Johannesburg: June 2.
Morning broke and the army arose ready, if necessary, to renew the fight. But the enemy had fled. The main Rand ridge still stretched across our path. Its defenders had abandoned all their positions under the cover of darkness. Already French's squadrons were climbing the slopes to the eastward and pricking their horses forward to Elandsfontein (North). So Hamilton's force, having but six miles to march to Florida, did not hurry its departure, and we had leisure to examine the scene of yesterday's engagement. Riding by daylight over the ground of the Gordon's attack, we were still more impressed by the difficulties they had overcome. From where I had watched the action the Boers had seemed to be holding a long black kopje, some forty feet high, which rose abruptly from the grass plain. It now turned out that the aspect of steepness was produced by the foreshortening effects of the burnt grass area; that in reality the ground scarcely rose at all, and that what we had thought was the enemy's position was only a stony outcrop separated from the real line of defence by a bare space of about 200 yards.
Looking around I found a Highlander, a broad-shouldered, kind-faced man, with the Frontier ribbon, which means on a Gordon tunic much hard fighting; and judging with reason that he would know something of war, I asked him to explain the ground and its effect.
'Well, you see, sir,' he said, in quick spoken phrases, 'we was regularly tricked. We began to lose men so soon as we got on the burnt grass. Then we made our charge up to this first line of little rocks, thinking the Boers were there. Of course they weren't here at all, but back over there, where you see those big rocks. We were all out of breath, and in no order whatever, so we had to sit tight here and wait.'
'Heavy fire?' I asked. He cocked his head like an expert.
'I've seen heavier; but there was enough. We dropped more than forty men here. 'Tis here poor Mr. ---- was wounded; just behind this stone. You can see the blood here yet, sir--this mud's it.'
I looked as required, and he proceeded:
'We knew we was for it then; it didn't look like getting on, and we couldn't get back--never a man would ha' lived to cross the black ground again with the fire what it was, and no attack to fright them off their aim. There was such a noise of the bullets striking the rocks that the officers couldn't make themselves heard, and such confusion too! But two or three of them managed to get together after a while, and they told us what they wanted done ... and then, of course, it was done all right.'
'What was done? What did you do?'
'Why, go on, sir, and take that other line--the big rocks--soon as we'd got our breath. It had to be done.'
He did not seem the least impressed with his feat of arms. He regarded it as a piece of hard work he had been set to do, and which--this as a matter of course--he had done accordingly. What an intrepid conquering machine to depend on in the hour of need!--machine and much more, for this was a proud and intelligent man, who had thought deeply upon the craft of war, and had learnt many things in a severe school.
I had not ridden a hundred yards further, my mind full of admiration for him and his type, when a melancholy spectacle broke upon the view. Near a clump of rocks eighteen Gordon Highlanders--men as good as the one I had just talked with--lay dead in a row. Their faces were covered with blankets, but their grey stockinged feet--for the boots had been removed--looked very pitiful. There they lay stiff and cold on the surface of the great Banket Reef. I knew how much more precious their lives had been to their countrymen than all the gold mines the lying foreigners say this war was fought to win. And yet, in view of the dead and the ground they lay on, neither I nor the officer who rode with me could control an emotion of illogical anger, and we scowled at the tall chimneys of the Rand.
General Ian Hamilton, General Smith-Dorrien, all their staffs, and everyone who wished to pay a last tribute of respect to brave men, attended the funerals. The veteran regiment stood around the grave, forming three sides of a hollow square--Generals and staff filled the other. The mourning party rested on their arms, reversed; the Chaplain read the Burial Service, the bodies were lowered into the trench, and the pipes began the lament. The wild, barbaric music filled the air, stirring the soldiers, hitherto quite unmoved, with a strange and very apparent force. Sad and mournful was the dirge wailing of battles ended, of friendships broken, and ambitions lost; and yet there were mingled with its sadness many notes of triumph, and through all its mourning rang the cry of hope.
The whole of Hamilton's force had marched by ten o'clock, but even before that hour the advanced guard had passed through Florida and picketed the hills beyond. Florida is the Kew Gardens of Johannesburg. A well-built dam across a broad valley has formed a deep and beautiful lake. Carefully planted woods of Australian pines offer a welcome shade on every side. The black and white pointed chimneys of the mine buildings rise conspicuous above the dark foliage. There is a small but comfortable hotel, called 'The Retreat,' to which on Sundays, in times of peace, the weary speculators whose minds were shattered by the fluctuations of the Exchange were wont to resort for rest or diversion. Everywhere along the reef the signs of industry and commerce were to be seen. Good macadamised roads crossed each other in all directions; flashy advertisements caught the eye. A network of telegraphs and telephones ran overhead. The ground was accurately marked out with little obelisks of stone into 'Deeps' and 'Concessions,' and labelled with all the queer names which fill the market columns of the newspapers. In a word, it seemed--to us dirty, tattered wanderers--that we had dropped out of Africa and War, and come safely back to Peace and Civilisation.
Since the soldiers had eaten their last day's rations, and the only food they had had that morning came from any odds and ends the regiments might have saved, it was imperative to find some supplies. The Field-Marshal had ordered that no troops should enter Johannesburg until he should specially direct; but, finding little to eat in Florida, Hamilton sent his supply officer and a squadron as far as Maraisburg; whence they presently returned with a quantity of tinned rabbit and sardines, and with the news that the Boers were said to be occupying a position near Langlaagte mine.
During the morning we caught a train and some prisoners. The train was returning from Potchefstroom, guarded by six armed burghers, and on rifles being pointed, it stopped obediently and surrendered. The other prisoners were brought in by the Cavalry and Mounted Infantry, who had caught them wandering about without their horses. Among them was Commandant Botha--not Louis or Philip--but Botha of the Zoutspansburg commando, a brave and honest fellow, who had fought all through the war from Talana Hill until the last action; but who was quite content that Fate had decided he should fight no more. Hearing of him under guard, and near headquarters, I went to see him. He displayed no bitterness whatever, and seemed quite prepared to accept the decision of war. He inquired anxiously whether he would be sent to St. Helena, and evinced a childish horror of the sea. While we were chatting, one of the other Boer prisoners, who had been looking hard at us, said, suddenly, in very good English:
'The last time I saw you, you were in my position and I in yours.'
He then went on to tell me that he had been in the commando that destroyed the armoured train. 'I felt very sorry for you that day,' he said.
I remarked that it was much worse to be taken prisoner at the beginning of a war than near the end, as he was.
'Do you think this is the end?' asked the Commandant quickly.
'I should ask you that.'
'No, no--not yet the end. They will fight a little more. Perhaps they will defend Pretoria--perhaps you will have to go to Lydenburg; but it will not be very long now.'
And then, since both he and his companion had been through the Natal campaign, we fell to discussing the various actions. Ian Hamilton came up while we were talking. I had just told the Commandant that we considered the Boers had made a fatal strategic mistake in throwing their main strength into Natal, instead of merely holding the passes, masking Mafeking and Kimberley, and marching south into the colony with every man and gun they could scrape together. He admitted that perhaps that might be so; 'but,' said he, 'our great mistake in Natal was not assaulting Ladysmith--the Platrand position, you know--the day after our victory at Lombard's Kop. We blame Joubert for that. Many of us wanted to go on then. There were no fortifications; the soldiers were demoralised. If once we had taken the Platrand (Cæsar's Camp) you could not have held the town. How many men had you on top of it?'
'Only a picket for the first week,' said the General.
'Ah! I knew we could have done it. What would have happened then?'
'We should have had to turn you out.'
The Commandant smiled a superior smile. The General continued: 'Yes--with the bayonet--at night; or else, as you say, the town could not have been held.'
'Presently,' said Botha, 'you pulled yourselves together, but for three days after Nicholson's Nek there was no fear of bayonets. If we had stormed you then--(then we had all our men and no Buller to think about)--you would not have been able to turn us out.'
Hamilton reflected. 'Perhaps not,' he said, after a pause. 'Why didn't Joubert try it?'
'Too old,' said Botha, with complete disdain; 'you must have young men for fighting.'
That was, so far as I remember, the end of the conversation; but, a fortnight later, I met Botha a free man in the streets of Pretoria. He told me he had been released on parole, so that evidently his frank manliness had not been lost upon the General.
After lunch I became very anxious to go into, and, if possible, through, Johannesburg. An important action had been fought, witnessed by only two or three correspondents; and since the enemy lay between the force and the telegraph wire no news could have been sent home. Hamilton, indeed, had sent off two of Rimington's Guides early in the morning with despatches; but they were to make a wide sweep to the south, and it was not likely, if they got through at all, that they would reach Lord Roberts until late. The shortest, perhaps the safest, road lay through Johannesburg itself. But was the venture worth the risk? While I was revolving the matter in my mind on the verandah of the temporary headquarters, there arrived two cyclists from the direction of the town. I got into conversation with one of them, a Frenchman, Monsieur Lautré by name. He had come from the Langlaagte mine, with which undertaking he was connected. There were no Boers there, according to him. There might or might not be Boers in the town. Could a stranger get through? Certainly, he thought, unless he were stopped and questioned. He undertook there and then to be my guide if I wished to go; and it being of considerable importance to get the telegrams through to London, I decided, after a good many misgivings, to accept his offer. The General, who wanted to send a more detailed account of his action, and to report his arrival at Florida, was glad to avail himself even of this precarious channel. So the matter was immediately settled. Lautré's friend, a most accommodating person, got off his bicycle without demur and placed it at my disposal. I doffed my khaki, and put on a suit of plain clothes which I had in my valise, and exchanged my slouch hat for a soft cap. Lautré put the despatches in his pocket, and we started without more ado.
The tracks were bad, winding up and down hill, and frequently deep in sand; but the machine was a good one, and we made fair progress. Lautré, who knew every inch of the ground, avoided all highways, and led me by devious paths from one mine to another, around huge heaps of tailings, across little private tram lines, through thick copses of fir trees, or between vast sheds of machinery, now silent and idle. In three-quarters of an hour we reached Langlaagte, and here we found one of Rimington's scouts pushing cautiously forward towards the town. We held a brief parley with him, behind a house, for he was armed and in uniform. He was very doubtful of the situation ahead; only knew for certain that the troops had not yet entered Johannesburg. 'But,' said he, 'the Correspondent of the Times passed me more than two hours ago.'
'Riding?' I asked.
'Yes,' he said, 'a horse.'
'Ah,' said my Frenchman, 'that is no good. He will not get through on a horse. They will arrest him.' And then, being quite fired with the adventure: 'Besides, we will beat him, even if, unhappily, he escape the Boers.'
So we hurried on. The road now ran for the most part down hill, and the houses became more numerous. The day was nearly done, and the sun drew close to the horizon, throwing our long shadows on the white track before us. At length we turned into a regular street.
'If they stop us,' said my guide, 'speak French. Les François sont en bonne odeur ici. You speak French, eh?'
I thought my accent might be good enough to deceive a Dutchman, so I said yes; and thereafter our conversation was conducted in French.
We avoided the main thoroughfares, bicycling steadily on through the poorer quarters. Johannesburg stretched about me on every side, silent, almost deserted. Groups of moody-looking people chatted at the street corners, and eyed us suspiciously. All the shops were shut. Most of the houses had their windows boarded up. The night was falling swiftly, and its shades intensified the gloom which seemed to hang over the town, on this the last day of its Republican existence.
Suddenly, as we crossed a side lane, I saw in the street parallel to that we followed, three mounted men with slouch hats, bandoliers, and that peculiar irregular appearance which I have learned to associate with Boers. But to stop or turn back was now fatal. After all, with the enemy at their gates, they had probably concerns of their own to occupy them. We skimmed along unhindered into the central square, and my companion, whose coolness was admirable, pointed me out the post-office and other public buildings, speaking all the time in French. The slope now rose against us so steeply that we dismounted to push our machines. While thus circumstanced I was alarmed to hear the noise of an approaching horse behind me. With an effort I controlled my impulse to look back.
'Encore un Boer,' said Lautré lightly.
I was speechless. The man drew nearer, overtook and pulled his horse into a walk beside us. I could not help--perhaps it was the natural, and, if so, the wise, thing to do--having a look at him. He was a Boer sure enough, and I think he must have been a foreigner. He was armed cap-à-pie.' The horse he rode carried a full campaigning kit on an English military saddle. Wallets, saddle-bags, drinking-cup, holsters--all were there. His rifle was slung across his back, he wore two full bandoliers over his shoulders and a third round his waist--evidently a dangerous customer. I looked at his face and our eyes met. The light was dim, or he might have seen me change colour. He had a pale, almost ghastly visage, peering ill-favoured and cruel from beneath a slouch hat with a large white feather. Then he turned away carelessly. After all, I suppose he thought it natural a poor devil of a townsman should wish to look at so fine a cavalier of fortune. Presently he set spurs to his horse and cantered on. I breathed again freely. Lautré laughed.
'There are plenty of cyclists in Johannesburg,' he said. 'We do not look extraordinary. No one will stop us.'
We now began to approach the south-eastern outskirts of the town. If the original scheme of advance had been carried out, Lord Roberts's leading brigade should be close at hand. Lautré said, 'Shall we inquire?' But I thought it better to wait. As we progressed the streets became still more deserted, and at last we found ourselves quite alone. For more than half a mile I did not see a single person. Then we met a shabby-looking man, and now, no one else being in sight, the night dark, and the man old and feeble, we decided to ask him.
'The English,' he said with a grin, 'why, their sentinels are just at the top of the hill.'
'Five minutes--even less.'
Two hundred yards further on three British soldiers came in sight. They were quite unarmed, and walking casually forward into the town. I stopped them and asked what brigade they belonged to. They replied Maxwell's.
'Where is the picket line?'
'We haven't seen no pickets,' said one of them.
'What are you doing?'
'Looking for something to eat. We've had enough of 'arf rations.'
I said, 'You'll get taken prisoners or shot if you go on into the town.'
'Wot's that, guvnor?' said one of them, deeply interested in this extraordinary possibility.
I repeated, and added that the Boers were still riding about the streets.
'Well, then, I ain't for it,' he said with decision. 'Let's go back and try some of them 'ouses near the camp.'
So we all proceeded together.
I discovered no picket line at the edge of the town. Maxwell must have had one somewhere, but it certainly did not prevent anyone from passing freely; for we were never challenged, and, walking on, soon found ourselves in the middle of a large bivouac. I now became of some use to my companion, for if he knew the roads I knew the army. I soon found some officers of my acquaintance, and from them we learned that Lord Roberts's headquarters were not at Elandsfontein (South), but back at Germiston, nearly seven miles away. It was now pitch dark, and all signs of a road had vanished; but Lautré declared he knew his way, and, in any case, the messages--press and official--had to go through.
We left the camp of Maxwell's Brigade and struck across country in order to cut into the main southern road. A bicycle now became a great incumbrance, as the paths wound through dense fir woods, obstructed by frequent wire fences, ditches, holes, and high grass. Lautré, however, persisted that all was well, and, as it turned out, he was right. After about an hour of this slow progress we reached the railway, and, seeing more camp fires away to the left, turned along it. Half a mile in this direction brought us to another bivouac, which we likewise entered unchallenged. I asked a soldier whose brigade he belonged to, but he did not know, which was painfully stupid of him. A group of officers were gathered round an enormous fire a few yards away, and we went up to them to ask. Chance had led me to General Tucker's mess. I had known the commander of the Seventh Division in India, when he was stationed at Secunderabad, and he welcomed me with his usual breezy courtesy. He had been sent off with his leading brigade late in the afternoon to try to join hands with French, and so complete the circle round Johannesburg; but darkness had curtailed his march. Besides this, no communications having yet come through from the Cavalry, he was uncertain where French was. Naturally he was interested to hear what had passed on the west of the town, and about the stirring action of the previous day. From him I got some whisky and water, and clear directions to the Field-Marshal's headquarters. They were, it appeared, two miles beyond Germiston, a mile and a half west of the road, in a solitary house on a small hill which stood beyond a large tank. And in case these indications might have been of little avail in the dark, he led us a few feet up the slope, and there we saw that, on the blackness of the night, flamed a regular oblong of glittering lights. It was the camp of the Eleventh Division. Somewhere near that were the Chief's headquarters. Thus instructed, we resumed our journey.
Another half-hour of walking brought us, as Lautré had promised, to a good firm road, and the bicycles quickly made amends for their previous uselessness. The air was cold, and we were glad to spin along at a fair ten miles an hour. At this rate twenty minutes brought us into Germiston. Not knowing where I should be likely to find dinner, or a bed, I dismounted opposite the hotel, and, seeing lights and signs of occupation, went inside. Here I found Mr. Lionel James, the principal Correspondent of the Times. I asked him if his subordinate had arrived from Hamilton's force. He said 'No'; and when I told him he had started two hours in front of me, looked much concerned; whereat the Frenchman could not conceal a heartless grimace. I offered to give him some account of the action for his own use (for what is more detestable than a jealous journalist?), but he said that I had had the good luck to come through, and that he would not think of depriving me of my advantage. Alas! the days of newspaper enterprise in war are over. What can one do with a censor, a forty-eight hours' delay, and a fifty-word limit on the wire? Besides, who can compete with Lord Roberts as a special correspondent? None against the interest of his daily messages; very few against their style and simple grace. Never mind. It is all for the best.
We dined hastily and not too well, secured the reversion of half the billiard table, should all other couches fail, and set out again, this time tired and footsore. After two miles of dusty track the camp was reached. I found more officers who knew where Army Headquarters were, and at last, at about half-past ten, we reached the solitary house. We sent the despatches in by an orderly, and after a few minutes Lord Kerry came out and said that the Chief wanted to see the messengers.
Now, for the first time in this war, I found myself face to face with our illustrious leader. The room was small and meanly furnished, and he and his staff, who had just finished dinner, sat round a large table which occupied the greater part of the floor. With him were Sir William Nicholson (who arranges all the transport of the army, a work the credit of which is usually given to Lord Kitchener) and Colonel Neville Chamberlayne, his private secretary, both of them soldiers of the practical Indian school, where you have real fighting, both of them serving once more under their commander of Afghan days. There, too, was Sir Henry Rawlinson, whom I had last seen round Sir George White's table, the night Dundonald broke into Ladysmith; and Sir James Hills-Johnes, who won the Victoria Cross in the Indian Mutiny, and aides-de-camp and others whom I cannot remember.
The Field-Marshal rose from his place, shook hands, and bade us, in most ceremonious fashion, to be seated. He had read half of Hamilton's despatch.
'The first part of this,' he said, 'we knew already. Two guides--Rimington's, I think--got in here about an hour ago. They had a dangerous ride, and were chased a long way, but escaped safely. I am glad to hear Hamilton is at Florida. How did you get through?'
I told him briefly. His eye twinkled. I have never seen a man before with such extraordinary eyes. I remember to have been struck with them on several occasions. The face remains perfectly motionless, but the eyes convey the strongest emotions. Sometimes they blaze with anger, and you see hot yellow fire behind them. Then it is best to speak up straight and clear, and make an end quickly. At others there is a steel grey glitter--quite cold and uncompromising--which has a most sobering effect on anyone who sees it. But now the eyes twinkled brightly with pleasure or amusement or approbation, or, at any rate, something friendly.
'Tell me about the action,' he said.
So I told him all I knew, much as it is set down in these pages, though not nearly at such length; but I don't think the tale lost in the telling. From time to time he asked questions about the Artillery concentration, or the length of front of the Infantry attack, and other technical matters, on which I was luckily well-informed. The fact that the troops had no rations seemed to disturb him very much. He was particularly interested to hear of Hamilton's novel attack 'at thirty paces extension'; of the manner in which the batteries had been rammed almost into the firing line; but most of all he wanted to hear about the Gordons' charge. When I had done he said: 'The Gordons' always do well.' Then he asked what we proposed to do. Lautré said he would go back forthwith; but the Chief said, 'Much better stay here for the night; we will find you beds'; so of course we stayed. He asked me whether I meant to go back next morning. I said that as I had got my messages to the telegraph office I thought, upon the whole, that I would not run any more risks, but wait and see the British occupation of the town. He laughed at this, and said that I was quite right, and would be very ill-advised to be caught again. Then he said that he would send a letter to Hamilton in the morning, bade us all 'good-night,' and retired to his waggon. I, too, found a comfortable bed--the first for a month--and being thoroughly worn out soon fell asleep.
Part of Lord Roberts's letter that he wrote to Ian Hamilton next day was published in the orders of the flanking column. In some way it explains why the private soldier will march further for 'Bobs Bahadur' than for any one else in the world.
'I am delighted at your repeated successes, and grieve beyond measure at your poor fellows being without their proper rations. A trainful shall go to you to-day. I expect to get the notice that Johannesburg surrenders this morning, and we shall then march into the town. I wish your column, which has done so much to gain possession of it, could be with us.
'Tell the Gordons that I am proud to think I have a Highlander as one of the supporters on my coat-of-arms.'