by Hennie Jansen
In the bitterly cold winter of 1901, during the Anglo-Boer War, General Jan Smuts and his commando invaded the Cape Colony. They did so in the belief that the use of Boer guerrilla tactics in the Cape Colony would distract and divide the enemy forces, and in this way help bring relief to the hard-pressed Republics up north. The invasion also carried with it the possibility of an uprising in the Colony should Cape Afrikaners (and others) be disposed to take up arms in support of the Republics.
The Smuts commando crossed the Orange River in the easterly district of Zastron. This was not achieved without considerable difficulty, for British forces were monitoring their progress, harrying them and trying to head them off, to nip this threatened incursion in the bud.
By September 1901, the commando of some 250 burgers and about 500 horses had marauded high into the Stormberg mountains, up a pass and onto a flat, grassy tableland about three miles wide, from which there was no apparent escape. The commando found itself isolated on this plateau, surrounded by rocky precipices where the face of the mountain fell sharply away to the plains below. When British soldiers began arriving on the plateau, the burgers could see the seriousness of their predicament: they were trapped on the flat mountain top as all passes were now controlled by the advancing enemy forces. By dusk, encircled by soldiers and precipices, the commando was sheltering defensively in a low-lying area around a small farmhouse and a kraal.
Believing that they had the commando cornered, the British forces seemed to be waiting until morning, when the commando would have had no option but to surrender.
In Commando – Of Horses and Men, Deneys Reitz, who was part of the Smuts commando, tells what happened next.
‘General Smuts stood before the homestead in whispered conversation with his two lieutenants, while the rest of us leaned on our rifles, too weary to care very much what happened. Then out of the house came a hunchbacked cripple, who said that he would lead us through the English troops to the edge of the tableland, by a way that was unlikely to be watched, for it ran through boggy soil. His offer was eagerly accepted, and orders were given to mount at once. Six or seven men had been wounded during the day, two of them so badly that they had to be left behind, but the others chose to accompany us, and in a few minutes we were silently filing off into the darkness, the cripple crouching insecurely on a horse at our head. He took us along a squelching path, that twisted for a mile or two, so close to the investing troops that we could hear voices and the champing of bits, but by the end of an anxious hour he had brought us undiscovered to the escarpment. From here the mountainside fell sharply away into black depths below, how steeply we could not tell, but our guide warned us that it was very steep indeed. Dropping from his horse he plodded off into the night on his crutches, carrying with him our heartfelt thanks, for he had risked his life and goods on our behalf.’
What followed was probably the closest to a vertical descent by any mounted force during the war. The commando, men and horses, went glissading into the black depths, bumping and banging their way down, but they landed below without any serious damage. The British forces had not considered the possibility of the commando being so foolish as to plunge over a precipice with their horses, but of course they were unaware that this part of the escarpment was covered with a thick matting of grass to cushion the fall. Thus both men and horses were able to continue their incursion into the Cape Colony, thanks to the courage of a Cape Rebel extraordinaire.