No room, sir!'
This was the phrase that greeted my friend De C---- and myself at the door of every carriage we tried.
The fast train for Marseilles leaving Paris at 8.25 was, indeed, full to overflowing that night of December 23; by eight o'clock not a place was left.
Finally, after treading on a good many toes, and exchanging a good many elbowings, we installed ourselves more or less comfortably--a good deal less, to be accurate--one in the front of the train, the other close to the luggage-van.
A last clasp of the hand to the comrades who have come to the station with us, and we are off.
The lights of Paris begin to die out in the distance; conversation languishes; the monotonous rumble of the train lulls the travellers into drowsiness; heads nod and droop in the dim light of the lamp.
'La Roche! Wait here five minutes!'
We jump out. C---- and I meet again.
'Well, how are you getting on?'
'Not very well. And you?'
And, much depressed, we return to our respective carriages.
At last the patience under discomfort habitual to men of our unsettled lives asserts itself, and we sleep soundly till we reach Arles, when we find two seats together.
At Marseilles we were kindly received by a pleasant cousin of mine, and by a delightful lady, also of my kindred.
The 24th we spent with some comrades, officers of the neighbouring garrison, and on the 25th we and our baggage were safely on board the Natal, of the Messageries Maritimes.
I make special mention of our baggage, which, in preparation for the campaign we are about to undertake, consists of two little canteens. The two together weigh exactly 38 kilos, making about 19 kilos each. They hold all our belongings, including our two revolvers and two hundred cartridges. We are not overloaded with baggage.
The Natal is one of the 'fine steamers' of former days, fairly large.
We first take possession of our cabin, which opens into the dining-saloon. Then we go up on the bridge, where we are introduced to Colonel Gourko, who is also on his way to the Transvaal, as Russian military attache. We had met him the evening before at the station, for he arrived by the same train as ourselves. But his fluent French, and his rosette of the Legion of Honour, which he always wears by courtesy in France, had made us take him for some important functionary on his way to Madagascar!...
We ask his pardon. But the minutes pass. Hand-shakings, good wishes, bursts of emotion, the time-honoured formula of departure have been gone through; the gangways are taken up, the ropes cast off; we steam out of port. The handkerchiefs that flutter on the quay and on the pier gradually diminish, the houses seem to flatten, Notre Dame de la Garde dwindles, becomes smaller and smaller, till at last it is a mere speck on the horizon. Then it disappears altogether; we are on the open sea.
I shall not thrill with ecstasy, nor pour out a tribute of emotion to the 'blue immensity,' for, though I have many parts--as you, my readers, will readily believe, especially such of you as do not know me--I am no poet. The dinner-bell finds De C---- and me prosaically wrangling over 150 points at piquet.
The dining-saloon is large, but there are few diners. We take a general survey.
The captain, who is supposed to preside over the meals, is not well, and does not appear. In fact, we scarcely see him at table during the passage.
Colonel Gourko, Captain Ram, and Lieutenant Thomson, the Dutch military attaches, Captain D---- of the Marines, with his charming young wife and their son Guy--who is soon one of our firmest friends--an engineer, a naval doctor, a young lady on her way to set up as a milliner at Tananariva, an English journalist, and Henry de Charette, a volunteer for the Transvaal, where his health will prevent him from playing a very active part, make up the sum total of diners, or very nearly so.
We further discovered on board Messieurs de Breda, a former cavalry officer, Pimpin, Michel, a distinguished artillery officer, and a few others destined to be our pleasant comrades in the future.
As at least fifteen of us are bound for Lourenco Marques, and as we have reason to fear a visit from some English cruiser not unaccustomed to such travellers, we have all adopted the most extraordinary callings. One of us is a commercial traveller in the wine or drug trade; another is a dealer in apparatus of various kinds. I also met a bird-seller, a manufacturer of blinds, and an agent for bitumens!
C---- and I are modest! We are in quest of purchasers for 'Calaya,' a febrifuge of extraordinary virtues, a specific for fever, dysentery, headache, toothache, etc.
The weather is superb; but our boat is slow, and we rarely make 300 miles in the twenty-four hours.
We reach Port Said on December 31. For New Year's Day we get up an entertainment with a lottery on board, and, thanks to Madame D----, it proves a great success.
The profits, amounting to nearly a thousand francs, were handed over to the Widows and Orphans' Fund of the Messageries Maritimes.
The prizes offered by the passengers were of the most curious description, and as we were bound for sunny climes, there were more than twenty umbrellas among them. Chance, with perhaps a little extraneous help, made a good many of these fall to the share of Colonel Gourko, who took the little joke in excellent part.
Breda undertakes the refreshment buffet, with the help of a charming young girl, and presides with great dignity.
After leaving Port Said the company is increased by the members of a Russian ambulance going to the Transvaal. They keep very much to themselves, and every evening they meet together on the lower deck to sing their vesper prayer. The sacred chant, in itself very imposing, takes on a solemn grandeur in the picturesque setting of the Red Sea.
At Aden we go on shore, and make an execrable lunch, washed down, however, by some excellent Chianti and Barolo; then we go to see the famous cisterns, in which there is hardly ever any water now.
We also pick up a new passenger, Captain B----, of the Royal Field Artillery, who also is for Durban on warfare bound. Our approaching hostility does not prevent us from being the best of friends throughout the passage. He wears the medal of the Soudan, too, which gives him a further title to our sympathies. He describes his very interesting campaigns in India and Egypt. He was present at Omdurman--'the great battle,' as he calls it.
Ever since we started we have been hearing terrific accounts of Guardafui. Few vessels, it appears, escape disaster at this point! But the sea is like oil, to the great mortification, no doubt, of all our ancient mariners.
Now we are bound straight for Madagascar. For eight days we shall be between sky and water. Let us turn them to account for a rapid retrospect of the causes which have led to the war in which we are about to take part.
It will not, I think, be necessary to dwell on the origin of the Boers.[#]
[#] Boer means peasant; Burgher denotes a citizen.
Colonists sent out in 1652 by the Dutch East India Company, they landed at the Cape of Good Hope, discovered two centuries before (1486), and settled there, employing themselves in agriculture and cattle-breeding.
At the time of the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, 300 French Huguenots joined them, bringing up the number of the colonists to about 1,000. The fusion of the two races was rapid, and the French tongue disappeared among them. Many of the French names even were corrupted--Cronje was originally Crosnier--but many, on the other hand, have persisted in their Gallic form--Villiers, Marais, Joubert, Du Toit--and their bearers are very proud of their French descent. But England, anxious to acquire the colony when it began to prosper, sent out a number of emigrants, reinforcing them steadily, till they became an important factor in the community.
From 1815, when Cape Colony was recognised as a British possession by the Treaty of Vienna, English policy has been hostile to the Boers, who, for their part, received the English settlers in no friendly spirit.
About 1835 the Boers, under the pressure of the vexations to which they were subjected, began their exodus to the north--the Great Trek, as they still call it--and founded the Orange Free State, recognised in 1869 by Europe, and the Transvaal.
They were not left long in the enjoyment of the territory they had wrested from the Kaffirs. Diamondiferous deposits were discovered in the Orange Free State in 1871; the English promptly confiscated the find on the pretext that it belonged to a native chief under their protection.
In 1877, the Zulus having risen against the Boers, England intervened for the alleged pacification of the country, sent her troops to Pretoria, and annexed the Transvaal.
But in 1880 the Boers revolted, and under Joubert inflicted a crushing defeat on the English at Majuba Hill, on the frontier of Natal, February 27, 1881.
The treaty of August 3, 1881, recognised the independence of the Transvaal under the suzerainty of the Queen. Another treaty, signed in London, February 27, 1884, recognised the absolute independence of the Transvaal.
On January 2, 1896, the famous Jameson Raid, still fresh in men's memories, was checked at Krugersdorp.
Wishing to satisfy the claims of the Uitlanders, the President reduced the term necessary for the acquisition of electoral rights from fourteen to nine years. Finally, in 1899, England, constituting herself the champion of the foreigners, instructed Sir Alfred Milner, Governor of the Cape, to demand a further reduction of the term to five years.
This measure meant the rapid intrusion of the alien into the administration, and the gradual swamping of the Boers. It would have been the ruin of Boer autonomy. The President refused. 'Her Majesty's subjects,' he said, 'demanded my trousers; I gave them, and my coat likewise. They now want my life; I cannot grant them that.'
All these demands were but so many pretexts intended to mask the true designs of England from the European Powers. But they are manifest to the least discerning. On the one hand, there are gold-mines in the Transvaal, and speculators demand them. On the other, Cecil Rhodes has declared that 'Africa must be English from the Cape to Cairo.' War had therefore long been foreseen, and the Transvaal quietly prepared for the struggle.
Under cover of an expedition into Swaziland, which was nothing but a march of some few hundred Burghers who had never fired a shot except at game, considerable armaments had been made from 1895 onwards.
Krupp supplied them with field-guns of 12 and 15 pound. Maxim-Nordenfeldts were bought. These quick-firing guns throw percussion-shells to a distance of about 5,000 metres; their calibre is 35 millimetres. The English have a great respect for these little pieces, which they have christened 'pom-poms,' in imitation of the noise made by their rapid fire. The same firm supplied small calibre Maxim guns for Lee-Metford cartridges. The cartridges are fixed to strips of canvas (belts), which unroll automatically, presenting a fresh cartridge to the striker the instant its predecessor has been fired.
Lastly, the Creusot factories received orders for guns of the latest pattern: four 155 centimetres long, with a range of about 10,000 metres, which the Boers call 'Long Toms,' and two batteries of 75 millimetre field-guns.
These cannon (model 95) were furnished with all the latest improvements. They fire very rapidly, and the brakes, situated on either side of the piece, absorb the recoil, the carriage being the fulcrum, and the trunnions the points of contact with the piece. They have a range of about 7,000 metres. They are loaded by means of cartridges, the whole charge enclosed in a single metal case. When efficiently served, they will fire from fifteen to twenty shots a minute.
We have advanced indeed since the year 1881, and the cannon made in the Transvaal itself, with cartwheel axle-trees riveted and braised together![#]
[#] This is preserved in the museum at Pretoria, side by side with a mitrailleuse labelled 'Meudon,' given to the President by the Emperor William.
A large stock of Mauser, Martini-Henry and Steyr rifles (1887 pattern), with plentiful ammunition, was also bought by the Boer Government.
The weapon most in favour is the Mauser rifle of 1891, calibre 7.5 millimetres. It is sighted up to 2,000 metres. It has a magazine containing five cartridges. The movable straight-levered breech-block has a safety-bolt.
The cavalry carbine, also much appreciated, is a reduced model of the rifle. The mechanism is the same, and it also has a magazine holding five cartridges, but the movable breech-block has a bent lever. This carbine is sighted up to 1,400 metres.
These two weapons are of great precision, but I have heard it objected since my return that the wooden grip which covers part of the barrel causes an unequal heating and cooling of the metal between the covered and uncovered parts, giving rise to occasional explosions or distortions. Personally, I saw no instance of this.
The Martini-Henry rifles, carbines, and muskets are sometimes preferred by the older Boers. They are of an obsolete pattern, and have an insignificant range of only 800 metres for carbines and muskets. They are 11 millimetres in calibre, and their leaden bullets have no casing of harder metal. To some persons they have the advantage of disabling a man more rapidly and effectually at a short range than bullets of smaller calibre.
Events now follow closely one on another. On September 26, 1899, the Volksraad issued the following proclamation from Bloemfontein:
'The Volksraad, considering paragraph 2 of the President's speech, and the official documents and correspondence submitted therewith, having regard to the fact that the strained state of affairs throughout the whole of South Africa, which has arisen owing to the differences between the Imperial Government and the Transvaal, threatens to lead to hostilities, the calamitous consequences of which to the white inhabitants would be immeasurable, being connected with the Transvaal by the closest ties of blood and confederacy, and standing in the most friendly relationship with the Imperial Government; fearing that, should war break out, a hatred between European races would be born which would arrest or retard peaceful developments in all States and colonies of South Africa, and produce distrust in the future; feeling that the solemn duty rests upon it of doing everything possible to avoid the shedding of blood; considering that the Transvaal Government during the negotiations with the Imperial Government, which extended over several months, made every endeavour to arrive at a peaceful solution of the differences raised by the aliens in the Transvaal, and taken up by the Imperial Government as its own cause, which endeavours have unfortunately had only this result, that British troops were concentrated on the border of the Transvaal, and are still being strengthened--resolves to instruct the Government still to use every means to maintain and insure peace, and in a peaceful manner to contribute towards a solution of existing differences, provided it be done without violating the honour and independence of the Free State and the Transvaal; and wishes unmistakably to make known its opinion that there exists no cause for war, and that a war against the Transvaal, if now undertaken by the Imperial Government, will morally be a war against the whole white population of South Africa, and in its consequences criminal, for, come what may, the Free State will honestly and faithfully fulfil its obligations towards the Transvaal, by virtue of the political alliance existing between the two Republics.'
On the 29th Mr. Chamberlain, more aggressive than ever, laid down certain impossible conditions:
1. The franchise to every Uitlander after five years of residence, unencumbered by any formalities that might restrict the privilege.
2. An absolute separation of the executive and judicial power in the Transvaal.
3. Abolition of the dynamite monopoly.
4. Dismantlement of the fortress of Johannesburg.
5. A special municipal government for Johannesburg.
6. Official recognition of the English language, and an equal use of it and the Dutch tongue.
During the first days of October the situation became more and more serious. Certain attempts at conciliation were still made. On October 5, President Steyn demanded that the massing of troops on the frontier should cease. But on the 6th Sir Alfred Milner replied that he could not accede to his request. Mr. Steyn accordingly wrote to the Governor of Cape Colony 'that the success of further negotiations was very doubtful, as the Transvaal would refuse any conditions whatever laid down by Her Majesty's Government if British troops continued to arrive while negotiations were in progress.'
Finally, on October 10 the Boer ultimatum was handed to Mr. Conyngham-Green. The Transvaal Executive had demanded an answer within twenty-four hours, but the delegates of the Orange Free State got the term extended to forty-eight hours.
War was declared on October 11. The Boer commandos grouped themselves in two principal centres, the Orange Free State and Natal. In the Free State, Du Toit and Kolby invested Kimberley on October 14. Cronje advanced against Methuen in the south-east, Schoeman against Colesberg, and Olivier to meet Gatacre south of Aliwal North.
In Natal, Botha, Schalk Burgher, Lucas Meyer and Prinsloo, under the Commander-in-Chief Joubert, marched upon Ladysmith.
On October 20 a desperate engagement took place at Glencoe. General Symons, himself mortally wounded, lost sixty killed, 300 wounded, and 300 prisoners. The Boers had seventy men killed.
On October 21, at Elandslaagte, the German Legion and the Scandinavians, surprised by the enemy, were slaughtered by the English Lancers after a heroic resistance.
On the 23rd, at Dundee, Generals Yule and White were obliged to fall back on Ladysmith.
Finally, on October 30, under the very walls of the town, at Lombard's Kop, General White, beaten again, lost 300 dead and wounded, 1,200 prisoners and ten guns.
On November 2 Ladysmith was invested.
To judge by the behaviour of the Boers at this juncture, it would have seemed that the siege of the three towns, Mafeking, Kimberley and Ladysmith, was the end and object of the whole campaign.
They had at this stage of the war one of the most magnificent opportunities imaginable. Full of confidence, flushed with success, well equipped, and more numerous than they would ever be again, they might have reckoned on the co-operation of the Cape Boers, who, believing in the possible success of their brethren, were preparing to throw in their lot with them.
Against them they had some 40,000 English, half of them only just disembarked, unacclimatized, untried in warfare, the other half discouraged by recent events and scattered over a vast area.
Order and effort prolonged for one week only would have overwhelmed and annihilated the English army. Cape Colony and Natal would have thrown off the yoke, associating themselves with the Transvaal and the Orange Free State, and the United States of South Africa would have been a power to reckon with. But no! Nothing was attempted. Joubert seemed to be hypnotized before Ladysmith, Du Toit before Kimberley.
And, quietly and undisturbedly, England gradually disembarked the 200,000 men Lord Kitchener thought necessary for the work in hand. Nevertheless, for two months more the incapacity of the English generals all along the line thrust the flower of the Queen's battalions under the deadly fire of the Mausers, without a chance of fighting for their lives, so to speak.
On November 10, at Belmont, Lord Methuen was repulsed with heavy loss. A month later, at Stormberg, General Gatacre ventured an advance without scouts, without a map, blindly following a guide whose course he did not even verify by a compass.
The advance took place in the utmost disorder, though it had been arranged forty-eight hours, previously. The ambulance lost touch with the detachment, and went its own way. The 2nd Battalion of the Northumberland Fusiliers lost its ammunition-waggon. The column advanced in close order to within 100 yards of the Boer entrenchments without any warning, and was decimated. Gatacre lost 100 men killed and 700 prisoners.
On December 11, at Magersfontein, Lord Methuen had a second disaster to deplore. Half an hour after midnight, after twenty-four hours of artillery preparations and bombardment of the Boer entrenchments, five Highland regiments advanced in line of quarter-column. The night was dark, and rain was falling in torrents. At half-past three in the morning the English halted, not very sure of their route. In an instant a deadly fire poured out from the rocks. They were less than 200 yards from the trenches occupied by Cronje's men.
The Black Watch was decimated. General Wauchope fell, crying: 'My poor fellows! 'twas not I who brought you here!' The Marquis of Winchester was also killed.
The whole body was demoralized, and it was not possible to make the fugitives lie down till they had reached a distance of several hundreds of yards. 'It was,' says an eye-witness, 'one of the saddest sights that could wring the heart of an English soldier of our times.'
In this turmoil of confusion and indecision, Lord Methuen only gave the order to retire towards four o'clock in the afternoon. More than a thousand dead strewed the battle-field, and no help was given to the wounded till the following day.
In the last letter he wrote to England, Wauchope said: 'This is my last letter, for I have been ordered to attempt an impossible task. I have protested, but I must obey or give up my sword.... The men of the Modder River army will probably never follow Lord Methuen in another engagement.'
Finally, on December 15, the Battle of Colenso was fought. I borrow an account of it from Sir Redvers Buller's telegram despatched from Chieveley Camp in the evening:
'I regret to report serious reverse. I moved in full strength from camp near Chieveley this morning at 4 a.m. There are two fordable places in the Tugela, and it was my intention to force a passage through at one of them. They are about two miles apart, and my intention was to force one or the other with one brigade, supported by a central brigade.
'General Hart was to attack the left drift, General Hildyard the right road, and General Lyttleton in the centre to support either.
'Early in the day I saw that General Hart would not be able to force a passage, and directed him to withdraw. He had, however, attacked with great gallantry, and his leading battalion, the Connaught Rangers, I fear suffered a great deal. Colonel Brooke was severely wounded.
'I then ordered General Hildyard to advance, which he did, and his leading regiment, the East Surrey, occupied Colenso Station and the houses near the bridge.
'At that moment I heard that the whole of the artillery I had sent to that attack--namely, the 14th and 66th Field Batteries and six naval 12-pounder quick-firing guns, the whole under Colonel Long, R.A.--were out of action, as it appears that Colonel Long, in his desire to be within effective range, advanced close to the river. It proved to be full of the enemy, who suddenly opened a galling fire at close range, killing all their horses, and the gunners were compelled to stand to their guns.'
Desperate efforts were made to bring back the guns, but only two were saved by the exertions of Captain Schofield and two or three of the drivers.
It was here that Lieutenant Roberts, of the 66th Battery of Artillery, son of Field-Marshal Lord Roberts, met a glorious death.
'Some of the waggon-teams got shelter for troops in a donga, and desperate efforts were made to bring out the field-guns, but the fire was too severe, and only two were saved by Captain Schofield and some drivers, whose names I will furnish.
'Another most gallant attempt with three teams was made by an officer whose name I will obtain. Of the 18 horses, 13 were killed, and as several of the drivers were wounded, I would not allow another attempt.
'As it seemed they would be a shell mark, sacrificing loss of life to a gallant attempt to force passage unsupported by artillery, I directed the troops to withdraw, which they did in good order.
'Throughout the day a considerable force of the enemy was pressing on my right flank, but was kept back by the mounted men under Lord Dundonald and part of General Barton's brigade.
'The day was intensely hot and most trying to the troops, whose conduct was excellent.
'We have abandoned ten guns, and lost by shell-fire one.
'The losses in General Hart's brigade are, I fear, heavy, though the proportion of severely wounded is, I hope, not large.
'The 14th and 66th Field Batteries also suffered severe losses.
'We have retired to our camp at Chieveley.
'The Boer losses are said to be over 700 men.'[#]
[#] This statement does not appear in the Times report of General Buller's telegram.--TRANSLATOR.
No, General, we did not lose 700 men that day.
General Botha's report gave 8 dead and 20 wounded, while more than 2,000 English lay on the battle-field.
Round about the batteries especially the carnage had been terrible. The Boers, ambushed on a little kopje on the further side of the Tugela, 300 metres from the cannon, kept up an unerring fire for an hour.
December 15, be it noted, has long been a day of rejoicing in the Transvaal. It is the anniversary of the Battle of Bloedriver, when Pretorius, to avenge the massacre of Pieter Retief and over 500 Boers, defied the bands of the Zulu chief Dingaun. This was on December 15, 1838, and on that eventful day Pretorius and his 400 men left 3,000 Zulus on the field, with a loss of only three wounded themselves.
After Colenso the victors had another splendid opportunity. They might have pushed forward with the armies of Natal and the Free State. The English troops had, it is true, been reinforced, but the arms of the Republics were still victorious in every direction.
In the beginning, on the whole, the elements of success were overwhelmingly with the Boers. These were superiority of numbers, of marksmanship, a profound knowledge of the country, of which no accurate maps exist, and the great distances between their opponents and such reinforcements as the latter could depend on. It might have been said that the fortune of war, taking into account the right and justice of their cause, had been pleased to place all the elements of victory in their hands. But neither the advice offered by the most authoritative voices and based on the great teachings of military history, nor the entreaties dictated by the most generous devotion to the cause of the Boers, could rouse the superiors in command from the apathy that seemed to have overtaken them.
Christmas passed in rejoicings on both sides. The belligerents exchanged Christmas and New Year good wishes by the medium of shells specially prepared, containing sweets, chocolates, etc. New Year's Day found them all much in the same positions. The bombardment of the three towns, Mafeking, Kimberley, and Ladysmith, continued.
However, on January 6 Joubert made up his mind to attack--if, indeed, that strange encounter, aimless and incoherent, can be called an attack. Was it an assault by the besiegers or a sortie of the besieged? Perhaps both. It took place at Platrand. Four or five hundred of Prinsloo's men were seriously engaged; the others (there were 6,000 round the town) took up positions early in the morning, quitted them towards ten o'clock to come back and breakfast in camp, returned to them later, and remained for the rest of the day 1,800 yards from the town, which was no longer defended, without firing a shot, without a thought of throwing themselves against it or of going to the help of their comrades, hotly engaged close by. In the evening they went back quietly to camp, while the commandos of Zand River, Harrismith, Heilbron, and Kroonstad had fifty-four killed and ninety-five wounded. The English lost 138 killed and over 200 wounded. A little dash, decision, and cohesion, and the town might have been taken. Such was Colonel de Villebois-Mareuil's opinion.
But even in the full flush of success we shall never find among the Boers that eagerness, that scorn of death, that enthusiasm which sweep troops forward and make great victories.
The same day, at Colesberg, an accident (this word is a happy invention of General French's to denote a reverse) cost the English 150 lives, among them that of Colonel Watson.
The sieges followed their--I will not say normal--course, for the ill-defended towns ought long ago to have been taken by the Boers. Such was the general situation, more or less, when we landed.