"... a man Lord Methuen said he was proud to have with his army.”
" I met him at Key West during the Spanish War, and found him to be a solid, well-ballasted man, who knew what he was about, and not at all one to have gone treasure-seeking without excellent reasons. And it was easy to perceive that he must have been the right kind of a man to lead a treasure-hunting expedition.”
—Ralph D. Paine.
In the midst of the war between Russia and Japan, when the foreign specials were writhing under the restrictions of the censorship and were desperately trying to beg, or buy, or even to fight their way to the front, where real fighting was going on which they were not permitted to see with their own eyes, the authorities from time to time prepared entertainments for their diversion, as a means of conciliating these troublesome visitors. One of these impromptu entertainments took the form of a juggling party. As it was about to end, Edward F. Knight, with the quiet and rather quaint manner which often distinguished him, declared that he also could juggle, and proceeded to make his claim good by adding a feature to the original programme.
“Here is a despatch as it is sent out by a correspondent,” he said, and for a moment there was seen a strip of paper about eighteen inches long.
“Here again is the same despatch after it has gone through the hands of the censor,” and suddenly the paper shrank to a bare half-inch.
“But here is the despatch as it appears in print,” and lo! while the speaker looked about triumphantly, there appeared, as if out of the air, three columns from a newspaper and all filled with special cablegrams from the war.
And then the amateur performer added the sly remark:
“Of course, it was an American paper!”
Yet this man had come to the war in the East with a terrible handicap. He had but one arm, having been wounded so severely at Belmont in the Boer war that the right arm had to be amputated.
Few men are more adventurous in an unassuming way than Edward F. Knight has been. His military experiences began in 1870, when he went out with a French force in the war with Prussia. Years later, while as a special he was making the campaign in Madagascar, he referred almost tenderly to his old comrades of the Foreign Legion, and to the “French Tommy Atkins, the same pleasant, cheery, honest fellow I had known of old.” In nearly every land over which flies the British flag Knight, upon one mission or another has traveled. In 1878 he was plodding on foot about Albania and Montenegro with three artist companions, making a summer tour in an almost unknown country. Nearly twenty years later he was back among the Balkans in the war between Turkey and Greece, and in 1908 he spent several months in Salonica and Constantinople studying the revolution of the Young Turks. For the Morning Post he made the Ophxr tour of the world with the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall and York. In the spring of 1891, he left for the desolate mountain region of Kashmir, where he took part in the expedition against the Hunza- Nagars, sending to The Times and some London weeklies descriptive letters upon the campaign of a handful of men against a foe of far greater numbers in an almost inaccessible position. He has served as a correspondent also in Matabeleland, the Soudan and Cuba.
As a small boat sailor he has few superiors, as his delightful yams upon his cruising experiences in the Falcon and the Alerte indicate. Moreover he has been the leader of a treasure hunting expedition, and few such quests have been better fitted out or captained with more intelligence and skill.
On a day in January in 1895 Knight was sojourning in Cornwall when a telegram was delivered to him from the editor of The Times. France was determined upon the conquest of Madagascar, and the special for the great London paper was to proceed without delay to Antananarivo, the capital of the island, a thousand miles long, off the eastern coast of South Africa. The uncertainty, the excitement and the romance of the life of the special for a powerful newspaper, who has the whole world as his field of operations, are well illustrated by the experiences of this correspondent during the period of almost a year which he spent in that comparatively unknown region.
First of all he had great difficulty in reaching the scene of the campaign, and, in the sequel, while he faced dangers in plenty, he saw scarcely any of the little fighting that actually took place. It had been intended that he should travel with the French invaders, but even Paris correspondents were made unwelcome, and he was refused the necessary permission. Thereupon it was decided that he should hurry to Antananarivo, the capital city, and join there the English officer. Colonel Shervington, who was acting as the military adviser of the Hovas. In England it was thought that the French under General Duchesne would have a hard time reaching the capital through a difficult country in the face of a brave and patriotic people. The French were making charges that the British steamship traders were not obeying the neutrality laws, whereupon the steamship companies announced they would book no passengers for the ordinary ports of Madagascar. But Knight was aboard a vessel whose captain was an adventurous fellow, and, with the Rev. J. Pearse of the London Missionary Society, who had lived thirty years in the country, he was landed at a little Hova settlement at the southern end of the island. He was hundreds of miles from the capital and to reach it he would have to travel for many days through a wilderness large portions of which were unexplored and which no Europeans had previously penetrated.
Carriers were the first requisite. There were few settlements and they were far apart; supplies would be hard to get; quite likely the people would be found ill disposed at times and even hostile; and there were the chances of fever, starvation, even of murder to be faced. The correspondent was burning with impatience to be off lest he miss the opening of the campaign at Majunga, nine hundred miles away, where the French would begin their march. Luck came to his aid, and the special and the English missionary started with twenty-two trained palanquin bearers. “These men have marvellous agility and endurance,” wrote Knight. “It is usual to take eight men; while four carry the palanquin the other four trot on in front ready to take their places. They relieve each other at frequent intervals, and there is no check in the pace when this is done, the men one by one slipping nimbly aside while their fellows running alongside in their turn place their shoulders under the long poles. In this way they can easily carry a man thirty miles a day and more if conditions are favorable.”
At times they traveled at the very edge of the breakers on the surf-hardened sand. Often they plunged by narrow foot-paths into the forest where the dense vegetation shut out the breeze and the light. For miles they made their way across malarious swamps. Fifteen deep rivers whose waters were full of crocodiles had to be passed in dug-outs. At one stream no dug- out was to be found and three men braved the crocodiles, swimming to the opposite bank and returning with a boat. One beautiful lake they stumbled upon, unmarked upon any map, which probably no white man had ever seen before. This part of the journey required eight days.
Their way now lay through a perilous district of robber villages and blackmailing kings. The leader of the party was successful in defying the attempts of the natives to levy exorbitant tolls. Halted upon the bank of a deep river a half-mile wide the travelers were told there would be no ferry unless they paid a heavy sum. If they submitted the tale would go on ahead of them and a score of kings would make like demands. Argument was useless; Knight drew his revolver, and one by one inserted six cartridges while the king looked on and the missionary translated the bearers’ exaggerated account of the deadliness of the weapon. When the special ordered his men to seize the canoe and threatened to shoot the king if he interfered, that worthy sulkily yielded. By relays the men were ferried across, and the king was made to go on the last trip, as payment was refused until all were safe.
At one ford the water was above the shoulders of the men and for some paces above the heads of most of them, but they stretched their arms high and carried baggage and travelers across without wetting them, shouting in chorus, whenever their mouths were above water, to scare away the crocodiles.
The bearers came down with fever unfortunately and their places had to be filled with such men as could be hired, an unruly set as they turned out to be, Mr. Pearse declaring that in all his missionary travels he had never had to deal with such a lot of ruffians. They left the coast and struck across the great forest belt for the central highlands, fighting the indifference of the bearers all the way, and once quelling what might have been a serious mutiny. “Of all the journeys I have ever made,” said Knight, “I think this one was the most disagreeable, not on account of its natural difficulties, but because of the altogether unnecessary delays owing to the bad disposition of the men.”
For five days the route lay through an unexplored region which apparently no European had before visited. Here the bearers were at the mercy of their employers and became more amenable, making marches of extraordinary length, with Pearse and Knight tramping it much of the time. On the longest day’s march they started at dawn and clambered up and down mountain steeps hour after hour amid splendid scenery and beautiful waterfalls, by dint of hard scrambling reaching the head of the pass at sunset, where they found a highland village. There was no welcome for them. They were suspected of being French, and the villagers howled outside their tents for hours. “At any moment I expected to see an assegai come flying through the thin bamboo wall,” wrote the correspondent.
In the great forest they plodded on for miles without finding any openings, seeing the sun’s light only when they went up the avenues formed by the beds of mountain torrents. The missionary was troubled by fever and decided to stop at a friendly village. Knight pushed on for the capital, which was still almost three hundred miles away. He secured a fresh lot of willing and cheerful carriers and got ahead at the rate of thirty-three miles a day, although he was halted for two days by an attack of malarial fever which threatened at one time to become serious.
At last, on the thirty-second day from the start, a march which began before daybreak and ended after dark brought the indefatigable special to the rugged ridge on the side and summit of which Antananarivo is built. Knight found it to be a very irregular city of more than a hundred thousand people. A heavy disappointment awaited him; Colonel Shervington had resigned.
A persistent story had charged the English officer with selling the capital to the French. He had advised the government to fortify certain strong places on the route which the invaders would take; how could he have foretold the plans of the French unless he was in their counsels? Against such reasoning, and with an influential set of the Hovas intriguing against him, Colonel Shervington had no chance.
There was little likelihood of getting permission to go out with the Hova forces, Knight was informed by the British vice-consul. The feeling in the capital was strong against Europeans of all nationalities. Above all other white men newspaper reporters were under suspicion. No Hova could understand the nature of Knight’s business and most of them believed him to be a French spy. Burleigh was also in the city — how he got there has been related elsewhere — and the two were closely watched; their doings and their sayings were reported; if they undertook a stroll into the country spies were at their heels. Access to information was denied by the government. Had Knight tried to reach the front, he would have been seized and imprisoned. The Hovas were well acquainted with the art of boycotting. Strenuous efforts were made to suppress all news from the war; a severe censorship was actually instituted and all letters were read with care by the clerks of the Foreign Office. In the letter of a married woman to a sister in England the Hovas fancied they found an important cipher. At the bottom of the sheet there appeared some strange characters and a row of crosses. In due time the Foreign Office learned that these symbols were kisses for a certain British baby. Then, too, the French at the port of Tamatave were stopping most letters and all newspapers from home, so that Knight was pretty completely isolated from the world.
Nevertheless he did manage to send news to his paper. He was there as a correspondent in a situation almost unparalleled in the history of war reporting, and he did not propose to be beaten. Here is his own account of the way in which he smuggled telegrams and letters out of the island:
“I found natives willing for a small consideration to risk their lives by carrying letters from me to the nearest seaport; there they delivered the letters to my agent, who in turn handed them over to someone on the first Castle steamer that called, to be posted in Natal or Mauritius. I had to use every precaution in despatching my carriers; it would have meant their destruction had the object of their visit to the coast been suspected. I never employed the same man twice; each was paid his wages on delivering my letter to my agent, and not one failed in getting through despite the various dangers they had to encounter; for, in order to leave the city, they had to obtain passports from the government under some pretext or other; all the roads were guarded by soldiers on the lookout for deserters from the army and smugglers of gold-dust or letters; and every traveler was carefully searched at Moramanga, the second stage from the capital — the most formidable peril of all. In order to circumvent these searchers I used, as a rule, to take a copy of my letter in flimsy, roll the copy up into as small a space as possible, and jam it into the bottom of the carrier’s snuff-box, a bit of bamboo about six inches long; a false bottom would then be driven into place on top of the letter, and the bamboo, filled with snuff, would then present an innocent appearance that disarmed all suspicion. On one occasion, having no trustworthy messenger, I had to write the words of the highly-compromising telegram in invisible ink on the back of a private letter, to be developed by a friend on the coast.”
But somehow or other newspaper clippings found their way back to the remote capital of Madagascar and the Hovas learned that the correspondent was eluding their watchers and sending news out of the island. His sources of information and his method of beating their vigilance were a mystery and a wonder to them. For all the six months that he remained in Antananarivo he was hampered, but not defeated, by the cunning ingenuity of the natives, who hated him cordially, but feared openly to molest him. He was relying to a considerable extent upon the native awe of the European. But as he continued to send information out of the island about the corruption of the government and the discreditable intrigues of the leaders of the people, and especially when the approach of the column of the invaders had excited a really dangerous feeling against the foreigners in the capital, and when his most compromising letters had returned to the Hova government to accuse him, he found his position becoming very difficult, and he breathed much more freely when the French were in sight from the city.
Neither himself nor Burleigh had been entirely without communication with that advancing force of French soldiers, for they had found a courageous native of the carrier class who ventured again and again into the vicinity of the invading column on the scout for news. His ostensible profession was that of a peddler of salt, snuff, soap and sugar in the camps of the Hovas; his stock in trade was supplied by the correspondents. Furnished with a passport in full and proper form he would make his way to the lines of the defense, go about from troop to troop for several days, finally visiting the outposts and getting at least a glimpse of the French. By a similar plan Knight kept himself posted upon the news of the palace and the cabinet meetings.
In the city there were about forty British subjects, missionaries, traders, miners, a wanderer or two, and the newspaper men. It became unsafe for an Englishman to visit the markets. A meeting to go over the situation was held in the vice-consulate, when the representative of the British government advised all Europeans to leave for the coast. The jmissipnaries were all for staying in the city and in the end all did remain. The vice-consulate, a substantial brick house, was chosen for a rallying place in case the Hova mob actually broke loose and attacked the foreigners. So circumspect was it necessary for Knight to be that when a great camp of 10,000 men was established on the plain below the city he barely caught a glimpse of the review from a distance through a telescope.
There was now but one thing for him to do. He could not get to the front; he must simply wait for the front to come to him. Excitement mounted high as the French neared the city. He saw hundreds of barrels of powder being carried up to the palace and heard the rumor that the queen intended to blow up the building as the French entered her capital. And then, quite suddenly, he heard the booming of distant cannon, and thus learned that at last the invaders were in touch with the city. “I was exceedingly fortunate,” he wrote, “to find a man this day willing to travel for me to port. So I entrusted him with a letter and telegram to The Times. I knew that would be my last opportunity before the arrival of the French.”
At this juncture the Hovas did make something of a stand. For four days there was mild fighting outside the city, but as soon as the natives were exposed to the fire of the French guns they ran away. Through this period the Europeans kept out of the chief streets and stood ready to barricade their houses at a minute’s notice. At the end the life of the queen was in danger and Knight had his part in framing a plan to rescue her. He says: “I was myself in the plot to save her from any attempt to kill her — I had arranged to assist her to fly. But the watch was too close, and she had to stay in her palace and be bombarded.”
Every hour the sound of musketry volleys and artillery fire became louder, but in the capital it was impossible to learn what was really taking place — a sore predicament indeed for a war reporter. Then on September 29, 1895, at noon, Knight had his first glimpse of the invaders, “a long dark line of infantry and baggage mules streaming along a ridge on the skyline three miles away.” Never was a town bombarded after a more humane fashion. After about four hours a Hova on horseback with a few attendants was seen ascending the hill in front of the English watchers, bearing a white flag. The queen had surrendered.
The next glimpse of The Times special discloses him on camel back in the Nubian desert, “ as utterly desolate a place as any region in the world.” He had started in the midst of a sandstorm, when objects a hundred yards away could not be seen, and in a stifling atmosphere with the thermometer at one hundred and seventeen degrees in the shade. He had marched all night, halted at dawn for an hour, then fared on again along a road which could not be missed because of the bleached bones of the camels, to the number of many thousands, with which the route was strewn. There was not an insect to be seen, and not a vulture floated overhead. After making one hundred and twenty miles in sixty-five hours there was sighted a sandy basin surrounded by rugged hills of black rock, upon whose tops were perched three forts, with camels, sheep and goats below them. These were the Wells of Murat, the most southerly post held by the Egyptians and the nearest point to Khartoum which had been visited by Englishmen in many years.
It was but four months since the correspondent had reached London after his year in Madagascar. He had left on his ten days’ journey for Assuan, seven hundred and thirty miles up the Nile, within a few hours of the information reaching the newspaper office that an expedition to Dongola had been determined upon by the government. From Assuan to Korosko the march was made up the river bank with the daily temperature one hundred and twelve degrees in the shade. At Korosko the Sirdar gave permission for Knight to make the camel ride to Murat Wells and thence across the desert to Wady Haifa. The wells were but “brackish little pools,” but they were on the frontier, half-way between the Egyptian and Dervish posts, and therefore of great strategic importance. At the centre also of a great arc made by the Nile, with many tracks radiating from them, these wells were fought over many times. The correspondent carried letters to the sheik in command of the Arab irregulars stationed there.
From the wells the start for Wady Haifa was made on the afternoon of the eighth of May, 1896. With Knight was another correspondent and five irregulars, “ each clad in a picturesque white robe, girt with a cartridge belt, and with a Martini-Henry rifle slung on the saddle of the wiry little camel which he rode.” From seven to eleven the party halted, then they rode until six in the morning, when they rested again for five hours. Resuming the march they rode all day through an enchanted land, a succession of mirages, “wherein they could not be certain that anything was real save the sand immediately beneath them. On the horizon extended ranges of pleasant hills from which rivers flowed in broad belts of rippling blue.
They saw lakes of breaking waves, on whose shores were palms and long grasses, and a wild coast with deep rock-enclosed fiords and far-jutting promontories.”
Moreover they were riding through the desert on the hottest day Knight had ever known. It was one hundred and twenty degrees in the shade, “ if there had been any shade,” said the special, and even the Bedouin felt the oppression. The sun glared, the sand scorched, and the air was destitute of all movement. They made a long halt at sunset, and then sent ahead the slower baggage camels with three of the guides, while the two correspondents and the two remaining guides started at two in the morning to overtake the advance party. But they had made a mistake in separating themselves from their baggage in that desert; they trotted until dawn without overtaking the others. When day came they could find no tracks of the camels of their friends, but they went on, constantly scanning the horizon which already was beginning to quiver with the mirage.
With grave anxiety they reasoned over the situation. The others were surely not in front, so they themselves must be behind or lost. An isolated pyramid of rock appeared to the north, about two hundred feet high, with an almost perpendicular cliff to the west which would afford shelter from the sun until midday. They would make this a rendezvous while they looked for their missing companions. When they started for it the rock seemed but a few hundred yards distant. After a ride of a half-hour it seemed to dwindle in size and to recede until it was a good five miles away. For a time again it loomed large and near. “But,” says Knight, “we put no faith in its appearance and would not even assume that it had any real existence at all — for the desert was now full of ghosts — until we came at last into absolute contact with its black crags, and were resting under its friendly shade.”
A human skull lay on the sand, and crouching against the rock was the skeleton of a man who clearly had died of the agony of thirst. Long and carefully they searched for their comrades. A keen-sighted guide at last discerned some black objects which “seemed to be tossing on the waves of a distant lake.” The guide declared them to be men on camels, and they proved to be the missing half of the party, who had lost their way and were seriously alarmed. And now eleven hours of hard riding brought them to Wady Haifa, making one hundred and twenty-eight miles from Murat Wells in sixty-four hours, and with baggage animals at that.
That summer on the Nubian desert was the most trying season that had been endured within the memory of man. The ride to the wells was but one of several adventures which make the outstanding incidents in the story of Knight’s life in that campaign. The date and nature of the impending operations were guarded with utmost secrecy. The spies of the Khalifa were known to be in the camp of the Sirdar disguised as camel drivers and servants. The correspondents were taken on a crowded train to Akasheh and there advised to be ready to start with the troops at a minute’s notice. On June 6, they were told that the field force would march that night for Ferkeh and that the dervish position was to be attacked at dawn. It was the intention of the Sirdar to surprise the enemy, capture the leaders, and cripple the defence of Dongola.
The march that night was as remarkable as the march in the north years before, when the naval lieutenant had guided the troops by the stars, but this was a very dark night, and the desert column was guided over the trackless sands by a cavalry captain. It was a march of sixteen miles. One column went by the river, but the Sirdar was with the desert force. So silent was the advance that a straggler twenty paces away would surely be lost. There was no moon and only occasionally were there glimpses of the river; no bugles were blown and no smoking was permitted. After marching twelve miles the troops went into bivouac. Knight dismounted about midnight and lay on the sand with his horse standing at his side. After two in the morning the march was resumed; at half past four the first gleam of dawn appeared, and the troops were deployed into fighting formation; and at five the force was seen by a party of camel men and the first shot was fired.
At seven the battle was over, a short but terribly sharp action. Knight watched the dervishes “stand undismayed in the open, and fight with dogged determination in the face of the deadly volley fire.” Each man wounded was a dangerous and treacherous foe until he breathed his last. The special rode close to one wounded dervish and looked down upon his upturned face, not a muscle of which quivered. He had been badly hit, and the correspondent had no idea there was life in him, but scarcely had he ridden three yards beyond, when there was the report of a rifle just behind him, and a bullet whistled past his head. In the battle the Khalifa lost practically all his commanders on that side of Dongola. To their valor Knight paid this tribute: “I doubt whether any other men in the world would have stood, as these men stood, for nearly two hours against such fearful odds.”
With the advancing forces of the Sirdar had come the telegraph wire. A great part of the way it was simply stretched on the sand without insulation, the sand “in that dry country being an absolute nonconductor of electricity.” There had never been an attempt before with a Morse instrument to send a story over such a length of wire laid on the bare ground. As the army had but a single strand of wire, its use was limited to a certain number of words per day. No correspondent was permitted to send more than two hundred words in a single despatch. After his colleagues had sent their respective quotas he might send another two hundred, and so on in alternation. Thus the news of the victory was sent piecemeal to London.
In the Spanish-American war Ralph D. Paine watched Knight land on the Cuban coast near Havana for the purpose of interviewing the Captain-General. In his “adventurous but unassuming way,” equipped with a note-book, a revolver, a water-bottle and a package of sandwiches, the correspondent, again representing The Times, stepped into a flat-bottomed skiff from a newspaper despatch boat, and placidly said good-bye, ignoring entirely the probability that he would be taken for an Americano by the first Spanish patrol he met and shot without parley. Again in the war between Greece and Turkey, Knight proved his quality. An artillery duel was in progress;- the Greek gunners were doing well, but their nervousness was marked; whereupon Knight and another correspondent felt themselves not to be justified in taking shelter in the fort, but considered it to be their duty to write the long telegrams they were sending while making their observations in the open and under fire. The example was appreciated; the officers warmly thanked the newspaper men, and when there was a lull in the firing a great number of Greeks came together and lustily cheered the reporters. Under circumstances distinctly creditable to his courage, Knight lost his arm. He was with the force of Lord Methuen for the Morning Post. At the first engagement near Belmont the correspondent and two soldiers were deceived by a white handkerchief which a Boer fastened to the end of his rifle. Knight sprang to his feet and was instantly hit by a bullet. The wound was so severe that he was taken at once to Cape Town, but the arm could not be saved.