The first lesson brought home to the Englishman in South Africa is, that he must not judge the country by any European standard, for as long as he continues so to do he will find himself at sea. To show surprise is to declare ignorance—and the British and Dutch South Africans, after the manner of all superlatively ignorant races, have the profoundest contempt for those in whom they themselves can discern ignorance. Thus when the kindly eminence of a hill gives you a ten-mile view of some tiny townlet—a view conveying no inkling of the importance of the centre which you are about to approach—it is well to be silent. For the Colonial is surely more imaginative than the phlegmatic Englishman—and the sorry collection of tin shanties and flimsy villas, which at so great a distance appear to you of little more significance than a farm with straggling outhouses—represent to his mind a town, and he will resent a less appreciative rating of them. This may appear unreasonable: it is, but it is none the less true; and in a great measure the variance of focus between the English and the Colonial mind has been responsible for the girth-galling which at the beginning of the war marked our efforts in harness with our colonial confrères. We have heard all the defects of the British officer, because the Colonial thinks quickly and lightly, and wastes no time in giving expression to his thoughts; we have not heard so much of the defects of the Colonial, because the British officer, while focussing his opinions less rapidly, though more seriously than the majority of Colonials, reserves his criticisms. But they are an easy people to manage if you can preserve your silence without offending their vanity. They admire in the Englishman the qualities which they themselves have not yet fully developed; but it cuts them to the quick if the evidence of superiority is thrust upon them. Thus, when the officer commanding the advance-guard, looking down the great straight road leading into Britstown,—a track which would have done credit to the Roman Road at Baynards,—commented unkindly upon the township, the Tiger was hurt, and thought unpleasant things about British cavalry subalterns in general, and the officer in command of the advance-guard in particular. But then Britstown had been a town to the Tiger ever since he could remember. Until he had arrived at man's estate and visited Kimberley and Cape Town, Britstown had been the town of his imagination and Beaufort West his metropolis. To the officer commanding the advance-guard, Britstown and Beaufort West, if rolled into one, would hardly have earned the dignified classification of a village. The mental focus of the two men was at variance, and the Tiger felt that the subaltern possessed the stronger lens. Yet man for man, on horse or foot, clothed or naked, to the outward eye he was not a better man. It is here that the feeling lies.
The brigadier halted the advance-guard upon the rise. He wanted to know something about Britstown. The ugly rumour of Brand's intention to storm and sack it was still with us. As yet there had been no news of Lieutenant Meadows and his patrol. Three hundred yards to the right front was a tiny farm. A solitary upstart on the bare veldt. An architectural nightmare in red brick. Already a patrol from the advance screen of dragoons was edging towards it, lured by that magnetism irresistible to every British soldier. A magnetism prompted from beneath the belt, and which no military precaution, or experience, or solicitude for personal safety will eradicate from the canteen-bred soldier. If our scouts had been as farm-shy as so many of them have proved gun-shy, it would have made an appreciable difference in the casualty lists of the campaign. The brigadier looked upon the farm. It cannot be said that he found it fair, within the artistic meaning of the phrase. But there was a pan, which meant water for the horses, and doubtless there was a hen-house and a buttery.
"Mr Intelligence, we will have breakfast at that farm. Let the advance-guard move on another half-mile, then Freddy will be able to water his horses in comfort. Here, who is commanding the advance-guard? Have you told your men to rally on that farm?"
"Then you had better look after them."
Away the youth went at a gallop, and it was about time, as the right flank had evidently divined success in the attitude of the first patrol, which had stopped at the farm, and the ungainly red edifice was exercising its magnetic effect upon the whole advance-guard. When the officer commanding the advance-guard arrived, dragoon No. 1 already had his head buried in a bucketful of milk, while dragoon No. 2 was indiscriminately stuffing as many eggs and pats of butter into a square of red handkerchief as the said square would contain.
The brigadier moved up to the homestead, and threw his reins to his orderly. The family paraded on the stoep, as all Dutch families do on similar occasions. And, as is the custom of the country, the brigadier shook hands with them all with great dignity. But he had no eyes for Oom Jan of the massive head and bushy beard, no eyes for the stout madam his frau, nor for his six solid and lumpy daughters, for he was busy breaking the tenth commandment. In front of the house, on the beaten clay clearing, stood a truly magnificent carriage—a four-wheeled family spring-cart, rich in upholstered cover, electroplated bits, and cut-glass finishings. The brigadier examined it carefully, and then sent his orderly to fetch the commandeering officer. In this case it was the supply officer, a quick-witted boy, who at the moment believed that he was a subaltern, but who really was the youngest brevet-major in the British army.
Brigadier. "Look here, Mr Supply; I want you to value this sham-a-dan."
Supply Officer. "Very good, sir; it looks a good cart."
B. "Do you know your Shakespeare?"
S. O. "No, sir. I was a militiaman; but I'm becoming educated in the matter of South African carts, and I have found that even with fair usage and good drifts paint will sometimes come off."
B. "Quite so; you have made my point, in spite of your modesty with regard to your upbringing. What is the full limit at which you may requisition a spring cart?"
S. O. "Forty pounds, sir."
B. "What would you think is the value of this one?"
S. O. "Thirty-nine pounds ten shillings, sir!"
B. "I think that you are right to within a few pence. Make out a receipt for it, and then come and have breakfast. Here, Mr Intelligence, tell my servant to put the ponies into this cart. Now I call that a suitable conveyance for a general officer. I have never had a decent cart since I've commanded a column. In fact, I have almost been ashamed to sign myself as O.C. of a brigade, when my sole possession has been a broken-down Cape cart with only one spring. Self-respect is half the battle in the success of life. With a cart like that I shall be able to insult with a light heart every column commander with whom I am told to co-operate. Look here, Mr Intelligence; I am going to be a real live brigadier in future. Just you get me the regalia in Britstown—a pink flag and red lantern. I don't see why—but what do you want——?"
A howl had set up in chorus from the family on the verandah of the farm, and old Oom Jan came sidling up to the brigadier hat in hand.
Oom Jan. "But the commandant won't take my cart?"
Brigadier. "Dear me! no—no commandant will take your cart."
O. J. "But see, they are putting the horses in!"
B. "You will get a receipt."
O. J. "For how much?"
B. "Forty pounds."
O. J. "No, no. Only last year I gave £120 for it."
B. "I would gladly give £120; but I am not allowed. Besides, you are getting full value, and I will leave you my old cart."
How much longer the altercation might have lasted would have depended on the duration of the general's good-humour, had not another issue of more moment prejudiced Oom Jan's case. A dragoon had cantered up from the rear-guard, with the two little square inches of paper torn from a notebook which mean so much in war.
"A party of about six mounted men are hanging on my rear. If they approach any closer I shall fire upon them. They seem very persistent, and do not mind exposing themselves."
As the brigadier handed the note to the chief of the staff, the threatened firing broke out in the rear. Breakfast was declared ready at the same moment. The brigadier listened. Two more shots were fired, and then silence.
"That," said the brigadier, "is a very one-sided battle. It can wait until we have had our food. I am not going to allow six men to play 'Old Harry' with my digestion."
As the meal progressed, in came another fleet orderly.
"Regret to say that party reported on my rear was Lieutenant Meadows, who should have been in Britstown this morning. He lost his way in the night. I am sending him in to you to explain. I regret that we have shot one of his horses."
Brigadier. "I thought it was a one-sided battle. I don't know which is the bigger fool, the officer commanding the rear-guard or the youth who has lost his way in the dark. Did you give him a guide, Mr Intelligence?"
Intelligence Officer. "Yes, sir; I gave him the tame burgher Stephanus whom we roped in at Richmond Road."
B. "Those crimped men are no good. He slipped them in the dark, I bet. Hullo! here is the boy. His peace of mind, I fancy, wouldn't be worth much at a public auction."
A smart-looking, though travel-stained, little dragoon subaltern cantered up, dismounted, and saluted. The brigadier was right; he did not look particularly happy. There was a moment of silence while the brigadier took a spoonful of marmalade, then he turned to the boy.
"Well, my pocket Ulysses, what is the extent of your adventure?"
Meadows. "Got lost, sir!"
Brigadier. "And your guide?"
M. "Had to leave him behind, sir!"
B. "Which means he left you!"
M. "He tried to, sir; but he didn't get far!"
B. "What happened?"
M. "First he took us wrong—took us back along the road we had come by. Then when I talked to him he tried to bolt, and I had to shoot him!"
B. (suddenly becoming interested) "The devil you did! Have you had anything to eat? Sit down and have some food. Did you kill him?"
M. "No, sir; I left him with that other wounded Boer in the mud hut near the last camp. But he is very sick. We did what we could for him."
B. "Evidently! Are you sure that he was leading you wrongly?"
M. "Yes, sir. He was taking us back along the road by which we had come from Richmond Road. We stumbled upon one of my own men's water-bottles which he had dropped earlier in the day. As soon as the guide saw what it was, he tried to do a bolt."
B. "Circumstantial evidence, I think; verdict and sentence in one. Well, you at least have the satisfaction of knowing that you have brought your man down. But next time don't hit a refractory guide so hard. I have an idea that if you shot less straight you might have been able to carry out your orders even with a refractory guide. Where are the telegrams? Hand them over to your colonel, and tell him to send another officer on with them at once. No; give them to me. Here, Mr Intelligence, off you go. Just get into Britstown as quickly as you can. As we haven't seen any smoke curling up over the landscape, I take it that Brand and Co. have postponed their good offices. But if anything is wrong, mind you manage to get one of your party back to me with the information."
The Intelligence officer and the Tiger had not left the column a mile behind them when they met a Cape cart coming along the dusty road from Britstown. It was driven by a youth of some eighteen summers, who stopped his pair of mules with the greatest unconcern to the signal from the Tiger.
Tiger. "Good morning. What is your name?"
Driver. "Good morning. Naude."
T. "Where have you come from?"
T. (who was now close up to the cart and busy in examination of it) "What have you been doing in Britstown, and how long have you been there?"
D. "I have been there about ten days: my wife has been confined there!"
T. "So you have taken her out for a drive to-day?"
D. "No. How could I?"
T. "Then you have been driving another lady?"
T. "What have you got those two cushions on the seat for? What's the good of lying? Where are you going now?"
D. "Back to my home!"
T. "Where is that?"
D. "Drieputs, two hours on."
T. (decidedly) "Now, look here; it is no use lying any more. I will tell you what you have been doing and who you are. You are the son of old Pretorius of Richmond Road. Yesterday you were on commando with Lotter; your brother was shot and taken by us. I don't know where you slept last night; but this I do know, that yesterday you drove a wounded man into Britstown, and probably a lady as well. The lady came from Nieuwjaarsfontein. For you see those cushions you have on your front seat came out of the Nieuwjaarsfontein sitkomer. I have got a similar one, which I took myself from the farm. So don't lie any more. Tell me who is in Britstown?"
D. (who had lost his air of stolid indifference, and was beginning to move uncomfortably) "Britstown is full of Kharkis; they are coming in now fast."
Intelligence Officer. "Is this road clear into the dorp?"
D. (with polite sarcasm) "You may ride along this road in perfect safety."
T. (cheerily) "That is more than you can, my friend. (Turning to Intelligence Officer.) This man has evidently, sir, carried information to Brand's people and a wounded man into Britstown; see the blood on the back of the seat. I should keep him a prisoner, sir—send him back to the column with a man. Besides, if I am to stay with you, sir, I should like his cart and mules. They are good mules, you see. They have been into the town and back, and have scarcely turned a hair!"...
There was no doubt as to the occupation of Britstown when the Intelligence officer and his escort crossed the vlei, which is the principal outlying feature of that typical little South African township. The De Aar road was one block of moving transport, and the usually quiet main street of the village was alive with troops. Of a truth a concentration was taking place, and the Dutch were not amiss in their simile when they likened a British concentration to a flight of locusts.
Very few of you will have ever heard of Britstown. Yet, like so many other obscure South African townships, this war has brought it a history. Nor is the historical record which has been built up for it of extraordinary merit. There will be many in the ranks of a certain favoured corps who will scarcely treasure the memory of that little wayside asylum. We remember when the papers were full of the exploits and valour of this returning corps—then Britstown found no mention. Yet its associations, pleasant though they may not be, are closely interwoven with its short-lived history. The story is told to-day over the hotel-bars of the little township by gleeful Colonials. Told how in open fight, a handful of rebel farmers—perhaps our friends the brothers Pretorius and Stephanus were amongst them—drove two companies of England's élite every mile of the twenty-two which lie between Houwater and Britstown. The Colonial, clinking his glass,—shallow in his taste and appreciation,—glories in the story, which is writ large in rebel little Britstown to this day, and will be for all time.
A militia picket is astride the road. None—at least by the main highway—may pass into the confines of the town without permission. The stolid country lout of a sentry views all new-comers with suspicion. But the deadlock is saved by the arrival of a dapper, chubby-faced youth, clean of person, well groomed in habiliments and gear.
"I am the staff officer of the town commandant. What can I do for you?"
Intelligence Officer. "What I want is the telegraph-office."
Staff Officer. "Certainly, sir; but what do you belong to? Are you with the main column?"
I. O. "Dear me, no. I have just come in from the New Cavalry Brigade!"
S. O. "Yes; we are expecting you. You are to camp on the south side of the town. Just under the parapet of those defences. Those are our southern defences. What do you think? Brand had the impertinence to send in last night and demand our immediate surrender. That we, Britstown, should surrender——!"
I. O. (brutally) "And did you? Look here; you will have to wait until the general comes in for your camping arrangements. All I want is the telegraph-office."
S. O. "Of course we did not surrender. Why, we have made this place impregnable. There are three companies of my regiment here, to say nothing of the local town-guard."
I. O. "Oh, hang the town-guard! You trot along and find the chief of our staff. I have other things to think about. By the way, has the rest of the New Cavalry Brigade come in here? The Mount Nelson Light Horse—they are marching from Hanover Road?"
S. O. "No; but there is some ox-transport for you with the Supply column. How far back is your general?"
I. O. "About three miles. Thanks." (Intelligence Officer and the Tiger canter on.)
Tiger. "Please, sir, did he say that the De Aar column was in?"
I. O. "Yes. Why?"
T. "Only the bulk of Rimington's—that is, Damant's—Guides are with it, and I should like to go and see them as soon as I have shown you the telegraph-office. I will also try and find out what young Pretorius was doing in here last night."
In five minutes a "clear-the-line" message was on its way to "Chief, Pretoria," to tell him that the concentration ordered two days ago had taken place. To us, following the fortunes of one small unit in the great move, it will appear that in our forty-eight hours' association with the New Cavalry Brigade everything has proceeded as could have been desired by the master-mind. But it was not so. Almost before the last of the horses had been detrained at Richmond Road, the whole nature of, and necessity for, the movement had changed. In short, everything had turned out as the brigadier had anticipated. Plumer, with the tenacity for which he is famous, had clung to the rear-guard of De Wet's column, snatching a waggon here and a tumbril there, until he himself could move no farther. De Wet had outlasted him, and had, moreover, seen that it would be useless to carry out his original programme. So he doubled and doubled again, with the result that the cleverly devised scheme of relays of driving columns was out of joint, and a dozen units were uselessly spread out over the veldt a hundred miles from the place in which the invader was catching his breath, within jeering distance of the column which had ran itself stone-cold in his pursuit. So within forty-eight hours of the start the whole plan had to be reconstructed. This reconstruction was explained to the New Cavalry Brigade through the medium of one hundred and four telegrams which were awaiting its arrival at Britstown. As the majority conveyed contradictory instructions, the piecing together of the real meaning partook of the nature of one of those drawing-room after-dinner games with which yawning guests at winter house-parties are beguiled. The first cover that was opened deprived the brigadier of his chief of the staff. That officer was ordered to proceed without delay to take up the command of a mobile column to be formed at Volksrust, the other end of the world—that is, the world with which we are at present concerned.
"Don't open any more till we have fed," said the brigadier. "A man with an empty stomach has no mind. We will have a fat high tea at the local Carlton, and then devise strategy."
A general in the field is a great man. But a general in a town at which half-a-dozen Colonial Corps have concentrated is of no account. In the street men pass him by without recognition, and in hotels private swashbucklers in smasher hats literally hustle him.
"This table is reserved for the commandant," said the ample hostess of the Britstown Carlton.
"Who is the commandant?" queried the brigadier.
"Major Jones," came the answer.
"Well, I'm——! this beats cock-fighting. This is the result of martial law and the control of the liquor licence!—a well-fed major reserves seats, while a hungry general stands!" and the general and staff of the New Cavalry Brigade occupied the reserved table, and became guests of the hotel in common with thirty dishevelled troopers, who had passed into the hotel, representing themselves to the dazed militia sentry at the door as officers. The food may not have been of the best, but it was in abundance; and in a quarter of an hour the brigadier was prepared to study his instructions.
B. "Now, Mr Intelligence, since they see fit to remove my chief of the staff, you have got to be maid-of-all-work. You and I have got to run this brigade until the brigade-major turns up. He must be a bit of a 'slow-bird,' I think, or he would have been here with the rest of my hoplites by this. Do you know anything about staff work?"
Intelligence Officer. "Nothing, sir!"
B. "So much the better; you will then have a mind ripe for tuition. Now I will give you a lesson. You have two pockets in your tunic. The right pocket will be the receptacle for 'business' telegrams, the left for 'bunkum.' Now for the telegrams!"
It would be beyond the scope of this sketch to give the contents of the one hundred and four telegrams which had accumulated in forty-eight hours. It will suffice to state that ninety-seven were relegated to the "bunkum" pocket, and seven retained as conveying intelligent orders worthy of consideration. It is superfluous to mention that the whole of the messages sent by the local intelligence departments and by the De Wet expert were dismissed as "bunkum," often without perusal. As the brigadier pertinently remarked: "I suppose that the poor fellows have to justify their existence as members of the great brain-system of the army. The only means by which they come into prominence is by squandering the public money, and they only hurt those who take their information seriously. They do you no harm if you consistently ignore their existence, and don't worry to read their messages."
The sum-total of the messages of instruction which the brigadier had so quaintly filed as "business-material" was information from the Chief, Pretoria, that the plan of the operations was changed. That our general was to co-operate—a word of very elastic meaning, and responsible for much velvet-covered mutiny during the present campaign—with the columns in his neighbourhood which, over and above the skeleton of the New Cavalry Brigade, had concentrated that day at Britstown. A message in cipher gave an inkling of the plan which had risen phœnix-like out of the ashes of the original dispositions. De Wet, instead of being enticed south, was to be driven north into the loop of the Orange River between Prieska and Hopetown, where Charles Knox's column and a column of Kimberley swashbucklers would be ready for him. The Britstown columns, and the brigadier of the New Cavalry Brigade co-operating, would push north—wheel into line with the panting Plumer, now north of Strydenburg, and then "Forward away!" Now, just as the original scheme had, when on paper, presented a very reasonable and common-sense stratagem, so with the new incubation. But there were three main factors over which the gilt cap at Pretoria had no control, and which dished this, as they have dished ninety-nine out of every hundred of schemes which were undertaken during the guerilla war. The first of these three lay in the fact that the strategy was a conformation to the enemy's movements. This naturally gave him time to think and to develop his counter-move, with all advantages in the balance. No. 2 is to be found in the timidity of certain of the column commanders. Men who proverbially take every opportunity of sacrificing the main issue to pursue some subsidiary policy. Men whom De Wet loves, and whom he plays with, decoys, and bluffs until he achieves his object. Men whose heart will not take them, like Plumer, "slap-bang" along the course which must lead to heavy conclusions, if the enemy will fight; but who prefer to fritter away the morale and efficiency of their columns in pursuing a phantom enemy. Choosing a country in which an enemy as sagacious as the Boer would never operate, these men are careful not to leave the security it affords, though their telegrams to headquarters build up the statistics which have misled our calculations throughout the war. The third reason is just as deplorable. It is the passive resistance evinced between column commanders, who are called upon to co-operate. These leaders, instead of sinking all differences in one common objective, work rather as if they were employed in a business competition. And why is this? Ask of the man in Pretoria with his hand on the tiller. Is not centralisation the cause of it all? Does not the centralisation of the guiding authority mean that all success is judged by personal results,—that the "brave" is selected for preferment who can claim to have the most scalps dangling from his waist-belt. This is the nature of the war for which the British nation is content to pay many millions a-month!
"Please, sir, can I speak to you a moment?" The Tiger stood in the doorway of the hotel dining-room.
"Anything serious?" asked the Intelligence officer.
"I have made a discovery."
"Can you spare me, sir?" (to the Brigadier.)
"For half an hour. I am going down to the commandant's office to see the general. Meet me there in half an hour."
"What is it, Tiger?"
"I will now show you something which will open your eyes. Something which will show you how this game is worked. It is only about two minutes' walk from here."
As the Intelligence officer and the Tiger made their way down the main street, it would have required no great strain upon the imagination to have fancied that the town had recently been carried by assault, and the victorious troops allowed the licence consequent upon street fighting. Even in the few short hours of occupation debauchery had had its way. Drunkenness is the worst attribute of irregular soldiering upon five shillings a-day. If the Colonial has money he will drink. Where the average white man greets a friend and acquaintance with a hand-shake, the South African Colonial calls him to the nearest bar, and they drink their salutation. When half-a-dozen Colonial Corps "off the trek" meet in a wayside township, they turn it into an Inferno. Here they were crowding in and out of the houses in drunken hilarity. The townsfolk, delighted at their opportune arrival when Brand was at their gates, ply them with the spurious spirit which passes for whisky in South Africa. If the spirit is there, no amount of military precaution will prevent the Colonial trooper from securing it. You cannot place whole regiments—officers and men alike—under arrest. And when a Colonial regiment is "going large," in the majority of cases it would baffle any but an expert to distinguish officer from man. And while young men in smasher hats fall over each other in the streets, the sober British troops look solidly on and wonder. Some, it is true, fall away with the rioters. But they are few. Discipline and want of means buoy them at least upon a surface of virtue. Yet, be it said to the credit of these roysterers in town, the man who drinks the hardest in the afternoon will follow you the straightest in the morning!
The Intelligence officer and the Tiger had arrived at a little cottage on the outskirts of the town. A primitive yet pretty dwelling—a toy villa of tin.
"Go in," said the Tiger.
The Intelligence officer knocked and entered. He was met with a smile by the pretty Dutch girl with the great blue eyes, who had so played upon his feelings at Richmond Road.
 Water dam or pool.
 When out with a column men were often weeks before they knew what the Gazette had given them.
 Colloquial Hindustani—bullock hackney carriage.
 Boer method of assessing distances.