Early on the morning after the Osfontein engagement the army was again upon the march, and towards afternoon reached a farm called Poplar Grove, the point on which our left flank had rested on the day before. That was only a ten-mile journey, but men and beasts were tired, and a longer distance would have tried them severely. We rested a whole day at Poplar Grove, and many of us bathed in the river. It is strange indeed to find how comparative are all our standards of luxury; on that day you could have seen what Mr. Dooley might call the "flowers of the British aristocracy" splashing and rejoicing in filthy, muddy water beside Kaffirs and drinking mules; and no one who bathed on that day, after many days of wearing the same clothes and being impregnated with sand and sun, is likely to forget the luxury of the bath.
The discomforts of a hurried march are many, and the feeling of uncleanness is not the least of them; yet one recalls with pleasure the long days spent dozing along on one's horse at the head of a marching column that stretched seven miles over the plain and hills behind. Let me try to describe some of the circumstances of the march from Poplar Grove to Dreifontein. It must be remembered that these are but the names of farms, and that a farm means often nothing more than a mud house, a few trees, and a well of water.
Long before it was light we were awakened by the cries of Kaffirs collecting their ox teams and by the almost human complaints of many mules; and while we breakfasted by lamplight in the dim grove where our camp was pitched a stream of transport was already flowing out of the mass surrounding us on all sides. We started later, when the line along the east, crimson at first, had changed from saffron to bright gold, and the head of the column was already out of sight, melting towards the sunrise in a cloud of dust. The mounted infantry brigade, which furnished the patrols and screens, was already away scouring the plain in advance of the column, but the thin line of waggons was broken now by the broad shape of infantry brigades, marching fifty deep across the grass.
Our own small convoy was not got under weigh without many pains. The two newspapers which it represented were the proprietors of many and various beasts. Six riding ponies for the three correspondents, two horses for the despatch-rider, six horses to draw an American waggon and two Cape carts, and six oxen to draw an ox cart laden with forage. No tongue can tell the anxiety caused by those fourteen horses. No more could be bought, and if anything happened to them our usefulness would be at an end. I have often arisen during the night and walked down what we called our "lines," counting the beasts, and feeling like Abraham. To be sure, one of the horses cost but thirty shillings; we bought him from a Kaffir whose honesty I should be sorry to vouch for, but he could pull, and he lived more than a fortnight. For another one I paid a sovereign at Osfontein, but observing that he did not eat his supper one night I gently pushed him away a good hundred yards so that he should not die close to us.
By the time breakfast had been eaten, the oxen caught, the horses counted, the differences of six jealous servants adjusted, and the carts packed, we were ready to move off. Then the sun came up and the day began, and one could canter up to the front of the column, clear of the dust. On some days one rode up and down, visiting different regiments or finding out friends who were trudging beside their companies; but on the day of this march my pony was tired, and I let him amble along in front of the Guards for the whole eighteen miles.
I wish I could describe for people who have never seen it the grand and majestic march of 30,000 men with their guns and baggage across a large country; the slow dignity of a vast seven-mile column winding over the face of a plain, all the units diverging to pass the same ant-heap or to avoid the same rough place. After the first few miles it is silent, and one hears behind one only the sweep of many feet upon the grass. It is like Fate, or, say, Time with his scythe held steady; the thing comes and passes and is gone; but ride backward and you shall see the traces of its passage. Grass downtrodden that shall rise again, little flowers bruised that shall renew their blossoms; and still the birds singing peacefully, the hares leaping, the manifold petty life of the veldt resuming its routine and circumstance. One passes on through the quaking air as in a dream, and as though impelled by the great force behind; and to eyes gazing long on the ground the affairs of tiny creatures become conspicuous and important. The mere-cats sit listening, and wonder what the new sound in the grass means, not like wind or rain. Little lizards basking on the sand suddenly wake up and wriggle away to avoid the thing against which the shelter of a leaf will not avail them. And always in front hares and buck by the hundred stream away like the shadows of clouds over grass. Then someone looks at his watch and shouts "Halt!" and the welcome word is shouted and repeated down the line until the sound is lost in the distance, while the tired men throw themselves down between the burning sun and the sand.
It is like sailing on a wide sea after a storm, when the short and high waves have died away beneath the tread of smooth rollers. The veldt undulates from sky to sky, a plain rising and falling about the base of rocks and island kopjes. One reaches the crest, hoping for a new view, searching for the clump of trees that means a farm and fresh water; and one sinks down again into the furrow, while the wave of disappointment runs backward along the seven miles of column as each man rises to the barren view. Now an ox, now a mule or a horse falls out and lies down to die; now a man stumbles and falls, and lies down to wait for the cool hours.
To men who find this kind of monotony irksome the march is a dreary business, while to others its bare outline is filled with the interest of a thousand little happenings. The tired, dusty, shabby "Tommy" is a man much more agreeable to talk with than his ancestor of the barrack-room at home; the youngest subaltern has forgotten all about his swagger mess-kit and the "style" of his regiment, and shows himself as the good fellow he is; even the Brigadier forgets the scarlet on his khaki collar, and remembers that he too is a frail mortal. And always, when other interest failed, one could fall back on that of one's own sometimes troublesome affairs. On the afternoon of the Dreifontein march our advance cart with the luncheon had not outspanned fifteen minutes before it was discovered that one of the horses was gone. There was no doubt as to why, of course—a soldier had "snaffled" it. I am sorry to say that in the matter of horse property the average Tommy holds vague moral views. That cart had to be brought into camp by night, and there was only one way in which it could be done. I rode about for ten minutes, and found an old framework so thin and so dejected that I blushed when I put the halter on it; it had been abandoned on account of lameness, from which it had recovered, and had since been starving. They harnessed it up and it brought in the cart; and that night, being given a good feed of oats, it died from shock. Another skeleton was found in the morning to take its place; but this skeleton grew fat. We used to laugh at these misfortunes, but the poor horses had a cruel time, especially the English ones; no one would have recognised the Horse Artillery, although the tragic skeletons that drew the guns still affected some imitation of their old dash. All the way from Modder to Bloemfontein was strewn with the bodies of horses; if all other marks had been gone, these melancholy quarter-mile posts would have guided you unerringly.
It was night as a rule before the column reached its camp, and there were some gorgeous pictures in the great outspanning commotion seen through dust clouds and the red sunset, and by light of many camp fires. But on this bit of the march we found our quarters sooner than we expected; and it was early in the afternoon when, climbing the ridge of undulating plain, I saw the smoke of a shell bursting on the hillside five miles away, and knew that our day's march, though not our day's work, was at an end.