Thornhill Farm, January 30, 1900.
On the eastern or Jacobsdal side the country is all a plain, dull and monotonous like a huge prairie, with no shade from the heat or shelter from the thunderstorms. On the western side it is very different. Great hills run roughly parallel to the river course, but leave a wide plain between themselves and it. They are clothed with a few scant bushes, out of which their tops rise bare and rocky; but in the shady hollows and gorges the low thorn-trees (mimosas) grow thickly, and over the plain that stretches to the river their grey foliage gathers into thick covers or is sometimes dotted here and there. The smell of the mimosa flowers (little yellow balls of pollen-covered blossom) is the most delicious I know, and the air as we ride through these lonely covers, where a few buck seem the only tenants, is fragrant with it. Far apart there are farms, prettily situated, generally close to the hills, the rocky sides of the kopjes rising behind, the wide plain spread in front. Each has its dam, sometimes more than one, built round with mud embankments, with huge weeping willows overhanging, and rows of tall poplars and blue gums (with shreds of bark rattling), and plenty of other trees. The farmhouses themselves are uninteresting, but the gardens, with their great thicket hedges of prickly pear and quince and brilliant blossoming pomegranate, are delightful, especially at this time, when the fruit is just getting ripe.
It was out on this western side, where we were feeling for the enemy's right flank, some twenty miles from camp, in a niche half way up the mountain, that we spent our last Christmas. We rather expected an attack, as a Kaffir of ours had been taken by them, and might be expected to reveal our movements. After dark we climbed the hill, dragging our ponies over the boulders and scratching our way through the thorns.
The Boer hill was four or five miles distant, north across the plain. All along its purple sides we ranged with our glasses, seeing nothing; but after dark several little points of light showed where their laager was. We sat all night among the rocks (I thought of you and the roast-turkey and holly), occasional heavy drops of rain falling, and a flicker of lightning now and then. Heavy clouds rolled up, and the night set in as dark as pitch. The level plain below us lay flat as a pancake from their hill to ours. So passed our '99 Christmas, picturesque possibly, but not very comfortable. Dark hillside; rain in large warm drops; night dark, with a star or two and struggling moon. In front, a distant hillside, with points of camp-fire twinkling, where the Boers, indifferent to our little party, were carousing and drinking their dop. Now and then a yawn or groan as a man stretches his cramped limbs. Down below under us an expanse of dark plain, like a murky sea, reaching to our feet, which we peer across, but can make out nothing. Peep-of-day time is the Boer's favourite hour for a call, and we were all very much on the qui vive when the white line showed along the east. No doubt, however, they all had such heads after their Christmas drink that they were in no humour for such a diversion. At any rate, they let us alone. Very stiff and weary and wet, we crept down the hill soon after daybreak and started on our twenty-mile homeward march. It was 5 P.M. before we reached camp, and we had had nothing to eat all day. I don't know if we were most tired or hungry. Take that three days as a sample of work. We start at 6 A.M. on Sunday; do a full day's riding and scouting, and get three hours' sleep that night at Enslin. Then we saddle up and pass the rest of the night and all the next day riding, except when we are climbing hills on foot to look out. The second night we sit among the hills expecting an attack, and next day till one o'clock are in the saddle again. À la guerre comme à la guerre. Three days and two nights' hard work on three hours' sleep. And all this time you are drinking champagne (well, most of it, anyway), and sleeping in soft beds with delicious white sheets, and smoking Egyptian cigarettes, and wearing clean clothes, with nice stiff collars and shirt cuffs, and having a bath in the morning, warm, with sweet-smelling soap (Oh, my God!), and sitting side by side at table, first a man and then a woman; the same old arrangement, I suppose, knives to the right and forks to the left as usual. Ho! ho! There are times I could laugh. No doubt we shall all get redigested as soon as we get back, but meantime, as a set-off to the hardship, one knows what it is to feel free. We eat what we can pick up, and we lie down to sleep on the bare ground. We wash seldom, and our clothes wear to pieces on our bodies. We find we can do without many things, and though we sometimes miss them, there comes a keen sense of pleasure from being entire master of oneself and all one's possessions. Your water-bottle hangs on your shoulder; your haversack, with your blanket, is strapped to your saddle; rifle, bandolier, and a pair of good glasses are your only other possessions. As you stand at your pony's side ready to mount, you may be starting for the day or you may be away a fortnight, but your preparations are the same.
Above all others does this scouting life develop your faculties, sharpen your senses of hearing and of seeing, and, in practical ways, of thinking too; of noting signs and little portents and drawing conclusions from them; of observing things. You feel more alive than you ever felt before. Every day you are more or less dependent on your own faculties. Not only for food and drink for yourself and your pony, but for your life itself. And your faculties respond to the call. Your glance, as it scans the rocks and the plain, is more wary and more vigilant; your ears, as you lie in the scrub, prick themselves at a sound like a Red Indian's, and the least movement among cattle or game or Kaffirs, or the least sign that occurs within range of your glasses, is noticed and questioned in an instant.
This you get in return for all you give up—in return for the sweet-smelling soap and the footman who calls you in the morning. Oh, that pale-faced footman! It is dawn when, relieved on look-out, I clamber down the rocks to our bivouac. A few small fires burn, and my pal points to a tin coffee cup and baked biscuit by one of them. It is the hour at home for the pale-faced footman. I see him now, entering the room noiselessly with cautious tread as if it were a sick-room, softly drawing a curtain to let a little light into the darkened apartment, and approaching with a cup of tea that the poor invalid has barely to reach out his hand to. Round our little camp I look, noting trifles with a keen enjoyment. Shall I ever submit to that varlet again? No, never! I will leap from my bed and wrestle with him on the floor. I will anoint him with my shaving soap and duck him in the bath he meant for me. Do you know the emancipated feeling yourself? Do you know the sensation when your glance is like a sword-thrust and your health like a devil's; when just to touch things with your fingers gives a thrill, and to look at and see common objects, sticks and trees, is like drinking wine? Don't you? Oh, be called by twenty footmen and be hanged to you!
This Christmas patrol of ours was of use in touching the southernmost and westernmost limits of the Boer position. It has shown that the enveloping movement of which so much has been said, and which has been pressed now and then on the east side, has not made much progress on the west.
The big mountain range, running east and west, comes to an end some thirty miles west of Modder Camp, where it breaks up into a few detached masses and peaks. The extreme one of these, a sugar-loaf cone, is called the Pintberg, and on this lonely eerie a picket of ours is generally placed; crouched among the few crags and long grass tufts that form its point, the horses tethered in the hollow behind; listening by night and watching by day. When we come out thus far, we sometimes stay out a week or more at a time. The enemy's position is along the hills north of the plain by the river—chiefly north of it, but in places south.
I am turning over my diary with the idea of giving you a notion of the sort of life we lead, but find nothing remarkable.
"Last night, Vice, Dunkley, and I were on lookout on the kopje. There had been a heavy storm in the afternoon and another broke as we reached the hill. We crouched in our cloaks waiting for it to pass before climbing up, as the ironstone boulders are supposed to attract the lightning (I have heard it strike them; it makes a crack like a pistol-shot, and Colonials don't like staying on the hill tops during a storm). We passed all night on our airy perch among the rocks, half wet and the wind blowing strong. It was a darkish and cloudy night, rather cold. Watched the light die out of the stormy sky; the lightning flickering away to leeward; wet gleams from the plain where the water shone here and there; moaning and sighing of wind through rock and branch. We were relieved by Lancers in the morning and jogged back to Thornhill, where our little camp is, and I am writing this in the shade of a big mimosa close to the garden wall.
"I have seen prints in shop windows of farms and soldiers, bits of country life and war mixed, a party of Lancers or Uhlans calling at some old homestead, watering their horses or bivouacking in the garden. Often what I see now makes me think of these subjects. A large camp is hideous and depressing; dirty and worn, the ground trampled deep in dust; filth and refuse lying about; the entrails and skins of animals, flies, beastly smells, and no excitement or animation. But these outlying scenes, scouts, pickets, &c., have a peculiar interest. This garden, for instance, is itself pretty and wild, with its tangle of figs, its avenue of quinces (great golden fruit hanging), its aloes all down the side, with heavy, blue spikes and dead stems sticking thirty feet in air, branching and blackened like fire-scorched fir-trees, and its dark green oranges and other fruit and flower-trees all mixed in a kind of wilderness; and behind this the steep kopjes, with black boulders heaped to the sky, and soft grey mimosas in between. It is a pretty spot in itself, but what a different, strange interest is brought in by the two or three carbines leaning against the wall, the ponies, ready saddled, tethered at the corner, the hint of camp-fire smoke climbing up through a clump of trees, and now and then a khaki-clad figure or two passing between the trunks or lying under them asleep."
Here is another little extract, a bit of a night-spy by three of us on the west side, where we had heard that the Douglas commando was establishing a laager near a drift some thirteen miles below camp; a move forward of their right arm, if true.
"The night was dark as pitch, and very windy, just what we wanted. After missing our way several times, whispering, consulting, and feeling about in the dark, we came on the wattle fence and beehive huts of a Kaffir kraal. Up to this we crept, and Vice dived into the hole of an entrance, and after some underground rumblings emerged with an old nigger as you draw a badger from his earth. The old man was soon persuaded by a moderate bribe to be our guide to the spot we wished to reconnoitre. He told us that parties of Boers were pretty often round that way, and that one had passed the previous night at the kraal. Dunkley agreed to stay with the horses, and Vice and I went on with the Kaffir. The country was grassy, with plentiful belts and clumps of silvery bush. After a while the moon shone out and the clouds dispersed, which made us feel disagreeably conspicuous in the white patches between the bush."
Exmoor, as far as the contour of the ground is concerned, is a little like the more up-and-down parts of the veldt, and scouting there would be very much like scouting here. For instance, suppose your camp was at Minehead, the Boers being in strength at Winsford, and a report comes in that they have pushed on a strong picket to Simonsbath. This rumour it is your business to test. With two friends on a dark, windy night you set out. You leave the road and take to the moor. You ride slowly, listening, watching intently, keeping off the high ground, and as much as possible avoiding sky-lines. At some cottage or moorland farm you leave the horses and creep forward on foot, working along the hollows and studying every outline. If they are at Simonsbath, they will have a lookout on the hill this side. A British picket would show its helmets at a mile, but the Boers don't affect sky-lines. They will be on this side, with the hill for a background, and very likely right down on the flat; for though by day the higher you are the better for seeing, yet at night, when your only chance is to see people against the sky, the lower you are the better. These points and others you discuss in whispers, crouched in the dark hollows, and then creep forward again.
"Vice and I crawled to the top of our ridge at last just as morning was breaking. There were bushes and rocks to hide among, and the clouds had all gone, and day broke clear. The deep river ravine lay right below us, and as the light penetrated, the first thing we saw was a small shelter tent with a cart or waggon by the side of it. We grinned and nudged each other and wagged our heads at the discovery, but kept them carefully hidden. Farther west was a detached kopje, the site of a permanent Boer picket, according to the Kaffir; but there was no regular laager. There were no horses grazing about, no cattle, no smoke, none of the usual and inevitable signs. A picket! Yes. Pushed out from Koodoosberg, the big hill which rises abruptly from the plain three or four miles off, but no real occupation. After studying the country yard by yard with our glasses, and making a few notes about the lie of the land and the names and positions of farms, we creep off and get back to camp by mid-day."
The results of these exciting little prowls, when worth while, are sent in to the General, and from the mass of evidence thus placed before him he is supposed to be able to define the enemy's position and movements.
Chester Master and our little body were paid a pretty compliment by the General the other day; for the Major having written to ask if we might join him, Methuen replied that he was sorry to have to refuse, but that we were doing invaluable work, and he really couldn't spare us.
Well, fare you well. We hear of heavy reinforcements arriving. They will be very welcome. Magersfontein, Colenso, Stormberg; we could do with a change. But what a revelation, is it not? Are these the prisoners that we played at dice for? One thing in it all pleases me, and that is the temper and attitude of England. I like the gravity, the quiet, dogged rolling up of the shirt-sleeves much better than the blustering, wipe-something-off-a-slate style which the papers made so familiar to us at the beginning.