We have been up the valley and back again, and I write this once more from Fouriesberg. We passed through here, joining Rundle, as I told you a week ago, and pushed on eastward in the direction of Naawpoort Nek and the Golden Gate. Six miles out from here, passing through a very rugged country, we came on their outposts. These we shelled and drove back. They then retired to some hills not very high, but with perpendicular sides of low white cliffs commanding the approach across the plain. These they held till nightfall. We shelled them a good deal and knocked out the only gun they had, and the infantry pushed forward in front and we took a hill on the right, but the attack was not pressed home, as it would have cost too many lives. The infantry took the hill during the night, but found it evacuated, the Boers having retired as soon as it got dark.
We did not know all this time how things had gone with Macdonald and Bruce-Hamilton, and whether or not they had been able to block the eastern exits. On this everything depended. So it was with a feeling of the most gleeful satisfaction that we heard next morning, having followed the Boers up some two or three miles without seeing anything of them, the deep, heavy baying of a big gun in the distance, which we all recognised as the voice of one of the 5-inch cow-guns that had gone with Bruce-Hamilton. It fired a few shots and then ceased. With infinite toil, forty oxen to each gun, we then dragged our own two 5-inchers up the hill we were on, and got them into position for shelling the defiles ahead. They were not, however, needed. Messengers now began to arrive from the Boer laagers carrying white flags. There was a lot of palaver. These went, others came. Le Gallais, our chief of the staff, interviewed them, while Hunter strolled a little way apart, dreamily admiring the view. It was evident the Boer envoys were sticking out for terms which they couldn't get. I could see Le Gallais indicate the surroundings with summary gestures. The Boers looked very glum. They eyed the cow-guns especially with profound disgust. These were looking particularly ridiculous. The nose of one of them projected in the direction of those secret Boer-tenanted defiles as if the great creature were sniffing for its enemies in the distance; which gave it a very truculent and threatening air, as who should say, "Come now, Le Gallais, old fellow, suppose you let me put a word in," while the other, hanging its head till its nose touched the very ground, seemed overcome, poor wretch, with a sudden fit of bashfulness, most absurd in so huge and warlike a monster. The Boers looked from them to Le Gallais and from Le Gallais to them, but there was no more hope from one than the other, and at last they realised that there was nothing for it but to surrender, and surrender was agreed to. We could scarcely believe our good fortune. At Paardeberg we caught 4000, but we used 50,000, more or less, to do it, and we lost about 1500 doing it. Here we trapped as many or more, composed of some of the best commandoes of the Free State, caught them, too, in a wild mountainous country such as you would think was almost impregnable. We used 15,000 to do it, and we lost, I suppose, not 200 altogether. Also, we have taken enormous quantities of horses, oxen, and waggons, which will come in very useful.
It seems to me that Hunter deserves the utmost credit that can be given to him. We have had plenty of generals who have done direct fighting and done it well; but, with the doubtful exception of Paardeberg, we have had no triumph of tactics. We have never scored off the Boers, never made a big capture, or cut them up, or taken guns or transport, or bested them in any decisive way by superior strategy till now. This has always been our lament. We have always said, "Why, with all these armies in the field, cannot we surround them, or catch them, or deal a decisive blow of some sort?" But hitherto we have never succeeded in bringing off such a coup. We have pushed them before us, losing as many or more than they at every shift, but, whenever we have thought to get a hold of them, they have always eluded us. You may think it is a strange thing that they have been caught this time. The daring of Hunter's plan and the rapidity it was carried out with made it succeed. The Boers—so they tell me at least—never believed that we should venture with so small a force to penetrate by four or five different routes into such a strong country. The scheme seemed to lay us open to a disaster if the enemy had rapidly concentrated and flung itself on one of the separated forces. This danger, however, was more apparent than real, because the ground manoeuvred over was not altogether of very large extent, so that relief might be sent from one column to another, or the enemy, if concentrated against one column, rapidly followed up by one or more of the others. Besides which, if the country offered strong positions to take, it offered strong ones to hold, and in a very short time any threatened column could have placed itself in such a position as to make it impossible for the Boers to shift it in the time at their disposal. Still the plan, considering the Boers' skill in defending strong positions, had an audacious look about it. Several of the Boer prisoners have since told me—I don't know with what truth—that they thought we should follow them in by the Relief Nek pass, and that it was their intention to work round and threaten our communications, and either cut us off or force us to fight our way out as best we could.
The quickness of our advance, too, was of the utmost importance. From the moment we started, the enemy was given no opportunity to pull himself together and look about him. Hunter, Paget, Clements, and Rundle dashed into the Fouriesberg Valley exactly together. Directly we had got through, Hunter detached the main part of his column, the Highland Brigade, under Macdonald, and sent it with several guns as hard as it could pelt to back up Bruce-Hamilton, knowing, now that we had carried our end of the valley, that the pressure would come at the east end. Meantime, while Macdonald marched, we waited. We even retreated two or three miles, and for twenty-four hours lay on the pass and slept. Then we got up and began sauntering up the big irregular valley along the Basutoland border towards Naawpoort Nek.
It was a moment of infinite expectation. Bets were laid on the amount of our bag. The general impression was that we should get some of them, but that the main body would, somehow or other, escape. We had so often toiled and taken nothing, that this sudden miraculous draught quite flabbergasted us. And what must have been the feelings of the poor Boers? They tried Naawpoort Nek: no exit. They knocked at the Golden Gate: it was locked. Then back they turned and met Hunter sauntering up the valley, and we gave them the time of day with our cow-guns, and told them how glad we were to see them. "Fancy meeting you, of all people in the world!" And so they chucked it. It was a complete checkmate.
The surrender occupied the next three days; our total bag 4100, I am told. I wish you could have been there. It was a memorable sight among those uninhabited and lonely mountains. The heights of Basutoland, ridge behind ridge, to right of us; the tops snow streaked; groups of excited Basutos riding about in the plains, watching our movements; to left the great mountain chain we had fought our way through; and in the midst spread over the wide saddle-backed hill, that slopes away north-eastward, and breaks up in a throng of sharp peaks and a jumble of inaccessible-looking hills in the direction of the Golden Gate, is drawn up the dirty, ragged, healthy, sun-scorched British army with greasy rifles in its blackened hands, watching imperturbably and without much interest, the parties of Boers, and waggons, and droves of cattle as they come meandering in. Each Boer, as he rides up, hands over his rifle, or more often flings it angrily on the ground, and the armourers set to work, smashing them all across an anvil. Rather a waste of good weapons it seemed, I must say. Many of the Boers were quite boys, about fourteen or fifteen. They are much better looking than you would think from the men. The men are big and well built, but they look, for the most part, stupid and loutish, and when this is not so, their expression is more often cunning than intelligent. The amount of hair about their face, too, and their indifference to washing, does not improve their appearance. However, in the boy stage, and before the dulness of their surrounding has had time to tell, they are quite different, frank-faced and manly, with clear skin, tall and well grown, like young larches. It does seem strange that such mere children should be in the field against us. What would you think of giving Puckie a rifle and sending him out to fight? Boer prisoners have told me that the courage of these boys could be relied on; they were often braver, and would stick to a position they had been placed in longer than the men. They showed traces of the experience they had been through, though. Not only in being deeply tanned and more or less ragged and thin, but by an unmistakable expression (in many instances) in their faces and in their eyes; a dilated look, as of one who sees something appalling before him, and braces himself to face it out. Considering what it is to be exposed to lyddite and shrapnel fire (the absolute hell of din and concussion besides rain of bullets), one doesn't wonder that it leaves marks on young faces.
R. and I rode eastward through the hills in the Golden Gate direction, meeting parties of Boers, waggons, Cape-carts, &c., coming straggling in. It reminded me of the road to Epsom on a Derby morning. There is some pleasure in meeting Boers on these terms. "Good morning. How are you? A pleasant morning for a ride, is it not?" "Good morning, sir; it is fine now, but I think we shall have rain later." That's what I like. There's nothing like a little urbanity.
Towards the end of a long valley we come to some signs of defensive work that interest us. The Boers evidently expected to be able to await our advance here before they found their retreat was cut off. They have thrown up some shelters. We noticed from afar off several very conspicuous stone sangars, but coming close, we were surprised to find that they were made of stones loosely put together with big chinks, very flimsy and frail, and much too high for their purpose, too. They evidently were not intended for shelters at all. What were they there for? We looked carefully round, and at last the meaning of the device struck us. A hundred yards to the right the ground dropped sharp, leaving an edge; here was the real position and the natural cover. We walked over, and found the usual little hollows and inconspicuous stones arranged. Here was where their riflemen had lain, with a view right up the valley. And the meaning of those conspicuous edifices was now plain. Stuck up on the bare brow, plain to be seen at 2000 yards, they were simply meant to draw our fire. The smokeless Mausers would have told no tales, and I have no doubt that, if the attack had come off, the device would have more or less succeeded, for the stone shelters, though obviously dummies on close inspection, looked all right at a distance. Besides, a definite mark always attracts fire. It was characteristic of Boer cuteness.