From The Great Silence
by Tim Couzens
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When Botha heard that De Wet had been in Winburg, he immediately ordered all loyalist units to Vereeniging, where he joined them. Colonel Brits was temporarily in charge. He was fiercely loyal to Botha because, it was believed, Botha had once saved his life, under heavy fire, when they were trying to break through a British blockhouse line. So loyal was he that when Botha asked him to prepare for the German South West Africa campaign, he famously replied that he was quite ready, but wanted to know ‘whether he had to fight the Germans or the British’.
Botha shifted his force, about 6 000 strong, from Vereeniging, by train, down to Theunissen, where they disembarked on 11 November. He then marched into Winburg, to the great relief of the unnerved inhabitants, still reeling from De Wet’s raid, which had stripped them of most of their food stores.
Both sides knew of each other’s presence – a farmer, Jan Scott, rode hard to warn De Wet that Botha was in Winburg. But Botha did not know the exact whereabouts of his opponent. Then a stroke of luck occurred, one of those small incidents that sometimes change the course of history. Botha went to the post office to telephone Smuts (Botha often used the phone, Smuts almost never). As he entered the building, the phone rang. Botha ordered a staff officer to answer it. The caller was from the farm of E.A. Schimper, and the caller, tremulous and whispering, said that the family was being held prisoner by De Wet, who was camped nearby. They had been locked in a room, which happened to house the local telephone. De Wet had neglected to cut the wire.
The caller said that De Wet planned to overnight there, and then leave the next day. The place was called Mushroom Valley.
Botha immediately ordered a night march, which was always his favoured method of attack. One of Botha’s bodyguards, Moore Ritchie, vividly described his first experience of ‘the horrors of sleep-fighting’. Even though it was November, the night was bitterly cold. No-one was allowed to smoke or talk. The clear stars ‘danced fantastically’ in the sky; the terrain was uneven, so the horses stumbled. Piet van der Bijl afterwards remembered the tension vividly – the whispers, the cough of a horse, the creak of a gun-butt rubbing against a saddle, the monotonous stony terrain – and the anxiety – were they hunters, or the hunted, riding into an ambush? You wanted to whisper to the ghost-like figure beside you, to find out whether he was friend or enemy. After midnight, they stopped and dismounted. The wind was piercing, the sentries cruelly exposed.
Then, at 2.30 am, they moved off until sunrise, when they were perfectly in position. Botha had done what the British had never managed – he had caught De Wet by surprise, and he had laid a careful trap.
After Mushroom Valley someone said to Botha: ‘When you capture the rebel leaders, general, you should deal very severely with them.’ To which the general replied, sadly but wisely: ‘It’s easy for you to talk. The responsibility’s not yours. I’m looking fifty years ahead. I don’t wish to leave a wealth of bitterness behind, to keep my people divided for ever.’ Perhaps it was Botha who was the true visionary, not Siener Van Rensburg.
Mushroom Valley was one of the largest engagements of the 1914 Rebellion. It was also a watershed. Before it De Wet’s support had been growing; afterwards, his following began to fade. As the Official History says: ‘The Hoenderkop engagement practically sealed the fate of the rebellion’.
Twenty-eight men died on both sides that day; eighty were wounded; about six hundred rebels were captured.
That day was a dark one for Botha. Riding beside him, Moore Ritchie witnessed the demeanour of this ‘quiet South African patriot’: ‘There was a sadness, there was a profound pathos about it’.
Botha said to Van der Bijl: ‘This is the most terrible day of my life. I know all the people, or their fathers, that we must be shooting at now. They fought by my side in the last war. Now I have to fight against them – my own people and my friends. But what am I to do?’
To Harry Trew, as Botha rode past the body of an old comrade, a rebel, he said with tears: ‘You Englishmen will never understand how hard this is for me.’