The first shell — we watch the fight from the upper balcony—a hideous breach of honour — the Boers retreat — a peep at Long Tom — arrangements for surrender — exciting attempt to remove us — the British officers resist — a cry of recognition — entry of the British troops—Lord Roberts arrives —the great review.
June 4 and 5.—The day of reckoning has come at last! Pretoria is in the British hands. But I must tell my tale methodically. I brought you in my last chapter to my farewell with Colonel Blake, who had hardly left the room when the sound of distant cannon was distinctly audible. It was about ten o'clock on the morning of June 4 that the first shell burst inside the hills which surround the Transvaal capital. The news was brought to us by Mr Schlomer, the proprietor of the Grand Hotel, and Maimers and I rushed out to the balcony to find the work had begun in earnest, but apparently without response, which was as I had anticipated. Pretoria and its forts were being shelled from three different convergent points! As the fun grew faster and more furious, and our coign of vantage was on the wrong side of the hotel, I arranged with my armed guards, who were trembling visibly, to go on to the upper balcony, which gave a more southern aspect, and allowed us to criticise the gun practice of the British army. It was a curious, not to say exciting, position, to be standing in the centre of the enemies' capital, waiting for the supreme moment when we should be set free; but by two o'clock the firing had increased to such an extent that we were convinced the happy hour when our anticipations would be realised could not be long deferred.
The American consul came up and told us that bits of shell had smashed through his windows at Sunnyside. One, I believe, fell on to the racecourse where our sick and wounded were confined. But it was very obvious that the forts and railway to Middelburg were the targets of the British artillery, and though unseen, were evidently located by means of the balloon. A shell burst right in the centre of the gun-denuded forts, scattering a few too venturesome sightseers, while the railway-line was a good deal damaged. Speculation was rife as to which force it was that was attacking, but we had little doubt that if French was on one of the flanks it would be Lord Roberts himself who would enter the Transvaal capital. I wondered anxiously if he was only feinting from the south, and would risk an entry from the east through the dangerous passes of Eerste Fabrieken, as was anticipated by the Boer generals; but that my fears were ill-grounded is now well known.
Meanwhile a hideous breach of honour was being committed by the Transvaal Government. Melt Marais himself and a commando were at Waterval removing our unfortunate prisoners to Machadodorp, about sixty-nine miles east of Middelburg, on the Delagoa Bay railway. By one o'clock they had succeeded in despatching three train-loads, containing 900 of the Gloucester, Royal Irish Fusiliers, and Suffolks; and then they desisted in their dastardly work either from fear of being cut off themselves or for want of the necessary rolling-stock. You may wonder why I have used the words " hideous " and " dastardly." I will explain. When the twenty officers went to Waterval to pacify the men, they acceded to the Transvaal. Government's request for their assistance on two conditions: (1) that the twenty officers were to be on parole, and (2) that the men at Waterval should not be removed. This breach of honour is one which will not only wring the deepest expression of sympathy for the unfortunate prisoners from every honourable man, but will call forth the world's righteous indignation at the cowardly trick of the Transvaal Government. Revenons a nos moutons!
About four in the afternoon first one, then another, then in twos and threes, followed by larger sections and small commandos, the Boers began to cross Church Square from west to east, and the setting sun sank on a scene of scuttle I shall never forget. For the majority there seemed no disposition to hurry, their minds being evidently occupied with the hopelessness of their cause. There was no panic, no excitement; and their guns, mostly 12-pounders and pom-poms, were dragged quietly through the town along the Middelburg road by teams of mules, whose drivers apparently had no fear of being cut off. "Long Tom," the notorious, went past the hotel a little earlier with a span of thirty-two oxen attached to it. After the guns had gone the quiet stillness of the town was only occasionally disturbed by the gallop of a despatch rider conveying messages from General Louis Botha, who remained in the town till a late hour of the night. About 6 p.m. a British officer, bearing a flag of truce, entered the town and demanded its surrender, and arrangements were made for the formal proceedings to take place early the following morning. Manners and I were congratulating ourselves on our good fortune, though still somewhat uncertain of what had actually occurred, when, having gone into my bedroom, I was surprised by his rushing in with the news that a man had just come up to say we must prepare to leave in half an hour. The order had come from Machadodorp that on no account was I to be left in Pretoria, and I detected the machinations of that wicked woman spy, and determined to be even with her yet. Manners and I held a hurried consultation, at which I decided to jump into bed very ill with an unheard-of complaint, while he went off to see the commandant of the forts, who was the latest appointment to the management of demoralised Pretoria. There, after being kept waiting a long time, he argued unsuccessfully that we were free men, and that no charge had been brought against us. Captain De Korti regretted that his instructions were imperative, and that Schalk Burger, the vice-president himself, had come from Machadodorp to see the order carried out. Then Manners, having informed the commandant that my illness forbade of my removal, hurried back with the bad news, and prepared for the worst by eating a hurried dinner and packing up a few garments. At the same time I advised him to resist as far as possible, to maintain that I was seriously ill, and that he must remain to nurse me or see me moved into hospital! Quarter-hours followed quarter-hours and no one came for us. I got out of bed several times and joined Manners in the sitting-room; but just as we thought that the authorities must have given up the idea of moving us, we heard a heavy tread along the passage outside. I had just time to tumble into bed when the door opened, and De Korti came in and followed Manners to my bedside, where I was groaning audibly and begging for brandy and a doctor! The commandant had brandy in his flask, and what I did not the least require T had perforce to swallow! Manners' voice as he spoke of my illness was choking with suppressed laughter, and it was all I could do to prevent myself from bursting into hysterics, so ludicrous was the situation. But De Korti was a good chap after all, and I think saw through my shamming fit, and allowed us to remain, as Schalk Burger and Smuts had gone. He left us with the remark that he would wire to Machadodorp that we had missed our train!
All this time another scene, as dramatic as any in the campaign, was being enacted in Chancery House—the British officers' prison. They had been placed in the same precarious position as we had been, and the story of how they successfully resisted the order for their removal is worth recording in the words of an officer who was present:—
All day long we had sat watching the lyddite bursting on the opposite heights, and our hearts were aglow with the thought that this time at any rate there was no doubt about it, and that our release on the morrow was the " stonewall "-est of certainties. To bed therefore we went, happy in the feeling that this would be the last night spent within the walls of our tin prison.
Our expectations were nearly realised in a very different manner to that which we hoped for.
At 12.45 a.m. we were woke by the glare of electric light, and the voice of our commandant, telling us to get up at once, pack our kits, and be ready to start off in two hours—destination unknown. The facts of the case took some time to dawn upon our sleepy brains, but when once it came over us that this was no bad dream, and that in sober reality we were to be spirited away while freedom was almost within our grasp, Colonel Hunt realised that something must be done if this crushing calamity was to be averted.
The night was bitterly cold, and shivering were the groups of excited and pyjama'd officers who anxiously discussed the situation.
Some were for a " masterly inactivity," but the majority were in favour of striking a blow.
We approached the commandant with protests and demands for explanation, but these were only met with the reply that he knew nothing, and was only a blind agent of the powers that were. At the same time a reconnoitring party reported the arrival of a commando—presumably to escort us away—and ruin seemed to stare us in the face.
Any action we were to take must be prompt—and prompt it was. The commandant was told that nothing short of "an ounce of lead" should induce us to move, and that meanwhile he and his second in command were our prisoners! The result was that he soon resigned himself to the inevitable, and came round to a common-sense view of the situation. On our explaining our compact with the Government, made when we sent twenty officers to Waterval, the nature of which he had apparently not realised before, he gave us his promise that, on condition of our restoring to him his liberty, he would not only refrain from taking any active steps towards our removal, but would, as far as possible, put obstacles in the way of it. Accordingly we set him free, and despatched him to parley with the commando. He is believed to have reported our attitude to them, and to have declined to take any steps before receiving further instructions from Botha. Their reply was heated, and some wrangling ensued, but the result was that—for what purpose we know not—the commando retired, as also did the trollies which had been sent for our kits. Thus our primary object of gaining time was attained, and all went to bed again, congratulating ourselves on the success of our manoeuvre. By no means, however, did we imagine ourselves out of the wood; and when, half an hour later, the electric light was extinguished, it came as a relief to all, for we gathered from this, and from the peace and quiet which reigned outside, that we were at all events to be left alone till the morning, and such proved to be the case.
Great was the anxiety with which next day we scanned the horizon for signs of the troops, as we could not feel safe till the latter were in occupation of the town. When at last two of our deliverers, the Duke of Marlborough and Mr Winston Churchill, appeared at the gallop, wild was the enthusiasm, and, amidst cheers that "made the welkin ring," the Transvaal flag was exchanged for the union - jack. Our manoeuvre had met with a success which was far beyond our dreams, and the joy of our deliverance was greatly enhanced by the narrow shave we had had. The last night of our captivity was one which we shall not easily forget!
The morning of June 5th dawned joyously. Our troops were in the railway station, and the khaki advance-guard was approaching, when I sent on a cable to London announcing the news. The wire to Lorenco Marques had not been cut, and I hoped to be the first correspondent to get the news through before the British took possession of the telegraph-office. About nine o'clock a small detachment rode down Markt Street. As they passed me standing on the balcony, I heard a shout, " Hullo, there's Harry! " It was Marlborough, who had recognised me. A tremendous cheer, taken up on both sides, rent the air as Major Maude, the first British officer, entered Church Square. This small party was presently followed by another, and soon the streets became full of the bearded and begrimed soldiers who had so bravely fought their way from the Modder river. The Guards and Lincolns were the earliest on the scene. All the streets were at once lined, ingress and exit being strictly barred, while sentries were stationed on the various Government buildings.
We were free once more! Once more with the British army! You would have thought that was sufficient to make me forget my lady spy! But no, the spirit of revenge was on me, and, stalking to her room, I raised my hat, and, in the most ferociously dramatic manner, said, "Madam, I arrest you in the name of the Queen!" Then rushing oft", I found the first Intelligence officer available, who proved to be Abe Bailey. He immediately placed a guard over her room, telling me that this notorious Bussian lady, in the secret service of the Transvaal Government, had been " wanted" for some time.
To describe the ensuing events would require the pen of poor George Steevens. For me, I cannot pretend to depict the ever-changing scenes which preceded Lord Roberts's arrival at two o'clock — scenes which will never be forgotten by those who witnessed them. Dutchmen and Hollanders kept themselves tactfully in the background. Friend met friend with the warmest handshake; men who had never seen each other offered their heartiest congratulations. The black population joined in the universal rejoicing; and through the chaos of it all, the chief officials went about their various duties.
A general desire to "tell" was evinced by those who sought to curry favour by laying information. The men who had been " sitting on the fence" were particularly prominent, with both feet now on the British side and their cowardly character prominently depicted. But these were only passing side - shows in the great transformation-scene.
Church Square was surrounded by a khaki line of glittering bayonets, and every available position was soon occupied from which a glimpse could be had of the coming spectacle. The Transvaal flags had been torn down, to make way for union-jacks which had so long been concealed. Kodaks and cameras were almost as plentiful as pocket-handkerchiefs, and the hotel-bar keepers did a roaring trade. At two o'clock a body of mounted men, wending its way down Markt Street towards Church Square from the railway station, heralded the arrival of Lord Roberts and his brilliant staff. The distant cheers swelled into a gigantic roar as the Commander-in-Chief took up his position opposite to the Raadzaal, and the union-jack was hoisted to the top of the flagstaff. The flag was a very small one, but we knew it had been made by the hands of one who, sorrowing for her brave dead son, sought consolation and found it in the popularity and success of our beloved commander.
Then came the Review. The Guards led the way. As regiment succeeded regiment at the saluting base each received its ovation from the excited crowd. Perhaps the kilted warriors—Gordons, Black Watch, and Cameronians—were specially favoured in their reception, to say nothing of the goat of the Welsh regiment. But when the South African and other Colonial forces took their places with the C.I.V., they were greeted with a perfect torrent of enthusiasm.
Almost a hush fell on the spectators at the size and number of our guns, and the niggers rolled their great eyes and opened their still greater mouths.
One felt indeed that comparisons were out of place, and that the honours rested equally with the whole of that brave force which for so many months had fought its way slowly but steadily to Pretoria.