There has been a good deal of speculation as to why the Boers are such experts with the rifle, but that is easily and naturally explained. In the first place, they know their own country, and that is a decided advantage where bare veldt is concerned. An Englishman on the same ground would make mistakes, and probably sight his rifle at 200 yards; but the Boer puts his up to 500 yards and kills his game, whilst the Englishman, with his imperfect knowledge of the country, misses it. When the Dutch first settled in South Africa, they were compelled either to shoot their dinner or go without. So they began straight away by shooting their dinner—and they have been able to shoot it ever since. In warfare, too, they know exactly how to proceed. They know that it is policy to shoot the Englishmen and save their own skins. So they get behind large stones and shoot the Englishmen. They know, further, that the best guarantee of success is to wait patiently. They know nothing about military discipline, and they don't want to know anything about it. According to their idea, this is how the crack British regiments proceed: They march up in a body—close order—and when they come within range of the Boers the commanding officer gives the following commands: 'Halt! Attention! Present! Fire!' And by the time the commanding officer has given the word 'Fire!' the Boers, comfortably stationed behind stones, have shot those regiments down! There is, perhaps, some truth in this.
But the Boer, after all, believes in peace. It suits him better to be on his farm, with a pipe in his mouth, and Kaffirs to do all the work, while he walks around his acres and finds fault. They stick to their country, and they fight for their country; but they don't like fighting much. I came across one particular Boer who had been at Majuba, and who was perfectly clear in his own mind that he did not care much about it; and he did not entertain favourably the idea of further warfare. He explained that he quietly got behind the customary stone, and shot round the corners. During the time he was thus amusing himself, the stone was struck by fifteen English bullets, and he did not calculate on waiting to see what effect number sixteen would have, so he left that stone. The Boers are always very reticent where the number of their killed is concerned. In English circles it is jocularly asserted that only one Boer was killed at Majuba, and all the other Boers went into mourning for him. It is not known, and never will be known, how many were killed at Krugersdorp by Jameson's men. There is one thing, however, which goes to prove that a good number must have succumbed on that occasion. It is rumoured that the Boers do not want any more fighting with men who shoot as straight as those comprising Jameson's Horse.
Defence in the Transvaal and Orange Free State is provided for principally by the burghers, who are liable to be called upon for active service between the ages of eighteen and sixty. The mounted police force in both Republics is comparatively small, and the permanent corps of artillery in each case is also small. The Boers do not, as a matter of fact, repose much confidence in artillery at any time, and they regard the mounted police force as valuable only in time of peace. The burghers themselves comprise the entire force. In the Free State alone there are 17,000 burghers liable to be called up on commando at a moment's notice.
The country is divided into districts, and each district is under the charge of a Commandant and a Field-cornet. The duty of the latter is to warn the burghers on receipt of instructions from his Chief, and he may also call a meeting of burghers in his district should any crisis of a serious nature be imminent. On the whole, the Field-cornet's life is not a happy one; and although he has numerous opportunities of making himself objectionable and disagreeable, he usually prefers to perform his onerous duties in a humble and unassuming spirit. In times of peace those duties are few. In the first place, he must satisfy himself that all the burghers in his district are in possession of rifles and ammunition; and in the second place, he must call the burghers together once a year for inspection. The good old times are now over when a score of burghers could with impunity produce one and the same rifle. In those days it was customary for burghers to appear for inspection when convenient to themselves, and in these circumstances it was not a difficult matter to borrow your neighbour's rifle and present it as your own. But this little game was found out, and an order was at once issued to the effect that all burghers must assemble at one particular hour. The weapons used are of different kinds, but they must all be breech-loaders. Every burgher must likewise be in possession of thirty rounds of ammunition, and in time of war the Government supply unlimited ammunition. Should the burghers be called out to action, they must supply themselves with provisions to last fourteen days. This might be difficult to carry out, but the explanation is simple. The provisions consist solely of biltong—that is, dried meat, generally venison. The sustenance contained in even an inch of this is such that the fourteen days' provision amounts to but little in bulk. It is said that if a Boer has a rifle, ammunition, and a piece of biltong in his pocket, he will fight till further orders.
It is surprising how quickly the burgher forces can be levied. This was made very apparent when Dr. Jameson marched into the country on December 29, 1895. It is also well known that news travels quickly, even in the outlying districts, and in this respect the Boers appear to be quite as remarkable as the Kaffirs.
All this military discipline might seem to be only good in itself, were it not for the fact that the Boers still retain their reputation for being good shots. Even the young men are not behind their fathers in the masterly manipulation of their rifles; in fact, while a large number of Englishmen are reputed to be born with silver spoons in their mouths, the birth-right of every Boer is undoubtedly the rifle.
Both in the Transvaal and Free State there exists a healthy spirit of rivalry between Englishman and Boer in the shooting line. Competitions are very frequently arranged; it is to the credit of the colonial Englishman that he can give a good account of himself, and at the same time hold his own against any Boer. This is fortunate, because the Boer always respects a man who can record as many bull's-eyes as himself, no matter what his nationality may be. The great opportunity the Boer had of giving vent to his contempt for the English was when the latter appeared on the battlefield in compact regiments, and afforded the best possible target for shooting at from behind the now proverbial stone.
In these times of universal political difficulties it may be interesting to survey the position of the Orange Free State now that war has actually broken out with Great Britain. There is a patriotism lurking in the breast of the Boer which would indicate that his great aim was the overthrow of the hated Englishman. It would not be advisable to quote the opinion the generality of Boers have of the poor Englishman; needless to say it is strong, emphatic, comprehensive, and by no means complimentary. Obviously the origin of such opinion concentrates in the fact that the Englishman is too persevering in other people's countries, and, moreover, shows an aptitude for developing the said countries which, in the opinion of the Boer, is altogether too progressive. It is, of course, a pity that the Englishman cannot accommodate himself to the antiquated ideas of the Boer, because if he could, he would probably exonerate himself in the Dutch eyes, and at the same time find himself away back in the eighteenth century. But in this advanced age he is too much for the Boer, and this is probably the explanation of the existing friction.
The Orange Free State has all along evinced a helping-hand where Transvaal broils have occurred. This is not surprising, considering that the Free State is governed by a Volksraad wholly in sympathy with the mighty Oom Paul. In the time of President Brand things were slightly different, although even his Volksraad held him in check and exercised its own influence. But President Brand had sense enough to see that participation in Transvaal difficulties could in no way benefit the Free State, and, in fact, that interference was not desirable or advisable. When the previous Boer War broke out, he intimated that no commandeering would be enforced in the Free State, but that those burghers who chose to engage in warfare might do so. He would take no active steps until the independence of the Free State was endangered.
His successor in office, President Reitz, was not credited with anything in particular, but it was understood that should the Volksraad decide to co-operate with the Transvaal in any instance, he would willingly give his consent. This was confirmed when Dr. Jameson's entrance into the Transvaal was made known. Three districts of the Free State were promptly commandeered, and burghers swarmed to the border.
About the same time President Reitz vacated his office, and President Steyn is now at the head of affairs. President Steyn has now conclusively shown his sympathy with the Transvaal, and his occasional interviews with Oom Paul were presumably for the purpose of ratifying the compact from time to time. This is confirmed by the fact that the Volksraad some considerable time ago proclaimed that, when hostilities broke out in the Transvaal, the burghers were to hold themselves in readiness to proceed to the border. This was not merely with the object of protecting the border, but to render assistance to those across the border, and now they have joined their neighbours in invading Natal.
The feeling amongst Englishmen in the Free State was, of course, strong, but Englishmen are not considered in the matter at all. If they are burghers of the State, they must perforce conform to the laws thereof, and fight to the death even against their own relations.
If they refuse to go to the front, it is not certain what would happen.
There is another aspect of the question, and a serious one, too. When the Free State burghers were called to the border, and war was actually declared, they feared that they would return to their homes only to find that their wives and children had been murdered, their cattle stolen, and their property burnt to the ground. This new and terrible danger came from Basutoland. The Basutos have a grudge against the Boers, and they were only waiting an opportunity to wipe out that grudge for ever. They are a warlike race, they are well supplied with arms, and their horsemanship is notorious. They like the Englishman, but they look upon the Boer as something to wipe off the face of the earth. Of course, their discrimination between English and Dutch when the time comes for them to take action, if it ever does come, will not save the Englishmen in the Free State.
The Basuto question may not have escaped the notice of the Volksraad in their anxiety to assist their brethren in the Transvaal, but their action would seem to indicate that it had. Had they been wise, they would have left their sister country to settle its own affairs, and have looked nearer home for something to do; but this view, although now too late, may already have engaged their attention.
Apart from the Government of the country, it may be interesting to reflect upon the opinions of the burghers themselves, i.e., the Dutch burghers. The majority of the young men originally favoured the action of the Volksraad. They had not tasted war; they had only heard about it; and their contempt for the English race generally suggested a trial. Their enthusiasm was undoubtedly great, and the idea of lending a helping-hand to another country evidently fascinated them. But their elders have now come to look upon interference as bad policy, and they dread the possibility of handing over their possessions to the wily Basuto. The feelings of the Free State Boers towards their English friends were scarcely so vindictive as in the Transvaal, but perhaps that is because there are no gold mines in the Free State.