From Commando – Of Horses and Men
by Deneys Reitz
As we started, hard rain came down once more, and the darkness was so intense that we could not see a yard ahead. We had not gone three hundred paces before we heard horsemen splashing through the mud in front, and we ran into the tail of an English patrol or column, we could not tell which, evidently making for the same farm. Neither side was prepared to risk a fight in the rain and dark. The troopers galloped away, and we sheered off too, but with this difference, that they were able to continue on to the shelter of the farm, whilst we were adrift on the open veld.
The night that followed was the most terrible of all. Our guide lost his way; we went floundering ankle-deep in mud and water, our poor weakened horses stumbling and slipping at every turn; the rain beat down on us, and the cold was awful. The grain-bag which I wore froze solid on my body, like a coat of mail, and I believe that if we had not kept moving every one of us would have died. We had known two years of war, but we came nearer to despair that night than I care to remember. Hour after hour we groped our way, with men groaning who had never before uttered a word of complaint, as the cold searched their ill-protected bodies. We lost fourteen men that night, and I do not know whether they survived, but we never again had word of them.
We also lost many horses, and I remember stumbling at intervals over their carcasses. We went on until daybreak, dragging ourselves along, and then, providentially, came on a deserted homestead and staggered into shelter, standing huddled together in rooms, stables and barns until dawn, still shivering, but gradually recovering from the dreadful ordeal. When it grew light, some fifty or sixty horses lay dead outside. My little roan mare was still alive, but both my uncle’s horses died here, and he, with thirty or forty more, was now a foot-soldier. (As practically every man had crossed the Orange River with two horses, the number of dismounted men did not necessarily correspond to the number of horses that were lost.)
This night’s ‘Big Rain’, as we called it, left such a mark on all of us that later we used to call ourselves ‘The Big Rain Men’ (Die Groot Reent Kêrels) to distinguish us from those who had not experienced it, and for my part I passed through no greater test during the war.
The day was cold and wild, but the rain had stopped. We broke up floors and windows, and tables and chairs, and anything else that would burn, and made great fires to dry our clothes and blankets, and to warm our chilled limbs. Towards noon, General Smuts ordered us on to another large farm, eight or nine miles away, which had, a native had told him, plenty of fodder for the horses.
No attempt was made to send back for the missing men as we were too exhausted, and they had to be abandoned. We plodded over the water-logged country, a quarter of our number on foot, and the rest soon likely to be, for there was not a fit horse in the commando.
We found this farm also deserted, but there was protection for all, and a good store of oat-sheaves, as well as sheep for slaughter, so that, although the rain came down again, we at last spent a comfortable night.