Showing how it was Fathered by a Field Marshal, sponsored by a Duke and three Lords, and given over to four certificated male nurses.
We reached Bloemfontein with men who had done extraordinary marching, fighting, and feats of exposure and privation. Some of the troops, notably the Guards, had walked more than thirty (more than forty, if I am not mistaken) miles in one of the three days' continuous marching. Many had fought at Jacobsdahl, Paardeberg, and Driefontein, not to speak of lesser actions at Waterval Drift and Poplar Grove.
During at least the last week of this almost unprecedented military performance the army had been reduced to less than half rations. We were very short of food for beasts as well as men. We had lost a large number of transport waggons, with their contents and the animals that drew them, and we had put the torch to two great hillocks of food which we could not take with us beyond Paardeberg. All our four-footed helpers were spent, hundreds of horses were ill, hundreds of bodies of others were lying along our wake upon the veldt, with flocks of glutted, yet still gluttonous, aasvogels feeding upon their flesh.
Worse, far worse than all else combined, the dreadful microbes of enteric had entered the blood of thousands of the soldiers, who had found no other water to drink than that of the pestilential Modder River which carried along and absorbed the bodies of men and horses as well as the filth of the camps of both the Boers and ourselves.
We had done as the Boers had said we never would do--as only one man of their forces (Villebois-Mareuil) had foreseen that a great general like Lord Roberts must be certain to do: we had left the railway and swept across the open veldt for one hundred miles, from Jacobsdahl and Kimberley to Bloemfontein. For warning his brusque and opinionated commander-in-chief, Cronje, that we would do this, Cronje insulted the brilliant Frenchman grossly, and bade him keep his idiotic notions to himself. But we had done it, and Cronje had lost his army and his liberty for failing to heed the warning. At Bloemfontein we came upon the steam highway once more, but to the south of Bloemfontein it was wrecked at many points, while to the northward it was in the enemy's country and control.
There was therefore nothing for us but to rest. Yet how heroically we had worked to make rest necessary! How well we had earned the right to enjoy rest if we had been of the temper to desire it! In one month under the great Field Marshal we had gone further and accomplished more than all the other British armies had done in nearly six months. We had won over the eagles of victory to perch upon our standards. We had freed Ladysmith and Kimberley, drawn the Boers away from the Cape Colony border, captured the best army and leading general of our foes, and were encamped around Bloemfontein with President Steyn's Residency in use as our headquarters.
The manner in which four of the war correspondents first learned that we were not to push on to the northward in an effort to seize the Transvaal capital, but were to halt at Bloemfontein, was most peculiar. It was so peculiar as to have led to the establishment of the first newspaper ever conducted by an army for an army on the field of battle. It was so unique an episode that this volume is published to commemorate and explain it; and I trust that no one who reads this will decide that it was not an episode worthy of an even more marked, substantial, and valuable memorial than I possess the talent to construct.
We entered Bloemfontein on March 13th. Two days later I was asked by Mr. F. W. Buxton, of the Johannesburg Star, to attend a meeting of some other correspondents and Lord Stanley in Lord Stanley's office on that day. I had caught up with the army by a dangerous journey with only two companions across the veldt from Kimberley, where an injury to my leg had laid me up. I had reported myself to Lord Stanley, the censor. I had previously carried on some correspondence with him, but our personal acquaintance had not been of more than five minutes' duration. I could not, therefore, know at that time that he was to prove himself the most competent of all the censors appointed to supervise the work of us correspondents. In saying that he was the "most competent" I mean that he ranked above all the others in every quality which goes to make up fitness for this unceasing and exacting work. He had quick intelligence, great breadth of judgment, unfailing courtesy, unbroken patience, and all the modesty of a truly able man.
Hardly can the average reader estimate the degree of satisfaction with which we correspondents came quickly to realise the admirable qualities of this first and only fair and considerate censor that most of us had known in the war. At one place we knew a censor who read the letters which came to officers and privates from their wives in England, and who used to regale his chance acquaintances with comparisons between the sterling virtues and deep affection of the letters to Tommy, and the colder, more selfish, and even querulous messages of the wives of officers.
At another place we had a censor who obliged us to hand to him our letters to our wives and sweethearts unsealed, and in one case this censor kept for twenty-four hours a letter I had written to my family.
Still another censor showered his contempt upon certain correspondents who, in every way which goes to make up refinement, self-respect, and dignity, were many times better men than he. It amused him to take the despatches of a Colonial lad, who was doing his best to enter upon an honourable career, and throw them in his waste basket daily for ten days without informing the youth of their fate. It pleased him to insult me by telling me that the only message I could send to England must be a description of a sandstorm; while to Mr. E. F. Knight, a man Lord Methuen said he "was proud to have with his army," this censor said, "There is only one thing I will allow you to write--that is, a description of a new Union Jack which has just been run up over the headquarters."
With such ill-chosen, mistaken men had we undergone experiences, and now, at last, we met with Lord Stanley, who had the most intense likes and dislikes for those around him, yet never let these hinder or temper his unvarying fairness; who was as firm as iron and yet always gentle; a stout, strong, stalwart man in build, hearty and kindly in manner; a man who took command as easily and exercised it as smoothly as if he had been a general at birth.
I speak of him at some length not merely because his case proves that the one well-equipped censor appointed in the armies on the west side of the continent was a civilian, and not only because this one competent censor gave equally complete satisfaction to both the Army and the Press, but because he assumed a conspicuous and important part in the story I am telling.
His office was as nearly literally a hole in a wall as a room in a house could well be. It was in the corner of the Free State Post Office building, facing the great central square of dirt, in the middle of which stood the market, under whose open shed the mounted men of the City Imperial Volunteers lived among their saddles and bridles, and slept on the tables of the greengrocers, whose place this once had been. On the Post Office side of the square was the Free State Hotel, the best in the town. On the opposite side, an eighth of a mile away, was the Club. Between the two ends ran a double row of such shops as one looks for in a small village, and behind one of these was the office of a newspaper called The Friend of the Free State.
Lord Stanley's office was a wretched poke-hole of a room. It boasted a door with glass panels and no window. Its floor was of bare boards. Its walls were partly made of soiled plaster and partly of bare boards. Opposite the door, in the corner, stood a kitchen table which was never used, and in the other dark end of the room was another kitchen table, behind which, on a kitchen chair, the ex-Guardsman and Whip of the Unionist Party sat nearly all day, and some hours of every evening, with one hand full of manuscript and the other holding the little triangular stamp with which he printed the sign manual of his approval upon nearly every despatch which was written by those correspondents who kept within the law governing the cabling of news to their journals. A kerosene lamp, an inkpot and pen, and a litter of papers were the other appointments of the room. The censor was clad in khaki like all the rest of us, but the collar of his tunic bore on each side the short bit of red cloth which marked him as a staff officer.
To this office, at the censor's invitation, came Perceval Landon, correspondent of the Times, H. A. Gwynne, of Reuter's Agency, F. W. Buxton, of the Johannesburg Star, and myself.
"Gentlemen," said Lord Stanley after the door had been closed and locked to keep out the current of "Tommies" with telegrams which flowed in and eddied before the desk all day, "Lord Roberts wants to have a daily newspaper published for the entertainment and information of the Army while we are here. I may tell you that we are likely to stay here four weeks. You four are asked to undertake the work of bringing out the newspaper. Will you do it?"
Three of us did not clearly see how we could undertake so laborious and exacting a task and still do justice to our newspapers at home; nevertheless, the censor's words had been, "Lord Roberts wants this."
"We must do it if Lord Roberts desires it," was the reply of one of us. The rest nodded acquiescence, but said nothing.
"I am very glad," the censor replied.
Mr. Buxton, who knew South Africa and its Press very well, appeared to have devoted some attention to the matter earlier in the day. From him and from the censor we learned that two daily newspapers had been published in Bloemfontein up to the time that we took possession of the town. One was the Express, the property of the widow of one Borckenhagen--a Boer organ of the most pronounced type, and notorious for the virulence of its attacks upon the British, for its lying reports, and its mischievous influence. That paper had been stopped by Lord Roberts, and its machinery, type, and all else belonging to it were for us to do with as we pleased.
The other paper was the little Friend of the Free State, owned, as I understand, by an Englishman named Barlow, who was out of the country and had left the property in the care of his son. This younger Barlow had not conducted the paper in such a spirit toward us as one would have looked for from a man of English blood; but, either for good cause, worldly interests, or wholly despicable reasons, there was so much disloyalty and so much more of fence straddling throughout South Africa that a very lenient view was taken of this case, and we were asked to find out what sum of money would satisfy Barlow for the loss of income from his paper while we conducted it. He was to be told that he could not be permitted to continue his editorship, and that therefore it was necessary to settle on some figure covering any shrinkage that might occur in his customary profits while the newspaper was in our charge.
Mr. Buxton was appointed to confer with Barlow, and in a few hours we all met again to hear that the dethroned editor would be satisfied with a guarantee of £200, or £50 a week during the month of our editorship.
Mr. Landon had already approached Mr. Gwynne and myself with a proposition that we should offer to make good any losses that might occur during our management; but other ideas prevailed.
"No," said the censor, "you cannot be allowed to lose anything by your kindness. Two hundred pounds will be the utmost cost, eh? Well, I think that Westminster, Dudley, and I, can raise that between us."
We held our breaths for a moment as he said this, for it flashed upon us that the heir of Lord Derby, the owner of the great Dudley estates, and the greatest landlord of London, were to be our backers, that they were high up among the richest men of England, and that one of them was saying he was hopeful that among all three two hundred pounds might not prove an impossible sum to raise.
"Yes, that's all right," Lord Stanley repeated; "I think that Dudley, Westminster, and I can manage it."
The reader will not be prepared to hear that anything funnier than that could grow out of this situation. But it was to be so. Weeks after our singular editorial experience ended I received, while in Capetown, a letter from an interested Afrikander asking me whether I thought the three men who guaranteed Barlow against a loss of profits from his paper were responsible men, and Barlow would be likely to get his money.
I went away to nurse my injured leg, and the other editors went their ways to arrange for getting out a new paper, which all of us agreed should be christened with the now historic name of THE FRIEND. While we are thus separated from them let me draw a pen picture of each.
Perceval Landon, representing the Times, is a university man, who has been admitted to the bar, and who took up the work of a war correspondent from an Englishman's love of adventure, danger, and excitement. It can be nothing but his English blood that prompted him to this course, for in mind and temperament, tastes and qualifications, he is at once a scholar and a poet rather than a man of violent action. Had the Times so desired he would have charmed the public with letters from the front as human and picturesque in subject and treatment as any that were sent to London. His charms of manner and of mind caused his companionship to be sought by the most distinguished and the most polished men in the army, and all were deeply sorry when, at the close of the army's stay in Bloemfontein, illness forced him to return to London, though not until he had served in the war as long as any man at that time on the west side of the continent.
Mr. H. A. Gwynne, representing Reuter's Agency, is a veteran war correspondent, though a young man otherwise. He is Landon's diametrical opposite, being above all else a man of action and a born soldier. As an author and as a mountain climber of distinction he was known before he adopted the profession of journalism and took part in, I think, ten campaigns: The Turko-Greek, the Omdurman campaign, the Egyptian campaign preceding it, and others. It was Gwynne who, with Mr. George W. Steevens, received the surrender of the town of Volo from the Greek authorities before the Turks entered the town. Mr. Gwynne has superabundant strength, health, and spirits, loves soldiering and adventure, and is so shrewd in his judgment of men, and practised in his observations of war, that more than one general made it a practice to consult him upon what he knew and saw during the South African campaign. How well he can write the pages of THE FRIEND attest.
Mr. Buxton is a specialist in the interests which are uppermost in Johannesburg, where, as a member of the staff of the Star, and as a citizen of consequence, he has made himself intimately known to the forceful men of South Africa, and has mastered the problems that lie before the British in reconstructing the government and welding the two leading races together. He had accompanied Lord Methuen's unfortunate army from its start to its rescue by Lord Roberts, and during all that time his knowledge of the country and of the Boers might have been turned to good account had he been consulted. It was fitting that the staff of the newspaper should have had upon it a representative colonial of English stock, yet of long and masterful local experience such as Mr. Buxton.
For a striking picture of the minor characters who figured as our foremen and compositors in the newspaper office the reader will do well to read Rudyard Kipling's "A Burgher of the Free State," one of the short stories he wrote after his return from South Africa in the early summer of 1900.
It showed us associates of the master storyteller how instantly, broadly, and accurately he is able to imbibe and absorb the colour and spirit, and even the most minor accessories of any new and strong situation around him. It will show the reader better than any amount of another man's writing the characters of our helpmeets and neighbours, and the atmosphere in which they moved.