"There will be no surprise of Hertzog at Houwater to-day."
The Rimington captain had summed up the results consequent upon the night-attack with considerable accuracy, and as his party, in obedience to orders, worked down the banks of the Ongers River covering the right of the combined advance upon Houwater, there was abundance of evidence to show that Hertzog and Company had little intention of becoming enmeshed by the ponderous strategy set in motion against them. Nor was the weather favourable. The storm which had preceded the night-attack was one of those lowly pitched thunder-clouds which, caught in a craterlike valley enclosed by kopjes, revolved in a circle until it had spent itself. It took some hours of morning sun before it was finally dissolved. Consequently when the advance-guard of the force which was formed by the New Cavalry Brigade topped the great sloping glacis, inclining for all the world like an under-feature of the Sussex Downs, into the stagnant morass which is Houwater's most prominent feature, the last Boers were disappearing into the labyrinth of Minie Kloof beyond. But there was just sufficient excitement to take the cold and stiffness, bred of a miserable march, out of the bones of the men. The pom-pom unlimbered above the drift, and spent, at an impossible range, a belt of its tiny bombs. A spare dozen of Rimingtons, who had pushed farther forward than the rest, lightened their bandoliers by a few cartridges, and then, unmolested, the miniature British army marched into possession of its point d'appui.
You who have only seen the British soldier at his worst, that is, when he is buttoned into a tunic little removed in design from a strait-waistcoat, or when the freedom of the man has been subordinated to the lick-and-spittle polish of the dummy,—you who glory in tin-casing for your Horse Guards, and would hoot the Guardsman bold enough to affect a woollen muffler,—would have opened your eyes with amazement if you could have sat on the slopes of the Houwater drift with the staff of the New Cavalry Brigade and watched the arrival of the co-operating columns to their common camping-ground. First came two squadrons of Scarlet Lancers, forming the nucleus of somebody's mobile column. No one would have accused them of being Lancers if they had met them suddenly on the veldt. Helmets they had none. How much time and money and thought has been spent over the service headgear for our men! We have seen it adapted for this climate; altered to suit that; a peak here, a bandage there. But Thomas is the best judge of the helmet in which he prefers to campaign, and you may rest assured that he will choose the most comfortable, if not the most suitable. The Scarlet Lancers had been separated from their helmets for many months. In fact, the manner in which the gay cavalry man rids himself of his legitimate headgear and provides himself with a substitute rather smacks of the supernatural: for instance, our own 20th Dragoon Guards had not been in the country more than ten days, yet there was barely a helmet to be seen amongst them. Substitutes had been found somewhere. The more worn and disreputable the substitute the happier the owner, despite the fact that all his past glories centred round a shining helmet or jaunty lancer cap, irresistible in plume and polish. But it was a great spectacle to see the survival of the fittest squadrons of the Scarlet Lancers filing past. There are half a dozen Cavalry Regiments against whom no one could throw a stone—the 9th and 16th Lancers are of these. But it would be invidious to particularise too much.
"Who the h—ll are these fellows?—are they tame Boers?" chirped a subaltern from the 20th, who for the day was galloper to the brigadier.
A bearded ruffian, whose only costume was a flannel shirt and a pair of seedy check trousers, but whose eye was as keen as a hawk's, and whose shining "matchlock" had seventeen notches along its stock, caught the subaltern's query.
"Yuss," came the answer, "we are tame Boers, the very tamest. My pal 'ere is President Kroojer, this 'ere's Botter, and hi am De—e—Wet!"
Cheery fellows; after fifteen months of war there was little about self-preservation that you could have taught them. Lean, sinewy, and bearded kind—they represented the English fighting man at his best. And well might the inexperienced have asked if they were Boers. Lance and pennon were gone. Barely a tunic or regimental button remained to the two squadrons. Their collective headgear would have disgraced a Kaffir location, and their boots were mostly the raw-hide imitations of the country. But they were men. Rags and dirt could not conceal that fact. Theirs was not the dirt of sloth and sluggard. The essentials were bright and clean. There was not a man of the 150 attempting to represent two service squadrons who had not at some period balanced his life against his proficiency with the rifle, and who had not realised that on service his firelock was the soldier's best and staunchest friend. Nor were the officers easy to distinguish from the men. A shade cleaner, perhaps; but they, too, were rough-bearded, hard bitten by long exposure and responsibility. How different from the exquisites of popular fancy! Gone the beauties of effeminate adornment. Gone the studied insolence of puppyhood—that arrogance of bearing traditional with the British officer in times of peace. These were the men who had been eyes and ears to French's magnificent cavalry, who had ridden unflinchingly to the relief of Kimberley, who had more than held their own against fearsome odds at Diamond Hill. Did you hear that boy give an order? It was a man who spoke, and a man of resolution and understanding, yet judged by a standard in years he should still be a Sandhurst cadet.
The regulars are followed by a squadron of Yeomanry,—the old original yeomanry, and, 'pon one's honour! it is hard to distinguish them from the Lancers. They, too, have been a year in the country. It takes all that to make any mounted regiment, however educated your material. You may make the men in less, but not the officers, and, all told, the officers are the essential in every corps. This is illustrative of another of our mistakes: we have sent back our Volunteers just when they really became efficient. These very men were under orders for home. Knowing what we know of the capabilities of young and green troops in mounted war, we may say with confidence that the authorities were ill advised when they failed to enforce the clause "until the end of the war," which was part of these men's undertaking. It has been the same all through, the exigencies of the service have been sacrificed to satisfy garrulous impatience on the part of home-abiding politicians.
The New Cavalry Brigade had been freshly provided with transport. Half was very excellent mule-transport; the balance was composed of heavy trek-waggons, with lumbering ox-teams. Futile expedient. The disadvantages of the one outweighed the advantages of the other. It is only a matter of weeks since a public outcry was raised—by ignorant critics it is true—because Paris's convoy was overwhelmed in detail, that officer having done what every other successful column commander has done, allowed his ox-waggons to march on ahead of his more mobile transport, in order not to delay the progress of the column. What chance of success lies with the officer content to passively hug ox-waggons instead of pressing on against his mobile foe? None: yet half the column commanders have been content to parade the country as escort to drays packed with merchandise. When a man has been found enterprising enough to leave his ox-transport under escort, and to form a striking arm with such part of his force as is mobile, you turn and rend him if the dead-weight which has cramped and curtailed his action falls into disaster. Thus, in your ignorance, you call for the professional martyrdom of the only men who have served you honestly and well. Why don't you strike at the system, which, when it equips these columns, sends the commanders forth with the millstone of ox-transport round their necks? Do you imagine that an officer, possessed of the same dash which in the past has built up the traditions of our mounted arm, selects to move with heavy transport from choice? With him it can only be a Hobson's choice. He must take what he can get or nothing. And having secured what chance will give him, he must make the most of it or fail. If he takes risks and succeeds, his luck will have been abnormal. If, taking the risks, he fails once, he will, in all probability, be sacrificed to the yapping of the curs who voice the taxpayer, or to the vanity of some less competent senior. These sweaters give no second chances. If he steers the middle way, and is sufficiently plausible in the tale he tells, he may carry on to the end of the war, or the leave season; perhaps even, if he is sufficiently cautious, he may worm his way into an honours list. For it is the good, not the bad, that the modern system breaks.
It is one thing for the mounted men of a column to come into camp, another for the transport. Houwater presented an ideal place for the bivouac, with its running water, its solitary building—half farm, half store—at the drift, and its complement of oat-straw. But the vlei from which the place takes its name was the very deuce for wheeled transport. All is fair in "love and war." This being a creed very staunchly adhered to by the private soldier when campaigning, the mess-servants of the staff of the Cavalry Brigade saw fit in the early morning to steal a span of mules which had strayed from the protection of their rightful owners. Now the Brigade state fourgon with a span of four mules was a big enterprise, and if treated gently might have ministered to the comfort of the staff for many months. But no; the brigadier's servant and the mess-waiter, who was a high-spirited and intelligent dragoon, sought to vary the ennui of the march, and to assert their superiority over the Kaffirs in the matter of stage-driving, by taking the fourgon and its half broken team full gallop down the incline terminating in Houwater vlei. A playful and exhilarating expedient, which ruined the brigadier's spring vehicle for ever and a day, and denied the staff many home comforts for that and some consecutive nights....
The soldier, officer or man, who finds himself without a bivouac in the middle of a camp, experiences for the moment much the same sensations as a "broke" man in the streets of London. Of the two, the officer has the worse time. A private soldier will be able to approach some one or other of the company cooks with the certainty of a rough welcome. If he is wise he will arrive armed with some stray piece of driftwood to add to the stock of fuel. Thus will success be assured, for Thomas of all men is the most unselfish. In the first instance, if he be a staff officer, he has probably too much to get done in a short space of time to think about his creature comforts. Then, if the ordinary channels have failed, he has probably too much diffidence to propose himself upon the hospitality of his fellow-comrades. In this manner is the simile of the "broke" man in midst of London's wealth maintained. Brigadiers, of course, do not starve; they would not, even if they possessed no bandobust of their own. Some squadron mess claimed the chief of the Cavalry Brigade for the evening, and, probably, fed him well. But the juniors of his staff were without home, and it was long past dark before the Intelligence officer could think of food. His first duties were orders for the morrow. The officer in supreme command had been weak enough to have been accompanied by a cable-cart. Lord Wolseley may cavil at correspondents and call them the curse of modern armies; but we are constrained to think that if a tired staff-officer were consulted he would save the cream of condemnatory epithets for the cable-cart, which makes his night horrible with useless telegrams. The nightmare of that midnight message, with its probable four pages of closely written ciphers! Those fine popinjays in starched kerseys and pink frills, who live in luxury at railway centres, think that it adds to their dignity if they convert their most trivial messages into cipher. Little do they consider the poor tired being whom they rob of hard-earned rest to open out that cipher. It pleases them. They have nothing to do in the evenings. The codeing of a message to them is of the nature of an after-dinner game of backgammon. But to the aching head that has to decode it in the small hours of the morning by the fitful light of a grease-wallowing dip it is no game, no pastime. The cable-cart may have its uses; but many a score of worn-out staff-officers must have blessed the grass fire which has destroyed the ground-wire in their rear, and thus given them a few hours of unbroken rest.
After orders and the minutiæ of brigade duties came intelligence. The only building at Houwater Drift is a ramshackle half-way house—a familiar landmark of the veldt. This winkel was managed by a half-bred German; the farm inadequately protected from the elements half-a-dozen greasy Dutch fraus of various ages and a single decrepit black boy. Here indeed was a fund of information,—such being the channels through which the British Intelligence usually is worked. The Divisional Intelligence first took them in hand. Then "A" column, then "B" column, and lastly our own ranged them before the witness-table. It would have taken a veritable K.C. to have sorted the truth from the aggregate of falsehood which had been arrived at by the time it was our turn. The Intelligence officer had taken possession of the showrooms of the winkel to serve him as an office. This Shoolbred of the veldt was but a sordid shelter—walls and counter of mud; floor, sun-dried cow-dung and sand. Ranged upon the shelves was a strange medley of merchandise. All edibles had been removed by the Boers; there only remained what we believe the trade terms hard and soft goods. A pile of stinking sheep-skins, a few rolls of questionable longcloth, two packets of candles, some sheep-shears, gin-traps, and a keg of tar. As the Intelligence officer wearily set about his business of cross-examination, he was interrupted by the entrance of the Supply officer. This youth, as has previously been shown, was possessed of ready resource,—so much so that he annexed the two sole remaining packets of candles before unburdening his mind.
Supply Officer (dropping the candles into the deep recess of the pockets of his "coat-warm-British"). "Are you aware, old boy, that we don't get any grub to-night?"
Intelligence Officer (wearily). "And why?"
S. O. "The reason is quite simple. Those mess-servants have driven the mess-cart into the vlei, and in the vlei it will remain all night."
I. O. "I can't help that. I always said that the general's man was a fool. He is not only a fool but a d——d fool!"
S. O. "Now, look here. You may think that you're a useful feller and doing a lot of good. But let me tell you that you are going over the same ground that better men than you have already passed (pointing to the winkel-monger). I have seen, at least, a round dozen of Intelligence officers examining that man. Well, what the deuce is he worth to you after that, either as a framer of fact or flinger of fiction? Try and be useful. We have got to feed to-night. Now, we can't go round to the messes and cadge for food. Nor shall we see our mess-cart. (The Intelligence officer nodded assent.) Then why do you detain our only chance? Here, Mr Squarehead (taking the winkel-monger by the ear), come and provide food. I have got two fowls and some potatoes, and you and the fraus between you have got to make a mess of pottage, and be right quick about it, or you will never see another sun rise."
There were protestations of inability on the part of the forced labourers. But the Supply officer soon overcame all these, and in an hour the staff of the New Cavalry Brigade were able after a full meal to curl up for the night on the high-scented floor of the winkel.
An orderly from the general almost cannoned into the brigadier as he stood shaving by the light of a candle. There was a brusque rejoinder, and the man handed in a note. The brigadier read the slip of paper handed to him while he stropped his razor. The orderly who had brought the message stood stiffly to attention until the brigadier finished his apology for a toilet. Having washed and struggled into his tunic, the officer commanding the Cavalry Brigade was in a position to give his undivided attention to his correspondence. He strode over to the four packing-cases, which in their disguise as tables represented the brigade mess, and called for his Intelligence and acting staff officer. That officer's toilet took even less time than that of his chief, for he just rolled out from between two blankets, and appeared ready made, as it were, for the day's wear and tear.
Brigadier. "Here, you lazy scoundrel, read that" (and he passed the slip of paper over to his subordinate.)
I. O. "These are orders, sir."
B. "It was not necessary to send for you to discover that. But how does it affect the orders you issued last night?"
I. O. "It cancels them. Instead of taking us north-east, it will take us due west toward the Prieska Road as soon as we strike Beer Vlei."
B. "It looks as if Mr Brass Hat over there is going to dry-nurse me. My orders are to co-operate with him—not to follow him about like a dog at heel. I'm not sent here to be at the beck and call of every column commander a day senior to myself. I am here to catch Bojers—not to tramp about roads in the rear of other people. This is not co-operation; it is aiding and abetting 'refusal' tactics. Now look here, Mr Intelligence; just let us examine our information, and if we are right and Brass Hat is wrong, I'll just send him back a note which will keep him halted all day wiring to Pretoria for permission to cast me into irons. Now, what is his information?"
I. O. (reads) "Information arrived late last night that Pretorius and Brand have taken the road to Prieska. This is confirmed by the scouts who went out last night. The enemy retired over Minie Kloof and halted at a farm on the far side of the pass."
B. "Therefore the officer commanding the New Cavalry Brigade, having covered the whole force over Minie Kloof, will halt and allow the brave general to pass through his brigade, and then follow him along a Karoo road into Prieska. So these are this sportsman's ideas on the co-operation of columns. They are about equal with his conception of the military methods most adapted for catching the present edition of 'Brother.' What is our private information?"
I. O. "That Brand, Hertzog, and Pretorius with four hundred men left this yesterday afternoon,—the former with the intention of making for Prieska; the two latter, with the bulk of the force, to fulfil an order from De Wet to concentrate with him upon Strydenburg."
B. "I forget how you came by this information?"
I. O. "From the German storekeeper here, sir. He's a good sort of fellow, and the Supply officer has taken him on as a conductor. The man was present in the store when the messenger arrived with the communication from De Wet."
B. "'M, yes. But may not he have been told to tip us this yarn on purpose? Have you any other information confirming this theory?"
I. O. "Yes, sir, in two places. One of the old dames in the farm here dropped a remark which the Tiger pounced upon at once. Her spring-cart had been sent by Hertzog into Strydenburg to get ammunition, as the orders were then for Brand to attack Britstown, and they expected to use up the available supply in so doing. The ammunition would have arrived with De Wet. That is circumstantial evidence; but last night about 2 P.M. I got the following from the cable-cart. It is from our friend the De Wet expert, dated last night from Orange River Station (takes out paper and reads): 'Despatches captured ordering concentration of all available commandoes at Strydenburg to meet De Wet on the evening of the 26th'—that is to-night, sir."
B. "Will old Stick-in-the-mud have got that, too?"
I. O. "I presume so, sir!"
B. "Then this is a clear case of 'bilk' on his part. I will go over and see him. I will be at Strydenburg, as I intended, by midday to-morrow, if I have to mutiny in doing so. My orders of last night stand until I come back."
The brigadier was returned in ten minutes, by which time the crude mutton chops, fried in bacon fat, which formed the daily staple of the staff breakfast, were laid upon the packing-case. The Brigadier sat down on his biscuit-tin and took a deep draught of tea. He then seemed sufficiently fortified to give expression to his feelings.
B. "Well, of all the electroplated figure-heads with which I have come in contact in a long and varied military career, that man is the most unmentionable. He is eloquent in his estimation of you, Mr Intelligence. I told him that I could not agree with him upon any one point he put forward, and that it would be childish in the extreme to waste 2500 men in chivvying a mythical 200. He then grew angry, and told me he had got his orders and had given me mine. Well, if this is what is meant by co-operation, I'll never get within speaking distance of a column with which I am told to co-operate again. Issued fresh orders! Instead of being within striking distance of Strydenburg to-night, we shall be messing about in the Beer Vlei. Old Stick-in-the-mud does not mean 'going,' that I full well see. What a sin it is!"
And we can readily indorse this comment upon the evils of seniority, which, while giving a cover to impotence at the head, dwarf, handicap, and crush individual energy in the junior. How much separated these two men in age? It may have been a couple of years. Even if in the Army List it had been a single day, the result would have been the same. The so-called experience of seniority—which too often in this war has spelled incompetence or unsoldierly timidity—has been able to subjugate the wiser counsels of the junior, and crush out of his action that fire and energy of purpose which alone could have brought success. As in the present case, the senior deliberately ignored the advice of the man with whom he had been ordered to co-operate, and taking advantage of the few lines which gave him preference in the Army List, ordered him to deviate from a scheme which in his heart of hearts he must have known was the only one which could promise adequate results,—it might also be said any results at all. Perhaps a study of developments such as these will furnish some clue to an explanation of one of the gigantic puzzles of this South African campaign.
 A gruesome record of successful shooting.
 Dutch, swamp.
 Hindustani, arrangement.
 Official designation of the field-service regulation overcoat.
 Jocular rendering of "Burghers.