September 18, continued.—At two we paraded again with our kits, and about a dozen of us marched off to the Rest camp, which is the next stage. Everything was very hurried, but Henry had just time to tell me that he was ordered to Bloemfontein, when I had to start. We said good-bye, and I don’t suppose will meet again till London. The Rest camp was about four miles off, on the other side of Pretoria. Arrived very hot and dusty. Waited some time, and then was told that I must go to the Artillery Barracks, another two miles in quite a different direction. I might just as well have gone there direct. However, I was lucky enough to get a lift for my kit and myself most of the way, and landed about 5.30 at a collection of big, red-brick buildings outside the town, was handed from person to person for some time, and finally found a resting-place on the floor of a huge bare room in a sort of a tin outbuilding, where some 150 R.A. men of all batteries were sitting or lying on their kit round the walls and down the centre; like lost souls, I pictured them, sitting round one of Dante’s purgatorial retreats. I felt exactly like going to school again for the first time, though, of course, I soon found them all very friendly. I learned that there was no food to be got till to-morrow, but I foraged about till I found a sort of canteen-tent, where they sold buns, and, having some tea of my own, got water boiled over a friendly fire, and now feel happier; but I fervently hope I shall get back to the Battery soon. When I heard last from Williams, they had returned to Waterval after some hard forced marching.
September 19.—Loafed away last evening somehow. A wan electric light half lit the room after dark; the souls “twittered” like Homer’s in dejected knots. “Fatigues all day, and a pass into town once a week,” seem to be the prospect. Reveillé to-day at six. At parade, after breakfast, I was told off to act as an office orderly to Captain Davies, the Inspector of Ordnance, an all-day job, but otherwise with possibilities in it, I judged. Found the office, swept it out, and dusted and tidied things. Parlour-maid’s work is nearly new to me (I have only cleaned windows before, in barracks at St. John’s Wood), and I found myself trying to remember what I used to see Mary doing in the flat. I fancy my predecessor must have been a “slattern,” for everything was thick with dust. I wish the Captain would leave his matches behind; there is not a match to be got in Pretoria now for the ordinary mortal. I’m afraid there are no perquisites in this situation. Also I wish he would get a waste-paper basket. I have made a humane resolve never to be without one myself, at home. Captain rode up about 9.30; I tied up his pony, and then sat on a stone step outside, feeling rather like a corner-boy trying to pick up a job. Found a friendly collar-maker in a room near. He also is a “detail,” or “excess number,” but a philosopher withal. He told me that from his observation I had a “soft job.”—Nothing happened, so I have adjourned to some tarpaulins in the back yard. A shout of “Ord’ly” from the office interrupted me, and I was sent with a blue letter to the Chief Ordnance Officer in a camp about a mile away. Again to the same place in the afternoon, and one or two other little errands, but between whiles I had plenty of time to write. The Captain rode off about five, and I somehow got attached to the collar-maker, who was extremely friendly, and we spent the evening together. Looked in at a S.C.A. tent, and found a service going on. The Chaplain of the Bushmen was speaking.
September 20.—I got a pass and walked to Pretoria in the evening; saw the place by daylight, and was rather disillusioned. The good buildings and the best shops are in a very small compass, and are nothing much at the best, though the Palace of Justice and the Government buildings are tolerably dignified. All this part seems quite new. There is very little to be bought. Indeed, the wonder is that there is anything, for no trade supplies have come in since the war began. By way of testing prices, I took a cup of tea and some cake in a pleasant little shop; half a crown; worth it though, for the tea had fresh milk in it. Groceries seem unobtainable, but I made a valuable haul at a chemist’s, in the shape of tea-tablets, which I think are the most useful things one can have out here. Matches can’t be bought at all, but if you buy other things, and then are very polite, they will throw in a box for love; at least, a tobacconist did so for me. They used to be a shilling a box, but the authorities limited the price to a penny, a futile proceeding.
The charm of Pretoria lies in its outlying roads, with its cool little villas peeping out of green. The place is very quiet, and every one is in khaki.
September 12.—Can’t get sent to the Battery yet. Our tin room grows fuller. At night it is much too crowded, and is horribly stuffy; for the nights are very hot. But I am quite at home now, and enjoy the society, mixed though it is. I have literary arguments with a field-battery bombardier. We both rather pity one another, for he can’t appreciate Thackeray and I can’t understand Marie Corelli, whose works, with their deep spiritual meaning, he speaks of reverently. He hopes to educate me up to “Ardath,” and I have offered him the reversion of “Esmond,” which I bought yesterday.
Went down to town in the evening and visited the Irish Hospital, which has commandeered the Palace of Justice, and turned it to better uses than Kruger’s venial judges ever put it to. The patients dwell “in marble halls,” spacious, lofty rooms. Had a pleasant chat with Dr. Stokes. (The I.H. were shipmates of ours on the Montfort.) Also, to my great delight, found two men of our Battery there; it was a great treat to see familiar faces again. They said the Battery or part of it was at Waterval. I don’t see why I shouldn’t rejoin at once if they will only let me. I joined them in an excellent tea. They spoke most highly of the hospital. I had no pass to get back with, and didn’t know the countersign, but I bluffed through all right.
September 22.—No prospect of getting away, though I apply daily to rejoin. Sent down to Pretoria with a letter in the middle of the day, so took the opportunity of visiting the Soldiers’ Home, where you can get mild drinks, read the papers, and write. Visited the Battery chaps again in the evening. I have grown quite reckless about the lack of a pass; “Orderly to Captain Davies,” said in a very off-hand tone I found an excellent form of reply to sentries. I have an “Esmond,” and am enjoying it for about the fiftieth time. It serves to pass away the late evenings. A great amusement in the barrack-room after dark is gambling. The amounts won and lost rather astonish me. Happily it is done in silence, with grim intensity. But I have only an inch of candle, and can’t buy any more. Next me on the floor is a gunner of the 14th Battery, which lost its guns at Colenso. He has just given me a graphic account of that disastrous day, and how they fought the guns till ammunition failed and then sat (what was left of them) in a donga close behind, with no teams with which to get more ammunition or retire the guns. I have also had the story of Sanna’s Post from a U Battery man who was captured there. He described how they were marching through a drift one morning, with no thought of Boers in their heads, when they suddenly attacked at close range, and were helpless. I may mention a thing that strikes me about all such stories (and one hears a good many out here) from soldiers who have been “given away” by bad leadership. There is criticism, jesting and satirical generally, but very little bitterness. Bravery is always admired, but it is so universal as to be taken for granted. The popularity of officers depends far more on the interest they show in the daily welfare of the men, in personal good-fellowship, in consideration for them in times of privation and exhaustion, when a physical strain which tells heavily on the man may tell lightly on the officers. It is a big subject and a delicate one, but rightly or wrongly, I have got the impression that more might be done in the army to lower the rigid caste-barrier which separates the ranks. No doubt it is inevitable and harmless at home, but in the bloody, toilsome business of war it is apt to have bad results. Of course is only part of the larger question of our general military system, deep-rooted as that is in our whole national life, and now placed, with all its defects and advantages, in vivid contrast with an almost exactly opposite system.
September 23.—Sunday.—Ammunition fatigue for most of us, while I attended as office-boy as usual, and was walking about with letters most of the day. There are farriers and wheelers also at work in this yard, so that one can always light one’s pipe or make a cup of tea at the forge fire. Just outside are ranged a row of antiquated Boer guns of obsolete types; I expect they are the lot they used to show to our diplomatic representative when he asked vexatious questions about the “increasing armaments.” I believe the Boers also left quantities of good stores here when Pretoria was abandoned. These are fine new barracks scarcely finished. They enclose a big quadrangle. Three or four batteries, horse and field, are quartered in them now. Tried to get to Pretoria after hours, but was stopped by a conscientious sentry, who wanted my pass. I wished to get to the station, with a vague idea of finding when there would be a train to Waterval, and then running away.
September 24.—Worried the Sergeant-Major again, and was told that I might get away to-morrow. Meanwhile, I am getting deeper in the toils.
I was sitting on my tarpaulins writing, and feeling rather grateful for the “softness” of my job, when a shout of “Ord’ly!” sent me into the office. The Captain, who is a good-natured, pleasant chap, asked me if I could do clerk’s work. I said I was a clerk at home, and thought I could. He said he thought I must find it irk-some and lonely to be sitting outside, and I might just as well pass the time between errands in writing up ledgers inside. I was soon being initiated into Ordnance accounts, which are things of the most diabolical complexity. Ordnance comprises practically everything; from a gun-carriage to a nail; from a tent, a waggon, a binocular, a blanket, a saddle, to an ounce of grease and all the thousand constituents which go to make up everything. These are tabulated in a book which is a nightmare of subsections, and makes you dizzy to peruse. But no human brain can tabulate Ordnance exhaustively, so half the book is blank columns, in which you for ever multiply new subsections, new atoms of Ordnance which nobody has thought of before. The task has a certain morbid fascination about it, which I believe would become a disease if you pursued it long enough, and leave you an analyticomaniac, or some such horror. Myriad bits of ordnance are continually pouring in and pouring out, and the object is to track them, and balance them, and pursue every elusive atom from start to finish. It may be expendible, like paint, or non-expendible, like an anvil. You feel despairingly that a pound of paint, born at Kimberley, and now at Mafeking, is disappearing somewhere and somehow; but you have to endow it with a fictitious immortality. An anvil you feel safer about, but then you have to use it somewhere, and account for its surplus, if there is any. Any one with a turn for metaphysics would be at home in Ordnance; Aristotle would have revelled in it.
It has just struck me that 1s. 5d. a day for a charwoman, a messenger and an accountant, to say nothing of a metaphysician, all rolled into one, is low pay. In London you would have to give such a being at least a pound a week.
September 25.—Ledgers, vouchers, errands, most of the day. Melting hot, with a hot wind. Good news from the Sergeant-major that he is putting in an application for a railway pass for me to Waterval, without waiting for the other formalities.
September 26.—Wednesday.—Hopes dashed to the ground. Commandant won’t sign the application till some other officer does something or other, which there seems little chance of his doing.