To be carried off captive after the first hot skirmish into which one has gone full of confidence and hope is a trying experience for any soldier, and especially for those who are conscious of having done manful deeds deserving a better fate. In these circumstances, however, it implies no humiliation, but only a feeling of rebellious resentment against the fortunes of war that have, at one fell stroke, swept away all hopes of further distinction, dashed every ambitious plan, and severed for a time at least all pleasant associations with comrades whose friendship is never so truly appreciated under other conditions as it is amid the rough campaigning experiences that try the temper and the mettle of all men. The full sense of everything that has been lost comes upon war-prisoners in the first hours of their captivity with the crushing force of a hopeless defeat, so that they cannot even find it in their hearts to be thankful for the lives that have been spared to them. If this is so in the case of men to whom loss of liberty means no reproach and who have the proud consciousness that they did not purchase safety by unfaithfulness to their trust, how much sharper must the sting be to those who by pusillanimous surrender have brought the dark shadow of dishonour on themselves and stained the proud blazonry of regimental distinctions! Happily, British soldiers have not often gone into captivity with that stigma resting on them; and, though critics at home were ungenerously prone to assume that the ‘flag of shame’ had been hoisted too readily in some fights against the Boers, they would have told a different story if it had been their lot to lie on the bare veldt within rifle-range of hidden enemies under whose deadly fire it is even more dangerous to go back than to go forward. The idea of wresting victory by a rush or wriggling up to it through zone after zone of hailing bullets across four or five hundred yards of open ground could only have commended itself to tacticians comfortably ensconced in arm-chairs far from the buzz and boom of war. Hemmed in by a girdle of fire that cannot possibly be broken by a charge across such distances, men must either lie down like sheep to be slaughtered, or walk to their deaths with eyes open, making useless sacrifices, or surrender; and none but a braggart who had never been under fire would dare to hurl the poisoned arrows of reproach at brave men upon whom the last alternative has been forced. Every soldier knows how unjust is that journalistic phrase ‘an easy surrender.’ Nobody could have written it if he had thought for a moment of the bitterness that is in the hearts of men who have to yield under the white flag; yet it is not necessarily an emblem of shame for all that. Lumsden’s Horse did not hoist it in their direst extremity, but they would be the last to jeer at men who have passed through such an ordeal. If ever captives had the right to hold up their heads in the presence of triumphant enemies, those men were the troopers of Lumsden’s Horse who had sacrificed themselves rather than abandon a wounded comrade. One of them, Corporal Firth, a prisoner in the hands of the Boers, wrote to his parents from Waterval on May 7, 1900:
You will by this time have seen that I am now a prisoner of war from the published lists in the papers. I will just give you an outline of what happened on the 30th ult. An officer, two non-commissioned officers, and eleven men were told off to hold a hill as a guard against an attack on the right of a body advancing from our centre; this centre body had to retire, and we, receiving no orders, held on as long as possible until forced to retire, which we did, having five killed, our officer wounded, and four taken prisoners, leaving only four who escaped to tell the tale. I could have got away, only went back to the assistance of our officer, who was wounded about ten yards behind me. I bound him up under a heavy fire, and Providence must have watched over me that day, as bullets in hundreds were flying all round me. I am in good health and received very kind treatment from the hands of my captors, of which I will write more on another occasion, as I am not yet settled down in my new surroundings.
How he and his fellow-prisoners fared after they had fallen into the power of their enemies is a story told with graphic picturesqueness in the following letters from Sergeant Fraser, who was surrounded by Boers when he lay bruised by a heavy fall in company with Trooper Saunders, who had gallantly risked his own life in an attempt to bring Fraser out from under fire:
We had imagined that our destination was comparatively close, but we covered mile after mile without any more satisfaction from our guards than that it was over the next kopje. The column wound in and out among many hills ere a halt was called. Though we had started about 11 in the morning, it was not until 4 o’clock in the afternoon that our escort stopped at an ambulance tent, which was in charge of a hospitable Swiss doctor. We had had nothing to eat all day. In the hurry of getting ready so early in the morning neither of us had time to think of food, and our day’s rations were in our saddles, now in the hands of the Boers. So the good Swiss fed us plentifully with soup, meat, and coffee. He examined me and found only bruises. Saunders’s arm was much swollen, and the surgeon could not ascertain what the damage was. It afterwards turned out that the muscles were lacerated and one of the bones in the forearm cracked.
In the doctor’s tent was a wounded officer, Lieutenant and Adjutant Lilley, of the Victorian Mounted Rifles. He, poor chap, had been shot through the head during the same engagement, and had been brought in a waggon from the field. He recognised us in so far as to repeat the name of our regiment, but seemed woefully wounded and repeatedly broke out in delirium. The doctor who had been so kind to us seemed assiduous in his attentions, and I am sure everything possible was done for the poor Australian. We heard afterwards that he had been left in hospital at Brandfort by the Boers, and found by our troops a few days afterwards, when they took possession of that place. He subsequently died from the wound, which was caused by a bullet passing through his brain. Marching for another mile we came to the Boer laager at dusk. Those in camp met us kindly, more particularly as the news given by our guards was that their own commando had apparently scored a victory. They gave us coffee at once, and a place to lie down and rest. And thus began our captivity.
While Saunders and myself were recovering from our exertions, discussing the events of the day, and generally commiserating each other upon our misfortunes, we were much cheered to perceive the approach of two men attired in khaki and helmets. These proved to be Sergeant-Major Healy, of the Victorian Rifles, and Private Simmons, of the Duke of Cornwall’s Regiment’s Mounted Infantry. Both had fearful things to relate of the morning’s action. They had been through all the heavy fighting preceding the occupation of Bloemfontein, and agreed that never had they experienced such hot fire as on this particular morning. About 8 o’clock our guards supplied us with bread and coffee, and pieces of biltong, stuck on a wire, that had been thrust into a fire. They then accommodated us with a tent, a blanket apiece, and an empty sack or two—for we had no coats, and the cold was intense. In such comfort as we could make for ourselves with these limited resources we lay down, and soon slept the sleep of the weary. It seemed but a few minutes since we had turned in when we were awakened with rough kindliness, and turned out of our tent. The bulk of the commando had returned to camp after a successful but wearisome day, and the owners of the tent wanted their own. So out we got into the bitter cold. They placed us between two tents, and we arranged ourselves a second time as best we could. Despite the lack of warmth and comfort, we slept heavily, and the sun was high in the heavens next morning ere we awoke.
Bread and coffee formed our breakfast, and this meagre meal was welcome enough. Our guards themselves had no more, so we could not complain. As the morning wore on, the sun became rather trying, and once again we were accommodated with a tent, wherein we discussed at length the events of yesterday. As this conversation turned inevitably to our own capture, needless to say we gradually began to despond. But we were shortly to have our hearts lightened by the discovery of fellow sufferers—how company in trouble eases one! In marched Firth, McGillivray, Macdonald, Petersen, and Williams, of our own corps, followed by Coghlan, of Sergeant-Major Healy’s regiment. Coghlan had a broken leg, done up in plaster of Paris, and lay on an ambulance pallet. Needless to say, we had much to tell each other, and Saunders and myself then heard how Franks, Case, Daubney, and H.C. Lumsden had been killed, and Lieutenant Crane wounded and a prisoner. It was not until afterwards we heard that Major Showers had been killed and several others wounded on the same day.
The frugal fare of the morning was repeated in the afternoon, except in the case of the bread. Of it the Boers had none, but they furnished us with a plentiful supply of a kind of rusk. This appeared to be simply broken bread dried in an oven. It made a very good meal, but tried those of us whose teeth had been somewhat worn down by eating moorghis in India.
To march forth in the morning with a gun in your hand to fight your country’s battles; to endanger your life that you may return to your female relatives, decorated and a hero; to hear the vicious ping of bullets, the shrieking of shells, and know yourself alarmed but undismayed, are fine things. But to sit at night in the enemy’s laager with wings clipped, no gun, and a sinking stomach is so untoward a thing that a man who suffers it may well question the reason of his birth and entertain hopes that the world is about to end.
Six of us sat in the dusky light of a tent in a Boer laager near Brandfort, and our own mothers could not have comforted us. It wasn’t as if we had had a bellyful of fighting, like others who had begun the campaign in Cape Colony, or as if after a tremendous struggle we had been overpowered. Without practically a chance to retaliate, we had been deluged with bullets that went by in such numbers you could hear them rattle against each other in their flight. Then instead of the bullets came the Boers, and we were prisoners—hands up, pockets empty, hopes vanished!—this in our first fight!
When night had fallen, the sentries—there were two of them, with loaded rifles and revolvers—passed us in a big kettle in which had been boiled water and, they said, coffee.
One of us sadly asked if they had put in sugar as well, and on receiving a reply in the affirmative, murmured, ‘What good hot water!’ Then we munched away at rusks, of which light and tasteless provender they chucked us in a quantity in the bottom of a sack, and I wondered if the nourishment contained therein would compensate for the energy expended in chewing them. I know I registered a mental vow never to feed my horses on bran alone if ever I got back to India. A few of us had pipes, and there was no difficulty about Boer tobacco; but here, again, one was reminded of bran, for although the colour was not quite the same the taste was nearly identical with what I imagine bran would give if smoked. As it grew late the cold increased, and by 9 o’clock we were shivering. Those of us who had managed to retain their greatcoats were not so badly off, but others, who had nothing but thin khaki tunics, suffered considerably. On representing matters to the sentries, they procured for us a few blankets and empty sacks, and, huddled together, each man endeavoured to sleep to the chatter of his neighbour’s teeth.
The laager next morning showed signs of great activity. A large patrol was about to start in the direction of the British lines, and the two hundred or so composing this body shook hands, every man of them, with half a dozen of their comrades, who, it afterwards turned out, were to form our escort to Pretoria. According to our preconceived ideas of how troops should move out of camp the behaviour of the Boers seemed absurd. No word of command appeared to be given, but in a moment the aspect of the camp that had been full of men lolling about, talking and skylarking, was changed. Horses were saddled, bridled, and mounted in a matter of seconds, the ceremony of hand-shaking gone through, and in less than five minutes from the first impulse which set them getting ready the patrol had disappeared over the skyline. Some were trotting, some cantering, and there was no attempt at formation; but none the less their method, or want of it, was effective, and one could not help being impressed with the individual independence of each man, combined, as it was, with complete unanimity of object in the whole body.
Our turn came next, and we made our little preparations to start. These consisted mostly of buttoning up, and, indeed, there was a charming sense of irresponsibility in having no arrangements to make, no packing to do, no hookums to give. For our conveyance was prepared a buck-waggon, with the appearance of which the illustrated papers have made all the world familiar. Twelve mules were stuck in front, the driver cracked his whip, and the caravan was ready. Down the centre of the waggon, on a mattress, and propped about with rolled-up blankets, was placed the wounded Victorian. The rest of us sat round, with our legs dangling over the side. A Kaffir held the reins from a raised seat in front, and two Boers sat alongside of him with loaded rifles on their knees. But they had their backs to the mules and the points of their guns towards poor us. At the tail end of the waggon sat two more Boers, also armed. A fifth Boer, unarmed, barring a whip as long as Chowringhi, marched alongside to curse the mules and pick holes in their hides when the cursing failed.
As we stood ready the Boers near shook hands all round with us, hoped the war would soon be over and we be back in our ain countrees and themselves restored to the bosoms of their families. We moved off with a jolt that made the poor Victorian groan, and they shouted good-byes after us and congratulations that we were going to that wonderful place Pretoria. Soon a rising hid the laager, and around we could see nothing but veldt—not a tree, not a house, not a Boer. And now, we thought, is our chance. We only had to lay hold of our guards by the throats, wrest their rifles away, and so turn the tables completely—a poor return for their hearty kindness, but then we did not cherish the same feelings for Pretoria that they did. These ideas of escape were rippling round cheerfully but guardedly, when our hopes flopped to the ground, for over the skyline came cantering a couple of Boers, and we soon found their business was to trot behind. We might easily overpower the guards in the waggon; but what profit would there be in that if one mounted man galloped for assistance while the other kept watch on our movements? Without the mounted men we might have bagged our guards and got clear away, as no warning of our escape could then have reached the Boer lines for at least twenty-four hours. But it was not to be, and we resigned ourselves to the inevitable.
When there’s nothing to see, almost as much to eat, and the Devil’s own pother to think about, travelling is wearisome. Add to these conditions a place to sit upon as hard as the heart of Pharaoh and the ever-present gun to keep you on it, and travelling becomes well-nigh unendurable.
If it wasn’t for the antics of Brother Boer we should have succumbed to jaundice, occasioned by nausea of the situation, or some other fell disease. But the Boer brother, to beguile the tedium of the way, showed us a thing or two in bullying, in quarrelling, and in shooting—the last named, to our disappointment, not being a consequence of the first two. Hanging on to a projection of our waggon was an attendant to look after the mules, a Kaffir boy about fifteen years old. His face was unadorned with beard, whisker, or moustache. One of the Boers snatched the boy’s cap from him, held him tight by the scruff of the neck, and then chucked the cap into the road. Meanwhile the waggon proceeded, and soon the cap was a dim speck half a mile behind. Then the owner of the cap was loosed off, and away he sped back to his lost property. When he reached it we were a clear mile away. Thereupon the Boers waxed mighty cheerful, and the waggoner, loudly chuckling, whipped up his mules into a fast trot, the little nigger running like a good ’un far in the rear. The going was too bad for continuous trotting, so in two or three miles the boy had overhauled us, and, though very blown, he showed his teeth with pleasure at catching us, apparently bearing no malice for the trick that had been played on him. But his troubles were not over. As he laid hold of the waggon to jump on, a great Boer hand was sprawled in his face and he went down on the road like a thousand of bricks at the unexpected assault. Loud guffaws from the brethren greeted this performance. It was repeated again and again till the poor devil was hopelessly beaten, and unable to continue the game. Then, when allowed to hang on again, he had to put up with brutal horseplay. His ears were pulled, his face contorted into extraordinary shapes, and tufts of wool, bleeding, jerked out of his head. At this point we deemed it our business to interfere, and, appealing to the man who appeared to be in command of our guard, and who spoke English well, we asked if it was usual for the Boers to treat Kaffirs in this way. And if so, we told him, it was high time every Boer in South Africa was shut up in St. Helena. This touched him up, and he ordered the two bullies to drop it. Then ensued a pretty quarrel. Some of us felt sure there were Hindustani words used—and dreadful they sounded in Dutch mouths. We fondly hoped there would be shooting, or at least fisticuffs. But the Boer is like the Bengali—a leviathan in words and a mouse in deeds. Behind a stone his heart is like that which protects him, and in the open his heart becomes just like the atmosphere which affords him no protection.
When cheerfulness was more or less restored somebody espied a herd of buck about a mile away. The keen sight of the Boers is astonishing, and the way they detected the movements of the buck at that distance was a revelation. Some of us could see nothing at all, but the keenest thought they could spot a little bit of colour which the Boers said was a herd of about twenty buck. In a minute three of them were blazing away with their Mausers, but the herd cleared without casualty. Throughout the rest of the way the Boers blazed away without intermission at anything and everything that suggested itself as a target. There certainly was no idea among them then that it would be well to husband ammunition. I see by the papers that their commandants are said to be exhorting the Boers now in the field to save their cartridges for officers, and not to waste any on the Tommies, but at the date of which I am writing they behaved as if their supply of ammunition was inexhaustible.
About midday a halt was called, the niggers did something to the harness, which dropped on the ground, and the mules, freed, were quickly up to their knees in an adjacent dam, and soon after that busily engaged with the veldt grass. Only once a day were they supposed to get a feed of corn, and from all we could hear that day only came round about once a week. In the meantime the Boers had fished out an empty wine case, smashed it up, lighted a fire, and placed a great kettle on top. While that was boiling the carcass of a sheep was produced from a sack, and all and sundry hacked a piece off. When the kettle had boiled and the coffee was made, the fire was heaped up afresh with wood, and every man had his bit of meat on the end of a stick, held it in the flames, where it fizzled and cracked and spurted as merrily as any steak on a grill in London town. There was a dish of salt to dip into when you judged the cooking complete. Our rusk sack was still partially filled, and wasn’t the dam full of water within a few yards of us? ‘What more could the —— Englishman want?’ said Brother Boer, as he lapped up all the coffee! In the newspapers the Boer is made to speak of the verdomde rooinek, but my experience of the Boer is that he prefers Tommy’s pet adjective before all others.
Our rustic repast over, the Kaffirs began to collect the mules. This they did not by running round them, but by sitting still and emitting sounds into the tenor of which God forbid that any civilised human being should inquire. Sufficient to say that they were weird enough to ‘kid’ the mules into leaving their feed and travelling half a mile to the waggon, there to be yoked again in slavery. Thereafter our journey was uneventful until we struck the railway, where we fondly hoped to find a train. But the advance of the British from Bloemfontein had begun, and the Boers, to prevent a sudden descent on the railway within their own lines, had taken the precaution of blowing up every bridge and culvert for many miles inside their own outposts. So we had to traverse six more weary miles, witnessing for diversion the destruction that dynamite can bring upon the handiwork of man. Great iron bridges broken and tossed aside, huge embankments shattered, railway stations annihilated. Cruel signs, but the inevitable consequences of war. At dark we reached Smaldeel, a little station sixty miles north of Bloemfontein, and at that time the southernmost depôt of the Boer forces on the railway. Three days later the British were in possession of Smaldeel and fired on the last Boer train steaming out of the station. But knowing that afterwards did not comfort us a bit when they locked us up that night.
Smaldeel is not an attractive place. We were dumped down in the most unattractive part of it! Imagine a four-roomed house built of wood and corrugated iron, one window per room and each one of them nailed down, as it had been for a long time. Imagine in one of these rooms Boer lumber—old clothes, empties, forgotten bedding; remember the boarded window, call for a glass of brandy, and think with sympathy of us poor sinners condemned to such a place for a livelong night.
What a ghastly night it was! They passed us in a small kettleful of coffee that ran to about half a mug per man. We were dreadfully thirsty, but the only water was a single water-bottleful between the crowd of us—they said there was no more available. For solids we had the remains of the rusks. On this slender nourishment we had to recoup our jaded bodies and revive our flagging spirits. Needless to say, in the morning we looked and felt but sorry representatives of Queen and country. At daylight we were cleared out of that room, the taste of which will remain with me until the day I die. The effect on us of the cold clean air outside was indescribable. We blew ourselves out with it like pouter pigeons, and nearly dropped down from shock to the system. We breathed the good air till we forgot to be hungry, thirsty, or even ashamed of our lamentable plight. The surging of it through our corrupted lungs was better than—but that would be departing from the plain unvarnished style with which the soldier man is allowed to embellish his narrative in lieu of literary grace.
We were popped into a waiting train the carriages of which for narrowness and hardness were like coffins without the compensating immunity from pain and trouble so characteristic of the ordinary coffin. That we might fit in easily they gave us nothing to eat or drink, and when the train started we rattled about our compartment like dried peas in a drum. To see us off the station was crowded with all sorts and conditions of the human race. It was astonishing to realise that the throat of man was so constituted that it could be used to emit sounds which were nothing like anything we had ever heard before. I heard a hundred High Court chaprassies hold the concert in which their champion sang a solo in so raucous a voice that it caused the great crack which now ornaments the Calcutta High Court building. But it was nothing to Smaldeel station! Take a Boer who has lived on the high veldt of the Transvaal with his next-door neighbour four miles off, and bring him into a space where his conversation has to carry for feet instead of miles, and you are overwhelmed by his voice.
Three hundred of that sort endeavoured to hold converse with us, wanting to know where we had come from, why we had come, and what we thought of our chances in the hereafter—no Boer thinks anybody who has taken up arms against the Lord’s anointed people has a million-to-one chance of salvation. We told them as much as we could, some of it with regard to the truth, but mostly without. They plainly said we were liars when we informed them we came from India. They knew all about Indian coolies, so weren’t to be taken in. They were of opinion that several of us who were clean-shaven were mere children, and deplored the sinfulness of a Government that could send such lambs to the slaughter. The clean-shaven ones cordially concurred, and ventured to hope the Boer Government would do the right thing and ship the little pets straight away to their mammas. That was another story, said they—one that Oom Paul would know how to deal equitably with. Pretoria! Pretoria! It was always Pretoria, as if that ghastly little village was the hub of the universe.
I may be allowed here to point out that the Dutch pronunciation of the name of the late President of the Transvaal differs slightly from that commonly used in India. Of course, our Indian way is the soundest, but it may give this feeble narrative a touch of realism to have included the fact that in South Africa ‘Kruger’ is pronounced ‘Cree-yer,’ with the accent on the ‘Cree.’ ‘Paul’ is pronounced like ‘towel,’ with a ‘p’ instead of a ‘t.’ The Burgher General Botha, in his native land, is called ‘Beau-ta,’ both syllables of equal value and spoken rather quickly—like our Indian word ‘lotah,’ with which word, in fact, ‘Botha’ rhymes. Many other words appertaining to South Africa are pronounced not at all in the way that we have accepted as fit and proper. Swears, however, find Boer and Briton unanimous both in pronunciation and frequency of use.
When we had left the babel of Smaldeel far behind we settled down to a critical examination of the country we were spinning through. We had to occupy ourselves with a subject of absorbing interest so as to divert our minds from dwelling on the vacuity of that part of our anatomies which it is not considered polite to mention out of a church or a nursery. But in the matter of country—we found it consoling to see nothing but rolling downs with never a kopje in sight, right or left, nearly all the way through the northern part of the Free State. Surely Bobs and his army would waltz along such easy going and speedily rescue us from the clutches of the wicked Boer! So far as Kroonstad there was nothing to stop the British. There a river forming a deep spruit meandered by, and would certainly give trouble were our troops to confine themselves to a frontal attack. But by this time the uses of flanking movements had been thoroughly grasped by our army, and it could only be a question of a day or two for our fellows to slip up on either side and squeeze the enemy out.
Steaming into Kroonstad it was comforting to think what a favourable country the British army would have to operate in, but the feeling was as naught compared with that aroused in us when we heard we were to be fed at Kroonstad. Psychologists evolve wonderful things from the mind of the intellectual man. But let them starve him. Then see how his inner consciousness changes its base of operations. Thoughts emanating from the brain lack the vigour and inventiveness of those prompted by the working of the more humble organ. The war in South Africa proves this conclusively. Wherever our troops and Generals have been well fed the tendency has been to make a mull of things. But they have never been starved without doing grand work: vide the defence of Ladysmith, the relief of Kimberley, the brilliant marches of Lord Roberts’s army, where for days on end whole divisions had nothing but a biscuit or two to crunch per man.
We rushed into Kroonstad station with the familiar feeling of dashing importance that everybody knows about who travels by rail. We pulled up with the old jerk, only more so, that we so joyously used to anticipate when children. We sniffed the refreshment-room, caught a glimpse of the coloured papers in the bookstall, and everything seemed just the same as in old England—as if we were only waking up to pleasant reality after a horrid dream. But when we tried to get out the grimness of the truth was brought home to us: loaded rifles barred our way.
However, the grub came, and our sorrows were forgotten in the pleasure of exercising our fast stiffening jaws. It was great sandwiches of bully beef, no butter, no trimmings, but mighty good, and bowls of steaming coffee. There was a fair whack for each man, and none of us thought of giving half to the poor or saving up any for a rainy day. Every man ate up all he got and never emitted a sound, other than that of mastication, until the grunt of interrogation which denoted finished, and was there any more? There wasn’t, and we got no more that day, barring what we bought and paid for at extortionate rates.
At any game in the world the Briton can beat the Boer if the conditions are such that the Briton has any chance at all. This may seem a reckless statement in view of the fact that 16,000 Boers are still holding the field against ten times their number. But I make it with a knowledge of the circumstances, and am willing to demonstrate the truth of my statement to any unbeliever who has the pluck to call on me expressing his doubt. At any rate, by night time, when we crossed the Vaal River and had reached Vereeniging, the first station in the Transvaal, we had so ‘kidded’ our guards into a belief in our desire to reach Pretoria that they trusted us on to the platform, from which we gravitated into the refreshment-bar with a celerity that would have astonished Sir Isaac Newton. We found it crowded with people who didn’t seem to think we were particularly remarkable—at any rate, they did not offer us drinks: these we had to pay for at the rate of 2s. a peg—cheap enough, considering everything. Hard-boiled eggs 6d. each, sandwiches 1s., cigars none under 1s. The last-named we could not run to, so set about looking for pipes and ’bacca. Boer tobacco is sold in glazed paper bags, about the size of 14 lb. of sugar, for 1s. a time. You can use it either for smoking or as bedding for horses and cattle—they won’t eat it. Pipes like those you get at home for 4½d. were half a crown, so there is no need to dissert on the fiscal methods of the Boer: there’s no free trade about him. He represents McKinley at about two stone in the matter of Protection. I coveted a pipe for 3s. 6d. and told the barman I was very sorry I only had 2s. 6d., and wouldn’t he give it to a poor broken-hearted prisoner at a reduction? It was true about the 2s. 6d., for I was afraid to produce a sovereign lest some of them should take a fancy to it, as they had done to so many of our little valuables. The beast said he’d see me damned first, and I called him something in Hindustani which attracted more attention than I liked, when I felt a hand twitching my tunic and saw a little Jew man winking portentously. I put my hand down, and he slipped a coin into it—a shilling it was, to enable me buy the pipe. This is one of the few sporting things I have seen done in the Transvaal, and it was not a Boer who did it. I don’t think Boers understand sport. They never do anything until they have got six to four the best of their neighbour. Every Boer who plays billiards carries a bit of soap, and the few that are not afraid to play football are adepts at tripping. They have stopped playing cards entirely, for they invariably found after a few hands were dealt in a game that nothing but the rags of the pack remained to be played with, all the good cards having gone up the sleeves of the players.
However, I bought the pipe, and refunded the kindly little Jew his bob. Leaving the bar, I passed a little bunch of Boers who had rather enjoyed my rebuff at the hands of the barman.
I gravely congratulated the Boers on their brother behind the bar, and asked if they had many other Boers as good looking. Discretion may sometimes be a branch of valour, but there was very little valour about the discretion I exercised when I left that refreshment-bar.
The rest of the night in the train was tedious and uncomfortable to a degree, and cold beyond words. At 3 or 4 in the morning we landed at Pretoria, and our guards, all South African Republic Police—the hated Z.A.R.P.—belonging to Pretoria, instead of leaving us in the train until daylight, hauled us out and marched us off. After a mile or so we came to a building. We entered by a gate, and found ourselves in a courtyard with high walls. We were there delivered over to another lot of ruffians, the first lot clearing off to their homes in high jubilation at the prospect of rejoining wives and families after many months in the field. They had not been unkind to us on the whole, and we found them simple enough, but imbued with considerable contempt of the Britisher and an unchangeable belief in the ultimate success of their own cause.
Sitting on the cold stone pavement of the courtyard, chewing the cud of our misfortunes, we waited for the only friend we’d got—the sun. Meanwhile strange sounds came from the high walls surrounding us—heavy sighs, deep gruntings, weird moanings, harsh cries, and loud beatings. We wondered what manner of place we were in. Daylight revealed the truth. We were in the Pretoria Gaol, and all around us were the drunks and incapables, the vagrants and vagabonds, black and white, that had been scraped out of the gutter the night before. Mostly they were Kaffir women—huge, unwieldy, hideously ugly creatures, reminding one of those depicted by Hogarth in his scenes of low life in London nearly two centuries ago. When the sun rose the doors of the cells were opened and we saw strange sights. The gaoler prodded the sulky ones with a long stick and made them come out.
Standing about in the fresh morning light, dirty, frowzled, altogether abominable to look at, they seemed a blot on creation, and the knowledge of their mere existence hung heavily on one’s mind. It was not a pleasant awakening to the splendours of the Boer capital.
For about the tenth time we gave in our full names, and all we could think of in the way of description, down to red hair, for which the Boer has a peculiar regard. A Boer with red hair can be a Mormon a dozen times. Nearly all their clergymen have red hair. In among the drunks and incapables we found one cell containing representatives of the British Army, lately free fighting men, but now confined against their own wishes. One of these, to my astonishment—for his appearance did not suggest the soldier in the very least—addressed me by name, and I recognised in him a saddler sergeant who had built me a very excellent saddle some years before, when his regiment, the 18th Hussars, was in India. He and a pal had been taken prisoners at the very beginning of the war in Natal, and so had done six months in durance vile. They had been so bored with their experiences that they had escaped and endeavoured to get to Portuguese territory, but unluckily the ubiquitous Boer had been too many for them, and they were now being restored to their status quo ante, as political paragraphists describe it. Another was a Yeoman lad from county Notts, with a very much worn pair of boots to his feet, and it showed fine public spirit in him that he seemed to deplore this fact more than his being made prisoner.
In the corner of the courtyard was a tap, and we all did a bit of washing. The absence of silver-topped scent-bottles, ebony hair-brushes, Pears’ soap, &c., was rather a drawback, but it did not prevent us creating at least a zone of cleanliness. We were then paraded, and in as martial array as was possible, without guns or swords and incommoded with blankets and empty sacks, we marched forth with a loud cheer. To be a prisoner of war was a fate that might overcome the best soldier that ever stepped, but to be herded with police mud-scrapings injured the dignity of every one of us.
Half-an-hour’s walk past cottages, bakers’ shops, where smiling lassies stood at doorways, and all the signs of a little country town at home, we came to a great enclosed space at one corner of which was inscribed the legend ‘Polo Ground.’ We immediately began arguing about who was to play in the first chukker, and whether we’d have a ten-minute chukker, with a change of pony half-time, or chukkers of six minutes straight away. Two known cracks were agreed upon, and they, to save unseemly fighting, picked up sides. Then each side began backing itself for large sums (on the nod), while the unselected ones scoffed and offered 5 to 4 against either team. Needless to say, while diverting ourselves in this manner we were girt about by armed horsemen, who conducted themselves with much dignity and secret spurrings, especially when passing where comely lassies stood at the doors. In this respect I have observed the Boer does not differ from the Briton, nor has he any scruples about endeavouring to attract the admiration of another Boer’s girl as well as his own. Marching along one side of the enclosure, we came to a great entrance, and realised of a sudden that we had arrived at the racecourse, rendered classic by the experiences of our imprisoned troops within its gates. We entered and found all the offices so familiar to racegoers—grand stand, paddock, weighing-room, jockeys’ room, horse-boxes—but no equine wonders. It filled our hearts with sorrow to see such waste—not even a booky to trill forth the odds.
But there was a desolation over the scene very different from the stir and bustle of a racecourse. Our troops had been penned up in a barbed-wire enclosure that included the paddock, stands, and a bit of the course itself. Most of the buildings had been utilised as hospitals, and where or how the poor devils who hadn’t enteric or dysentery or pleurisy or rheumatic fever existed, Heaven alone knows. The N.C.O.s had the privilege of sleeping on the steps of the grand stand, and I suppose the others had to be content with the ground. Very quickly the accommodation at the racecourse had become inadequate, and the camp at Waterval was established, leaving only a hospital and a staff of orderlies. The result was a most woebegone place, littered with empty tins, rags, paper, and refuse of all sorts. We elected to occupy a row of horse-boxes facing the paddock. I’m sure no owner of racehorses would have allowed any of his string to enter these boxes, but we were only too glad to find a place wherein to lay our heads. After a long delay they brought us rations of sorts—the potatoes, I remember well, being little round things about the size of marbles and everyone gaily sprouting. For the rest we had ½ lb. of meat and a loaf of bread apiece, plenty of cold water, and the consolation of being told we had a great deal to be thankful for. While our troops had been confined at the racecourse some of the residents of Pretoria had been exceedingly kind in supplying them with what, to them, were great luxuries to help out the meagre fare allowed by the Boer Government. A much-appreciated but sticky delicacy was a considerable supply of golden syrup. In one little hut occupied by a mess of sergeants, twelve men used to sleep every night, packed as close as herrings. The morning following the day on which they had received their share of the golden syrup they found themselves all stuck together, and had to rise up in one piece like a row of toy soldiers.
Lieutenant Crane was taken off to the newly formed camp for prisoners on a barren hillside north of Pretoria, where nearly all officers had been confined within triple fences of barbed wire since their removal from the Model School. Non-commissioned officers and troopers of Lumsden’s Horse had to share the fate of other captive soldiers at Waterval on the high veldt outside the Magaliesberg, but luckily they were not among the number hurried away by retreating Boer commandos to distant Nooitgedacht when our troops entered Pretoria. At Waterval the daily rations were scanty enough, though luxurious by comparison with the meagre fare served out at a later date to prisoners in that place away eastwards with a name that bespeaks desolation. And by the kindness of the American Consul, Sergeant D.S. Fraser was able to obtain funds from India for himself and his fellow-sufferers. This enabled them to supplement the rough rations issued to them during their imprisonment at Waterval. To cover the advances made for this purpose Colonel Lumsden authorised a grant of 5l. each to the prisoners, being at the rate of 1l. per man per week for the period of their captivity. Thus the value of such a fund as had been raised in Calcutta before the corps left was demonstrated in an unforeseen way. By means of it Colonel Lumsden had been able to start with a treasure-chest of 1,000l. and a sufficient credit in the Standard Bank of South Africa to meet all emergencies.
Of the uneventful dulness of their life in the prisoners’ camp, where few visitors ever came, and none whose presence could be considered very cheerful, we may judge by the fact that hardly anything has been written about it. The poor fellows who had neither money nor friends to procure it for them must have fared ill indeed on nothing but Government rations issued according to the following scale, which cannot be impugned, seeing that the Editor found it written in choicest official Dutch among other documents at Pretoria bearing the seal of the Z.A.R. On this scale the officers were to receive 1 lb. of meat and an undefined ration of meal, rice, or peas, per head per day, with a weekly allowance of groceries amounting to 2 oz. of coffee, 2 oz. of tea, and one candle per head. In practice the meat ration dwindled down at times to as little as 1½ lb. a week for each officer, and the meal, rice, or peas being à discrétion, not of the consumer but of the burgher in charge, were occasionally off the bill of fare altogether. The rank-and-file were each to receive 7 lb. of flour, 3 lb. of meal, 3 lb. of rice, 3 lb. of dried French beans, 21 oz. of sugar, 2 oz. of salt, 3½ oz. of raw coffee beans, and 2 lbs. of meat per week, and had to see that they got it, as the Boers, being rather short of luxuries themselves, claimed the right to make reductions frequently on the plea that there had been an excessive issue for some previous day. Actually at one time the prisoners at Nooitgedacht, to whom the same scale applied, did not receive more than an average of 3 lb. of flour and ½ lb. of meat per head per week, and the beans, which formed their only vegetable diet, were useless. The captives among whom a few of Lumsden’s Horse found their lot cast at Waterval were not so badly off as that, but still there was so much monotony, both in food and in the featureless routine of daily life, that they must have been very glad to hear the booming of British guns outside Pretoria and to know that the hour of their deliverance from bondage was at hand. A few days after the entry of our troops into the capital, Colonel Lumsden had the gratification of writing:
Lieutenant Crane’s many friends in India will be pleased to hear that he is once more with us and in command of his section, looking stout and well, none the worse for his wound or his enforced stay in Pretoria.
Sergeant Fraser, Corporal Angus McGillivray, Privates R.N. Macdonald, Peterson and Leslie Williams are also back with us, all looking fit and strong.
Lance-Corporal Firth is at present employed in the Financial Adviser’s office in Pretoria, and has made himself so useful that I cannot persuade General Maxwell, the Military Governor, to dispense with his services.