The battle of Machadodorp was expected
to A take place at any moment, and the general feeling
was that this fight should decide the campaign, the
more so as the issue was confidently awaited by us.
On the second day after Steyn’s arrival at Waterval
Onder the British attacked. Never before in the
history of the war had such a furious bombardment been
known. Only those who have witnessed the fierce
storms of the tropics can form an idea of the awful
unending roar of the lyddite guns as they belched
forth one continuous shrieking mass of projectiles
into the defenders’ trenches. At Waterval
Onder the two Governments listened in silent suspense
as the sonorous reverberations rolled through the
mountains, louder and fiercer yet, till the firm earth
shook beneath the shock.
At last came the appalling message
that the British were victorious, and our men in full
retreat! High hopes had been built on this combat;
no wonder if for a while we felt disheartened.
The end of regular warfare had been reached; it was
imperative that an entire change of tactics be adopted.
Steyn was for beginning the guerilla system immediately,
in which he was supported by Gravett, Pienaar, and
Kemp; Kruger, however, determined to defend the railway
to the last. The British lost no time in following
up their success. It had been said that they would
never venture down these precipitous heights, but,
like all other prophecies about this surprising war except
Kruger’s, that he would stagger humanity it
turned out false, for down into the infernal mountain
pits the enemy thronged after us, with a courage that
made us marvel.
The Governments retreated by train
to Nelspruit, and thence to Hectorspruit, the commandoes
following by rail and road.
Here the forces were divided, those
without horses being sent to entrench Komatipoort,
while the rest made ready to slip past the approaching
enemy’s outstretched arms. It was decided
that President Kruger should leave for Holland, Schalk
Burger acting in his place. Most of the burghers
still fighting are Progressives, and therefore politically
opposed to Paul Kruger, but there were few who did
not feel a sincere sympathy for the venerable President
in this, well-nigh the bitterest hour of his stormy
life. I say nearly every man still fighting is
as fervent a Progressive as the world could wish, and
as much opposed to Paul Kruger’s policy as the
British themselves! Then what are they fighting
for? you ask. For independence! Let us gain
that, and in one year’s time you will see the
Transvaal merged into the model Free State, the Switzerland
of South Africa!
After Kruger’s departure Steyn
took leave of the Transvaal Government. His last
interview with Botha took place in the open air, in
full sight of the burghers. The two conversed
in low, earnest tones. Botha looked ill and haggard,
he had aged since he had gained his spurs at Colenso;
the weight of his responsibility lay heavy upon him.
Louis Botha is idolised by his men perhaps
he has not an enemy in the world but it
is to Steyn, and Steyn alone, that the honour belongs
of the resistance still being offered by the Boers.
Let not this detract from the merits of those other
and equally gallant spirits, leaders or men, who have
nobly breasted the waves of adversity; who shall blame
them if at times they felt the current overwhelming?
Steyn utters a last cheering word,
then shakes Botha’s hand, mounts, and rides
away at the head of his little escort.
The scene around the station resembles
nothing so much as a cattle fair. Near the line
stands a policeman, his gaze fixed upon a large box
lying at his feet. The box is filled with gold.
Ben Viljoen, standing on a waggon, addresses the men,
explaining to them what guerilla warfare means.
On the other side hats, shirts, and what not are being
dealt out with a lavish hand. Some burghers wander
off into the bush in search of game, others lie lazily
stretched out beneath the trees. Trains crammed
with men arrive from the rear, discharge their freights
of assorted humanity, and are immediately boarded
by the dismounted men destined for Komatipoort.
The line is blocked with traffic, trains run anyhow,
and it will be some days before everything is ready
for our trek to begin.
There being no longer any need for
officials, my colleagues volunteered to form themselves
into a fighting corps, and did me the honour of selecting
me as their leader. The corps, however, lacked
accoutrements. I went down to Delagoa Bay.
Upon returning, with two other officers, we were arrested
at the Portuguese station Moveni.
Although armed with passports signed
by the District Governor, we were informed that we
would under no circumstances be allowed to recross
the frontier. Nor could we obtain permission
to return to Lourengo Marques by train. The young
Portuguese commandant, a mirror of courtesy, explained
that we had either to await further orders there or
walk back to the Bay, a distance of fifty miles.
After waiting for several hours we
quietly boarded a train coming from Komatipoort, and
managed to reach Lourengo Marques unobserved.
We still believed that we would contrive to get back
somehow sooner or later, but were soon cruelly undeceived.
President Kruger, who was the guest of the District
Governor, wrote to General Coetser at Komatipoort,
asking him not to destroy the bridge and advising
him to take refuge in Portuguese territory. Coetser
himself, with the few of his men who had fairly decent
horses, preferred to follow Botha, who by this time
had begun his trek from Hectorspruit, and left General
Pienaar in charge of Komatipoort.
Influenced by the arguments of the
Portuguese one of which was that, should
the British cross the Portuguese frontier and take
the Boers in the rear, Portugal would not be able
to prevent it and by the fact that the
positions first chosen for the entrenchments lay within
a mile of the frontier and therefore could not be
occupied, a Krygsraad resolved to follow the
President’s advice. The bridge had already
been mined, the guns placed in position, and everything
made ready to give Pole-Carew and the Guards a worthy
reception; but fate decided otherwise, and General
Pienaar, with some two thousand men, crossed the frontier, needless
to say with what deep regret thus reducing
by one-fifth our forces in the field, a loss which
would have been avoided had Steyn’s advice been
taken and guerilla warfare begun after Machadodorp.
There was thenceforth nothing for
us poor ship-wrecked wretches to do than to gaze impotently
on our heroic brethren still struggling against the
storm. The waves run high, but it is their duty
And they will continue. Not because
they are sure of success, but because it is their