Camp on the Vaal, near Klerksdorp, December 23, 1900.
We are encamped close to the Vaal, which is here a fine stream, as wide as the Thames at Richmond. I have just been bathing in it. It is early morning, and I am sitting under a thicket of great weeping willows by the river. The banks slope down and make a trough for the stream a good deal below the level of the plain, and in this hollow, hidden till you are close to it, congregates all the verdure there is for miles, especially a quantity of willow trees, with gnarled black trunks leaning down to the stream, sometimes bending over and burying themselves in the ground and then shooting up again, making arches and long vistas, with green grass below and silvery foliage waving above. After our long marches on the veldt, the contrast here is wonderfully refreshing. One seems to drink in the coolness and greenness of the scene with eyes that have grown thirsty for such things. The trees straddling down the bank are rather like figures of men, giants that have flung themselves down, resting on hands and elbows, delighted, one would think, as I am, to come and rest near water again.
I can hardly believe that it only wants two days to Christmas. Our last Christmas we spent on the Modder. I remember it well; a wet night, and all night long we sat on a steep kopje watching the lights of a Boer laager and expecting to be attacked. Methuen's little campaign strikes one now as a sort of prelude, or overture, to the main show; but how very much surprised we should have been that November morning when we marched from Orange River Camp if you had told us we should ever be looked at in that light. Ten thousand men was a big army in those days.
We have been on the trek now for about six weeks with Bruce-Hamilton, and though we have not so far been seriously engaged, there has been almost daily fighting round the fringes and skirts of the column ("skirt-fighting," you may call it).
"November 17.—Left Lindley. This neighbourhood quite as disturbed as ever. Shooting.
"November 18.—More shooting. Boers in all hills.
"November 19.—More shooting and galloping about. Reached Heilbron.
"November 20.—Left for Frankfort. Boers in attendance as usual. Our two guns and pompom very useful."
Those were the last entries I made in my diary. The day's events became too monotonous to chronicle, but very much the same sort of entries would have applied to almost every day since. Sometimes there are exciting incidents. Yesterday half-a-dozen Boers hid in a little hollow which just concealed them until our column came along, and opened fire at close range on the flank guard. One or two men were hit and several horses. My friend Vice had five bullets through his horse and was not touched himself, which was rather lucky for him (or unlucky for the horse). A few days before that we were camped on the river and had a picket on the other side. Two or three Boers crept up the river right between our picket and the main body, and then walked straight to the picket as if coming from us and fired into it at point-blank range. They mortally wounded one of our men and in the dusk escaped. They are as cunning as Indians. Sometimes, as in these cases, they show great coolness and daring, while at others they are easily dispersed; but they are generally pretty keen, and you have to be very much on the alert in dealing with them.
You at home will probably be annoyed to find the war dragging on so. About election time the papers were announcing that it was over. It had been a hard job, they said, but it was finished at last. A good deal was occurring out here which did not quite tally with that theory, but those things were ignored or very slightly referred to, so that we on the spot wondered to see the war drop out of sight, and were puzzled to read in the Times that only a few desperadoes remained in the field just at the time that two commandoes were invading the Colony, another raiding Natal, a garrison and two guns captured at Dewetsdorp, and the line blown up in ten different places. The continuance of the war must strike you as a renewal, but there was never a lull really.
People who think the war can be ended by farm-burning, &c., mistake the Boer temper. I scarcely know how to convey to you any idea of the spirit of determination that exists among them all, women and even children as well as men. The other day I picked up at a farmhouse a short characteristic form of prayer, written out evidently by the wife in a child's copybook, ending thus: "Forgive me all my sins for the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, in whom I put all my trust for days of sorrow and pain. And bring back my dear husband and child and brothers, and give us our land back again, which we paid for with blood from the beginning." Simple enough as you see, and no particular cant about it, but very much in earnest. At another farm a small girl interrupted her preparation for departure to play indignantly their national anthem at us on an old piano. We were carting the people off. It was raining hard and blowing—a miserable, hurried home-leaving; ransacked house, muddy soldiers, a distracted mother saving one or two trifles and pushing along her children to the ox-waggon outside, and this poor little wretch in the midst of it all pulling herself together to strum a final defiance. One smiled, but it was rather dramatic all the same, and exactly like a picture. These are straws, but one could multiply them with incidents from every farm we go to. Their talk is invariably, and without so far a single exception, to the same effect—"We will never give in, and God sooner or later will see us through."
And then I see a speech of Buller's explaining that the war is being carried on by a few mercenaries and coerced men, and that it is in no sense a patriotic war. He is emphatic on this point and his audience cheer him. One realises the difficulty of getting you to understand. The breaking up of the big commandoes and the change to guerilla tactics, in which every man fights on his own account, shows in a way there is no mistaking that it is the personal wish of each man to fight out the quarrel to the last. It is just because they are so individually keen that this sort of warfare of theirs is so hard to cope with. These men are uncoerced. Spontaneously and one by one they turn out to fight us as soon as we show ourselves in their neighbourhood, and all the suffering we can inflict only serves to harden their resolution.
Yet we certainly inflict a great deal. Boer families usually average up to a dozen. They stick together, and grow up on their farms, which are of enormous extent, and which they get to love with the instinctive force of people who have never seen any other place. Love of family and love of home are their two ruling affections. The household life of a big family on a 20,000 acre farm—three and often four generations represented—is usually uninterrupted for weeks at a time by the sight of a strange face or a bit of outside news. Their lives are altogether bound up, in their serene and stolid way, with each other and with their homes. Anything that breaks up a family is felt by them more grievously than would be the case with most people; and, in the same way, anything that severs them from "the land" would be more profoundly felt too. It amounts to an entire dislocation of their ideas of life.
This must make the war at present very hard to bear. "My dear husband and child and brothers" are away fighting. One or two of them very likely killed by this time, or in Ceylon or St. Helena. "And as for the others who are still in the field, we are in constant terror of hearing the bad news, which we know, if the war continues, must some day come." So the family is quite broken up, and now the home is being destroyed and the occupants carried off, so that altogether the chances of ever renewing the old life again in the old place seem very remote indeed.
All this should be enough to break Boer hearts, and there is no doubt they feel it very much. I can recall many scenes and incidents which show that—scenes which, if you saw them out of your peaceful, natural life, you would perhaps be never able to forget. But yet, in spite of all they have to suffer, their determination remains just the same. Anything like loud lamentations or complaints are almost unheard. They rise to the occasion, and though naturally a very simple people, who express openly what they feel, they act now in this crisis with a constant composure which I have often thought most remarkable.
What supports them and keeps them going is just that spirit of patriotism which Buller denies the existence of. A patriot is a man who puts his country first thing of all. The final result of it all, "the uselessness of prolonging the struggle," and such newspaper talk as that, is not for him. There fronts him one fact, his country is invaded; and there fronts him one duty, to fight till he dies for it. This would have been a Greek's definition of the word, and it is the Boer farmer's definition. It is of course just because patriots never do count the cost, and are what the newspapers call "deaf to reason," that they sometimes bring off such astonishing results.
The Boers have now to watch a slow, implacable, methodical devastation of their country, tract by tract. Day by day they fight, and one by one they fall. Comrades and friends drop at each other's sides; sons drop by fathers, and brothers by brothers. The smoke rises in the valley, and the home is blotted out. All that makes life worth living goes, then life itself. What sterner test can a nation be put to than this? It is a torture long and slow; the agony and bloody sweat. I know well that if my own country were invaded I should, or hope I should, behave exactly as these men are doing; and as I should call it patriotism in my own case, I cannot refuse to call it the same in theirs. You see bribery and coercion are not adequate motives, and do not explain the facts; only, unfortunately, a lot of people would rather hunt up any base motive, however inadequate, than take the obvious one if it did their enemy any credit.
It is most important that the situation should be realised at home, for if it were the conduct of the war would be changed. You cannot torture and terrorise men like this into submission. Probably no system will end the war off quickly, but certainly kind, or at least fair, treatment is the best chance and best policy in every way. The present system hardens these men's resolution to iron, and so tends to prolong the war; and it embitters Dutch hatred of the British, and so tends to perpetuate the ill effects of the war. In fact, I am convinced that it is the worst policy you could possibly adopt, and the sooner you change it the better.
As for the fighting itself, you must make great allowance for our difficulties. So long as we had big commandoes with guns, convoys, &c., to deal with, there was a definite object to hit at. It was possible to deal a blow that took effect. Now we are fighting shadows. Our columns march through the country and see no enemy, or at most only a few small parties hovering on the sky-line. Scouts and patrols are often engaged, and no one can wander out of sight of the column but the ugly voice of a Mauser will warn him back. Invisible eyes watch us all the time, ready to take advantage of detached parties or unprotected convoys. We are teased and annoyed, but never definitely engaged. We are like the traveller and the gnats—
"Nor could my weak arm disperse
The host of insects gathered round my head,
And ever with me as I walked along."
Carried on in a country like this, where a man on horseback is like a bird in the air, and by people so individually keen as the Boers, the present kind of war may go on indefinitely. After all, it is the sort of war the Boers understand best. The big-battle war is a matter of science which he had in a great measure to be instructed in, but this is a war which the natural independence of his own character and self-reliant habits make natural to him. The war, now that it has become a matter of individuals, is exciting all its old enthusiasm again, and the Burghers are up in arms in every district in the country. Fighting in their own country, the Boers have one advantage over us, which is their salvation: they can disperse in flight, but we cannot disperse in pursuit.
This vagrant form of war is more formidable than it sounds. These wandering bands can unite with great rapidity and deal when least expected a rapid blow. As we cannot catch them we must be prepared to receive them at all points. The veldt is a void to us, all darkness, and it hides a threat which, as it may fall anywhere, must be guarded against everywhere. This, what with all our garrisons and enormous lines of communication, means that the far greater part of our army has to act on the defensive; to sit still waiting for an enemy who may be a hundred miles off or behind the next hill. As for our wandering columns, they have about as much chance of catching Boers on the veldt as a Lord Mayor's procession would have of catching a highwayman on Hounslow Heath. The enemy are watching us now from a rise a few miles away, waiting for our next move, and probably discussing some devilry or other they are up to. The line of our march is blotted out already. Where we camp one day they camp the next. They are all round and about us like water round a ship, parting before our bows and reuniting round our stern. Our passage makes no impression and leaves no visible trace. It does amuse me to read the speeches and papers in England with their talk of what we are to do with the country now we have conquered it. "With the conclusion of the war in South Africa arises the question," &c., &c. It reminds one of a child's game of make-believe. There is the same pompous air of reality. "This is the shop and you are the shopwoman. Good morning, Mrs. Snooks, I have come to buy a pound of sugar." Unfortunately the facts remain. I find that some of the shrewdest onlookers out here are just beginning to feel a sort of half doubt whether we shall ever conquer the country at all. It depends on whether the home Government and press give up their babyish "let's pretend" attitude and face the difficulties of the situation.
All this is very sad and lugubrious, is it not? and I daresay you think me a croaker; but there is a melancholy satisfaction in trying to see things as they are, and I believe what I have told you is nearer the truth than what you get from the papers. I only hope I may turn out to be wrong.
I add a note (January 12th) from Ventersberg, where we have just arrived. This has been our last trek, we believe. Rimington takes command of his regiment, and the corps, like the rest of the Colonial Division, will be paid off. I have a vision of a great blue steamer with a bow like a cliff bursting her way through the seas on her homeward voyage. And yet I can scarcely believe it.
Bad news waits us here. They say the Colony is rising. Now mark my words. If we don't watch it, we shall end by bringing about the very state of things we have been dreading. There will be a Dutch South African conspiracy, but it will be one of our own making. We shall have our own treatment of these people to thank for it. Be sure of this, that for every house up here that is destroyed, three or four in the south are slowly rousing to arms.
You will think, I daresay, that I have been putting the case one-sidedly. Possibly that is so; but I am putting the side that wants putting. I am constantly seeing it stated that any measures are justifiable so long as they are likely to end the war. "Well, but we must end it somehow," is a common phrase. That is all rubbish. We must fight fairly, that's the first rule of all. I daresay there may have been individual acts of cruelty or treachery on the part of the Boers, but I am sure that any just and unprejudiced officer will tell you that on the whole they have behaved surprisingly well, and in a way that is really very striking when we consider how undisciplined and individually independent they are. Let us then, on our side, play the game fairly. No doubt it is very exasperating to have the thing dragging on in the way it is doing, and the present intangible, elusive warfare is desperately irritating, but there is after all nothing unfair about these tactics of the Boers, nothing illegitimate in any way; they are merely the turning to account of natural advantages; and this being the case, we have no right to lose our tempers and get vicious just because we have taken on a tougher job than we thought for. Unluckily there seems to be a big party who are prepared to do anything and fight anyhow to get the thing finished. You will gain nothing by those means. You will not hasten the end of the war, and you will make its after effects more lasting and hard to deal with.FOOTNOTES:
 Here is a telegram copied from the Evening Standard of October 16, 1901. "Addressing the volunteers who have returned from the front, the Governor of Natal this morning said that he could not now refer to the Boers as dogs of war, but rather as yelping, snarling curs." As against that take the opinion of Lord Cranborne who has just come back from the front: "They had fought and they were fighting with some of the bravest, some of the most tenacious, and some of the most admirable troops that the nation had ever had to encounter;" and he ends his speech: "Personally he had, as one who had served as a soldier in South Africa, a great admiration for the Boers themselves." What I submit is, that it makes the whole difference to your chances of a settlement whether you speak of and regard your enemy as brave and admirable, or as a yelping cur. We shall have to settle down with these people sooner or later, and every paltry insult uttered and countenanced against them only makes the process much more difficult. The odd thing is that even in England they seem to excite no surprise or dissent. They are printed as a natural comment on the situation. What I always feel is, now as when I was out there, that the chances of a future agreement would be very much improved if the English people were to treat the Boers in the way that brave enemies ought to be treated, with a certain amount of courtesy and respect.