As early as March, 1901, we experienced the difficulty of adequately providing our commandos with the necessities of life. So far back as September, 1900, we had said good-bye at Hector's Spruit to our commissariat, and thence, no organized supplies existing, it may very well be imagined that the task of feeding the Boers was one of the most serious, and I may say disquieting, questions with which we had to deal. We were cut off from the world, and there was no means of importing stores. Of course the men who had been previously engaged on commissariat duty were enlisted in the fighting ranks so soon as they became available. From this date we had to feed ourselves on quite a different system. Each commandant looked after his own men and appointed two or three Boers whose special duty it was to ride round for provisions. It must not be supposed that we commandeered stores without signing receipts, and the storekeeper who supplied us was provided with an acknowledgment, countersigned by field-cornet, commandant, and general. On producing this document to our Government the holder received probably one-third of the amount in cash and the balance in Government notes, better known as "blue-backs." By this time a large portion of the Republic had been occupied by the British, all food-stuffs had been removed or destroyed, and most of the cattle had been captured. In consequence, everything in the shape of food became very scarce. Flour, coffee, sugar, &c., were now regarded as delicacies remembered from the far-away past. The salt supplies were especially low, and we feared that without salt we would not be able to live, or if we did manage to exist, that we might bring upon ourselves an epidemic of disease. Our fears in this respect were increased by the opinions expressed by our doctors, and we viewed our situation with considerable disquietude. Happily, as experience proved, our apprehensions were not in the least justified, for during the ten months that preceded my capture my burghers lived entirely without salt, and were at the time that I fell into the hands of the British as healthy as could be desired.
Existing as we did solely on mealies and meat, potatoes and other vegetables which we might chance upon were regarded as luxuries indeed. Though it may appear strange it is nevertheless a fact that we were always fortunate enough to obtain adequate supplies of mealies and meat. We ground our mealies in coffee mills if no other mills were available. Mealie pap is cooked in a simple fashion, and occasionally boiling hot pots of it have fallen into the hands of the British. The British soldiers were not much better off than we were, for they were limited to bully-beef and "clinkers," though they frequently supplemented their larder by stores from Boer farms, such as fowls, pigs, &c., and had salt, sugar, and coffee in abundance. Their culinary utensils were not nearly so primitive as circumstances had reduced ours to.
Many Boers did nothing but roam round with their cattle, and I confess that on many occasions they excited my admiration by the "slim" manner in which they evaded capture. Boers of this description were dubbed "bush-lancers," because they always sought the thickest bushes for sanctuary. These "bush-lancers" were of three kinds: There were some who sought by running away with their cattle to escape commando duty, others who hoped by retaining their cattle to obtain a large profit on them after the War was over, while others were so attached to their cattle that they would as lief have lost their own lives as have suffered their cattle to be taken. All three classes of "bush-lancers" contrived to supply us with adequate stores of food. Often, however, it was a difficult task to get the supplies out of them. When we asked them to sell us cattle we were frequently met by the reply that we had already taken their best cattle, that the British had taken some, and that the little they had left they could not do without. Of course we were not hindered in our purpose of obtaining food by such a reply, and we had sometimes to resort to force. We frequently gave these "bush-lancers" notice when danger threatened, but in most instances they were the first to discover danger, and gave us information as to the movements of the British.
Everybody knows that it is a sore trial for the Boer to live without coffee, but this national beverage disappeared entirely from our menu, and its loss was only partly replaced by the "mealie coffee" which we set about preparing. The process was a very simple one. As soon as we off-saddled a hundred coffee mills were set to work. The mealie was roasted over a fire and afterwards treated in a similar manner to that by which the coffee bean is prepared. This "mealie coffee" made a very palatable drink, especially as we were frequently able to obtain milk to mix with it.
We generally roasted our meat on the coals, as we found that without salt meat was most palatable when treated in this way. This is explained by the fact that the ashes of the fire contain a certain saline quality. We obtained mealies in all sorts of extraordinary ways. Sometimes we harvested it ourselves, but more often we found quantities hidden in caves or kraals. Mealies were also purchased from the natives. Every general did all that was possible to sow in the district in which he was operating, for the soil is very fruitful. We very seldom lacked mealies, although the British frequently destroyed the crops we had been growing. There can be no doubt that when an Afrikander feels hungry he will find something to eat.
I have already mentioned that sometimes when the British swooped down upon us they carried away our culinary utensils, and a question may arise in the minds of my readers as to how we obtained others to replace them. Well, we were not particular in this connection. We found empty tea cans and empty bully-beef tins, and by manipulating barbed wire we speedily converted these crude materials into serviceable culinary implements. We preferred the tar cans because the beef tins often came to pieces after the solder with which they are fastened had been subjected to the heat of the fire. I remember that one day our parson gave as much as five shillings for an empty tar can.
Several British convoys fell into our hands, but the food we found on them consisted usually of bully-beef and "clinkers," things which only dire necessity drove us Boers to eat. Sometimes to our great chagrin we discovered that all our fighting to capture a convoy was only rewarded by the sight of empty trucks or ones loaded with hay and fodder. If perchance we were fortunate enough to capture a camp or a fort we contented ourselves with removing such coffee and sugar as we could carry away on our pack mules.
The clothing question was very perplexing. Whenever we were able to obtain it we bought canvas and converted it into trousers. Sheep skins we tanned and employed either for the purpose of making clothes or for patching. The hides of cattle and of horses that had died of disease were also tanned and employed for the making of boots. I may point out that no horse was specially slaughtered for this purpose or for the purpose of food. It was only General Baden-Powell and General White who slaughtered their horses to make sausages. Our best clothing supply, however, came from the British Army. Forgive me for saying so; I do not intend to be sarcastic. When we captured a convoy or a fort we always obtained a supply of clothes. At the beginning of the War we Boers had a strong prejudice against any garment which even faintly resembled khaki, but afterwards we grew indifferent and accepted khaki quite as readily as any other material. We generally compelled our prisoners to exchange clothes with us, and often derived much amusement from the disgusted look of the sensitive Briton as he walked away in the clothes of a ragged Boer. Imagine the spectacle! A dandy English soldier, clean shaven, with a monocle adorning one eye, his head covered with an old war-worn slouch hat of broad brim, and his body with ragged jacket and trousers patched with sheep-skin or yarn.
I may say that none of this systematic plundering occurred in my presence. But such things were certainly done, and, after all, who can blame a ragged burgher for resorting to this means, however much to be deprecated, of clothing himself. Remember that the poor Boers were prepared to pay double the value of a suit of clothes, and were, so to speak, cut off from the world, while the British soldier had simply to go back to camp to obtain a new outfit. "Necessity knows no law."
In concluding this chapter I must mention that the lack of matches was very sensibly felt. And when our stock of matches was exhausted we had to resort to the old-fashioned tinder-box and flint and steel. We found this expedient a very poor substitute for the lucifer match, but it was certainly better than nothing at all. Personally I experienced the greatest difficulty in getting fire from a flint and steel, and to do it generally took me quite twice as long as it took anybody else, and I bruised my hands considerably. This latter, however, is an experience to which every amateur is liable, and I was never much more than an amateur at anything.