Read CHAPTER V of On Commando, free online book, by Dietlof Van Warmelo, on


Some hours north of Middelburg one suddenly leaves the high plateau of the Boschveld for a difficult road that curves steadily downwards between two high mountains until it reaches a wide, thickly-wooded valley. In the kloof (mountain-pass) a swiftly-flowing river cuts the road that goes along its banks, in several places, before it loses itself in the Olifants River. There the song of many birds, not to be found on the Hoogeveld, can be heard, and there it was delightfully warm, in comparison with the chilly air of the Hoogeveld. Of an evening we made large fires, as there was plenty of dry wood. We sat round the fire, chatting or listening to the comic songs which one of our comrades sang. It was a happy time away from khaki, far beyond reach of the roar of cannon a time of rest in preparation for the evil days that awaited us.

Everywhere we saw flocks of sheep and herds of cattle grazing among the bushes always a sign that we should find a waggon or two with tents close to them, under the nearest trees. Sometimes, near a drift or a good place to uitspan, quite a small lager had been formed of the trek Boers, or, rather, of their wives, for the husbands and sons of many had gone to the war. The Boers who fled with their cattle in that way we called ‘Bush-lancers.’ We came up with De la Rey’s lager near the Elands River, and later on made the acquaintance of Captain Kirsten’s scouts, to whom we offered our services. In those days it was very pleasant to belong to the reconnoitring corps. When we went to reconnoitre our horses got plenty of forage on the farms, and as we were few in number and always ahead of the lager, there were always eggs, bread, and milk to be had. We had enough to do, also, as we had to keep a sharp look-out, and we were in constant danger, but not at all afraid of the patrols of khakies, which, being small in number and without their guns, were pretty harmless. We advanced almost parallel to the Magalies Mountains, that stretch from Pretoria to Rustenburg, until we came to the neighbourhood of Selikatsnek. Unless one was well acquainted with the highways and byways of that part of the country, one was in constant danger of losing the way; it is a long stretch of bush, consisting of the well-known thorn-bushes of the Hoogeveld, for a distance of about ten miles deep. The principal passes of the Magalies Mountains were occupied by the enemy Wonderboompoort, Hornsnek, Selikatsnek, Commandonek, Olifantsnek. General de la Rey had made up his mind to take Selikatsnek, and on July 11 he succeeded, by his strong will and military talent.

While we were reconnoitring with Captain Kirsten’s party we got the news that De la Rey had attacked Selikatsnek about an hour’s ride from where we were and that the battle was still going on. We all rode to the scene of action, but my brother and I, with a few other men, remained behind to wait for Captain Kirsten, who was absent at the time. As soon as he arrived we rode off, and arrived at Selikatsnek at about nine o’clock. Our burghers had already taken two of the enemy’s guns.

Selikatsnek (or Moselikatsnek) is a narrow opening in the Magalies Mountains, with high shoulders on either side, that slope gradually to a white kopje in the centre. If an attacking party once occupies the shoulders, it can easily keep the enemy on the kopje or on the two slopes. When we arrived our burghers already occupied the principal positions both shoulders and the smaller positions to the front of the kopje. The enemy had been obliged to draw in their clipped wings, and to concentrate on and in the neighbourhood of the white kopje.

But as the shoulders of the pass were very steep on the other side, our men could not surround the enemy or attack them in the rear; and as there was not sufficient cover for them to go down the slope without great loss, in order to drive the enemy by force from their positions, the burghers remained ‘rock-fast’ in their positions, and made no progress at all. Thus, the enemy would either get reinforcements from Pretoria or escape when it got dark. Both our flanks kept up a constant fire on the slopes, and on the white kopje, but the shoulders were too high for a proper aim, and the khakies lay fast behind the boulders and in the clefts of the rocks.

Captain Kirsten, with about ten men, was ordered by General Coetzee to hold a position to the right of the white kopje, and prevent the enemy from taking it. This position consisted of a small rise, from which we could fire at the kopje with a sight of 550 paces. To the right of this rise, at a distance of 80 paces, was a small kloof overgrown with bushes, and on the other side of the kloof ran a reef of rocks in the direction of the white kopje. Here some of the burghers had before our arrival forced eleven khakies to surrender, but they had not succeeded in occupying the position, as some khakies had remained in the kloof, and had shouted to them that they would not surrender. We were therefore warned against that kloof. But while the others were shooting at the enemy on the white kopje, one of our men went by himself to see if there really were any khakies left there. He kept under cover wherever he could behind the rocks and behind the walls of an old kraal and came close up to the kloof without being fired at. On the other side, at a distance of fifty paces, he heard a wounded man groaning and begging for water; but, as he was alone, he did not venture to cross the kloof. He returned to his comrades, but they would pay no attention to his request to cross, as they thought the enemy were only waiting until more men came under fire before they began firing.

We continued shooting at the white kopje, from which the enemy were firing at us. The Captain had a good telescope, through which he could distinctly see the faces of the enemy on the kopje. If a khaki showed himself from behind a rock, the Captain pointed him out to one of our marksmen, Alec Boshoff, who studied the position through the telescope, and took such good aim that the Captain declared he could see the blood on the wounded man’s face.

The burgher who had gone to the kloof tried to persuade the rest to cross with him to the other side, as he was sure the enemy were not inclined to make any resistance there. At length, after twelve, he went with two others to the opposite side, but first told a few of the best marksmen to keep an eye on the reef. They crossed the kloof very cautiously. It was dangerous work, as a shot might come at any moment from behind one of the numerous shrubs or boulders. But they did not advance in an unbroken line. Every time they sought cover behind a rock, from which they watched to see whether the enemy would make their appearance. They did not all three advance at the same time, either, but first one and then the other. Whenever they had advanced a few steps, they stopped to ask the wounded man, who lay groaning there, whether he was alone. When they reached him they put some grass under his head, and gave him some brandy from a flask that they always carried with them. The poor man lay in a pool of blood on a rock under some shrubs. He had been shot through the leg. His name was Lieutenant Pilkington.

The wounded man took hold of the hands of one of the burghers and begged him to stay with him. He, however, considered it his duty to advance, but first assured the poor man that the burghers who were following could also speak English, and would look after him. Most of our men followed the three. The rocks and boulders on the reef that we were climbing afforded us splendid cover from the enemy on the white kopje.

To our left we found some more wounded. My brother took charge of one with a ghastly wound in his head. We made some prisoners there, who were too cowardly to defend themselves. A few of our comrades took them down. We could notice by the guns and rugs that were lying about that the enemy had fled in a panic, or else we should never have ventured to do what we did later on.

We could fire at the enemy from a much shorter distance now, but were not yet in their rear. It was necessary that we should occupy the next position a reef running parallel to the reef we were climbing, at a distance of eighty paces. But it was impossible to take that position, as our guns were firing bomb after bomb from the valley at our back, somewhat to the left of us, so that the stones flew up in the air. We also ran the risk of being taken for khakies, as our men knew nothing of our venture. The Captain sent down a message to tell them to stop shelling that position, as we wished to take it. Meanwhile, we kept on firing at the white kopje, and the khakies kept on firing at us.

I went back to the wounded officer, who was being looked after by the Captain. While we were standing talking, he died from loss of blood. Oh the cruel brutality of war! The poor man was not dead five minutes when we sat smoking his cigarettes.

We moved slightly more to the left towards the boulders. Khaki was on the one side, we on the other. Some of our men had a most original and amusing way of getting at the khakies. ’Come out, you rabbits, come out of your holes, else we’ll shoot down the lot of you!’ Then the poor things answered: ‘We’re afraid to come out. You’ll kill us!’ They really thought we would shoot them down if they surrendered. The officers had lost all control over the soldiers. Later on, at Nooit Gedacht, where we had cover as well as the enemy, it was proved that as soon as the officers lose control over the men they remain lying behind the rocks without firing a shot, as they are too frightened to expose themselves. Most of them still had their bandoliers full of cartridges there, too, when they surrendered.

Before the war the English used to say they would fight us in our own way, from behind rocks; but they forgot that as soon as an officer, having to seek cover himself, fails to keep his eye on his men, they are too cowardly to lift their heads from behind the rocks, as they are not fighting for their independence. On a field like Selikatsnek we are by far the better men.

To get the khakies from behind the rocks, one of our men ran as hard as he could to a rock in their neighbourhood, and aimed at them. Then some of them threw down their guns and put up their hands. Others surrendered more calmly. So he sometimes made five or six of them surrender without their having fired a single shot at him. A shower of bullets always came from the white kopje, but, as his movements were quick and unexpected, they could not take proper aim at him. One of the khakies said as he surrendered: ‘It is better to surrender than to be a dead man.’ Another: ’Just fancy, in the hands of the Boers! I wonder what poor mother ’ll say!’

Meanwhile the gunners had received the Captain’s report, and ceased bombarding the reef that we wanted to storm. As it was getting late and there was no other means, one of our men ran forward as hard as he could, making use of every small covering, while the rest kept firing at the white kopje to prevent the enemy from taking a proper aim at him. There were not many khakies behind that reef, neither did they fire at him. The rest of us followed at intervals, while those who arrived at the reef again fired at the white kopje to cover the others.

The few khakies who surrendered at the reef we first disarmed, and then we allowed them to seek cover behind the rocks from the bullets of their friends. From that position we could see the enemy from the rear. In the narrow road, at a distance of about 150 paces from us, stood an ammunition waggon with splendid horses harnessed in it; there was no room for them to turn to draw away the waggon. A few khakies showed themselves next to the waggon, but were immediately shot down. A little further on an ambulance waggon, also inspanned, stood against the kopje; one could distinctly see how the empty litter was carried up and brought down again with some of the wounded. Once a man walked next to the litter as it was carried down; I pointed him out to my brother, as I suspected his motive. I was right. Just by the ambulance waggon he disappeared in a donga leading to the valley. My brother, who was a little higher up the reef than I was, could not hit him, as he appeared again only for a moment. He was most likely a despatch-rider who went to warn the guard at Commandonek to retreat.

Further on there were some horses to be seen, and a little further still the small tents of which the camps consisted. We kept up a constant fire, but the enemy seemed to have sufficient cover on the kopje and they were very obstinate. For some time the firing from the shoulders of the pass ceased, and in the dark shadow between the high mountains we for a moment had the feeling that we had been deserted by our men only for a moment, for we knew it could not be! The game was in our hands.

The sun sank lower, and we felt if the enemy were not soon compelled, to surrender they would escape in the dark. There was still one position which must be taken the last reef, to which most of the enemy had retired from the position we now occupied. One of our men, therefore, let the other six fire a salvo at the kopje, and ran as hard as he could to a rock at a distance of twenty-five paces ahead, about halfway to the last reef. But now both the enemy and our own burghers, under Commandant Coetzee, fired at him so persistently that he was thankful to reach the rock. He lay there as still as possible, with his gaze fixed on the reef as he lay without cover on that side. It was a most critical moment.

Fortunately he heard, almost at once, one of his comrades, Van Zulch, call out ‘Oh, the white flag! Hullo, the white flag!’ and he saw them climbing down. He lay still a moment longer to convince himself of the fact, and then calmly went to the last reef, where many khakies surrendered and he descended with them. Now the rest of the burghers came running along from all directions to disarm the enemy in the dusk and to take what booty there was to be had. In their eagerness to get as much booty as possible, they allowed an officer, Major Scobel, to escape.

As I arrived rather late on the battlefield, I cannot give any account of the order in which De la Rey placed his men, neither do I know the number of the enemy’s dead and wounded, nor how many lives our victory cost us. I have never seen any official report concerning this battle. Field-Cornet Van Zulch, who with Commandant Boshoff, took the officers to Machadodorp, and who is at present a fellow-prisoner, tells me that three officers Colonel Roberts, Lieutenants Davis and Lyall and 210 soldiers of the Lincolnshire Regiment were taken prisoners, and that four companies of the Scots Greys had early that morning escaped with two guns. Our loss, both dead and wounded, was not more than thirteen or fourteen men. The enemy had made a stubborn resistance, judging from the number of dead and wounded that were lying on the field. Of the seven of us who forced the enemy to surrender by attacking them in the rear, not one was injured, although we were the attacking party. They say that the khaki prisoners whom we left on the reef remained there all night, and came down the following morning with little white flags made of the bandages that a soldier always carries with him, tied to twigs.