WITH STEYN AND DE WET
OF THE TRANSVAAL TELEGRAPH SERVICE
METHUEN & CO. 36 ESSEX STREET W.C. LONDON 1902
THE ELEVENTH OF OCTOBER 3
FIRST IMPRESSIONS 8
SPION KOP 32
GLORIOUS WAR 42
PIETERS' HEIGHTS 47
THE FREE STATE 60
LINDLEY TO HEILBRON 68
VELD INCIDENTS 76
TAPPING THE WIRES 87
I MEET DE WET 93
OFF TO THE TRANSVAAL 111
ARRESTED AS SPIES 121
IN THE MOUNTAINS 131
THROUGH THE CORDON 139
WE ENTER POTCHEFSTROOM 156
DE WET ONCE MORE 161
END OF THE REGULAR WAR 168
WITH STEYN AND DE WET
Here in the quiet old convent of Thomar, the Convento de Christo, the strife of the past months seems like a dream. Wandering through the long corridors, with their bare, empty apartments, gazing by the hour on paintings faded and torn, the work of long dead and forgotten masters, dwelling on marvels of ancient architecture, resting the eyes on peaceful landscapes and hearing the sweet murmur of falling waters, the scenes of war seem distant and remote.
The heart but so lately harrowed by the devouring emotions of anger, hate, and the lust of blood, now soothed by the sympathy of the kindly Portuguese, is lulled into harmony with the surrounding scenes of peace and beauty. Only the thought of our ravaged country, struggling still for dear life, though forced upon her knees, brings back the claims of duty and the yearning to be up and doing, to enter once more the ranks of the foemen and strike another blow for liberty.
Hopeless! Yet where is the Boer—prisoner, exile, or renegade—even he!—who does not dream by nights he feels once more the free veld air upon his brow, lives again the wild night rides beneath twinkling stars? He feels once more his noble steed bound beneath him, grips again his comrade's welcoming hand, and wakens with a bitter sigh.
Some consolation, then, to recall blows already struck, and duty fairly done.
THE ELEVENTH OF OCTOBER
When war appeared inevitable the spirit of the Boers rose to support them in their hour of trial, and only sentiments of patriotism and defiance were felt and expressed. Joy at the opportunity of proving once and for ever their ability to defend themselves and consequent right to independence, regret for friendships about to be severed—these were the chief emotions of the younger generation. The elder thought of past wrongs, long cherished, and silently took down the rifle from behind the door.
The women, ever strong in national spirit, lent the aid of their encouragements and prayers. Sons wept that they were too young to accompany their fathers on commando.
Yet there came a moment when for the space of a minute a mighty shadow seemed to brood over the land, and the cold chill of coming evil struck the nation as if from the clouds. A message had been despatched from Pretoria to every corner of the country. One word only: War!
The blow had fallen. Nothing could avert a sanguinary struggle. Well the burghers knew the overwhelming strength of the foe, but they went blithely forth to meet their fate, strong in a sincere confidence in Providence. If the worst came to the worst, well, "'twere better to have fought and lost, than never to have fought at all!"
Of all the branches of the Transvaal Civil Service there was not one that stood higher in the public estimation at that moment, nor one that distinguished itself more during the war, than that to which I had the honour to belong—the Department of Telegraphs. Equipped with the most up-to-date instruments, composed almost equally of picked men from England and Holland and of well-trained young Colonials and Transvaalers, under an energetic chief, our department proved itself, both before and during the war, second to none, and, the Afrikander portion at least, worthy of the confidence of the Government.
I had just been transferred from Johannesburg to Pilgrimsrest, a quaint little one-street village near the Portuguese frontier, one of the oldest alluvial diggings of the early days, and now the centre of an important mining district. Here we heard that our commandoes had invaded the enemy's territory in every direction, and news of the preliminary engagements was awaited with breathless interest. The male inhabitants of the village often spent entire nights under the verandah of the telegraph office, and the importance of the telegraphist suddenly grew almost too great to bear with becoming modesty.
One Sunday morning, however, the office wore a deserted look. The Dutch inhabitants were engaged in courteously escorting those of British birth or sympathies over the border, and I was alone. After a long interval of silence the instrument began ticking off a message—
Then came the list of the fallen. Name after name of well-known men fell like lead upon the ear. Finally my colleague at the other end gently signalled that of my uncle, followed by the sympathetic remark: "Sorry, old man."
I could write no more. What, my uncle dead! General Kock, Major Hall, Advocate Coster—all dead! It seemed impossible. We could not understand it, this first initiation of ours into war's horrible reality.
Within a week reinforcements were despatched from our district. I obtained a few weeks' leave of absence and accompanied them.
We were an interesting band. Two hundred strong, we counted among our number farmers, clerks, schoolmasters, students, and a publican. My mess consisted of a Colonial, an Irishman, a Hollander, a German, a Boer, and a Jew. It must not be imagined, however, that we were a cosmopolitan crowd, for the remaining hundred and ninety-four were nearly all true Boers, mostly of the backwoods type, extremely conservative, and inclined to be rather condescending in their attitude towards the clean-shaven town-dwellers. The almost universal respect inspired by a beard or a paunch is a poor tribute to human discernment.
Every mess possessed one or two ox-waggons, loaded with a tent, portmanteaux, trunks, foodstuffs, and ammunition. We made about twenty miles daily, passing through Lydenburg, Machadodorp, Carolina, and Ermelo, and reached Volksrust on the fourteenth day. During the march we learnt that heavy fighting had taken place in Natal, Dundee being taken and Ladysmith invested, and a strong commando had actually made a reconnaissance as far down as Estcourt.
General Joubert, who had bruised himself in the saddle during the latter expedition, was now recruiting his health here in Volksrust. I went to see him, and found him installed in a railway carriage, and looking very old and worn. I showed him a telegram instructing me to apply to him for a special passport enabling me to return when my leave expired.
He said, "Others want leave to go home; you ask for leave to come to the front. But your time is so short, it is hardly worth while. Still, I am glad to see such a spirit among you young people."
Turning to his secretary, he ordered the passport to be made out. This was done in pencil on the back of my telegram. The general signed, handed me the document, and shook my hand. I thanked him, and left, highly gratified.
We entrained that afternoon, slept in the carriages at Newcastle, reached Ladysmith, or rather our station nearest Ladysmith, the following day, disentrained, rode into camp, reported ourselves for duty, and went on outpost the same night.
Our chief concern was whether we, as novices, would bear ourselves well in our first engagement. Speaking to an old campaigner on the subject, he said—
"Tell me candidly, how do you feel?"
"Well, rather nervous."
"Ah! Now, I can tell you a man who feels nervous before a fight is all right, because he has some idea of what he is going to meet. It is the reckless recruit that often proves a coward. He fancies it a mere bagatelle, and finds out his mistake too late."
This rather encouraged us, for, to tell the truth, we felt anything but reckless.
One evening about twenty of us were sent off to keep watch in a Kafir kraal near the town. In one of the huts we found a Kafir lying sick, and too weak to rise. He told us the former outpost had always brought him something to eat, but now they had not come for some days, and he had begun to think himself doomed to die of starvation, or, worse still, of thirst. We soon made up a collection of biscuits and cold tea, and I am happy to say that henceforth the poor creature's wants were daily supplied.
A rather peculiar adventure befell us here a few days later. The sun had already set when we reached the spot where we were to stand guard during the night. We dismounted, and two men went forward on foot to reconnoitre. After a while they returned with the startling news that the enemy was approaching in force. They were sent forward again to make sure, and again returned, saying there could be no doubt about the matter.
"We heard the rumble of an approaching train, the march of cavalry, and saw the glint of arms between the trees!"
This was definite enough. A man was instantly despatched to alarm the main laager, while the rest of us followed leisurely. We were about half-way back when the messenger returned with an additional twenty-five men and an order that we were instantly to return to our post; if in possession of the enemy, to retake and hold it until relieved.
A very tall order, and more than one man uttered the belief that discretion was the better part of valour, and that there was no humour in attacking numberless Britons with fifty men. We braced up our nerves, however, retraced our steps, and presently reached the vicinity of the kraal. Two men crept up close and came back to say the place was full of English. Leaving the horses in charge of a few men, we crept forward and surrounded the kraal. Each sought a suitable shelter and laid himself down to await the dawn. It was now about midnight. The next four hours passed very slowly, lying there in the cold and with the expectation of a desperate struggle in the morning. We thought how brave we were, and how sorry our general would be when he heard how we had all been shot down to a man, and how in after years this night attack of ours would rank with the charge of the Light Brigade. We hoped Chamberlain would die soon after us, so that we could meet his soul in the great Beyond and drag it through a sieve.
What was our surprise to find when it grew light that there had never been an Englishman near! The whole thing from beginning to end was only another false alarm, and all our valour had been wasted.
This kind of alarm was rather frequent at the time. A burgher woke up one night to find himself being roughly shaken and someone shouting in his ear—
"What are you doing? Get up, quick! Don't you hear the alarm?"
"Yes, another false one, I daresay," turning over for another nap. Happening to open his eyes, he became aware for the first time that he was speaking to no one less than General Joubert himself!
The poor fellow did not argue the point any further, but forthwith fled into the night, glad to get off at that price.
One morning two of us were returning from our usual swim when suddenly we saw the whole camp a beehive of commotion, burghers running to and fro, saddling their horses, shouting at each other, and generally behaving with a great lack of decorum—like madmen, in fact, or members of the Stock Exchange. Hastening on, we heard that the enemy were coming out to attack us. We hastily seized our nags, and in five minutes were on top of the nearest hill between ourselves and the enemy, who could be seen approaching three thousand yards away. We formed ourselves into groups, and each group packed itself a low wall of the loose stones lying about.
One German, armed with a Martini-Henry, found himself shunned by all his comrades on account of his cartridges not containing smokeless powder, and was obliged to entrench himself on his own at some distance from the rest. The poor fellow was the butt of all the primitive humourists from the backwoods, and was assured with much solemnity that his rifle would draw all the British fire in his direction, and that he was as good as dead already. Thorny is the path of glory!
The British guns in Ladysmith opened fire as their cavalry advanced, the shells falling a few hundred yards to our right, on a hill whence our cannon had lately been removed.
When within two thousand yards the enemy suddenly wheeled to the left and were quickly out of sight between the hills. They found the Pretoria men there, and came back helter-skelter to the accompaniment of rapid rifle firing. First one saddle and then another was emptied as they raced across from right to left, making for a low scrub-covered kopje.
In this kopje a party of our men were concealed. With keen interest we watched the scene, waiting to see the enemy caught in the trap. Then a volley burst from the brush. Like a flash the horsemen wheeled and raced back into Ladysmith. The volley had been fired too soon.
A few mornings later we heard that during the night something very serious had taken place on Lombard's Kop. Being a sort of free lance, I immediately saddled my pony and rode in that direction. Presently I met two Boers on horseback.
"Morning, cousins." (Cousin is a title of courtesy used in addressing one's equal in age. Elder men are called "uncle.")
"Morning, cousin. Of what people may cousin be?"
"Of the telegraph service. And cousins?"
"Of the artillery."
"Something happened up there last night?"
"Yes. The English came and blew up our Long Tom!"
"How was that possible?"
"We can think what we like. Why was the burgher guard absent? It is shameful!"
We returned to camp together. The news had now been made public, and formed the one theme of discussion. Much credit was given the enemy for their audacity, but there was a strong suspicion that treachery had been at work. The ensuing court-martial resulted in two officers being suspended from duty only, although there were many trees about.
A few days later I went to see my brother, who was stationed on Pepworth Hill, some six miles to our right. He belonged to the Artillery Cadets, who at the beginning of the war had been distributed amongst the various guns in order to give them practical experience. Of the four that were attached to this gun two had already been wounded. It was glorious to see these lads of fifteen and sixteen daily withstanding the onslaught of the mighty naval guns. The rocks around their howitzer were torn by lyddite, and the ground strewn with shrapnel bullets.
"The British say we are trained German gunners. Quite a compliment to Germany!" said one youngster laughingly.
"And I," said another, inflating his chest, "am a French or Russian expert! Dear me, how we must have surprised them!"
They showed me how they crushed their coffee by beating it on a flat stone. Their staple food was bully beef and hard biscuits.
"If only we had some cigarettes," they said, "how gay we should be! Last week we got some sugar, enough for two days; we are so sick of black, bitter coffee!"
A severe thunderstorm now broke overhead, and as I had to go on duty that night I took leave of my friends. They had no tents, and had to find the best shelter they could under tarpaulins stretched between the rocks.
Riding along, I soon found my raincoat soaked through. The water began to rush along the path, and the loud, incessant pealing of the thunder and the rapidly succeeding and fearfully vivid lightning flashes so terrified my horse that it refused to move a step. Dismounting, I led the animal through the blinding rain for upwards of an hour, when I reached camp, to find the outpost already gone. I took off my streaming garments, and turned into my warm bed. At midnight the flap of the tent was opened, and I was ordered to turn out and stand guard. Our effects were still at Volksrust. Drawing on a soaking wet pair of heavy corduroy breeches in the middle of the night is one of the least delicious experiences possible, as I found to my cost, to say nothing of sitting in them on an antheap for a couple of hours with a chilly rain falling.
In the morning came the news that the enemy had again surprised and blown up one of our guns—none other than the howitzer visited by me the previous evening. Presently the young cadets themselves came riding into camp, bringing with them pieces of guncotton, and showing by the state of their ragged uniforms the hand-to-hand nature of the struggle that had taken place.
One of them said in answer to my inquiries—
"We heard someone climbing the hill in the night, and challenged. It was the British. They shouted 'Rule Britannia!' and rushed up to the top. We fired into them. We were too few. By sheer weight of numbers they forced us aside. One of the artillerymen was dragged by the leg from his sleeping-place. He shook himself free, and bolted. The soldiers formed a square round the gun, charged it with guncotton, shouted 'Stand back!' and the next moment our gun was crashing through the sky. It all happened in a moment. Then the enemy retired, followed by some burghers, who had by this time arrived from the laager at the back of the hill. The Pretoria commando was also waiting for them, and intercepting their retreat, made them pay dearly enough for their exploit."
One day our scouts made a splendid haul, bringing into camp that celebrated, devil-may-care animal, the war-correspondent. His story was that he had wandered out of Ladysmith with a packet of newspapers—"merely to exchange notes and to challenge you for a cricket match!"
Squatted on the ground, crowds of bearded Boers gazing at him with fierce interest, he looked anything but comfortable, and no wonder, for the word spion was often uttered. His colour was a pale green, while his teeth chattered audibly. He was subsequently sent to Pretoria, and thence exiled to civilisation, via Delagoa Bay.
On the same day we captured three natives bearing British despatches. As these runners were giving considerable trouble, it was decided to execute one and send the other two to spread the news among their friends—black and white.
The grave was already dug, when General Joubert, always against harsh measures, decided to spare the Kafir's life. The contrast between the bearing of this savage and that of the war-correspondent was most striking.
Sometimes the merits of the different commandoes would be discussed. The palm was generally awarded to the Irish Brigade and the Johannesburg Police, two splendid corps, always ready for anything, and possessing what we others painfully lacked—discipline.
The burghers used to relate with much relish a story of how one day the British shells came so fast that even our artillerymen did not dare leave their shelter to bring up ammunition for the gun; how two of those devils of Irishmen sprang to the task, and showed how death should be faced and danger conquered. Erin for ever!
Buller now began to press his advance on the Tugela, and his searchlight could nightly be seen communicating with the besieged; long official messages in cipher, and now and then a pathetic little message, "All well, Edith sends love," would flash against the clouds, causing us to think of other scenes than those before us.
On the tenth of December a heavy bombardment was heard from the Tugela. On happening to pass the telegraph office at two o'clock, a colleague called to me—
"Buller has tried to cross the river; he is being driven back. Ten of his guns are in danger, and as soon as the sun sets our men are going over to take them!"
This was news indeed.
"Which is the road to Colenso?"
"Round those hills, then straight on."
"Thanks, good-bye," and off I went, determined to see those guns taken.
About four hours' hard riding, then a tent by the wayside, the red cross floating above. An ambulance waggon has just arrived, bringing a few wounded. I must be close to the battlefield now, but I hear no firing. What can have happened?
Half an hour further. I see the fires of a small camp twinkling in a gully to my left, and make my way thither. It is pitch dark. As I approach the camp I hear voices. It is Dutch they are speaking. Then several dim shapes loom up before me in the darkness.
"Hello! What commando is this?"
"Hello, is that you? By Jove, so it is! I thought I knew the voice," and dashing Chris Botha shakes my hand.
"It is you, commandant! Where are those ten guns?"
"Oh, that's what you're after. Sorry, but we took them early in the afternoon. Never mind, come along into camp. You'll see enough in the morning."
In the camp they had six Connaught Rangers—a captain, lieutenant, and four men, about four of the lot wounded. They alone of all their regiment had managed to reach the bank of the Tugela—Bridle Drift, about two hundred yards from the trenches of the Swaziland commando. Finding no shelter in the river bank, exhausted, wounded almost to a man, they ceased firing, whereupon our men left them in peace until the end of the fight, when they were brought over and complimented upon their pluck.
"I'm tired out after to-day's work," Botha said, "but there's no help for it. I must sleep in the trenches again to-night. Walk down with me, your friends down there will be glad to see you."
After an hour's walk—it seemed more like a week—we reached the trenches, where the young heroes of the Swaziland commando made me welcome. I asked them about the day's fighting, but they said—
"Too tired to talk to-night, old man. Turn in; to-morrow will do."
We turned in, and slumbered undisturbed by any thought of the blood shed that day.
Early the next morning we waded through the river, wearing only a hat and shirt, and carrying our topboots over the shoulder. Dozens of Boers were splashing about in the water, enjoying themselves like so many schoolboys. Lying strewn about on the other side were scores of dead bodies; by the side of each fallen soldier lay a little pile of empty cartridge cases, showing how long he had battled before meeting his doom. Some lay with faces serenely upturned to the smiling sky, others doubled up in the agony of a mortal wound, with gnashing teeth fixed in a horrid grin, foam-flecked lips, and widely staring eyes.
Horrible, in truth, but most awful of all was the soul-sickening stench of human blood that infected the air. We soon turned back, unable to bear it any longer.
"Did your commando lose many men?" I asked my companion.
"Only two, strange to say. Wonderful; can't explain it."
"How did you feel during the fight?"
"When we saw the vast number of soldiers steadily approaching, and heard the thunderous explosion of hundreds of shells, we knew we were in for a hot time. Our small commando could never have retreated over the four miles of open country behind us. There was only one thing to be done—fight. And we fought—fought till our gun-barrels burnt our hands and our throats were parched with thirst—the excitement of it all!"
"Could you see when your bullet went home?"
"You noticed that soldier lying behind the antheap, a hole in his forehead? That man worried us a good deal. He could shoot, the beggar! Well, two of us fixed our rifles on the spot and waited till he raised his head; then we fired. You know the result."
Boys talking, mere boys, who should have been thinking of flowers, music, and love, instead of thus taking a grim delight in the stern lessons of war.
Saying au revoir to my friends, I now rode over to the telegraph office a few miles lower down. The operators were transmitting piles of messages to and from anxious relatives, and were not sorry to see someone who could lend them a hand. The chief of the department happened to be there at the time. He immediately placed me in harness. I wired to my field-cornet at Ladysmith saying I was unavoidably detained, as the phrase goes, and the next few weeks passed quietly by, long hours and hard work, it is true, but on the other hand pleasant companions and a splendid river, with boating and swimming galore.
One morning a score of Theron's scouts passed by, their famous captain at their head. One of them—an old friend—reined in long enough to tell me they were off to lie in wait for a small British patrol, which, a native had told them, daily passed a certain spot suitable for an ambuscade.
In the afternoon the same band returned, several on foot, and carrying someone in a blanket. What was my surprise to find that this was no other than poor Harry C——!
The native had misled them, and the surprise had been the other way about. My friend had received a bullet through the stomach, a wound which appeared necessarily fatal. He was laid down in a tent. Theron bent over him, his eyes filling with compassionate tears. "How now, Harry?"
"Awful pain, captain."
To break the news gently we wired home that he was only slightly wounded. This turned out to have been wiser than we knew, for, to our joy, Harry lingered on, rallied, and finally recovered, a triumph of medical skill.
In Natal itself the situation was satisfactory, but the course of events elsewhere made the speedy capture of Ladysmith imperative. It was accordingly decided to make an attack on Platrand, or Waggon Hill, as the British call it. If we could gain this hill the town would be at our mercy.
The plan of attack was simple in the extreme. The Free Staters would climb one side, the Transvaalers the other, and Louis Botha himself ride over from Colenso with a reserve of three hundred men.
Our chief determined to view this fight, and agreed to take me along. It had been arranged that the attack should take place on the 6th of January. In the afternoon of the 5th we took the road to Ladysmith, travelling in a light mule-waggon, our horses tied alongside.
Near Nelthorpe a small commando passed us. Knowing very well what errand they were bound upon, we yet thought fit to ask them where they were off to. "Oh, nowhere particular," was the answer. "Out for exercise, that's all." This discretion was most commendable, for in our mixed forces spying must have been easy and frequent.
We pitched tent for the night, and at three the next morning saddled our horses and followed the spoor of the commando. Presently, encountering a Kafir holding half a dozen horses, we asked him where the owners were. He pointed to a hill near by, where we found the gallant Villebois, the kindly Oberst von Braun, and ill-fated von Brusewitz. Little did we think at the time that the latter would meet his death a few weeks later on Spion Kop and the former shortly fall at Boshof!
It was growing light, and we could see, lying on our right, the neutral camp; further away, on Bulwana, our biggest gun, where we knew General Joubert was standing, his wife by his side.
Straight before us lay the key to Ladysmith—Platrand, whence now and again came the sharp rat-tat of the Metford, followed by the Mauser's significant cough.
Through our glasses we espied six helmeted men slowly retreating up the mountain, pausing at every dozen yards to fire a volley at some invisible enemy. Three of them reached the top. The sentries were being driven in.
General Botha now arrived with the reserve force. All dismounted.
"Put your horses out of sight," were his first words to his men, "they will draw the enemy's fire."
Scarcely had he spoken when a shrapnel shell burst overhead, and three horses were lying on their backs, snorting and kicking. Then came another and another. Both went wide. The animals were quickly led behind the hill, and the three wounded put out of their pain.
Taking the best shelter possible, we gazed upon the drama being unfolded before us.
The attack was now in full swing. The grating British volleys, the ceaseless mill of independent firing, the sharp flash of the British guns, the fierce whirr of our French shells, the deep boom of Long Tom resounding through the valleys. Who can describe it all?
Yet hardly a single combatant could be discerned. Attacked and attackers alike were invisible. One soldier only stood in plain view on the crest of the hill, signalling with a flag. Our men reached the crest, and the soldier disappeared. Whether in response to his signals or not, reinforcements presently reached the hill.
In long, thin lines of yellow they ran across the plateau to the crest, hoping to drive the Boers back the way they had come. As it approached the line grew thinner and thinner, until there was nothing of it left. And so on, for hour after hour, the yellow lines of gallant men flung themselves into the open, only to fall beneath the raging fire poured upon them from the sternly held mountain crest.
Down the hill our wounded dribbled, thirsty men, pale men, men covered with blood and weeping with rage. How grim must be the fire they have just passed through! One man is brought down lying across a horse. His face hangs in strips, shattered by a dum-dum bullet. Thank goodness, some of ours are using buckshot to-day!
A Boer mounts on a waggon.
"Who will take in ammunition?"
I turn to my chief. "Do you advise me to try?"
"I cannot; you must decide for yourself."
Throwing a sack of cartridges over my horse's back, I set off. No sooner in the open, than whizz, whizz, went the bullets past my ear. The pony stopped, confused. I struck the spurs into his flanks, and on we flew, the rapid motion, the novelty of the affair, and the continual whistle of the bullets producing in me a peculiar feeling of exaltation.
Then the sack tumbled off. I sprang down, hooked the bridle to a tree, rushed back for the bag, and started forward again. The firing now became so severe that I raced for a clump of trees, hoping to find temporary shelter there. Some of our men were here, lying behind the slender tree-trunks and taking a shot at the enemy now and then.
"Absolutely impossible to live in the open," they said. "Better wait awhile and see how things go."
I laid myself down under the trees and listened to the bullets as they sang through the branches.
The very heavens vibrated as the roar of artillery grew ever fiercer, and the loud echoes rolled along from hill to hill and died away in an awful whisper that shook the grass-tops like an autumn wind.
What were those lines of Bret Harte's about the humming of the battle bees?... I could not remember.
My eyelids grew heavy and presently I was fast asleep.
"Wake up! They're coming round to cut us off. We must clear!" And away went my friend.
Knowing their horses would soon out-distance my heavily laden pony, and trusting to get away unobserved, I took his bridle and led him away. For about twenty yards all went well. Then suddenly there broke loose over us the thickest storm of lead I ever wish to experience. Whether it was a Maxim or not I could not say, but it seemed to me as if the whole British army was bent on my destruction. Like raindrops on a dusty road the bullets struck around me. The pony snorted, shivered, and sometimes stood stock still. I jerked the bridle savagely and struggled on, without the slightest hope of escaping, and thinking what a cruel shame it was that I should be shot at like a deer. Finally the shelter of a dry watercourse was reached. Following this for some distance, I encountered another party of our men, to whom I handed my charge, too shaken to repeat the experiment. The firing now slackened off, and I returned to my chief, full of mortification over my failure.
It was evident the hill would not be taken that afternoon, so we returned to our tent, intending to come back the next morning. Late that evening, however, Colonel Villebois passed and told us our forces had been withdrawn, General Botha being ordered to Colenso, where Buller had made a feint attack to help Ladysmith.
Our struggle was therefore a failure, but it had not been made in vain, since it proved once again that we also could storm a fortified hill, and fight a losing fight—the hardest fight of all.
Something peculiar began to be observed about the British camp at Chieveley. The naval guns still flashed by day, the searchlight still signalled to Ladysmith of nights, the tents still glistened in the sun, but the soldiers, where were they?
Marching somewhere up the river. Buller meant to try his luck once more. More than one of our present leaders had in former days fought by Buller's side against the Zulus. They knew him tenacious, able; no mere theorist. It was here in Natal, under their eyes, that he had gained his Victoria Cross—the same priceless bit of bronze that young Roberts had just died to win; and they felt that to ward off his second blow would ask all our energy and cost many useful lives.
The commandoes on our side of the river were extended to keep pace with the enemy's movements on the other. The distance between the different laagers lengthened considerably, and a speedy and certain method of communication soon became a necessity. To obtain this use was made of the vibrator, an instrument so sensitive that the most faulty line will carry sufficient electricity to work it. Having received orders to accompany the construction party, I said good-bye to my comfortable quarters, and found myself in the veld once again.
While the two waggons loaded with wire, etc., went on by road we struck across country, myself on horseback, a vibrator strapped to the saddle, the others on foot. Half a dozen Kafirs accompanied us, carrying rolls of "cable," wire about the thickness of the lead in a pencil and covered with gutta percha. A wooden "saddle" holding one roll of wire was strapped on the back of one of the natives, one end of the wire joined up to the instrument in the office; the native marched forward, the wire unrolling as he went, and the other boys placing stones upon it here and there in order to prevent its being dragged about by cattle. In this manner we went forward, establishing an office at every laager on the way, with the result that every commando was always fully informed as to the situation of all the others, and the enemy's every movement immediately known to the entire forces, enabling reinforcements to be sent anywhere at any time.
This system was an easy one to learn, and it has been said that some of our generals became so fond of it that the slightest movement of the enemy was the signal for a request for reinforcements. This is, no doubt, a frivolous exaggeration.
The first day of laying the cable we had gone about fifteen miles, when communication with the office suddenly ceased. Telling the others to go on, I turned back and carefully tested the line, eventually finding the fault at sundown. Reporting my whereabouts to the office, I was ordered to follow the working party as rapidly as possible, the chief adding that it was especially desired to have communication the same night with the Standerton laager, where the others would have arrived by this time. I therefore pushed on, following the wire. It was pretty dark when I reached the foot of a mountain. Right across the cable led me—rather a difficult matter tracing it in the dark—but at last an open plain on the other side was reached; a few miles further I found one of our men stretched out in the grass by the side of the cable.
"Where's the Standerton laager?"
"This is where it was. Shifted yesterday; don't know where to. Others gone to find out. Got a blanket?"
I had not. We had no idea where the waggons were. We lay down to shiver, not to sleep, for the intense cold made the latter impossible and the former obligatory. In the middle of the night we moved round to the other side of the antheap, thinking it must be warmer there. But it wasn't.
At sunrise the others returned, saying that the Standerton laager had moved much higher up, and that the Johannesburg laager was the next on the list. They accordingly marched in that direction, laying the cable as they went, past precipices and over mountain gorges. I followed on, testing and repairing, very tedious work in the burning sun. Fortunately I was able to buy a little fresh milk from a native, which refreshed me immensely. The waggons were still missing, so we had very little food.
At midnight the cable led me up a high hill, so steep that the pony almost fell over backwards as I led him up the face of it. Right on the top lived an old native, who, hearing the barking of his dogs, rushed out armed with an assegai, ready to defend his eyrie against all comers. I persuaded him to take me straight to the Johannesburg laager, where a good night's rest made all right again.
The next morning communication was established with headquarters, and I had the pleasure of eating a decent breakfast with Ben Viljoen, then commandant, now general, whose acquaintance I had made during the Swaziland expedition.
A fiery politician and a reckless writer, his pet aversions were Hollanders and Englishmen, and it was hard to say which he detested the most. Brave and straightforward, he was most popular amongst his men, but the official, non-fighting, salary-pocketing element bore him no love. General in charge of these positions was kind-hearted, energetic Tobias Smuts, of Ermelo.
During the night Louis Botha arrived here, accompanied only by his aide and his secretary. He, Smuts, their staffs, all slept in one small tent on the hard ground, and with hardly room enough to turn round in. Truly our chiefs were anything but carpet knights!
For a couple of days my office was under a waggon, then my tent arrived, and soon everything was in full swing. One afternoon I was honoured by a visit from a Hollander Jew and Transvaal journalist, whose articles had more power to sting the Uitlanders than almost anything one could mention on the spur of the moment.
We drank tea together and discussed the probability of our camp being bombarded, standing, as it did, in full view of the hill whereon the British cannon had been dragged a few days before. He had just raised the cup to his lips when a well-known sound was heard—the shriek of an approaching shell. Nearer and louder it came, till finally—bang!—the shell burst not a hundred yards away. A young lineman, who had been listening with all his soul and ever wider stretching eyes, now gave an unearthly yell and almost sprang through the top of the tent, knocking over the unhappy journalist and sending the hot tea streaming down his neck. The youth's exit was somewhat unceremonious.
The office was hastily removed to the high bank of the adjacent stream. Whilst this operation was going on the instrument buzzed out a message ordering me to leave immediately for the Spion Kop office. I at once said au revoir, handing over to my assistant the charge of the office, river bank and all, as well as the task of dodging the shells, which continued to fall around.
Riding along the steep bank for about two hundred yards, I found a footpath leading down one side and up the other. No sooner had I started down this than I heard a loud explosion. It did not sound quite so near, but on gaining the opposite bank I saw floating over the spot just quitted by me a small cloud of smoke, showing that a shell had been fired at me with marvellous accuracy. Then a couple burst near the general's tent, and the laager was immediately shifted behind the hill.
I reached Spion Kop, took charge of the office, and was kept so busy that for a week there was no time to have a decent wash.
The hill next ours was daily bombarded with the utmost enthusiasm, shells falling there at the rate of fully sixty a minute, while we escaped with only an occasional bomb. Looking down upon the plain before us, we could see the British regiments drilling on the bank of the river, about two thousand yards away, probably to draw our fire, but in vain was the net spread.
The ground of operations was somewhat extensive. For some days the enemy's infantry had been harassing our right wing, attacking every day, and drawing a little nearer every night. Louis Botha was almost continually present at this point, only coming into camp now and then for a few hours' sleep.
One evening his secretary said to me, with genuine emotion, "It has all been in vain! Our men are worn out. They can do no more!"
He was a Hollander, and also a gentleman; that is to say, he was not one of those Hollanders who lived on the fat of the land, and then turned against us in our adversity; rather was he of the rarer stamp of Coster, who glorified his mother country by nobly dying for that of his adoption.
"Cheer up!" I replied. "There are other hills."
"To-morrow will tell," he said, as he bade me good-night.
And the morrow did. In the grey dawn two hatless and bootless young men came stumbling down into the laager.
"The British have taken the hill!"
Startled, we gazed at Spion Kop's top—only five hundred yards away, but invisible, covered by the thick mist as with a veil. The enemy were there, we knew it; they could not see us as yet, but the mist would soon clear away, and then....
Our guns were rapidly trained on the spot, our men placed in position, and we waited.
I ran into the tent to telegraph the news to Colenso. No reply to my hasty call. The wire is cut!
"Go at once," said the chief, "and repair the line."
As I rode off the mist cleared, and a few minutes later the fight had begun. The cable ran about a thousand yards behind our firing line, and as I went along, my eyes fixed on the wire, the noise of the battle sounded in my ears like the roar of a prairie fire. Jagged pieces of shell came whizzing past, shrieking like vampires in their hunt for human flesh.
Searching carefully for the fault, my progress was slow, and it was afternoon when the Johannesburg laager was reached. Here I found a despatch-rider, who said that reinforcements had arrived at Spion Kop early in the morning, that our men had immediately climbed the hill, and that, the issue being very, uncertain, we might have to retreat during the night.
The line was still interrupted, although I had repaired several faults. I accordingly rode back to Spion Kop early the next morning. When I entered the laager it was to find that all the waggons had already retreated, and the tents standing deserted. Not quite deserted, for in one of them half a dozen bodies were lying. The enemy had unexpectedly retired during the night, and the entire commando was now on the hill, gazing at the plentiful harvest reaped by our Nordenfeldts. Thither I also went.
British ambulance men were busy collecting corpses. It was a mournful sight; it seemed to me as if war really meant nothing else than butchering men like sheep, quietly, methodically, and without any pomp or circumstance.
"A sad sight!" I remarked to the British chaplain.
"They only did their duty," was his unfeeling reply. Duty! Is it any man's duty to kill and be killed without knowing why? For what did these poor Lancashire lads know or care about the merits of the war?
"What do you think the confounded English have had the cheek to do?" asked a friend. "You know they always keep our wounded as prisoners when they get the chance. Well, this morning their ambulance came here and coolly carted away all their wounded! Louis Botha says they might have asked permission first. I should have turned a Maxim on them!"
We went down to the laager, found the line in order, and wired the news of the victory to Pretoria. I had not been able to get into communication the day before because the chief had taken a hand in the fighting instead of attending to the instrument.
Believing that Warren would make another attempt, this time more to our right, we shifted the office a few miles in that direction and pitched our tent next to a farmhouse, which was being utilised as a hospital.
Late that evening I heard someone outside the tent asking where the hospital was. It was my father. We had no idea of meeting each other here, as I had parted from him in Johannesburg before the war began, when he had no intention of going to Natal. He himself had been under the impression that I was still at Ladysmith.
He told me he had come to see my young cousin, Johannes, who had been wounded on Spion Kop the day before. We walked over to the hospital. The wounded lad, a frail boy of fifteen, looked terribly exhausted lying there on the floor, his left arm completely shattered.
"We were two together," he said, "myself and another boy. We crept closer and closer to one of the small sangars, firing into it as we crept, until there was only one Englishman left alive in it. He called out 'Water!' and I ran to give him my flask. When I got close to him he pointed his gun at me and fired. I sprang aside, and the bullet ploughed up my arm. My chum then shot him dead. Our doctor was too busy with the English officers to attend to me, so I fear I shall lose my arm."
Poor child! his fear was only too well founded. His arm was amputated, after which he went to his uncle's farm to recuperate. When the British arrived there he would not surrender, but took his gun and went on commando. Three days later he was brought in, shot through the lungs. That is the last I have been able to hear of him.
A few days after the battle of Spion Kop we moved forward and opened another office on our right wing. The British soon after retired from the vicinity, and this wing was withdrawn. The office remained, however, being utilised by scouts and patrols for the transmission of urgent reports.
One day Oberst von Braun called, accompanied by two Boers. I asked him what had become of his lieutenant.
"Ah, poor von B——!" he said. "The fighting on Spion Kop was almost over, and he had just risen and walked forward a few steps, when a chance bullet crashed into his forehead, and he fell a corpse."
This was the same lieutenant who had caused a great sensation in Germany a few years before by killing an unarmed civilian in a moment of provocation. It may seem a just retribution that he should have met with such a tragic fate, but those who knew him in Natal felt nothing but regret for his loss. Oberst von Braun was taken prisoner a few days after, and the British reported that his mind was unhinged. This did not appear improbable to us, for we knew how much he had been affected by the loss of his companion.
I stayed here for three weeks, without much occupation except wasting ammunition on turtle doves and hoping that the next patrol would not be a British instead of a Boer one.
The deserted houses in the neighbourhood had all been visited in turn by both British and Boer patrols, and between the two enormous damage had been wrought. It must be pointed out, however, that the mischief done by our men was in no way authorised—was, in fact, against express orders, whereas the British now burn our houses to the joyful fiddling of the London Times, and with a righteous unction eminently national.
A small but remarkably severe engagement took place about this time, in which a portion of Viljoen's men suffered heavily.
This detachment, about forty in number, was guarding a Nordenfeldt stationed in an advanced position on an isolated hill. One afternoon a large body of the enemy suddenly attacked the hill. Ben Viljoen, who, as usual, was on the spot, is not what may be called an excessively pious man, but he rose to the occasion and inspired his little band by asking them if they did not fear God more than the British. Thus encouraged to stand firm, they bravely held the hill till fully half their number were killed. There was no hoisting of the white flag, however, our men at that time generally preferring almost certain death to surrender. This instance was no exception. Every man got out as best he could, Commandant Viljoen himself racing out with the gun.
Our cannon now shelled the hill furiously. The British ambulance tried to reach our wounded, but the fire was too hot. This bombardment kept on for two days, when the enemy retired, whereupon we again took possession of the hill. Two or three of our wounded were found to be still alive, but with their wounds in a terrible state of putrefaction. Imagine their sufferings during those two awful days of heat, thirst, and exposure, to say nothing of the shells continually exploding around them. They were brought into camp and ultimately recovered. For all I know, they may be fighting still. This little affair is known to the British as the battle of Vaalkrantz.
When they heard that their son had gone safely through the battle of Spion Kop an old Free State farmer and his wife came down to pay him a visit The son then accompanied his mother home, the old man taking his place for a few days. One day some artillerists were engaged in their favourite pastime of burning out unexploded lyddite shells, when one of the shells burst, killing three men. As fate would have it, the old father in question was one of the three.
Another peculiar accident happened on Spion Kop, whilst the rifles of the killed and wounded soldiers were being collected. One of the rifles lay under a corpse. Seizing the weapon by the muzzle, a young Boer attempted to draw it toward him. The charge went off and lodged in his stomach, inflicting a fatal wound. The soldier had been killed in the act of taking aim, and his finger had stiffened round the trigger. The young fellow thus killed by a dead man was the only son of his widowed mother.
When the British retreated from Spion Kop it was to move down to Colenso once more. Taking the Boschrand, after a feeble defence, they were enabled to command our positions on the other side, and succeeded in crossing the Tugela unhindered.
Why we surrendered the river so easily and then defended Pieters' Heights so obstinately is explained by the fact that, owing to the British advance on Kimberley, the idea had become general that we should have to give up Ladysmith in any case, and therefore our men were drawn back from the river preparatory to a general retirement. Pieters' Heights were held till everything was ready, and then the retirement was effected without even an attempt at pursuit by the enemy.
When the Pieters' Heights fighting began I was ordered thither. Going through the Klip River, our heavily laden waggon stuck fast. We quickly obtained the loan of another span of mules and hitched them on in front, but the double team only succeeded in breaking the trek-chain. There was nothing for it but to outspan and carry the heavy loads up the steep bank. At this we toiled till midnight. Too tired to catch the mules and haul the waggon out, we went to sleep, leaving that operation for the morning.
Before we woke, however, another waggon came along. Finding the road blocked by ours, the driver roared at us to clear the way immediately. We were not going to rise so early just to please him, so we answered him that if he was in a hurry he could pull the waggon out himself. This he was obliged to do, in order to get past. We then thanked him, and gently told him that if he had addressed us in a decent manner in the beginning he would have spared himself all his trouble. We meekly added the hope that this little lesson would not be lost upon his wayward mind. His remarks cannot be reproduced here, but it was plain that he felt very much as little States do sometimes when taken in hand by one of the great Powers and subjected to a little kind cruelty.
After reloading the waggon we went on, and reached Pieters in due course. The first thing that drew my attention was the sight of one of my young colleagues standing under the verandah of the telegraph office, his face a picture of grief. His father had been killed that morning.
Going a few miles further, I took charge of the telegraph office in Lukas Meyer's laager. Meyer, a grand-looking man, formerly possessed much influence, being at one time President of the New Republic, a State founded by himself in a tract of country granted him and his followers by a Kafir chief for assistance rendered during an intertribal war. This small republic, soon incorporated with the Transvaal, was thenceforth represented in the First Volksraad by its former president, Louis Botha becoming its member for the Second Chamber. At the battle of Dundee Botha distinguished himself. Meyer did not. Then the former gained fresh laurels at Colenso, and this finally gave him the precedence over Meyer, General Joubert himself, on his death-bed, expressly asking that Botha should be appointed his successor. Meyer, then, was in charge of this laager, Botha had command of the whole line, and Commandant General Joubert was at headquarters near Ladysmith.
Daily the British regiments stormed, and daily they melted away before the fire of our men. The stench arising from the unburied corpses soon made the whole hill reek. The British asked for an armistice to bury their dead, and this was granted by the commandant to whom the request was made. When Botha heard of this he at once informed the enemy that the matter had been arranged without his knowledge, and that he could grant no armistice. I think this is the only case on record where an armistice has ever been refused by us, although armistices were asked for many times by the British.
The combatants, who during the interval had been chatting together most amicably, were quickly recalled to their respective positions, and the slaughter recommenced, continuing until one fine afternoon the enemy took the Krugersdorp commando's position, thus rendering our whole line untenable. A council of war was immediately called, to take place that evening, as it was impossible for our officers to leave the shelter of their trenches during daylight.
Soon after sunset the various officers began to arrive. First came riding into camp, alone and unnoticed in the darkness, that incomprehensible man, Schalk Burger, now Acting President. He entered the tent moodily, nodded to us, and squatted down in the corner, absorbed in thought. My colleague and I were just making a meal of coffee and biscuit. We expressed our regret that we had no chair to offer him, asking him to accept a cup of coffee instead. This he did, in silence. Silence was his strong point.
Masterful Lukas Meyer next entered, and after him came the pride of the army, Louis Botha, soldier and gentleman, followed by several officers. A general council of war was now held, General Joubert being consulted by telegraph throughout the discussion. There was no sleep that night for the telegraphists who had to transmit the queries and replies to and from headquarters.
When the discussion was at its height, information was received that the Johannesburg laager was surrounded by the enemy. This laager now constituted our right wing. This intelligence was soon contradicted, but not before it had exercised a considerable influence upon the decision arrived at, which was to abandon Ladysmith. The minutes of this council of war, could they be published, would probably make most interesting reading, and be of great value to the impartial historian.
At two in the morning we inspanned; at sunrise we were over Klipriver and trekking past Ladysmith.
The road was one long string of waggons, each straggling on at the pleasure of its owner. Horses, thanks to the criminal neglect of those responsible, were already becoming scarce, and groups of men, many of them wounded, sadly stumbled along, carrying their unwieldy bundles of blankets, their little kettles, their knapsack, rifle and bandolier. Some trudged along with a saddle slung over the back, hoping to loot a mount by the wayside.
We did not travel far that day, but the next the march became more rapid, every vehicle putting its best wheel foremost. A heavy rain fell as Elandslaagte was reached, adding to the general depression. Whilst the majority kept to the road, those who had no other means of conveyance entrained here for Glencoe. The commissariat stores were being hastily cleared out, what could not be loaded being set alight. The last train that left that evening carried the dynamiters, who destroyed the bridges after passing over them.
After a weary ride in the open trucks, seated on sacks of bread, a drizzling rain soaking down upon us, we reached Glencoe. The platform and station buildings were crowded with the sleeping forms of the weary burghers, who, as yet unused to retreating, were somewhat mixed in more senses than one. Louis Botha was still near Ladysmith with the rearguard, most of the other chiefs were coming by road, and there was no one on the spot to back up General Joubert in his attempts to reorganise the confused and ever-growing mass of undisciplined men. The retreat, in fact, threatened to degenerate into a reckless flight.
President Kruger had been informed A of the chaotic state of affairs, and arrived at Glencoe early the next morning. The burghers were called together, and the President, leaning out of the window of his railway carriage, asked them to join him in singing a psalm. He then offered up a fervent prayer for guidance, after which he addressed the burghers, reproaching them for their want of confidence in an all-powerful Providence, and exhorting them to take courage afresh and continue the struggle for the sake of their posterity, which one day would judge their acts.
"Whither would you flee?" he asked us. "The enemy will pursue you, and tear you from the arms of your wives. The man who surrenders takes the first step into exile. Brothers! Stand firm, and you will not be forsaken!"
As the father of his people spoke, the doubts and fears that had filled the breasts of the multitude disappeared. Forgotten were the days and weeks of hunger, heat, and thirst; forgotten the ghastly shrapnel showers, the soul-crushing crash of the awful lyddite shell, the unnerving possibility of sudden death that for months had darkly loomed across their lives, and every man felt the glorious fires of patriotism rekindle in his bosom.
Then General Joubert spoke.
"If I be the stumbling-block in the way of our success, then I pray God to remove me," was the humble prayer of the warrior grown grey in wars, who now found himself too feeble to direct the forces with his wonted vigour. He then reminded us of brave deeds done in the past, and expressed his confidence in the future, provided we did not lose heart.
When the General had finished, he sent officers round to marshal the men into some sort of order. It was wonderful to see the change in the spirit of the burghers. Where but a moment before had been disheartened mutterings and sulky looks were now smiling faces and cheerful conversation. With alacrity the men came forward, gave their names, and that of their respective commandoes, and took in the positions assigned them. The danger was past. Even the news of Cronje's surrender, which was soon after made public, did not have more than a transient effect. The anxiety as to his fate had been so keen that even to know the worst was a relief.
For two disquieting days, however, nothing was heard of the rearguard. To our relief it turned up on the third day. Several weeks of quiet followed, the British resting after their giant efforts, whilst we prepared to stem their further advance when it should take place. During this period of inaction on the part of the enemy I was sent down into Zululand, and stationed at a small spot named Nqutu, near Isandhlwana, Rorke's Drift, Blood River, and other scenes of stirring battles fought in former days. At Rorke's Drift could be seen, in good repair, the graves of the gallant men who fell in defending the passage through the river against the Zulus after the British disaster at Isandhlwana.
While at Nqutu we received news of the fall of Bloemfontein and the death of General Joubert, as well as of De Wet's victory at Sanna's Post, the latter the only bright gleam that relieved the daily darkening horizon of our future.
I now obtained a few days' leave of absence. My substitute left Glencoe early in the morning, accompanied by a mule waggon. The trolley duly arrived at sundown, but the substitute was absent. It appeared he had taken a short cut, as he thought, and had not been seen since. Bethune's mounted infantry was hanging about the neighbourhood, and we feared he might have been raked in. At midnight, however, he made his appearance, wet to the skin, after wandering to and fro in the chilly mist for hours. I immediately handed the books and cash over to him, and went to bed till four o'clock, when I saddled my horse and started for Glencoe, on leave and on my way home. Carefully nursing my mount, I reached Dundee at noon. After a short rest we went on, and reached Glencoe at one o'clock, none the worse for the morning's ride of almost fifty miles.
Here I learnt that a plan was afoot to attack the British camp at Elandslaagte, which lay quite open and unprotected, as if it were part of an Earl's Court exhibition. When I left by train next morning our guns were already in action.
Not being pushed home, however, the attack did not amount to much, except for its moral effect upon our men. It also gave the enemy the idea of finding a decent position for his camp.
Travelling with me in the train were several men on their way to the Free State, where our forces were being hard pressed. Before leaving I had also sent in a request asking to be transferred thither, as Natal was becoming really too dull.
At first sight Johannesburg did not seem much altered, but on driving through the deserted streets, all the shops barricaded, and tramway idle, the difference between the bustling city of old and this silent shadow of its former self was only too evident.
Another difference that thrust itself upon the observation was the alteration which had lately taken place in the sentiments of the remaining Uitlander inhabitants. These, upon their lavish protestations of friendship and fidelity, had been allowed to remain during the war. In our triumphs their sympathy was ever with us, but when Cronje was captured, Ladysmith relieved, and Bloemfontein abandoned, their long-latent loyalty to the British Empire became too fervent to be restrained within the bounds of decency. "Remnants" of red, white and blue were ostentatiously sewn into a distant resemblance of the British flag; the parlour piano once more did its often unsatisfactory best with the British anthem; mamma's darling received strict injunctions not to play with that horrid little Dutch boy next door; and papa, jingling the sovereigns he had received in his latest deal with the Government, prepared to pat Lord Roberts on the back when he should enter the town.
But what can one say of those "oprechte[A] Afrikaners" who followed the same procedure? The Smits who became Smith, the Louw that suddenly shrank into Lowe (could he sink lower?), the Jansen transformed into Johnson, and the Volschenk merged into Foolskunk? What did John Bull think of all these precious acquisitions to his family?
In striking contrast was the bearing of some of the numerous British-born officials, British-born and with British sympathies, who nevertheless faithfully performed their arduous duties until their services were no longer needed, and then entered the new regime with conscience clear and not without some degree of regret for the old. Loyal to the old, they could be loyal to the new. That several of the British-born officials had played the despicable part of spy is undoubted, but their villainy served but as a foil to show more clearly the merits of those who remained honest men.
Before my leave had expired I returned to Natal, weary of miserable Johannesburg, and little thinking that I should not see my home again for years. Upon reaching Glencoe I found a telegram had just arrived, granting my request to be sent to the Free State. An hour later I was on my way, and the following evening the train landed me at Winburg, where a construction party was awaiting my arrival.
[Footnote A: Oprechte = thorough.]
THE FREE STATE
Menschvretersberg (Cannibal Mountain), near Thabanchu, was at this time the site of the Boer headquarters, and it was our duty to establish telegraphic communication between this point and Winburg, a distance of about forty miles.
After consideration, the inspector decided that it would take too long to lay a cable.
Wire fences had already been utilised in America for short-distance telephonic communication, and this system had already been tried at Van Reenenspas by ingenious young Bland, of the Free State telegraphs, employing, however, the vibrator instead of the telephone. We determined to follow his example.
According to the law of the land, every Free State farm has to be fenced. Blocks of sandstone, about four feet high and twelve inches square, are generally used for fencing uprights. Here, then, were lines ready made, and covering the country in every direction like network.
The only thing necessary to isolate the wire was to walk along the fence, cut the cross-bindings connecting the upper wire with the lower ones, lay a cable under the gates, and there you were. This did not take long, and soon messages were gaily buzzing to and fro over the fence. There was naturally a great loss of electricity, but not enough to prevent the working of the sensitive little vibrator.
As with the cable in Natal, however, there were frequent interruptions. A herd of cattle would knock a few poles over, a burgher hurrying across country would simply cut a passage through the fence, or a farmer in passing through a gate would notice the cable, dig it up, and take it along, swearing it must be dynamite, and that the English were trying to explode the Free State with it.
All this necessitated constant repairing, but on the whole the system proved fairly satisfactory, allowing the Government in Kroonstad to keep in constant touch with the fighting line.
In Natal everything was very quiet; here, on the contrary, the British were pushing forward vigorously. General Louis Botha came down from Glencoe to aid De Wet, leaving his brother Christian to oppose bulldog Buller, or "Red Bull," as we called him.
In spite of Louis' presence the enemy continued to gain ground, and it was not long before Brandfort had to be given up. The enemy next took Thabanchu, and it became clear that our positions at Menschvretersberg could not be held much longer. President Steyn himself visited the positions, cheering and encouraging the men, but the strain of attempting to stem the British advance could no longer be sustained. Within a few days we received orders to retire to Lindley.
Retire! But how? We were three, our horses two, our luggage heavy. By a stroke of luck we managed to hire a cart and two. Hitching our horses on in front, we had a team of four, and the difficulty was solved.
When driving away from the spot where, in the midst of war's alarms, I had yet spent some of the happiest hours of my life, I could not help looking back long and earnestly at the beautiful homestead, and wondering what fate held in store for it and its kind-hearted owner, who, always against the war, and weary of sacrifices he deemed useless, had determined to remain behind and surrender to the enemy. Like many of our best and most progressive men, he had become disgusted with the want of discipline in the ranks, and the painful lack of unanimity amongst the leaders. Sincere in his convictions, I do not think he could be blamed for acting up to them. Those who have rightly earned the contempt and hatred of every true Afrikander are those Boers who, not content with deserting, have gone yet further, and attempted to assist the enemy that they were fighting against only the day before. Even their new masters must surely despise such willing slaves!
Absorbed in these reflections, I yet had time to notice the approach, from the opposite direction, of a Cape cart drawn by six bays.
As the two carts passed each other the team of bays was stopped by a vigorous hand, and President Steyn addressed us, force and determination stamping every word and gesture.
"Good morning! Why are you leaving already? I want communication with Kroonstad!"
"Good morning, President. We had orders to leave at once, but there is an operator in the office still; he will remain till the last moment."
"Very well; good-bye!" And off he went, the dust clinging to his long brown beard.
We drove on, our four horses trotting merrily along. We were five in the vehicle, however, including the driver and his little boy, and presently the weight began to tell. After the first halt one of the leaders failed.
"He won't make it much further," said the inspector. "Better turn him loose and see what can be done with three."
"I have a better plan," said our other companion. Stopping the cart, he unharnessed the animal, passed the rope through its mouth, vaulted on its back, and rode to a farmhouse some distance away. Presently he returned, bringing another horse, which he had obtained in exchange for our exhausted animal.
Thus reinforced, we pushed on, arriving at Senekal at ten that night. The only hotel was crowded; we were glad to sleep on the parlour floor. After breakfast the next morning we continued our journey, passing group after group of burghers on their way home.
It was truly painful to see these poor fellows struggling along, their horses scarce able to walk and themselves in a condition not much better. At noon we outspanned at some water-pools, where several of these groups were also resting. We entered into conversation with them, and they told us that they had retired earlier than the others on account of the weakness of their animals; that one of their number had been taken ill, and could ride no further, even if his horse could carry him, which was doubtful.
We spoke to the sick man, who was lying in the shade of a tree. He was quite a youth, and evidently of a better stamp than his companions.
"If only I could reach a certain farm about five miles further on," he sighed, "I think I should manage."
"Take my seat," said I, "and I'll ride your nag."
"I must tell you," he objected, "that the poor beast is quite exhausted. It would take hours to get him there."
"Never mind, I'll start now, and you can follow on with the cart when our horses have had a feed."
Our business admitted of no retard, so I meant to get a good start in order not to delay my companions.
I mounted the nag and shouted "Get up!"
He stumbled forward a few steps and stood stock still. I pricked him with the spurs, he moved on a little further and halted again. By dint of spurring, striking, and shouting, he at last broke into a slow trot, wearily dragging his hoofs, but before long he stopped once more.
I dismounted and tried to lead him, but he would not budge. Then I tried driving him on ahead, but as soon as I got behind him he turned out of the road, first to the right, then to the left. Of all heart-breaking experiences this was the worst. I could not leave the animal to die by the wayside; the farm was only a few miles further on, where he would find water, food, and rest. I mounted again, shouted, cracked my sjambok—blows he could no longer feel—flourished my arms, jerked my body up and down in the saddle, and finally got him into a walk—but such a walk! slow, mechanical, every step an effort.
When we finally reached the farmhouse I sprang down and quickly threw the saddle off. No sooner did the faithful animal feel itself released from its service than it sank to the ground, utterly exhausted. I myself was not much better off, after my exertions in the blazing sun. If you are fond of horses, never try to repeat my experiment. Straining the last ounce out of your mount is too much like mule-driving, and that is the most soul-killing occupation on earth, as any Afrikander can testify.
The cart was waiting for me here. We bade adieu to the sick man, and drove on. Towards sunset we overtook a man struggling along on foot, carrying a heavy saddle on his head. He signalled to us to stop, and came panting up to the side of the cart.
"My horse died this morning," he said, "and I've been carrying this saddle all day. Can't you load it up for me as far as Lindley?"
The man looked so thoroughly done up that I felt sorry for him. Besides, I wanted to stretch my legs a bit, so I said that he could take my seat, and I started off on foot while they were strapping fast the saddle. The exercise was so agreeable in the fresh evening air that I continued it, and kept ahead of the cart until we reached Lindley. We went to the hotel, had a good dinner, and then to bed.
LINDLEY TO HEILBRON
Lindley and Heilbron were each in telegraphic communication with all the other towns still in our possession, and consequently also with each other; but no telegraph line ran between the two. A message from one to the other had to travel via Johannesburg and Kroonstad, involving a delay of several hours. It was our task to make good this missing link. Haste was required, for the British were already marching on Kroonstad, whence the Government was preparing to retire, ostensibly to Lindley, but in reality to Heilbron.
Unfortunately the material wherewith the new line was to be built had not yet arrived from the Transvaal. The inspector decided not to wait, but to build the line without it.
"Build a line without material? Impossible," you say. Not at all. You forget the fences; we did not.
Our first care was to obtain a list of those farms along the road whose fences joined. This did not take many hours. Being joined here by a lineman, who had charge of half a dozen natives and a waggon, we loaded our luggage on the latter, as well as a sack or two of meal—the only foodstuff we could obtain, and began work, each armed with a spanner and a couple of iron tent-pegs.
The fences were in bad repair, many of the stone poles having fallen down and the wires being broken and tangled every few hundred yards. Lifting the heavy stones and repairing and untangling the barbed wire was unaccustomed work, and soon our hands were covered with cuts and bruises. The distance by road between the two points is only about forty miles, but owing to the fences running at all angles to each other we had about seventy miles to cover. This it took us a week to do, rising early, working all through the day, and continuing in the moonlight at night. By buying a couple of sheep to supplement the bags of meal, and drinking a gall-like imitation coffee brewed from barley, we managed to fare well enough, and better than thousands of others are faring to-day.
Our communication with the starting-point continued fairly good until we came within six miles of Heilbron, when it suddenly failed. I went back along the line, and eventually found the fault. After having repaired it and given my pony an hour's rest, I took a short cut for Heilbron, and arrived there at ten that night, only to find that during the time occupied by my return ride the wire had again stopped working. Having been in the saddle since six in the morning, I could do no more that night, although the Government, now installed here, was anxiously awaiting the resumption of communication. Early the next morning I started back. I considered it best to start testing from the middle of the line, and therefore went by road instead of following the fence. A few miles out of town I met De Wet's force, which was just retreating from Ventersburg. The men and animals were weary and dusty, but there was no depression noticeable; hope seemed to spring up afresh after every defeat, and those who thought of the result at all were confident that, as the song of the camp had it, "No Englishman shall ever cross the Vaal."
And now I shall try and draw you a picture of what I saw next. It was a scene painfully humiliating for a Boer; what it was for an Englishman I leave you to judge.
Coming along in the dusty road was a little drove of cattle and horses, about twenty in all, shaggy animals, and of all sizes, evidently the entire stock of some small farmer. Mounted astride on ponies, driving the sorry herd, their faces sunburnt, their hair all in a tangle, and their air the most dejected possible, were two young girls of about fifteen and seventeen years. Following them was a rickety old waggon. Under the hood sat an aged man and his wife, the parents of the two girls. Not a soul to help these poor creatures in their wild flight. They did not even know whither they were fleeing—anywhere to keep out of the hands of the enemy. Slowly the little caravan passed out of sight. Who can tell what regrets for the past were felt by the aged couple?—what hopes for the future by the helpless lasses?
When I reached the intermediate station I found that the fault lay on the Lindley side. Towards Lindley I rode, testing the line frequently, but the sun went down and I was still testing. It grew too dark to see the wire distinctly, so I made for a farmhouse near by to seek shelter for the night. I knocked at the door, whereupon the light within was immediately extinguished. A minute or so after a native servant came round from the back. I gave him my horse to take to the stable, and waited for the door to be opened. Presently the Kafir returned and asked me to follow him to a side door, which he opened for me. I stepped inside, and found myself in the presence of about a dozen Boers, all armed, and all gazing at me as if they had paid for the privilege. There was something tense in the situation.
I broke the ice by asking them if they took me for a ghost. As soon as they heard me speak in Dutch the fixed stare gave way to a general grin. Then they explained, with a sigh of relief, that the zealous servant had told them with bated breath that I was a bold, bad Englishman, whereupon they had made the above preparations for receiving me. I did not fail to curse the native's stupidity, after which we sat down to a plentiful dinner. When this was over the mistress of the house made us a large bed on the floor, and soon my strange bedfellows and myself were slumbering like a lot of little cherubs.
Leaving early the next morning, I followed the line without any success until within four miles of Lindley. Then I noticed a long column of vehicles and cavalry trekking over the hill to my right and towards the town. Presently an old Boer came driving by.
"Do you know what that is?" he asked, pointing to the column.
I observed the column attentively. Yes, he was right. The mystery was explained. Naturally enough we could not get into communication with the town when it was already occupied by the enemy. The British had heard that the Government was in Lindley, and had therefore made this sudden march, whilst we believed them to be still in Kroonstad. It was most important that the President should know the news immediately. I at once attached the vibrator to the line and called up Heilbron.
"Here P. The English are in Lindley."
"The English are in Lindley."
"Please tell the President what I say."
Silence. Presently the reply came—
"Here Postmaster-General. The President says impossible. Enemy still in Kroonstad."
"Not much! Here they are, before my eyes. Please believe that there is no mistake."
"Wait a bit." Then, "Where is Piet De Wet?"
"Probably cut off, and on the other side of the town."
"Can you remain there for a while?"
After a while, "You may return now."
"Had I not better remain and watch their movements?"
"Yes, do so."
I remained in the neighbourhood that night and the next morning, but the enemy lay quiet in Lindley, so I returned to Heilbron.
When I reported myself to the Postmaster-General, he said—
"The President wants to see you."
I thought I was going to get into a scrape for not having been able to report anything further. However, I followed the Chief to a small building a few doors lower down the street.
Entering, we found ourselves in a fairly roomy office, where two or three gentlemen were engaged in an earnest discussion. After being introduced to them I was taken into an inner office. Seated at a table, writing, was President Steyn.
Although attired in plain black, like any other lawyer, there was a dignity in his bearing, and a force of character in his manner, that could not fail to make an impression on my mind, young as I was.
"Well," he said, calling me by name, "where do you come from?"
My embarrassment was so great, in spite of the friendly smile that accompanied these words, that I could only stammer—
"From Winburg, President," alluding to the last time I had seen him.
"No, no! I mean to-day."
"Oh, from Lindley. But I could not find out much more. Some think their next move will be towards Bethlehem, others think they are coming on here."
"Ah! Well, I know now that your information was correct, and I am satisfied with your work. I hope you will continue to be so successful. Now, go out there again, see what they are doing, and report to me."
"Thank you, President," was all I could say, as he shook my hand, and I retired, highly gratified, as you may imagine.
My first thought was that my pony would have to be shod before I could expect him to carry me any further. I found Judge Hertzog, then Chief of Commissariat, in the street, a young man still, of medium height, whose clear brow and incisive speech marked him out from amongst the crowd of farmers, policemen, and idlers that constantly surrounded him with requests for this, that, or the other lacking article or animal.
He gave me an order to have my pony shod before all the others, a very important stipulation, for the ambulance horses had been waiting to be shod for a week. He added that he would supply us with other horses, but there were none to be bought. I told him I knew of a farmer who had a horse for sale at eighty pounds.
"Yes, he asks us eighty, and presently the enemy will come along and take it for nothing," replied Hertzog.
I went to the blacksmith and handed him the order.
"Yes, everybody wants to be first," said that worthy; "but first come first served, says I."
"But this is for special service."
"Can't help that."
"Do you mean to disobey the orders of the Government?"
"Oh, no, not I! But I have no nails; may have some in a day or two."
"Whose are those you are using now?"
"They belong to the despatch riders' corps."
I at once sought out the captain of the corps and persuaded him to count me out thirty nails. I then returned to the smith and held a candle for him whilst he shoed my horse. When I led the animal away I found that it was lame.
"That's nothing," said the smith. "It will soon pass."
"Oh, no. Just pull that shoe off and put it on again."
This he did, and then the lameness disappeared. I took the animal to the stable, filled the crib with fodder, overhauled the vibrator, packed my saddle-bags, and went to bed.
Early the next morning I started, making straight for the intermediate station.
After three hours' riding I met a mounted policeman riding at full speed, or the best imitation of it that his mount could produce. "The English are coming!" was all he uttered as he passed by. When I reached the farmhouse I heard shots falling just beyond the hill. The womenfolk on the farm were in a pitiful state of distress. They had ornamented the roof of the house with a white flag, following the custom then prevailing in those parts threatened by the enemy.
"They've been fighting all the morning," they said, wiping their eyes, "and now our men are retreating. Whatever will become of us?"
I stabled my horse, walked to the fence, attached the vibrator, and called up Heilbron. No reply. The line was down again!
This discovery put me into a pretty bad temper. Presently about a dozen Boers came galloping along from the fighting line. On seeing me, the leader reined in and shouted—
"What the devil is this? What are you doing here?" He took me for an Englishman, and thought this a good opportunity to gain distinction. Thoroughly roused by his bullying tone, I retorted—
"And who the devil are you? And where the devil are you running away to in such a hurry?"
Taken aback, he faltered—
"Oh, I have orders from my commandant, which I must keep secret."
"Yes, I know your kind of orders. Get away, and don't interfere with men who are doing their duty." The band thereupon cleared off. Then a despatch rider came dashing up, his splendid black entire specked with foam.
"I have an urgent despatch for the Government," he said, after we had made ourselves known to each other, "but my mount is about done up after all the riding about I have done away on our left."
"Give it me," I said; "I'll repair the line and send it through."
He handed me the message, and we walked over to the farmhouse. Whilst we were drinking a cup of coffee crowds of burghers rode past in retreat. Nearly every one stopped and asked for a glass of milk, a loaf of bread, or a few eggs. Their wants were supplied as far as possible. In every case money was offered, and in every case it was refused.
With the despatch in my pocket I could not delay, so I took my nag and rode back along the fence. The very first test I made I found the line in order again. I transmitted the despatch, adding that there was nothing to stop the enemy from taking Heilbron that night. This news caused some consternation, as may be imagined, and the Government left Heilbron immediately.
When I had finished I saw coming towards me a young Free Stater, who had been sent out from Heilbron to remove the fault, which he had succeeded in doing.
"Let's go back to the farmhouse after sunset," I said, "and see if the British are there already."
We waited till dark, and then carefully rode to the farm, making as little noise as possible. When near the house we dismounted, cautiously approached, and peered through a window. Everything was quiet. We knocked. The housewife opened the door, pale and agitated.
"They have not been here yet?" I asked.
"No, but we expect them every minute."
We brought our horses into the yard, so as to be at hand, and entered the house.
"Your husband is not back yet?"
"No, but they say he is safe."
The door opened noiselessly, and the man himself stood before us. He had also taken a look through the window before entering. He placed his gun in a corner, kissed his wife and children, and shook hands with us.
"We've had a hard day;" he said, "let's go in to supper."
After the meal, even more silent than is habitual amongst us, where talking at table is almost as bad form as making a joke with a minister would be in Sloper's Scotland, our host told us that the English had camped on the spot where they had fought, and that he did not think they would march till daylight. It was best for us to sleep there that night, and leave with him before dawn.
"Father, can I go too?" asked his son, aged thirteen.
"No, my boy, you must stay and help mother to manage the farm. It will be a long while ere father returns."
"Oh, father! I'm too old to stay in the house, like an old woman. Besides, I'm afraid they will make me prisoner."
"Do you think they catch children like him?" his mother asked anxiously.
"No, I don't think they are so cruel," I replied; "but one can never tell."
"Well, they won't get the chance," said the plucky little fellow. "As soon as I see them coming, I shall take my mare and go and hide in the hills."
The mother did not say anything. She bore up bravely, as our women ever do, Heaven bless them! Was it not but some ten miles from this very spot that years before a handful of our pioneers had gained the victory at Vecht Kop, when the women loaded the guns and handed them to the men as the latter unflinchingly beat back the tremendous horde of maddened blacks that flung themselves against the hastily drawn circle of waggons. Does not one old lady still bear the scars of the nineteen stabs she received on that day? Our women are women indeed, and worthy mothers of the race that yet shall people all Africa and rule itself.
Do not think I am flying too high. The average Boer family numbers ten children. Boys are in the majority. If at present we have thirty thousand warriors (I am not counting the wasters), it follows that in two generations we shall have three hundred thousand. Taking the proportion then, as now, of ten to one, Britain will have to employ against us in 1940 no less than three million men! And when that time comes, the children of to-day will have the recollection of the concentration camps and of a few other little trifles to strengthen their backbone.
The concentration camps! Fit subject for Dante, who in the Divina Comedia portrays as no other can the maddened heart of a father doomed to see his children waste away before his very eyes. There are many relentless Ugolins among the Boers to-day.
I firmly believe that a steady process of infanticide was never intended to be the raison d'etre of these camps; no civilised nation could deliberately sanction a system cemented with the bones and blood of innocent babes. And the British are a civilised nation.
No, the fault does not lie in the system itself, but in its application. It is a humane idea carried out inhumanely, so inhumanely that when the Black Hole of Calcutta is forgotten Englishmen will still hang their heads for shame at the mention of concentration.
What the Levite concubine's outraged flesh was to Israel the infant mortality is to the Afrikanders of the Cape and Natal, who, a hundred thousand strong, may at any moment lose their self-control and throw in their lot with their brethren. Then Britain will tear the bandage from her eyes, but it will be too late.
Let me remind Canon Knox-Little, and those other divines who can complacently view the children's Golgotha, of the words of their Master: "But whoso shall offend one of these little ones, it were better that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he were drowned in the depth of the sea."
But to return. After the usual reading of the Gospel, we retired for the night. Our sleep, however, was none too secure. At about two o'clock the dogs set up a terrible howling. My heart beat loudly. We were in for it now! But no, it was only the farmer's son, who came to tell us to get ready.
We rose at once. Our host said a long good-bye to his wife and children, and we rode away in the misty night, a keen wind cutting through flesh and bone.
After a very long hour we reached the house of our guide's brother.
We got in without awakening the inmates, and entered a small bedroom, where two young men were lying asleep. They woke on hearing us move about, and struck a match.
"Good morning," I said; "rather early, isn't it?"
"Yes," they replied, waiting for me to explain. I kept quiet, however, and watched the expression on their faces gradually change from surprise to uneasiness, and from uneasiness to alarm. Then I briefly explained the situation to the young men, after which we went to sleep in our chairs till daybreak, when the servant entered with the morning coffee.
Our guide took us into the parlour and introduced us to his sister-in-law. He then left to rejoin his commando.
We stayed to breakfast, and then also left, making for Heilbron, but not feeling quite sure as to whether we should reach it before the enemy. After travelling a couple of hours we observed half a dozen horsemen appear against the skyline on our left. From the way they were spread out we judged them to be English. To make sure we rode a little nearer. On coming round one of the numerous undulating bulten, we saw three horsemen making for us at full speed. We at once wheeled round and took up a position behind some rocks. When the horsemen came closer we found that they were Boers. They told us, however, that the men first observed by us were really British, which accounted for their haste, and that the whole column was following just behind.
Now that we had located the enemy we felt more at ease. The scouts were riding near the road along which the wire ran, about seven miles from the town. Cutting across in plain sight of the enemy, we fixed the vibrator to the fence, and called up Heilbron. We heard the instruments working in the office, but got no reply to our hurried call. The scouts were about fifteen hundred yards away. We continued calling; they continued approaching, carefully inspecting every foot of ground before them. It seemed strange to us that the scouts of a column on the march should search for the enemy within five hundred yards only of the main body. But perhaps that is what they teach at Sandhurst. Presently the head of the column came in sight from behind the rise. The scouts were now within eight hundred yards. We quietly mounted our horses and rode away. They gave no sign of having observed our movements. When some distance away, we looked back and saw that the whole column had halted, about seven thousand men.
We reached Heilbron to find the place practically deserted. Wishing to see the enemy enter the town, we delayed our departure. Some hours passed, and nothing happened to denote the proximity of the British. We feared that they might be surrounding the town before entering it, so we left for Frankfort, following the road taken by the President the night before.
TAPPING THE WIRES
We had gone about a mile, when suddenly a score of horsemen made their appearance on top of the rise before us. Not knowing whether they were friends or foes, we swerved away to the left, regaining the road by a detour. After sunset we saw a small bonfire blaze forth about three miles away in the direction we were going. We hardly knew what to make of such an unusual sight. The night was a fairly dark one, but we pushed on rapidly. In the middle of a hard canter my horse suddenly struck his forefeet against some obstacle, and came crashing down upon his head. It was an anxious moment for me. When we had disentangled ourselves I hastened to feel the pony's knees, and found to my joy that they were but little damaged. Whilst still laughing over this mishap, we heard voices to our right. We listened for a moment. First came the question in English—