With a brief but resolute gesture, I took off my hat in farewell to the City of Gold. With a few necessaries rolled up in a cloak, I succeeded in passing through the English lines at Boksburg, after journeying for three days, sometimes in friendly carts, sometimes on foot, to escape attention.
Near the level crossing of the railway at Boksburg a party of Lancers was encamped. Putting on the tranquil and indifferent air of a man whose conscience is at ease, I passed through them without molestation. Further along the road there were two small outposts, which I was able to avoid by passing over a dried-up pond.
When night came on, I slept at Benoni. Commandant Derksen, of the Boksburg commando, was in the neighbourhood. I hoped to fall in with him in the north-east. The nights began to be terribly cold.
At 4 a.m. on July 4 I was once more on my way. I walked till nine in the evening. My feet were sore and bleeding.
I arrived at last at a farm, where I was coldly received at first; for they took me for a spy. But when I showed the papers that constituted me a Burgher, I was petted as if I had been a son of the house. They gave me eggs, milk and biscuit, and offered me shelter for the night. As I had no rug, and the cold was terrible, I accepted the offer with joy.
My hostess had three sons with Derksen, and a fourth with De Wet. The fourth was Baby, as she called him, showing me the photograph of this little Benjamin, who may have been about forty, and had a beard down to his waist.
They were worthy folks, Boers of the old school, hospitable and patriotic. They made me up a bed in a kind of old travelling carriage in the coach-house, and after half an hour of fierce conflict with a swarm of mice, I fell asleep.
Twice I was roused by further attacks from the rodents, and a third time by a man with a long beard, who said:
I was a little surprised at first, but finally I grasped the situation. A patrol commanded by one of the Bothas (a cousin of the Generalissimo), had come to the farm at three in the morning. My hostess explained my case, and they had sent to ask me if I would join them.
I agreed eagerly, and rapid preparations were at once made for my equipment. They found me a lean hack, gave me a rug by way of saddle, and two pieces of cord for stirrups, and armed me with a Lee-Metford rifle, taken from the English a little while before! Don Quixote!
We consumed the usual coffee and biscuit, and started, taking a zigzag route northwards towards Irene. Derksen was rather more to the east.
Towards nine in the evening we lay down to rest on the Veldt. I think I never suffered as I did from the cold that night. It was freezing hard, and I had nothing to cover me but the rug, which, soaked through with the horse's sweat, was as stiff as a board in ten minutes. It was impossible to sleep for a moment, and the pain became so intolerable that I was obliged to walk about to warm myself a little; and then the wounds on my feet, which were quite raw, made me suffer cruelly.
A few days later an officer of the first brigade of Mounted Infantry was found frozen to death on bivouac, in spite of his blankets.
We started at daybreak on the 6th, making for a Kaffir kraal. At about 7.30 we heard three cannon-shots fired, but could not tell exactly from what direction. Then there was silence again.
Towards eight o'clock a group of about fifteen horsemen in felt hats and long dark overcoats came towards us, then, suddenly wheeling, went off at a gallop. We were fourteen, all told.
When it reached the top of the kopje, the party disappeared, and when, in our turn, we rose above the crest, we were received with a fusillade. There were about forty men, some 400 metres from us. We turned back hastily, to put our horses in shelter on the other side, and then replied.
A Burgher was wounded in the head. We had the cover of the rocks to protect us, and, in spite of our inferior numbers, the two sides were about equal. Then another Burgher and my neighbour were wounded almost simultaneously, the latter in the thigh, probably by a ricochet. His wound was serious. I took his Mauser and his cartridges from him.
I am not very sure how long this little game had been going on, perhaps ten minutes. Suddenly we heard shots behind us. One of our horses fell; Botha got a bullet right through him. We were surrounded by about 300 men of the Imperial Light Horse. There was nothing to be done. A Burgher named Marais held up a white handkerchief. There were only ten of us left. I was handed over to some English officers, who received me with the greatest possible courtesy. As the action had now extended all along the line, I was taken to the rear.
In the evening I was confided to the Connaught Rangers, who had been kept in reserve. Hearing of my nationality and my former rank in the French army, they said: 'We are allies now! We are making common cause in China!' I made many inquiries about the events in the Far East, of which we knew nothing, having held no communication with Europe since April.
Hoping to be able to take part in the Chinese Expedition by joining the Foreign Legion, I made up my mind to give my parole to General H----, who was in command of the column.
Meanwhile I heard the most interesting details from the English officers of the campaign in which we had lately been fighting against each other. There were among them survivors of Colenso and Spion Kop, and men of the Ladysmith garrison.
The Connaught Rangers were commanded by Colonel Brooke, who was seriously wounded at Colenso, near the railway bridge. He was acting as General in command of the Irish Brigade. He invited me to dine with him, and at night, though most of the officers were sleeping in the open air, he offered me half of the little shanty which formed his bedroom, and himself fetched a bundle of straw for my bed. Then I had innumerable offers of rugs, cloaks, and capes, till at last I believe I was better wrapped up than anyone in the camp.
During the evening a telegram came telling Colonel Brooke that he had been promoted and was a general. I willingly joined in the toasts that were drunk in his honour, for it is a fine and noble feature of a military career that one feels no bitterness to an adversary. When the battle is over, foes can shake hands heartily, though they are ready to slash each other to pieces again a few hours later.
On July 7 we rose at six. A captain brought me some hot water in an indiarubber basin, sponges, and soap. Then breakfast was served. We had porridge, red herrings, butter, jam, biscuits, coffee and tea.
But the Irish Brigade had received orders to saddle up, and I was handed over to the staff of the first brigade of Mounted Infantry. I was very politely received by General Hutton's staff-officer, a lieutenant. The superior officer who took me to him, Major M. D----, of the 2nd Royal Irish Fusiliers, asked him if he spoke French. I was delighted to hear him answer in the affirmative. I went to lunch with him in his tent. Conversation languished. For a long time he did not open his lips, if I may so express it, for he was eating the grilled mutton his orderly had given us with evident appetite. Suddenly he addressed me:
'Navet du pon.'
I bowed amiably, thinking we were to have a dish of turnips of some kind. 'Du pon' puzzled me a little; but perhaps there were 'Navets Dupont' just as there are 'Bouchees Lucullus' and 'Puree Soubise.' I was astonished at my host's culinary knowledge. At last, later on, when I had heard the phrase a great many times without ever seeing any turnips, I found out that he wished to say, 'N'avez-vous du pain.' This was the highest flight of which he was capable in French.
Nevertheless, my sojourn with Colonel Hutton's staff was extremely interesting. I heard that we had killed the day before Captain Currie and Lieutenant Kirk of the Imperial Light Horse, and I was present at an engagement that lasted three days. On the third day, indeed, shells burst so near me that I ran a fair chance of being killed by my friends.
I will give a brief journal of events hour by hour, so to speak.
On the 7th fighting began early towards the east. We could hear it, though we could see nothing. From noon to three o'clock the cannonade was very lively towards Olifantsfontein. This was the engagement at Witklip, I believe. The English lost some fifty men, among them ten killed.
On the morning of July 8 twenty mounted men went out with picks and spades to bury the dead. They were preceded by a large white flag. At 10.30 cannon-shots were heard east-south-east, then suddenly, at 11.5, three detachments of the Mounted Rifles went off.
Officers and despatch-riders were galloping up and down everywhere. I think the English had been completely surprised by a return of the Boers.
There was rapid harnessing and saddling. All round the bivouac horsemen were bringing in oxen, mules, and horses from grazing.
The Mounted Rifles galloped off to take up a position on the crest a mile away about which there had been fighting the day before.
At 11.15 another large detachment of Mounted Rifles passed, returning the salute of the sentry on duty at headquarters.
In all they may have been from three to four squadrons. It was difficult to form any idea of actual numbers, for they were not marching in strict order, and taking into account the reduction in the strength of certain corps, a column of two or three hundred men may well have represented a whole regiment.
A captain of the Irish Brigade told me that his company consisted of seventy-eight men, completed by yeomanry, and he called his adjutant to verify the figures he had given me.
At 11.20 a battery of the Royal Field Artillery went off in the same direction at a trot. A fraction of about fifty returned at a walk.
About 100 metres from my point of observation--an old waggon--the Irish Brigade and the Borderers stood at ease. At 11.30 a battalion was moved forward. Five minutes later a second battery, a great naval 10-centimetre gun, drawn by twenty oxen, joined the fighting line with the rest of the Irish.
Everything had been done very rapidly. One could see that the men had been trained to sudden alarms by six months of warfare. Thirty-five minutes before the men were busy in camp, and the beasts were grazing. Now more than half the men were engaged, and all were ready awaiting orders to advance.
The skirmishers came back at a gallop, and a man arrived to hasten the advance of the naval gun, the oxen of which were almost trotting already.
At 11.55 two other naval guns, also drawn by twenty oxen each, went forward to join the others. A large ambulance-waggon followed.
In the camp a dog was howling dismally. The cannonade slackened a little.
At noon an ammunition-waggon, drawn by ten mules, went off to supply the line of combatants.
It is lamentable that the Burghers, clinging obstinately to their defensive tactics, know nothing of rear or flank movements.
There are no sentries either right or left. All the troops have gone off in the direction of the cannon--that is to say, towards the east--and in that immense camp, containing some hundreds of waggons, there are only a platoon of Mounted Rifles and a half-battalion of infantry. A handful of men could carry the camp and sack it.
In addition to the material result, what a moral effect would be produced on the troops engaged a mile and a half off, if they knew that an enemy, however feeble, was in possession of the road of retreat, and engaged in plundering the stores and ammunition!
It is true that the Boers did not know the state of the camp, but if they had they would have done nothing. This circumstance, confirming many other instances, would have convinced me more firmly than ever, if that were possible, that the great secret of warfare is to dare! This, I think, was the sole science of Murat, Lassalle and many another famous sabreur. And the Emperor himself, was not he, too, a type of audacity in the conception of his most brilliant campaigns, in the conduct of his most glorious victories?
About 12.30 the firing ceased. It recommenced again about 3 and 4.30. At three o'clock another great ammunition waggon was despatched. No losses were announced that evening.
The staff was at work till one o'clock in the morning, and a long telegram in cipher was sent off to Pretoria. In the evening rather late I heard the movements of troops, which recommenced the next morning at dawn.
July 9.--From 7 a.m. to 7.30 a battery and several detachments of the Mounted Rifles, ten or fifteen, moved off to the east-south-east, strongly flanked on the right (south) by other Mounted Rifles and by a battery.
In the early morning there were two centimetres of ice on the artillery buckets, and towards noon we were glad to be in our shirtsleeves. This great variation, more than 37 degrees in twenty hours, is very trying. We were now in mid-winter, and the sun set at five o'clock. At eight the firing, which was very brisk, seemed nearer than the day before. The Boer shells, carrying too far, burst between the camp and the line of the English artillery, which we could see perfectly. The infantry was posted towards the east-south-east.
The staff-officer told me that the English were engaged with General Botha's 5,000 men. I offered no opinion, but I was sure he was wrong, and information I received later justified this belief. I was rather inclined to think that it was the worthy Derksen, who had collected some 500 or 600 men, and who, by rapid and unexpected movements, was trying to make the enemy believe in the presence of a very considerable force. My staff-officer further told me that General Hutton was in command of 6,000 men, three batteries, and four naval guns. This, to judge by what I saw, may very probably have been correct. At any rate, a formidable convoy was on the spot. The guns were still booming.
An old sergeant with four stripes was introduced to me. He was the senior member of Battery 66, which had been kept in reserve. He had been serving under Lieutenant Roberts, who was killed at Colenso.
During the day four ambulance-waggons were sent out to the lines. It was at first intended that I should be taken to Pretoria, but as the route of the convoy had been changed, I was conveyed to Springs. I was one of fifteen prisoners, not counting the wounded.
At 4.30 the firing was much closer, but we had to start; the convoy was ready. It consisted of fifty bullock-waggons, eight or ten of them filled with wounded men. We, the prisoners, were at the head of the convoy, strongly guarded by infantry and mounted men. A few mounted irregulars preceded us as scouts. These men, recruited chiefly among the Afrikanders, sometimes even among the Boers, know the country very well.
Our guide was a native of Boksburg, and knew all the men with Derksen, the leader of the Boksburg commando. I made no attempt to conceal the disgust I felt for this renegade. But nothing distracted him from his duties, for he had a holy horror of falling into the hands of the Boers.
During the night fires in the bush reddened the horizon on every side. They came to ask us several times if these were signals. I really had no idea, but I was inclined to think not.
On account of the meagre fuel afforded by the short dry grass of the veldt, the fires we saw in these regions had none of the grandeur of the bush-fires in the Soudan, where the high grass is from 6 to 10 feet high. In those whirlwinds of fire the flames seem to lick the sky, and the tallest trees are twisted and calcined like straws. Numerous as the fires were, they did not warm the atmosphere, and the cold was terrible.
At last we arrived, supperless, at Springs, at 1.30 in the morning, so frozen that we were obliged to look and see if our feet and hands were still in place. We slept huddled in the guard-room at the railway-station.
Early on the morning of the 10th, Major Pelletier, of the Royal Canadian Regiment, came to fetch me to breakfast at mess. But Captain Ogilvie, the commandant of the station, would not let me leave his jurisdiction till I had been to his quarters to make my toilet.
After this process I went off with the Major. He was a charming fellow, a French Canadian, as his name indicates, and a native of a little village in Normandy. I spent the day with him. He told me the most interesting things about Canadian life, spoke enthusiastically of the fine sport there, and invited me to come and pay him a visit later on. At the same time he confided to me that both he and his men were suffering terribly from the heat. I then, being almost frozen, make up my mind never to accept his kind invitation.
I met a young doctor, too, whose name I forget, also a French Canadian. All the French Canadians, who form the majority of the contingent, speak excellent French, interlarded with old-fashioned expressions and marked by a strong Norman accent. Many of them do not know a word of English.
At six o'clock I start for Johannesburg, in the carriage reserved for officers. My pockets are full of French Canadian papers, which, though some two months old, are full of news fresh to me.
On my arrival, I presented myself to Major Davies, the commandant of the military police. He speaks French very correctly, was very agreeable, and gave me leave to go about the town on parole. I had only to leave my address with him, and to report myself at his office every morning at eleven o'clock.
On the 13th a plot was discovered to seize the town. About 500 arrests took place during the evening. As I had taken the oath of neutrality, I was not among the conspirators, and while hostilities last I can say no more on this subject.
On the 14th I received a permit to return to France, and I started by the two o'clock train that very day.
All along the line the railway-stations had been converted into entrenched camps. We continually passed trains loaded with horses, guns, and men--some twenty in all, perhaps. We arrived at Kroonstad at eleven in the morning on the 15th. Nothing remained of the sheds and the goods-station which we had burnt on May 12, with all the stores.
Involuntarily I took out my pocket-book, and read the names of the men who then composed the French corps. We were not forty altogether. Three had been killed, five had disappeared, the others were dispersed.
I tried to go out of the station to revisit all those places in the town where we spent a fortnight, gay, full of hope, almost complete in numbers. But the station was surrounded by sentries, and no one was allowed to pass.
From a distance the prospect was dismal enough. The streets were deserted, and, as if to emphasize the fact that everywhere there is suffering, the Red Cross flag floated sadly over the town. In the foreground, close to us, on the line, and in the sidings, were deserted railway-carriages, half burnt, overturned, and broken.
All round the town were field hospitals and vast camps. There were about 11,000 men in all, I was told. A feverish activity reigned at the station, a continuous bustle and movement. Convoys of provisions and arms followed each other in rapid succession. We counted sixteen during the day on the 16th.
Horses and mules were entrained in some, others brought back the worn-out horses. Many of these poor beasts had died on the road; most of them could hardly stand. They were dragged along a few steps, and a non-commissioned officer put a bullet through their heads inside the station. Thirty or forty thus executed lay heaped one on another in a pool of blood, which ran in a little stream towards the line.
On the platform stood cases of ammunition and arms. Several placed together contained Lee-Enfield cavalry carbines, and were marked 'Very Urgent.'
On the 16th we were still at Kroonstad, and a trainful of prisoners passed going to East London. It became one of the daily exercises of the garrison to walk to the station and see the travellers.
Two questions were to be heard perpetually:
'Do you think it is nearly over?' 'Have you any Kruger pennies?'
And Tommy is quite happy when they tell him that, as to being nearly over, it's not quite that; but that as to going on much longer, it won't go on much longer--at least, it depends on what you mean by much longer; or when someone gives him one or two Kruger pennies.
At last we left Kroonstad at ten o'clock in the evening, passing through Brandfort, that village to which, feted and acclaimed, we had come with Long Tom in January. All along the route the railway had been destroyed, and we travelled on rails laid on unballasted sleepers by the Royal Engineers.
Trenches had been dug to enable the train to pass over the shallow, dried-up streams without any very artistic labour, and sometimes the little half-destroyed bridges had been repaired with logs and made to do duty again.
It seemed wonderful that it could all hold. But it appeared--I heard this at the camp at Springs--that one of the chief engineers of the railway service was a civilian, a French Canadian, who had already distinguished himself in America by the construction of very daring railways.
He must have been extraordinary indeed to have astonished the Americans!
It is certain that the English successfully re-established railway communication with very restricted means in a very rapid manner--not that this prevents it from being constantly re-cut, however.
On July 17, at 8.30 in the morning, we were at Bloemfontein. Poor old capital of the Orange Free State! It is now the chief town of the Orange River Colony. Here again there was an immense camp, a large proportion of the Kelly-Kenny division.
We only stayed half an hour, and, after changing trains at Springfontein, we passed Norval's Pont at 6.35 in the evening. We were in Cape Colony! Here we were no longer on an improvised railway, and we got on faster. On the 18th, about 7.30 a.m., we were in the environs of Cape Town.
In accordance with English custom, many of the merchants have offices in the town, and live in little houses which give a gay and smiling aspect to the suburbs. We therefore took up a number of passengers who looked like men of business. In a few minutes we were in the town. We left the train at 8.30.
My permission to return to France was confirmed by the General commanding the garrison. I was almost a free man!
* * * * *
Vague rumours reached us from the front, always carefully doctored by the censor. Prinsloo was taken prisoner with several thousand men; but on the line to Lourenco Marques Botha was still defending himself vigorously. After the taking of Pretoria the Government, incarnating itself, so to speak, in the person of President Kruger, installed itself in a special train. There Oom Paul slept, received, ate, and lived. There the official printing-press was also set up, and the money that was circulated was minted there. As in the hurried departure from Pretoria it had not been possible to carry off a complete set of weights, the sovereigns issued were simple gold discs, quite plain, without image or inscription.
It was on this line, too, that the last great battles were fought, at Middelburg, Belfast, and Machadodorp, after which, renouncing all attempts at defence, the Boers began that guerilla campaign which De Wet had already successfully essayed.
In a few days our steamer sailed. It was not without a pang that we quitted the land we had hoped to see free, for which we had fought for seven months, and which had proved the grave of a venerated leader and of beloved friends.