Pietermaritzburg, Tuesday, November 7th, 1899.

The Dunottar Castle, with Sir Redvers Buller on board, had been expected in Table Bay all Monday, October 30th, and a military party of welcome stood on the quay to receive him. A fog lay on the sea and rain poured on the troops, but they stood and soaked, and changed from one leg to the other, patiently impatient. At last news came from the signalling station outside the bay that two vessels were approaching; the party of welcome brisked up and peered into the obscurity. Then came the first vessel, and when she thrust her shoulders through the fog and was seen to be the Zibenghla, with artillery on board—well, she deserved a welcome, but she scarcely was given one for very disappointment.

And when the second vessel turned out to be a tramp, and darkness fell on her arrival, the troops packed away home to angle for better luck the next day. All this I heard afterwards.

The Dunottar Castle arrived about ten o’clock on the Monday night, too late to go alongside the quay. I doubt whether she was recognised at first, for we seemed to wait an unconscionable time before the tender came out to take off the mails. Impatience grew into indignation, but do not suppose that we were altruists who wished other people to get their letters quickly. What we wanted was news.

At last a man came on board with a newspaper, and we hustled and menaced him as though he had been a dangerous criminal; soon the paper was snatched from him, and the new owner was pursued and brought to bay half-way up a ladder. There he stood under an electric lamp and read us extracts. The audience swelled, and the reader was driven to a new point; he read us extracts in the smoking-room, more under a lamp by the wheel-house, more half-way down the saloon companion, and at last he gave a grand recital in the music saloon. In the audience there were men, as I know, who heard the names of their brothers, uncles, and cousins in the list of casualties. “And so Woolls-Sampson was wounded;” and for a time there must be a pause to that dramatic hostility of his carried on against the Boers in battle, politics, and prison. Other names in the list of casualties to the Imperial Light Horse I recognised, and began to see that this body contained many athletes—cricketers, football players, well-known sportsmen—and was, in fact, rather like the American Rough Riders. Farren, for example—I felt sure he was the Farren who used to row for the London Rowing Club. The correspondent told of nothing but gallantry and success at Ladysmith, but soldiers and those who had had any experience of soldiering read between the lines, and asked themselves why this daily fighting in that northern wedge of Natal and this daily return to camp in the same place. Why did not Sir George White sit still where he was rather than provoke fighting in those hills which gave all the advantage to the enemy—unless, indeed, it was that the enemy forced him to fight by threatening to come round his flank and cut him off? It seemed to us that that was the explanation, but then to think that the Boers should be so strong and so skilful! We went to bed knowing already that the Boers had been undervalued, that the fighting was far more serious than any one had foreseen, and that we were face to to [sic] face with a bloody and perhaps a long war.

The next morning the General landed, and I should pay the greatest compliment to the character of his reception by not describing it. Why should it be a carnival? It was the necessary greeting, with little pomp, of a necessary person come on a stern mission, and so the bunting did not look like the bunting of a carnival, and the cheers were the cheers of hospitality rather than of merriment.

I followed the procession in a hansom, which was typical of Cape Town hansoms, and which made an indelible mark on my memory. Every Cape Town hansom has a name; mine was called the Diggers’ Camp. It looked like a London hansom which had received a violent blow on the top, so that in the process of being flattened out it had become squatter and longer. The Diggers’ Camp seemed to be specially adapted to collect the rain by pouring it off the window into the inside of the cab; and the general condition of Cape Town hansoms is such that Mr. E. T. Reed should not miss them in prosecuting his studies in the prehistoric. From the small to the great one might go at a leap, and say how disappointing the whole of Cape Town is compared with Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide, and other colonial capitals. The Mount Nelson Hotel, however, is a particular star. I have seen hotels on which far more money has been spent; I have never seen one on which money had been spent to such good purpose. The collection of old prints, the Chippendale chairs, the Persian rugs, were all surprising and admirable. The General and his staff stayed there; and then one was glad to see so many prominent Outlanders comfortable there too. Some one, remembering Sir Alfred Milner’s famous despatch, has called the place “The Helots’ Rest.” Cape Town has accepted the name.

At the offices of the Castle Line some of us found that it was possible to reach Natal sooner —and Natal meant the fighting—by leaving the Dunottar Castle, travelling by train to East London, and thence by a small mail packet to Durban. Plans are liable to frustration of every sort in these disjointed times, but if the plan succeeded we should reach Durban at least four days ahead of the Dunottar Castle. It was worth trying, and three of us decided to make the attempt.

How much there was to be done before nine o’clock that night! For one thing, my luggage was nearly all stored in the hold of the ship, labelled for Natal. The manner in which I cajoled the baggage officer into turning over some hundreds of tons of luggage and extracting mine from the bottom, and all this when he had been turning this same luggage over and over all day long and had only just packed it away, as he thought for the last time, would appear less persuasive in the description than it was in fact. I hope I thanked that baggage officer of the Dunottar Castle duly at the time, but I make him my compliments again.

The passengers got wind of our plan when it was too late for any one else to join in it. The first tendency of the adventurers and the correspondents, who were all counting the minutes till they would be in Natal, was towards destructive criticism; but when an old colonist, after much sorrowful meditation, admitted the soundness of the plan, their faces grew longer, and I thought one of them looked suddenly ten years older.

We started at nine that night, and our train turned out to be the last to get through from Cape Town to East London. The great thing in our favour was that the train carried the mails, and when British people wait for their news from home nothing is more certain than that every effort will be made to see that they get it. The first law of the correspondent’s life is to get there, and the second is to get there, and the third is also to get there; and in fulfilling the law the best rule of all is to stick to the mails. Usually the mails from Great Britain to Durban, after being landed at Cape Town, are taken all the rest of the way by train via Johannesburg. That was now impossible, but we had had the good fortune to stumble on the new and unadvertised plan for taking them on by sea from East London to Durban.

My companions were Mr. Winston Spencer Churchill, the correspondent of the Morning Post, who lately stood as Parliamentary candidate for Oldham, and Captain the Hon. A. Campbell, the correspondent of Laffan’s Agency. On the train we found a young engineer who was on his way to become overseer of a certain section of the Cape railways. He was one of the staff of the desert railway in Lord Kitchener’s campaign; and now he had come, like all the rest of the staff, to develop the New Idea of warfare by railway. From Girouard downwards—Girouard who has left his prosperous life in Cairo—they have all come, and when Girouard moves he is followed by many intelligent disciples.

Even in the southerly districts of Cape Colony we were reminded of the war; at every bridge, at every little culvert, all the way from Cape Town to East London, a man stood with two flags, a white and a red, in his hands, and if the piece of railway which he guarded had not been tampered with he waved us on with the white flag.

It is a striking journey through the great tablelands of Cape Colony; the aspect of the country is a singular mixture of gloom and beauty. You can lift up your eyes to the dim hills, and they are massive and grand even when they are not purple in the sun; but near at hand the kopjes and the great flat sandy karroo have a strain of deformity in their nature. The dreary faded green of wattle and gum-tree on Australian downs has a mournful beauty that grows on you and masters the sense of monotony; the unbroken flatness of the English fens with the oppressive sky thrust close down on the horizon like a vaulted roof all round you also becomes beautiful to you; but these things require time to take possession of your mind. The karroo and the kopjes seize your imagination by the throat at once and compel your mind, but compel it with the power of something mysterious, gargoylish.

The karroo of these great lands lies half-way between a knotted and frozen lunar landscape and healthy English country; it is something that has been formed in the twilight of creation. The kopjes are nearly all flat-topped, as though each hill, half or three-quarters of the way up, had been slashed through with a scimitar. Cape Town does not boast its Table Mountain merely because it is flat-topped, but rather because it is an imposing specimen of a common type. Scarcely anywhere in Cape Colony can you throw your eyes round without seeing a massive table, as flat and regular as though it had been ruled with a spirit-level, standing buttressed up under heaven. Thousands of these have a natural claim to be thought an Olympus; and perhaps — who knows? — in the mythology of the primitive natives a party of deities threw their dice on every mountain table in Epicurean callousness. Meanwhile the neglected land below produced its flowers without scent and its birds without song. And yet these lands are near the skies and are full of keen and blowing airs that string up your nerves. A sheep here requires six hundred acres ot country all to itself; but that modest estate granted it thrives, whether it be lean or fat tailed.

Our most faithful companions across the karroo were the “devils” of dust. A handful of sand suddenly leaps up in the air on the back of a breeze and, beginning to whirl round, seems to call on the sands to join it. And so they do catching at its trailing skirts and making the revolving funnel (already a pillar in height) rise further and further into the air. So the little sandy hurricane, both revolving and marching, goes swaying forward across the karroo; in the distance, before or behind, one could generally see a “devil” competing rather hopelessly with the train.

The second night in the train we arrived at De Aar, at midnight. Mr. E. F. Knight came on board to see us, and told us that an attack on De Aar might be made at any moment. Then we began to doubt whether our train would not be cut off by the Boers a little further along the line. For many miles the line runs parallel with the southern frontier of the Orange Free State, and not only was this part of the country unprotected, but the Cape Dutch who live along the line were thought likely to help the Boers at once. Stories of brewing disaffection assailed us everywhere; it needed only a little more encouragement—a few more misfortunes to the British troops—to precipitate it. But the night passed, and so did the train. The worst that happened, as we heard later, was that a northward branch of the line was cut some miles away from us.

At noon the next day we reached Stormberg Junction, and the little station was full of business. A train stood in a siding laden with men from the Powerful. Our train was now delayed, and we spent two hours at the station. Meanwhile the Naval Brigade went off like men sitting in boats, with trucks for the boats, nursing their guns and smiling. They did not know where they were going—not they! They were simply told to get into the train, and they got in, and smiled, glad to be off after a month spent in one place; and then they lit their pipes and dropped their arms over the guns which were sitting down amongst them in the middle of the trucks, and smiled again under the hats which were tied like bonnets under their chins. Such is the temper of the fighting machine.

Even we travellers soon knew that the garrison was to fall back on Queenstown—a long retreat, and retreat was not a thing to make one smile. Some artillery and mounted infantry marched off by route, and then only the 2nd Berkshires were left to go later. A young officer with a ragged beard and a glowing furnace of a face (here, indeed, in this exposed forward post, one saw the guise of war) showed us the cottage which he had fortified. It was loopholed and barricaded with sandbags, and was christened “Fort Chabrol.” The only thing not provided against was shell fire, and the young officer had not time to dig beneath the foundations, “or we could have put up with that too,” as he said. But now Fort Chabrol had to be abandoned, and the designer and his labourers lingered about the place. Perhaps soon the Boers will be defending themselves in it, for it was left as it stood.

“If only I could burn it!” meditated the young officer; “but there’s nothing to burn.”

“Blowed if we couldn’t blow it up,” said one of the men.

But it was left, and a new engine which had been fixed to a well outside into the bargain.

Just one thing softened the shock of separation from the fort. I photographed it. The sentry outside presented arms, beaming; after all, its lineaments would be perpetuated; they would remain in some one’s possession; some one would remember and understand; it was well.

Shortly afterwards we were in the train again and striking back into the heart of Cape Colony. At every cottage along the line for many miles we stopped to take away women and children. Once we stopped to put down a company of Durban volunteers who were to form an outpost to the new base—hearty, merry, strongly knitted, flexibly built men, clay-coloured in their khaki, with just one dash of colour where their hats were slashed round with the red of the Leander Club, which every one knows at Henley Regatta. They disappeared to pitch their camp in a fold of the hills, and a cheer went after them. Thus we arrived in undue time, for we had been much delayed, at East London the next day.

To stick to the mails, let me say again, is a prescription that cures all the ills of travel. Once get yourself recognised as part of the mail, and officials will pack you and unpack you as readily as though you were labelled “News, Delagoa Bay,” or “Letters, Durban.” When we reached East London we were quite part of the mail; there we shook off all our fellow passengers, and the mail was taken down to the jetty in official-looking vans. Nothing but the mail—and you are to remember that we were part of it—travelled on the little packet to Durban, and now that I look back on the voyage I can understand why no one else grudged us the distinction. The packet was called the Umzimvnbu, which is the original name of the St. John’s river, and she was ninety tons register.

When it blows from the south or cast on this part of the coast, there is a sea that seems to well right up, unimpeded, from the south. pole in the one case, or to gather its strength across the whole wide waste from Australia in the other. It was blowing a gale from the east on this day. Looking out through the narrow jaws of the river we could see large vessels pitching steadily at their anchorage in the bay, and a low-lying barque only occasionally showing us her bulwarks above the rollers. We started on a little strip of deliciously smooth water, and one dwelt appreciatively on every turn of the screw in this brief calm, for already at the mouth of the river we could see the rollers piled up in confusion. Four waves seemed to mark the transition from stillness to the tumult. At the first wave the little Umzimvubu tilted up her nose, and skipped across it with scarcely a quaver, but the next she took with a gasp and a heave, burying her nose in the third, which in its turn picked her high up and threw her forward on to the fourth; and the fourth accepted her with a shout, and cast her out into the bay on her side. After that, for a whole day and night, all the waves were like the fourth. You were not concerned in the simple calculation, whether or not you were a good sailor; it was rather a question whether you had a good enough head to sit on the shoulder of a spinning peg-top without reeling from giddiness.

To pitch is to pitch and to roll is to roll, but the Umzimvubu achieved the most curious mixture of sea-motions—some, I have no doubt, of her own inventing—that I could have imagined. She would climb slowly up one wave on her side, flop somehow over the top, and slide down the decline on her other side; that was the simplest motion, and it was recurrent. She would also shoot down hill with a circular stabbing motion of her bows as though not quite certain where to strike in the trough of the seas, and her masts would pencil the most fantastic figures on the sky. When she did dive her nose into the sea, the water burst over the bows, and her bows, coming up with a jerk, seemed to throw it back on to the bridge as an elephant spirts water behind it; and then the water sluiced along her deck, past the crew who stood knee-deep holding on to the rails, and burst in a fountain against the break of the poop, unless, indeed, before this motion was half over, the Umzimvubu received a slap under the counter, which drove her nose further into the sea, and set her screw racing long and diabolically before she could recoil.

For twenty hours the deck was awash from end to end, and all the scuppers round the ship squirted like hose. The bridge stood up, an abrupt little island, but dripping like a half-tide rock. We passed the night—it would be untruthful to say slept—in a cabin common to the passengers and the crew almost directly over the screw, and in the morning I felt that I could travel by railway packed into a portmanteau without actually dying from being flung about. I have some impatience of the restraint with which sailors describe the weather; a might of anguish to the passenger means to them “a strong breeze,” and what the passenger imagines to be a West Indian hurricane they describe as “half a gale.” But the captain of the Umzimvubu —a charming Norwegian—was quite satisfying, and I can accept his evidence, as he did not leave the bridge for more than three minutes that whole night. He said it was the roughest night he had had for two years, “and,” he added, “if it hadn’t been for the mails I never should have come.” The mails! What will not people endure for that solemn trust, the British mails?

About the middle of the next day the captain said that the wind would change, and blow a gale from the west, and in two hours surely enough it did. Then we spread a square sale with stays running right aft to brace it in the simple manner with which the Viking and the Crusader must have been familiar, and, raising our speed of five knots to ten, thus sped before the pleasant gale. We arrived at Durban nearly four days before the Dunottar Castle, and one day before officers of the Natal Field Force who had been ordered off the Dunottar Castle at Cape Town and sent forward on the Jehmga. So our plan succeeded, and yet it failed—we were too late to get into Ladysmith. Again with the mails, but now somewhat chastened, we hurried to Maritzburg on the railway, which serpentines in astonishing curves over the rich hills, hills abounding with sleek cattle and noble views.

Here is an appropriate place, perhaps, to review the situation and confess the worst, for Maritzburg, lying in a cup made by the hills, is indeed open to the enemy. One writes with an oppressive sense of the disproofs that may be lying in wait for the prophet, but under a system of vigorous but necessary censorship on telegrams a summary of what we feel here to-day may have its value when it comes to be read weeks hence, or at least it may be allowed then a sort of historical value. So far we have had to abandon every place which was menaced or attacked except one—Ladysmith— and in that place we are invested. At Pretoria, so far as I can understand, there are some 1,600 British prisoners, including about forty-five officers; we on our side have about 200 Boer prisoners. That briefly is the situation. At this moment there is nothing to prevent the Boers from coming straight through Natal. The best men from Maritz-burg are already at the front; a scheme of town defence is being eked out with the mere remnants. Desperate letters appear in the papers urging, for example, that every man who can pull a trigger and crawl into a trench should be forced to defend the town. Now, what prevents the Boers from coming further south before our reinforcements arrive? Apparently they do not wish to leave so large a force as there is in Ladysmith in their rear. They wish to dispose of that force before they come on—confident that they can come on whenever they wish. This confidence in the ultimate issue is no doubt misplaced, but in reviewing the situation one has to remember that it exists throughout the Boer army. The Boers appear, in short, to be trying to accomplish too much. What fact have they to face in the next week? The arrival, of course, of British reinforcements. Their true and immediate plan would, therefore, seem to be to impose as much difficulty as possible upon the advance of these reinforcements. This they could do by sending small parties to tear up the railway at different points. Estcourt and its patrols, even Maritzburg itself, could be avoided safely enough by slight detours. No one in these places can help knowing this quite well. That the Boers are hanging back is fortunate for Natal; let us understand clearly that the temporary loss of the whole colony of Natal is not a ridiculous supposition. In the circumstances, however, it seems more likely that our reinforcements will meet the Boers at or north of Estcourt, and then very hard fighting will follow.

The fighting is always bound to be hard, because we stand at a certain natural disadvantage. One has only to look round at the frequent kopjes covered with boulders and crevices which afford shelter to the trained or the cunning to say, “This is Boers’ fighting country, not ours.” This natural disadvantage, since we were not born or trained to the country, we cannot hope to overcome. The British officer, with the manuals of tactics at his finger ends, is constantly finding himself in predicaments of which the manuals offer no solution; and however clever he be, his men are hard to extricate from their position, for their sturdy discipline is matched with an equally sturdy want of natural resource, intelligence, or eye for the country. The Boer knows the common features of the country like the palm of his hand; while British troops are mobilising he is, as it were, deer-stalking; the British officer leads a difficult movement prescribed for rare occasions, the Boer meets it by saying, “Come on, Piet,” or “Come on, Oom.” It is astonishing to us that the irregular should be in any respect superior to the regular, but is not this a new thing which the armies of Europe must allow in their calculations? This natural advantage of the Boers belongs to him only in the country of the kopjes or in very broken ground. In fair open country where British cavalry could perform their proper functions the results would certainly be different.

The second great disadvantage from which we suffer we could overcome in time—it is the want of mounted infantry. Every Boer is mounted on his nimble-footed pony, which moves from one position to another with extraordinary quickness. What we want is not so much horses to charge on as horses on which to move about quickly. When we fully recognise these two great facts we shall be safe from the vulgar mistake of despising our enemy. It is a mistake which no officer here makes.

The campaign, young as it is, has readjusted our opinions in many ways. After Ladysmith and the battles round it, no man, unless he refused to rectify his sense of proportion, could speak with quite the old severity of Colley’s unhappy failures in this same country. Colley had a few handfuls of men, and never once (whether at Laing’s Nek, the Ingogo, or at Majubal did he fight with even a composite force. It is a small, and perhaps a disproportionate reflection in the present serious circumstances, that this campaign should have helped to vindicate Colley a very little; but the reflection is something concrete, precipitated out of a general feeling. Again one might say that already this campaign has reduced to its true military dimensions the Jameson Raid—on military grounds an insolent and presumptuous freak of which no officer can speak now without annoyance.