Ladysmith, October 6, 1899
IN the train which carried me through from Cape Town, via the Orange Free State, to the Transvaal were many returning burghers, old and young. There were many lads fresh from schools and colleges in the Cape Colony, ordered home to bear arms in the war. They were noisy and boastful, as those who put their armour on in callow days often are. But to that they were urged, openly and secretly, by Colonial Dutchmen, and later on by their own people. It is not pleasant to reflect that, for years past, a stream of mawkish sentiment has been allowed to flow unchecked—nay, often has been encouraged—that a Dutch South Afrikander nation were the heirs of the whole country, from the Cape to the Zambesi, from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean, Yet I could not help but note that they were apprehensive of the prowess of the British gunners and the risks to be run from being under the fire of our lyddite. It is only the ignorant burghers of the remote districts who sniff in scorn at the idea of England attempting to oppose their arms. Your | dopper | hoodwinks himself that he is invincible because of his powers of marksmanship, and the special aid on his behalf of Providence. Said one of this fanatical type the other day to a Britisher, "I suppose the English can send an army of 20,000 soldiers against us ? " " Oh yes; 500,000 troops, if necessary," answered the patriot. " Verdompt!" rejoined the Boer, in unconscious humour, | it would take us three months to kill them all."
At Pretoria I called on President Kruger, but the hour was unpropitious, for the Head of the State was busy. However he sent me a message, and I left the quaint official bungalow, its armed constabulary, and rude, sculptured marble lions, to return on some other occasion. Like the late Prime Minister of the Malagasy, Rainiliarivony, Kruger, though an old man, tries to do too much. Nothing is too big or too small for him to pass over. Everything has to be submitted for his approval, nominal or otherwise. I have been told that he has aged rapidly, and that his memory often fails him.
With or without preliminary Boer successes, I cannot credit that any large number of Cape Colonists will raise the standard of revolt.
Undoubtedly the South Afrikander Bond has, intentionally or not, openly or covertly, been neither more nor less than a gigantic conspiracy against British rule, British speech, and equality of rights. But the plotters lack the courage to give forcible effect to their sectional prejudices; consequently, there will be no general insurrection attempted in the Colony. The more enthusiastic Afrikanders have trekked across the border or gone by train to join the Transvaal and Orange Free State burghers. Of these truculent fellows some already regret their precipitancy. A month in the field will cure many more of their political fever, and make them anxious to go home. No serious apprehension need be felt about the maintenance of order in Cape Colony. The length of the single line, and the roughness of the border country near the Orange Free State, make it quite out of the question for any General to seek to reach Pretoria by that route. At a score or more of places the railway could be cut by Boer raiders, the traffic stopped, supplies cut off, and the safety of the troops imperilled. Operations, therefore, along the eastern border are only likely to be conducted by a limited force of Regulars cooperating with bodies of Colonial or other Volunteers. As you enter the Orange Free State the railway winds about up and down steep grades and around very sharp curves. They say, by way of illustration, that the guard often gets a light for his pipe from the engine-driver as the train rounds corners! Truly, the war is not over-liked among the Orange Free Staters. Not a few proclaim that President Steyn has permitted himself to be tricked, and has imperilled the existence of the Republic by truckling to Kruger and the Bond. Numbers have stolen, and still are stealing, away on various pretexts out of the country, whilst several have been bold enough to denounce the attitude of their leaders. Once well over the border the country is relatively flat, and is quite open right up to Johannesburg. It is a lofty tableland, over 4000 feet above the sea, upon which miniature hills have apparently been dumped, as cinder-heaps or debris from mines in the fields of the Black Country. A wheeled vehicle, even a tricycle, might be trundled anywhere over the veldt From a military standpoint, except for the enormous distance from a base, it would be an ideal road for an army to march by. Very much behind in their war equipment were the Free Staters, as I found, compared to their brethren of the Transvaal. Still, there were signs of preparation. Provisions were being stored, and armed levies were assembling, but many of the railway bridges were even then left unguarded. There are few outward signs of racial dislike to the British among the Free Staters, and people who spoke English were not ordinarily looked upon with suspicion or treated with scant civility. There were no fortifications at Bloemfontein—the capital—or anywhere else en route that would have given any trouble to a British force. In short, the country, once the troops secured a foothold upon its spacious plains, would be easily and quickly overrun.
Across the Transvaal border everything was different It was a foreign country, and very much so to British. There was a rigid and searching Customs scrutiny. Dutch was spoken as a matter of duty, and nobody stopped to hold converse in the English language. At every station there were jostling throngs of excited burghers and bevies of women and girls. The men were swaddled in bandoliers and stocked cartridge belts, and all had rifles, chiefly Mausers, in their hands. From the carriage windows others could be seen riding in twos and threes about the country. There were miles of waggons and trucks blocking the sidings at the principal towns and junctions, showing that food, forage, and transport were being hurriedly hauled to some approved destination. The majority of the population seemed to have rushed in their everyday clothes to take up arms. But there was a considerable minority clad in garb which somewhat resembled military uniforms of the Colonial style, mingled with ancient swashbuckler "get-ups," boots, hats, and buff jerkins. For the uniformed khaki, blue, and grey were the prevailing colours. The wide-awakes were looped up, and around them were blue and white spotted puggarees. I fear that many of the more swagger Boers will be liable to be mistaken for some of our Colonial brother-soldiers.
It was evident to the most casual observer that commandeering was going forward right and left. An armed Boer in want of anything—saddlery, horse, clothes, provisions, medicines, strong drinks— either with or without authority speedily supplied himself from public or private stores, places of business, or dwellings. Whilst in Pretoria, as well as en route thither, I saw doors being burst open, and the contents of premises rifled again and again. The places so attacked were not always unoccupied, but they were generally the property of foreigners. Some of our countrymen protested; others, with professed willingness, gave the Boers what they sought, and obtained certificates for the things. Far too frequently goods were handed to the burghers, and the expectation of their owners is that, whether the Boers win or lose in the war, they will recover the value of their property from one or other side. Surely giving voluntary aid and comfort to an enemy ought not to entitle the parties to indemnification! Compensation claims later on should be closely sifted.
Pretoria is not iron-bound by a chain of forts like Metz. To-day the defences of the town are contemptible. They could withstand no siege, and might even be rushed at a very preliminary stage of an investment. The town lies in a wide hollow, surrounded by swelling hills by no means difficult of ascent, and with humped sides. But these hills are mostly commanded by others farther afield, and there is the north-eastern side of the town practically without defences. Of the five forts, three are small redoubts, with fronts of less than fifty yards. Two are much larger, enclosing, perhaps, two acres a-piece. Yet these guns are masked by neighbouring lumpy ground, and they have no all-round range of fire. The works, however, are well provided with big cannon and machine guns. Nobody who knows the burgher believes the Boer tactics would induce them to stay to defend their forts. Certainly the Transvaal Government were putting forth prodigious efforts for them to move troops to the Natal border. Their wide system of espionage had convinced them that there was little risk of danger from either the Rhodesian or Delagoa Bay side of the country. Commandoes, which had been hastily despatched to guard these districts, were peremptorily recalled, and hurried away by train towards Natal, to Volksrust, and Utrecht. All traffic, except for their armed burghers, was stopped on the railways. In one day thirty-six trains were sent, via Elandsfontein (junction near Johannesburg), towards Natal. The country was consumed with the turmoil of coming war. Armed bands were riding hither and thither in all directions. Burghers were eagerly rushing, and others in laggard spirit thrust on to battle. Crowds of excited fugitives, chiefly foreigners— men, women, and children—besieged the railway stations, striving to find places in carriages or open trucks to convey them anywhere out of the country. Bands of Kaffirs, secretly summoned back to their kraals, had forsaken their work and employers, and at swinging gait, singing as they went, were off to join their people.
Through the personal kindness of the Boer authorities, directed by the interposition of another than myself, I secured free passes and a place on a commando train from Pretoria. It was one of three trains containing the Middleburg contingent among others. A single engine was set, like so many more, to draw from thirty to thirty-five coaches, carrying by actual count over 300 men, their horses, with a small amount of fodder, reserve ammunition, and stores. In a rough way open trucks had been boarded up for the men's mounts, for every Boer rides to battle. Into a truck, the size of an ordinary coal-waggon, were jammed eight or ten of their sturdy little nags. The men also huddled into trucks, squatting about anyhow. I found a corner in the cabin seat of the guard's brake. The journey of twenty hours occupied nearer sixty, so blocked were the lines. There were frequent accidents, especially after dark, to the trains. Only in a single instance, so far, have they had fatal result to human life; but horses have been killed, engines and waggons smashed, in the rush to the border. In my own experience our engine ran full tilt into another, and the cabin carried away an engine supply standard, whilst men ran some trucks off the line.
The Middleburg contingent were an excellent yeomen type of burghers, the best among the Boers—simple, good-hearted fellows, with a foolish belief that England was a wretched and cowardly country they could put down any day. They were going to invade Natal, eat fish in Durban, and then, if the English did not submit to be thrashed, sail over to London and finish the job! It was sorrowful to think that so few of them realized what they were undertaking. Fine as the Middleburg men looked, they could be outclassed any day by drafts of English, Irish, or Scotch Yeomen. If the latter do not shoot as well, and better, that is because the trouble has not been taken to secure that result The Middleburg burghers had a Transvaal flag, red, white, and blue, a tricolour with a green band depending. But every field-cornet command sports such a flag, and these were always energetically waved and kept displayed from the carriages. On the way the men occasionally indulged in monotonous psalm-singing tunes, very different from the vivacious catches of Mr. Thomas Atkins when he takes the road to war.
General Joubert, who left Pretoria fifteen hours later than I did, overtook us in his special near Standerton. There, owing to an alarm that the English had been found planting dynamite to blow up the bridges, trains were not allowed to proceed farther that night. I had a chat with the General, and although helped by others, could not prevail upon him to assure us of a lift in the morning. For the night, in the threatened thunderstorm, I had to shift as best I could with my baggage. There have been of late exceedingly heavy downpours, and I feared another. Putting my belongings in the station-room, and eschewing the various neighbouring Boer encampments, guided by a Kaffir, I went into the town, and ultimately secured a bed of a kind.
At daybreak next morning I got back to the station just as General Joubert's train was steaming away to Sandsspruit. By dint of audacity the station-master was persuaded to stop it, and I boarded the General's own special saloon carriage. Evidently the sheer impudence of the thing must have staggered him, for he forgave me, and came into the compartment, and we chatted for hours on the journey to the big Boer camps at Sands River or Spruit I noted that the General was generally popular, the Boers clustering about at the stations to shake hands with him. He would descend when the train stopped long enough, and say a few words by way of encouragement There was once or more some feeble attempts at cheering, but your Transvaal burgher has no lungs for that form of popular approval. Sandsspruit had all the outward semblance of a vast camp in time of war—tents, munitions, cannon, earthworks, and bodies of armed men.I asked and received permission to snap-shot General Joubert and his more immediate friends. He stepped out of the train and took up a position for that purpose. In appearance he bears strong traces of his French origin. His quick, dark eyes beam with shrewdness and kindness. He has a belief that the future and the present are for the Boer, and declares he would cut his throat sooner than give way on one point of the Transvaal's claims, or doubt God's personal support of their cause. His further political views and plan of campaign must wait description till a later occasion. When we reached Sandsspruit he had so warmed in courtesy that he ran down in a small special train to Volksrust, the Transvaal border-town, and there secured me a truck which conveyed me a little later down the pass to Charleston, the border station in Natal. Nearly everybody had left the place save a Scotch station-master and a few clerks, mostly Scots too. I was welcomed as an escaped prisoner among friends, and treated by a Campbell with Hielan' hospitality. For two days and more I had been cribbed, cabined, and confined, dirty and blood-bespattered. That same evening, however, another special train, by the grace of the Natal railway authorities, took me away down through Laing's Nek, past Majuba, and into the relative comfort and security of Newcastle.