Orange River, November 18, 1899.
The sun is just rising on Orange River Camp. Our tents are pitched on the slopes of white sand, soft and deep, into which you sink at every step, that stretch down to the river, dotted with a few scraggy thorn-trees. There are men round me, sleeping about on the sand, rolled in their dark brown blankets, like corpses laid out, covered from head to foot, with the tight folds drawn over their feet and over their heads. A few bestir themselves, roll, and stretch, and draw back the covering from their sleepy, dusty faces. The first sunbeams begin to creep along the ground and turn the cold sand yellow.
I am beginning this letter in the shade of a mimosa. The whole scene reminds me very much of Egypt; and you might easily believe that you were sitting on the banks of the Nile somewhere between the first and second cataract. There are the same white, sandy banks, the same narrow fringe of verdure on each side, the same bareness and treelessness of the surrounding landscape, the same sun-scorched, stony hillocks; in fact, the whole look of the place is almost identical. The river, slow and muddy, is a smaller Nile; there only wants the long snout and heavy, slug-like form of an old crocodile on the spit of sand in the middle to make the likeness complete. And over all the big arch of the pure sky is just the same too.
Our camp grows larger and rapidly accumulates, like water behind a dam, as reinforcements muster for the attack. Methuen commands. We must be about 8000 strong now, and are expecting almost hourly the order to advance. Below us De Aar hums like a hive. From a deserted little wayside junction, such as I knew it first, it has blossomed suddenly into a huge depôt of all kinds of stores, provisions, fodder, ammunition, and all sorts of material for an important campaign. Trains keep steaming up with more supplies or trucks crowded with khaki-clad soldiers, or guns, khaki painted too, and the huge artillery horses that the Colonials admire so prodigiously. Life is at high pressure. Men talk sharp and quick, and come to the point at once. Foreheads are knit and lips set with attention. Every one you see walks fast, or, if riding, canters. There is no noise or confusion, but all is strenuous, rapid preparation.
Do you know Colonials? In my eight months of mining life at Johannesburg I got to know them well. England has not got the type. The Western States of America have it. They are men brought up free of caste and free of class. When you come among Colonials, forget your birth and breeding, your ancestral acres and big income, and all those things which carry such weight in England. No forelocks are pulled for them here; they count for nothing. Are you wide-awake, sharp, and shrewd, plucky; can you lead? Then go up higher. Are you less of these things? Then go down lower. But always among these men it is a position simply of what you are in yourself. Man to man they judge you there as you stand in your boots; nor is it very difficult, officer or trooper, or whatever you are, to read in their blunt manners what their judgment is. It is lucky for our corps that it has in its leader a man after its own heart; a man who, though an Imperial officer, cares very little for discipline or etiquette for their own sakes; who does not automatically assert the authority of his office, but talks face to face with his men, and asserts rather the authority of his own will and force of character. They are much more ready to knock under to the man than they would be to the mere officer. In his case they feel that the leader by office and the leader by nature are united, and that is just what they want.
There are Colonials out here, as one has already come to see, of two tolerably distinct types. These you may roughly distinguish as the money-making Colonials and the working Colonials. The money-making lot flourish to some extent in Kimberley, but most of all in Johannesburg. You are soon able to recognise his points and identify him at a distance. He is a little too neatly dressed and his watch-chain is a little too much of a certainty. His manner is excessively glib and fluent, yet he has a trick of furtively glancing round while he talks, as if fearful of being overheard. For the same reason he speaks in low tones. He must often be discussing indifferent topics, but he always looks as if he were hatching a swindle. There is also a curious look of waxworks about his over-washed hands.
This is the type that you would probably notice most. The Stock Exchange of Johannesburg is their hatching-place and hot-bed; but from there they overflow freely among the seaside towns, and are usually to be found in the big hotels and the places you would be most likely to go to. Cape Town at the present moment is flooded with them. But these are only the mere froth of the South African Colonial breed. The real mass and body of them consists (besides tradesmen, &c., of towns) of the miners of the Rand, and, more intrinsically still, of the working men and the farmers of English breed all over the Colony. It is from these that the fighting men in this quarrel are drawn. It is from these that our corps, for instance, has been by the Major individually and carefully recruited; and I don't think you could wish for better material, or that a body of keener, more loyal, and more efficient men could easily be brought together.
Many of them are veterans, and have taken part in some of the numerous African campaigns—Zulu, Basuto, Kaffir, Boer, or Matabele. They are darkly sunburnt; lean and wiry in figure; tall often, but never fat (you never see a fat Colonial), and they have the loose, careless seat on horseback, as if they were perfectly at home there. As scouts they have this advantage, that they not only know the country and the Dutch and Kaffir languages, but that they are accustomed, in the rough and varied colonial life, to looking after themselves and thinking for themselves, and trusting no one else to do it for them. You can see this self-reliance of theirs in their manner, in their gait and swagger and the way they walk, in the easy lift and fall of the carbines on their hips, the way they hold their heads and speak and look straight at you.
Your first march with such a band is an episode that impresses itself. We were called up a few days ago at dead of night from De Aar to relieve an outlying picket reported hard pressed. In great haste we saddled by moonlight, and in a long line went winding away past the artillery lines and the white, ghostly tents of the Yorkshires. The hills in the still, sparkling moonlight looked as if chiselled out of iron, and the veldt lay spread out all white and misty; but what one thought most of was the presence of these dark-faced, slouch-hatted irregulars, sitting free and easy in their saddles, with the light gleaming dully on revolver and carbine barrel. A fine thing is your first ride with a troop of fighting men.
Though called guides we are more properly scouts. Our strength is about a hundred and fifty. A ledger is kept, in which, opposite each man's name, is posted the part of the country familiar to him and through which he is competent to act as guide. These men are often detached, and most regiments seem to have one or two of ours with them. Sometimes a party is detached altogether and acts with another column, and there are always two or three with the staff. Besides acting as guides they are interpreters, and handy men generally. All these little subtractions reduce our main body to about a hundred, or a little less; and this main body, under Rimington himself, acts as scouts and ordinary fighting men. In fact, a true description of us would be "a corps of scouts supplying guides to the army."
One word about the country and I have done. What strikes one about all South African scenery, north and south, is the simplicity of it; so very few forms are employed, and they are employed over and over again. The constant recurrence of these few grave and simple features gives to the country a singularly childish look. Egyptian art, with its mechanical repetitions, unchanged and unvaried, has just the same character. Both are intensely pre-Raphaelite.
South Africa's only idea of a hill, for instance, is the pyramid. There are about three different kinds of pyramid, and these are reproduced again and again, as if they were kept all ready made in a box like toys. There is the simple kopje or cone, not to be distinguished at a little distance from the constructed pyramids of Egypt, just as regular and perfect. Then there is the truncated or flat-topped pyramid, used for making ranges; and finally the hollow-sided one, a very pretty and graceful variety, with curving sides drooping to the plain. These are all. Of course there are a few mistakes. Some of the hills are rather shakily turned out, and now and then a kopje has fallen away, as it were, in the making. But still the central idea, the type they all try for, is always perfectly clear. Moreover, they all are, or are meant to be, of exactly the same height.
Most strange and weird is this extraordinary regularity. It seems to mean something, to be arranged on some plan and for some humanly intelligible purpose. In the evenings and early mornings especially, when these oft-repeated shapes stand solemnly round the horizon, cut hard and blue against the sky like the mighty pylons and propylons of Egyptian temples, the architectural character of the scenery and its definite meaning and purpose strike one most inevitably. So solemn and sad it looks; the endless plains bare and vacant, and the groups of pure cut battlements and towers. As if some colossals here inhabited at one time and built these remains among which we now creep ignorant of their true character. The scenery really needs such a race of Titans to match it. In these spaces we little fellows are lost.
Well, farewell. My next will be after some sort of a contest. There has been a touch or two; enough to show they are waiting for us. A corporal of ours was shot through the arm yesterday and struggled back to camp on another man's horse. The dark-soaked sleeve (war's colour for the first time of seeing!) was the object, you may guess, of particular attention.