Our first night in captivity—Tommy Atkins cheers up— herded in a sheep-kraal—at Thaba Nchu—a comment —wonderful Boer stories—about the Free Staters —Commandant Grobler — Bergstedt and Gerlach — I borrow money—brother freemasons—a levee at Kroonstad station—arrival in Pretoria—the Commissioner of Police—I part from my friends — a Transvaal policeman—I forget to conceal my diary.
April 4-12.—I have come to another kind of experience in my travels through South Africa, and I may say that though a prisoner in the Boer hands, I have passed a week not a whit less interesting than the others I have recorded. The Boer commando melted away as quickly as it arrived to celebrate its victory; a detachment was told off to accompany us, and we were informed that our destination was Winburg by road, and thence by rail to Pretoria. Mr Thring (who told me he was sorry to be a relative of Lord Thring), Mr Chase, the Adjutant, and General De Wet himself, were as courteous to us as possible, and promised us ponies to ride next day and the return of our personal property which had been taken from us. That they meant what they promised I have no doubt, but they left us to the tender mercies of a field cornet and a guard, who were either unable to carry out the promises or had not the inclination to do so. The result was that officers and men had to trudge for some hours over the veldt, carrying not only their coats and other articles but the weight of their despair as well. I was in great pain with my sprained foot and wrist, and after doing my best to keep up for a couple of hours, a friendly Boer lent me his pony. Subsequently we were all allowed to ride on the waggons, as well as those of the men who were sick or footsore. It took our captors a long time to arrange on which waggon it was to be, and we were mounted and dismounted from at least three before we started again. I think the Boers were afraid we might re-arm ourselves when we got on to the one which contained the men's rifles!
When it became dark (we had been marching fully three hours) we were ordered to dismount and march again, an order at which we remonstrated in vain. What the idea of this was I do not know, except that we were told " we must all walk at night"! At about 8 o'clock we halted, and with difficulty got our valises, though I had nothing except what I wore. For nearly two hours we had to wait for food, and then the men, I fear, got practically nothing, there being only eight loaves of bread for about 450 men. Lieutenant Soutry let me share his valise, and another officer lent me a warm jersey, but we passed a miserably cold damp night by the edge of a lake to which we had been brought. We were, I knew, close by Peter Kelly's farm, and I believe two or three men succeeded in escaping in the darkness of the night. I think the idea of attempting the same thing occurred to more than one of the officers, but the thought of the subsequent treatment which might in consequence be meted out to their " pals" made them desist. For my part, there were three reasons why I did not try: (l) General De Wet knew I was a non-combatant, and had promised to consider my application for release the next day; (2) I had no pony, and was much too lame to walk far; and (3) I had every hope of our being rescued on the road, and had nothing to gain and everything to lose by the attempt. It was only by strong remonstrance and reminding our field cornet that General De Wet had promised we should not travel by night that we did not start till 5 o'clock next morning. They wanted us at first to march at two in the morning, but the men were so completely done up, having eaten nothing to speak of for forty-eight hours, that it would have been impossible to drag them along.
Next morning we marched till ten, and stopped at a farm-house about four miles from Dewetsdorf, where sixteen sheep and plenty of bread were served out. It was worth being there to note the difference in Tommy Atkins. From the draggled, morose, bitter, and saddened soldier, he changed at once into the forgetful, cheerful, well-filled man. Such is the effect of a good meal, and a dirty pond in which we all bathed. Not so the officers. Poor chaps! I was sorry for them. They had but one topic, arguing and debating for a long time whether they could be blamed for the disaster. I resolved to cheer them up if I could, and I think, till Pretoria was in sight, I succeeded fairly well. I got our field cornet — who, by the way, was changed that day — to send down to Dewetsdorf for a few luxuries, but we couldn't get any whisky! Some candles, tea, jam, matches, tobacco, a cooking pot and kettle, were what reached us at the next stage, when at night we were herded in a sheep kraal near a farm, which, I believe, once belonged to De Wet himself. Surrounded by a high wall, the interior was filthy in the extreme, but we got a big waterproof sheet stretched over a corner of it, and ate bread and butter and jam, and slept, huddled together, while the rain pelted mercilessly on the wretched men. De Wet himself came to the farm that night, but left so suddenly that I had no opportunity of seeing him. He had gone after his victory to try and surround another British force between Edenburg and Wepener, and we supposed that now again he had hurried back to his commando.
Our new field cornet, Meyer by name, was a very decent fellow, and though he could not speak English, he did all he could to make us comfortable. We never got our promised ponies, nor our personal property, except the valises, but we did not travel at night, and a waggon was always reserved for the officers, and another for the men who could not walk. I think a good many tried to malinger, but I was not surprised when I took into consideration poor Tommy's position. We were made to march about seven hours every day, always halting before the sun was at its height for three or four hours, when we cooked our fresh meat and washed ourselves.
Our road went by Thaba Nchu, but it was midday on Saturday before we reached this village, and after that I gave up all hope of being rescued. Our field cornet was again changed there, but before going he allowed his adjutant, a Mr Rhom (who has a brother, a chemist, in Cape Town), to take Captain M'Whinnie and myself into the village to buy fresh stores. So we stood him and ourselves an excellent meal at the inn, which was one chair short for the number of its guests; and Mr Crossthwaite, a Liverpool missionary, also lunched with us. I was astonished at the number of British names over the shops, and I must say every one was most anxious to supply us with what we wanted; but beyond a very few articles we could find nothing we required, the force which had been there a week previously having bought up everything! One tradesman told me that Lord Talbot (I suppose it was Lord Edmund) had ridden in first, and ordered everything for the household troops. Just their luck! I digress for a moment to comment on the British policy of seizing places and then evacuating them, after having exacted the oath from the inhabitants not to take up arms. Thaba Nchu and Dewetsdorf, and even Ladybrand, are places within my knowledge where the most serious consequences have resulted to the townspeople, who have subsequently been subjected to imprisonment and other punishment by the Boers when they returned. Wepener, too, is another instance. I know the difficulties the British arms have to meet with, but it can never be said that this is a method of inspiring confidence or giving fairplay to a people who, sitting between two stools, are happier " as they were than as they are." That all this will come right in the end I have no doubt, and I hope the Boer Government realised the difficult position in which some of these inhabitants were placed by the British, and dealt leniently with them accordingly. At Thaba Nchu, when the British evacuation took place, the English attestants were ordered to follow, and were, owing to the disaster at Sannah's Post, basely deserted, and subsequently imprisoned by the Boers. The landrost at Dewetsdorf, too (my old jailer), was placed under arrest for handing over his keys to the British, who then left hurriedly; and the wretched inhabitants of Ladybrand were sent to Kroonstad for trial for delivering up their arms when Colonel Pilcher bagged the landrost and field cornet.
We were lucky in having fine weather on our tramp to Winburg, as we camped on the veldt every night, and, all things considered, did ourselves remarkably well. The Boer guard paid us the compliment of talking to us, and sometimes joined us at meals, for which I undertook the duties of mess-president. On these occasions we tried to get all possible information from them, but when we said "good night" it was all we could do to refrain from laughing at the absurdity of their concoctions. I do not think it would be unin teresting to relate a few of these wonderful Boer versions, which were either narrated to depress us or genuinely believed by our captors. The Boer method of suppressing news is undoubtedly of importance to their cause, but will they not some day pay the penalty for duping their fighting men by exaggerating their victories, minimising their losses, and giving scanty and inefficient details of their defeats? We were told two days after our surrender that General De Wet had taken 900 prisoners from Brabant's force near Wepener, and that our losses were 400 killed and wounded. In fact, we were informed we might have to wait at Thaba Nchu for this addition to the prisoner roll. Yet by the latest accounts we have heard here at Pretoria, (1) De Wet has surrounded this British force, but the battle is not over, and (2) De Wet is himself surrounded! This latter has only "leaked out," and is not official! On another occasion we were told that serious European complications had arisen, that Russia had invaded India, and that Lord Roberts and the whole of his force had started for that country. Moreover, Kitchener was dead or seriously wounded; Buller had been invalided home and his forces withdrawn from Natal; while Kimberley was once more in the enemies' hands. After this we believed little. We were at a later period of our march told an amusing story in connection with Cronje's capture, and the escape from Paardeberg of one of our guard. The story arose through our asking him where he had got a badge—a sphinx—which he was wearing in his hat. " I escape through the British lines," he told us, " I shoot to the right, I shoot to the left" (demonstrating with his rifle). " My pony gallop right on. Your chaps never hit me." "How many did you kill?" I asked. " I do not know, my pony go so quick! But when I get nearly through, an officer gallop after me. I thought he come to shoot me, and I stop to shoot him, but he cry out, 'Do not shoot,' and then he tell me he wish to be prisoner, not like fighting, wish to get away. So I took him, as he was, armed, to the nearest commando, and hand him over. But while we ride he say, ' I give you this memento of the fight;' and he pin badge from his coat in my hat. I not ask his name, or his regiment, but he at Pretoria now"! Needless to say, the officers assured him they would search for this renegade when they arrived!
I have little more to add about this stage of our journey to Pretoria. We passed through a flat, grassy, treeless country, meeting with few farms, and those we did belonged chiefly to people of English or Scotch names. Now and again we saw natural strategical positions long enough to contain an army corps and strong enough to withstand the frontal attack of ten such corps. We lived from hand to mouth, milk and bread being very uncertain commodities, though we got plenty of fresh meat and butter, which we were not expected to pay for. Our guard, under the command (for the last three days) of Field Cornet Potgieter, were very civil and obliging; and I would specially mention a man named Erasmus, a Free State policeman, who cursed the war and did many little things for us. They are a curious people, these Free Staters, ignorant and yet cunning, kind-hearted in many ways yet grasping and almost vicious in others. Poor I have no doubt they are, for the most part belonging to the farmer class, and I have no hesitation in saying that the majority are sick of the war. They are all commandeered, are unpaid, and have very arduous duties to perform. They speak bitterly of Mr Fraser, the newly appointed magistrate of Bloemfontein, and the political opponent of President Steyn; and the latter they all characterise as a man of education and a thorough gentleman. I do not think, when the Orange Free State is ours and the inhabitants are disarmed, we shall have much difficulty in getting them to settle down under our method of government, nor do I believe they will fight for the Transvaal once they are driven up to the border. Their habits do not appear very cleanly, but they are evidently men who take off their coats to their work, even if they lack the two great necessities for a nourishing country—brains and industrial enterprise. Everything we bought on the road was branded with the Scotch or English trade mark—from jam even to the oatmeal with which we made porridge!
We came in sight of Winburg on Tuesday, April 10, having marched six days. The road, instead of continuing through an apparently endless flat, entered into some pretty wooded scenery, with large kopjes on either side. We were not allowed to enter Winburg; that night, but Commandant Grobler drove out and paid us a visit, and brought us a bottle of whisky. There was a general rush for pannikins, and the forbidden liquor soon disappeared, much to the amusement of our kind donor, who told us he was buying horses in the neighbourhood, and had not been on the scene of operations for two months. The public prosecutor also turned up on his bicycle. He spoke English well, and told me the landrost, to whom I had sent three telegrams, to be forwarded to President Steyn, the American consul at Pretoria, and the ' Cape Times,' had forwarded them all to President Steyn for consideration.
Next morning we started early through the town, and the officers were taken to the hotel for breakfast, where, after a wash and an excellent meal under the supervision of a German policeman, they were told they might go to a store and buy what they wanted before the train left. After I had seen the landrost, a grumpy official, I joined them at Messrs Bergstedt & Gerlach's. There we were able to buy anything, from a flannel shirt to a presentation pipe. The head of the firm, Mr Bergstedt, was most courteous, and proved to be the member for "Winburg in the Free State Raad. I had a long talk with him on political matters, but only elicited the old story that England had been too precipitate, and that President Kruger had promised the reforms, and had visited some of the largest centres to address meetings for this purpose, even after what was called "Mr Chamberlain's bellicose speech." He spoke very highly of President Steyn's qualities, and assured me I should soon be set free, which raised my hopes considerably. He also asked me if I wanted money, and, being penniless and a would-be purchaser, he lent me £10 on my note of hand without interest—a form of borrowing I had been unable to negotiate for at least three years! It was at this shop that I was presented with a case containing a pipe by two of our guard. I did not at the time realise why, but I imagined it was because I had at their request taken a snapshot of them with my kodak. Having bought a clean shirt, hair, nail, and tooth brushes, a sponge, some tobacco, and writing materials, we were marched to the station. It was quite two hours after the appointed time before we started. The scramble for seats the men made at the station reminded me of a rush at Waterloo on a Kempton race day, so great was their apparent eagerness to reach Pretoria. The officers had a first-class corridor carriage reserved for them, and a compartment adjoining for their servants; so no complaint could be made on the lack of civility or comfort. While we were waiting, a turkey, two chickens, and some fresh bread and butter were sent down to us by a few English residents—a kindness we much appreciated; and it was then I was able to realise the strength of fellowship which binds Freemasons. The general superintendent of the line, Mr Cooper, an Irishman and an old cavalry man, brought me a flannel shirt, a bottle of whisky, and some newspapers, as a token; and the station-master, a Belfast man, by name Darragh, was courtesy itself, and gave me a bottle of Cape brandy. They had to smuggle these in, and were not allowed to speak to us openly, but I gathered that the English residents would have given us a sympathetic send-off had they been allowed to. The men who gave me the pipe also proved to be Freemasons. Truly a friend in need is a friend indeed.
We started about midday, stopping at various stations, where gaping crowds were turned away from the carriage windows by our guards, and we reached Kroonstad about six the same evening in darkness. The country through which we passed was flat as a pancake. At Kroonstad the officers were taken to the refreshment-room, and we held a kind of levee after an excellent dinner, also provided by an English firm of contractors. The landrost—a hard-voiced, rough-mannered man —came first, and announced that my case had come before the War Council that day, but that, owing to certain irregularities on Lord Roberts's part in imprisoning some landrosts, 'my release must be delayed till they knew what he was going to do with them." In vain I urged that these were political prisoners, and that I was not. The matter had to rest in abeyance. I asked that a telegram to the ' Cape Times' and to Lord Roberts should be sent for me, but I do not know if my request was executed.
Then came the landrost of Ottoshoop, near Mafeking, who insisted on shaking hands with all of us (Captain M'Whinnie and I thought this was to find out which were Masons, by the grip); and after several others had said " How do you do?" we were introduced to the landrost of Jaeobsdal, who had been on leave for two months. He told us his house had been looted and his furniture destroyed by the British — an aggression we could scarcely believe; but I have since heard there was a great deal of treachery on the part of the inhabitants the day before we took possession, and Tommy Atkins was not slow to revenge it. The commissioner of police told us that the name of their Minister for War was Boberts, and, like our Commander-in - Chief, they had nicknamed him " Lord Bobs."
The remainder of our journey to Pretoria was uneventful. Some of us played chess with a board and men we had bought at Winburg, and the rest of the time was spent like the queen in the fairy tale — eating bread and honey. We passed through the great Rand industry at Elandsfontein, and saw a few mines working and still more lying idle; and about one o'clock the sight of forts on adjacent kopjes warned us we were arriving at the end of our journey. A neat row of red - tiled houses on one side, and a distant peep of some buildings on the other, was all I saw of Pretoria before we drew up in the station.
A big burly man—Du Toit by name—asked if we were the officers, and on our replying in the affirmative, he told us to get out and fall in. "Fall in? " queried Captain M'Whinnie indignantly. "What do you mean?" "Fall in in twos or fours," was the curt reply. A gaping but orderly crowd watched us as our valises were passed out on to the platform; and then a smart-looking official in ordinary dress, who turned out to be Bredelle, the chief commissioner of police, arrived on the scene and took down our names. "Eight of you, are there not?" he asked in good English. "Nine," was the reply, " including Lord Rosslyn, who is a correspondent and non-combatant." "I will vouch for it," added Captain M'Whinnie, as the head of the police looked me suspiciously up and down. " We have heard of you—you can get back into the train," was all he said. So I said good-bye to my friends, hoping I was going to be freed, and expressing regret at my separation. I asked where I was going, and whether I should be fed; and was told my journey would only last another five minutes, and that I should get food, while if all was satisfactory I should probably be liberated the next day. This was consoling; but I had visions of Waterval, where the men are taken to, and for once since my capture I regretted I was a non - combatant and not an officer.
I saw the last of my prison associates as they were marched in twos through the crowd, and got back into my carriage silently and sadly. "Poor chaps!" I was thinking; "they will be here a long time, and how much already they feel their captivity! " I was really more sorry for them than for the loss I had sustained by my separation. Great friends we had made, and once more Mrs Harter's fine poem flashed back to my mind,—
" And hearts find relief in the union of grief, When the men fight and die side by side."
I was roused from my thoughts by a gruff voice, " Sit dere." I looked up. It was a wicked-looking uniformed Transvaal policeman! In his hand was a rifle; over his shoulder a well-filled bandolier. I disliked that man from the moment I saw him. "Sit dere," he repeated, pointing to the opposite seat. I glared at him, but I obeyed. Why one seat was not as good as the other, I failed to comprehend. If I looked out of the window, he said, "Look here, not dere." When we reached the next station, he shouted at me, " Get out," at the same time bringing his rifle to the shoulder. I got out. He wouldn't help me to get my valise out—not he; but one of the Free State guard did. As I was lame, and didn't know how far off my destination was, I determined not to walk, but to drive at the expense of the Z. A. R. So he sent a boy to telephone for a cab. The cabman, sensible man, wouldn't come (the boy said) unless be was to be "bethalt," which I think meant " paid "! Here was a dilemma, but the policeman acquiesced. If I turned my head, the policeman looked to see where I was looking. If I pulled out my tobacco-pouch, he had to satisfy himself it did not contain gunpowder. If I moved a step, he did ditto. I veritably believe if he had had a bayonet he would have stuck it into me. So I sat down on my valise, and took good care to see there was no room for him to sit too. He eyed my kodak suspiciously, and then the carriage and pair arrived. The man asked for prepayment, but this was disallowed. The policeman again declined to lift my valise on to the carriage. He was too great a swell! I got in modestly with my knees doubled up, and sitting bolt upright. He got in and stretched himself lazily out on the seat next me! A two minutes' drive brought me to a building with a turnstile, adjoining which an armed guard presided, and over which the lied Cross flag fluttered in the breeze. A crowd inside was composed of more Transvaalers, and I thought I recognised English faces amongst them. " Three shillings," said the policeman. " Got no money," was my reply, telling an awful cracker, and my hated policeman had to disgorge; but he got it back from the gatekeeper, I am sorry to say, and to him I was indebted. " Open your valise," came from the inside guard; but I let him search it himself. All he took was the ' Standard and Diggers' News,' which had been given me, as he said no papers were allowed. I was congratulating myself that he had left me my diary, which, if taken, might in the eyes of a bigoted Boer have caused me trouble. "Take him to the doctor; " and round the building I went, where I found Mr De Santos, the assistant-surgeon, who kindly fed me and looked after my comfort.
I had been here an hour when a message came that I was to surrender all my papers, I had had every opportunity of concealing them, and had not done so; so about ten thousand words of manuscript, which comprise the previous four chapters, from the day I left Maseru, were taken from me and sent to the commissioner of police to be investigated, and returned if satisfactory, and I was left to start a fresh chapter of my captivity.