Heilbron: May 22.
Heilbron lies in a deep valley. About it on every side rolls the grassy upland country of the Free State, one smooth grey-green surge beyond another, like the after-swell of a great gale at sea; and here in the trough of the waves, hidden almost entirely from view, is the town itself, white stone houses amid dark trees, all clustering at the foot of a tall church spire. It is a quiet, sleepy little place, with a few good buildings and pretty rose gardens, half-a-dozen large stores, a hotel, and a branch line of its own.
For a few days it had been capital of the Free State. The President, his secretaries, and his councillors arrived one morning from Lindley, bringing the 'seat of government' with them in a Cape cart. For nearly a week Heilbron remained the chief town. Then, as suddenly as it had come, the will-o'-the-wisp dignity departed, and Steyn, secretaries, councillors, and Cape cart, hurried away to the eastward, leaving behind them rumours of advancing hosts--and (to this I can testify) three bottles of excellent champagne. That was on Sunday night. The inhabitants watched and wondered all the next day.
On the Tuesday morning, shortly after the sun had risen, Christian De Wet appeared with sixty waggons, five guns, and a thousand burghers, very weary, having trekked all night from the direction of Kroonstadt, and glad to find a place of rest and refreshment. 'What of the English?' inquired the new-comers, and the Heilbron folk replied that the English were coming, and so was Christmas, and that the country to the southward was all clear for ten miles. Thereat the war-worn commando outspanned their oxen and settled themselves to coffee. Forty minutes later the leading patrols of Broadwood's Brigade began to appear on the hills to the south of the town.
Looked at from any point of view, the British force was a formidable array: Household Cavalry, 12th Lancers and 10th Hussars, with P and Q Batteries Royal Horse Artillery (you must mind your P's and Q's with them), two 'pom-poms,' and two galloping Maxims; and, hurrying up behind them, Light Horse, Mounted Infantry, Nineteenth and Twenty-first Brigades, thirty field-guns, more 'pom-poms,' two great 5-in. ox-drawn siege pieces ('cow guns' as the army calls them), and Ian Hamilton. It was an army formidable to any foe; but to those who now stared upwards from the little town and saw the dark, swift-moving masses on the hills--an avalanche of armed men and destructive engines about to fall on them--terrible beyond words.
'And then,' as the poet observes, 'there was mounting in hot haste,' saddling up of weary ponies, frantic inspanning of hungry oxen cheated of their well-earned rest and feed, cracking of long whips, kicking of frightened Kaffirs; and so pell-mell out of the town and away to the northward hurried the commando of Christian De Wet.
The Cavalry halted on the hills for a while, the General being desirous of obtaining the formal surrender of Heilbron, and so preventing street-fighting or bombardment. An officer--Lieutenant M. Spender-Clay, of the 2nd Life Guards--was despatched with a flag of truce and a trumpeter; message most urgent, answer to be given within twenty minutes, or Heaven knows what would happen; but all these things take time. Flags of truce (prescribe the customs of war) must approach the enemy's picket line at a walk; a mile and a half at a walk--twenty minutes; add twenty for the answer, ten for the return journey, and nearly an hour is gone. So we wait impatiently watching the two solitary figures with a white speck above them draw nearer and nearer to the Boer lines; 'and,' says the brigadier, 'bring two guns up and have the ranges taken.'
There was just a chance that while all were thus intent on the town, the convoy and commando might have escaped unharmed, for it happened that the northern road runs for some distance eastward along the bottom of the valley, concealed from view. But the clouds of dust betrayed them.
'Hullo! what the deuce is that?' cried an officer.
'What?' said everyone else.
'Why, that! Look at the dust. There they go. It's a Boer convoy. Gone away.'
And with this holloa the chase began. Never have I seen anything in war so like a fox hunt. At first the scent was uncertain, and the pace was slow with many checks.
Before us rose a long smooth slope of grass, and along the crest the figures of horsemen could be plainly seen. The tail of the waggon train was just disappearing. But who should say how many rifles lined that ridge? Besides, there were several barbed-wire fences, which, as anyone knows, will spoil the best country.
Broadwood began giving all kinds of orders--Household Cavalry to advance slowly in the centre; 12th Lancers to slip forward on the right, skirting the town, and try to look behind the ridge, and with them a battery of horse guns; 10th Hussars, to make a cast to the left, and the rest of the guns to walk forward steadily.
Slowly at first, and silently besides; but soon the hounds gave tongue. Pop, pop, pop--the advanced squadron--Blues--had found something to fire at, and something that fired back, too; pip-pop, pip-pop came the double reports of the Boer rifles. Bang--the artillery opened on the crest-line with shrapnel, and at the first few shells it was evident that the enemy would not abide the attack. The horsemen vanished over the sky-line.
The leading squadron pushed cautiously forward--every movement at a walk, so far. Infantry brigadiers and others, inclined to impatience, ground their teeth, and thinking there would be no sport that day, went home criticising the master. The leading squadron reached the crest, and we could see them dismount and begin to fire.
We were over the first big fence, and now the scent improved. Beyond the first ridge was another, and behind this, much nearer now, dust clouds high and thick. The General galloped forward himself to the newly-captured position and took a comprehensive view. 'Tell the brigade to come here at once--sharp.'
A galloper shot away to the rear. Behind arose the rattle of trotting batteries. The excitement grew. Already the patrols were skirting the second ridge. The Boer musketry, fitful for a few minutes, died away. They were abandoning their second position. 'Forward, then.' And forward we went accordingly at a healthy trot.
In front of the jingling squadrons two little galloping Maxims darted out, and almost before the ridge was ours they were spluttering angrily at the retreating enemy, so that four burghers, as I saw myself, departed amid a perfect hail of bullets, which peppered the ground on all sides.
But now the whole hunt swung northward towards a line of rather ugly-looking heights. Broadwood looked at them sourly. 'Four guns to watch those hills, in case they bring artillery against us from them.' Scarcely were the words spoken, when there was a flash and a brown blurr on the side of one of the hills, and with a rasping snarl a shell passed overhead and burst among the advancing Cavalry. The four guns were on the target without a moment's delay.
The Boer artillerists managed to fire five shots, and then the place grew too hot for them--indeed, after Natal, I may write, even for them. They had to expose themselves a great deal to remove their gun, and the limber and its six horses showed very plainly on the hillside, so that we all hoped to smash a wheel or kill a horse, and thus capture a real prize. But at the critical moment our 'pom-poms' disgraced themselves. They knew the range, they saw the target. They fired four shots; the aim was not bad. But four shots--four miserable shots! Just pom-pom, pom-pom. That was all. Whereas, if the Boers had had such a chance, they would have rattled through the whole belt, and sent eighteen or twenty shells in a regular shower. So we all saw with pain how a weapon, which is so terrible in the hands of the enemy, may become feeble and ineffective when used on our side by our own gunners.
After the menace of the Boer artillery was removed from our right flank, the advance became still more rapid. Batteries and squadrons were urged into a gallop. Broadwood himself hurried forward. We topped a final rise.
Then at last we viewed the vermin. There, crawling up the opposite slope, clear cut on a white roadway, was a long line of waggons--ox waggons and mule waggons--and behind everything a small cart drawn by two horses. All were struggling with frantic energy to escape from their pursuers. But in vain.
The batteries spun round and unlimbered. Eager gunners ran forward with ammunition, and some with belts for the 'pom-poms.' There was a momentary pause while ranges were taken and sights aligned, and then----! Shell after shell crashed among the convoys. Some exploded on the ground, others, bursting in the air, whipped up the dust all round mules and men. The 'pom-poms,' roused at last from their apathy by this delicious target and some pointed observations of the General, thudded out strings of little bombs. For a few minutes the waggons persevered manfully. Then one by one they came to a standstill. The drivers fled to the nearest shelter, and the animals strayed off the road or stood quiet in stolid ignorance of their danger.
And now at this culminating moment I must, with all apologies to 'Brooksby,' change the metaphor, because the end of the chase was scarcely like a fox hunt. The guns had killed the quarry, and the Cavalry dashed forward to secure it. It was a fine bag--to wit, fifteen laden waggons and seventeen prisoners. Such was the affair of Heilbron, and it was none the less joyous and exciting because, so far as we could learn, no man on either side was killed, and only one trooper and five horses wounded. Then we turned homewards.
On the way back to the town I found, near a fine farmhouse with deep verandahs and a pretty garden, Boer ambulance waggons, two German doctors, and a dozen bearded men. They inquired the issue of the pursuit; how many prisoners had we taken? We replied by other questions. 'How much longer will the war last?'
'It is not a war any more,' said one of the Red Cross men. 'The poor devils haven't got a chance against your numbers.'
'Nevertheless,' interposed another, 'they will fight to the end.'
I looked towards the last speaker. He was evidently of a different class to the rest.
'Are you,' I asked, 'connected with the ambulance?'
'No, I am the military chaplain to the Dutch forces.'
'And you think the Free State will continue to resist?'
'We will go down fighting. What else is there to do? History and Europe will do us justice.'
'It is easy for you to say that, who do not fight; but what of the poor farmers and peasants you have dragged into this war? They do not tell us that they wish to fight. They think they have been made a catspaw for the Transvaal.'
'Ah,' he rejoined, warmly, 'they have no business to say that now. They did not say so before the war. They wanted to fight. It was a solemn pledge. We were bound to help the Transvaalers; what would have happened to us after they were conquered?'
'But, surely you, and men like you, knew the strength of the antagonist you challenged. Why did you urge these simple people to their ruin?'
'We had had enough of English methods here. We knew our independence was threatened. It had to come. We did not deceive them. We told them. I told my flock often that it would not be child's play.'
'Didn't you tell them it was hopeless?'
'It was not hopeless,' he said. 'There were many chances.'
'All gone now.'
'Not quite all. Besides, chances or no chances, we must go down fighting.'
'You preach a strange gospel of peace!'
'And you English,' he rejoined, 'have strange ideas of liberty.'
So we parted, without more words; and I rode on my way into the town. Heilbron had one memory for me, and it was one which was now to be revived. In the hotel--a regular country inn--I found various British subjects who had been assisting the Boer ambulances--possibly with rifles. It is not my purpose to discuss here the propriety of their conduct. They had been placed in situations which do not come to men in quiet times, and for the rest they were mean-spirited creatures.
While the Republican cause seemed triumphant they had worked for the Dutch, had doubtless spoken of 'damned rooineks,' and used other similar phrases; so soon as the Imperial arms predominated they had changed their note; had refused to go on commando in any capacity, proclaimed that Britons never should be slaves, and dared the crumbling organism of Federal government to do its worst.
We talked about the fighting in Natal which they had seen from the other side. The Acton Homes affair cropped up. You will remember that we of the irregular brigade plumed ourselves immensely on this ambuscading of the Boers--the one undoubted score we ever made against them on the Tugela.
'Yes,' purred my renegades, 'you caught the damned Dutchmen fairly then. We were delighted, but of course we dared not show it.' (Pause.) 'That was where De Mentz was killed.'
De Mentz! The name recalled a vivid scene--the old field-cornet lying forward, grey and grim, in a pool of blood and a litter of empty cartridge cases, with his wife's letter clasped firmly in his stiffening fingers. He had 'gone down fighting;' had had no doubts what course to steer. I knew when I saw his face that he had thought the whole thing out. Now they told me that there had been no man in all Heilbron more bitterly intent on the war, and that his letter in the 'Volksstem,' calling on the Afrikanders to drive the English scum from the land, had produced a deep impression.
'Let them,' thus it ran, 'bring 50,000 men, or 80,000 men, or even'--it was a wild possibility--'100,000, yet we will overcome them.' But they brought more than 200,000, so all his calculations were disproved, and he himself was killed with the responsibility on his shoulders of leading his men into an ambush which, with ordinary precautions, might have been avoided. Such are war's revenges. His widow, a very poor woman, lived next door to the hotel, nursing her son who had been shot through the lungs during the same action. Let us hope he will recover, for he had a gallant sire.