If what theosophists say be true, that thoughts are living forces, then it seems to me that the subtle power and influence of a national maxim must be far-reaching and powerful in its effect on the national mind.
Of this we had ample proof as the war proceeded.
With "Might is right" working ceaselessly in a hundred thousand brains, some people in South Africa and England began to believe that might was right, and with "All is fair in love and war" held up by the united force of a million minds, is it to be wondered at that anything and everything seemed justified under martial law? And yet, when we come to think of it, how pernicious and demoralising the effect of such maxims must be on the public in general and the uneducated mind in particular. Under its influence a nation may become, in times of war, dishonourable and treacherous, may be dragged from one abyss of degradation to another, deeper than the last, until all self-respect is gone and the voice of conscience is silenced for ever.
Well may we guard against this growing evil in South Africa! Well may we keep our national mottoes pure!
I do believe that the Dutch South African saying, "Geduld en moed, alles sal reg kom" ("Patience and courage, everything will right itself"), is responsible to a great extent for the South African indifference to duty. It was first spoken by President Brand, of the Orange Free State, no doubt in all thoughtlessness of what it might lead to, for no one could have foreseen that the first part, "Geduld en moed," would fall into disuse and be forgotten, because these good qualities do not come easily to men, and the second, "Alles sal reg kom," would be made an excuse for a sort of lazy optimism, by which anything could be justified which comes easiest to us at the moment.
"Alles sal reg kom," yes, but not if we shirk our responsibilities. "Alles sal reg kom" if we are true, staunch, and honourable, if with perseverance and patient endurance we fulfil our duty when its demands upon us are most exacting and difficult.
Rightly interpreted, this popular saying would have been a strong support to the Boers at a time when they were assailed by the fiercest temptation, and this brings us to the subject with which this short chapter deals.
We were frequently told during the war that it was Lord Kitchener's policy to procure the services of as many members of the opposing forces as could be persuaded, for material considerations, to take up arms against their fellow countrymen, a policy which he had often employed in other countries and to which he owed much of his success. This may or may not have been the case in previous wars in which he had taken a leading part, but in the great South African war this policy was crowned with undoubted success, in the formation of the National Scouts Corps.
The thought has occurred to me that the words "National Scout" may convey nothing to my English reader.
Would to God that it conveyed nothing to us either!
It will be necessary to explain. The first downward step to becoming a National Scout was the voluntary surrendering of arms to the enemy, to become a "handsupper," as the burghers were called, who laid down their arms while the Boer leaders were still in the field.
There were three kinds of handsuppers; first, men who, through a mistaken sense of duty, surrendered themselves to the enemy, in order to bring the war to a speedy termination and so to save the women and children from further suffering; second, the men who, wearied of the strife, became hopeless and despondent and only longed for peace, indifferent as to who should prove to be the victor in the field; and third, the men who, through their lust for gain, fell an easy prey to the temptations offered them in gold and spoil by the enemy, surrendering their trusty Mausers in exchange for the Lee Metfords of the enemy, with whom they thereafter stood, side by side, in infernal warfare against kith and kin. To the latter class of handsuppers the National Scouts, better known throughout the war as "Judas-Boers," belonged. In most cases they were first employed by the enemy as "Cattle Rangers," to gather in the livestock from the farms and protect them from recapture by the Boer commandos. The next step downwards followed as a matter of course, active service against their brother burghers.
A few months after the occupation of Pretoria the first public meeting was held in the Rex Bar, now known as the Lyceum Theatre, on Church Square ("under the Oaks"), for the purpose of recruiting National Scouts from the ranks of the burghers in Pretoria. Many prominent men attended this meeting, which, it will be remembered, was presided over by a distinguished British officer. These men went, not to become members of the National Scouts Corps, but to ask a certain question when the right moment arrived—and then they rose with one accord. "What about our oath of neutrality?" They were told that the oath of neutrality need not disturb any one who wished to join the ranks of the enemy; it would be nullified by the oath of allegiance, and was declared to be "a mere formality." The noblest motives for uniting their strength to that of the enemy, in the endeavour "to restore peace to the land," were laid before the burghers of the Transvaal. Not only would the helpless inmates of the Concentration Camps be spared further suffering, but the deplorable loss of life of men on both sides in the field would cease.
Then too, the pay was a consideration not to be despised in days of so much hardship and privation. Large sums were paid for the capture of each brother burgher, and so liberal a share in the plunder brought home by them that there are, at the present time, well-to-do farmers, poor before the war, now flourishing and well known in their districts as successful "pocket patriots."
The National Scouts became a strong and well-organised body of men, versed in all the arts of Boer warfare, familiar with the country—a dangerous and treacherous addition to the difficulties with which the faithful burghers were beset.
It must be clearly understood that there can be no comparison between the act of the men who, when condemned to death, saved themselves by turning King's evidence and the treachery of the men who, voluntarily and for greed of gold, took up arms against their fellow-countrymen. Under the impulse of fear men may be guilty of a crime for which they may have to do penance with lifelong remorse, and for these we may feel pity, even if we do not understand and cannot enter into the cowardly weakness by which they were driven to betray their comrades. But in the case of the National Scouts there were no extenuating circumstances except perhaps that the greater responsibility rested on the men who paid in dross for the dishonour of their fellow-creatures.
It was the public recruiting of National Scouts from amongst the burghers who had taken the oath of neutrality that first induced the Boers who remained true to their cause to use their influence in bringing the war to an end. But they determined to assist their fellow-countrymen, not the enemy, and when the call came from the field they were found ready to depart for active service or willing to devote themselves to secret service in the towns, as the case may be. I may say here that the appointment of the Secret Committee did not at any time bear an official character.
Although the Boer leaders knew of its existence and made use of information conveyed through the members, they did not approve of the work of espionage being carried on in the towns, because of the great danger to which it exposed the women and the needless risks incurred by the men.
The Secret Service of the Boers was not confined to the burghers. In every department of importance there were British subjects in the employment of the Boers, especially in that part connected with the registration of names of the men who joined the National Scouts.
From every part of the Transvaal the names and addresses of Boers joining the English were sent to British head-quarters in Pretoria, these lists being again conveyed to Captain Naudé, who passed them on to Boer head-quarters in the field.
There was no break in this part of the Boer espionage until the war came to an end.
In the Burgher Camps Department, as the head-quarters of the Concentration Camps in Pretoria were called, there were men at work for us too, men who by smuggling through statistics of the high mortality and other facts connected with the Camps, strengthened the hands of the pro-Boers in England and acquainted the world with the real state of affairs even before the Blue books could appear.
Towards the latter end of the war thousands of burghers had succumbed to their temptations, and the appalling increase of the Scouts Corps preyed on the minds of the Boer leaders more than any other calamity. Everything that ingenuity could devise was tried to stop the burghers from sinking deeper into degradation, members of the Scouts Corps, when captured by the Boers, being executed without mercy and their fate made known far and wide.
Hell was indeed let loose in South Africa and every man's hand was turned against his brother. The worst passions of mankind rose to the surface, were deliberately played upon, making havoc of every tradition of country and race.
In the towns, where the renegades felt themselves comparatively safe under the protection of the British troops, their work was carried on quite openly. It would not be possible to describe the feelings of the faithful Boers when they contemplated this hideous aspect of the war.
Many futile efforts were made to stem the tide of crime, but it was a woman in Pretoria who devised a plan which would undoubtedly have struck terror to the hearts of many waverers had it been put to practice by the Boer leaders, after she had successfully carried it out.
At her instance a trusted mechanic, working secretly at dead of night, made half a dozen tiny branding-irons in the form of a cross, to be used for branding the traitors between the eyes, when captured red-handed. This drastic measure was, however, not resorted to.