CAMPAIGN PICTURES OF THE WAR IN SOUTH AFRICA (1899-1900)
Letters from the Front
A. G. HALES
Special Correspondent of the "Daily News"
Cassell and Company, Limited London, Paris, New York & Melbourne
This book, such as it is, is dedicated to the man whose kindliness of heart and generous journalistic instincts lifted me from the unknown, and placed me where I had a chance to battle with the best men in my profession. He was the man who found Archibald Forbes, the most brilliant, accurate, and entertaining of all war correspondents. What he did for that splendid genius let Forbes' memoirs tell; what he did for me I will tell myself. He gave me the chance I had looked for for twenty years, and the dearest name in my memory to-day is the name of
SIR JOHN ROBINSON,
Manager of the Daily News, London.
PAGE WITH THE AUSTRALIANS. AUSTRALIA ON THE MARCH 1 WITH THE AUSTRALIANS 6 A PRISONER OF WAR 15 "STOPPING A FEW" 29 AUSTRALIA AT THE WAR 38 AUSTRALIA ON THE MOVE 48 SLINGERSFONTEIN 60 THE WEST AUSTRALIANS 69
AMONG THE BOERS. IN A BOER TOWN 75 BEHIND THE SCENES 83 A BOER FIGHTING LAAGER 90 THROUGH BOER GLASSES 104 LIFE IN THE BOER CAMPS 116
WITH GENERAL RUNDLE. BATTLE OF CONSTANTIA FARM 127 WITH RUNDLE IN THE FREE STATE 149 RED WAR WITH RUNDLE 159 THE FREE STATERS' LAST STAND 174
CHARACTER SKETCHES IN CAMP. THE CAMP LIAR 194 THE NIGGER SERVANT 199 THE SOLDIER PREACHER 207
* * * * *
PRESIDENT STEYN 212 LOUIS BOTHA, COMMANDANT-GENERAL OF THE BOER ARMY 218 WHITE FLAG TREACHERY 224 THE BATTLE OF MAGERSFONTEIN 229 SCOUTS AND SCOUTING: DRISCOLL, KING OF SCOUTS 242 HUNTING AND HUNTED 253 WITH THE BASUTOS 264 MAGERSFONTEIN AVENGED 280 THE CONDUCT OF THE WAR 289 HOME AGAIN 299
Australia's Appeal to England.
We grow weary waiting, England, For the summons that never comes— For the blast of the British bugles And the throb of the British drums. Our hearts grow sore and sullen As year by year rolls by, And your cold, contemptuous actions Give your fervent words the lie.
Are we only an English market, Held dear for the sake of trade? Or are we a part of the Empire, Close welded as hilt and blade? If we are to cleave together As mother and son through life, Give us our share of the burden, Let us stand with you in the strife.
If we are to share your glory, Let the sons whom the South has bred Lie side by side on your battlefields With England's heroes dead. A nation is never a nation Worthy of pride or place Till the mothers have sent their firstborn To look death on the field in the face.
Are we only an English market, Held dear for the sake of trade? Or are we a part of the Empire Close welded as hilt and blade? If so, let us share your dangers, Let the glory we boast be real, Let the boys of the South fight with you, Let our children taste cold steel.
Do you think we are chicken-hearted? Do you count us devoid of pride? Just try us in deadly earnest, And see how our boys can ride. We are sick of your empty praises! If the mother is proud of her son, Let him do some deed on a hard-fought field, Then boast what he has done.
A nation is never a nation Worthy of pride or place Till the mothers have sent their firstborn To look death on the field in the face. Australia is calling to England, Let England answer the call; There are smiles for those who come back to us, And tears for those who may fall.
Bridle to bridle our sons will ride With the best that Britain has bred, And all we ask is an open field And a soldier's grave for our dead.
I have decided to enclose these verses in my book because some critics have pronounced me anti-English in my sentiments. Heaven alone knows why; yet the above poem was written and published by me in Australia just before war was declared between England and the Republics, at a time when all Australia considered it very probable that we should have to fight one of the big European Powers as well as the Boers.
A. G. HALES.
AUSTRALIA ON THE MARCH.
At two o'clock on the morning of Wednesday, the 6th of the month, the reveille sounded, and the Australians commenced their preparations for the march to join Methuen's army. By 4 a.m. the mounted rifles led the way out of camp, and the toilsome march over rough and rocky ground commenced. The country was terribly rough as we drove the transports up and over the Orange River, and rougher still in the low kopjes on the other side. The heat was simply blistering, but the Australians did not seem to mind it to any great extent; they were simply feverish to get on to the front, but they had to hang back and guard the transports.
At last the hilly country faded behind us. We counted upon pushing on rapidly, but the African mules were a sorry lot, and could make but little headway in the sandy tracks. Still, there was no rest for the men, because at intervals one of Remington's scouts would turn up at a flying gallop, springing apparently from nowhere, out of the womb of the wilderness, to inform us that flying squads of Boers were hanging round us. But so carefully watchful were the Remingtons that the Boers had no chance of surprising us. No sooner did the scouts inform us of their approach in any direction than our rifles swung forward ready to give them a hearty Australian reception. This made the march long and toilsome, though we never had a chance to fire a shot. At 5.30 we marched with all our transports into Witteput, the wretched little mules being the only distressed portion of the contingent.
At Witteput the news reached us that a large party of the enemy had managed to pass between General Methuen's men and ourselves, and had invested Belmont, out of which place the British troops had driven them a few weeks previously. We had no authentic news concerning this movement. Our contingent spread out on the hot sand at Witteput, panting for a drop of rain from the lowering clouds that hung heavily overhead. Yet hot, tired, and thirsty as we were, we yet found time to look with wonder at the sky above us. The men from the land of the Southern Cross are used to gorgeous sunsets, but never had we looked upon anything like this. Great masses of coal-black clouds frowned down upon us, flanked by fiery crimson cloud banks, that looked as if they would rain blood, whilst the atmosphere was dense enough to half-stifle one. Now and again the thunder rolled out majestically, and the lightning flashed from the black clouds into the red, like bayonets through smoke banks.
Yet we had not long to wait and watch, for within half an hour after our arrival the Colonel galloped down into our midst just as the evening ration was being given out. He held a telegram aloft, and the stillness that fell over the camp was so deep that each man could hear his neighbour's heart beat. Then the Colonel's voice cut the stillness like a bugle call. "Men, we are needed at Belmont; the Boers are there in force, and we have been sent for to relieve the place. I'll want you in less than two hours." It was then the men showed their mettle. Up to their feet they leapt like one man, and they gave the Colonel a cheer that made the sullen, halting mules kick in their harness. "We are ready now, Colonel, we'll eat as we march," and the "old man" smiled, and gave the order to fall in, and they fell in, and as darkness closed upon the land they marched out of Witteput to the music of the falling rain and the thunder of heaven's artillery.
All night long it was march, halt, and "Bear a hand, men," for those thrice accursed mules failed us at every pinch. In vain the niggers plied the whips of green hide, vain their shouts of encouragement, or painfully shrill anathemas; the mules had the whip hand of us, and they kept it. But, in spite of it all, in the chilly dawn of the African morning, our fellows, with their shoulders well back, and heads held high, marched into Belmont, with every man safe and sound, and every waggon complete.
Then the Gordons turned out and gave us a cheer, for they had passed us in the train as we crossed the line above Witteput, and they knew, those veterans from Indian wars, what our raw Volunteers had done; they had been on their feet from two o'clock on Wednesday morning until five o'clock of the following day, with the heat at 122 in the shade, and bitter was their wrath when they learnt that the Boer spies, who swarm all over the country, had heralded their coming, so that the enemy had only waited to plant a few shells into Belmont before disappearing into the hills beyond. That was the cruel part of it. They did not mind the fatigue, they did not worry about the thirst or the hunger, but to be robbed of a chance to show the world what they could do in the teeth of the enemy was gall and wormwood to them, and the curses they sent after the discreet Boer were weird, quaint, picturesque, and painfully prolific.
We are lying with the Gordons now, waiting for the Boers to come along and try to take Belmont, and our fellows and the "Scotties" are particularly good chums, and it is the cordial wish of both that they may some day give the enemy a taste of the bayonet together.
WITH THE AUSTRALIANS.
Australia has had her first taste of war, not a very great or very important performance, but we have buried our dead, and that at least binds us more closely to the Motherland than ever before. The Queenslanders, the wild riders, and the bushmen of the north-eastern portion of the continent have been the first to pay their tribute to nationhood with the life blood of her sons, two of whom—Victor James and McLeod—were buried by their comrades on the scene of action a couple of days ago, whilst half a dozen others, including Lieutenant Aide, fell more or less seriously wounded. The story of the fight is simply told; there is no necessity for any wild vapouring in regard to Australian courage, no need for hysterical praise. Our fellows simply did what they were told to do in a quiet and workmanlike manner, just as we who know them expected that they would; we are all proud of them, and doubly proud that the men in the fight with them were our cousins from Canada.
The most noteworthy fact about the engagement is to be gleaned by noting that the Australians adopted Boer tactics, and so escaped the slaughter that has so often fallen to the lot of the British troops when attacking similar positions. Before describing the fight it may be as well to give some slight idea of the disposition of the opposing forces. Our troops held the railway line all the way from Cape Town to Modder River. At given distances, or at points of strategic importance, strong bodies of men are posted to keep the Boers from raiding, or from interfering with the railway or telegraph lines. Such a force, consisting of Munster Fusiliers, two guns of R.H. Artillery, the Canadians, and the Queenslanders, were posted at Belmont under Colonel Pilcher. The enemy had no fixed camping ground. Mounted on hardy Basuto ponies, carrying no provisions but a few mealies and a little biltong, armed only with rifles, they sweep incessantly from place to place, and are an everlasting source of annoyance to us. At one moment they may be hovering in the kopjes around us at Enslin, waiting to get a chance to sneak into the kopjes that immediately overlook our camp, but thanks to the magnificent scouting qualities of the Victorian Mounted Rifles, they have never been able to do so. During the night they disperse, and take up their abode on surrounding farms as peaceful tillers of the soil. In a day or so they organise again, and swoop down on some other place, such as Belmont. Their armies, under men like Cronje or Joubert, seldom move from strongly-entrenched positions.
The people I am referring to as reivers are farmers recruited by local leaders, and are a particularly dangerous class of people to deal with, as they know every inch of this most deceptive country. As soon as they are whipped they make off to wives and home, and meet the scouts with a bland smile and outstretched hand. It is no use trying to get any information out of them, for no man living can look so much like an unmitigated fool when he wants to as the ordinary, every-day farmer of the veldt. I know Chinamen exceptionally well, I have had an education in the ways of the children of Confucius; but no Chinaman that I have come in contact with could ever imitate the half-idiotic smile, the patient, ox-like placidity of countenance, the meek, religious look of holy resignation to the will of Providence which comes naturally to the ordinary Boer farmer. It is this faculty which made our very clever Army Intelligence people rank the farmer of the veldt as a fool. Yet, if I am any judge, and I have known men in many lands, our friend of the veldt is as clever and as crafty as any Oriental I have yet mixed with.
Now for the Australian fight. On the day before Christmas, Colonel Pilcher, at Belmont, got wind of the assemblage of a considerable Boer force at a place 30 miles away, called Sunnyside Farm, and he determined to try to attack it before the enemy could get wind of his intention. To this end he secured every nigger for some miles around—which proved his good sense, as the niggers are all in the pay of the Boers, no matter how loyal they may pretend to be to the British, a fact which the British would do well to take heed of, for it has cost them pretty dearly already. On Christmas Eve he started out, taking two guns of the Royal Navy Artillery, a couple of Maxims, all the Queenslanders, and a few hundred Canadians. Colonel Pilcher's force numbered in all about 600 men. He marched swiftly all night, and got to Sunnyside Farm in good time Christmas Day. The Boers had not a ghost of an idea that our men were near them, and were completely beaten at their own game, the surprise party being complete. The enemy were found in a laager in a strong position in some rather steep kopjes, and it was at once evident that they were expecting strong reinforcements from surrounding farms. Colonel Pilcher at once extended his forces so as to try to surround the kopjes. Whilst this was going on, Lieutenant Aide, with four Queensland troopers, was sent to the far left of what was supposed to be the Boer position. His orders were to give notice of any attempt at retreat on the part of the enemy. He did his work well. Getting close to the kopje, he saw a number of the enemy slinking off, and at once challenged them. As he did so a dozen Boers dashed out of the kopje, and Aide opened fire on them, which caused the Boers to fire a volley at him. Lieutenant Aide fell from his horse with two bullets in his body; one went through the fleshy part of his stomach, entering his body sideways, the other went into his thigh. A trooper named McLeod was shot through the heart, and fell dead. Both the other troopers were wounded. Trooper Rose caught a horse, and hoisted his lieutenant into the saddle, and sent him out of danger.
Meantime the R.H. Battery, taking range from Lieutenant Aide's fire, opened out on the enemy. Their guns put a great fear into the Boers, and a general bolt set in. The Boers fired as they cleared, and if our fellows had been formed up in the style usual to the British army in action, we should have suffered heavily; but the Queensland bushmen had dropped behind cover, and soon had complete possession of the kopjes; another trooper named Victor Jones was shot through the brain, and fourteen others were more or less badly wounded. The Boers then surrendered. We took 40 prisoners, and found about 14 dead Boers on the ground, besides a dozen wounded. They were all Cape Dutch, no Transvaalers being found in their ranks. We secured 40,000 rounds of their ammunition, 300 Martini rifles, and only one Mauser rifle, which was in the possession of the Boer commander. After destroying all that we took, we moved on, and had a look at some of the farms near by, as from some of the documents found in camp it was certain that the whole district was a perfect nest of rebellion. Quite a little store of arms and ammunition was discovered by this means, and the occupants of the farms were therefore transported to Belmont. Our fellows carried the little children and babies in their arms all the way, and marched into Belmont singing, with the little ones on their shoulders. Every respect was shown to the women, old and young, and to the old men, but the young fellows were closely guarded all the time. The Canadians did not lose a single man, neither did any of the others except the Queenslanders.
Another Boer commando, about 1,000 strong, with two batteries of artillery, is now hovering in the ranges away to the north-west of Enslin, but Colonel Hoad is not likely to be tempted out to meet them, since his orders are to hold Enslin against attack. However, should they venture to make a dash for Enslin, they will get a pretty bad time, as the Australians there are keen for a fight.
Concerning farming, it is an unknown quantity here, as we in Australia understand it. These people simply squat down wherever they can find a natural catchment for water. There is no clearing to be done, as the land is quite devoid of timber. They put nigger labour on, and build a farmhouse. These farmhouses are much better built than those which the average pioneer farmer in Australia owns. They make no attempt at adornment, but build plain, substantial houses, containing mostly about six rooms. The roofs are mostly flat, and the frontages plain to ugliness. They do no fencing, except where they go in for ostrich breeding. When they farm for feathers they fence with wire about six feet in height. This kind of farming is very popular with the better class of Boers, as it entails very little labour, and no outlay beyond the initial expense. They raise just enough meal to keep themselves, but do not farm for the market. They breed horses and cattle; the horses are a poor-looking lot, as the Boers do not believe much in blood. They never ride or work mares, but use them as brood stock. This is a bad plan, as young and immature mares breed early on the veldt, and throw weedy stock. Their cattle, however, are attended to on much better lines, and most of the beef that I have seen would do credit to any station in Australia, or any American ranch. They mostly raise a few sheep and goats; the sheep are a poor lot, the wool is of a very inferior class, and the mutton poor. I don't know much about goats, so will pass them, though I very much doubt if any Australian squatter would give them grass room.
On most of the farms a small orchard is found enclosed in stone walls. Here again the ignorance of the Boers is very marked; the fruit is of poor quality, though the variety is large. Thus, one finds in these orchards pears, apples, grapes, plums, pomegranates, peaches, quinces, apricots, and almonds. The fruit is harsh, small, and flavourless, owing to bad pruning, want of proper manure, and good husbandry generally. The Boer seems to think that he has done all that is required of him when he has planted a tree; all that follows he leaves to nature, and he would much rather sit down and pray for a beautiful harvest than get up and work for it. He is a great believer in the power of prayer. He prays for a good crop of fruit; if it comes he exalts himself and takes all the credit; if the crop fails he folds his hands and remarks that it was God's will that things should so come to pass. He knocks all the work he can out of his niggers, but does precious little himself. In stature he is mostly tall, thin, and active. He moves with a quick, shuffling gait, which is almost noiseless. Some of his women folk are beautiful, while others are fat and clumsy, and are never likely to have their portraits hung on the walls of the Royal Academy.
A PRISONER OF WAR.
I little fancied when I sat at my ease in my tent in the British camp that my next epistle would be written from a hospital as a prisoner, but such is the case, and, after all, I am far more inclined to be thankful than to growl at my luck. Let me tell the story, for it is typical of this peculiar country, and still more peculiar war. I had been writing far into the night, and had left the letter ready for post next day. Then, with a clear conscience, I threw myself on my blankets, satisfied that I was ready for what might happen next. Things were going to happen, but though the night was big with fate there was no warning to me in the whispering wind. Some men would have heard all sorts of sounds on such a night, but I am not built that way I suppose. Anyway, I heard nothing until, half an hour before dawn, a voice jarred my ear with the news that "there was something on, and I'd better fly round pretty sharp if I did not mean to miss it."
By the light of my lantern I saddled my horse, and snatched a hasty cup of coffee and a mouthful of biscuit, and as the little band of Tasmanians moved from Rensburg I rode with them. Where they were going, or what their mission, I did not know, but I guessed it was to be no picnic. The quiet, resolute manner of the officers, the hushed voices, the set, stern faces of the young soldiers, none of whom had ever been under fire before, all told me that there was blood in the air, so I asked no questions, and sat tight in my saddle. As the daylight broke over the far-stretching veldt, I saw that two other correspondents were with the party, viz., Reay, of the Melbourne Herald, and Lambie, poor, ill-fated Lambie, of the Melbourne Age. For a couple of hours we trotted along without incident of any kind, then we halted at a farmhouse, the name of which I have forgotten. There we found Captain Cameron encamped with the rest of the Tasmanians, and after a short respite the troops moved outward again, Captain Cameron in command; we had about eighty men, all of whom were mounted.
As we rode off I heard the order given for every man to "sit tight and keep his eyes open." Then our scouts put spurs to their horses and dashed away on either wing, skirting the kopjes and screening the main body, and so for another hour we moved without seeing or hearing anything to cause us trouble. By this time we had got into a kind of huge basin, the kopjes were all round us, but the veldt was some miles in extent. I knew at a glance that if the Boers were in force our little band was in for a bad time, as an enemy hidden in those hills could watch our every movement on the plain, note just where we intended to try and pass through the chain of hills, and attack us with unerring certainty and suddenness. All at once one of our scouts, who had been riding far out on our left flank, came flying in with the news that the enemy was in the kopjes in front of us, and he further added that he thought they intended to surround our party if possible. Captain Cameron ordered the men to split into two parties, one to move towards the kopjes on our right; the other to fall back and protect our retreat, if such a move became necessary. Mr. Lambie and I decided to move on with the advance party, and at a hard gallop we moved away towards a line of kopjes that seemed higher than any of the others in the belt. As we neared those hills it seemed to us that there were no Boers in possession, and that nothing would come of the ride after all, and we drew bridle and started to discuss the situation. At that time we were not far from the edge of some kopjes, which, though lying low, were covered with rocky boulders and low scrub.
We had drifted a few hundred yards behind the advance party, but were a good distance in front of the rearguard, when a number of horsemen made a dash from the kopjes which we were skirting, and the rifles began to speak. There was no time for poetry; it was a case of "sit tight and ride hard," or surrender and be made prisoners. Lambie shouted to me: "Let's make a dash, Hales," and we made it. The Boers were very close to us before we knew anything concerning their presence. Some of them were behind us, and some extended along the edge of the kopjes by which we had to pass to get to the British line in front, all of them were galloping in on us, shooting as they rode, and shouting to us to surrender, and, had we been wise men, we would have thrown up our hands, for it was almost hopeless to try and ride through the rain of lead that whistled around us. It was no wonder we were hit; the wonder to me is that we were not filled with lead, for some of the bullets came so close to me that I think I should know them again if I met them in a shop-window. We were racing by this time, Lambie's big chestnut mare had gained a length on my little veldt pony, and we were not more than a hundred yards away from the Mauser rifles that had closed in on us from the kopjes. A voice called in good English: "Throw up your hands, you d—— fools." But the galloping fever was on us both, and we only crouched lower on our horses' backs, and rode all the harder, for even a barn-yard fowl loves liberty.
All at once I saw my comrade throw his hands up with a spasmodic gesture. He rose in his stirrups, and fairly bounded high out of his saddle, and as he spun round in the air I saw the red blood on the white face, and I knew that death had come to him sudden and sharp. Again the rifles spoke, and the lead was closer to me than ever a friend sticks in time of trouble, and I knew in my heart that the next few strides would settle things. The black pony was galloping gamely under my weight. Would he carry me safely out of that line of fire, or would he fail me? Suddenly something touched me on the right temple; it was not like a blow; it was not a shock; for half a second I was conscious. I knew I was hit; knew that the reins had fallen from my nerveless hands, knew that I was lying down upon my horse's back, with my head hanging below his throat. Then all the world went out in one mad whirl. Earth and heaven seemed to meet as if by magic. My horse seemed to rise with me, not to fall, and then—chaos.
When next I knew I was still on this planet I found myself in the saddle again, riding between two Boers, who were supporting me in the saddle as I swayed from side to side. There was a halt; a man with a kindly face took my head in the hollow of his arm, whilst another poured water down my throat. Then they carried me to a shady spot beneath some shrubbery, and laid me gently down. One man bent over me and washed the blood that had dried on my face, and then carefully bound up my wounded temple. I began to see things more plainly—a blue sky above me; a group of rough, hardy men, all armed with rifles, around me. I saw that I was a prisoner, and when I tried to move I soon knew I was damaged.
The same good-looking young fellow with the curly beard bent over me again. "Feel any better now, old fellow?" I stared hard at the speaker, for he spoke like an Englishman, and a well-educated one, too. "Yes, I'm better. I'm a prisoner, ain't I?" "Yes." "Are you an Englishman?" I asked. He laughed. "Not I," he said, "I'm a Boer born and bred, and I am the man who bowled you over. What on earth made you do such a fool's trick as to try and ride from our rifles at that distance?" "Didn't think I was welcome in these parts." "Don't make a jest of it, man," the Boer said gravely; "rather thank God you are a living man this moment. It was His hand that saved you; nothing else could have done so." He spoke reverently; there was no cant in the sentiment he uttered—his face was too open, too manly, too fearless for hypocrisy. "How long is it since I was knocked over?" "About three hours." "Is my comrade dead?" "Quite dead," the Boer replied; "death came instantly to him. He was shot through the brain." "Poor beggar!" I muttered, "and he'll have to rot on the open veldt, I suppose?"
The Boer leader's face flushed angrily. "Do you take us for savages?" he said. "Rest easy. Your friend will get decent burial. What was his rank?" "War correspondent." "And your own?" "War correspondent also. My papers are in my pocket somewhere." "Sir," said the Boer leader, "you dress exactly like two British officers; you ride out with a fighting party, you try to ride off at a gallop under the very muzzles of our rifles when we tell you to surrender. You can blame no one but yourselves for this day's work." "I blame no man; I played the game, and am paying the penalty." Then they told me how poor Lambie's horse had swerved between myself and them after Lambie had fallen, then they saw me fall forward in the saddle, and they knew I was hit. A few strides later one of them had sent a bullet through my horse's head, and he had rolled on top of me. Yet, with it all, I had escaped with a graze over the right temple and a badly knocked-up shoulder. Truly, as the Boer said, the hand of God must have shielded me.
For a day and a half I lay at that laager whilst our wounded men were brought in, and here I should like to say a word to the people of England. Our men, when wounded, are treated by the Boers with manly gentleness and kind consideration. When we left the laager in an open trolly, we, some half-dozen Australians, and about as many Boers, all wounded, were driven for some hours to a small hospital, the name of which I do not know. It was simply a farmhouse turned into a place for the wounded. On the road thither we called at many farms, and at every one men, women, and children came out to see us. Not one taunting word was uttered in our hearing, not one braggart sentence passed their lips. Men brought us cooling drinks, or moved us into more comfortable positions on the trolly. Women, with gentle fingers, shifted bandages, or washed wounds, or gave us little dainties that come so pleasant in such a time; whilst the little children crowded round us with tears running down their cheeks as they looked upon the bloodstained khaki clothing of the wounded British. Let no man or woman in all the British Empire whose son or husband lies wounded in the hands of the Boers fear for his welfare, for it is a foul slander to say that the Boers do not treat their wounded well. England does not treat her own men better than the Boers treat the wounded British, and I am writing of that which I have seen and know beyond the shadow of a doubt.
From the little farmhouse hospital I was sent on in an ambulance train to the hospital at Springfontein, where all the nurses and medical staff are foreigners, all of them trained and skilful. Even the nurses had a soldierly air about them. Here everything was as clean as human industry could make it, and the hospital was worked like a piece of military mechanism. I only had a day or two here, and then I was sent by train in an ambulance carriage to the capital of the Orange Free State, and here I am in Bloemfontein Hospital. There are a lot of our wounded here, both officers and men, some of whom have been here for months.
I have made it my business to get about amongst the private soldiers, to question them concerning the treatment they have received since the moment the Mauser rifles tumbled them over, and I say emphatically that in every solitary instance, without one single exception, our countrymen declare that they have been grandly treated. Not by the hospital nurses only, not by the officials alone, but by the very men whom they were fighting. Our "Tommies" are not the men to waste praise on any men unless it is well deserved, but this is just about how "Tommy" sums up the situation:
"The Boer is a rough-looking beggar in the field, 'e don't wear no uniform, 'nd 'e don't know enough about soldiers' drill to keep himself warm, but 'e can fight in 'is own bloomin' style, which ain't our style. If 'e'd come out on the veldt, 'nd fight us our way, we'd lick 'im every time, but when it comes to fightin' in the kopjes, why, the Boer is a dandy, 'nd if the rest of Europe don't think so, only let 'em have a try at 'im 'nd see. But when 'e has shot you he acts like a blessed Christian, 'nd bears no malice. 'E's like a bloomin' South Sea cocoanut, not much to look at outside, but white 'nd sweet inside when yer know 'im, 'nd it's when you're wounded 'nd a prisoner that you get a chance to know 'im, see." And "Tommy" is about correct in his judgment.
The Boers have made most excellent provision for the treatment of wounded after battle. All that science can do is done. Their medical men fight as hard to save a British life or a British limb as medical men in England would battle to save life or limb of a private person. At the Bloemfontein Hospital everything is as near perfection, from a medical and surgical point, as any sane man can hope to see. It is an extensive institution. One end is set apart for the Boer wounded, the other for the British. No difference is made between the two in regard to accommodation—food, medical attendance, nursing, or visiting. Ministers of religion come and go daily—almost hourly—at both ends. Our men, when able to walk, are allowed to roam around the grounds, but, of course, are not allowed to go beyond the gates, being prisoners of war. Concerning our matron (Miss M.M. Young) and nurses, all I can say is that they are gentlewomen of the highest type, of whom any nation in the world might well be proud.
I have met one or two old friends since I came here, notably Lieutenant Bowling, of the Australian Horse, who is now able to get about, and is cheerful and jolly. Lieutenant Bowling has his right thumb shot off, and had a terribly close call for his life, a Mauser bullet going into his head alongside his right eye, and coming out just in front of the right ear. His friends need not be anxious concerning him; he is quite out of danger, and he and I have killed a few tedious hours blowing tobacco smoke skywards, and chatting about life in far off Australia. Another familiar face was that of an English private, named Charles Laxen, of the Northumberlands, who was wounded at Stormberg. I am told that he displayed excellent pluck before he was laid out, firstly by a piece of shell on the side of the head, and, later, by a Mauser bullet through the left knee. He is getting along O.K., but will never see service as a soldier again on account of the wounded leg.
I had written to the President of the Orange Free State, asking him to grant me my liberty on the ground that I was a non-combatant. Yesterday Mr. Steyn courteously sent his private secretary and carriage to the hospital with an intimation that I should be granted an interview. I was accordingly driven down to what I believe was the Stadt House. In Australia we should term it the Town Hall. The President met me, and treated me very courteously, and, after chatting over my capture and the death of my friend, he informed me that I might have my liberty as soon as I considered myself sufficiently recovered to travel. He offered me a pass via Lourenco Marques, but I pointed out that if I were sent that way I should be so far away from my work as to be practically useless to my paper. The President explained to me that it was not his wish nor the desire of his colleagues to hamper me in any way in regard to my work. "What we want more than anything else," remarked the President, "is that the world shall know the truth, and nothing but the truth, in reference to this most unhappy war, and we will not needlessly place obstruction in your way in your search for facts; if we can by any means place you in the British lines we will do so. If we find it impossible to do that you must understand that there is some potent reason for it." So I let that question drop, feeling satisfied that everything that a sensible man has a right to ask would be done on my behalf.
President Steyn is a man of a notable type. He is a big man physically, tall and broad, a man of immense strength, but very gentle in his manner, as so many exceptionally strong men are. He has a typical Dutch face, calm, strong, and passionless. A man not easily swayed by outside agencies; one of those persons who think long and earnestly before embarking upon a venture, but, when once started, no human agency would turn him back from the line of conduct he had mapped out for himself. He is no ignorant back-block politician, but a refined, cultured gentleman, who knows the full strength of the British Empire; and, knowing it, he has defied it in all its might, and will follow his convictions to the bitter end, no matter what that end may be. He introduced me to a couple of gentlemen whose names are very dear to the Free Staters, viz., Messrs. Fraser and Fischer, and whilst the interview lasted nothing was talked of but the war, and it struck me very forcibly that not one of those men had any hatred in their hearts towards the British people. "This," said the President, "is not a war between us and the British people on any question of principle; it is a war forced upon us by a band of capitalistic adventurers, who have hoodwinked the British public and dragged them into an unholy, an unjust struggle with a people whose only desire was to live at peace with all men. We do not hate your nation; we do not hate your soldiers, though they fight against us; but we do hate and despise the men who have brought a cruel war upon us for their own evil ends, whilst they try to cloak their designs in a mantle of righteousness and liberty." I may not have given the exact words of the President, as I am writing from memory, but I think I have given his exact sentiments; and, if I am any judge of human nature, the love of his country is the love of his life.
"STOPPING A FEW."
I saw him first, years ago upon a station in New South Wales; a neat, smart figure less than nine stone in weight, but it was nine stone of fencing wire full of the electricity of life. He was in the stockyard when I first saw him, working like any ordinary station hand, for it was the busy portion of the year, and at such times the squatters' sons work like any hired hand, only a lot harder, if they are worth their salt, and have not been bitten by the mania for dudeism during their college course in the cities. There was nothing of the dandy about this fellow. From head to heel he was a man's son, full of the vim of living, strong with the lust of life. The sweat ran down his face, dirty with the dust kicked up by the cattle in the stockyard. His clothes were not guiltless of mire, for he had been knocked over more than once that morning, and there was an edge upon his voice as he rapped out his orders to the stockmen who were working with him. He did not look in the least degree pretty, and there was not enough poetry about him just then to make an obituary jingle on a tombstone. I little thought that day that a time would come when he would prove the glory of his Australian breeding in the teeth of an enemy's guns on African soil.
I saw him again—under silk this time—as a gentleman rider. He was the same quiet, cool little fellow, grey-eyed, steel-lipped, stout-hearted, with "hands" that Archer might have envied. He rode at his fences that day as the Australian amateurs can ride, with a rip and a rattle, with the long, loose leg, the hands well down, and head up and back, and "Over or Through" was his motto. I did not know him to speak to in those old days. We were to shake hands under peculiar circumstances away in a foreign land, in a foreign hospital, both of us prisoners of war, both of us wounded. That was where and how I spoke to little Dowling, lieutenant in the First Australian Horse, as game a sample of humanity as ever threw leg over saddle or loosed a rifle at a foe. He came to my bedside the morning after I entered the hospital, and standing over me with a green shade over one eye, and one hand in a sling, said laconically:
"Australian ain't you?"
"Yes, by gad, and I know you." He reached out his left hand, and placed it in mine.
"Been 'stopping one'?" he remarked.
"Only a graze, thank God," I replied.
Then the matron and the German doctor, as fine a gentleman as ever drew breath, came along to have a look at me, and he was turned out; but we chummed, as Australians have a knack of doing in time of trouble, and I tried hard to get him to talk of his adventures, but he was a mummy on that subject. He would not yarn about his own doings on the fateful day when he was laid out, though he was eloquent enough concerning the doings of his comrades. All I could get out of him in regard to his own part in the fray was that his men and he had been ambushed, and that he had "stopped one" with his head, and one with his hand, and another with his leg, his horse had been killed, and he knew mighty little more about it until he found himself in the hands of the Boers, who had treated him well and kindly. I asked the matron about his wounds, and she told me that a bullet had entered the corner of his right eye, coming out by the right ear, ruining the sight for ever. Another had carried away his right thumb, and a couple had passed through his right leg, one just below the groin, another 'just above the knee. That was what he modestly termed "stopping a few."
After I had been in hospital a little while, the matron gave me leave to prowl about to pick up "copy," and my feet soon led me into the ward where the wounded Dutchmen were lying, and there I met a couple of burghers who had been in the melee when Dowling was gathered in. One of them was a handsome Swede, with a long blonde moustache, that fell with a glorious sweep on to his chest, as the Viking's did of old. He was an adventurer, who knew how to take his gruel like a man. He had joined the Boers because he thought they were the weaker side, and had done his best for them. He saw Dowling talking to me one day, and asked me if I knew the "little devil." "Yes," I replied, "we are countrymen." "Americans?" he asked. "No, Australians." He raised himself on his elbow, whilst I propped his shoulders up with pillows, and as he remained thus he gazed admiringly at the slight, boyish figure which limped lazily through the ward. "What a little tiger cat he is," muttered the recumbent giant. "I thought we'd have to kill him before we got him, and that would have been a shame, for I hate to kill brave men when they have no chance." "Tell me about it," I said. "He won't give me any information himself, only tells me he 'stopped a few.'" The big, handsome Swede laughed a mighty laugh under his great blonde moustache.
"Stopped a few, did he? If all your fellows fought it out to the bitter end as he did, we should run short of ammunition before the war was very old."
A Boer nurse came over and asked us "what nonsense we made one with the other, that we did laugh to ourselves like two hens clucking over one egg." The blonde giant turned his joyous blue eyes upon her, and paid her a compliment which caused her to bridle, whilst the blood swept like a race-horse in its stride over neck, and cheek, and brow, causing her dainty, girlish face to look prettier than ever. "Ah, little Eckhardt," he whispered, and then murmured something in Dutch. I did not understand the words, but there was something in the sound of the adventurer's voice which conjured up a moonlit garden, a rose-crowned gate swinging on one hinge, a girl on one side and a fool on the other. The nurse tossed her pretty head with its wealth of jet black hair, and as she smoothed his pillows with infinite care she murmured: "Fighting and making love, making love and fighting—it is all one to you, Karl. I know you, you big pirate; you are as a hen that lays away from home." And with that round of shrapnel she left us.
Karl got rid of a fourteen-pound sigh, which sounded like the bursting of a lyddite shell. Then he slipped his hand under his pillow and drew forth a flask of "Dop." "Drink to her," he said. "To whom?" I asked, falling in with the humour of the man. "To the girl I love," he muttered like a schoolboy. "Which one, Karl?" I asked, and I laughed as I spoke. He snatched the brandy from my hand, lifted the flask to his lips, and drank deeply. Then again his mighty laugh ran through the hospital ward. "Which one?" he said; "why, all of them, God bless them. But the maid that is nearest is always the dearest." "Shut up, you Goth," I said, "and tell me about Dowling, for some day I shall write the story, and I would like to hear it from the lips of one of his enemies." The Swede lay back upon his pillow, stroking the golden horns of hair that fell each side of his mouth, and I noticed that the lips which a little time before had been smiling into the face of the nurse were now hard set and stern. So I could have imagined him standing by the side of his gun, or rushing headlong on to our ranks. A man with a mouth like that could not flinch in the hour of peril if he tried, for his jaw had the Kitchener grip, the antithesis of the parrot pout of the dandy, or the flabby fulness of the fool.
"It was in the fore part of the day," he said at length. "We had been posted snugly overnight on both sides of two ranges of kopjes, for we knew that your fellows were going to attempt a reconnaissance next day. How did we know? you ask. Well, comrade, ask no questions of that kind, and I'll tell you no lies. The truth I won't tell you."
But we knew, and we were ready. We were disappointed when we saw the force, for we had expected something much bigger, and had made arrangements for a larger capture. It was only a troop of Australian Horse that came our way, and 'the little devil' was riding at their head. We bided our time, hoping that he might be followed by more men, and, above all, we expected and wanted some guns; but they did not put in an appearance, so we loosed upon the little troop. They were fairly ambushed; they did not know that a rifle was within miles of them until the bullets were singing through their ranks. Horses plunged suddenly forward, reared, lurched now to the near side, now to the off, then blundered forward on their heads, for many of our men fired at the chargers instead of at the riders. Dowling's horse went down with a bullet between the flap of the saddle and the crease of the shoulder, and the little chap went spinning over his head amongst the rocks. But a good many saddles were empty. He was up in a moment, yelling to his men to ride for their lives, and they rode. We charged from cover, and rode down on the men who had fallen, and as we closed in on them your countryman lifted his rifle and loosed on us.
"One of our fellows took a flying shot at him at close quarters, for his rifle was talking the language of death, and that is a tongue no man likes to listen to. The bit of lead took him in the eye and came out by his ear, and down he went. But he climbed up in a moment, and his rifle was going to his shoulder again, when I fired to break his arm, and carried his thumb away—the thumb of the right hand, I think. The rifle clattered on to the rocks, but as we drew round him he pulled his revolver with his one good hand, and started to pot us. He looked a gamecock as he stood there in the sunlight, his face all bathed in blood, and his shattered hand hanging numbed beside him. So we gave him a couple in the legs to steady him, and down by his dead horse he went; but even then he was as eager for fight as a grass widow is for compliments, and it was not until Jan Viljoens jammed the butt of his rifle on the crown of his head that he stretched himself out and took no further part in that circus. We carried him into our lines, and handed him over to our medical man, though even as we gathered him up our scouts came galloping in to tell us that a big body of British troops were advancing to cut us off from our main body. But we knew that if we left him until your ambulance people found him, it was a million to one that he would bleed to death amongst the rocks, and he was too good a fighter and too brave a fellow to be left to a fate like that. Had he shown the white feather we might have left him to the asvogels."
"And so," said I, "that is how little Dowling, son of Australia, came, as he said, 'to stop a few' for the sake of his breeding. If I live, the men out in the sunny Southland shall hear how he did it, and his name shall be known round the gold-hunters' camp fires, and be mentioned with pride where the cattle drovers foregather to talk of the African war and the men who fought and fell there."
AUSTRALIA AT THE WAR.
Lately I have been over a very considerable tract of country in the saddle. I might remain at one spot and glean the information from various sources, but do not care to do my business in that manner, simply because one is then at the mercy of one's informants. I find it quite hard enough to get at the truth even when it is personally sought for. It is really astounding how lies increase and multiply as they spread from camp to camp. At one spot a fellow ventilates an opinion that a big battle will be fought next day at a certain spot; some other person catches a portion of the conversation, and promptly tells his neighbour that a big battle has taken place at the spot mentioned. A little later a passing train pulls up at that camp, and a party possessing a picturesque and vivid imagination at once informs the guard that a fearful fight has occurred, in which a General, a Colonel, twelve subs., and six hundred men have been killed on our side, with fourteen hundred wounded and nine hundred prisoners. The Boer losses are generally estimated at something like five times that number.
The guard tells the tale later on to some traveller, who embellishes it, and passes it along as a fact. He goes into details, tells harrowing stories concerning hair-raising escapes from shot and shell. He splashes the surrounding rocks with gouts of blood, and then shudders dismally at the sight his fancy has conjured up. When the thrilled listener has refreshed the tale-teller from his whisky flask, the romancist takes up the thread of his narrative once more, and tells how the Lancers thundered over the shivering veldts in pursuit of flying hordes of foemen, and for awhile, like some graveyard ghoul, he revels in the moans of the dying and the blood of the slain. Another pull at the flask sets him going again like clockwork, and he makes a vivid picture out of the thunder of the guns as our gallant (they are always gallant) fellows bombarded the enemy from the heights.
Then he switches off from the artillery, and tells a blood-curdling tale of Boer treachery and cowardice. He tells how the enemy held out the white flag to coax our men to stop firing. Then, in awe-inspiring tones, he sobs forth a tale of dark and dismal war, how our soldiers respected the white flag and rested on their arms, only to be mowed down by a withering rifle fire from the canaille who represent the enemy in the field. Having got so far, he does not feel justified in stopping until he has thrown in some flowery language concerning a Boer cannonade upon British ambulance waggons, full of wounded; from that he drifts by easy and natural stages to Dum-Dum bullets, and the robbing of the wounded, and insults to the slain. And that is very often the person who is quoted in newspaper interviews—as a gentleman who was an eye-witness, and etc., etc., etc.
And yet, for some reason which I have been unable to gauge, the military authorities talk of sending all correspondents away from the front. It seems to me that it would be far better to give bona fide newspaper men every reasonable opportunity of discovering the truth instead of hampering them in any way. I fail to see why Great Britain and her Colonies should be kept in the dark concerning the progress of the war, for all the foreign Powers will be well supplied with information from the Boer lines; and, if we are blocked, some at least of the British newspapers will most assuredly go to foreign sources for news, if they are not allowed to obtain it for themselves. Others will content themselves with news gathered haphazard, and the last state of the Army, as far as the public mind is concerned, will be far worse than the first.
Colonel Hoad, who commands the Australians at Enslin, has offered the seven hundred and sixteen men, who up to date have acted as infantry, to the authorities as mounted infantry, and the offer has been accepted, much to the delight of the men, all of whom are very eager to get into the saddle, as they imagine that when their mounts arrive they will get a chance to go into action. They have been practising horsemanship during the day, and did fairly well, as many of them are expert riders, many more are fair; but a few of them are more at home on a sand-heap than in a saddle. There are not many of the latter kind, however. They will soon knock into shape, for Colonel Hoad hates the sight of a slovenly horseman as badly as a duck hates a dust storm. He is an untiring rider himself, and will work the beggars who cannot ride until they can.
After the arrival in Capetown of the two celebrated soldiers, Lords Roberts and Kitchener, I made it my business to converse with as many Boers as possible in regard to the two Generals, and was astonished to find how much they knew concerning them. How, and from whom, they get information passes my comprehension, but the fact remains that they knew all over the country as soon, if not sooner, than we did that our great leaders had arrived. They do not seem to fear them, though they invariably speak of them as wonderful soldiers. "God and Oom Paul Kruger will look after us," is their creed. Their faith in President Kruger is simply boundless. Not only do they fancy that he is a man of dauntless courage, great sagacity, and indomitable will, but they really seem to think that he has God's special blessing concerning this war.
He is to the Boers what Mahomet was to the wild tribesmen of Arabia, and it is as impossible to shake their faith in him as it would be to shake their faith in the story of Mount Calvary. It is all very well for a certain class of writers to attempt to cast unbounded ridicule upon these men and their leader, but it is not by ridicule that they can be conquered. It is not by contemptuous utterances or by untrue reports that they can be overcome. It is not by belittling them that we can raise ourselves in the eyes of the men of to-day or ennoble ourselves upon the pages of history. It would be conduct more in accordance with the traditions of a great nation if we gave them credit for the virtues they possess and the courage they display.
It is hard to drag any sort of information from a Boer, whether bond or free, but from what I can pick up they are perfectly satisfied with what they have done up to date. They think that President Kruger has astonished the world, and they wag their heads, and give one to understand that the same old gentleman has a good many more surprises in store for us. It is impossible to get a direct statement of any kind from them, but by patching fragments together I incline to the opinion that they really count on Cape Colony rising when Kruger wants a rising. Personally, from my own limited observations, I would not give a fig of tobacco for the alleged loyalty of the Cape Colony. If I am correct, this "surprise" will give the enemy an additional force of 45,000 men, most of whom will be found able to ride well and shoot straight.
It is nonsense to say that they will only form a mob destitute of discipline and unprovided with officers. They will not be a mob, they will be guerilla soldiers of the same type that the North and South in America provided, and they will take a lot of whipping at their own peculiar tactics. As for officers—well, up to date, they have not gone short of them. It is true they do not bear the hallmark of any modern university, but they know how to lead men into battle, all the same. They wear no uniforms, neither do they adorn themselves with any of the stylish trappings of war, but they are brainy, resourceful men, highly useful if not ornamental. Like Oliver Cromwell's hard-faced "Roundheads," they are the children of a great emergency, not much to look at, but full of a "get there" quality, which many school-bred soldiers lack entirely.
I rode down to Belmont a couple of days ago, and had a look at the Canadians and Queenslanders, who are quartered there. They are all in excellent health and spirits, and seem to be just about hungry for a fight. The Munsters, who are quartered there, are simply spoiling for a brush with the enemy, and seem to be as full of ginger as any men I have ever seen.
And every one of them with whom I conversed—and I chatted with a good many of the burly young Irishmen—expressed a keen desire to meet in open fight the Irish brigade now fighting on the side of the Boers. Should it ever come to pass during the progress of the war, I devoutly hope that I may be handy to witness the struggle. It will not be a long-range fight if I am any judge of men and things; it will be settled at close quarters, and the "baynit and the butt" will play a prominent part in the melee.
A few of our New Zealand fellows got to close quarters with the enemy recently up Colesberg way, and they did just as we knew they would when it came to the crossing of steel. The Boers stormed the position, and the New Zealanders joined in the bayonet charge which drove them back. Our men had a couple killed and one or two wounded. The enemy left a goodish number of dead on the field when they retired, about thirty of whom met their fate at the bayonet's point. The British losses were small. There was nothing remarkable about the behaviour of the New Zealanders in action; they simply did coolly and well what they were ordered to do, and proved that they are quite as good fighting material as anything the Old Country can produce. The gravest misfortune which has yet befallen any of the Australians happened at the same locality, when eighteen New South Welshmen allowed themselves to be pinned in a tight place. Eight escaped, but the others are either prisoners or killed. We do not like the surrender business, and would rather see our men do as their fathers and grandfathers used to do—bite the motto, "No surrender," into the butts of their rifles with their teeth, and fight their way out of a hot corner. There has been a good deal too much of this throwing up of arms during the present campaign, and I hope that we shall hear less of it in the future.
We had a nasty night here at Enslin. Word reached our headquarters that three thousand mounted Boers were on the move towards our camp, which, for strategic purposes, is the most important between Methuen's column and De Aar. If the enemy could take Enslin they could make things very awkward for General Methuen, because they would then have him between two fires. As soon as the news came our fellows, with the Gordons, were ordered to occupy the surrounding heights. All night long, and well on into the day, we held them until we learned that the enemy had decided not to attack us. Had they done so they would have paid bitterly for their rashness, for the place is practically impregnable. A thousand resolute and skilful men, who knew how to use both rifle and bayonet, could hold the place against 20,000 of the finest troops in the world, providing the defenders were not hopelessly crushed by an immense artillery force.
General Hector Macdonald went through here the other day to take the command of the Highland Brigade, in the place of the late General Wauchope. The "Scots" who were with us lined up and gave the General a thrilling welcome, whilst our fellows, who are not usually demonstrative, crowded around the railway line to get a look at the brilliant soldier who, by sheer merit, dauntless pluck, and iron resolution, forced his way from the ranks to the high place he holds. The Australians had expected to see a gaunt, prematurely aged man, war-worn and battle-broken, and were surprised to see a dashing, gallant-looking man, who might in appearance comfortably have passed for five-and-thirty. The grey-clad men, in soft slouch hats, from the land of the Southern Cross, lounging about with pipes in their teeth, did not break into hysterical cheering—they are not built that way; they simply looked at the man whose full history every one of them knew as well as he knew the way into the front door of a "pub." But their flashing eyes and clenched hands told in language more eloquent than a salvo of cheers that this was their ideal man, the man they would follow rifle in hand up the brimstone heights of hell itself, if need be; aye, and stand sentry there until the day of judgment, if Hector Macdonald gave the order.
AUSTRALIA ON THE MOVE.
A complete change has come to the Australians who are in Africa under Colonel Hoad. We have left General Methuen's column, and joined that of General French. Formerly we were at Enslin, within sound of the guns that were fired daily at Magersfontein; now we are two hundred and twenty miles away, and are within easy patrolling distance of Colesberg.
Before we left Methuen's column we had one small night affair, which, however, did not amount to a great deal, though it has been very much exaggerated in local newspaper circles, and will, I fear, be unduly boomed in some of the Australian journals. The whole affair simply amounted to this. One hundred of the Victorian Mounted Rifles went out to make a demonstration towards Sunnyside, in Cape Colony, where a number of rebels were known to congregate. A hundred Queenslanders and Canadians were with them, when a corporal and a trooper of the Victorians saw an unarmed Boer and a nigger riding towards them in the twilight. The Boer, as soon as he was challenged, wheeled his horse and rode off at a gallop; our men rode after the runaway, but would not fire upon the white man because they thought he was simply a farmer who had got rather a bad scare at meeting armed men.
The Boer, however, played a deep game; he rode for a bit of a rise composed of broken ground, where, unknown to our scouts, a party of rebels lay concealed. As soon as the flying rebel was in safety the Boers opened fire, shooting Peter Falla, the trooper, twice through the arm, one bullet entering a few inches below the shoulder, the other shattering the bone a little way above the elbow. The corporal got away safely, taking his wounded comrade with him. Our fellows rode out and swept the veldt for miles, but saw no more of the enemy. So ended what has grandiloquently been termed "an Australian engagement," which, I may add, is just the kind of flapdoodle our troopers do not want. What they most desire on earth at present is an opportunity to show what they are made of. They don't want cheap newspaper puffs, nor laudatory speeches from generals. They want to get into grip with the enemy, and, as an Australian, let me say now that Imperial federation will get a greater shock by keeping these fine fellows out of action than by anything else that could happen under heaven. They did not come here on a picnic party, they did not come for a circus; they don't want a lot of maudlin sentiment wasted on them whilst they stay out of the firing line to mind the jam, or give the African girls a treat.
Mr. Chamberlain has made a good many mistakes in regard to the war, mistakes that will live in history when his very name is forgotten, but he need not add to them by alienating Australian sentiment by coddling men who came across the Indian Ocean to prove to the whole world that on the field of battle they are as good as their sires. Our fellows have got hold of a rumour (the prophets only could tell whence camp rumours originate) that instructions have been received from England that they are to be kept out of danger, and a madder lot of men you could not find anywhere between here and Tophet. They wanted to send a petition to Lord Roberts asking to be allowed to face the enemy, but though the officers are quite as sore as the men, they could not permit such a breach of discipline. So now the men ease their feelings by jeering at each other.
"What are we here fer, Bill?"
"Oh, get yer head felt; any fool knows why we are here. There's a blessed marmalade factory somewhere about, and we are going to mind it whilst the British Tommy does the fighting."
"Marmalade be d——!" chirruped a voice down the lines. "Think they'd trust us to look after anything so important?"
"Oh, you're a blessed prophet, you are," snarls the little bugler. "P'raps you'll tell us what our game is."
"Easy enough, little 'un. Our officers 've got to practise making mud maps in the dust with a stick, and we've got to fool around and keep the flies away."
"I suppose they'll keep us at this till the war's over, and then send us to England, 'nd give us a bloomin' medal, 'nd tell us then we are gory, crimson heroes. Ugh!" grunts a big West Australian with a face like a nightmare, and a voice that comes out of his chest with a sound like a steam saw coming through a wet log.
"Don't know about England 'nd the medal, 'Beauty,'" chirrups a Sydney gunner, "but I know what they'll give us in Australia if we go back without a fight."
"P'raps it'll be a mansion, or a sheep station, or a stud of racehorses," meekly suggests a tired-looking South Australian, with a derisive twist of his under lip.
"No, they won't present us with a racing stud," lisps the gunner, "but, by G——, they'll shy chaff enough at us to keep all the bloomin' horses between 'ere and 'ell, and the girls will send us a kid's feedin' bottle, as a mark of feelin' and esteem, every Valentine's Day for ten years to come, because of the glorious name we made for Australia on the bloody fields of war in Africa."
"Fields o' war—fields o' whisky 'nd watermelons! Oh, d—— it! I'm going ter stop writing ter my girl before she writes ter tell me that a white feather don't suit a girl's complexion in Australia."
He lifts his bugle, and sounds "Feed up" so savagely that the horses strain on their leg ropes and kick themselves into a lather as hot as their riders' tempers, the long, loose-limbed troopers move off, cursing artistically in their beards at the very thought of the roasting they will get from the witty-tongued, red-lipped girls of Australia, when—
They cross the rolling ocean, Back from the fields of war, To show the British medal They got for guarding a store.
To show the British medal On stations, towns, and farms, They got for guarding the marmalade, Far away from war's alarms.
To show the British medal, With a blush of angry shame, For which they went to risk their lives In young Australia's name.
To show the British medal, With a sneer that's half a sob, Ere they pawn it to their uncle, And go and drink the "bob."
When we received notice to move away from Enslin down the line through Graspan, Belmont, Orange River, to De Aar, our fellows were naturally very wrathful; they had done splendid work for many weeks up that way; they had dug trenches, sunk wells, drilled unceasingly; they had watched the kopjes and scoured the veldt, and all that they were told to do they did like soldiers—readily and uncomplainingly. The cold nights and the scorching days, the monotonous drudgery, found them always ready and willing, because they believed that when the order came for a great battle at Magersfontein, or an onward march to Kimberley, they would be in the thick of it. But for some reason, known only to those who gave the order, they were sent away from the front, and they felt it keenly. From De Aar they were sent on to Naauwpoort, and from this latter place they were forwarded on to Rensburg.
At Naauwpoort nearly all the Australians were mounted, and now acted as mounted infantry. The horses supplied are Indian ponies, formerly used by the Madras Cavalry. They are a first-class lot of cattle, well suited to the work that lies before them, and have evidently been selected by someone who knows his business a good deal better than a great number of his colleagues. General French inspected the men at Rensburg during the first day or two, and seemed fairly well satisfied with them, though, of course, they did not make a first-class show in their initial efforts on horseback. A great number of them rode well, but very few of them had ever gone through a course of mounted drill, and it will take a week or two to knock them into shape for this work; though, when once out of the saddle, they are not in any way inferior to the best British regiments I have seen. But they are keen to learn, and very willing, so that I expect to see them make wonderfully rapid strides towards efficiency as mounted men. They seem to feel that their only chance to get a fight is to become high grade soldiers, and to that end they will stand all the work that can be crowded into them. I have no idea what their future movements will be, nor do I think anyone else connected with the regiment has; but one thing seems certain, that sooner or later they will fall foul of the enemy in small skirmishing parties, as the kopjes for a length of twenty miles are infested by little bands of Boers, who have a knack of disappearing as soon as a British force draws near them, only, however, to crop up again in a fresh place, a short distance away.
For the Boer is a past master in this kind of warfare, and knows how to play his own game to perfection. What the Goorkha is in Indian warfare, so the Boer is in Africa. He does not fight in our style, but that does not say that he cannot fight, neither does it argue that he is devoid of courage. As a matter of fact, the more I have seen of this country, and note what the Boers have done in opposition to all the might of Great Britain, the more I am impressed with the idea that our alleged Intelligence Department wants cutting down and burning root and branch, for it must have been absolutely rotten, or unquestionably corrupt. We were led by members of this Department to believe that the Boer was a cowardly kind of veldt pariah, a degenerate offshoot of a fine old parent stock. Well, the Boer is nothing of the kind. He is not in any way degenerate. He is a good fighting man, according to his lights. He does not wear a stand-up collar, nor an eyeglass, nor spats to his veldtschoon. He does not talk with a silly lisp or an inane drawl. Therefore, the useless fellows whom Britain trusted with the important task of watching him and sizing him up counted him as a boor as well as a Boer—a mere country clod. But now, from the rocky hills, these clods, these sons of semi-white savages, laugh at us derisively, and answer our jeers with rifles that know how to speak in a language that even the bravest of our troops have learnt to understand—and respect.
I have a keen recollection of the last Franco-Prussian War. I remember how the English newspapers ridiculed the French military authorities because, whilst the Germans had accurate maps of every province within the French borders, the French themselves were grossly ignorant of their own territory. Now we can eat our own sarcasms and enjoy the bitter fruit of our own irony, for, thanks to the Intelligence Department connected with the War Office in Great Britain, we to-day stand precisely in the same position towards our African enemy as France did towards Prussia. A glance at the country through which I have recently passed shows only too clearly that, whilst Paul Kruger and his advisers knew our full strength to a man, we, on our part, knew nothing about him or the men, money, or ordnance at his command. We knew nothing of the country which had been patiently fortified by the best skilled military engineers in Europe. We know nothing of his rocky, well-fortified country, which lies behind that which we have already attacked. Our generals, instead of being supplied with maps covering every inch of country within the enemy's borders, have to gather information at the bayonet's point at a loss to the Empire in men, money, and in prestige. If our commanders blunder, who is to blame but the criminally negligent officials who have supplied them with false or foolish data to work upon? The Empire has been betrayed, either wilfully or through crass idleness upon the part of men who have dipped deeply into the Empire's coffers, and the nation should demand their impeachment, apart from their position, place, or power, and punishment of the most drastic kind should follow speedily in the footsteps of impeachment.
The failure of General Buller to relieve Ladysmith was not due to any want of sagacity on the part of that General. It was not due to any want of bravery on the part of his troops. The General is worthy of his rank, and worthy of the confidence of the nation, and his troops are as good as the men who, under the same flag, taught the Russians to respect the power of Britain. The cause of the failure lay mainly in the want of knowledge on our part concerning the strength of the country the Boers held, and the strength of the country they had to fall back upon when hard pressed.
That information the "Intelligence" Department ought to have been able to place in the hands of General Buller before he moved forward to the relief of the beleaguered garrison in Ladysmith. But they could not give what they had never possessed.
Right up to the present moment, when the Boers have been forced to meet our troops at close quarters, they have been found to possess no other arms than the rifle. This has given truth to the belief that the enemy as an attacking force is next door to useless, as no men, no matter how brave and determined, could do very much damage to first-class troops armed with the bayonet.
However, there is a whisper in the air that the Boers are not deficient in side-arms; it is rumoured that the President of the Boer Republic has immense supplies of offensive as well as defensive weapons safely placed away until they may be required Right up to date his war policy has been to remain passive, excepting in a few isolated positions, allowing the British to attack his generals in almost impregnable positions, and by so doing put heart into the burghers, and dishearten our forces. But should the tide of war continue to roll onward in his favour he may attempt to put in force the oft-told Boer threat, and try to sweep the British into the sea. Should that day dawn, it is rumoured that the enemy will be found well supplied with side-arms and with mercenaries trained to their use in one of the best schools that modern times have known. Where do these rumours come from? Well, a Boer prisoner, taunted perhaps by a guard, loses his temper and drops a hint, or a Boer farmer, exultant over the latest news of his countrymen's success, lifts the veil a little, and a jealously-guarded secret drops out; or, again, a Boer's wife or daughter, flinging a taunt at a cursed "Rooinek," allows her temper to run away with her discretion. There are a hundred ways in which such things get about; only straws, perhaps, but a straw can point the way windward. A talkative Kaffir who has been reared on a Dutch farm will at times give things away that would cost him his life if the length of his tongue was known to his master; especially will the nigger talk if his mouth be judiciously moistened with Cape smoke brandy.
Information that comes to a war correspondent's hand is of many colours, shapes, and sizes, but if he is born to the business he pieces the whole together and picks out what seemeth good to his own soul at the finish. Sometimes, at the end of a week's hard work, he finds himself possessed of a patchwork of information like unto Joseph's coat of many colours, but it is hard fortune indeed if he cannot find something in the lot to repay him for his earnest endeavours.
Scarcely had I returned from posting my last letter when the camp was in a commotion, caused by the news that the West Australians were in action at Slingersfontein, distant about twelve miles from Rensburg. To saddle up and get out as fast as horseflesh would carry a man was but the work of a very short period of time, for the gallop across the open veldt was not a very laborious undertaking. I soon found that the stalwart sons of the great gold colony were in it, and enjoying it.
Slingersfontein is an important position on the right flank of French's column. It is not only an important but a very hard position to hold on account of the nature of the country. Here there is but very little open veldt; mile after mile is covered by small kopjes that rise in countless numbers, until the whole country looks as if it were covered with a veritable forest of hills. Once inside that labyrinth of rocky excrescences, an army might easily be lost, unless every individual man and officer knew the place thoroughly. The Boers know the lay of the land, and, consequently, shift from post to post by paths that are unknown to anyone else with marvellous dexterity and incredible swiftness. Our forces hold a small plain, which is like the palm of a giant's hand, with the surrounding kopjes representing the digits. We hold those kopjes also. The shape of the camp is in the form of a horseshoe, all around the little basin great hills rise, and from those hills England's watch-dogs keep a sharp look-out on the movements of the foe; and well they need to, for, in ground which suits him, the African farmer is as 'cute and cunning as a Red Indian. Behind our position, or, rather, outside of it, there is another small tract of open country, but beyond that, lapping around our stronghold like a crescent, is rough, hilly ground. None of those hills is worth dignifying with the title of mountain, but all of them are big enough to shelter a hundred or two of the enemy, and it is there that they play their game of hide and seek, which is so trying to the nerves of young troops. The Boers hold that rough country entirely, and the outer edge of their semi-circle is not, at any given point, more than four miles from our centre at Slingersfontein.
The outer line of kopjes which skirt their stalking ground are bigger than the hills on the inner side, so that they have an excellent opportunity to conceal their movements from the observation of our most astute pickets, and the only way in which our commanding officer can locate the enemy with any degree of certainty is by making a reconnaissance in force, and, if possible, drawing their fire. If the Boers fall into this trap they invariably pay dearly for the slight advantage they gain over the investigating force, for our guns soon make any known position untenable. The Boer leaders know this, however, and are very loth to allow temptation to overcome discretion; but at times, either through the impetuosity of their troops or through errors in generalship, they give themselves away entirely, and that is precisely what they did upon this occasion.
By means only known to those high up in authority, our people had become acquainted with the fact that the enemy intended to try to extend their line on our right flank, and so threaten us not only upon the left flank, the direct front, and right flank, but also in the rear. Could they succeed in doing this they would have us in a peculiarly tight place, as, once posted in force well down on our right flank, they would then at least be able to harass us badly in our communications with Rensburg, which is our main base of operations. It is there that the General has his headquarters; it is from there that we keep in touch, per medium of the railway and telegraph lines, with the rest of the British Army in South Africa. It is from there that we draw all our supplies of fodder and ammunition. It is from there we should draw all our additional force if we needed reinforcements in case of a general assault by the enemy upon our position at Slingersfontein, and it is from there that we should be strengthened should we decide to make a forward move on the Boers' position. Therefore it behoved us to keep that line of communication intact, no matter what the cost. All these things were as well known to the Boer leader as to us, and that is why they were as keen to get the position as we were, and why we are keen to stop them from accomplishing their object.
It was for the purpose of ascertaining just what the enemy intended to do, and how many men they had to do it with, that Major Ethoran ordered out the West Australian Mounted Infantry, consisting of about 75 men, under Captain Moor, an Imperial soldier in the pay of the West Australian Government, and a small body of Inniskilling Dragoons and Lancers, with a section of the Royal Horse Artillery and two guns. The men moved out of Slingersfontein on Tuesday about midday, and at once proceeded towards a farmhouse located right under the very jowl of an ugly-looking kopje.
This farm was known as Pottsberg, and was well known as a regular haunt of the most daring and dangerous rebels in the whole district. The farm consisted of the usual white stone farmhouse of five or six rooms, a small orchard, surrounded by rough stone walls from three feet six to four feet in height, and about two feet thick, a small cluster of native huts, and a kraal for cattle, made of rough, heavy stones, topped by cakes of sun-baked manure, stored by the farmers for fuel. Some little distance from the back of the farmhouse a stout stone wall ran down from the kopjes on to the plain. This wall was between four and five feet in height and half a yard across in its weakest place—an ugly barricade in itself—behind which a few resolute men with quick-firing rifles, which they know how to use, could make a good stand against vastly superior numbers advancing upon them from the open veldt.
When our fellows trotted out from camp, Captain Moor received orders to distribute his men in small bodies all along the edge of the kopjes between Pottsberg farmhouse and Kruger's Hill, a small kopje lying almost in a line with our camp, on the right. The men were ordered to go as close as possible to the enemy's position, to see as much as they could possibly see in regard to the numbers of troops in the hills held by the enemy. If they succeeded in discovering the rebels in large bodies they were to draw their fire and immediately retreat at full speed. In the meantime the two guns belonging to the Royal Horse Artillery were beautifully placed in a dip in the veldt, where they could play upon the Boers should they attempt to rush the West Australians at any given point. The Lancers and Dragoons were placed in charge of some kopjes behind the guns, in order to protect them should a concerted onslaught be made upon them by the mounted Boers, who were shrewdly suspected to be in hiding in strong force behind the first row of hills, which screened the enemy's position.
The Australians rode out steadily, and took up their positions with an amount of coolness that startled older soldiers. This was absolutely their first trial on real fighting service, and everybody connected with them was anxious to see how they would comport themselves in the face of the enemy. Not only was it their first fighting effort, but it was their debut in the saddle, as until a week previous they had been simply infantrymen, and not a dozen of them had ever been in the hands of a mounted drill instructor. It was a big task to set such green men, but they proved before the day was out that they were worthy of the confidence reposed in them. Captain Moor, Lieutenant Darling, and Lieutenant Parker each took a small section into action; the others were under the immediate control of their sergeants. They split up into small parties, and swept the very edge of the kopjes, peering into gullies, climbing the outer hills, working along the ravines with a courage and thoroughness that would have done credit to the oldest scouts in all the Empire. Yet nothing came of their investigations for quite a long time. The enemy did not mean to be drawn, and remained passive, so that the West Australians at last became a little bit reckless, and were consequently not so guarded as they might have been. All at once a body of scouts ran upon a large body of the enemy near Pottsberg Farm, in a deep and shady ravine. The enemy were trying to evade notice, but that was now impossible. In a moment rifles were ringing on the air, and after that first volley the little band of Australians wheeled and galloped for the open country. To have remained there would have meant certain death to every one of the half-dozen who comprised the picket, so they did their duty—they fired and rode for the veldt. In a few seconds Boers were dashing out of the kopjes on all sides, trying to cut the small band of Australians off or shoot them down. But the Australians knew their game; they opened out, so that each man was practically riding alone.
The Boers could do little with them. Those who stood by the guns noticed that very large numbers of men in the Boer ranks were either niggers or half-castes, and it was also very noticeable that they knew but little about the use of the rifle. They fired high and wide, and notwithstanding the fact that they poured their ammunition away in wholesale fashion, they did little harm worth mentioning, although many of them fired at little more than pistol range. They were simply crazed with excitement, and did not succeed in cutting off a single member of that adventurous band. Whenever an Australian found himself in a tight place he simply dug his spurs into his horse's flanks, lifted his rifle, and blazed into the ranks of the foe. If his horse was shot dead under him he coo-eed to his mates, and kept his rifle busy, and every time the coo-ee rang out over the whispering veldt the Australians turned in their saddles, and riding as the men from the South-land can ride, they dashed to the rescue, and did not leave a single man in the hands of the enemy. Many a gallant deed was done that day by officers and men. Captain Moor gave one fellow his horse, and made a dash for liberty on foot, but he would have failed in his effort had not Lieutenant Darling, a West Australian boy, ridden to his aid, and together the two officers on the one horse got back to the shelter of the guns. The enemy still blazed away in the wildest and most farcical fashion. Had they been Boer hunters or marksmen very few of the West Australians would ever have got across that strip of veldt alive. As it was, only two of them got wounded, none were killed, one or two horses were shot dead, and then the big guns got to work in grim earnest.