The Petticoat Commando Boer Women in Secret Service






   How the routine of life at Harmony was broken in upon by news "from the front" that April month in 1901, I shall endeavour to relate.


   Hansie coming home one morning from a shopping expedition, found her mother in a state of suppressed excitement.


   Everything was as much as possible "suppressed" in those days—goodness only knows why, for surely it would have been better for the nervous and highly strung mind if an occasional outburst could have been permitted. Hansie suffered from the same complaint, and had to pay most dearly in after years for the suppression of her deepest feelings.


   There is a Dutch saying which forcibly expresses that condition of tense self-control under circumstances of a particularly trying nature. We say we are "living on our nerves," and that describes the case better than anything I have ever heard.


   Our heroines, like so many other sorely tried women in South Africa, were "living on their nerves," those wise, understanding nerves, so knowing and so delicate, which form the stronghold of the human frame.


   The external symptoms of this state were only

   known by those who lived in close and constant intercourse with one another. Hansie therefore knew, by an inflection in her mother's voice, that something out of the way had happened when she said:


   "I have had a note from General Maxwell."


   "Indeed! What does he say?"


   "He writes that Dietlof has been made a prisoner, and he encloses a telegram from the Assistant Provost-Marshal at Ventersdorp, in the name of General Babington, to say that Dietlof is well, as was Fritz when last seen. See for yourself."


   Hansie grabbed—yes, grabbed—the papers from her mother's outstretched hand.


   "'When last seen?' Mother, what can that mean? Why have the boys been separated?"


   "That is what I should like to know," her mother answered. "I wonder how we can find out. We must ask to see General Maxwell at once."


   That afternoon the two women called at the Government Buildings and were shown into the Governor's office.


   He seemed to be expecting a visit from them, and Mrs. van Warmelo apologised for troubling him, reminding him of the promise he had made on the occasion of their very first visit to him, that he would help them if they came to him in any trouble.


   This he remembered perfectly.


   "What is it you want me to do?" he asked.


   "If you will be so good, we want a permit to visit our prisoner in the Johannesburg Fort, where he will probably be kept until he is sent to Ceylon or where-ever he may have to go."


   "Certainly; I will do this with the greatest pleasure. But first we must wire and find out his whereabouts. I'll see about the matter and let you know at once."


   Thanking him gratefully, mother and daughter took their leave.


   "We should have asked permission to take a box of clothes and other little necessaries for our boy," the mother said.


   "Yes, what a pity we did not think of it! But surely there could be no objection to that! Let us get everything ready at least, and ask permission when we hear from General Maxwell again."


   The largest portmanteau in the house was overhauled and carefully and thoughtfully packed by the mother's yearning hands.


   No article of comfort was overlooked, no detail of the wardrobe considered too small for her closest attention and care.


   Presently Hansie came with her contribution, a thick exercise-book and a couple of pencils.


   "Put these in, mother, if you still have room. I am going to ask Dietlof to write down all his adventures in this book for us to read afterwards. It will help him to get through his time of imprisonment."


   (This small act, I may add here, led to the publication of her brother's book, Mijn Kommando en Guerilla-Kommando leven—On in the English edition—which was begun in Ladysmith and written in the Indian Fort at Ahmednagar and smuggled out to Holland under conditions of such romantic interest: the first book on the war, written during the war and devoured by the public in Holland

   long before it was allowed to reach South African shores—a book famed for its moderation and its truth, direct, sincere throughout.)


   That Saturday night poor Mrs. van Warmelo never closed her eyes. She feared, and she had good reason to fear, that her son would pass through Johannesburg, and be transported to some foreign isle, before a word of greeting and farewell could be made by her. The thought of the morrow's Sabbath rest and inactivity intensified her fears.


   The first thing she said to Hansie next morning was:


   "You must go to General Maxwell and ask whether there is no news for us."


   "But, mother, this is Sunday!"


   "I know that. You will have to go to his house."


   "Oh, I could not possibly do that. What does he care about our anxieties? Besides, I think it would be most indiscreet."


   "I don't care," shortly.


   In the end Hansie had to go, and when once she had made up her mind she looked forward with some pleasure to her little adventure, for there was no one of the officials known to her for whom she had a more sincere regard than General Maxwell. His house was but a few minutes' walk from Harmony, and Hansie, looking up at the gathering clouds, hoped that she could be home again before the approaching storm broke loose.


   Our "brave" heroine trembled when she rang the bell, for all her distaste of the task had returned with redoubled force, but her self-confidence was soon

   restored under the genial warmth of the General's greetings.


   He did not seem to be the least annoyed or displeased at this intrusion on his Sabbath privacy. And he was quite alone—not, as Hansie had feared to find him, surrounded by a crowd of officers.


   He told her that though he had not been able to get news of her brother direct, he knew that a large number of prisoners had arrived at the Johannesburg Fort from Ventersdorp. He thought her brother would probably be amongst them, and gave her special permits to Johannesburg and back, and also a letter of introduction to the Military Governor in Johannesburg, asking him as a personal favour to assist the ladies in their quest.


   "If I were you, I would not wait for definite news, but go to-morrow on the chance of finding him. Delay might bring you great disappointment. But, tell me, Miss van Warmelo, are you not glad that your brother has been captured and is out of danger now?"


   "Glad? No, how can I be glad? It means a man less on our side—and he is a I can assure you. If all the Boers were as brave and true—and such unerring marksmen—the war would soon be over."


   The Governor looked disturbed.


   "It seems to me a strange thing for a girl like you to feel so strongly. Are all your women such staunch patriots?"


   "Not all, perhaps, but there are many who feel even more strongly than I do."


   The General kept her there and talked of many things, asked her innumerable questions on the

   country and its people, and drew her out upon the subject of the war.


   Outside, the elements were raging, for the storm had broken loose, and the rain came down in torrents, while the crashing thunder pealed overhead.


   Hansie looked anxious, and the Governor said:


   "It will soon be over. Are you afraid?"


   "Oh no, I love our storms; but my mother is alone at home, and she does


   She told him, toying with her permits, of her curious collection of passes and other war-curios, and he left the room with a friendly—


   "Perhaps I can find something for you too," returning with a button from his coat and a colonel's crown.


   "The storm is over; let us see what damage has been done," and he led the way into the garden, showed her the flowers, asked the names of shrubs unknown to him.


   "Oh, mother, the English must not be so good to us! It is not right to accept favours at their hands, for it places us in a false position. Don't ever ask me to go to General Maxwell again."


   "Of course not. I quite agree with you, but I am very glad to have those permits. Did you ask about the portmanteau and box?"


   "Yes. He said it was all right, and promised to give permits, so that they need not be examined."


   They did not leave for Johannesburg, after all, on Monday, for a full list of the names of prisoners from Ventersdorp arrived, but there was no van Warmelo among them.


   Telegrams were sent right and left, but there was something strange about the whole affair, and no satisfactory answers could be got until five days after the first tidings had reached Harmony. The prisoner was at Potchefstroom.


   Two more days of suspense and a note from Major Hoskins came, enclosing a telegram—"Van Warmelo leaving to-morrow for Fort Johannesburg."


   Great rejoicings! The women had begun to fear that their hero had been whisked away to some remote portion of the globe, without one word from them.


   General Maxwell's letters of introduction acted like a charm when presented at the various military departments in the Golden City.


   Colonel Mackenzie, the Military Governor, gave the women a letter of introduction to the O.C. troops, who directed them to the Provost-Marshal, Captain Short, informing them that they would find him at his office in the Fort.


   The Provost-Marshal did not know that more prisoners from Ventersdorp were expected that day. He thought there must be some mistake—unless—yes, there would be another train at 5 o'clock that afternoon.


   The ladies were advised to call again on Sunday morning and drove to Heath's Hotel, where they had taken up their quarters. How quiet and deserted the Golden City looked! How bleak and desolate, with the first breath of winter upon it!


   Poor Hansie had a shocking cold, and as she drove through the silent streets with her mother all the miseries of the past eighteen months came crowding into her aching heart and throbbing brain.


   What would the meeting be like to-morrow? Would he be changed? And what would he have to tell? The question still remained whether he would be allowed to tell them anything about the war at all——


   Suddenly a brilliant thought flashed into Hansie's mind.


   "Oh, mother, let us go to the Braamfontein Station and see the train arrive. I know we won't be allowed to speak to him, but we may at least wave our hands and look at him."


   Her mother was delighted with the thought, and at 4 o'clock that afternoon they took a cab to Braamfontein Station.


   The train had been delayed, and would be in at 6 instead of 5 o'clock, so they were told, but, for fear of having been misinformed, they decided to wait at the station.


   Cold, dusty, pitiless, the keen wind blew on that unfriendly platform. There was no ladies' waiting room—in fact, it seemed as if the rooms had all been utilised for other, perhaps military, purposes.


   It is incredible the amount of suffering that can be crowded into one hour of waiting!


   Thank God, at last the train steamed in.


   Armed troops and an unusually large number of passengers alighted on the platform, but there was not a prisoner to be seen. The desperate women walked up and down, keenly scrutinising every face they passed, until they heard a well-known, highly excited voice calling out "Mother! Mother!" to them from behind. They turned and saw their hero tumbling from the train, an armed Tommy at his heels.


   There are no memories of the moments such as those which followed.


   Things must have been rather bad, for when Hansie looked round again the armed soldier had turned away and was slowly walking in another direction. Blessed, thrice-blessed Tommy!


   To this day when Hansie thinks of him she remembers with a pang that she did not shake hands with him.


   "May we walk with the prisoner as far as the Johannesburg Fort?" Hansie asked.


   "Certainly, miss."


   How the people stared and turned round in the street to stare again!


   And now that I come to think of it, it must have looked remarkable—a ruffianly-looking man, carrying a disreputable bundle of blankets, a tin cup and water-bottle slung across his shoulders all clanking together, and a small Bible in his hands, with a well-dressed lady on each arm and an armed soldier behind, guarding the whole!


   The prisoner was a sight! The old felt hat was full of holes, through which the unkempt hair was sticking, and the dirty black suit was torn and greasy-looking—but the face, except for the moustache and unfamiliar beard, was the same, the look of love in the blue eyes unchanged.


   It seemed like a dream, incredibly sweet and strange, to be walking through the streets of Johannesburg in uninterrupted conversation, carried on in Dutch, with him, and to be able to ask the burning questions with which their hearts had been filled all day—why he was alone, where he had left Fritz, how and where he had been captured.


   Everything was explained on that memorable walk, simply and briefly explained, for the time was short, and under the circumstances Dietlof would not give any details of information concerning the war, considering himself bound to silence by the guard's trust in him.


   He had been promoted to the position of commandeering officer by General Kemp and had been in the habit, for some time past, of leaving his commando for days at a stretch on commandeering expeditions.


   About four days before his capture he had left his people again for the same purpose, and on this occasion he had fled before the enemy for three days, falling into their hands through the death of his good horse through horse-sickness.


   His brother Fritz was under General Kemp with Jan and Izak Celliers (this was the first news Mrs. van Warmelo heard of Mr. Celliers' safe arrival on commando, after the adventures undergone by him and described in Chapter IX), and a few others of his most trusted friends, but what they must have thought of his inexplicable non-appearance Dietlof did not know, but he feared they would be undergoing much anxiety on his account.


   Near the entrance of the Fort mother and daughter took their leave, thanking the soldier warmly for his kindness to his charge, whom they hoped to see again the following morning.


   Very different was the meeting then!


   The prisoner, a forlorn object, stood between two guards, before the Provost-Marshal's office, when the cab containing the two women drove up.


   Hansie jumped out and was going up to her brother, when one of the soldiers said to her:


   "You may not speak to the prisoner."


   "But I may kiss him!" Hansie retorted, throwing her arms round his neck and giving him a kiss which could be heard all over the Fort.


   There was a general laugh, and Mrs. van Warmelo promptly followed suit.


   Dietlof was called into the Provost-Marshal's office and cross-questioned, while his mother and sister waited outside impatiently. What a lengthy examination! Quarter of an hour, half an hour passed, then he appeared with a soldier, who said curtly:


   "You may talk to the prisoner for half an hour in


   I forget how many minutes of the precious thirty were lost in groping desperately for some topic of conversation suitable to the occasion, and safe! but when at last they found their tongues, they talked so fast that it is doubtful whether the Tommies understood anything.


   Hansie longed to ask her brother whether the Provost-Marshal knew anything of their escapade the night before, but dared not, hoping that the men concerned were under the impression that this was their first interview with the prisoner.


   He told them some of his war experiences and the fights he had been in, for the Provost-Marshal had given him permission to speak of his personal experiences of the war.


   One incident Hansie remembered particularly, because of a curious coincidence connected with it.


   In describing the battle of Moselikatsnek, under

   General de la Rey, in which he and Fritz had taken an active part, he told his mother and sister of a young English officer, Lieutenant Pilkington, whom he had found lying alone in a pool of blood among the rocks and shrubs. Dietlof tended him, giving him brandy from a flask which he always carried with him for such purposes, and laying grass under him on the hard rocks. The poor man was shockingly wounded, and it was evident that his case was hopeless. He held Dietlof's hand, imploring him not to leave him, but Dietlof was the forerunner of the seven burghers who were forcing their way wedgelike through the English ranks in order to compel the enemy to surrender by attacking them from behind. He considered it his duty to go forward, but assured the dying man that the comrades who were following in his wake could speak English and would care for him. The donga was strewn with dead and dying English.


   In the meantime the younger brother Fritz was tending a soldier with a terrible wound in the head. The seven men were now advancing steadily from one ridge to the other, but Dietlof had reached a point on which the burghers from behind were bombarding with their cannon, and as the rocks flew into the air he found it impossible to proceed.


   He therefore returned, and the captain sent a dispatch-bearer down with orders that the cannon-firing should cease.


   For a moment Dietlof went back to the wounded lieutenant, where he found some of his comrades assembled, and while they stood there the unfortunate man, exhausted by loss of blood, drew his last breath.


   Through incredible dangers the seven burghers forced their way through the donga until they reached the point from where they could attack the enemy from behind. It was a most critical moment, for they were exposed to the constant fire of their own burghers, under Commandant Coetzee, as well as that of the enemy, but soon they were relieved to see the white flag hoisted, and were then joined by the rest of the commando.


   The English could not believe that the party which had attacked them from behind had consisted of only seven men.


   Colonel Roberts, Lieutenant Lyall, and Lieutenant Davis were taken with 210 men of the Lincolnshire Regiment. One officer escaped while the burghers were disarming their prisoners and yielding themselves to the spirit of plunder with which every man is possessed after a severe struggle for victory.


   Of dead and wounded the burghers had lost thirteen or fourteen men, but the seven forerunners, who had been exposed to the greatest dangers, escaped without a scratch, while the enemy, in spite of the fact that they had been under cover throughout, lay dead and dying in large numbers.


   Strange to relate, a letter from an English officer fell into Dietlof's hands some weeks later, and in glancing over it his eye fell on the words, "Lieutenant Pilkington is also dead—you know that famous cricketer."


   And still later Hansie heard from her brother that one of the seven men, Field-cornet von Zulch, who afterwards joined him as prisoner of war in the Ahmednagar Fort, told him that he had received a

   letter from Lieutenant Pilkington's mother, begging for more particulars of her son's last moments.


   Many wonderful experiences were related, many glimpses given into the conditions of commando life. The young man dwelt lightly for a moment on his hardships and privations, saying, "Mother, do you know those woollen Kaffir blankets with yellow stars and leopards, and red and green half-crescents?"


   "Yes," his mother answered expectantly.


   "Well, I once had a pair of trousers made of that material."


   Everyone laughed.


   "But there are worse things than he continued; "unmentionable horrors—things you pick up in the English camps and can't get rid of again——"


   Hansie understood.


   "You will find a tin of insect-powder in that wonderful Indian juggler of a portmanteau," she said, "and don't forget to use the blank exercise-book."


   The thirty minutes were over, and they were considerately left alone for a few moments——