"Well, if that place is held, it would take Lord Bobs and the 'Grand Army' three days to turn it," and the brigadier dropped his glasses to the full length of their lanyard.
The brigade, doing advance-guard to the whole concentration, had crossed the great prairie which lies north of Houwater, and the covering cloud of mounted éclaireurs was already disappearing into the shade of the mountain fastness in front of us. The giant outcrop of volcanic rock which is known as Minie Kloof rises, with that directness peculiar to the vast South African table-land, sheer from a prairie as level as a billiard-table. A succession of rocky flat-topped parallelograms, featureless save for the one sealed pattern of nature's architecture of the veldt. To the nomadic traveller and man of peace, landmarks as barren and bare as the great ironstone belts of Northern Africa, which constrain the power of the unwilling Nile until she surges in angry cataract through such niggard opening as they will allow her. To the man of war, a veritable Gibraltar; a maze of possibilities in defence; a stupendous undertaking in attack, an undertaking which will brook neither error nor miscalculation, and from which nature has eliminated much of the element of chance on the one side to place it to the credit of the other. Of such a kind were our Colenso, Magersfontein, Stormberg, and Spion Kop heights. You at home at your ease, taking in from the map in a second a perfunctory impression of the topography, which it would take a cavalry brigade half a day to verify, talk glibly of turning this position and out-flanking that. Know ye that the lateral problem, which in the pink and green of the atlas would appear so simple, may be for miles a gridiron of parallel and supporting positions. That the well-considered turning movement put in motion at the first streak of dawn may be, and probably will have become, a plain and simple frontal attack by sunrise, through circumstances that no man, not even Napoleon himself, could foresee or control. Then this being given, why not deal leniently with such men as have served you well, and who may be trusted to profit by experience dearly purchased? but the other class, the man who has prostituted the fighting excellence of the British soldier in the shock of war by appealing to the chances of war, without due care and forethought—why, it is your duty to destroy him: your bitterest strictures even will not meet the punishment such a one deserves.
"If a life insurance agent were to turn up now, I should take him on!" And the brigadier had every cause for anxiety, for the under-features of Minie Kloof could swallow a thousand men, and still leave a mocking enemy in possession of the salients. Troop after troop of Dragoons broke into extended order, and spread away to either flank. The front became wider and wider, and yet no rifle-shot. The main body and the guns halted and waited, momentarily expecting to hear that intonation of the double echo, which in a second would change the whole history of the day. But it never came. The little brown specks, which had vanished into the shadow of the mountain, commenced to reappear amongst the stunted vegetation on the crests. At first it needed strong glasses to distinguish the moving bodies from the clumps of blurred bush-shadow. Then out twinkled that little star of light which means so much to the general in the field. Gaily it caught the rising efforts of the sun, and threw to brigadier and staff the welcome news that the summit of Minie Kloof was clear.
"Thank Providence for that! we will be in Strydenburg to-night," and the brigadier cantered on into the pass while the main body of his command moved leisurely after him towards the natural fastness. It must have been from places on the great South African tableland such as this that Rider Haggard drew his inspirations to invent the hidden kingdoms of Central Africa—charming rock-bound empires familiar to us all. How many will there be who have trekked through and through the new British colonies, and not been struck with the many mountain-locked valleys which abound! Valleys as fertile and pleasant as any in the legends of fairy tale; or, to be less fanciful in simile, as bright in being and as difficult of approach as Afridi Tirah in early autumn. Such a valley we found within the outer barrier of Minie Kloof. A valley small in its proportions, it is true, but none the less fertile. A dainty brook of crystal clearness gave life to the barren hillsides. The silt of a thousand years of summer torrents had furnished each niche and recess with a mould Goshen-like in its richness. Here, amongst luxuriant groves of almost tropical splendour, nestled the inevitable farmstead,—a white residence which had once possessed some architectural beauty, and an outcrop of barns and subsidiary mansions unpretentious in design, squalid in arrangement. The staff of the New Cavalry Brigade dismounted before the farmer's door and called for refreshment. For the moment one possessed the mental vision of a pink-cheeked milk-maiden—the panel-picture of civilised imagination—short of skirt, dainty in neck and arm, symmetrical and sweet in person and carriage. It is of such that the thirsty soldier dreams. The vision came. A slovenly hack from the kitchen obeyed the summons. With dirty hands she thrust a still dirtier beaker of milk upon us, and spat ostentatiously to emphasise the spirit of her hospitality. It takes much to stifle the honest thirst of war, but this was more than human nature could support, and the uninviting bowl passed round the staff untouched until it reached the less fastidious signallers. Five minutes at the crystal brook was worth all the ministrations of Dutch milkmaids.
It then became necessary to seek for information. It was a barren field of search. The surly men-folk of the sordid dwelling lounged out and met all inquiry with studied insolence. Even the Tiger could make no headway. He was met with recriminations. The Dutchmen recognised him as a neighbour, and ill disguised their disapprobation of his present circumstances. Information was at a deadlock, though in reality there was little to be learned. The brigadier halted just long enough to water the horses, and then it was forward again for the last climb over Minie Kloof.
It was slow work. The scouting of an outcrop of mountain by cavalry is always slow work, especially if that cavalry is under an officer who will have the work done well. But like all things, good or bad, it came to an end, and as the autumn sun grew vertical, the head of the column passed down into another great plain which sinks northwards into the Beer Vlei.
"Thank Providence the 'push' was not stuck up in that place," said the brigadier as he halted to watch the waggons down the last incline. "If old man De Wet is to be at Strydenburg to-night, with Britstown as his objective, we should have had him here to-morrow morning. I have only seen a worse country in the colony down Calvinia way. That was the most deceptive playground that I was ever inveigled into. But it was as deceptive to 'brother' as it was to us. Both sides lost themselves about twice every half-hour. Hostile pickets and outposts constantly rode into one another. I remember one night we had just settled down in camp when in rode three Boers. They came up to the lines of one of my scallywag corps with utmost unconcern—halted in all good faith right up against the horse-lines. 'What commando is this?—is it Judge Hertzog's?' A Natal corporal was the man nearest to them, and he was a quick-witted fellow. He slipped back the 'cut off' of his rifle as he answered, 'I guess not—but there is our commandant over there. You had best go and ask him whose commando it is; but you must just hold your hands above your head before you speak to him. He is a peculiar man, our commandant!' The men surrendered to him without a murmur, and seemed to think it was a good joke. But I daresay three months of a Bellary sun in the Shiny has caused them to change their opinions."
The column swung out into the great dry Karoo prairie. It was a comfortless trek. Earth and sky seemed to have forgotten the rain of preceding days; or it may have been that the storms which had distressed us had been purely local, for we had struck a great waterless plain which showed not the slightest sign of moisture. The shuffling mules and lumbering waggons churned up a pungent dust; a great spiral pillar of brown cloud mushroomed out above the column; no breath of air gave relief from the vertical rigour of the sun; the great snake-like column sweated and panted across the open, reporting its presence to every keen-sighted Dutchman within a radius of fifteen miles.
We have seen the beauties of the Karoo; but we cannot blind ourselves to its defects, for they are the more numerous. At its best it is a great stagnant desert, studded here and there with some redeeming oases. Its verdure smacks of the wilderness. Stunted brown and grey, the heather from which these rolling steppes take their name is stranger to the more clement tinge of green, which is the sign of a soil less sapless. Yet a peculiar fascination militates against a general condemnation of the pitiless Karoo. One cannot altogether banish from one's mind the memories of a summer night upon those wastes. Those of you who have laboured in the desert of the Egyptian Soudan will realise what is meant—can feel as we feel towards the veldt of the Karoo. There is in that mysterious, almost uncanny, fascination of those cool nights which succeed a grilling day a something which you always look back upon with delight. What this influence is, you can never precisely say; but it is impossible to forget it....
At midday the New Cavalry Brigade came to a halt at some mud holes, which furnished sufficient clayey water to allow the sobbing gun-teams and transport animals to moisten their mouths. Water for the men there was little, except the pittance which they were allowed to draw from the regimental water-carts. Neither was there shade from the merciless sun. The six inches of spare Karoo bush, though it served as a nibble for the less fastidious of animals, was useless either as bed or shade; other vegetable growth there was none within sight. Men crawled under waggons and water-carts if they were fortunate enough to find themselves near them, or, unrolling their blankets, extended them as an awning, and burrowed underneath. The oppression of that still heat! Fifty yards away the atmosphere became a simmering mirage; the outposts lost all semblance of nature's form, and stood out exaggerated in the middle distance as great blurs of brown and black. But it is only a passing inconvenience. In an hour or two the strength of that great, fiery, pitiless sun will be on the wane: if it were otherwise, then, indeed, would the Karoo be a desert. So you doze—it is too hot to sleep—and thank Fortune that you have not to march during the furnace hours of the day. And as you doze, parched and sweating, a little blue-grey lizard pops out from beneath the cart beside you, and, climbing gingerly up the stem of a solitary karoo-bush, surveys you with great, thoughtful, unblinking eyes. He is a complacent little beast, of wonderful skin and marking; and if it were not for the palpitation of his white waistcoat, it had been difficult to say he lived. You wonder if he too feels the heat. You think he does; for he opens his pink maw and sways his sprig of heather, to make for himself that breeze in the still air for which you are panting. You close your eyes, and smile to think that such a little thing as a karoo-blended lizard can interest you. A sound catches your ear: it is the upbraiding note of the bustard. Again and again you hear it. A covey of these birds must have been raised. As the clatter of their cry dies away, you distinguish the muffled strokes of a galloping horse. This is significant. No man in his senses would gallop in this heat unless his mission was serious. Nearer and nearer comes the horseman. You hate to move, though you hear the rapid breathing of the horse and the complaints of chafing leather.
"Where is headquarters?" demands a voice in authority.
Your dream and rest is over; for are you not the general's flunkey? You jump to your feet.
"Where have you come from?"
Orderly (as he hands in a written message). "From the officer commanding the advance-guard." The message runs: "Patrol on left front reports large force of Boers, estimated 500 strong, to be behind the rise three miles to the right of the solitary flat-topped kopje on our left front. Patrol has fallen back upon me."
This information is laid before the brigadier, who is half asleep under the mess-cart.
Brigadier. "How far is the flat kopje from us?"
Intelligence Officer. "About four miles, sir."
B. "Intervening country?"
I. O. "Flat as a polo-ground, sir."
B. "Oh, send out a troop to get touch with them. I'll bet it's only a flock of ostriches or a mirage. Tell the troop not to get compromised if they should find Boers in greater strength than themselves. Hold another troop and the pom-pom in readiness to support, if there should be anything. But it's not reasonable that there should be 500 Boers so near us at this hour. It is too late for our Houwater friends, and too early for ole man Christian."
I. O. "Very good, sir."...
Almost immediately upon the despatch of the troop, the main body of the co-operating command marched up to the clay pools. The two generals met to discuss the situation. The meeting of generals in the field nearly always lends itself to the picturesque. We know that it is a favourite theme for the artist's brush. And even in this utilitarian age, when the genius of man has shorn war of much of the panoply with which the calling of arms is associated in peace, there is something attractive in the sight of the communion of great soldiers in the field. The glory of war is not all cock-feathers and steel scabbards. In fact, the brilliant colours which blend so well with the pasture-green and brick-red of Europe would offend the eye if grouped upon the russet veldt—would seem as incongruous as a flamingo perching upon a hay-rick. It is an interesting picture. The two generals standing together a little apart from their staffs, which mingle in friendly intercourse. The lines of dismounted orderlies holding the horses from which the officers have just dismounted. The senior general is a tall spare man, just overlapping the prime of life. It is more than the powdered dust that makes his moustaches appear so fair. He is a man careful of his personal appearance. From head to foot his uniform of modest brown fits him as would a glove—to borrow from the sayings of a fair cousin across the Atlantic,—the fit of everything is so perfect that it looks as if he had been melted and poured molten into a khaki casing. The sombre dirt colour is relieved by the scarlet and gold upon his peaked cap and collar, and the long string of kaleidoscopic ribbons on his breast which tells of many tented fields—and maybe as many "fields of cloth-of-gold," for it does not take war alone now to decorate the breast, or to bind spur-straps across the instep of a knight. The brigadier stands in contrast to his senior. He is as tall a man, more commanding in carriage, but of very different temperament and gait. It is no studied negligence which has arranged the careless inconsistency of his dress. It is but the mind speaking through the person. He wears nothing that has cost a tailor a minute's thought to shape. His staff cap is set askew; his badges of staff distinction have obviously been sewn into position by some unskilled craftsman—probably his soldier servant. His tunic tells its own story of two years' campaigning in the rough; while the Mauser pistol strapped to the nut-brown belt which Wilkinson designed to carry a sword, speaks eloquently of the wearer's appreciation of the latter weapon as part of a general officer's service equipment. But as you look at the two—the one dandy and smart, the other rough and workmanlike—you can feel the personality of the junior, while the senior means no more to you than a clothier's model. This may not convey much to the average layman. But men—illiterate, uncultured, fighting men—see and appreciate all this, and it means much to them. Know, therefore, that there is no keener judge of human character and human mind than the cherub of the gutter. It is from these gutter-snipe, grown into men, that the fighting ranks of the great British army are filled.
The generals were discussing the situation, as far as their respective staffs could discern from their speech and attitude, amicably enough, though the brigadier was pressing some point. In reality he had renewed his protest against his senior's decision of the morning, and was endeavouring to influence him into a change of policy and plan. But the stern usage of the service decrees that the public convenience should be ordered by the man whose name ranges first upon the Army List schedule, and that the junior should press his arguments in deferential rather than aggressive language. But by dint of argument, and some short reference to the senior members of the staff, a compromise was arrived at in order to meet the wishes of the brigadier.
General. "I tell you that I don't like it; neither do I see any object in the move. After the handling which he has had from Plumer, Prieska can be the only line open to De Wet."
Brigadier. "But all my information is in an opposite direction, sir. It distinctly——"
G. "I don't think that your information is worth much. What can that boy know about it? He has been gulled by all the old wives' fables on the line of march."
B. "Well, sir, leaving De Wet out of the question—I have been promised a convoy at Strydenburg, and I have yet to pick up my brigade. A squadron of the 21st Dragoon Guards and the whole of the Mount Nelson Light Horse, which Plumer has not assimilated, is now straining every nerve to catch me up."
G. "When do you meet your convoy, and how far behind you are your details?"
(Now the brigadier had invented the convoy on the spur of the moment. It was true that he had been promised a convoy, but that promise had not indicated Strydenburg as the rendezvous. But seeing that he had scored a point he turned at once to the Intelligence officer.)
B. "When is our convoy due at Strydenburg?"
Intelligence Officer. "Possibly to-morrow evening, sir. The day after to-morrow at the latest." (Luckily the Intelligence officer had been following the conversation, and the answer came glibly enough.)
G. "H'm, that places another complexion upon it. But it is suicidal, reckless, to allow convoys to meander about the veldt in this inconsequent manner. What about your details?"
(The brigadier having struck a "lead," had wasted no time in figuring out his estimates.)
B. "Well, sir, I would suggest that you let me halt here for to-day. My details are just one day behind me now. They will catch me up to-morrow. In the meantime I will send a strong patrol—a reconnaissance rather—into Strydenburg, starting this afternoon, pick up the convoy, after which I will join you at any point you may select. I shall then be a useful fighting body; now I am only a gun escort!"
G. "Yes, yes; it would be dangerous for either you or your details to be wandering about in this disturbed country alone. I agree with you, Colonel; but you must allow that in view of the present circumstances it would be inadvisable for us to be caught in detail."
One cannot blind oneself to the fact that all this is very childish. But then the man who undertakes life in the army must be prepared to be a schoolboy to the end of his service. It ill becomes a brigadier or any officer wearing his Majesty's uniform—as the expression goes—to practise small deceits even to bring about a situation calculated to be for the public convenience. Yet what other course was open to the brigadier! For reasons which are evident from his conversation, his senior had determined not to recognise him as an independent force, but to hug him until all danger real or imaginary was past. It is the trammels of discipline such as this that breaks the hearts of the stalwarts in our service, and racks the national war-chest to the bottom. Can you blame the brigadier, alive to the pressing exigency of the situation, when, having exhausted the man-to-man arguments of common reason, he descended to the practice of a subterfuge to defeat the purpose of a man whose only object appeared to be to satisfy his own personal peace of mind? Yet we doubt if the senior was conscious of the futility of his direction. He had one object in view. He was possessed with the single desire to avoid disaster. In its limited sense his action was laudable enough; but what would the owner of a racehorse say to the jockey who, after having ridden a sound horse in a race, volunteered the information that he had never extended his mount out of consideration for its sinews? The care of the jockey is parallel to that of fifty per cent of the men who have led columns in this war—except that there has been no judge in the box to balance the merits of each case. The judge has been far away in Pretoria, and the jockey has furnished his own estimate of the running....
So the New Cavalry Brigade remained out-spanned by the mud-holes, while the other column passed through it and bore away in search of the Prieska Road. The rearguard of the moving force was brought up by a Colonial corps, which had originally been raised in Natal by the brigadier of the New Cavalry Brigade. Of course the personnel in the ranks had long since changed. Changed, be it said with regret, for the worse. But there was still remaining a small percentage of the original stock—stock that had been second to none. As the rearguard passed through, a great burly corporal cantered to the packing-case table at which the staff of the New Cavalry Brigade had just settled down to lunch, shouting, "Say, where is the ole man?"
The brigadier rose with a smile.
Corporal. "I heard that you were here, sir, and I couldn't go by without speaking. Lord, what a sight for sore eyes it is to see you again!—if there were only more like you. (Then extending his hand.) Come, sir, put your hand right here—it is a good day's work to have again shaken hands with a man." And then the corporal was off in a cloud of dust. But it had been an interesting and instructive incident. Without a doubt the man was Yankee; but he had served all through the Natal campaign, from Willow Grange to Bergendal, and his honest appreciation of his old chief almost brought tears to our eyes, and was of more value than all the ribbon and tinsel that a crowned head can bestow.
"That," said the brigadier, "is one of the finest men, amongst many fine men, whom I have enlisted. I was recruiting for my 'push' down in Durban. I used to go and get the fellows off the ships as they came in. That fellow came over with a man who was running a cargo of mules. I well remember when I broached the subject to him. His answer was characteristic: 'Say, colonel, what do you want us for? Is it for a straight scrapping with Boers, or is it to meander about as a town garrison?' 'If you join me you shall be "scrapping" in a week from to-day.' 'Will you give me your hand on that, colonel?' I acquiesced, and straightway was able to enlist practically the whole ship's company—and I never want to command a better lot. Did I ever tell you about the Boer spies? Well, in the early days of recruiting in Natal several Dutch agents were enlisted. They were paid by the Transvaal to enlist in British corps. When we got to Mooi River one of these men was discovered—recognised as an ex-Pretorian detective. That corporal came to me and volunteered some advice. 'You prove him a spy, colonel, and then turn him over to us: you won't have any more spies after that.' I had the suspect up. There was not a shadow of doubt about his identity, so I just said to the sergeant-major, 'This man is your property—the fair name of the corps is in your keeping; there's a convenient donga over there!' I never saw the man again, nor did I ask what happened to him; but this I do know, that on the self-same evening five men came to me and asked to be allowed to resign. They came with faces as white as the coat of that mare over there. 'Yes,' I said as I looked at them, 'you may go. You leave for the good of all concerned, yourselves included.' And since that day I was never troubled by the enlisting of Dutch agents."...
"The best laid schemes o' mice and men
Gang aft a-gley,"
and the dust of the column moving towards the Prieska Road was still hanging over the horizon when a staff-officer came galloping back to the New Cavalry Brigade. He brought written instructions to the brigadier which nullified for ever the Strydenburg scheme. "The G.O.C. directs the O.C. the New Cavalry Brigade to remain halted until he is joined by such details as are following him along the Britstown Road. As it is essential that the pass over Minie Kloof should be kept clear pending the arrival of the aforementioned details, the G.O.C. directs that the proposed reconnaissance to Strydenburg be abandoned, and the troops which would have been used for the reconnaissance be sent to hold Minie Kloof. As soon as the New Cavalry Brigade is complete, it will follow with all speed upon the direct road to Prieska. Under no circumstances are other arrangements to be made."
The occasion was not opportune for an expression of the brigadier's feelings, but his silence was eloquent. There was no hope for it: it was a written order from a senior, and we had no choice but to obey.
It is said by some that Christian de Wet is the best general that the war produced from the ranks of our enemy. It is not our present intention to debate upon this subject; but this much can be said with confidence, that he has been the most fortunate of leaders. On every occasion in which he has been hard pressed, when to all intents and purposes he has found himself at the end of his tether, the pendulum of fortune has favoured him in its swing. Often enough he has saved his skin through the culpable stupidity of his pursuers. But even when he has almost been cornered by the very best of leaders and men that the British Empire can produce, the law of chances has stood by him. A meddling contradictory telegram from headquarters, a thunderstorm or a swollen river, has times without number saved the slippery commandant at the eleventh hour. Take the present instance. It subsequently proved that if the brigadier had, as he intended, moved upon Strydenburg, and arrived there on the same day that he was directed by his superior officer to stand fast and hold the Minie Kloof, he would have arrived at his goal practically simultaneously with the guerilla chieftain. The New Cavalry Brigade would have borne down upon the little Karoo hamlet, fresh and in the full spirit of men new to war and "spoiling for the fight"; men just sufficiently blooded in their preliminary skirmish to have confidence both in themselves and in their general, and—and this is the exasperating nature of the story—while the British troopers would have ridden robustly into battle, De Wet and his following were in no condition to receive them. Unprepared for the arrival of fresh troops, spoiled of guns, train, and ammunition, kicked and harried by the gallant Plumer's tenacity, riddled and torn by Nanton's armoured trains, harassed by Heneker and Crabbe, panting for rest, they would have been no match for blood-seeking dragoons and a Horse Artillery battery that had been studying range-finding in South Africa ever since the battle of Magersfontein. All we can do is to shrug our shoulders and say, "The pity of it!" while we pay the extra twopence in the income-tax which our confidence in effete leaders, and disinclination to recognise, and make soldiers recognise, that our army is a national institution, has cost us.
It so happens that in war the rank and file know little of what is taking place, and, one is inclined to add, care less. Consequently those in the brigade who had no knowledge of the state of affairs existing with regard to Strydenburg were delighted at the prospect of a halt. At this period of the campaign halts were rare, and men looked to them in much the same spirit as the average house-holder in England looks to a spring cleaning, since, provided there is water, an "off afternoon" will allow of a little of the cleanliness which hard trekking renders impossible. The Dragoon Guards had not been long enough in the country to feel the necessity of a thorough overhaul of their linen. But the Horse gunners were old soldiers, and as soon as the intended halt became common knowledge the men stripped the shirts off their backs and indulged in the luxury of sand-baths where water was not available. This may appear a simple operation, but those who have campaigned long upon the veldt will know that a change of clothes exposes not the least of "the horrors of war."
But, halted or moving, there is no cessation of trouble and anxiety for the staff of any unit engaged in active service, and when the brigadier issued his orders to meet the instructions of his superior officer, his acting staff-officer discovered that the column was two troops short. One troop had been missing ever since the first day out from Richmond Road, the other had lost itself that morning in Minie Kloof. This may sound absurd, but it is not an isolated incident; and if we are to believe the evidence of those who marched with the "Grand Army" into Bloemfontein, it was not a matter then of troops that were missing, but fifty per cent of the whole army, and so badly missing that it took the quartermaster-general's department a fortnight of solid labour to definitely find them. The inexperienced youth could get no help from his brigadier. Since the arrival of the message from the main column that officer had not been approachable. But with the aid of the good-natured gunner major and the opportune return of the troop which had been detached in the morning, as the brigadier had surmised, on a wild-goose chase after a mirage, it was possible to apportion some sort of a force capable of holding a salient in Minie Kloof without totally denuding the camp of adequate fighting strength. But it is on occasions such as these, when isolated detachments are scattered broadcast, that disaster is courted. Luckily it is only once in a hundred times that the enemy has been in a position to accept the free gifts offered to them.
 Christian de Wet