Heilbron, August 17.
We stayed several days among the mountains on the scene of the surrender, collecting our prisoners and the waggons, guns, horses, &c., and sending them off to the railway. The valley, viewed from the hill where we were camped, looked much like one of our West Country horse fairs on a very large scale. The separate commandoes were herded together in big groups of several hundred men, sitting and lying about and talking. The ox-waggons and battered Cape-carts were drawn up together in a great array; but the busiest part of it all was the division of the horses into mobs fit or unfit for remounts, and the distribution of them to the various regiments. Rimington superintended this job. Of course, after all our marching, we were sadly in want of remounts. The Boers had any number of horses, many of them bringing in two or three apiece, and the majority were in good condition and fit for work, probably owing to the fact that the grazing all about this side of the Free State, especially among these mountains, is excellent. The South African ponies, I may tell you, are the only satisfactory mounts for South Africa. We have tried horses from all parts of the world now, and they can none of them stand the climate, work, and food like the native breeds. The South African pony, wretched little brute as he looks, will tripple and amble on, week after week and month after month, with a heavy man on his back, and nothing to eat but the pickings of sour, dried-up veldt grass and an occasional handful of Indian corn; and though you will eye him with an eye of scorn, no doubt (if he should happen to be allotted to your use), and envy some other man his fat Burmese or Argentine, yet by-and-by you will find out your mistake; for the fat Burmese and the Argentine, and all the other imported breeds, will gradually languish and fade away, and droop and die, worn down by the unremitting work and the bad, insufficient food; but your ragged little South African will still amble on, still hump himself for his saddle in the morning, and still, whenever you dismount, poke about for roots and fibres of withered grass as tough as himself, or make an occasional hearty meal off the straw coverings of a case of whisky bottles. With an action that gives the least possible exertion; with the digestion of an ostrich, and the eye of a pariah dog for any stray morsel of food; with an extraordinary capacity for taking rest in snatches, and recouping himself by a roll whenever you take his saddle off; and of course, from the natural toughness of his constitution, too, he is able to stand the long and gradual strain of being many hours under the saddle every day (and perhaps part of the night, too) in a way that unaccustomed horses cannot do. By this time we all know his merits, and there is immense demand from every mounted corps for the Boer ponies. The Major is up to his eyes in work, as officers and orderlies come galloping up with requisitions from the various regiments. He has the born horse lover's dislike for parting with a really good horse except to a man he knows something about. Loud and uproarious is the chaff and protestations (now dropping to confidential mutterings) as the herds of horses are broken up and the various lots assigned. As I say, it looks from the hilltop exactly like a west country fair on an enlarged scale, and the great lonely Basuto mountains, too, might seem a larger edition of the Exmoor hills around Winsford. The Boer prisoners, poor fellows, have no eye for the picturesque. They congregate together and grumble and watch the distribution of their horses with a very sour expression.
From this point we sent our prisoners in, viá Winberg, to the railway, the Major and most of the corps going with them as part of the escort; while I with twenty men, consisting partly of Guides and partly of Lovat's Scouts, was detached to continue as bodyguard to Hunter. He, with the main column (we reunited at Bethlehem), marched to Lindley and then here to Heilbron.
It was ten miles south of this that we came in contact with Olivier. Olivier and De Wet had both broken through our cordon at different times and escaped from the hills. Sent one morning with a message to the Sussex outside Slabbert's Nek I saw shells bursting, and all the appearance of a heavy fight going on over the hills to the north-west. This was Christian De Wet, who with several guns and about 1500 well-mounted men, had made a dash for freedom when he found the place was getting too hot, and had been promptly tackled by Broadwood when he got outside. Pursuer and pursued vanished into the blue distance of the veldt, battering each other as they went, like birds that fight and fly at the same time. Broadwood, however, had got hold of his enemy by the wrong end. What happened exactly we don't know, but De Wet got clear somehow, and immediately turned his attention to his beloved railway line, which he never can tear himself away from for more than a few days at a time. He is now, I should imagine, in the very seventh heaven of delight, having torn up miles of it, besides capturing several trains.
De Wet is getting an immense reputation. The rapidity of his movements is extraordinary. He always has two or three of our columns after him; sometimes half-a-dozen. Among these he wings his way like a fowl of some different breed, a hawk among owls. Some amusement was caused by the report in orders the other day that De Wet had marched north pursued "by various generals;" as if two or three, more or less, didn't matter, as indeed it didn't. Of course, mere fast marching would not always extricate him, but he shows such marvellous coolness and common sense in the way in which he doubles. Several times he has been reported surrounded; but each time when we came to look he had disappeared. It is like a conjuring trick. He seems to have an intuitive knowledge of the plans of our generals, and to divine how any movements of his will modify theirs. He makes a swift march. This he knows will set in motion a certain column. Night comes and back he steals, and dashes out through the gap left without any one being the wiser. He never loses his sangfroid, but acts always, in the most hopeless positions, with equal craft and rapidity. In short, like the prophet Isaiah, he is "capable de tout." For he can hit hard, too. I think since the arrival of the main army he is the only man who has scored off us at all freely. Sanna's Post and Reddersberg came first; then, last May, came the capture of the 500 Yeomanry at Lindley; that was followed immediately by the surprise of the Heilbron convoy and all its escort; then came the capture of the Derbyshire Militia, and a few days later the taking of Roodeval with a train of mails and various details. Even when he had bolted out the other day between our legs, and was flying north with two or three cavalry brigades after him, he found time to snap up a hundred Welsh Fusiliers and break the line as he passed. He is, they say, extremely amusing, and keeps his men always in a good temper with his jests; the other day, after one of his many train captures, he sent a message to the base to say that "he was sufficiently supplied with stores now, and would they kindly send up some remounts." He is now the only prize left worth taking, and every one is desperately keen in his pursuit. I notice, however, that people never seem to meet him when they want to, though when they don't want to, they very often do.
Olivier, with a force about equal to De Wet, also broke out from the hills, and having reached the open country, hung about to watch our movements. There are some kopjes ten miles south of Heilbron, very nicely arranged, with a back hill commanding a front one, so that the first position gained would only bring us under the fire of the second; a very favourite Boer trick. Here Olivier awaited our coming, and, knowing the range to an inch, landed his first shell plump in the middle of our convoy. Hunter, and we with him (it is certainly great fun being with the Staff for the time being), were at the head of the column, and heard the shell go over. Never have I seen a better shot. It exploded on the track, right underneath a great waggon, to the amazement and consternation of the Kaffir drivers and the wretched oxen; though they were all, I believe, a good deal more frightened than hurt. Three or four more quickly followed. "Roll that up," said Le Gallais to the Guide carrying the General's flag. A few minutes passed, during which we were shot at without being able to reply. Then two Field Batteries came galloping to the front. Guns! Guns! Way for the guns! like the fire-engines down Piccadilly they came tearing along. As the iron wheels strike upon rocks the guns leap and swing. Stones and splinters fly right and left, and the dust flung up by wheel and hoof boils along their course. Nothing is more stirring than to see guns coming full speed into action. In another minute they have lined up on the ridge and their shells are bursting on the enemy's hill.
Hector Macdonald is a man who always amuses me. Ordinarily he is a somewhat grim-looking individual; but when there is any fighting going on his whole manner changes, and he beams and mantles with a sort of suppressed mirth. He comes swaggering up now as the guns are opening, looking like a man who has just been told the best story he ever heard in his life, and is still chuckling over it. "They're on to us again," he bubbles out, knocking his boot with his whip in irrepressible glee. "What! what! they're on to us again." He looks round at us and grins, and seems to lick his lips as a shell goes howling overhead and bursts behind us. His merits as a general are very much discussed, but there is one thing he does thoroughly enjoy, more than any man I know, and that is being shot at. I suppose he would rather win a battle than lose one, but I am sure he would rather lose one than not fight at all.
Next to him, in marked contrast to his excitement, stands out the cool attentive face of "Archie" Hunter; the most popular officer, as I believe one might call him, of all the British army. He is noted chiefly as a fighter and for his dash and gallantry. He did all the fighting in the Egyptian campaign. During the siege of Ladysmith it was he who planned and led the night attack which blew up the big Boer gun. When I was coming out on the steamer the one question asked among the war correspondents, who wanted to be where the most fighting was going on, was "Where will Hunter be?" But it is probably his kindness and the deep interest he feels in all his men that makes him so universally popular. Here is a tiny instance, perhaps not worth mentioning. We were halted on the march for a moment, sitting about and smoking, when the General gave the word to mount, and one of the orderlies, a trooper of the Lancers, jumped up in a hurry and left his pipe behind him. Hunter saw the filthy, precious object lying on the ground, and put it in his own pocket. At the next halt he went up to the trooper, and with that manner of his of deliberate kindness, returned it to him. A mere nothing, of course, but very characteristic.
He has a way of looking at you, no matter who you are, Tommy or officer or what not, with a wonderfully kind expression, as if he felt the most friendly interest in you. And so he does; it is not a bit put on. He does not seem to think about himself, but about the people and things round him. Every morning he finds time to stop and ask after the horses and men of our little body, and to exchange a word with one or two of the men whom he has had occasion to notice. Not a grain of condescension is there in him; not even a thought that he is giving them pleasure. It is a natural impulse with him, the result of the real regard and interest he feels in every soldier that marches under him. In action his manner, always calm, is just as calm as at any other time. He says little; observing the most important developments or listening to the reports of orderlies from various parts of the field, more often than not without any comment at all. Yet nothing escapes him.
Our action with Olivier is a rather stupid one, and I shall not attempt to describe it. We take the first position, losing from forty to fifty men, only to find that the enemy have retired to the second range, and that it is too late to follow them up. Probably the only man at all satisfied with the day's performance is old Mac.
Through a weary land we have come marching north these ten days. The veldt is at its worst, parched and dry and dead. Our column trekking raises a huge cloud of reddish dust that hangs still in the air, and marks for miles back the way we have come. The whole expanse is quite colourless—almost white, or a dirty grey. All day long the blue sky is unvaried, and the sun glares down unobscured by a cloud; sky and earth emphasising each other's dull monotony. Only at sunrise and late evening some richer and purer lines of colour lie across the distant plain, and the air is fresh and keen. Round about the town, which, like all these Boer towns, stuck down in the middle of the veldt, reminds one of some moonstruck flotilla becalmed on a distant sea, the grass is all worn and eaten to the very dust. Whiffs of horrid smell from dead carcases of horses and cattle taint the air. All the water consists of a feeble stream, stagnant now and reduced to a line of muddy pools, some reserved for horses, some for washing, and some for drinking, but all of the same mud colour.
And yet even for this country, I think it with a kind of dull surprise as I look out over the naked hideousness of the land, men can be found to fight. What is it to be a child of the veldt, and never to have known any other life except the life of these plains? It is to reproduce in your own nature the main features of this extraordinary scenery. Here is a life of absolute monotony, a landscape, huge, and on a grand scale, but dull and unvaried, and quite destitute of any kind of interest, of any noteworthy detail, of any feature that excites attention and remark. And the people, its children, are like unto it. Their minds are as blank, as totally devoid of culture and of ideas as the plains around them. They have an infinite capacity for existing without doing anything or thinking anything; in a state of physical and mental inertia that would drive an Englishman mad. A Boer farmer, sitting on his stoep, large and strong, but absolutely lethargic, is the very incarnation of the spirit of the veldt. At the same time, when one remembers the clatter and gabble of our civilisation, it is impossible to deny him a certain dignity, though it may be only the dignity of cattle.The problem will apparently be, when we have burnt these people out or shot them, and in various ways annexed a good deal of the land they now live on, how are we to replace them? What strikes one is that time and the country, acting on the naturally phlegmatic Dutch character, has produced a type exactly suited to this life and these surroundings. And it does seem in many ways a pity to destroy this type unless you have something to take its place. Except in one or two very limited areas, accessible to markets, and where there is a water supply, no English colonist would care to settle in this country. The Canadians and Australians, many of whom volunteered, and came here with the view of having a look at the land and perhaps settling, are, I hear, unanimous in condemning it. Indeed, it does not require any great knowledge of agriculture to see that a country like this, a lofty table-land, dry and barren, with no market handy, or chance of irrigation, is a wretched poor farming country. Hence the pity it seems of wiping out the burghers. They may not be a very lofty type of humanity, but they had the advantage in nature's scheme of filling a niche which no one else, when they are turned out, will care to fill in their place. The old dead-alive farm, the sunny stoep, the few flocks and herds and wandering horses sparsely scattered over the barren plain, the huge ox-waggon, most characteristic and intimate of their possessions, part tent and part conveyance, formed for the slow but sure navigation of these solitudes, and reminding one a great deal of the rough but seaworthy smacks and luggers of our coasts, that somehow seem in their rudeness and efficiency to stand for the very character of a whole life, all these things are no doubt infinitely dear to the Boer farmer, and make up for him the only life possible, but I don't think it would be a possible life for any one else. It seems inevitable that large numbers of farms, owing to death of owners, war indemnity claims, bankruptcy, and utter ruin of present holders, &c., will fall into the hands of our Government when the war is over, and these will be especially the poorer farms. But yet probably as years pass they will tend to lapse once more into Dutch hands, for it is difficult to believe that men of our race will ever submit to such a life of absolute stagnation. In dealing with the future of the country, it will always be a point that will have to be borne in mind, that the natural conditions of life outside the towns are such as favour the Dutch character very much more than they do the English.