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From Commando – Of Horses and Men
by Deneys Reitz
A week before a Colonial named Lemuel Colaine had turned up amongst them with a tale that the English had put him in prison at Clanwilliam on a false charge of high treason. He said that he had escaped over the wall one night, and had come in revenge to take up arms. Believing his story, they gave him a rifle and he joined the commando.
Colaine, however, was a spy in British pay, and, after collecting what information he could, he had disappeared. No particular notice was taken of his absence, as the men were constantly riding off to visit farms or look up friends at distant outposts, and it was thought that he had done the same. But the commando had a rude awakening when a body of English horse, with Colaine riding at their head, fell upon them at dawn, killing and wounding seventeen men, including my young friend Michael du Preez.
The attacking force took our men so completely by surprise that the troopers rode through the camp using their swords, and got away safely to the other side before our men could recover their wits. All were fierce in their denunciation of Colaine’s treachery, and hoped that he would fall into their hands. And later Nemesis ran the right man to earth for once.
As we went through the rooms, strewn with upturned chairs, etc, in the hand-to-hand fighting, we saw a man in civilian clothing crouched under the arched fireplace in the kitchen. I thought it was the owner of the farm, not yet recovered from his fright, but when I drew Wyndell’s attention to him, he exclaimed, ‘By God! It’s Colaine!’ I did not know Colaine, but Wyndell dragged him from the house, shouting to the men outside to come and see who was here, and soon dozens of angry men were muttering threats and curses at the wretched spy.
He was a man of about forty-five, in appearance a typical backveld Boer, with flowing beard and corduroys. He was brave enough now, for when the men fiercely assured him of his certain fate, he shrugged his shoulders and showed no sign of fear. Commandant Bouwer came up while we were crowding round, and ordered two men to guard him until General Smuts was notified.
When I entered the homestead at Aties, General Smuts was in the diningroom talking to the owner, Isaac van Zijl, whose wife and daughters were there too, and before long Colaine, the spy, was ushered in by his guards, who wanted to know what to do with their prisoner. General Smuts had heard the whole story of Colaine’s treachery, and, after questioning the escort to make sure of the man’s identity, he sentenced him to death without further formality. When the General said to the guards: ‘Take him outside and shoot him,’ Colaine’s nerve failed him and, falling on his knees, he begged for mercy, while the women fled the room in tears. General Smuts repeated his order but, as the condemned man was being led out, the Reverend Mr Kriel came in and asked leave to pray for the soul of this poor sinner. So Colaine was taken to a little smithy behind the dwelling-house, and, when I looked in a little later, I saw him and the clergyman kneeling side by side against a plough-tail, deep in prayer.
After a while Andries de Wet of our staff was told to collect a firing party, and, as he disliked the job, he asked me to accompany him. We sent some farm servants to dig a grave out of sight of the house, to spare the feelings of its inmates, and, ordering three men who were off-saddled in the garden to fetch their rifles, we went to the workshop door. Catching Mr Kriel’s eye, De Wet pointed to the prisoner, and the clergyman touched the kneeling man on the shoulder and said: ‘Brother, be a man, your time has come.’
Colaine took the news calmly. He rose from his knees, shook the parson by the hand and, bidding goodbye to the guards, said that he was ready. We led him to where the grave was being dug. On the way he spoke to us. He said he knew he deserved to die, but he was a poor man, and had taken blood-money to keep his wife and children from starving.
The farm servants were just completing the grave when we came up, and the unfortunate man blanched when he looked into the shallow pit. Perhaps he had still hoped for a reprieve, until he saw it. Even now he tried to gain time, appealing to us to send for Mr Kriel to say a final prayer with him. Then he turned to me and asked me to fetch General Smuts, but we felt that the sooner it was over the better, so De Wet blindfolded him and placed him at the head of the grave.
Realising that this was the end, Colaine held up his hands and, in a low tone, recited the Lord’s Prayer while the firing party silently ranged themselves. As he came to the final ‘Amen’, they fired. With a convulsive jerk he pitched backward into the grave, and the frightened servants quickly covered him with earth.