “Mother! Mother!”
to them from behind. They turned and saw their
hero tumbling from the train, an armed Tommy at his
There are no memories of the moments
such as those which followed.
Things must have been rather bad,
for when Hansie looked round again the armed soldier
had turned away and was slowly walking in another
direction. Blessed, thrice-blessed Tommy!
To this day when Hansie thinks of
him she remembers with a pang that she did not shake
hands with him.
“May we walk with the prisoner
as far as the Johannesburg Fort?” Hansie asked.
How the people stared and turned round in the street
to stare again!
And now that I come to think of it,
it must have looked remarkable a ruffianly-looking
man, carrying a disreputable bundle of blankets, a
tin cup and water-bottle slung across his shoulders
all clanking together, and a small Bible in
his hands, with a well-dressed lady on each arm and
an armed soldier behind, guarding the whole!
The prisoner was a sight! The
old felt hat was full of holes, through which the
unkempt hair was sticking, and the dirty black suit
was torn and greasy-looking but the face,
except for the moustache and unfamiliar beard, was
the same, the look of love in the blue eyes unchanged.
It seemed like a dream, incredibly
sweet and strange, to be walking through the streets
of Johannesburg in uninterrupted conversation, carried
on in Dutch, with him, and to be able to ask
the burning questions with which their hearts had
been filled all day why he was alone, where
he had left Fritz, how and where he had been captured.
Everything was explained on that memorable
walk, simply and briefly explained, for the time was
short, and under the circumstances Dietlof would not
give any details of information concerning the war,
considering himself bound to silence by the guard’s
trust in him.
He had been promoted to the position
of commandeering officer by General Kemp and had been
in the habit, for some time past, of leaving his commando
for days at a stretch on commandeering expeditions.
About four days before his capture
he had left his people again for the same purpose,
and on this occasion he had fled before the enemy
for three days, falling into their hands through the
death of his good horse through horse-sickness.
His brother Fritz was under General
Kemp with Jan and Izak Celliers (this was the
first news Mrs. van Warmelo heard of Mr. Celliers’
safe arrival on commando, after the adventures undergone
by him and described in Chapter IX), and a few others
of his most trusted friends, but what they must have
thought of his inexplicable non-appearance Dietlof
did not know, but he feared they would be undergoing
much anxiety on his account.
Near the entrance of the Fort mother
and daughter took their leave, thanking the soldier
warmly for his kindness to his charge, whom they hoped
to see again the following morning.
Very different was the meeting then!
The prisoner, a forlorn object, stood
between two guards, before the Provost-Marshal’s
office, when the cab containing the two women drove
Hansie jumped out and was going up
to her brother, when one of the soldiers said to her:
“You may not speak to the prisoner.”
“But I may kiss him!”
Hansie retorted, throwing her arms round his neck
and giving him a kiss which could be heard all over
There was a general laugh, and Mrs.
van Warmelo promptly followed suit.
Dietlof was called into the Provost-Marshal’s
office and cross-questioned, while his mother and
sister waited outside impatiently. What a lengthy
examination! Quarter of an hour, half an hour
passed, then he appeared with a soldier, who said curtly:
“You may talk to the prisoner
for half an hour in English!”
I forget how many minutes of the precious
thirty were lost in groping desperately for some topic
of conversation suitable to the occasion, and safe!
but when at last they found their tongues, they talked
so fast that it is doubtful whether the Tommies
Hansie longed to ask her brother whether
the Provost-Marshal knew anything of their escapade
the night before, but dared not, hoping that the men
concerned were under the impression that this was their
first interview with the prisoner.
He told them some of his war experiences
and the fights he had been in, for the Provost-Marshal
had given him permission to speak of his personal
experiences of the war.
One incident Hansie remembered particularly,
because of a curious coincidence connected with it.
In describing the battle of Moselikatsnek,
under General de la Rey, in which he and Fritz had
taken an active part, he told his mother and sister
of a young English officer, Lieutenant Pilkington,
whom he had found lying alone in a pool of blood among
the rocks and shrubs. Dietlof tended him, giving
him brandy from a flask which he always carried with
him for such purposes, and laying grass under him on
the hard rocks. The poor man was shockingly wounded,
and it was evident that his case was hopeless.
He held Dietlof’s hand, imploring him not to
leave him, but Dietlof was the forerunner of the seven
burghers who were forcing their way wedgelike through
the English ranks in order to compel the enemy to
surrender by attacking them from behind. He considered
it his duty to go forward, but assured the dying man
that the comrades who were following in his wake could
speak English and would care for him. The donga
was strewn with dead and dying English.
In the meantime the younger brother
Fritz was tending a soldier with a terrible wound
in the head. The seven men were now advancing
steadily from one ridge to the other, but Dietlof
had reached a point on which the burghers from behind
were bombarding with their cannon, and as the rocks
flew into the air he found it impossible to proceed.
He therefore returned, and the captain
sent a dispatch-bearer down with orders that the cannon-firing
For a moment Dietlof went back to
the wounded lieutenant, where he found some of his
comrades assembled, and while they stood there the
unfortunate man, exhausted by loss of blood, drew his
Through incredible dangers the seven
burghers forced their way through the donga until
they reached the point from where they could attack
the enemy from behind. It was a most critical
moment, for they were exposed to the constant fire
of their own burghers, under Commandant Coetzee, as
well as that of the enemy, but soon they were relieved
to see the white flag hoisted, and were then joined
by the rest of the commando.
The English could not believe that
the party which had attacked them from behind had
consisted of only seven men.
Colonel Roberts, Lieutenant Lyall,
and Lieutenant Davis were taken with 210 men of the
Lincolnshire Regiment. One officer escaped while
the burghers were disarming their prisoners and yielding
themselves to the spirit of plunder with which every
man is possessed after a severe struggle for victory.
Of dead and wounded the burghers had
lost thirteen or fourteen men, but the seven forerunners,
who had been exposed to the greatest dangers, escaped
without a scratch, while the enemy, in spite of the
fact that they had been under cover throughout, lay
dead and dying in large numbers.
Strange to relate, a letter from an
English officer fell into Dietlof’s hands some
weeks later, and in glancing over it his eye fell
on the words, “Lieutenant Pilkington is also
dead you know that famous cricketer.”
And still later Hansie heard from
her brother that one of the seven men, Field-cornet
von Zulch, who afterwards joined him as prisoner of
war in the Ahmednagar Fort, told him that he had received
a letter from Lieutenant Pilkington’s mother,
begging for more particulars of her son’s last
Many wonderful experiences were related,
many glimpses given into the conditions of commando
life. The young man dwelt lightly for a moment
on his hardships and privations, saying, “Mother,
do you know those woollen Kaffir blankets with yellow
stars and leopards, and red and green half-crescents?”
“Yes,” his mother answered expectantly.
“Well, I once had a pair of trousers made of
“But there are worse things
than that,” he continued; “unmentionable
horrors things you pick up in the English
camps and can’t get rid of again ”
“You will find a tin of insect-powder
in that wonderful Indian juggler of a portmanteau,”
she said, “and don’t forget to use the
The thirty minutes were over, and
they were considerately left alone for a few moments