Mr de Santos—between sheets—good Friday—an extraordinary communication — a regular Jonah — good Friday and Easter Sunday—a bath in a sentry-box— an interview with Mr de Souza—Primrose Day—Mr Hellawell—how I smuggled my diary.
April 13.—My address is, Racecourse, Pretoria, Z. A. R. I am not a trainer, jockey, or bookmaker, but one of the general British public who willy - nilly visits this racecourse, and is there detained. I arrived on Thursday, 12th April, and under the soothing influence of Mr De Santos soon resigned myself to my position in his tent. Mr De Santos belongs to the Indian Medical Corps, and was one of the first on the scene of operations in Natal under Major Donegan, R.A.M.C. When the wounded at Dundee were left to their fate, and were taken to Pretoria, Mr De Santos volunteered, and was specially told off from among many others to take charge of the wounded. He is a young man who has now seen his third campaign, and is M.B. of Madras. When he volunteered he fully recognised the difficulty of his coming position, but, confident in his ability and keen for distinction, as all young men should be, he has faced his enforced imprisonment with a heroism which deserves special mention. From the 23rd of October, just six months ago, Mr De Santos has remained faithful to his charge under the officialdom of the Z. A. R. and the direction of the Red Cross Society of Pretoria. To have worked in unison with both these bodies, to have succeeded in getting his own way, gradually it is true, in the sanitary arrangements and comforts so necessary for the welfare of a hospital, and to have gained the esteem of every one concerned, from his orderlies, and the sick he has nursed, to the Boer guard and reigning committee in Pretoria, is an achievement which augurs well for his future career; and I hope the fact that he has been lost to the world in an enemy's country will not blind the powers that be in London and South Africa to the promotion and decoration he so richly merits. It is only in the sufferings of others that we realise how slight are our own; and surely to be confined within a limited area, to be surrounded by sick and wounded prisoners of war, to be allowed the rarest communication with English-speaking people, and all this for six long months, are trials which, though borne absolutely without complaint by Mr De Santos, border on the word " sufferings " so strongly that I feel how selfish I am when I touch on any of my own.
To turn again to that word " self," darkness came on long before I told Mr De Santos the history of my capture; and after an excellent bit of dinner, considering the frugality of the store, I went to bed between sheets and off the ground, and with a hospital night-gown on! These were indeed luxuries, since I had slept for the past adventurous fortnight on the hard veldt, in the same shirt, socks, boots, coat, and breeches I had been wearing during the daytime.
Next morning was Good Friday. I borrowed a blue hospital suit, and knowing I should have nothing new to put on on Easter Day, a habit I have been brought up to, I determined to get my clothes washed and cleaned. That it was Good Friday we were forcibly reminded by the gifts of the kind British residents here, which included two cases of hot cross buns. I wondered if Tommy Atkins's admirable commissariat department in the Free State had remembered him in a similar way. I had a look round my new prison, and then I telephoned to the commissioner of police, who promised that my case would be promptly dealt with.
I shall never believe in my release till I am well over the frontier, the manners and customs of the Boer, like Fabius Cunctator, having thoroughly impregnated my whole system. We have plenty of books; newspapers are disallowed but occasionally smuggled in; and when I have been in the mood I have addressed letters, in my most polished language, to the chief commissioner of police and to the Secretary of State for War, reminding them that I desire no longer to be an expense to their State.
There are, as I write, about 80 sick and wounded prisoners, 50 of whom are in the medical ward suffering from enteric fever or dysentery, and the remainder are recovering from wounds in the surgical ward. Dr Van der Horst, who is head of the hospital, is a Dutchman, and Mr De Santos speaks well of him; but he only comes round once a day, morning or evening, and the chief work falls, as I have already said, on Mr De Santos. He has about 22 orderlies to assist him, who are only too glad to have work found for them here, rather than pass their days among the 4000 British prisoners at Waterval. These form a regular staff, including quartermaster, cooks, barber, and tailor.
Besides our sick and wounded there are a number of Colonial prisoners, who are kept as far as possible from the regulars, and live in the stables, which is divided up into so many stalls; and again, sheltered by a lean-to, the political prisoners are quartered in the paddock adjoining the grand stand, under which some of the orderlies live.
A thoroughly exciting incident occurred during my short visit here. One morning one of the civilian prisoners—a Mr Ernest Distin (I believe he is a schoolmaster in the southern part of the Orange Free State)—came along to see the doctor, under the charge of the usual Hollander guard, who listened to every word that was said, and generally showed his officiousness. I was sitting by the doctor's tent when he was called out to see this presumed patient, and as I listened, Mr Distin suddenly seemed to faint and fall into my arms! As he fell over me, and I helped to carry him into the doctor's bed, he whispered hurriedly, "I'm all right. I have something for you to-morrow—important;" and then he recovered as quickly as he had fainted, and I saw that the Hollander guard had noticed nothing. Next day he came back by appointment to see the doctor, and walking up to me he said, " Would you not like a book, Lord Rosslyn?" I thanked him very much, and he handed me ‘Uncle Tom's Cabin'! As he did so, he whispered quickly, “Page 100," and then he was attended to by the doctor, and went away. I wondered at my curious visitor, and immediately opened the book. For a long time I could see nothing, but on looking closely at the page he had mentioned and the one following, I noticed little dots over some of the letters. I guessed that this was a message of some importance, and I immediately set to work to decipher it. The following is how it read:—
“I have it on authentic information that General Cronje buried two big guns and a large quantity of ammunition under the graves of his dead. The guns are in the long grave pointing east and west. Two waggon-loads of ammunition have been buried between Kroonstad and Winburg by burghers. Please communicate from Ernest Distin, Intelligence Department under Captain Lawrence, General French's column."
Little did I imagine that I should read ‘Uncle Tom's Cabin' in such peculiar language, or under such extraordinary circumstances!
[2 page cipher letter]
At this point it will be interesting to record that, having been transferred to the officers' quarters, I found an officer I knew—Mr Tristram, of the 12th Lancers—who had a private code home to his friends. He transmitted the text so successfully that on Lord Roberts's entry into Pretoria I was informed by Tristram that he had received a letter saying the message had reached home, had been telegraphed out to Lord Roberts, and that it was believed both the guns had been discovered!
I reproduce as an interesting illustration the identical pages of ' Uncle Tom's Cabin' which were marked by Mr Distill, and which I tore out of the book and kept as a curiosity.
It spoke well for the cleanliness of the place (though there was still room for improvement) that there had only been one ease of enteric fever contracted here. All the others were men who had been brought from Waterval, and I fear there were a good many cases of fever up there, which seemed to be on the increase, and might prove difficult to contend with. I was told there had been thirty - three deaths at Waterval and eleven here, and am sorry to say that three of these latter occurred since I came, so I felt like a regular Jonah! The first man was a Private Cole of the Gloucesters—he died on Good Friday; next night a New Zealander named Tarrant passed away; and on Easter Sunday Gunner Edwards of the Royal Horse Artillery succumbed. The doctor held a post-mortem on each, and I was privileged to see one of these, and learnt the condition of the intestine which causes death. The men were allowed to send about a dozen representatives to the funeral, which was conducted by Mr Godfrey, of the English Church, and they invariably made a pretty little wreath for their dead comrade's grave.
To find amusement, rounders and cricket were occasionally indulged in, but the space was limited over which the men could take exercise. I believe this will, however, be rectified, and the full run of the racecourse allowed—a privilege I have been given, and in consequence of which I have made representations to Mr Melt Marais, the field cornet of Pretoria, who is one of the committee which deals with these matters.
I have been allowed to buy what I want, and would here testify to the courtesy extended to me, though I am not in love with the corporals who rule in the absence of the commandant and who are apt to be too officious, sometimes interfering, and at others fawning. But this is the way of every country, especially among the uneducated. I held a short service in the surgical ward on Easter Sunday, which seemed well attended and appreciated, but was amused at having to give my parole to one of the Hollander corporals that I was not going to stir up a rebellion!
The bath was a masterpiece of engineering. The framework was originally a long coop for fowls, exhibited at the Agricultural Show, but now it is on end, and looks like a big sentry-box. The tap is outside, and connected in the sentry-box with a perforated tin, and it makes a deliciously cold shower every morning, which I revel in about seven o'clock. Breakfast at eight consisted of porridge and some tinned meat or stewed mutton or eggs, with bread and butter, but the plates and food were invariably cold, though the kitchen was only a yard distant. This we washed down with tea, coffee, or cocoa in pannikins. At lunch we had stewed bits of meat, with a cup of soup made from the stew, and some jam; and at night it was a toss up if there was anything beside tinned herrings and tea. But I was quite happy on this diet, though, as Mr Hellawell, another ' Daily Mail' correspondent, is coming here from Waterval, we shall probably start a better mess a trois.
On Easter Monday we had visitors. Mr Godfrey came for a few minutes, a privilege he said he was unable to obtain too frequently except at the request of the dying; and while he was here Mr Louis de Souza, the secretary to the Minister for War, and a member of the committee in charge of prisoners, paid us a visit, and stayed some time; so I was able to have a long chat with him, and told him my story, and hoped he would not detain me here much longer. He seemed extremely nice, and spoke to me on many subjects, but as one of five I do not know what weight his voice will carry in favour of release. " You would have been sent away at once," he said, " had not President Steyn telegraphed to detain you till he knew what Lord Roberts intended to do with the landrosts he had taken." So this was the reason why I was not a free man! " If I were Lord Roberts's brother," I rejoined, "I do not think he would negotiate for my exchange, as I am a private individual, and have nothing to do with either military or civil government, which your landrosts have." He invited me to write my full case, which he promised to forward to President Steyn. Mr De Souza spoke with great feeling of the late General Joubert, whose secretary he had been. " He died with the name of his people on his lips; " but he added, " I believe if he had exerted himself, this war might have been averted. He dreaded it, and was strongly opposed to hostilities." " When do you think the war will end?" I asked. "It is impossible to say," was his reply. "At one time I thought it would be over in a few weeks; now it may last for months." I asked him if, when I was released, I could pay my respects to President Kruger. " He knew my sister," I added, " when she was here some years ago." " I will inquire," was the courteous reply. " I too remember your sister's visit; she came from Johannesburg." " That reminds me," I broke in, "she was the guest of Mr J. B. Robinson. Is he looked upon with favour by your people? " "Not now," came the decided answer. "He has received concession after concession from the President, but you know all the thanks he has returned for them!" Mr De Souza told me, in answer to a question, that he was very interested in the hospital arrangements, and sorry at the plight of our men. "What do you think about St Helena for your prisoners?" I asked him, and Mr De Souza did not seem dissatisfied with the British arrangements,—" But," he added, " I would like to see an exchange. I am afraid, however, it is impossible, as our Government has urged it in vain on several occasions."
On the grounds of humanity I agreed with him. " But consider the effect," I added. " We have many more prisoners than you, and we can double our force out here if need be. What I do deplore is to see these sick and wounded detained, and no doubt you feel the same. If I urged such an exchange through the paper I represent, would you accept it?" "Yes," he said, "certainly the Government would consider it." " And then," I added, " suppose an exchange of all prisoners were accepted on ' parole' that they did not fight again, would there not be an insuperable difficulty in giving this parole on your side, when your men would return to their own homes in the midst of the fighting? Our own, of course, could be sent to England." Mr De Souza saw the difficulty, but on the grounds of humanity and in view of increasing sickness I hoped her Majesty's advisers would assent to some sort of exchange. Mr De Souza left me after telling me that Winston Churchill's warrant of release was in their hands the night he escaped, and that they were glad to be rid of him. " He talked so much," he added, " that we all avoided him"! I could not restrain a smile; but his escape and Mr Hellawell's unsuccessful attempt have certainly made matters " difficult" for war correspondents and officers too, since these have been removed to more guarded quarters ever since three of their number escaped about a month ago.
Mr De Souza left me after promising to do his best, and so I passed quite a cheery half hour. His father was Portuguese and his mother Dutch.
April 19.—Primrose Day and no primroses. Yesterday passed uneventfully though hopefully, as I was again informed that my case would be gone into "to-morrow." It is always " to-morrow " in Pretoria.
Mr Hellawell came down on Tuesday from Waterval, to which place he had been transferred after his attempt to escape. He was suffering from malaria, but talked as much as Winston Churchill, so I did not lack news of how he was caught and the part he had played. He represents the 1 Cape Times' and ' Daily Mail/ and was at Mafeking, but his capture dates from Nov. 16, so his newspapers and himself have been unfortunate, though I should think his experiences would prove interesting reading at a later date. As I expected, we at once began to improve our mess, but I am not destined to share it long, as I have to-day received news of a change of quarters. Mr Melt Marais, the field cornet, called and told me the committee were going to discuss my case this morning; but he had hardly gone before a message came that I was to go to the officers' quarters. I knew that this could be no result of the committee's deliberations, so I said I would wait to hear their decision before I changed my living-place.
Unfortunately the committee have given me no information as to the probable length of my detention, but have sent an order for my removal to the other officers' quarters. I don't think this omens well, but I hope for the best, and rely on fair-play. I am sorry to leave Mr De Santos, but glad to join many friends, though a sight into the unknown is always dangerous after you have made yourself fairly comfortable for a week. So to-night I pack up both my valise and my spirits, neither of which will occupy a very long time. I am seedy and depressed, and my hopes, raised at first, of an immediate release, are rudely dashed to the ground. Nor have I yet discovered the real cause. Perhaps I shall when I get to my new prison. There seems to he no war news, though one eccentric thought he heard heavy gims to the south - west of Pretoria! Poor fellow! — imprisonment tells on all of us.
There should at least be some attraction in this chapter and the next from the fact that they were smuggled through to England by means of Mr Hofmeyr, who was released on May 12. As the story of how it was done may not be uninteresting to my readers, I will tell it now. When a prisoner of war is to be released he is only notified of his removal half an hour before the train goes, and then the commandant and one or two other guards stand over him to see that he takes nothing but his personal belongings. Even these, especially books and manuscripts, are rigidly searched. Mr Hofmeyr was an instance. He had almost finished packing when I heard the news, and found him surrounded by a crowd of friends to whom he was doling out little keepsakes. To serve my paper was my one motive. I ran to my jagah, procured an empty biscuit tin, folded this and the subsequent chapter to fit the bottom, then rushed on to the store and bought a full tin of biscuits. These I unpacked and repacked in the almost empty tin as carefully as possible. I then walked up to Hofmeyr with the tin open showing the biscuits, and, before the guards, asked him openly to accept these biscuits, as he was sure to be hungry on his long journey. To my dismay Hofmeyr, who knew nothing of my scheme, politely refused my offering with thanks. However, I pressed him to do so, if only as a token of goodwill from a friend. He took it, and I then asked the guard to tie the tin up with a bit of string I had with me. That worthy acquiesced, and all seemed going well. My difficulty now was to tell Hofmeyr of the contents of the tin, so closely was he guarded. A minute later I whispered hurriedly to him, " Look at the bottom of the box"; and to my horror a guard was at his elbow. My fears were in no way allayed when on his passing through the wire fence the guard who was carrying the " biscuits" touched the box as he spoke to the commandant. What he said I have no idea, but at that moment Hofmeyr asked for it, and it was given him, and I now know it reached the ' Daily Mail' safely. I also put a matchbox full of telegrams into the toe of his slipper, to be sent from Lorenco Marques. Whether these went I am uncertain, but Mr Hofmeyr's slippers are surely not so large that he did not feel the box!