To return to our journey. On the morning of the 24th, at 10 o'clock, we took the train and departed, happy to leave Lourenco Marques. The last station on the frontier is Ressano-Garcia; again our papers are examined. If we paid highly for them, they at least do good service.
The train rolls on again, and in a few minutes we are on the soil of the Transvaal. All along the line, at every little bridge, bands of armed Boers are posted. Komatipoort Station is also occupied by troops. Everyone gets out. There is a minute inspection of all papers, even of private letters, and we are conscientiously searched. Having satisfied our challengers, we are allowed to go on. The trains travel very slowly in this very broken, varied country. We ascend almost uninterruptedly, and the line seems to run either along the sides of rocky mountains or the edges of bottomless abysses. Many of the spots we pass are extraordinarily picturesque. In the evening we arrive at Watervaalonder, and the train stops; for in this country neither trains nor men are in a hurry.
A Frenchman, named Mathis, keeps a hotel, at which we sleep. He receives us with much affability, and talks enthusiastically of the game in the neighbourhood. He is a Nimrod.
The next day we start again, and in the evening we are at Pretoria. My friend Gallopaud is at the station, and takes us to the Transvaal Hotel, where the guests of the Government are quartered.
On the 26th, thanks to the good graces of M. Grunberg, we are presented to M. de Souza, Mr. Reitz's secretary, for whom we have letters of introduction.
We take the oath of fealty as burghers, and receive our weapons, Mauser carbines, the stock of which is getting low, cartridges and belts. Horses and saddles are already giving out. We are impatient to be off, but shops and offices are all closed on Saturday at one o'clock and throughout Sunday.
We take advantage of the holiday to inspect the town. Pretoria, as everyone knows, is the capital of the Transvaal. It is the seat of the Government, which is composed of two Chambers, the First Volksraad and the Second Volksraad. Each is composed of twenty-nine members, elected by direct suffrage. The President of the Republic and the Commander-in-Chief are elected by the members of the First Chamber, the former for five, the latter for ten years. They are eligible for re-election for any length of time.
The President, Paul Kruger, familiarly known as 'Oom Paul,' was Commander-in-Chief for a long time before he became President. The present Generalissimo, Joubert, was his rival in the Presidential elections.
The Transvaal revenue is drawn for the most part from heavy royalties on the mines, and a crushing tax on explosives; in 1897 an income of 112,005,450 francs (L4,480,218) was received, against an expenditure of 109,851,400 francs (L4,394,056).
The general aspect of Pretoria is depressing; only two or three streets show any animation. The circumstances of the moment are not certainly such as to enliven the town, but I have been told that even in times of peace it is never very cheerful.
Stretching over a wide area, it is intersected by little tramways, the cars drawn by two consumptive horses. In the centre is Government House, a huge building of freestone, massive and ungraceful, though not without certain pretensions to the 'grand style,' I believe. On each side a sentry of the Presidential guard paces up and down. Under the colonnade of the main entrance, which faces a large open space, a few steps lead up to a vast hall, with a monumental staircase at the end. On each side of the hall two wide corridors run round the building, and give access to all the different offices. We find the whole place, hall, corridors and offices, crowded with busy people, some soliciting, others solicited, all hurrying hither and thither. With the exception of some few buildings of several storeys grouped round the palace and in the main street--the post-office, the clubs, the banks, the hotels and the large shops--all the houses are little one-storey cottages surrounded by gardens.
* * * * *
On Monday morning we are able to have horses, which we go and catch ourselves in the great courtyard which serves as a depot. We have also some old English saddles, and after buying some rugs and some indispensable provisions, we are ready to start at about five in the evening.
Our departure is fixed for eleven o'clock, by the special train which is to take Long Tom to Kimberley, where we are to join Colonel Villebois. This Long Tom, a 155 millimetres Creusot gun, is a personage, a celebrity. It weighs 2,500 kilogrammes; its carriage weighs the same. Its fame is derived from its history.
One night last November, at Lombard's Kop, in front of Ladysmith, where the gun was mounted, sixty English, taking advantage of the slumbers of the Boer sentinels, stormed the hill, seized the cannon, and finding it impossible to displace it, damaged the two ends with dynamite. After this the burghers, coming up in force, retook the gun, brought it to Pretoria, and repaired it in a remarkable manner. It was, however, shortened by about 25 centimetres.
After these adventures it has become a sort of prodigal son, a legendary weapon beloved of those great children we call the Boers. It is, therefore, no small honour to be called upon to escort Long Tom. We share this honour with a gunner named Erasmus, a strange being, who, after being severely wounded at the taking of 'his cannon,' had sworn only to return and fight in its company.
On this Monday night, accordingly, at eleven o'clock, in a downpour of rain, we and our horses take our places in the train, which, profiting no doubt by its being a 'special,' starts an hour after time. It consists of three or four first-class coaches with lateral corridors. These coaches, which are comfortable enough, and very high in the ceiling, have in each compartment two seats of three places each, covered with leather, and in the centre a folding-table about 50 centimetres wide. At night a second seat, which is raised in the day-time, or serves as a luggage-net, makes a sleeping-berth, so that four travellers in each compartment can rest comfortably, a convenience highly desirable in a country where journeys often last forty-eight hours, and even six or seven days, as from Cape Town to Buluwayo and Fort Salisbury.
Travellers install themselves as they please, without any sort of constraint. Luggage is not registered, and the carriages are invaded--I use the term advisedly--with weapons, saddles, bridles, bandoliers, provisions, dogs, if one has any, rugs, trunks and bundles. No officials, no staff, no warning cries, no notices forbidding travellers to get out while the train is in motion. A station-master, and hardly anything more.
A bell rung three times at short intervals announces the departure of the train. You get in, or you don't get in; you stand on the footboard, climb on to the roof of the carriage, leave the door open or shut it, get into a truck or cattle-van--it's your own look out. You are free, and no one would dream of interfering with you in the matter.
In the carriages passengers sleep, drink, eat, sing, shoot and gamble, and every morning a negro comes and cleans up.
There is a little of everything among the debris--old papers, empty preserve-tins, fruit-parings, tobacco-ash, cartridge-cases, empty, and sometimes broken, bottles. An inspector on the P. L. M. would go mad at the sight.
While the cleaning goes on, we go and ask for a little hot water from the engine, and make our morning coffee. On trucks that we go and fetch ourselves we load up heavy carts of provisions, ammunition, and cannon. Finally, we heap up pell-mell in open cattle-vans, mules and horses in some, oxen in another. And casualties are no more numerous than in Europe, where we arrange them like sardines in a box--'thirty-two men, eight horses.' The beasts of these regions, like the men, have apparently learnt to take care of themselves from their earliest infancy.
During the journey of Tuesday a springbock, a kind of antelope, startled by the engine, is so imprudent as to run along by the train at a distance of about 300 metres. From the tender to the last van a brisk fire suddenly opens. The engine-driver slows down, then, as the creature falls, stops altogether. A man gets down, fetches the quarry, and comes quietly back. The train goes on again, the springbock is cut up, and at the next station the engine-driver gets a haunch as an acknowledgment of his good-nature. This is indeed travelling made enjoyable!
But there are always folks who like to cut down the cakes and ale! In April, 1900, a penalty of L5 sterling was decreed for persons who fire a gun or a revolver in a railway-station or a village.
In every station--and they are legion--the whole feminine population has gathered, and sings the Boer hymn as soon as the train appears. And at every station the following ceremony takes place: A deputation comes to Erasmus, and begs him to show Long Tom. Erasmus mounts on the truck where the cannon is installed, and opens the breech. Each woman passes in front of it, putting either her head or her arm in, with cries of admiration. Then Erasmus closes the breech, gets down, and the Transvaal hymn, sung in chorus, alternates with that of the Orange Free State until the departure of the train.
On Tuesday evening at six o'clock we arrive at Brandfort. It is too late to unload the gun, and we spend the night in the village, where we are very well received.
Early on Wednesday we begin our task, with the help of the whole village, and to the accompaniment of the national hymn. The young girls all have sharp, forced voices, but from a distance the effect of these voices in chorus is not unpleasant. As to the male choirs, which are heard on every possible occasion, they are really charming and very impressive. Their music is very slow, and almost exclusively devotional in its rhythm.
Towards three o'clock on Thursday the convoy is ready. Thirty bullocks have been harnessed to Long Tom. The rest of the convoy consists of some twenty waggons of provisions and ammunition. As we set off, two or three photographers make their appearance.
The column, escorted by some sixty Boers, moves off towards Kimberley, in the midst of enthusiastic demonstrations. The waggons are heavy four-wheeled carts, with powerful brakes; the back part is covered with a sort of rounded tent stretched over hoops. This tent is the home of the travelling Boer. In it he keeps his mattress, his blankets, his utensils, his arms, while the front part is reserved for the heavy stores--millet, flour, biscuits, etc.
The driver walks beside his team, armed with a long whip, which he wields in both hands. The thick cane handle is often about 10 feet, and the lash, of strips of undressed hide, from 15 to 20 feet long. The management of this whip is no easy matter, and it is curious to see a good driver, at the moment when an effort is required, giving each of his twenty or thirty bullocks the necessary stroke in an instant.
The Burgher himself is mounted, shabby and ragged, dressed in a faded coat, a shapeless hat, and long trousers without straps.
For some time on the march we had a neighbour whose ulster, formerly, no doubt, of some normal hue, had turned, under the rains of years (I had almost said of centuries), a pinkish colour, with green reflections, like a sunset at sea. And the happy owner of this prism seemed quite unconscious that, amidst much that was extraordinary, he was perhaps the most extraordinary sight of all.
One warrior was mounted on a wretched old English saddle, to which were slung pell-mell a mackintosh, a many-coloured rug, a coffee-pot, a water-bottle, and a bag containing a medley of coffee, sugar, tobacco, biscuit and biltong (dried meat). Two bandoliers, and sometimes his rifle, were slung across his body, the latter horizontally on his stomach, when he was not carrying it upright in his hand, like a taper. His braces hung down his back. He had a single spur, for the Burgher rarely uses two, thinking a second an unnecessary luxury. Indeed, he relies much more on his shambock (a thong of hippopotamus hide) than on his single spur for the control of his horse.
Thus equipped, he shambles along on his jade, which trots, canters and gallops at intervals, silent, his legs well forward, his feet stuck out, catching at his over-long stirrups. His military organization is on a par with his equipment.
The 'commando' is the only military division known among the Boers. A commando is a levy of the men of a district, under the leadership of a field-cornet or a commandant. These grades, which are ratified by the Government, are independent of any hierarchy, and merely imply a difference in the number of electors.
I say electors advisedly, for the field-cornets are chosen by their men, and, in their turn, take part in the nomination of the generals. This arrangement works well enough when electors and elected are of one mind. But when the leader wants to carry out some plan which his electors disapprove, he runs the risk of being cashiered and replaced by one of the majority.
I do not know what are the results of this system in politics; but, applied to an army, it is disastrous, for very often the leader, brave enough himself, dares not engage his men, lest he become unpopular; and this, I think, has been the main cause of the total absence of offensive action on the part of the Boers. Perhaps, indeed, it will prove one of the main causes of their final overthrow.
The commandant, or field-cornet, chooses among his men a 'corporal,' who acts as his auxiliary. These 'commandos,' the effective numbers of which are essentially variable, are called after the chief town of the district from which they are drawn: Heidelberg Commando, Carolina Commando. And not only do they vary considerably, according to the population of a district, but the field-cornet himself never knows how many men he has at his disposal, for the Burghers have no notion of remaining continuously at the front; when one of the number wants to go back to his farm nothing can stop him. He goes, though he will come back later for another spell of service. Desertions of this kind often took place en masse the day after a reverse.
The Johannesburg Politie and the Artillery are the only troops in the Transvaal which can be described as more or less disciplined. The Politie are the police-force of Johannesburg and Pretoria.
In times of peace the men wear a uniform consisting of a black tunic, cut after the English pattern, and black trousers. On their heads they wear a little hard black cap, with a button at the end, and for full dress a white peaked cap with a badge bearing the arms of the Transvaal. On the collars of their tunics are three brass letters: Z. A. R. (Zuid Africa Republic). But during the campaign their uniform has disappeared, and they are not to be distinguished from the ordinary Burghers. A certain discipline obtains among them, and they receive regular pay, which is reduced in time of war, as their families are then in receipt of indemnities in kind.
These men are the only ones who can be relied on to hold a position they have been told to keep. The other Burghers will only fight if they choose, and if they can do so without much risk.
The fighting strength of the Johannesburg Politie is about 800 men, with four lieutenants, under Commandant van Dam, an energetic and intelligent man.
The guns, of which I have already given a brief description--four Long Toms, a dozen 75 millimetres Creusot guns, some thirty Krupp field-pieces and old Armstrongs--are served by a body of artillery whose barracks are at Pretoria. I do not say nineteen or twenty batteries, for there are no groups or detachments. Each gun is used separately, according to the needs of the generals or the fancy of the artillerymen.
The corps consists of thirty officers and about 400 men. They wear a black tunic and breeches, and a sort of shako much like that of the Swiss army. In the field this shako is replaced by a large felt hat looped up on one side, and the rest of the costume undergoes any modification that suggests itself to the wearer.
They were at first under the command of Commandant Erasmus, who was superseded after the affair of Lombard's Kop, below Ladysmith.[#]
[#] Commandant Erasmus must not be confused with the Adjutant Erasmus who was with our party. The same names are very frequent throughout the Republics, the natives of which are mainly sprung from the few families who originally settled there. Thus there are some twenty Bothas, thirty Jouberts, etc.
The artillery of the Free State, composed of old Armstrong guns and a few Krupp guns lent by the Transvaal, is served by a corps who look like the artillerymen of a comic opera. They wear a drab tunic and breeches with a great deal of orange braid, and are inferior even to their colleagues of the Transvaal.
All told, then, the army consists of some 40,000 to 50,000 Burghers, without cohesion and without discipline, field-cornets who do not obey their generals, and who cannot command the obedience of their men. Over them are titular generals and vecht-generals (generals appointed for the term of the campaign only), for the most part ignorant of the very elements of the art of war, and at variance one with another.
How often during this campaign are we led to ponder over the phrase we have been mechanically reciting for ten years past: 'Seeing that discipline is the strength of armies!'
* * * * *
We have a six days' march before us. The bullocks are accustomed to travel by short stages of two hours, followed by an hour's rest. At night, however, we advance by stages of four or five hours.
The soil over which we pass is bare and sandy, of a uniform grayish-yellow tint, and produces nothing but short, coarse grass, which serves as fodder for the oxen and horses.
At every halt the cattle are let loose, and when the rest is over the Kaffir 'boys' go off in pursuit of them, often to a considerable distance. Water is scarce, and generally bad.
Very often on the way we are received with delightful hospitality at the farms we pass. These houses are clean, and often even those which stand quite alone in the bush have a parlour adorned with photographs, religious prints, and Scripture texts in large characters. The furniture is simple, but there is very often a harmonium, for the singing of hymns is a frequent exercise in a Boer household.
Nevertheless, a respect for musical instruments is not carried to extremes. At Dundee, for instance, a Burgher had made a shelter for himself with a piano taken from an English villa.
The head of the family, often an old man with a white beard, is an absolute and much respected master in his home. He presides at meals, waited on by the women, who do not eat till the men have finished. The menu invariably consists of eggs and mutton cooked together in a frying-pan, bread or biscuit, and fruit. The drink is coffee with milk.
The Boer women are not well favoured. As a rule, they are thick-set and weather-beaten. They wear large pink or white sun-bonnets, very becoming to the young girls.
The traveller is a guest, received as if he were an old acquaintance; and whatever the hour of his appearance, he is at once offered coffee with milk, and, when they are in season, peaches.
At the time of our journey a good many men were at the front; but there are often some dozen children with the women, making large households. They all live pell-mell in two or three rooms.
In time of peace the Burgher is a keen sportsman; this is, indeed, the reason of his wonderful skill as a marksman, for he always shoots with ball-cartridge; shot is never used. In time of war he is a hunter still. He fights as he hunts, the game alone is changed; but as the quarry has means of defence more efficacious and violent than those of the ostrich or the springbock, he is often less persevering in pursuit of it.
When the Burgher halts to hunt or to fight, he dismounts, shelters his horse behind some rock, and leaves it loose, taking care to pass the bridle over its neck. All the horses are trained to stand perfectly still when they see the reins hanging in front of them thus, and, no matter how heavy the fire, they will not stir.
The Boers have a way of their own of reckoning distances. When, for instance, they tell you that it is seven hours from a certain place to another, don't imagine that you will be in time for dinner if you set off at noon; the seven hours in question are a conventional term. They are hours at the gallop, and it is supposed that a swift horse, going at his utmost speed, could cover the distance in seven hours.
The immense concessions given by the Government are not cultivated, for the Boer has a rooted dislike to work; his black servants grow the necessary mealies, and keep his numerous flocks. As his wants are very primitive, this suffices him. To procure sugar, coffee, and other necessaries, he goes to town and sells two or three oxen.
The rifle and cartridges furnished by the State in time of war become the Burgher's property.
* * * * *
On the march in war-time this system of halting the oxen because they are hot, and the men because they want to drink coffee at every farm, is neither very rapid nor very practical. We do not arrive at Boshof till the fifth day. This is the spot fated to be the grave of our venerated leader.
Boshof, in contrast to its surroundings, is a gay little oasis, traversed by a cool stream. It boasts green trees and pretty villas. Two ambulances are installed here, but they shelter only two or three wounded as yet.
At the end of the village is a pool, which delights us vastly. We spend the afternoon in it, after lunching with the field-cornet.
The town is en fete, as at Brandfort, to receive us, or rather--away with illusion!--to receive Long Tom.
We start again in the night, and reach Riverton Road. We are now on English territory, in Cape Colony.
Towards noon, M. Leon comes to meet the cannon, the arrival of which has been anxiously expected for the last two days.
We are only an hour from the camp, which we reach at a gallop. There, at Waterworks--the reservoir that supplies Kimberley--we find Colonel de Villebois-Mareuil.
Need I describe that frank and energetic face, with its searching blue eyes, and its benevolent smile, sometimes a little ironical, always subtle; the clear voice; the concise manner of speech, brief without being brusque? Even at that stage a look of sadness had stamped itself upon his face; he saw that the men for whom he was to lay down his life would not follow the counsels dictated by his profound knowledge and unquenchable devotion.
* * * * *
We had been expected for two days, and twice the Colonel had had good luncheons prepared. Then, giving us up, he had ordered nothing, and we took his kitchen by surprise.
We find with him Baron de Sternberg, that charming Viennese, whose inexhaustible good spirits are famous throughout London and Paris. In the evening he works in his tent at a history of the war, and composes the most delicious verses in German. The Colonel also works hard.
Long Tom arrives some time after us.
Our laager at Waterworks is a large square, measuring some 200 metres on every side, planted with trees, and containing the machinery for distributing the water. It looks like an oasis in the midst of the vast yellow plain. In the distance are a few kopjes. We are about 700 metres from Kimberley. The camp is commanded by General du Toit.
Kampferdam, where the cannon has been taken, is 3 kilometres to the south, and 5,500 metres from Kimberley. It is a kind of whitish peak, about 50 metres high, formed of the refuse from the diamond mine below.
The night of Tuesday to Wednesday is spent in the construction of the wooden platform on which Long Tom and his carriage are to be mounted.
The English searchlights fix their great round eyes upon us from time to time, but there is nothing to show that the enemy has noticed anything abnormal in our proceedings.
All night long the work goes on with feverish activity, for Leon, who is superintending the operations, wants to fire his first shell at daybreak. But it is no easy task to hoist up that mass of 5,000 kilos, especially with inexperienced, undisciplined, and obstinate men, and the cannon is not ready till ten o'clock.
One of our party, Michel, an old artilleryman, the holder of some twenty gunnery prizes, gives the workers the benefit of his experience, and as he cannot find any sights, Erasmus artlessly proposes to make one of wood!
At last the first shot is fired! I am certain that at this moment not a single Boer is left in the trenches. Everyone has rushed out to see the effect produced. It is of two kinds. Firstly, our shell, badly calculated, bursts far off in the plain; then, no sooner has it been fired, than an English shell from the Autoskopje battery, 3,500 metres to our right, falls and explodes among the machinery of the Kampferdam mine. This exchange of compliments goes on till near twelve o'clock. This is the sacred hour of lunch. The fire ceases.
As coffee is a liquid which has to be imbibed slowly, firing does not begin again till nearly four o'clock. It is very hot, for it is the height of summer.
During this interval, the Colonel has been several times to General du Toit, to ask for fifty volunteers.
The Colonel's plan is to batter the town with a storm of shells (we have 450) for two hours, from four to six, and thus demoralize it; then, with fifty men, whom the French contingent would lead, to seize the Autoskopje battery, which is but poorly defended, at nightfall, and thence to gradually creep up to the town through a little wood, which would mask the advance. The plan was very simple, requiring but few men, and had every chance of success, because of the surprise it would have been to the English, who had never been attacked hitherto.
'Wait a bit,' said Du Toit; 'I will lay your plan before the council of war to-morrow.'
In vain the Colonel tells him that the success of the plan depends on its immediate execution. He can get no answer. The evening is wasted.
General du Toit is a big, bronzed man, with a black pointed beard and a straight and penetrating gaze. Though very brave personally, he has never dared to engage his men.
The latter are very well pleased with their role of besiegers. They will appreciate it less when the Long Cecil comes upon the scene. Hitherto, the long far niente, comparatively free from peril--the town, under the command of Colonel Kekewich, was defended by such a small garrison that sorties were impossible--has only been broken by the singing of hymns, the brewing of coffee and cocoa, and the occasional pursuit of a springbock.
Every evening a guard, composed, I fancy, of anyone who chose to go, went off, provided with a comfortable stock of bedding, to do duty round the camp.
Others, the valiant spirits, remained at the three batteries where were installed Long Tom, the three Armstrongs, and the Maxim.
Long Tom's battery was by far the most popular, for several reasons. In the first place, its processes were much more interesting than those of the small guns; then, its defenders were much more sheltered, owing to the proximity of the mining works; and finally, a good many former miners were always on the look-out for a stray diamond or two.
Among the besiegers of Kimberley, indeed, we met with a good many adventurers who took no other part in the campaign.
Men of all nationalities, many of them familiar with the town, having worked in the mines here, they came in the hope of finding some diamond overlooked in the sudden cessation of mining operations.... Then, too, they knew that Cecil Rhodes was in the town, having had no time to fly or to carry off his treasure.
Then, again, there are bankers and jewellers in Kimberley, and if the Boers had taken the town....
It appears that Cecil Rhodes was quite aware of this danger, and I have heard that he attempted to manufacture a balloon which was to have carried 'Cecil and his fortunes' to a safer city.
In any case, his gratitude to his defenders was very lively. And, in addition to other liberalities, he presented a commemorative medal to them all.