The Petticoat Commando Boer Women in Secret Service






   There were so many events of importance during the month of July 1901 that there is great difficulty in choosing the right material from Hansie's diary.


   No wonder that that period seems to have been in a state of chaos, for the things to which we attached the greatest importance "ended in smoke," and seemingly small incidents assumed gigantic proportions before the glorious spring broke over the country.


   Hansie was busy preparing for her tour of inspection through the Camps, though to tell the truth she rather dreaded it, because she was far from strong, but she realised that this was an opportunity not to be despised.


   General Maxwell frequently impressed it on her that she was the only exception, that no one else who had applied for leave to visit the Camps had been granted permits—it was against the regulations, and he was only sending her because he knew he could depend upon her. He wanted to know the and she, with her knowledge of the country and people, would be better able to draw up reports than any one else he knew.


   Very flattering, but Hansie's heart sank when she thought of Irene.


   What awaited her on this tour?


   On July 27th, when she paid him her last visit in connection with her passports, he asked her, as she was on the point of leaving him, whether she did not think the Boers ought to surrender now.


   Now, Hansie had firmly made up her mind not to be drawn into argument with him again, but this question took her so much by surprise that she flared out with:


   "Don't you think the English ought to give in? Why should the Boers give in? We are fighting for our own, and England is fighting for what belongs to another. Why should England not give in?"


   With some asperity he answered:


   "I suppose it is a question of 'Eendracht maakt Macht,' or whatever you call it."


   "Eendracht maakt Macht?" she exclaimed. "I really fail to see the connection."


   "Well," he answered, "isn't Might Right all the world over?"


   "No, indeed!" she cried vehemently. "Might is right in England, and your motto is an apt one, but in South Africa might is not right. Our motto, 'Eendracht maakt Macht,' means 'Unity is Strength.'"


   The General seemed much surprised and did not look pleased at her assurance that he had been misinformed as to the correct translation—he had been told on "good authority" that the Boer motto was the same as the English.


   "If might had been right," she continued, "the war would have been over long ago—our poor little forces would have been crushed—but unity is glorious strength, an inspired strength."


   Alas, alas, that she was so soon to find out how a want of unity can bring disaster and defeat!


   "It is very stupid to argue with him. Surely he cannot expect to find my views changing on account of the duration of the war!"


   Now, whether this unfortunate conversation had anything to do with the next developments I do not know. I do not think so, for the Governor was a broadminded and just man, not to be deterred from his purpose by any small consideration, but the fact remains that Hansie received a curt note from him four days later, informing her that he had changed his mind about allowing her to inspect the Camps, and that all her permits had been cancelled. No word of apology or regret, but a curt request to return to him the passports and letters of introduction she had received from him.


   "Serves you right," her mother said, "for showing your enemy your hand."


   "Oh no," Hansie said, "I am positive that has nothing to do with it; in fact, I don't believe General Maxwell is responsible for this at all. He is acting under orders, and if I am not mistaken Lord Kitchener is at the bottom of it. He has put down that awful foot of his, mother, and there is nothing more to be done."


   "Perhaps"—Mrs. van Warmelo looked grave—"perhaps they have found out something. I have often wondered at finding myself still at large after the commotion made about the petitions and the report of the Consuls. I can't forget how critical things seemed to me when three Consuls came to Harmony late at night, while you were at Irene, to warn me that the whole detective force was on

   the track of the petitioners. Poor Mr. Cinatti was frightfully excited and said that it was his duty to see that his petitioners' names did not become known. He warned me that everything would be done to find us out, traps would be set for us, and he advised me, if ever any one came to Harmony and said that my name had been revealed, I was to say No! No!! No!!! and he danced about the room, striking his left hand with his clenched right fist at every 'No!'"


   Hansie laughed and said, "There is no fear of your being found out. The petitioners won't talk of that, you may be quite sure, and all the Consuls are to be trusted."


   "What are you going to do about this?" her mother asked, touching the General's note.


   "Oh, I am going to wait a few days to make him 'feel bad' and then, I suppose, I must return my passports to him."


   She waited three days, and then the General's behaviour strengthened her in her belief that he was not to blame for the shabby way in which he had treated her.


   He was most penitent, begged her to forgive him for having caused her so much inconvenience, and said he had been "very weak" in entertaining the idea of her visiting the Camps.


   They talked about certain improvements which Hansie had suggested, and on which she had intended to lay much stress in her reports.


   He promised that everything in his power would be done to arrest the high mortality, and, encouraged by his sympathetic attitude, she pleaded for "poor Middelburg."


   "I have just been told that there were 503 deaths in that Camp during last month [July]. Can that be possible?"


   "I am afraid it is only too true," he answered, sighing heavily. "The people on the High Veld are very badly off during this bitter weather."


   "Will you allow me to send the warm clothing and blankets which I intended to distribute in the Camps?" she asked.


   "Certainly, the more the better. Every facility will be afforded you in this."


   Hansie felt happier after this conversation with the Governor, more convinced that something would be done to alleviate the sufferings in the Camps.


   Now, if our heroine had been allowed to carry out her tour of inspection, she would have been out of "mischief's way" for many months, and much of what I am about to relate would not have taken place at all.


   "Fair play is bonny play," and a breach of faith is bound, at some time or other, to be followed by undesirable consequences.


   Hansie made up her mind to serve her country in another, perhaps better way, and in this she was assisted by the resistless hand of Fate, as we shall see in the following chapters.


   That she was never "caught" is a marvel indeed, for she was most reckless of danger.


   There were a number of intimate and trusted friends with whom she came into frequent contact, but who had no idea of the work which was being carried on at Harmony.


   To these friends, however, she went with her "reliable war news" (more especially news brought into town by the spies, of the Boer victories) when anything of importance became known, and in time her friends found out that her news could always be depended upon as reliable indeed, although they had no inkling of the source whence it had been derived. There was danger of her becoming altogether too "cocksure," when she was one day pulled up sharply by the following occurrence:


   Captain Naudé was in town again, was, if I remember rightly, under her very roof, when she visited a man for whom she entertained feelings of great affection and esteem, with the object of gladdening his heart with news of a particularly gratifying nature from the front.


   He listened attentively, he asked a number of questions, nodding with the greatest satisfaction at her direct and definite replies.


   "I must go," Hansie exclaimed suddenly, "I only came in for a few moments. We have to see some friends off to-night."


   "Ah! Just wait a minute, please, will you?"


   He hastened from the room, returning shortly with a parcel which he placed in her hands without a word.


   "What is this?" she asked curiously.


   "Five pounds of the best Boer tobacco."


   "For me?" in amazement.


   He approached her and whispered in her ear:


   "For the spy!"


   Hansie fled from that house, laughing as she went, and patting her parcel of tobacco rapturously.


   "Oh, mother, wasn't it funny of him?"


   "Yes, but when will you learn to be more careful? Hansie, you are frightfully reckless. You will not listen to reason, I suppose, until we find ourselves across the border and Harmony confiscated!"


   The Captain was delighted with the present and willingly added the extra five pounds weight to his cumbrous and heavy burdens.


   Somebody, leaving the country for Holland, offered to take documents and letters from the van Warmelos to the President on condition that they could guarantee that he would not be "found out."


   This offer came at a most opportune moment, for there was information of the greatest importance to be sent to Mr. W.T. Stead.


   For some weeks past Mrs. van Warmelo had been anxious to smuggle through to him copies of the two petitions to the Consuls and a copy of their report on the Concentration Camps. For this the White Envelope was not considered satisfactory enough—the documents were too bulky and the post during those days not to be depended upon.


   The information, therefore, was written on tissue paper (the usual method) and packed in a small bottle of Dr. Williams's Pink Pills, to be handed to a relative of Mrs. van Warmelo's in Holland, with instructions that he should read the contents and forward them without delay to Mr. Stead for publication in the Review of


   The "medicine" was faithfully delivered in Holland, but alas! the recipient, with unheard-of presumption, after having read the documents, decided in his own

   mind that they were not of sufficient importance to be published in London and quietly kept them to himself!


   Kept them to himself, at a time when their publication to the world would have been of inestimable value to the Boers and would perhaps have saved thousands of lives!


   Of course this breach of trust was not known at Harmony for many months—not, in fact, until so long after it took place that the war was drawing to a close, and it was too late to repeat the attempt.


   When one thinks that but for one man's indifference to duty the report of the Consuls would have been published in London at a time when all England was shaken with the revelations made by Miss Hobhouse and the agitation of the pro-Boers was at its height, then one cannot help realising the futility of fighting against Fate.


   Not yet had the time of salvation arrived for the victims of the Concentration Camps—not yet—not until the toll of life had been paid to the uttermost.


   Other schemes for supplying that section of the British public, desirous of being acquainted with the with trustworthy information from South Africa, met with greater success, and I relate the following instance for the sake of the interesting circumstances connected with it, not for its own sake, for obvious reasons.


   Many of my readers will remember the case of Mr. Spoelstra, a Hollander, which caused such a commotion in the Transvaal during the war.


   He wrote a long letter for publication in Holland on the hardships and ill-treatment to which the Boer

   women were subjected in transit from their farms to the Concentration Camps, by the soldiers (chiefly, I may mention here, the Canadian Scouts and Australian Bushrangers, who were, however, all regarded as British soldiers, these distinctions not being sufficiently clear to the average South African).


   This lengthy document Spoelstra confided to the care of a man who was about to leave for Holland.


   On the borders of Natal, the man, on being cross-questioned by the inspector of goods, became so confused and agitated that he brought suspicion on himself, with the result that he was detained while his luggage was thoroughly overhauled.


   The unfortunate letter was found, Spoelstra was arrested and immediately imprisoned in the Pretoria Jail.


   The Dutch Consul, Mr. Domela Nieuwenhuis, on being appealed to, insisted on a public trial, which was granted after some delay, Spoelstra being allowed three days in which to procure his witnesses, in Pretoria and in the small Camp in one of the suburbs, not in Irene.


   Notwithstanding the shortness of the time and the restrictions placed upon him, he succeeded in getting nearly thirty women to give evidence on his behalf, and at his trial, which was publicly held, revelations of a very startling nature were made.


   The greatest indignation was felt and freely expressed by the Dutch community when, in spite of having proved his accusations beyond a doubt, Spoelstra was fined £100 and sentenced to one year's imprisonment.


   The fine was immediately paid by his friends.


   Now, there was a brave Englishwoman, Mrs. Bodde, married to a Hollander, who was shortly leaving for England, who offered her services to Mrs. van Warmelo if the latter wished to make the circumstances of the case known to Mr. Stead. This was an exceedingly plucky thing to do, for the examinations on the frontier were much more severe than usual, after the discovery of Spoelstra's letter. Mrs. van Warmelo therefore promised to take extra precautions in concealing the articles she wished to send. After a great deal of trouble she succeeded in getting a full report of the Spoelstra trial, sixty large pages of closely typed evidence on tissue paper, and with this valuable material to dispose of Mrs. van Warmelo realised that it would be necessary to exert the utmost ingenuity.


   She asked her friend Mrs. Bodde whether she would be taking a lunch-basket.


   Certainly she would.


   "Well," Mrs. van Warmelo said, "I will give you something for your lunch-basket, if you will promise not to open it until you get to London."


   She promised, and Mrs. van Warmelo bought a tin of cocoa, a one-pound tin, unfastened the paper wrapper carefully, then damped the paper round the lid until it could be folded back without being damaged, removed the lid and pulled out the paper bag containing the cocoa. This bag she unfastened at the shook out fully two-thirds of the cocoa and filled up the empty space with the tightly rolled packet containing the documents, replacing the whole in the tin, cocoa side up, of course, and pasting down the paper wrapper over the lid to make it look like new.


   Although there was very little cocoa in the tin, it was found to weigh exactly one pound as before.


   Arrangements were then made with Mrs. Bodde for her future correspondence on the subject with Mrs. van Warmelo, and in due time the latter received a note from Mrs. Bodde announcing her safe arrival in London and saying that her friend Mrs. Brown (Mr. Stead) had received her (the documents) with open arms. She was not going to live in Mrs. Brown's house as she had intended (the documents would not be published in the Review of but she was going into a house of her own (they would appear in pamphlet form).


   This was good news indeed, and now my readers know how it came about that the sensational Spoelstra case was published in London in pamphlet form (in three successive pamphlets, for the evidence was found to be too bulky for one) during the war. The first pamphlet reached Harmony in safety through the post, the second and third, though duly dispatched, failed to reach their destination, but nobody at Harmony minded. The great object had been achieved.


   Hansie, going to the post one day, took out of her letter-box a small flat book, addressed to "Mrs. Wentworth, Box 56."


   She was about to throw it back into the Post Office, with 56" scribbled on it, when her eyes fell on the English postmark, Tunbridge Wells, and she stayed her hand in time.


   Tunbridge Wells was the address of the brave Englishwoman, the great pro-Boer, and the package when opened was found to contain a copy of Methuen's

   Peace or War in South which was first "devoured" at Harmony and by other people in Pretoria and was then sent out to the commandos by the spies, to be read and reread by the burghers until there was nothing left of it except a few tattered pages.


   Soon after the publication of the Spoelstra case there was some excitement in Pretoria about the appearance in the Westminster Gazette of a long article on the Irene Concentration Camp. The writer, who gave each detail with great accuracy, seemed to have personal knowledge and experience of the Camp, and it was not surprising that Hansie should have been taxed with it on every side.


   The Consuls spoke to her direct, advising her to be more careful of her facts, and Mr. Cinatti, when she assured him of her innocence (?), said with huge delight, in his funny, broken English:


   "Never mind, my dear little sing, you need not confess to are you good at guessing riddles?"


   "Not particularly."


   "Well, dis one won't trouble you much. What is dis? It is small and oblong and white, and it was laid by a hen?"


   "An egg," Hansie answered innocently.


   He shouted with laughter.


   "Are you sure?"


   "Of course."


   "Well, we are just as sure dat Miss van Warmelo wrote dat article. And if you want to see your work in print I'll bring it round dis very afternoon."


   "I should like very much to see it," she replied.


   That afternoon, just before Mr. Cinatti was expected, Gentleman Jim killed a big snake in his room,

   and Hansie, thinking to give her funny friend a fright for misdoubting her word, "arranged" the corpse on the steps of the front verandah, hiding the mutilated head under the leaves of the violet plants.


   But the Consul came late, and other visitors before him heralded their arrival by shrieks and jumps, to the great delight of the mischievous girl.


   "You are a very pranky little sing," Mr. Cinatti said, flourishing the Westminster Gazette before her eyes, "and den you want us not to believe dat you wrote dis."


   And indeed, when Hansie glanced through the article, she found it difficult to maintain that she had not written it, for there were all her "pet" cases of overcrowding and underfeeding, her statistics, and the very terms she was in the habit of using when speaking of the volunteer nurses. She called them a "set of agitators," in sarcastic imitation of the Commandant's favourite expression.


   The only explanation to the affair could be that Mr. Stead, or perhaps Mrs. Bodde, had made use of the facts contained in one of Hansie's smuggled letters, and in that case she could naturally be held responsible. She was advised by loving friends to keep her boxes ready packed for a speedy departure, "for when the warning comes you will not be allowed much time to pack."


   But she disregarded all warnings, except to take extra precautions for the safety of her diary.