Frere, Thursday, December 7th, 1899.

In my last three letters I gave a bare narrative of the events round Estcourt; if there was any irony in the narrative it was “the irony of literal statement”; irony was the only commentary which escaped me. But it is necessary to correct even the small licenses of irony. It may be said that the inactivity which allowed the Boers to raid Natal, south of Ladysmith, till they came within an easy distance of Maritzburg, if not exactly masterly, at all events served a quite deliberate purpose. It may be said that it was intended to keep—to entertain, if you like—those detached commandoes among the rich cattle country of Natal, because first the pressure on Ladysmith would be somewhat relieved thereby, and secondly, while nothing was risked and no lives were lost in Natal, the Boers would still for all purposes be driven back sooner or later, since no one doubted that the news of the British advance on the southern border of the Free State would draw them back to defend their homes. In this view the price of success was merely the wrecking of a few hundred homesteads and the loss of thousands of cattle in Natal. The farmers alone stand out against the possibility of this view. It is a view that demanded statement; but for myself I think there are considerations which outweigh its value.

The Generals south of Ladysmith, in Natal, may indeed have been ordered not to provoke a general engagement, but that they enjoyed tolerable freedom of action is proved by one fact—the Willow Grange engagement. Give a man freedom to undertake an operation of that extent, and he is equally free to arrest detached columns of Boers driving north their waggons and their acquired cattle, or to impede parties dispatched to wreck the line or blow up the bridges. The arrival of Sir Redvers Buller at the front, in Natal, showed that he had altered what are generally understood to have been his original plans and come to pull things straight. Let us suppose then that things have been let slide or even bungled. Is that a desperate admission? Rather one might think that something of a muddle to begin with was the necessary stimulus to every British campaign. “This is a muddle worth retrieving” is after all a considerable motive. Perhaps the historian will thus be induced to attribute to us the truest quality of the soldier—the ability to play an uphill game. We are muddlers often enough, but then we muddle on till the muddle comes right, and in the end it will be found that the victors and the muddlers are the same; and the War Office is righted after all, even though it be riddled with criticism and red all over with tape.

A popular view of war makes it all excursions and alarms. But the real campaign is a series of long waits, terminated and introduced by a battle; even in what seemed to be the crowded hours of the short Greek war there were only six days’ hard fighting in thirty days. At Frere we are now spending a period of deep and peculiar calm, a calm significant because it is itself a symptom of the storm. It is a period of preparation—the machine is being perfected—and it will end, if the Boers stay in their present position near Colenso, in one of the great battles, perhaps the greatest battle of the campaign. When the Boers trekked north from Estcourt they passed safely across the Tugela, which they had long hesitated to cross, and never greatly liked to feel lay behind them, and sat down upon the hills above Colenso.

On their way they destroyed the iron railway bridge across the river at Frere — a job that gladdens the professional eyes (even though it be to their own disadvantage) of the users of explosives from the mines. It is a beautiful job. The bridge has been lifted bodily from its masonry piers and lies in the river bed, the iron framework and girders contorted like a tangle of forest creepers. The country for a few hundred yards round was bombarded with shell-like pieces of iron. Only one omission makes the job short of perfection; the masonry piers are uninjured. They were loaded with explosive, but as an expert explained to me, it was put in horizontally instead of diagonally and so had not the necessary lifting power. “But,” said my expert with gracious professional condescension, the man that did the job wasn’t doing his first job by any manner of means.” Electric wires lay about the wreckage, from which we gather that the explosion was caused by electricity.

Frere bridge is the first of a series of scientific disasters that we shall view as we go north. Already the great railway bridge over the Tugela at Colenso has been destroyed—a bridge over 200 yards long that cost £80,000; the fine road bridge near it is charged with explosive but is not yet destroyed; and after these we shall find the wrecks of the series of bridges at difficult places all the way to the north of Natal. Frere bridge has been replaced by a trestle bridge and a diverted embankment, both built not by the engineers, but by the staff of the Natal Government Railways. Two days ago the first train passed over it.

There are three things that vie with one another in the speed with which they change the face of the country—a bank holiday, a race meeting, and a camp. Ten days ago Frere was a little dark-green plantation hiding a few iron-roofed houses, and set in the midst of a heaving sea of downs. Then a camp came, and to-day there is a patch, nearly two miles square, of brown, trodden, and dusted grass with brown tracks radiating from it into the grassy distances. To Frere the damage of the enemy’s occupation has been less than we have necessarily inflicted ourselves. The Boers looted the houses, but there were few to loot. The damage they did strikes one as so curiously petty and trifling that one looks round for their interesting motive. To burn every house, as the Turks do, is an intelligible act, because, even though the motive be mainly savagery, the result is to deprive the enemy of shelter. But the Boers made no attempt to burn; they did nothing to make a house useless. What they did was this: they took books and tore out the leaves and scattered them everywhere; they pulled drawers out of chests and broke them; they ripped open mattresses and distributed the flock with amazing industry equally over the floors and stairs; they burned photographs; they broke the glass of pictures and windows; they stuffed clocks upside down into flower-pots; and they pulled up flowers in the garden and threw them in at the windows. In short, the damage they did did not call for the hand of the carpenter or the builder so much as for the labour and patience of a charwoman.

About a mile beyond Frere station towards Colenso lies the wreck of the armoured train—a melancholy heap—one truck on its side (a military cobbler using it as his shop), another upside down with its wheels sticking up in the air, two others standing on the line. There at the curve, at the bottom of the decline down which the train tilted at full speed after the enemy had been seen, is the broken rail successfully designed to send the train to destruction; and there on either side of the line are the ridges, profitably close, from which the Boers poured their fire. The trucks are ripped through and through with shells—the holes round and clean as a whistle where the shells came in, and jagged and gaping where they passed out— and spattered over with the marks of lead. And beside the wreckage is a more melancholy sight still—the little mound that covers impartially the poor fellows of the Dublin Fusiliers and the Durban Light Infantry who were killed and buried by the enemy.

Round the grave the devotion of the Border Regiment has placed a stone border, and at the head erected a tombstone and a little cross of wire. On the tombstone are chiselled the words (displaying a naif inaccuracy that one would not have altered for worlds, seeing that it clearly assigns the whole invention to the generosity and the brains of the private soldier) : “Here lieth the remains of those who were killed in the armoured train on Nov. 15th, 1899.” On the grave itself there is studded with empty cartridge cases, many of course used by the dead men themselves, this inscription : “Erected by the Border Regiment in Memory of our Comrades.” Here, one foresees, is a monument destined to last, destined to be renewed when it becomes obscure, and always to provide a Mecca for the excursionist.

I found a private of the Borders one morning melting in the hot sun while he fiercely chiselled at the inscription on the tombstone; another was plastering the cement into the stone border round the grave; a group of soldiers lounged round watching and smoking. Then we did not know how soon we might be ordered to move on from Frere; and “You’ll ’ave to buck up, ole man, to get it finished,” said one of the onlookers. “Go on!” said the chiseller, who took out his pipe, spat, and continued chiselling fiercely. It was finished in plenty of time after all, and yesterday the grave was consecrated with a joint service held by two Church of England chaplains and one Roman Catholic.

Perhaps 2,000 troops were gathered round the spot; closer to it were Prince Christian Victor, General Hildyard and his staff, and others. After the service the buglers played the “Last Post”; but the firing party which was present did not after all fire over the grave, because the rule at the front is that there should be no unnecessary noise “in the presence of the enemy.” Those who remain of the Dublins were the last to leave the ground, and they were marched away winding round the grave in a thin column. “Company So-and-so, eyes left!” was the order as each company passed the grave. For a moment each man cast his eyes on the sad little monument underneath which his comrades lay, and then “Eyes right!” and away he went, looking rigidly in front of him, with an official term imposed upon his grief.

When the tail of the column had disappeared the grave remained alone for a little hushed interval, and then detached soldiers not on duty came hurrying across the ground to study it with added interest. The ceremony was over. Thus the private soldier is made to feel that he is cared for and treated with dignity in death, even though his identity be expressed by “No. 32456."

As I went back to my tent after this ceremony I found another grave, a result of the same disaster, beside the line, nearer Frere—a humble, pathetic little grave where more men of the Dublins had fallen in their retreat. “A Company, R.D.F.,” was picked out in flint stones on the sides of the mud; in the grasp of a clamp made of twisted tin was a scrap of paper on which some Irish soldier had written in pencil, with the tenderness of the Roman Catholic, “Pray for the souls of our dear comrades,” and at the head of the grave perhaps the same hand had stuck in the earth a picture, torn from a book, of the Madonna and Child.

Daily the camp grows bigger as the troops are concentrated, as the machine is perfected that is to be launched to the relief of Ladysmith. The spirit of Frere is different from that of Estcourt; the notion of advancing is no doubt something, but the arrival of Sir Redvers Buller is almost everything. I have never seen troops re-tempered like this by one man since I saw the extraordinary change which came over the American army on the sudden arrival of General Miles before Santiago. It is certain that we shall not advance before Sir Redvers Buller has collected all the troops that he can reasonably use. Some of the horses will need time to recover even after they have arrived, but on the other hand Ladysmith cries out to be relieved. At least we shall try this time to match, if not better, the range of the Boer guns. Already some 47 naval guns, or forty pounders, stand in the camp, and the sight of them is specially cherished by the infantry, whose path is made easy or rough only by guns, guns, guns. Meanwhile we wait in our symptomatic calm, feeling that its depth is intenser by comparison with what is to be.

Routine, however, is routine, and that goes on for ever. Every morning the camp stands to arms at 4 a.m. At that dark hour I have seen troopers kicking their tired horses in the ribs to make them stand up; and a little later, if there is early reconnaissance work to be done, the squadrons are clearly parading, the sun is showing over the great, green, swelling downs and pinking the white-walled town of tents. Another day has begun. The squadrons are off in the green and pink light, or if not they arc back to their tents to have some more sleep. Evening is often more memorable than sunrise; there is then a furnace of a sunset behind the Drakensberg, and the great, solid, serrated range is wrapped in a blue, dusky atmosphere of smoke—the sunset atmosphere which belongs to a land of grass-fires—like the bloom on a black grape. These are times when men have the opportunity to bathe, and the river is dancing all day with soldiers washing themselves and their clothes. The river is khaki-coloured— everything is khaki-coloured here—the muddy banks, the water, the baked roads, the trodden camp, the diorite boulders—so that the use of khaki uniforms is a triumph of what the man of science calls protective mimicry.

The Provost-Marshal has made a few excursions to neighbouring farms, and collected evidence against those who are suspected of disloyalty. I think if the suspicion is warranted now, men like Pretorius and Labuschagne, members of the Natal Parliament, should have been arrested long ago. As it is the evidence seems to be that they fed the burghers; one can conceive that the most loyal farmer in Natal, who happened to have stayed on his farm, would have done as much, recognising that his farm now lay in the enemy’s country, and fearing that his life was the cost of refusal. Splendid, if inevitable, paradox, that a man should be arrested for feeding the burghers, the object of the war being to make it possible for that man to become their fellow-citizen!

A long wait in camp enables one to know one’s fellow campers a good deal better. When you have given a man a nickname you may reckon that you know him well; and there is scarcely a colonial force that has not been nicknamed now. Bethune’s Mounted Infantry are “Bethune’s Buccaneers;” Thorneycroft’s Mounted Infantry are “Thorneycroft’s Insects”—I do not know why; the squadron of the Imperial Light Horse is “The Imperial Light Looters;” some of the South African Light Horse, who have just arrived with bunches of cocks’ feathers in their hats, were received with friendly rapture at once as “The Pipe-cleaners;” but none of these names need be taken to bear a too serious relation to facts, or to be detrimental to their possessors. Natal has indeed given of her best. What could be better than the Natal Carbineers—the oldest of Natal volunteer bodies? Who does not know Major McKenzie, counted the best horseman in Natal, best of friends, greatest of dare-devils, than whom no one has a quicker temper, unless it be his well-known brother. Both are among the first polo-players of Natal. Was it not the Major who made himself for ever admired by asking an opponent who crossed him at polo to step down there and then and fight?

Like the Natal Field Artillery, with their popguns, all these forces are handicapped, only less so, by their weapons; they carry the Martini-Metford, which came in evolution between the Lee-Metford and the present Lee-Enfield.   And as somebody has asked with ironical indignation, “Was not the Martini-Metford discarded   weeks ago?” But the army wants more of these mounted forces. Incessantly to raid with cavalry and mounted infantry is one of the secrets, I am convinced, of fighting the Boers. Think of what Wheeler did in the American Civil War with his Confederate cavalry, raiding towns sometimes forty miles in the enemy’s rear, stinging Sherman constantly if not always wounding him, and himself scarcely ever losing a man. Never to leave the enemy alone, to cut off three men this day and two the next, to deal a succession of small blows—this is the plan of Colonel Baden-Powell, and he is one of the men (you can count them on your fingers) who have made their reputations in South Africa.

Captain Cayzer, by a far and risky journey to the east of Frere, has got on to a hill where he opened communication by heliograph with Ladysmith. Now we know that the besieged are able to read our flash-light signals at night. Every night, and nearly all night, the shaft of vivid light shoots up into the clouds and rebounds as quickly into the box from which it came. So it goes on flickering forth and flickering back, and what it all means, goodness knows! Only this we know, that at the end of this calm we advance to relieve Ladysmith. The Boers wait for us on the hills across the Tugela.