March 5, 1900.
Well, that is over, and I hope you are satisfied. We have got Cronjé. His victories are o'er. We have also got Mrs. Cronjé, which was a bit more than we bargained for. They cut her an extra deep hole, I hear, to be out of shell-fire, and she sat at the bottom all day long, receiving occasional visits from Cronjé, and having her meals handed down to her. One can fancy her blinking up at her "Man," whom she always, I am told, accompanies on his campaigns, and shaking her head sorrowfully over the situation. There is nothing very spirit-stirring about a mud hole and an old woman sitting at the bottom of it, but the danger and the terrible hardships were real enough. That is always the way with these Dutch. They have all the harsh realities and none of the glamour and romance. Athens, with their history and record, would have made the whole world ring for ever. But they are dumb. It seems such a waste.
Albrecht too is among the prisoners, the famous German "expert," who designs their works for them and manages their artillery; and we have taken 4000 prisoners, and several guns and one detested "pompon." Come, now, here is a little bit of all right at last.
I was one of a party that rode down with the Major on the morning of the surrender to the laager and saw the prisoners marched in. They seemed quite cheery and pleased with themselves. They were dressed in all sorts of ragged, motley-looking clothes; trousers of cheap tweed, such as you see hung up in an East End slop-shop; jackets once black, now rusted, torn and stained, and battered hats. They reminded me more of a mob of Kent hop-pickers than anything else, and it was a matter of some surprise, not to say disgust, to some of us to think that such a sorry crowd should be able to withstand disciplined troops in the way they did.
I talked to several of them. They all agreed in saying that they had been through the most ghastly time in the last ten days and were heartily glad it was over. They exchanged nods and good-days with us and the soldiers who were standing about, and altogether seemed in a very friendly and conciliatory mood. All this, however, it struck me, was rather put on, a bit of acting which was now and then a trifle overdone. Boers are past-masters at hiding their real feelings and affecting any that they think will be acceptable. It is a trait which has become a national characteristic, and the craft, dissimulation, the slimness, as it is called, of the Boers is a by-word. I suppose it comes from the political situation, the close neighbourhood of a rival race, stronger and more energetic, which fosters in the stolid Dutchman, by way of buckler, this instinctive reticence and cunning. His one idea is to make what he can out of the situation without troubling his head for a moment about his own candour and sincerity. It is Oriental, the trait you expect to find in a John Chinaman, but which surprises you in a burly old Dutchman. Still there it is. At any farm you go to, men, women, and children will put on a semblance of friendship, and set to work to lie with a calmness which is really almost dignified. No one in this country ever believes a thing a bit the more because a Dutchman says it.
We went on into the captured laager. It was an extraordinary, interesting, and loathsome sight. Dead bodies of horses and men lay in all directions in various stages of decomposition, and the reeking smell was something quite indescribable. I fancied, even after leaving the place, that I carried the smell about with me, and that it had got into my clothes. The steep river banks were honeycombed with little holes and tunnels, and deep, narrow pits, like graves; narrow at the top, and hollowed out below to allow less entrance for shells. Evidently each man had cut his own little den. Some were done carelessly, mere pits scooped out. Others were deep, with blankets or old shawls spread at the bottom, and poles with screens of branches laid across the top to keep off the sun. I saw one or two which were quite works of art; very narrow tunnels cut into the side of the river-cliff, and turning round after you entered, making a quite secure retreat, unless perhaps an extra heavy old lyditte might happen to burst the whole bank up. This actually happened, they told us, with the very last shot fired the night before; a bit of the bank having been blown up with eight men in it, of whom five were killed and three wounded. The whole river channel looks as if a big colony of otters or beavers had settled here, honeycombing the bank with their burrows, and padding the earth bare and hard with their feet. It was all worn like a highroad. On the other side, the waggons were a sight; shattered, and torn, and wrecked with shot; many of them burnt; several, huge as they are, flung upside down by the force of a shell bursting beneath them. All their contents were littered and strewn about in every direction; blankets, clothes, carpenters' and blacksmiths' tools, cooking utensils, furniture. You would have thought the Boers were settlers moving to a new country with all their effects, instead of an army on the march. This is how they do things, however, in the homely, ponderous fashion. They often take their women and children with them. There were many in the crowd we captured.
I wandered about alone a long time, looking at the dismal, curious scene where so much had been endured. White flags, tied to poles or stripped branches, fluttered from waggon tops. Our ambulance carts came along, and the Tommies, stripping to the waist, proceeded to carry, one by one, the Dutch wounded through the ford on stretchers.
We are bivouacked ourselves far up the river, in a secluded nook among mimosas and kopjes with the thick current of the lately unknown, but now too celebrated, Modder rolling in front of us. The weather has changed of late. It is now autumn. We have occasional heavy rains, and you wake up at night sometimes to find yourself adrift in a pool of water. It gets chilly too.
The enemy are all about the place, and we interview them every morning at daybreak, sometimes exchanging shots, sometimes not. We lay little traps for each other, and vary our manoeuvres with intent to deceive. This advance guard business (we are dealing here with the relief parties of Boers that have come up between us and Bloemfontein) always reminds me of two boxers sparring for an opening. A feint, a tap, a leap back, both sides desperately on the alert and wary.
We lost poor Christian yesterday in one of these little encounters. He was mortally wounded in stopping at short range to pick up a friend whose horse had been shot. I have mentioned him, I think, to you in my letters. There was no one in the corps more popular. "Tell the old dad I died game," was what he said when the Major, coming up with supports, knelt down to speak to him.
Nothing very noteworthy has occurred since the surrender. The army has been quietly resting, taking stock of the prisoners, and sending them to the railway, and we are expecting every day now the order to advance. The enemy, meanwhile, have been collecting in some force, and are evidently prepared to dispute our march east. Yesterday we had a duel with a gun which they have managed, goodness knows how, to drag up to the top of a commanding hill some miles up the river. However, it was too strongly placed. We lost several men. The enemy's fire was very accurate, and they ended up by sending three shots deliberately one after the other right into our ambulance waggons.
We shall be able to post letters to-day, and the reason this one is so extremely dirty is that I am finishing it in a drizzling rain, being on picket guard a couple of miles up the river, not far from the scene of yesterday's shooting. The Boers are on the bustle this morning. One can see them cantering about on the plain just across the river, where thousands of their cattle are grazing. In front the big-gun hill glimmers blue in the mist. Two or three of the enemy have crept up the woody river-course and tried a shot at us; some close; the bullets making a low, quick whistle as they flit overhead. My two companions—there are three of us—are still blazing an indignant reply at the distant bushes. By the amount of fire tap, tap, tapping like an old woodpecker all round the horizon, it seems that there is a sudden wish for a closer acquaintanceship among the pickets generally this morning. Those fellows in the river are at it again!