From Commando – Of Horses and Men
by Deneys Reitz
As I still had a limp, I gradually fell behind and, to make matters worse, my poor little mare was delivered of a stillborn foal. With this travail coming upon her, she had borne the long treks so unfalteringly that I had not even known that there was anything wrong with her, but now her strength was gone. After a while she staggered to her feet and, as I could not risk remaining in too close proximity to the English camps, whose fires were still visible in the distance, I led her slowly forward. By this time the rest of our men had long since vanished into the darkness, and I had to plod on alone for an hour or two, dragging my horse behind me, until she could go no further, when I decided to halt until morning. It was bitterly cold – so cold that earlier in the evening I had heard men say that it was the coldest night they had ever known. As I could find no fuel for a fire, I wrapped my blanket around my shoulders and sat with chattering teeth until sunrise. When it grew light, I found myself on a cheerless expanse, with a view that extended for many miles, but there was no sign of the commando.
By a distant thorn tree, however, I found four of my German friends, huddled together against the cold. They said that they had missed me during the night and, knowing that I was crippled, they had generously remained behind to wait for me.
After collecting what fuel we could in such barren country, we built a small fire to fry some meat, and then set out on the spoor of the commando, making slow progress, for my companions’ horses were not in very much better condition than my own. By nine or ten o’clock in the morning, ominous pillars of dust rising in the rear warned us that the English columns of last night were returning in our direction.
The troops were not as yet in sight, but considering the state of our animals, we stood a poor chance of keeping ahead of them once their scouts topped the skyline, so we hurried on as best we could. Just as we were beginning to see an occasional horseman far behind us, we providentially came upon the Harts River. It was more of an earth-crack across the plain than a river. No trees stood on its edge, and fifty yards off the banks were invisible, but it was our salvation, for we and our horses were hardly out of sight in the dry bed below when the troops came swarming towards the river. All went well, however. The English, when they reached the bank, set to digging gradients for their guns and wagons, and, although it was hours before they got their transport through, during which time we anxiously peered over the top in fear of discovery, we had the satisfaction, before dark, of seeing the tail of their convoy vanish over the horizon.
This was good as far as it went, but the question was how to catch up again with our own people, though the fact of being temporarily cut off was not of vital importance, having regard to the fluid nature of guerrilla warfare, and we were not greatly troubled on that score, our worst anxiety being the weak state of our horses.
The four Germans were a mixture. The eldest, Herman Haase, was a man of about forty-five, in looks the typical sausage-eater of the English comic papers, but, as I found out, a kindly, good-natured gentleman, a Johannesburg merchant, who had been in the field from the beginning. He was the last man one would have suspected of a liking for war, as his talk was all of his wife and family, and of the joys of home life.
Next came W Cluver, a clever, cynical Berlin student, who told me many interesting things of life in the old world. Then there was Pollatchek, also a Berlin student, who had come out to fight for the Boers, as on a crusade. He told me that his initial ardour had long since evaporated, but that he liked the life of adventure, and so had remained – a pleasant, cheerful fellow whom I grew to like very much.
Lastly, there was a farmhand named Wiese, a clumsy, slow-witted rustic, but brave enough. With these four men my lot was now cast. Wiese and Cluver did not get very far, but with Haase and Pollatchek I was long associated, although they turned back in the end.
Our preparations for going to the Cape were quickly made. We slaughtered a stray sheep, and cut the meat into strips for drying in the wind (as we had no salt), and we ground a quantity of maize into meal in a small coffee-mill that Haase carried on his saddle-tree, and next morning we started.
For several days we were unable to travel in a direct line, for we found the countryside alive with British troops moving in all directions, and we calculated that we saw twenty-five thousand of them before we got clear. It was plain from the way in which they swept forward on an enormous front that they were conducting another of their drives, but as we did not see a single burgher, or the vestige of a commando during all this time, they must have had little to show for their activity. Clearly General De la Rey was resorting to his usual tactics of avoiding these huge concentrations of troops by scattering his men until the blow was spent.
My knowledge of veldcraft brought our party safely through to the Vaal River, for my early experience was of value, and we threaded and twisted successfully between the enemy columns, never having occasion to fire a shot. Once we were held up for half a day while a body of English troops camped within hail of where we lay hidden in a patch of thorn. Another time Cluver and I tried to ambush two officers, but he showed himself too soon and they got away. In the course of these operations we had to jettison Heinrich Wiese. His horse gave in and he himself had blistered feet, so we abandoned him near an English column, where he was sure to be picked up and cared for.
My leg was on the mend, but we suffered a great deal from cold at night. Otherwise, we almost grew to enjoy the excitement of dodging the enemy forces and patrols, and the Germans said that it was the best time they had had in the war.