The horsemen rode generally two by two, partly in front of the waggons as advance-guard, and behind as rear-guard, each corporal with his men in his place by his Veld-Kornet. The Krugersdorpers were no longer allowed to leave their places before they had permission from their corporal. Even those burghers who were most disorderly in the beginning now saw the necessity of discipline, and were obedient to the commands of their officers.
It was a mixed crew of old and young. But the majority were still in the prime of life, and proof against the privations of guerilla life. The old men among us were all men whose powerful constitutions were yet unbroken. It was praiseworthy of them that in their old age they were willing to suffer the difficulties and dangers of a wandering life for their country's sake, for although their constitutions were strong, they were susceptible to cold and damp, the effects of which they could not shake off. There were also many brave little boys, who were thus early initiated into the privations of commando life; but they shared all bravely, in a careless spirit of adventure.
Here and there were some Uitlanders who had remained faithful to us. All the others had gradually disappeared, either because they were taken prisoners, or killed through their somewhat foolhardy courage, or because they had left the country in disappointment. The townspeople were by no means superior to the farmers. There were traitors and 'hands-uppers' among them as well. We have been bitterly disappointed in people of all classes, but particularly in the so-called 'gentlemen.'
Our condition and appearance were indeed striking. During the heat of the day, when the dust lay thickly about us, we sat in our ragged clothes, with shaggy, uncombed beards, on our poor, hardly-treated ponies, meekly staring in front of us, seemingly indifferent to the moral hurt that we were suffering and the physical pain that we felt in all our limbs after a long, tiring ride. At the start of one of our journeys an animated conversation sometimes helped to pass the time, but it soon flagged, leaving us staring in front of us in the usual dispirited, dull way. Our talk became daily more prosaic and superficial. We had not the energy to express our deepest sentiments, and things which were formerly pleasant were strange to us now. We had no spur to enliven our thoughts in our monotonous life. To the careless there was nothing startling in this moral numbness, but the more sensitive among us grieved over it, and were humiliated by the shallowness that had come into our lives.
The small necessaries of our material existence had become essential to our happiness. If we lost a knife, or if a pot or kettle broke, or a mug was stolen from us, we were depressed for days, as if a heavy blow had fallen upon us. It was not easy to fight against that bitter feeling of depression. Our only safety lay in the fact that we were conscious of the demoralizing effect of these small disappointments of commando life, for to know one's self is always the first step towards conversion.
Some qualities of our highest nature were systematically suppressed. We prided ourselves on our fierce hatred of the enemy, and considered it a mark of patriotism, and we rejoiced when he fell beneath our bullets or when the plague broke out. We even wished that a great European war might begin, if only we might keep our country, and as a consequence of our righteous patriotism an inclination to cruelty became one of the predominant traits in the character of the burghers.
The commando life tended to make many of us melancholy. Wherever we came the thought was forced upon us that our beloved country was deeply injured, morally and materially. We ourselves saw everywhere homes and fields destroyed, women and children taken away by force, and cattle stolen; and rumours told of the most terrible outrages committed upon helpless women and children. If it were not that one becomes hardened to all outward impressions, our commando life would have been pitiful indeed. So we became hardened to almost all these things, but the thought of the ill-treatment of those dear to us, on whose happiness our own happiness depends, was constantly with us, and to that we did not become hardened.
It is impossible to enter into the sufferings of the married men. Much was suffered in silence. Some men got messages from their wives imprisoned in refugee camps, bidding them surrender for the sake of their wives, since fighting was of no avail and the country was already lost. Who shall blame the man who rides away with an anxious heart to his wife and children, no matter what the consequences may be to himself? Another woman, with a different disposition and a different heart, sends word secretly to her husband that life in the prison camp is endurable, and that he must fight to the end. Then he stays, and proves himself worthy of the courage of his wife.
Some men gave the impression that they were indifferent to the suffering of wife and child. These were the scum of our people, who in time of peace were not of much importance, but were necessary for our fight. But the majority, by far the greater majority, were men who, even in the most troubled times, were faithful to the comrades with whom they began this struggle, the struggle for our independence.
Whenever we came to a 'uitspanplek' (a place where there is water to be found for the horses), some of us had to seek hurriedly for wood to make the fire, others to fetch water, and others to help in various ways. It was a regular struggle for existence. Those who came first got the least disagreeable work. Wood was scarce on the Hoogeveld where we happened to be, and the water was muddied by the first water-carriers. When the sun was very warm we made a shelter with our guns and our blankets. Our meals were simple. They consisted of meat and 'mealie-pap' morning, noon, and night, often for weeks without salt. We made coffee of burnt grain ground in a coffee-mill. During the war we learnt to drink all sorts of coffee--of wheat, oats, barley, sweet potatoes, maize, and even of peaches. We became so accustomed to a simple mode of life that our wants were few indeed. Even sugar we no longer missed. And we remained healthy and strong.
We lay in small groups round the fires, leaning against our saddles. Our moods were brighter after our tired bodies had had the needful refreshment and rest. The groups were often picturesque, some of us lying at our ease with soiled books in hands, others grouped round the fire, every now and again adding wood to the flames, and others, again, picking mites out of the biltong with a pocket-knife.
A shower had not much effect upon us. We were accustomed to letting our clothes dry on our bodies. Nature is very kind to people who are day and night in the open air. If the sun did not shine soon after a shower, we made a very deplorable appearance in our dripping clothes. But we never grumbled. We were generally cheerful, unless we were exhausted from fatigue.
We suffered most on those long nights when, for some reason or other, we could not sleep, for many of the burghers were troubled with fears for their dear ones. Often, after a long ride, we were too tired to prepare a meal, but simply flung ourselves against our saddles and slept before we had time to let our thoughts wander. But if the enemy were not at our heels, we often passed the long nights in sleeplessness, gazing up at the stars with the most bitter feelings in our hearts. No wonder that many a burgher grew gray. We were often kept awake by the tethered horses stumbling among the groups. Sometimes a man would jump up and strike at them till all the others awoke, too, and then there was great hilarity in the quiet of the night.
Sometimes a constant rain cast a shadow over the sunny Hoogeveld and made our lives sombre and almost unbearable. Then our tattered garments could not dry on our bodies, and everything about us was wet and dirty. Even in dry weather fuel was almost unattainable, for the treeless Hoogeveld had been almost exhausted by the many large commandos which had visited the 'uitspan' places. In wet weather it was almost an impossibility to make a fire.
Whoever had an ailment passed unpleasant nights then; each night meant a nail in his coffin. Even the constant rain the burghers bore cheerfully, and many a joke was passed along during an interval in the downpour. But in the morning, as we dragged our weary limbs out of our mud-baths, shivering from cold, we did not venture to put the conventional question, 'Did you sleep well?' to each other.
The spirit among the burghers was very different from what it had been. No swearing was heard, and quarrelling was exceptional. Thefts, too, were seldom committed. We called ourselves 'sifted'; traitors and thieves had gone over to the stronger party. I do not believe that any European army would have kept its moral tone so high under such demoralizing circumstances as did that small army of Boers with the help of their religion. Whereas in time of peace there was much difference in churches, especially in the Transvaal (although no difference in belief), now, during the war, the unity of belief in one Bible had become the means of raising the moral tone of the burghers.
During the last few months a plague had come amongst us that we had heard much about, and now caused us much trouble--a plague of lice. It is not an edifying subject, but anyone can understand how the itching caused many a sleepless night. We were not to blame. When we no longer were able to change our clothes, we could not guard against the vermin that had become a plague among the huge wandering armies of the enemy. Although we boiled our clothes, to our horror the nits appeared again.