a birthday present—a happy three weeks—about the colonial volunteers—a gymkana—a " sing-song "— the white gates—over the new bridge at Colenso —I part with Murray Gourlay—starting for Basutoland.
March 22.—I am at Umzimkulu, Griqualand East, but, in order to maintain a sequence of narrative, must retrace my steps. It was a cheery birthday present to find Lord Roberts's telegram at breakfast-time on the 16th. In it I found permission to proceed to join his forces at Bloemfontein; and as I was going into the main camp from Acton Homes in the ordinary course of events for the gymkana and " sing-sono;" of the T. M. I., I decided to take my tent and kit in with me, and start at once after I had seen Colonel Thorneycroft. The ride into Ladysmith seemed as nothing, and the Colonel kindly allowed me to resign my commission if I had been gazetted, as he had understood from the first that I was out " on contract for newspapers," and had my work to do thoroughly and conscientiously. " Glad to have had you with us" were the words with which he said good-bye; and I could assure him of the happy three weeks I had spent soldiering with the T. M. I. Such a clinking lot of officers they were, from all parts of our colonies — Australians as well as Englishmen. Hard as nails, keen at their work, fearless yet cautious, they are just the men we want to lead 600 Colonials against an enemy they hate as much as a bullock does its driver. Bear in mind they were all volunteers, and were led by volunteer officers. More than that, they were Uitlanders fighting for their freedom. Among the ranks of these irregular corps you would find a well-known rider in Morny Cannon's brother-in-law, a member of the Bachelors' Club doing "servant" to one of the officers, and a crack whip who had driven the "Comet" to "'appy 'Ampton." You would find men of business, men of money, and men of honour; and you would of course find, as you do everywhere, the pot-hunter, fortune - seeker, and the black sheep. There were precious few of the last, though, and what there were soon got their conge, to have their places at once refilled by dozens who were pining at Maritzburg to be up at the front. You could find men who would drink if they got the chance—who wouldn't in this hot country ?—and you might find the best lot of swearers, thoroughly competent to compile a dictionary of oaths at a minute's notice ! To swear like a trooper has indeed a meaning; but, take them all over, I don't want to be with a more genuine lot of fighting devils than the T. M. I., nor to be included in any better "mess" than that which was presided over by Colonel Thorneycroft. His capabilities as a soldier were not one whit less than his geniality as a colonel of one of the best regiments South Africa has turned out in this war.
The gymkana was held the last day I was with the regiment, on the 17th, and great fun it proved. Captain Mann, who, since I wrote this, has joined the majority, poor fellow, had the course and implements all ready for the struggle, and to a man the regiment mustered to see who would prove best in the fray, to cheer on those who were competing from their own companies, and to forget the business of camp life by an afternoon of relaxation and enjoyment. There were 100 yards and long-distance races and a three-legged race ; there was the high jump and the potato race ; there was wrestling on horseback, and a pillow fight on a cross-bar which evoked tremendous laughter; there was an officers' scurry, in which the competitors had to saddle and bridle their own horse, jump three fences, eat a biscuit, light a cigar, drink a whisky-and-soda, and gallop back again; and there was aV.C. race, which brought out no end of starters. These gallant troopers cared nought for the state of the ground nor of the shins of the Government horses ; they only wanted to be first in the fray and to bring back the "dummy" from his dangerous position. They charged the stone wall as if it had been made of paper, and I am glad I wasn't the wounded man they brought home with a bullet in his stomach, or I think I too should have lost all my stuffing. Lord Dundonald, commanding the brigade, and several other officers, came to look on; and the Colonel gave away the prizes after three rousing cheers had been called for by a corporal.
In the evening we had the "sing-song." It was a weird and stirring sight. On a platform improvised from a huge ant-heap, under the dim light of an early moon, with a few lanterns nickering in the singer's face, an Irishman (it was St Patrick's day) was telling of his "counthrymen's " deeds. Anon a capital singer would give us the latest from the music-halls ; and during the evening the " Absent - minded Beggar" and " Women of Britain" were listened to with wrapt interest by men who had never heard either in their lives. There was a shout of " Pass the hat" as I finished Kipling's poem, but I explained that others were doing it for us, and the Colonel agreed and said " No."
Far behind us over the roof of the " tin camp " in Ladysmith the same grey moon was shedding her soft light over the graves of our departed heroes; and poor Ava and George Steevens must have looked on wonderingly from their home above the clouds. Plow strange and terrible a thing is war! How easily we feel, and as soon forget!
I left Ladysmith at 7 a.m. on Sunday, and with others travelled down to Maritzburg through the heart of the great battlefield, past the famous clam of sandbags over the Klip river, through the still hospital at Intombi where the poor sufferers lay longing to be with their friends again, on to Pieters Station, where dead carcasses and broken-down waggons were still to be seen under the shadow of Bulwana whence " Long Tom" plied his deadly trade for four long months, till we reached the crossing of the White Gates, a mile short of Colenso. What more beautiful, what more natural, than that those who have given their lives to their Queen and country should find everlasting peace at the White Gates of heaven ! And so it was. As I looked out of the window I saw the neat little crosses which marked the graves of the officers and men whose splendid deeds have drowned the terrors of war in the everlasting record of their glorious bravery. Among them was my poor cousin Claude Sitwell, Brevet Lieutenant - Colonel of the Dublin Fusiliers, honourably mentioned in despatches. But he, alas ! was only one of many.
The following morning the new trestle bridge over the Tugela was open to railway traffic— three weeks after it had been commenced, and within the time guaranteed by Mr Hunter, the manager of the Natal Government Railway. From Colenso to Maritzburg is a tedious journey, but being daylight I saw Chieveley, Frere, and Estcourt, and got a very good snapshot, while we were moving, of the wrecked armoured train from which Winston Churchill was taken prisoner. I decided to ride through Basutoland via this place, Matatiele, and Maseru, thence via Lady-brand to Bloemfontein. I might have gone by sea to East London, and then on by rail, but two reasons have prompted me to take the longer route—my desire to see the country and have a little adventure; and my dread, after my Maritzburg experience, of being detained at East London by the lines of communication. It is a long but interesting ride, and has only been done three or four times ; and there is just that element of risk of being "nabbed" by the Boers that tempts me as an adventurous correspondent to go.
Murray Gourlay wouldn't come with me, so, after two days in Maritzburg buying stores and re-sorting my luggage, I bade farewell to the Governor and many other friends, and started yesterday at 6 a.m. by train to Richmond, which I reached breakfastless in a drizzling rain at about 9.30 a.m. There the post-cart to Umzimkulu was waiting, but was so loaded up with English mails that had I not booked seats for myself and servant I should not have got thus far. Still, here 1 am, with a kit-bag and my servant, waiting for my luggage, which a black man has promised to bring here by eight o'clock to-morrow morning on an ox-waggon which was coming this way. Whether he will do this remains to be seen.