Frankfort, November 23, 1900.
Frankfort is one of our small garrison towns. It exists in a perpetual state of siege, like Heilbron, Lindley, Ladybrand, Winberg, Bethlehem, and a dozen others in this neighbourhood; in fact, like all the towns held by us not on the railway. At intervals of a month or two a column comes along bringing supplies and news from the outside world; mails, papers, parcels, clothes and kit, great quantities of regular rations, ammunition, &c., &c. You can imagine how eagerly the little garrison, stranded for months in this aching desolation, looks for the column's coming. Then arise other questions. Sometimes a part of the garrison is relieved and receives orders to join the column, while some of the troops forming the column are left behind in their place. Of course every one in the town is longing to get away, and every one in the column is dreading having to stay, and there is an interval of ghastly expectation while contradictory rumours go hurtling from village to camp and back again; and men look at each other like cannibals, every one hoping the doom will fall on some one else. We in our corps are spared all this anxiety, and can lie on our backs and look on and condole with the unlucky ones. We never get left anywhere.
For the last few weeks we have been cruising about over the veldt from one little British fort to another with our huge fleet of waggons, doling out supplies. During this time we have been fighting more or less, I think, every day. Perhaps you would hardly call it fighting; long-range sniping the greater part of it. Out of our 250 mounted men we have had some half-dozen casualties only, and we have accounted for a dozen or so of the enemy and a few prisoners. They have the advantage of their intimate knowledge of the country. We have the advantage of a pompom and two 15-pounders. These are invaluable in keeping the Boers at a respectful distance. It is rather satisfactory to plump some shrapnel on to a group of waiting, watching Boers three miles off, who are just concocting in their sinful hearts some scheme for getting a shot at you; or to lay a necklace of exploding pompom shells among some rocks where you guess they are hiding. "There, my boys, take that, and I hope you enjoy it," I feel inclined to say. You will understand that the side that has no guns at this game is apt to look rather silly. Rimington has initiated an entirely new use for guns. They are used now with the Scouts. Instead of remaining with the column, where they would never be of the slightest use, he takes them right out to the limits of his flankers or advance or rear guard, or wherever there is most need of them. So that when these scattered skirmishers get engaged, as they are constantly doing, instead of having to extricate themselves as they best can from an awkward corner, and being followed up and hampered and pressed as they keep up with the column, they know that in about two minutes they will hear the voice of one of the 15-pounders or the indignant pompom speaking on their behalf, and that the pressure will be immediately relieved. I am sure that the use made of these guns has saved us a number of casualties, besides inflicting loss on the enemy. It isn't very orthodox, I fancy, and I have noticed officers of the column rather stare sometimes at the sight of these volatile guns of ours careering away in the distance, but with the Colonel this is only another reason for using them so. At the same time the pertinacity of these Dutchmen is really remarkable, and the instant the guns limber up, on they come, darting round corners and creeping upon us with a zeal that never seems to diminish.
The work falls chiefly on front and rear guards, but perhaps mainly on the rear, as the difficulty of retiring is usually greater than advancing; i.e., if the advance guard gets pressed, all they have to do is to sit tight and the natural advance of the column will bring them up supports. But when the rear guard gets engaged, the advance of the main column tends to leave it stranded; it is bound to keep on retiring to avoid this, and retiring under fire is a difficult and dangerous job. The Boers, who have an instinctive knowledge how to make themselves most disagreeable, of course know all about this susceptibility of a rearguard, and there are always sure to be a number of them sniffing about in that direction. "Where are you to-day?" "Rearguard." "Oh! Good-bye, then!" was the farewell given to a rearguard officer this morning.
On the other hand, the advance is of course the most exciting. You make a dash for a kopje, probably uncertain if it is held or not. The clucking of the old Mausers at long range warns you that it is, and a few bullets kick the dust up. The squadron swing to the right to flank the kopje, and the fire gets hotter and the whistle of bullets sharper and closer. Suddenly the welcome report of a gun, followed by a second one, sounds behind you, and next instant the rush of the quick-coming shells is heard overhead. Then the squadron goes headlong for the kopje. The ponies tear along, mad with excitement, their hoofs thundering on the hard ground. The men grip their loaded carbines with their right hands; not one that won't be first if he can. There go the shells! There is a little shout of approval; one bursts right among the rocks on the top of the kopje in a puff of white smoke; the other half-way down, raising a great cloud of dust. The Mauser fire ceases as if by magic, and the next instant the racing squadron has reached the rise. Down jump the riders and clamber up over the stones. Yonder the enemy go, bundling along a rough track not 500 yards away, half seen through whirling dust. The men fling themselves down, some tearing a handful of cartridges from their bandoliers to have handy, and settle their carbines on the rocks. Crack! goes the first shot, and at the sound, as at a signal, the covey of fleeing Boers shakes out and scatters over the veldt. The fire quickens rapidly as the carbines come into action. Every Boer as he rides off, you can see through the glasses, is pursued and attended by little dust tufts that tell where the bullets strike. Surely they can't be going to get off scot-free. "Take your time, men; now do take your time," insists our captain. "A thousand yards, and aim well ahead!" And now at last it is seen with glee that something is the matter with the man on the white horse. Horse is it, or man? Both apparently. The man seems to be lying on his horse's neck, and the horse has lapsed into a walk. Instantly two of his comrades have turned to him. One begins thrashing the horse with his rifle into a canter. The other seems to be holding the rider in the saddle. Every carbine is on to them. Another Boer jumps off and lies down, and the report of his rifle reaches us at the same instant that a bullet whistles overhead. No one attends to him. Every man is blazing away at the little slow moving group of three, a good mark even at this distance. But it is not to be; though the dust spots are all round them, hit them we can't; and at last as they move away in the distance, the last reluctant shot is fired, and we give it up. On this particular occasion we capture one of the Boers a little further on hidden in a farm garden, his horse having been shot, though we did not notice it. This accounts for two anyway, which is about what we expect, and we proceed good-naturedly to help the farm people out with some of their furniture before burning the house down.
I am writing this lying on my back in our tiny tent. Outside the sun is blazing. Across the river, on the edge of the hill, our picket, under the lee of a kraal wall, is shooting at intervals. It sounds as if some one in the distance were chopping wood. The Colonel and Driscoll are standing just outside watching through their glasses. They can make out Boer scouts on the horizon, but no one pays much attention.
Driscoll, of Driscoll's Scouts, is a thick-set, sinewy man, rather short than tall. He is of an absolute sooty blackness. Hair and moustache coal-black, and complexion so scorched and swarthy that at a little distance you might almost take him for a nigger. There is about his face a look of unmistakable determination amounting to ferocity in moments of excitement. He looks and is a born fighter, but is apt to be over headlong in action. His scouts are part of our 250 mounted men under Rimington.
As for the Colonel I don't know if I have ever tried to describe him to you. He is a man who invites description. Of all the men in the army he is the one you would single out to sketch. An artist would be at him at once. He is the living image of what one imagines Brian de Bois Guilbert to have been. An inch or two over six feet high, his figure, spare but lengthy and muscular, has been so knocked about (by hunting and polo accidents) that it has rather a lopsided look, and he leans slightly to one side as he walks, but this does not interfere with his strength and activity nor detract from the distinguished and particularly graceful look of the man. His face, like Driscoll's, is sun-blackened rather than sun-browned; its general expression stern and grim, and when he is thinking and talking about the Boers (he talks about them just as Bois Guilbert did about the Saracens) this expression deepens into something positively savage, and he looks, and can perhaps sometimes be, a relentless enemy. But this is only half the man. In ordinary talk he is quite different. He has the Celtic sensitiveness and humour. He is an artist. His manner among friends is extraordinarily winning and sympathetic, and his grave melancholy face has a way of breaking into a most infectious laugh. Altogether, what with his tall person, dark determined face, his fierceness and gentleness, and the general air of the devil about him, you are not surprised to find that no soldier's name is more common in men's mouths out here than Mike Rimington's. You might fit Marmion's lines to him well enough—
"His square-turned joints and length of limb
Show him no carpet knight so trim,
But in close fight a warrior grim."
He ought to have lived five hundred years ago and dressed in chain-mail and led out his lances to plunder and foray. As it is he does his best even in the nineteenth century. Picturesque is the word that best describes him. He makes every one else look hopelessly commonplace. His men admire him immensely, like him a good deal, and fear him a little. Generals in command sometimes find him, I fancy, a bit of a handful, that is, if their policy is at all a backward one. But most people watch him and talk of him with a certain interest, and whatever their opinions or ideas of him may be, one feels sure that none who have once met will easily forget him.
He is essentially a man who means business, who believes that the army is here to fight, and it is especially in action that he makes his value felt. Then, when he leads his squadron and the rifles begin to speak, and the first few shots come one by one like the first drops of a shower, and when he turns round in his saddle and thunders his, "Let them go" down the ranks, then I tell you there is not a trooper at his heels who does not realise that the man at their head is the right man in the right place.
At the same time it would be a mistake to think of him as one of our "let me get at them," all sword and spurs officers. There have been several of this sort in the army, and it is impossible to help very often admiring their dash. But they are most dangerous leaders. What chiefly distinguishes the Boers is their coolness. You cannot bluff or flurry them, or shift them by the impetuosity of your attack from a position which they are strong enough to hold. If indeed you have reason to believe them weak, then the faster you go at them the better: for if they mean going this will force them to go in a hurry and you will diminish the time you are under fire. But see your calculations are pretty sound, for if they don't mean bolting it will not be the fury of your charge that will make them. Generally when they begin on you at a very long range it is safe to go for them; but if they reserve their fire then look out for squalls. The Colonel has a very cool judgment in these matters; and though no one, when he does go for them, goes straighter and faster than he, no one, on the other hand, calculates more coolly the probable effect and consequence of the move.
In all scouting operations in our frequent long patrols he shows the same mixture of prudence and daring. He goes long distances from his supports and penetrates far into the enemy's country, and yet in none of these expeditions has he ever got trapped or cut off. Of course with men like the Guides, who have experience of the country and the enemy, and ways of picking up information not open to strangers, this is easier than it would be with men who had no such experience; but at the same time the chief credit and responsibility in these affairs must rest with the commanding officer. For one thing Rimington has an extraordinary good eye for a country. Perhaps at first you will scarcely realise the value of this gift. The features of this country and the way the long, undulating slopes of the veldt merge into each other are extremely perplexing, and as an engagement may be carried on over many miles of ground and your own movements may be extensive and involved, it becomes very difficult, in fact to most people absolutely impossible, to remember the lie of the land and how the various hills and slopes are related to each other. Thinking about it and trying to observe does no good at all; but some people have an extraordinary instinct by which they hold the configuration of the ground mapped in their head; judging not by slow calculation and an effort of the memory, but intuitively and at once. This instinct is called "an eye for a country," and is a most valuable gift. Personally, I am very ill equipped with it, which makes me the more inclined perhaps to admire it in others. It is developed in the Colonel to an extraordinary degree, and is one of the chief means by which, however hard beset, he has always been able, so far, to find a way out. Most nearly of any of our officers his tactics in daring and in craft resemble the tactics of that prince of scouting officers, Christian De Wet.
Kronstadt, Lindley, Heilbron, Frankfort, has been our round so far. We now turn westward along the south of the Vaal. Farm burning goes merrily on, and our course through the country is marked as in prehistoric ages, by pillars of smoke by day and fire by night. We usually burn from six to a dozen farms a day; these being about all that in this sparsely-inhabited country we encounter. I do not gather that any special reason or cause is alleged or proved against the farms burnt. If Boers have used the farm; if the owner is on commando; if the line within a certain distance has been blown up; or even if there are Boers in the neighbourhood who persist in fighting—these are some of the reasons. Of course the people living in the farms have no say in these matters, and are quite powerless to interfere with the plans of the fighting Boers. Anyway we find that one reason or other generally covers pretty nearly every farm we come to, and so to save trouble we burn the lot without inquiry; unless, indeed, which sometimes happens, some names are given in before marching in the morning of farms to be spared.
The men belonging to the farm are always away and only the women left. Of these there are often three or four generations; grandmother, mother, and family of girls. The boys over thirteen or fourteen are usually fighting with their papas. The people are disconcertingly like English, especially the girls and children—fair and big and healthy looking. These folk we invite out on to the veldt or into the little garden in front, where they huddle together in their cotton frocks and big cotton sun-bonnets, while our men set fire to the house. Sometimes they entreat that it may be spared, and once or twice in an agony of rage they have invoked curses on our heads. But this is quite the exception. As a rule they make no sign, and simply look on and say nothing. One young woman in a farm yesterday, which I think she had not started life long in, went into a fit of hysterics when she saw the flames breaking out, and finally fainted away.
I wish I had my camera. Unfortunately it got damaged, and I have not been able to take any photographs. These farms would make a good subject. They are dry and burn well. The fire bursts out of windows and doors with a loud roaring, and black volumes of smoke roll overhead. Standing round are a dozen or two of men holding horses. The women, in a little group, cling together, comforting each other or hiding their faces in each other's laps. In the background a number of Tommies are seen chasing poultry, flinging stones, and throwing themselves prostrate on maimed chickens and ducks, whose melancholy squawks fill the air. Further off still, herds and flocks and horses are being collected and driven off, while, on the top of the nearest high ground, a party of men, rifles in hand, guard against a surprise from the enemy, a few of whom can generally be seen in the distance watching the destruction of their homes.
One hears the women talk. Their ideas about the war are peculiar, for they all maintain that they will succeed in the long-run in asserting their independence, and seem to think that things are going quite satisfactorily for them. "Of course we shall go on fighting," they say, quite with surprise. "How long?" "Oh, as long as may be necessary. Till you go away." It is curious coming to household after household and finding the whole lot of them, women and children, so unanimous, so agreed in the spirit in which they face their afflictions. Husbands and sons in the hill fighting. Homes in the valley blazing, and they sitting and watching it all, almost always with the same fortitude, the same patience, and the same resolve. I am impressed, for I have never seen anything of the sort before. It is not often in these days that you see one big, simple, primitive instinct, like love of country, acting on a whole people at once. Many of our officers, the thoughtful and candid-minded ones, do these people justice; but many don't. Many catch at any explanation but the true one, and attribute every kind of motive save the only one that will explain the facts. They refuse to call the Boers patriots, but that the Boers are prepared to face a slow extermination in defence of their country is now evident. It has become more evident since the war has assumed its present character of individual, personal effort. I much respect and admire them for it.
It is time to bring this long letter to an end. I wish I could see an end to the campaign. When I come home "an old, old, aged and infirm old man," I mean to pass the evening of my days in a quiet cottage with its full allowance of honeysuckle and roses. There I shall grow sweet williams and, if I can stand the extra excitement, perhaps keep a pig. They tell me the Times has pronounced the war over. I would be glad to pay £5 out of my own pocket to have the man who wrote that out here on the veldt with us for a week. We have just heard that Dewetsdorp has fallen, and that there is a rising in the Colony near Aliwal North. Vogue la galère!