The Camp, De Aar,
September 23rd, 1899.
Africa was streaming past the dusty windows of the railway carriage, presenting an endless spectacle of flat, depressed-looking country, with here and there a hut, here and there a native. I am in the earliest stages of a journey which should lead to Ramathlabama, and the command of Colonel Baden-Powell. Slowly and with much effort the train drags itself along; the road is steep, the carriages hot and uncomfortable, and there is nothing to attract attention, nothing to fill the emptiness of the mind. I slept at intervals, to awaken at some roadside station where fussy people were struggling to eat too much in too short a space of time. There, for a moment, was the scamper of bustling, hurrying passengers, who pushed and menaced one another in a thirsty rush to the refreshment room; with a cloud of officers, orderlies, and troopers I stood apart, listless, bored, and travel-stained, feebly interested, more feebly talking in disconnected phrases, until, with shrill blasts of his whistle, the guard signalled the departure of the train. Then off again, the jerking, swaying flight of eighteen miles an hour—the rumbling monotony of express speed which was conducive to drowsiness and nothing more. The landscape faded in the distance, a raucous voice sang of 'Ome, while, in a monotonous buzz of nothingness, I slept again.
The train was slowly thrusting itself forward as, with much panting and purring and some screaming, it cut the borders of the Great Karoo. Slowly the wheels clenched the metals as the waggons rocked in a lullaby of motion, and the passengers were fanned with draughts of scented air. The Great Karoo, lying in the shades of evening, hearkening to the secret calling of mysterious voices, heeding not the ravages of time, wearing majestically the massive dignity of its grandeur, threw back its barriers of resistance to our intrusion and delighting our senses with ever-changing and oft-recurring glimpses of its beauty. But the picture faded with the passing of the train, the golden and crimson delights of the overgrowing flowers gave place to a soulless expanse destitute of beauty.
I stopped at De Aar, which is the junction where the Orange Free State and Transvaal lines connect with the Cape Colony system. At De Aar I was anxious to observe the press of traffic. From Cape Town for Kimberley, Borderside, Fourteen Streams, and Mafeking, truck loads of horses and mules, waggon loads of general military stores were passing northwards to the front. In the interval, there were Imperial troops and men of the Cape Mounted Police. Indeed, the scene upon the platform was animated by martial spirit. If the train from the south was loaded with war material, the trains from the two Republics were packed with fugitives, among whom were many men who, in the hour of necessity, will, it is to be hoped, consider flight as the least satisfactory means of procedure. However, no goods are going through to the two Republics from Cape Colony, unless Mr. Schreiner has passed more ammunition over the Cape lines to the Transvaal. But things are working more satisfactorily down in Cape Town since it became known that the Cabinet would be discharged by the Governor, unless——and to a discerning politician of the Bond, whose income depends upon his salary from the House, a blank conveys many wholesome home truths.
Travelling, even with the variety of emotion which the Karoo excites, is no great comfort in South Africa. One lives in an atmosphere of dust and Keating's. If the trains go no faster to Cairo when the rails be through, than they do to Buluwayo, the steamers will still retain the monopoly of passenger traffic. It takes a "week of Sundays" to reach railhead at Buluwayo, but there is some small consideration in the fact that such a journey has been made. It will become a feature in our Sabbatarian domesticity some day, and among railway journeys at the present time it is unique. Where else do express trains arrive several hours in advance of their scheduled time? Where else do goods trains arrive several days late? These are but the manifold and maddening perplexities of railway travelling in Africa. Yet if one kicks against the uncertainties of the desert service, there is sure to be an Eliphaz somewhere upon the train, whose philosophy being greater than his hurry, recognises that the element of expedition, when his train does arrive, is greater than the prospect of moving at all where no train comes. Time passes somehow on these journeys, and the chance prospect of obtaining a good meal, when one is dead certain to get a bad one, is enlivening. If it were not for such trifles, the journey would have no interest. To look forward to luncheon and an afternoon nap, to anticipate dinner and then digest it, makes the day run with pleasant monotony into the night. And night is worth the inspection. The beds in the train are comfortable enough, but the night is vested with misty beauty, and its fascination woos the traveller from his rest. There is the roar of the engine, the rumble of the carriages, the buzz of insects, and the faint rustle of the night wind over the plains. Then, looking into the night, one falls asleep, tired and stunned by the spectacle of the never-ending desert. But, in the morning there comes a change. The stretches of the Karoo are past, and breakfast at De Aar is in sight.
At De Aar—a sea of tents with here and there a man—there begins the outward and visible signs of preparation against the necessities of the coming struggle. There are men and arms at De Aar and munitions of war, comprising the Yorkshire regiment, a wing of the King's Own Light Infantry under Major Hunt, and a section of the Seventh Field Company of Engineers under Lieutenant Wilson; but their numbers are impossible, much as their supplies be limited and seriously insufficient; and, as a consequence, I must not talk much about the interior linings of the British camp which has sprung up at De Aar, and which, within a few days of what must be the turning point of the present crisis, is so little able to cope with the exigencies of the situation. It is a protective measure, this little camp at the junction of the divergence in the railway system of the colony, placed in its present situation to guarantee the safety of the permanent way, and to ensure a modicum of safety to the traffic which is crowding north over the points at the meeting of the rails. It is a gorgeous piece of impudence; this minute establishment of British soldiers, and if it be impressed with the might and majesty of our Imperial Empire, it is also beset with the innumerable difficulties and trials which attend an isolated State.
We are guarding the lines of communication between De Aar Junction and Norvals Pont, the bridge across the Orange River which unites the territory of the Orange Free State with the land of the Colony, between De Aar and the Camp at Orange River, between De Aar and many miles to the south in the direction of Cape Town. I believe that the practical influence of this particular unit extends so far south as Beaufort West, where the custody and patrol of the line is handed over to the care of the railway authorities, whose men are detailed to the all-important duty of guarding the culverts and bridges of the system. The greatest menace to our weakness in the present situation springs from the vast lines of communication over which we must watch and which, although lying well within our own borders, are endangered through the contributary sympathy of the Dutch who, resident and settled within our own Colony, and boasting some sort of idle observance of the obligations entailed upon them by such residence, have seldom by word, and not at all in spirit, forsworn their entire and cheerful assistance to the cause of the Transvaal. In any other campaign these fatigues would be unnecessary, and the services of the innumerable small detachments delegated to the duty would be released for more active work, but with this war the safe maintenance of our lines of communication will become a problem of most vital concern, and will be necessarily imbued with absorbing interest. Moreover, whatever the nature of the scheme for efficiently guarding these lines may be, due attention must be paid and every consideration given to the superior mobility of the Boer forces to that of our own troops, an advantage which will increase their facilities and chances of success should they exert themselves to harass any particular section of our inordinately long lines of communication.
With the formation of a camp at De Aar, the trend which our campaign may assume becomes more definite. De Aar is but a little removed from Norvals Pont, an important bridge into the Orange Free State, which it is proposed to protect from the immediate base of the troops at De Aar, or to hold altogether from an ultimate base in the same direction at Colesberg. I propose to visit there before the next mail departs, since it be rumoured here that the town of Colesberg has been left entirely undefended by the military authorities, and that the end of the bridge, remote from this border and within the limits of the Orange Free State, is in the hands of an armed patrol from that Republic. When these things happen, and De Aar becomes the centre of a big base camp, the position will constitute another link in the chain of towns which are to be occupied by the Imperial forces along the western and southern borders of the Orange Free State, and whose occupation, should the troops arrive in time thus to execute the initiative, indicates our probable line of advance to be from a number of points, so that General Joubert will be unable to concentrate his troops before any one force. Upon our side, also, those frontier detachments that may be in occupation of the towns, will harass Transvaal and Free State borderside, suppress any rising within our own border areas, and be entirely subsidiary to the main columns, which will be simultaneously thrown forward from these three or four special points on the same extreme line of progression.
Moreover, this plan of operations accentuates the detached and especial character of the Natal Field Force, restraining them to service in that colony, and restricting their activities to that sphere. These troops will occupy Laing's Nek, the ten thousand men already assembled in that Colony being reinforced before hostilities are declared, until the Field Service footing of the Natal Field Force will equal that of an army corps. The critical points in the present situation are the western and eastern borders of the Transvaal, where the young bloods from the backwoods are mostly gathered, and in their present state eminently calculated to force the hand of Oom Paul into an impromptu declaration of belligerency. The movements of the Natal forces will be confined for the moment to holding Laing's Nek, maintaining communication with the permanent base at Ladysmith and Pietermaritzburg, and in occupying Dundee, Colenso, and all such towns as fall within the limits of its exterior lines.
From De Aar a division will support the left flank of the advance of the First Army Corps, divided, for purposes of more speedy concentration upon its ultimate base, into two divisions, which will reunite at Burghersdorp, viâ the railways, to Middelburg and Stormberg Junction from their immediate bases of disembarkation at Port Elizabeth and East London. The total force will then advance in exterior lines upon the Orange Free State, maintaining the railway system upon their individual western flanks, so far as possible, as their individual lines of communication.
While the Second Army Corps supports the situation in Natal, it is hoped that our forces in the Orange Free State border will either crush or drive the Boers back upon their ulterior lines towards Bloemfontein, which, with the assistance of the De Aar flanking column traversing the watershed of the Modder River in the direction of Kimberley, and in possible co-operation with a force from that base, they should be in a position to occupy. The capital will be held by the De Aar and Kimberley divisions, upon whom will then fall the work of protecting the lines of communication of the Southern Army Corps as it advances.
After supporting De Aar, Kimberley, and the lines of communication with defensive units, and maintaining a western column by employing the service of the Mafeking force, the First Army Corps will begin the move upon Pretoria, in collaboration with the Second (Natal) Army Corps, the former once again advancing in twin columns from a mutual base. The western border will probably be held from Kimberley to Fort Tuli by the forces composing the western column, while a flying column is to be in readiness lest a wider area be given to the theatre of war, and it become necessary to cross the Limpopo River. It would appear, too, that there is also some possibility of a column moving from Delagoa Bay. By this advance Pretoria becomes the objective of the campaign after the occupation of the Orange Free State, but this depends to a great extent upon the policy pursued by General Joubert and the nature of the Natal operations. If the Boers give way and, acting upon interior lines, fall back upon Pretoria, as General Jackson fell back upon Richmond in 1864-1865, the Transvaal capital will at once become the objective of the British forces advancing upon exterior lines, the object of the campaign, once the Transvaal has been invaded, being to force a battle upon the combined forces of the Boers or to beset Pretoria. It will thus be seen that the theory of the British advance favours the concentration of troops upon the Transvaal and Orange Free State frontiers so that the Boer forces may be dislocated, retaining the railways and their lines of communication and, leaving the actual protection and pacification of the frontier to the local mounted police and to the special service corps assisted by a few detachments of Imperial troops, while no progressive movement will be made from any one point until the exterior line, upon which the entire advance will be conducted, has been thoroughly established. For the nonce extraordinary precautions are being taken to conceal the movements of troops, and I have withheld from publication at this moment much which could be given in support of the lines by which I have suggested our advance will be governed. This plan of campaign reads very prettily, but it seems to me, that we are making no allowances for possible disasters, for possible defeats, for unavoidable delays, which, should they occur, will hamper the mobility of our advance and restrict the celerity of our movements to a great and most serious extent. Despite the fact that the massing of troops at the selected points between De Aar and Mafeking, between Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, East London, and the ultimate and interested bases will proceed almost immediately, the successful evolution of our plans, the wisdom or foolishness of which are so soon to be put to the test, demands much greater forces than are calculated to be available during the next few weeks. At present, and until the latter days of October, the combined strengths of the Regular and Irregular forces in South Africa will not equal twenty thousand men, and yet we are dabbling with and making preparations against a plan of campaign which requisitions two Army Corps at least, and will probably require the services of not less than one hundred thousand men. I dread to think of what may happen if war should come within a few days, but we can do nothing but face what is a most intolerable position, and one which most easily might have been avoided. The outlook in the absence of efficient men and stores is indeed disheartening.
Since I arrived upon the Orange Free State border I have omitted no opportunity to discuss with the Boers the question of the war. A friendly Boer, hailing from Utrecht, suggested the probable direction which the Boer plans, so far as they concerned Natal, might assume, and while they appear to be feasible, they reveal how curiously predominant among them is the idea that their arms will again defeat the British troops. The Transvaal Boers from Vryheid and Utrecht propose to attempt raids upon Natal and Zululand as the preliminaries to a rush upon Maritzburg and the southern district of Natal, by Weenen and Umvoti; Orange Free State Boers from the border areas will harass our soldiers as they move towards Laing's Nek, and, thus drawing the attention of the British troops, the road will be clear for those marching south on their attack upon the capital of Natal. All approaches to Laing's Nek upon the Dutch side of the border, already alien, have been fortified, fourteen guns being actually in position at the more important points. The British troops soon after leaving Ladysmith will have the Transvaal Boers on one side, the Free State Boers upon the other, and long before the Imperial troops can occupy the extreme border a commando of Boers from Wakkerstroom will have concentrated upon it. In the opinion of the Boers the effective occupation of Laing's Nek by either force will decide the war. The Boers all seem convinced that they can sweep the British forces from South Africa. The procedure of a campaign which finds much favour in their eyes includes the rising of the Swazis, the Zulus and the Basutos, who will be permitted to devastate Natal and as much of the south as they can penetrate, and whom they claim will be easily stirred against the Rooineks. The Boers will then feint with a small force upon the centre of our military occupation, while their entire army marches down upon Port Elizabeth, East London, or Cape Town, or proceeds by railway if they can secure the lines. They will hold open no lines of communication, because by that time Imperial arms will have been defeated, and it will only remain for President Kruger to dictate peace from Cape Town.
This is actually the opinion of a Boer who administers for the Transvaal Government an important district, and who is under orders to proceed to the Natal border without loss of time. Surely he must be consumed with delusion and impotent fanaticism; nevertheless, educated Boers from the border side and living in the Cape Colony, who have come to the camp to invite the officers to a cricket match or some buck shooting, have all expressed this view. At present I have not met the Boer who can conceive the defeat of his own countrymen, while both Imperial and Republican Governments count upon the assistance of the natives. Upon the other hand, however, I am informed that there are many Boers who do not wish to fight, since they recognise the futility of any effort which they can direct against British troops; but, at the same time, should they be called out upon commando, there is no fear of their declining to obey, while, so far as my inquiries go, they have failed to elicit anything which would show the Boers to be moved by any view so eminently sound as this would be.