There is great difference between the relations of a Boer officer to his following and the relation of a European officer to his men, for while in the former case no social distinction between the two exists, in the latter the officers and men are drawn from two distinct branches of society. The Boers in their normal state are independent farmers differing only in wealth. One Boer might be the possessor of perhaps ten farms and be worth a quarter of a million, while another might be but a poor "bywoner" and not worth a hundred pence, yet the two men would occupy the same rank in time of war.
Immediately martial law is promulgated the entire Boer adult male population is amenable for military service. In the ranks of a commando one finds men of every profession, from the advocate and doctor to the blacksmith and plumber. From these ranks the officers are chosen, and a man who one day is but an ordinary soldier might be the next promoted to the rank of field-cornet or commandant, and might possibly in a few days attain the position of a General.
The officer and the men that follow him have in most cases been drawn from the same district, and they know one another personally. If, therefore, a Boer falls in battle, whatever be his rank, his loss is keenly felt by his comrades in arms, for they, having known him of old, lose a personal friend by his death.
The Boer officers can be divided into two classes—the brave and the cowardly. The brave officer fights whenever he gets the chance, whereas his chicken-hearted brother always waits for orders and makes elaborate plans to escape fighting. It is quite easy in the Boer Army to succeed in the course adopted by the latter class, and it not infrequently occurred that the Boers preferred this class of officer to his more reckless comrade, for they argued—"We like to serve under him because he will keep us out of danger." And just as the officers could be divided so could the men.
In this campaign it was noticeable that during the last stages of the struggle the younger officers replaced the older ones. Many of these latter got tired of the War and surrendered to the British, others were removed from their commands as being too old-fashioned in their methods and incapable of adapting themselves to the altered circumstances. Moreover, we found that the younger officers were more industrious, more mischievous, and more reckless. Of course, when I speak of the young Boer officers I do not intend to convey the idea of children of seventeen to twenty years of age, such as I have sometimes encountered among the junior officers of the British Army.
The life training of the burghers in horsemanship and musketry stood them in good stead. I may say that a Boer even early in life is a good horseman and marksman. He does not shoot without purpose for he can generally estimate at a glance the distance at which he is shooting, and he has been taught economy in the use of ammunition. The burgher knows perfectly well how valuable to him is his horse, and he is thus constrained to use his knowledge in carefully tending it; moreover, considerable affection exists, in many instances, between the master and his beast.
Taken all round the Boer is a brave man, but his attitude on the battlefield is influenced very largely by the character of his officer. And being brave, the Boer is, in the main, sympathetic towards prisoners-of-war, and especially towards such as are wounded. Possessing bravery and humanity the Boer has besides what the British "Tommy Atkins" lacks, the power of initiative. The death of an officer does not throw the ranks of a Boer commando into chaos, for everybody knows how to proceed. It must not be supposed, however, that the death of an officer does not exercise a certain amount of demoralising influence. What I wish to impress is that the members of a commando can act independently of the officer and can exercise their own judgment.
As regards the fortitude of the Boers, I can best illustrate it by pointing to the fact that it frequently happened that having been repulsed with loss one day we attacked our conqueror with better success the next. We often assumed the aggressive when a favourable opportunity offered itself, and did not always wait to be shot at. Frequently we held out for hours notwithstanding severe punishment.
I think even the bitterest of our enemies will allow that the Boers who remained faithful to their country to the last were animated with noble principles. Were it not that so many of my compatriots lacked that which is so largely characteristic of the British soldier, the quality of patriotism and the intense desire to uphold the traditions of his nationality, I would ask what people in the world would have been able to conquer the Afrikander? I say this with great deliberation, and I do not believe that any impartial compatriot will attempt to deny the truth of the statement.
The question suggests itself how would the English have fared had they been placed in a plight similar to that to which we found ourselves reduced? Supposing that we Boers had taken London and other large towns, and had driven the English people before us and compelled them to hide in the mountains with nothing upon which to subsist but mealie pap and meat without salt, with only worn and rent clothes as a covering, their houses burnt, and their women and children placed in Concentration Camps in the hands of the enemy. How would the English have acted under such circumstances? Would they not have surrendered to the conqueror? However that may be, one thing is certain, that the patriotism of a nation is only to be learned when put to such a severe test as this.
In his book, "The Great Boer War," Dr. Conan Doyle has, on the whole, gained the admiration of the Afrikanders by his moderate language. But here and there, where he has been carried away by his English sympathies to use bitter and libellous language with respect to the Boers, that admiration has been changed into contempt. Dr. Conan Doyle attempts to defend the British Army by abusing the Boers. Abuse is not argument. To prove that Van der Merwe is a thief does not exonerate Brown from the crime of theft if he have been stealing.
The author describes the shooting of Lieutenant Neumeyer, for refusing to surrender and for attempting to escape from his captors as murder, and the shooting of kaffir spies it also glibly described as murder; whereas, the incident at Frederickstad, where a number of Boers were shot dead by the British because they continued firing after hoisting the white flag, is justified by him. Of course, the execution of Scheepers is also justified by the author. I object to such things appearing in a book, because they must tend to sow anew the seeds of dissension, hate and bitterness, and these have been planted sufficiently deep without being nurtured by Dr. Conan Doyle. Neither Boer nor Briton can speak impartially on this question, and both would be better employed in attempting to find out the virtues rather than the vices in one another's characters.
Whoever in the future governs South Africa, the two races must live together, and when the day of Peace arrives and the sword is sheathed, let us hold out our hands to each other like men, forgetting the past and remembering the motto—
"Both Nations have Done their Duty."