The Lone Fighter, Mattheus Hendrikus (Tewie) Wessels, was born in 1878 on the farm Olifantskop in the Boshof district. Wessels’s father died shortly after his birth and his mother, Catherina Johanna Scholtz, later married Jan de Wet.
Catherina died in 1896 at the age of 38, shortly after the birth of the ninth De Wet child. The same year the two brothers, Tewie and Gerrie, arrived at the Victoria College (later to become the University of Stellenbosch), after they matriculated at Grey College, Bloemfontein. Tewie graduated with a BA degree, while Gerrie studied agriculture.
Tewie was keen on studying medicine and his stepfather “with great confidence sent the wild lad, a splendid jockey and a crack shot to Edinburgh, Scotland”.
Apart from excelling at his studies, Tewie played lots of sport and had a hectic social life. The fact that he had plenty pocket money, a charming disposition and was a keen sportsman to boot ensured that his company was always in demand.
Because of his strong patriotic upbringing, he followed with concern the growing friction and deteriorating relations between Britain and the two Boer republics. He came to accept that if war broke out, he could not stay in Scotland.
He knew he had to help and was keen to do so. But the big question was how? His amazing social life and contacts provided him with the perfect attributes for the role he was to play.
Tewie had heard about some gentlemen who intended to establish a regiment of sportsmen with the idea of going “to shoot some Boers just for fun”. Each member of this very select party had his own horse, sporting rifle, sable and lance.
Tewie then became “Sir Trevor Williams” and was so convincing in his role as a snobbish aristocrat that he had no problem in accompanying the Royal Regiment to South Africa. He disembarked at Cape Town and travelled by train to the Free State.
At De Aar, problems started when a steward – a Coloured – serving him morning coffee, greeted “Sir Trevor” with a cheery “Môre baas Tewie” (Good morning master Tewie).
Tewie acted stupid and pretended not to understand.
“Maar baas Tewie, dis mos ek, Gamat, wat by Stellenbosch jou kamer ‘geswiep’ het, dan het jy my met my ‘lessons’ gehelp.” (“Butmaster Tewie, it’s me, Gamat, who cleaned your room in Stellenbosch. And you helped me with my lessons.”)
“Sir Trevor” just said: “Shut up!”
The incident caused suspicion and Gamat was questioned. He swore it was Tewie Wessels, but later he appeared to change his mind, saying that he was no longer sure.
Tewie was brought back to Cape Town from De Aar under escort. There he had to report every day for the duration of the investigation.
One day he spotted a Portuguese ship anchored in the harbour. He slipped on board the ship and was well received by the captain. He agreed to allow Tewie to stay and to take him as far as Lourenco Marques (Maputo) in Mozambique.
When the English discovered he was missing, they suspected that he could have hidden on board the Portuguese ship and demanded that it be searched.
The captain hid him under coal in the coal room. When he eventually emerged after the English soldiers had left, he was black from head to toe.
After his arrival in Mozambique, he left for Waterval-Boven, where he joined a Boer commando.
During his very first skirmish at Lydenburg he sustained a light wound in his left arm. His worried comrades wanted to take him off somewhere for treatment.
“Not to worry boys, just give me a rag and I’ll dress myself,” he replied.
He also rendered first aid to other wounded comrades and consequently earned himself the nickname of “Doctor”.
Involving himself in skirmishes all along the way, he managed to make his way back to the Free State. He told everyone he was a “lone fighter” who wanted to make up for the portion of the war he had missed.
A half-brother, Frans de Wet, relates: “Tewie never moved with a commando, but always made sure that he was near when there was fighting.”
He did his own scouting and when the opportunity arose to ambush a convoy, he would inform the nearest commando. He would then join the ensuing fight.
He was often involved in daring one-man skirmishes such as stealing horses and guns and taking them to the nearest commando. For every looting he would mark a notch on his gun.
The last time Frans de Wet saw him, there were 80 notches.
One day, accompanying Major Brandt and his commando, who were marking an English column, the major said: “I need a cigarette badly, I will pay golden pound for one.”
“Have the pound ready for when I return, Major,” Tewie responded. He moved in closer to the English until he was right beside an English soldier.
“Bill, my friend, kindly spare me a cigarette,” he said, and was given one.
He put it between his lips and slowly moved back to where Brandt had positioned himself.
“We watched you. Here is your pound. Not for the cigarette, but for your bravery. Good heavens, but you are a daredevil,” the major said.
At the Vet River, he came upon an English regiment at rest. The regiment’s every move was being monitored by a Boer commando across the river.
Tewie reconnoitred the English camp and said to Frans de Wet: “You and a couple of your daring mates must help me tonight. I want that black horse standing among the English horses. My horse is exhausted.”
By midnight 20 men led by Tewie sneaked through the river and returned, without casualty, with 53 horses.
General Coen Brits relates: “Tewie was a master scout and an unsurpassed courier, but he never wanted to commit himself to a commando. We offered him an officer’s rank, but he refused it.”
One day Tewie learnt that an English convoy was moving between Potchefstroom and Ventersdorp. With six men he proceeded to a spot suitable for an ambush. After an intense fray, all seven were either dead or wounded on the battlefield.
Tewie had five wounds and he and his heavily wounded friend, Corneels Vermaas, were the only survivors. They were captured and sent to Potchefstroom hospital.
After their discharge, they were put on a train to Cape Town to be deported. In the Hex River Mountains they jumped out of the moving train and started the long journey back to the Free State.
After walking for 300km, they at last found horses and were able to meet up with a commando. Because Tewie’s wounds needed regular attention, he was forced to stay near a commando. He reluctantly agreed to become a field-cornet under General van Deventer.
It was during the closing stages of the war and while peace negotiations were already underway that the battle of Windhoek, a farm near Vanrynsdorp, was fought “by death-defying heroes, with courage which bordered on recklessness”.
Crossing an open area, the Boers charged the buildings harbouring the English and forced the enemy to surrender.
Among those killed were Tewie and Corneels Vermaas. They were buried in Vanrynsdorp where a monument was erected to their memory.
“If you look at the marks of the bullet that penetrated the bandoleer of Tewie, the Lone Fighter, then I pray: ‘Let me be such a patriot’,” writes Jan Wessels. (The bullet penetrated the front of the bandoleer, entered his chest, then ruptured another bullet lodged in the back of the bandoleer.)
Lifting his head before dying, Tewie’s last words were “Goodbye to all.”
Credit to: News24 Archives – Nols Nieman, Die Volksblad