Pretoria, June 6, 1900.
It is generally considered rather a coup in war, I believe, to take the enemy's capital, isn't it? like taking a queen at chess. We keep on taking capitals, but I can't say it seems to make much difference. The Boers set no store by them apparently; neither Bloemfontein nor Pretoria have been seriously defended, and they go on fighting after their loss just as if nothing had happened.
For months Pretoria has been our beacon, and at first it seemed quite an impossibly long way off. Looked at from Bloemfontein, across 300 miles of dreary veldt and rugged kopjes and steep-banked rivers, and allowing for the machinations and devilments of ten or fifteen thousand Boers, our arrival here did seem a vague, indefinite, and far-off prospect. And yet in a day or two over the month here we are. Lord Roberts has brought us up in the most masterly way. He has moved with a big central column on the railway, while at the same time other columns, stretched far to right and left, moved parallel and threatened to outflank and enclose the enemy at every stand. So with wings beating and body steadily advancing, like some great kite or bird of prey, we have flapped our way northward.
Even here no stand was made. The town is strongly defended with several new forts, armed, we were told, with 10-inch guns, with a range of about twelve miles, which we supposed would put the noses of our poor cow-guns completely out of joint. The Boers had burnt the grass on all the hills to the south of the town, so that the blackened surface might show up the khaki uniform of our men, and offer a satisfactory mark, and things generally, as we slowly approached the tall black rampart of mountain south of Pretoria, seemed to point to a big engagement. But here, as so often elsewhere, it was borne in upon them that if they finally stayed and defended their capital, they would assuredly be surrounded and cut off; and so, though only at the last moment, we hear, they decided to leave. They put up an afternoon fight on the hills near the town, but this was only the work of a handful of men, probably intended to stave us off for a while while they finished their packing in Pretoria and got away. Lord Roberts got a battery up to the crest of a great big ridge, and we got a pompon up a still steeper one, and a vigorous cannonade was kept up and a good deal of rifle-fire indulged in till nearly dark. But this is often very deceptive. No doubt if it was the first battle you had been at, you would have put down the casualties, judging from the noise made, at several hundred. As a matter of fact, the peculiar thing about all this shooting is that, like the cursing in the Jackdaw of Rheims, "nobody seems one penny the worse." Loading is now so easy that it is not the slightest trouble to fire. The consequence is that a glimpse of a Boer's head on the sky-line a couple of miles off will find work for a battery of guns and a few score of rifles for the rest of the afternoon. About sunset time, when it begins to get cold, they will limber up and come away, and the report will go in that our shelling was very accurate, but that the enemy's loss could not be positively ascertained.
The day after the fight we made a triumphal procession through Pretoria, and marched past Lord Roberts and his staff, and all his generals and their staffs, assembled in the big square facing the Parliament House. We came along a long, straight street, with verandahed houses standing back in gardens, and trees partly shading the road, a ceaseless, slow, living river of khaki; solid blocks of infantry, with measured, even tread, the rifle barrels lightly rising and falling with the elastic, easy motion that sways them altogether as the men keep time; cavalry, regular and irregular, and, two by two, the rumbling guns. Mile after mile of this steady, deliberate, muddy tide that has crept so far, creeps on now through the Dutch capital. Look at the men! Through long exposure and the weeding out of the weak ones, they are now all picked men. The campaign has sorted them out, and every battalion is so much solid gristle and sinew. They show their condition in their lean, darkly-tanned faces; in the sinewy, blackened hands that grasp the rifle butts; in the way they carry themselves, with shoulders well back and heads erect, and in the easy, vigorous swing of their step.
I should like, while I am about it, to speak to you rather more at length about the British soldier. I should think my time spent on service, especially the five months in the ranks, time well spent, if only for the acquaintanceship it has brought with soldiers. In the field, on the march, in bivouac, I have met and associated and talked with them on equal terms. Under fire and in action I have watched them, have sat with them, long afternoons by rivers and under trees, and yarned with them on tramps in the blazing sun. Their language, habits, and character have to some extent grown familiar to me.
They are not, to begin with, a bit like the description I sometimes read of them in newspapers. In one of Kipling's books there is a description of a painting of a soldier in action; realistic and true to life; dirty and grimed and foul, with an assegai wound across the ankle, and the terror of death in his face. The dealer who took the picture made the artist alter it; had the uniform cleaned and the straps pipe-clayed, and the face smoothed and composed, and the ferocity and despair toned down to a plump and well-fed complacency, and made, in fact, all those alterations which were supposed to suit it to the public taste.
The newspapers describe the British soldier, I suppose, to suit the public too, much on the same lines. He is the most simpering, mild-mannered, and perfect gentleman. If you asked him to loot a farm, he would stare at you in shocked amazement. He is, of course, "as brave as a lion," his courage being always at that dead level of perfect heroism which makes the term quite meaningless. Except, however, when they are shining with the light of battle, his eyes regard all people, friends and foes alike, with an expression of kindness and brotherly love. He never uses a strong word, and under all circumstances the gentleness and sweet decorum of his manner is such as you would never expect to meet outside the Y.M.C.A.
This is about as much like our dear, old, real Tommy Atkins as Kipling's portrait was. Such a likeness does no honour to the man. It is simply lifeless. Whatever Tommy is, he is a man; not a round-eyed, pink-cheeked waxwork stuffed with bran. The truth is coarse and strong, but he can stand having the truth told about him.
Soldiers as a class (I take the town-bred, slum-bred majority, mind) are men who have discarded the civil standard of morality altogether. They simply ignore it. This, no doubt, is why civilians fight shy of them. In the game of life they don't play the same rules, and the consequence is a good deal of misunderstanding, until finally the civilian says he won't play with the Tommy any more. In soldiers' eyes lying, theft, drunkenness, bad language, &c., are not evils at all. They steal like jackdaws. No man's kit or belongings are safe for an instant in their neighbourhood unless under the owner's eye. To "lift" or "pinch" anything from anybody is one of the Tommy's ordinary everyday interests, a thing to be attended to and borne in mind along with his other daily cares and duties. Nothing is more common than to see some distracted private rushing about in search of a missing article, which he declares in anguished tones he has only just that instant laid down; his own agitation a marked contrast to the elaborate indifference of every one near him.
As to language, I used to think the language of a merchant ship's fo'c'sle pretty bad, but the language of Tommies in point of profanity quite equals, and in point of obscenity beats it hollow. This department is a speciality of his. Of course, after a little it becomes simply meaningless, and you scarcely notice it, but the haphazard and indiscriminate way, quite regardless of any meaning, in which he interlards ordinary sentences with beastly words, at first revolts you. Lying he treats with the same large charity. To lie like a trooper is quite a sound metaphor. He invents all sorts of elaborate lies for the mere pleasure of inventing them. He will come back from headquarters and tell you of the last despatch which he has just read with his own eyes (a victory or disaster, according to his mood at the moment), with all kinds of realistic details added; and you go and see for yourself, and there is no despatch at all. Looting, again, is one of his perpetual joys. Not merely looting for profit, though I have seen Tommies take possession of the most ridiculous things—perambulators and sewing machines, with a vague idea of carting them home somehow—but looting for the sheer fun of the destruction; tearing down pictures to kick their boots through them; smashing furniture for the fun of smashing it, and may be dressing up in women's clothes to finish with, and dancing among the ruins they have made. To pick up a good heavy stone and send it wallop right through the works of a piano is a great moment for Tommy. I daresay there is something in it, you know.
These are roughish traits, are they not? Sit down by this group of Tommies by the water-hole in the mid-day halt. They are filthy dirty, poor fellows. Their thin, khaki, sweat-stained uniforms are rotting on them. They have taken off tunics and shirts, and among the rags of flannel are searching for the lice which pester and annoy them. Here is a bit of raw humanity for you to study, a sample of the old Anglo-Saxon breed; what do you make of it? Are thieving, and lying, and looting, and bestial talk very bad things? If they are, Tommy is a bad man. But for some reason or other, since I got to know him, I have thought rather less of the iniquity of these things than I did before.
The day has been fearfully hot, as usual, and they have done a long march. They were up last night on picket, and have had nothing to eat all day as yet but a biscuit or two and a cup of milkless coffee. This sort of thing has been going on for months. They are tired and hungry and footsore. More than one falls back where he sits and drops into a sleep of utter exhaustion. But of any serious grumbling or discontent there is no sign. A few curse at the heat perhaps, but their hardships are mostly a subject for rough chaff and Cockney jokes. You thought you were roughing it a good deal, but look at the state these men are in. You gave yourself credit for some endurance, but look at their unaffected cheeriness. The whole army is the same. In their thousands, as you see them pass, the prevailing expression down all the swarthy faces is one of unfailing good-humour. They make no more of their hardships than Sandow of throwing about bars and bells that would crush an ordinary man flat. It dawns on one, the depth of manhood that is implied in endurance like this. "We sometimes get licked at first, but we mostly come out all right in the end." Tommy's good-natured face as he sweats it across the veldt gives some meaning to that boast.
In the crowds of his mates in the East End, in crowds of the unemployed and the like, you see the same temper—a sort of rough, good spirits, an indomitable, incorrigible cheerfulness that nothing, no outward misery, seems able to damp. In West End crowds (Hyde Park, for instance) you don't get this. There are smiles and laughs, as you look about at the faces, but they seem merely individual—one here, another there. In the crowd of roughs—though goodness knows there is little cause for merriment, so far as one can see—there is a quite different, deeper, and more universal feeling of bluff cheeriness, not put on, but unconscious, as though, in spite of present misery, things were going right for them somehow. I should say an East End crowd gave one a far deeper impression of animal spirits, of hope and cheeriness, than a West End one. And it is the same with soldiers. The officers are fine fellows, but in this point they yield to the soldiers.
And it means a lot. Of what use is even courage itself if it goes with impatience and a flash in the pan endurance? This quality of cheerfulness is really the quality that outlasts all others. It means not only that you have an army in good fighting trim to-day, but that this time next year, or the year after, you will still have an army in good fighting trim. In the long-run it wears down all opposition, but it is not a characteristic you notice at first. Gradually it makes itself felt, and gradually it governs your estimate of the whole army. And then the peculiar wickedness of Tommy (a child's naughtiness for superficiality) ceases to offend you so much. Rather your own regulation code seems a trifle less important than it did. Let's all lie and steal; what does it signify? I would lie and steal till the crack of doom to gain the serene endurance of the British soldier.
Of his courage one need scarcely speak. It is a subject on which a great deal of rubbish has been talked. It is not true that all soldiers are brave, nor is it true that even brave soldiers will go anywhere and do anything. On the other hand, it certainly is true that our soldiers' courage—that is, their apparent unconsciousness of danger—strikes one as very remarkable. You need not believe more about the light of battle and the warrior's lust, and all that sort of thing, than you want to. There is very little excitement in a modern battle, and the English soldier is not an excitable man, but this only makes the display of courage more striking. Nothing can be more terrible than one of our slow charges, a charge in which all the peril which used to be compressed into a hundred yards' rush in hot blood is spread out over an afternoon's walk. I am sure any man who has ever taken part in one of those ghastly processions, and, at thirty yards interval, watched the dust-spots, at first promiscuous, gradually concentrating round him, and listened to the constant soft whine or nearer hiss of passing bullets, and seen men fall and plodded on still, solitary, waiting his turn, would look upon the maddest and bloodiest rush of old days as a positive luxury by comparison.
What I think about our soldiers' courage is that it is of such a sort that it takes very little out of them. One of the foreign officers on Lord Roberts' staff, in a criticism in one of his own papers, has written that the English infantry, more than any he knows, has the knack of fighting and marching and keeping on at it, day after day, without getting stale or suffering from any reaction. The fact is, our Tommies go into a fight with much the same indifferent good-humour that they do everything else with. Towards the end of each day's march the soldiers all begin to look out for firewood, and if at that time you knock up against the enemy, you may see our infantry advancing to the attack with big logs tied to their backs and sticking up over their heads. Though it encumbers and bothers them and makes them much more conspicuous, not a Tommy will abandon his wood. Supper is a reality. The thought of being shot does not bother him. Men who fight like this can fight every day.
Taking him altogether, then, your general impression of the Tommy is one of solid good temper and strength. Of his faults and failings, when you get to know him, you cannot help making light; for his faults are faults of conduct only, while his strength is strength of character. As an individual, I daresay you could criticise him, but in the mass, for the strength of breed he shows and the confidence he gives you in your race, you will have nothing but admiration.
I have told you what I could about him, because he is a man you have never seen, and will probably never have a chance of seeing. For no one who has not seen Tommy in the field has seen him at all. If you love England, you must love the army. If you are a patriot, not merely a Jingo, the sight of these ragged battalions passing will give you such a thrill as only very fine and splendid things do give; and very proud you will feel if ever you have had a hand in sharing their work and been admitted to some sort of fellowship with them.
These are the lads who in their packed thousands tramped yesterday through Pretoria. Past old Kruger's house, a cottage you might almost call it, with its lions in front and several old burghers in black crying in the verandah, we went at a foot's pace, choking in the cloud of red dust, with the strains of "God Save the Queen" in our ears. We emerge into the square. The Volksraad is on our right; then the Grand Hotel, with all its windows full of English people, or sympathisers with England, many of them women, all waving handkerchiefs and raising a cracked cheer as we pass. I was staring at all this, whilst a big band on the right broke merrily out with the "Washington Post," and did not see till I almost brushed his horse's nose, our Commander-in-Chief standing like an amiable little statue at the head of all his generals and their staffs, with finger raised to helmet. It is quite a moment to remember, and I do really feel for an instant, what all the morning I have been trying to feel, that we are what literary people call "making history."
As for Pretoria itself, it is a pretty and well-wooded little place, with pink and white oleander trees in blossom, fir-trees, gums, and weeping-willows along the streams and round the little bungalow houses. The shady gardens and cool verandahs give these houses a very inviting air in this land of blazing sun. They have a comfortable, and at the same time sociable, look, the houses being near by each other, but each with a pretty garden and trees overhanging. Like all the works of these very practical people, the place is designed for convenience and comfort and not a bit for beauty. But the first two give it the last to some extent, give it a sort of simple and homely beauty of its own which is pleasing as far as it goes.
"Take heed to thyself, for the devil is unchained." We are told that Christian De Wet is loose again, and is trifling with our lines of communication. If this is so, our supplies will be cut off, the army will be starved, and you will never get this letter. There has been a pretty general hope that the taking of the capital would mean the end of the war. "We have fired our last shot," said some. At least we counted on a good rest. Alas! orders have just come in. Good-bye flowers and shady gardens and dreams of bottled beer and a dinner at the club. We march immediately.
Talking of soldiers, here is a soldier's story for you—
Officer (to distracted Tommy, fleeing for his life under shower of bullets): "Dash you! what the dash are you running for?"
Tommy, tearing on: "'Cause I ain't got no b——y wings."
First Tommy: "And the bullets was comin' that thick——"
Second Tommy: "Well, but 'adn't you got no ant'ills?"
First Tommy: "Ant'ills! Why, there wasn't ant'ills 'nough for the orficers."FOOTNOTES:
 This account is true of a type, but I should not let it stand if I thought it would make the reader forget that, besides these, there are any number of men in the army who lead lives in every way straight and honourable.