Frere: January 4, 1900.
December 25.—Christmas Day! 'Glory to God in the Highest, and on earth, peace and goodwill towards men.' So no great shells were fired into the Boer entrenchments at dawn, and the hostile camps remained tranquil throughout the day. Even the pickets forbore to snipe each other, and both armies attended divine service in the morning and implored Heaven's blessing on their righteous causes. In the afternoon the British held athletic sports, an impromptu military tournament, and a gymkhana, all of which caused much merriment and diversion, and the Boers profited by the cessation of the shell fire to shovel away at their trenches. In the evening there were Christmas dinners in our camp—roast beef, plum pudding, a quart of beer for everyone, and various smoking concerts afterwards. I cannot describe the enemy's festivities.
But since that peaceful day we have had desultory picket firing, and the great guns in the naval battery have spoken whenever an opportunity presented itself. The opposing outpost lines are drawn so far apart that with the best intentions they can scarcely harm each other. But the long range of the smallbore rifles encourages fancy shooting, so that there is often a brisk fusillade and no one any the worse. On our side we have only had one infantry soldier wounded. We do not know what the fortunes of the Boers may have been, but it is probable that they lose a few men every day from the bombardment, and certain that on Monday last there were three burghers killed and several wounded and one horse. It happened in this wise: beyond the strong Infantry pickets which remain in position always, there is a more or less extended line of cavalry outposts, which are sprinkled all along the kopjes to the east and west of the camp, and are sometimes nearly three miles from it. On the Monday in question—New Year's Day to wit—200 Boers set forth and attacked our picket on the extreme right. The picket, which was composed of the South African Light Horse, fell back with discretion, and the Boers following without their usual caution did not observe that eight troopers had been dropped behind among the rocks and ledges of a donga; so that when twelve of them attempted to make their way up this natural zigzag approach in order to fire upon the retiring picket they were themselves received at 400 yards by a well-directed sputter of musketry, and were glad to make off with five riderless horses, two men upon one horse, and leaving three lying quite still on the ground. Thereafter the picket continued to retreat unmolested.
Indeed, the New Year opened well, and many little things seem to favour the hope that it is the turning point of the war. Besides our tiny skirmish on the right, Captain Gough, of the 16th Lancers, on the left, made his way along a convenient depression, almost to the river bank, and discovered Boers having tea in their camp at scarcely 1,800 yards. Forthwith he opened fire, causing great commotion; hurried upsetting of the tea, scrambling into tents for rifle, 'confounded impudence of these cursed rooineks! Come quickly Hans, Pieter, O'Brien, and John Smith, and let us mend their manners. What do they mean by harassing us?' And in a very few minutes there was a wrathful rattle of firing all along the trenches on the hillside, which spread far away to the right and left as other Boers heard it. What the deuce is this? Another attack! Till at last the Maxim shell gun caught the infection, and began pom, pom, pom! pom, pom, pom! and so on at intervals. Evidently much angry passion was aroused in the Boer camp, and all because Captain Gough had been trying his luck at long range volleys. The situation might have become serious; the event was, however, fortunate. No smoke betrayed the position of the scouting party; no bullets found them. A heavy shower of metal sang and whistled at random in the air. The donga afforded an excellent line of retreat, and when the adventurous patrol had retired safely into the camp they were amused to hear the Boers still busy with the supposed chastisement of their audacious assailants.
But these are small incidents which, though they break the monotony of the camp, do not alter nor, each by itself, greatly accelerate the course of the war. Good news came in on New Year's Day from other quarters. Near Belmont the Canadians and Queenslanders fell on a raiding or reckless commando, took them on at their own game, hunted them and shot them among the rocks until the white flag was upon the right side for once and hoisted in honest surrender. Forty prisoners and twenty dead and wounded; excellent news to all of us; but causing amazing joy in Natal, where every colonist goes into an ecstacy over every crumb of British success.
Moreover, we have good news from East London. General Gatacre is stolidly and patiently repairing the opening misfortune of his campaign: has learned by experience much of the new conditions of the war. Strange that the Boers did not advance after their victory; stranger still that they retired from Dordrecht. Never mind whether their stillness be due to national cautiousness or good defensive arrangements. Since they don't want Dordrecht, let us go there; and there we go accordingly. Out of this there arises on New Year's Day a successful skirmish, in the account of which the name of De Montmorency is mentioned. In Egypt the name was associated with madcap courage. Here they talk of prudent skill. The double reputation should be valuable.
And, perhaps, the best news of all comes from Arundel, near Colesberg, where Generals French and Brabazon with the cavalry column—for it is nearly all mounted—are gradually sidling and coaxing the Boers back out of the Colony. They are a powerful combination: French's distinguished military talents, and Brabazon's long and deep experience of war. So, with this column there are no frontal attacks—perhaps they are luckier than we in respect of ground—no glorious victories (which the enemy call victories, too); very few people hurt and a steady advance, as we hear on the first day of the year, right up to Colesberg.
Perhaps the tide of war has really begun to turn. Perhaps 1900 is to mark the beginning of a century of good luck and good sense in British policy in Africa. When I was a prisoner at Pretoria the Boers showed me a large green pamphlet Mr. Reitz had written. It was intended to be an account of the Dutch grounds of quarrel with the English, and was called 'A Century of Wrong.' Much was distortion and exaggeration, but a considerable part dealt with acknowledged facts. Wrong in plenty there has been on both sides, but latterly more on theirs than on ours; and the result is war—bitter, bloody war tearing the land in twain; dividing brother from brother, friend from friend, and opening a terrible chasm between the two white races who must live side by side as long as South Africa stands above the ocean, and by whose friendly co-operation alone it can enjoy the fullest measure of prosperity. 'A century of wrong!' British ignorance of South Africa, Boer ignorance of civilisation, British intolerance, Boer brutality, British interference, Boer independence, clash, clash, clash, all along the line! and then fanatical, truth-scorning missionaries, experimental philanthropists, high-handed jingo administrators, colonial ministers who disliked all colonies on the glorious principles of theoretic liberalism, bad generals thinking of their own reputations, not of their country's success, and a series of miserable events recalled sufficiently well by their names—Slagter's Nek, Kimberley, Moshesh, Majuba, Jameson, all these arousing first resentment, then loathing, then contempt, and, finally, a Great Desire, crystallising into a Great Conspiracy for a United Dutch South Africa, free from the flag that has elsewhere been regarded as the flag of freedom. And so inevitably to war—war with peculiar sadness and horror, in which the line of cleavage springs between all sorts of well-meaning people that used to know one another in friendship; but war which, whatever its fortunes, certainly sweeps the past into obscurity. We have done with 'a century of wrong.' God send us now 'a century of right.'