Read CHAPTER XVII of On Commando, free online book, by Dietlof Van Warmelo, on ReadCentral.com.

CONCLUSION

BATTLE OF STOMPIESIN THE HANDS OF THE ENEMY

We stayed fully three weeks at Tafelkop. I was appointed commissary of the Krugersdorp commando, and rode round to all the farms to procure the needful for our commando. As General De la Rey had been camping close by at Rietfontein for some time, there was not much left to commandeer, unless we deprived the women whose husbands were in the veld of the necessaries of life.

Our lager was moved from Tafelkop to Rietpan, from whence a few hundred of our horsemen started with some guns and a few trolleys for Groot Kafferkraal, in Hartbeestfontein district. General De la Rey had come over to organize the expedition in person, and accompanied General Kemp. I went with a man called Jooste to the neighbourhood of Lichtenberg and Klein Kafferkraal to commandeer cattle. There I heard many tales of the enemy’s behaviour as they passed through a week before.

For some reason or other the houses there had not been burnt, perhaps owing to the verbal negotiation between Botha and Kitchener. I know of only one house that was burned down there. That was the finest house in the neighbourhood and belonged to Willem Basson. Mrs. Basson herself told me how it happened. Her husband had fled with the cattle when the enemy came along. The soldiers asked her for money. They said such a fine house must contain a great deal of money, and when she refused they became most impertinent. The finding of a packet of dynamite in the coach-house afforded a fine excuse. The dynamite was used by Basson for the making of wells. On finding the packet they shouted ‘Hurrah!’ and rushed off with it to the camp close to the house. They came back after a while and stormed the house, smashing the windows with stones. Truly a heroic storming of a fortress held by women! They destroyed everything in the house, and the women and children were obliged to flee to Mrs. Scheffers at Klein Kafferkraal, where I met them.

We know of many cases of cruelty and violence, cases that have roused us to a passion of hatred.

I do not believe that the cases of violence, which are not spoken of because of the horror, are tolerated by the military authorities, who are probably ignorant of them. One can understand that the worst were committed by isolated patrols who could give free vent to their evil passions. We cannot always hold the chief officers responsible for acts committed by individual soldiers, neither are our officers responsible for the unlawful acts of individuals on our side. But if the English, with their national pride and obstinacy, deny these acts of violence, we can give them sufficient proof of more cases than one.

I was not present when the Krugersdorpers attacked Babington’s force near Lensdenplaats, in the neighbourhood of Groot Kafferkraal. But the following morning, when they were retreating, I joined them with some cattle, and was present at the Battle of Stompies. The night before the battle I heard De la Rey’s order given to Kemp to march his men at four o’clock the following morning in the direction of the enemy. He was told to retreat fighting, in case the enemy attacked, so as to give our reinforcements an opportunity of attacking in the rear. Kemp ordered the lager, or, rather, the few waggons, to retire to Bodenstein’s farm the following morning.

While we were busy inspanning we heard the enemy’s bomb-Maxim, and before the waggons had forded the dangerous drift of the donga near Bodenstein’s farm the bullets flew over our heads from the bult behind us. The women fled into the house and the burghers retreated as fast as they could. The enemy had surrounded us in the night, and each burgher had to do his utmost to escape from out of the half-circle. The few who stayed behind to defend the guns were soon obliged to fly after the rest, and to abandon one gun still on the other side of the drift. The others might have been saved if the women’s lager had not impeded their flight by obstructing the way.

We retreated to Vetpan. Those of the burghers who retreated more to the right in the direction of Stompies were the best off, as the right wing of the enemy had to be on its guard not to enter the wood there. The enemy fired at us from horseback to enhance our panic, which was clever of them, as it was impossible for us to turn in any direction. My horse was overworked, and had changed its pace into a heavy gallop, a sure sign that it would not last much longer. When I looked round, I saw a few khakies riding on ahead, making our burghers ‘hands-up.’ Fortunately, someone released a spare horse; I mounted it without a saddle and made good my escape, but was incapable of riding for several days after.

Our men made no attempt to check the enemy’s progress. They all fled, each one bent on saving himself. A Boer, if once he flies, is not easily turned aside. But it must be remembered that our horses were terribly overworked. They had to live on nothing but grass, and very little of that. We all also recognised the impossibility of checking the enemy, as we ran the risk of shooting our own men and women; so our only chance lay in flight.

The horses of the enemy were soon ‘done up,’ and they had to satisfy themselves with our guns two large ones that we had taken from them at Colenso, a damaged bomb-Maxim and several smaller ones. They took 136 prisoners, among whom were Lieutenant Odendaal, 32 artillerists, 13 burghers, and for the rest women and children and some big, full-grown cowardly men who were in the habit of fleeing with the women and children. The greater part of the women’s lager fell into their hands. The few waggons of Generals Smuts and Kemp that they captured were of no importance. Jooste and Malherbe were also taken prisoners.

I rode with General De la Rey to Tafelkop, where our lager was stationed. In a week’s time I was back again at Stompies. I had been there scarcely an hour, when the tidings came that the enemy were camped on Willem Basson’s farm. The following morning before daybreak I was on my way to Rietfontein. There, too, I had been only about an hour, when another column came down upon me from the direction of Ventersdorp. I fled to Tivee Buffelgeschiet with two boiled mealies and a piece of meat in my hands. Before I reached that farm, half an hour’s ride, my horse was done up. I crept behind an ant-hill and prepared to defend myself against four scouts who seemed to be coming straight towards me. Suddenly, however, they turned off in the direction of their main-guard, because, as I afterwards heard, they were threatened by eight of our scouts.

But the khakies were nearing me, and I was obliged to lead my horse into a mealie-veld and to lie down full length in the rain. They did not appear, however, and I concluded that they had camped at Rietfontein, so I walked my horse to the farm of Mrs. Jansen, one of the few hospitable women in that sparsely inhabited country. She hastily informed me that the khakies had been there.

The eight burghers soon returned, among them a young man who was nursing a wounded man on the farm. In the night we went into the veld with a small brother of his, who rode a mule, and returned in the morning to watch the enemy’s movements from the roof of the house. My horse was so ill with horse-sickness that it shook under me. The enemy suddenly appeared on the long bult (hill) along which I had come the day before. I carried my saddle into the house and fled into the veld. From behind an ant-hill I watched the enemy shooting my poor sick horse. They passed by me several times, but at last I was discovered, and had to give up my beloved Mauser without a chance of defending myself. My two companions escaped. This happened on April 3, 1901.

Fortunately, I fell into the hands of decent khakies who did not insist on examining my old veld-shoes that I was using as a money-box, so I was able to keep my precious four pounds. They took from me only a few trifles by way of curiosities, and said I was sure to be robbed of them sooner or later by the soldiers in the camp. I was told that I could congratulate myself that I was made prisoner, as many columns were coming down upon us from all directions, so that we would be obliged to surrender that very day. I answered that the war had given sufficient proof that their expectations were not always realized.

When the officers of the guard were told that I was taken under arms, a curt order was given to ‘Let him walk.’ When I protested and pointed out that I was a prisoner of war and not a criminal, I was treated with consideration as an ordinary soldier. I was taken by Babington’s force.

The following day the waggon lager arrived at Tafelkop, and the cavalry that had been sent on to capture our lager joined the camp minus any prisoners. When the enemy’s lager arrived at Potchefstroom a week later, it brought along seventeen or eighteen ‘hands-uppers,’ one ambulance doctor, several families, and one prisoner of war. Six of the ‘hands-uppers’ told me that the whole month we were camped at Tafelkop they had hidden from us in their bedrooms so as not to be obliged to break their oath of neutrality.

I came across an old acquaintance of mine in the lager Phister, who had served under Commandant Boshoff. I knew that he had been wounded in the leg at the Battle of Stompies and taken by our men to Rietpan. On the trek from Ventersdorp to Potchefstroom I discovered him lying on his back in the blazing sun on an open trolley, near to Potchefstroom; he shouted to me that he had had nothing to eat during the whole of the eighteen hours’ trek.

In Potchefstroom our trolley, with the twelve ‘hands-uppers,’ the ambulance doctor, and myself, was sent in the direction of the prison. People came towards us from all directions. Some women called out to us: ‘Why were you so stupid as to let yourselves be caught?’ Others inquired, weeping, after husbands and sons.

When we got to the prison I alone was detained, and had the disagreeable experience of being locked up. The ambulance doctor was dismissed, as he was ‘Not guilty’; and the ‘hands-uppers’ were taken to the refugee camp.

The treatment that the prisoners of war receive varies, and depends very much on the prisoners themselves and on the men into whose hands they fall. I was allowed to see my mother and sister, who obtained a pass to come from Pretoria to see me. But I have seen the guards roughly send away weeping women who were begging to be allowed a few words only with their dear ones.

At Elandsfontein Station the Transvaal colours worn by some of the prisoners of war were taken away by force. On the long journey to Ladysmith we were packed like herrings in open trucks, with insufficient covering for the cold nights.

The Ladysmith camp contained chiefly burghers who had been ‘tamed’ by the enemy, and were ready to take the oath of allegiance. They were well treated.

On April 3 I was taken prisoner, and on May 6 I was on board the Manila, together with 490 other prisoners of war, on our way to India.

The burghers, accustomed to a free, independent life, suffered horribly from want of space and insufficient and bad food. They could not get over the idea of having to appear twice daily for the roll-call, although there was no escape possible. But their sense of humour did not suffer.

Our burghers acknowledge that travelling is an education in itself, but they one and all prefer travelling as free men first or second class and they even prefer the high walls and limited space of the fortress to being a prisoner-of-war passenger on board the steamer.

The long, galvanized-iron bungalows in which we live here have zinc roofs to guard against the heat of the tropical sun, but at any rate the wind can blow through the openings on either side. The burghers are kept alive and in pretty good health by an extremely temperate manner of life. Once a week they are taken by a strong guard for a walk an hour beyond the fort. They never get out on parole. As far as we are concerned, they might even take cannon along with them to guard us, if only they would take us out oftener.

Here, too, the moral tone of the burghers is kept up by religious services, and by the great devotion of the Rev. Mr. Viljoen, clergyman of Reitz, in the Orange Free State, who is a fellow-prisoner of ours. The gaiety is kept up by sports and by the companionship of many children. The sorrow is enhanced by the presence of many gray-headed old men and by sad and heart-breaking tidings. ’Guard, is there any news this morning?’

We are grieving with the grief of the exile, but we are waiting patiently, and hoping still that a dove will bring us a branch with our colours Orange, green, red, white and blue: peace and independence.