On the morning of the 7th, the road to Petrusburg was blocked, and the guns were roaring in front of us. Marais, Botha's adjutant, joined us. At the first sound of the guns we left the waggons, and galloped off in the direction he pointed out. The battle of Poplar Grove was about to be fought under our eyes, though we were unable to take a very active part in it.
The engagement went on mainly oh our right; we were on the left of the Boer lines. In front of us was a kopje occupied by a hundred rifles.
About 11 o'clock the English cavalry charged at the guns, about two miles away. The firing slackened. Then about 2 o'clock the English began to shell us furiously with shrapnel, also the kopje forming the Boer centre. An outflanking movement completed the demoralisation of the Boers, and at 3.30 the retreat became general.
President Kruger came by this morning to announce that he had made the following peace proposals:
'BLOEMFONTEIN, 'March 5, 1900.
'The blood and tears of the thousands who have suffered by this war, and the prospect of all the moral and economic ruin with which South Africa is now threatened, make it necessary for both belligerents to ask themselves dispassionately, and as in the sight of the Triune God, for what they are fighting, and whether the aim of each justifies all this appalling misery and devastation.
'With this object, and in view of the assertions of various British statesmen to the effect that this war was begun, and is being carried on, with the set purpose of undermining Her Majesty's authority in South Africa, and of setting up an administration over all South Africa, independent of Her Majesty's Government, we consider it our duty solemnly to declare that this war was undertaken solely as a defensive measure to safeguard the threatened independence of the South African Republic, and is only continued in order to secure and safeguard the incontestable independence of both Republics as sovereign international States, and to obtain the assurance that those of Her Majesty's subjects who have taken part with us in this war shall suffer no harm whatsoever in person or property.
'On these two conditions, but on these alone, are we now, as in the past, desirous of seeing peace re-established in South Africa, and of putting an end to the evils now reigning over South Africa; while, if Her Majesty's Government is determined to destroy the independence of the Republics, there is nothing left to us and to our people but to persevere to the end in the course already begun, in spite of the overwhelming pre-eminence of the British Empire, confident that that God who lighted the inextinguishable fire of the love of freedom in the hearts of ourselves and of our fathers will not forsake us, but will accomplish His work in us and in our descendants.
'We hesitated to make this declaration earlier to your Excellency, as we feared that, as long as the advantage was always on our side, and as long as our forces held defensive positions far in Her Majesty's colonies, such a declaration might hurt the feelings of honour of the British people; but now that the prestige of the British Empire may be considered to be assured by the capture of one of our forces by Her Majesty's troops, and that we are thereby forced to evacuate other positions which our forces had occupied, that difficulty is over, and we can no longer hesitate clearly to inform your Government and people in the sight of the whole civilized world why we are fighting, and on what conditions we are ready to restore peace.'
Lord Salisbury replied as follows:
'FOREIGN OFFICE, 'March 11, 1900.
'I have the honour to acknowledge your Honours' telegram, dated the 5th of March, from Bloemfontein, of which the purport is principally to demand that Her Majesty's Government shall recognise the "incontestable independence" of the South African Republic and Orange Free State "as sovereign international States," and to offer on those terms to bring the war to a conclusion.
'In the beginning of October peace existed between Her Majesty and the two Republics under the Conventions which were then in existence. A discussion had been proceeding for some months between Her Majesty's Government and the South African Republic, of which the object was to obtain redress for certain very serious grievances under which British residents in the South African Republic were suffering. In the course of these negotiations the South African Republic had, to the knowledge of Her Majesty's Government, made considerable armaments, and the latter had, consequently, taken steps to provide corresponding reinforcements to the British garrisons of Cape Town and Natal. No infringement of the rights guaranteed by the Conventions had, up to that point, taken place on the British side. Suddenly, at two days' notice, the South African Republic, after issuing an insulting ultimatum, declared war upon Her Majesty; and the Orange Free State, with whom there had not even been any discussion, took a similar step. Her Majesty's dominions were immediately invaded by the two Republics, siege was laid to three towns within the British frontier, a large portion of the two colonies was overrun, with great destruction to property and life, and the Republics claimed to treat the inhabitants of extensive portions of Her Majesty's dominions as if those dominions had been annexed to one or other of them. In anticipation of these operations, the South African Republic had been accumulating for many years past military stores on an enormous scale, which, by their character, could only have been intended for use against Great Britain.
'Your Honours make some observations of a negative character upon the object with which these preparations were made. I do not think it necessary to discuss the questions you have raised. But the result of these preparations, carried on with great secrecy, has been that the British Empire has been compelled to confront an invasion which has entailed upon the Empire a costly war and the loss of thousands of precious lives. This great calamity has been the penalty which Great Britain has suffered for having in recent years acquiesced in the existence of the two Republics.
'In view of the use to which the two Republics have put the position which was given to them, and the calamities which their unprovoked attack has inflicted upon Her Majesty's dominions, Her Majesty's Government can only answer your Honours' telegram by saying that they are not prepared to assent to the independence either of the South African Republic or of the Orange Free State.'
It was to be war, then, to the bitter end.
* * * * *
At the beginning of the retreat, a field-cornet came to ask my advice, as often happened. He disregarded it, as always happened. I wanted them to destroy the reservoirs, burn the forage, and poison the wells all along the line of retreat.[#] He would never consent.
[#] The writer apparently made this monstrous suggestion quite seriously.--TRANSLATOR.
Later on, when I was a prisoner, an English officer of rank, who had taken part in the march across the Orange Free State, told me he had suffered terribly from thirst, and he assured me that if the measures I had advised had been taken, Roberts' 40,000 men, for the most part mounted, would never have achieved their task.
But at the moment time failed me to prove to the brave field-cornet, by the teaching of history in general, and of the wars in Spain in particular, what excellent results might be obtained by such a method of defence. Minutes were becoming precious, and we made off as fast as we could, while in the distance we saw half our convoy blazing, fired by bursting shells.
Towards half-past nine we lay down on the veldt, without pitching any tents, and keeping a sharp look-out. By eleven the last of the Boer stragglers had passed. Colonel Gourko and Lieutenant Thomson had been made prisoners.
On the 8th we were astir at daybreak. Our three boys went off to find our beasts, which had strayed far in search of pasture, on account of the scanty herbage, in spite of their hobbles. They were all recovered, however, with the exception of one mule, which remained deaf to every summons, a most inconsiderate proceeding on his part, seeing that the English were at our heels.
Time being precious, we started off as well as we could with our reduced convoy. Suddenly one of our boys, big John, stood tiptoe on his long feet, gave a sweeping glance around, and went quietly on his way. Half an hour later, he began again to increase in height and to study the horizon.... We could see absolutely nothing. As my acquaintance with John was slight, I imagined that he probably suffered from some nervous affection. But this time he sniffed the air loudly, and, without a word, darted off obliquely from our track.
An hour passed, and he did not return. Grave doubts of his fidelity began to afflict us. At last, two hours later, we noticed a speck on the horizon, then two. It was John with the missing mule. John is an angel--a black angel!
All the farms we passed on the road had hoisted the white flag. At noon we reached the point where the road to Bloemfontein bifurcates. A few Burghers were gathered there. We pitched our tents.
During the evening the French military attache, Captain D----, passed, and told us that Colonel de Villebois was only about an hour distant from us.
On March 9 we set out to join him. We found him with about fifty men, coming from Pretoria. These men were divided into two companies, the first under Breda, the second under me. Directly we arrived it was agreed to start at ten o'clock. We stopped long enough to add our cart to the Colonel's convoy, which we were to pick up near the farm of Abraham's Kraal. The 'French Corps' was formed!
About four o'clock we arrived on the height of Abraham's Kraal. The farm so-called lies along the Modder River, which flows from east to west. Its steep, bush-entangled banks are bathed with yellow, turbid water, whence its name--Modder (Mud) River. A line of kopjes, starting from the edge of the river, stretches several miles south of it. In front of them, to the west, lies a barren yellow plain. Far off on the horizon lie the kopjes of Poplar Grove, where we were forty-eight hours before.
The Colonel, who has gone off on a scouting expedition with his troop, is not to be found. We wait for him vainly all the evening with General Delarey's staff, in company with Baron von Wrangel, an ex-lieutenant of the German Guards. In this expedition a young volunteer named Franck, a quartermaster of the Chasseurs d'Afrique, whose term had just expired, distinguished himself by his coolness and his boldness under fire. He was a brave fellow, as he was to prove later on.
Night came on fast, our chief was still absent, and we went off to sleep at a little deserted farm, with the officers of the Johannesburg Politie. We lay down beside them and slept like men who have been in the saddle for twelve hours.
On March 10, at 5 a.m., we started for General Delarey's bivouac. It might have been 6.30, when Vecht-General Sellier passed us at a gallop, crying: 'Obsal! The English!'
Our positions, chosen the night before, were as follows: Our right, with the Modder River beyond, consisted of about 400 men of the Johannesburg Politie, with a Krupp gun, an Armstrong, and two Maxims. Then a space in the plain, where a commando of 200 men, with three cannon and a Maxim gun, constituting our centre, had taken up a position early in the morning. Finally, to the south, on our left, 300 men on a round kopje, fairly high.
At Poplar Grove two days before we had numbered several thousands; but the Boers, discouraged by the check they had undergone, had returned to their farms, refusing to fight. This was a proceeding very characteristic of these men, slow physically and morally, profoundly obstinate, astute rather than intelligent, distrustful, sometimes magnanimous. Easily depressed and as easily elated, without any apparent cause, they are a curious jumble of virtues and failings, often of the most contradictory kinds. The sort of panics frequent among them are due, I think, rather to their total lack of organization than to their temperament; for, not to speak of individual instances of valour, by no means rare among them, the Johannesburg Politie, with their very primitive discipline, have shown what might have been done by the Boers with some slight instruction and some slight discipline.[#]
[#] Ten years ago the Duc de Broglie, in his 'Marie-Therese Imperatrice,' wrote as follows of the campaign of 1744 against Frederick the Great:
'Prince Charles had not even all his force at his disposal.... All that had been left him were the Hungarian levies, who had indeed been the main strength of the Austrian army; but these irregular troops, passing from ardour to discouragement with that mobility proper to men with whom enthusiasm does duty for experience and discipline, now thought of nothing but of a speedy return to their homesteads, and entered reluctantly upon every enterprise that retarded this return. Whole companies deserted the flag and took the road for Hungary.'
These words, written of the Hungarians of the seventeenth century, are literally applicable to the Boers of to-day, and it is curious to note--though I do not for a moment compare Lord Roberts to Frederick the Great--that the Hungarians often inflicted a check on the King of Prussia, just as the Boers have occasionally stopped the English Marshal.
They alone had remained, with a handful of foreigners and some stray men from various commandos.
The Heilbron Commando, consisting of over 200 men, was represented by the corporal and three men. All the rest, the commandant at their head, had gone home; hence their reduced fighting strength. At last all the remnant of the force was in its place, behind little rocky entrenchments hastily thrown up.
In the distance a long column of 'khakis' defiles, marching from north to south, presenting its left flank to us from a distance of seven or eight miles, and preceded by a body of mounted scouts.
We go to inspect the mounting of our guns, which are arriving on our left and in the centre of our line. Then we return to the kopje where we were before with the Johannesburg Politie. Captain D----, the French military attache, is there following all the movements.
About eight o'clock an English detachment essays a movement against us, and we open fire with our Krupp gun. English regiments defile against the horizon till eleven o'clock. Some Maxims and a battery of field-guns have been mounted against us.
Between the English and Boer lines a herd of springbock are running about in terror under the shells. The poor beasts finally make off to more tranquil regions and disappear.
The Maxims fire short, but after a few seconds the field-guns find the range, and fire with a certain precision. Two shrapnel-shells fired one after the other burst over our heads. My right-hand neighbour gets a bullet just below his right eye, and falls against me; I am covered with his blood. He died soon after.
As I bathe his face, I see Captain D---- hobbling back. I go to him. He has been struck on the hip by a ball, which, having fortunately spent most of its force, has not penetrated the flesh. The wound was not dangerous, but it swelled a good deal at once, and caused a numbness in the leg. I hastily applied the necessary dressing, which the Captain had with him, and then went to fetch his horse.
After his departure, we return to the kopje. The Mounted Rifles advance in force. We wait till they are about 500 metres off, and then open a heavy fire upon them, supported by the two Maxims. They retreat rapidly, leaving some dozen of their number on the field. We make four prisoners. They are sailors who have been mounted, lads of barely twenty. There is a lull after this attempt.
About four o'clock the artillery fire begins again with redoubled fury, heralding a violent charge by the infantry, who have been concentrated under the shelter of the field-guns. A simultaneous charge is made on our left wing. All along the line and on both flanks we sustain a heavy fusillade from the enemy. Although protected to some extent by our rocks, our losses are pretty heavy.
The English come up to be killed with admirable courage. Three times they return to the charge in the open, losing a great many men. At nightfall they are close upon us.
I go in search of Colonel Villebois, who means to rest his men in a little wood behind a kopje on the banks of the Modder. We have eaten nothing since the night before.
At eight o'clock comes an order for a general retreat. We learn that an outflanking movement is to be attempted against us. In the evening General Delarey telegraphed as follows:
'The English are advancing upon our positions in two different directions. They have begun to bombard General Sellier, and are keeping up a sharp rifle-fire. We have been heavily engaged from nine o'clock this morning till sunset. The federated troops fought like heroes. Three times they repulsed a strong force of the English, who brought up fresh troops against us every time. Each attack was repulsed, and at sunset the English troops were only about forty metres from us. Their losses were very heavy. Our own have not yet been ascertained. A report on this point will follow.'
We found afterwards that Roberts' entire army was present, some 40,000 men, and that he had engaged over 12,000. Our losses were 380 men out of about 950.
At 8.30 we set out hastily for Bloemfontein, carrying off our prisoners and wounded on trolleys drawn by mules. About eleven o'clock we pass some English outposts, which are pointed out to us on our right at a distance of only a few hundred metres.
At three in the morning we arrive at the store where we had bivouacked two nights before. We leave our horses to graze in a field of maize, and take a short rest. About five we are greeted by distant volleys.
But my horse is dead lame in the right hind-leg. I try to bind it up with the remains of an old waistcoat. Impossible. He cannot drag himself along. I am forced to 'find' another which is grazing near by.
I seem to be forming predatory habits. Here I am now with a dog I 'found,' which follows me faithfully, on a horse I also 'found'! But it is in the cause of liberty.
Besides, these habits are so much in vogue among the Boers. I could tell a tale of one of my comrades, to whose detriment some half-dozen horses had been 'found' by the Burghers (the process is called by them obtail). And, to conclude, my find was no great acquisition.
We finally arrive at Bloemfontein about three o'clock in the afternoon. Here we meet numbers of English men and women, smartly dressed in summer costumes, smiling and cheerful, starting out in carriages to meet the victors. They are not aggressive, however; our sullen bearing perhaps warns them that a misplaced exuberance might have unpleasant consequences.
We find our convoy at the entrance of the town, and we pass through to our camp on the east.
Poor capital! What terror, what disorder shows itself on every side! The shops have been hurriedly shut; men, carriages, riders pass each other in every direction, and the two main streets are encumbered with an interminable string of bullock-waggons. In the market-place and in the market itself an improvised ambulance has been set up, and the wounded are being tended. On every threshold stand women and children, whose anxious eyes seem to ask: 'Where are they?'