"For old times' sake
Don't let enmity live;
For old times' sake
Say you will forget and forgive.
Life is too short for quarrel;
Hearts are too precious to break;
Shake hands and let us be friends
For old times' sake!"
So gaily sang the Scots Guards as, in hope of speedy triumph and return, we left Southampton for Kruger's Land on the afternoon of October 21st, 1899.
A Magersfontein Boer Trench.]
Our last evening in England brought us the welcome tidings that on that day, the Boers who had thus early invaded Natal with a view to annexing it, had been badly beaten at Talana Hill. That seemed a good beginning; and it sent us to sea with lightsome hearts; nor was it till long after we landed in South Africa that we learned what had really taken place during our cheerful voyage;--that on the very day we embarked, the battle of Elandslaagte had been won by our hard-pressed comrades, but at a cost of 260 casualties; and that the very next day--The Nubia's first Sunday at sea--Dundee with all its stores had perforce been abandoned by 4000 of our retreating troops, for whose relief, two days later, Tinta Inyoni was fought by General French; that on Oct. 29th while we were spending a tranquil Sunday in St Vincent's harbour there commenced the struggle that culminated in the Nicholson's Nek disaster; and that on Nov. 13th, while we were awaiting orders in Table Bay, the capture of our armoured train at Chieveley took place. Clearly it was blissful ignorance that begat our hopes of brief absence from home, and of the easy vanquishing of our hardy foes!
Two days later I reached the Orange River; and, on the courteous suggestion of Lord Methuen, was attached to the mess of the 3rd Grenadier Guards, as was also my "guide, philosopher and friend" the Rev. T. F. Falkner our Anglican chaplain. Here I left my invaluable helper, Army Scripture Reader Pearce; while, with the Guards' Brigade now made complete by the arrival of the 1st and 2nd Coldstream battalions, I pushed forward to be present at the four battles which followed in startlingly swift succession, and which I have already with sufficient fulness described in "Chaplains in Khaki," viz. Belmont on Nov. 23rd, Graspan on Nov. 25th, Modder River on Nov. 28th, and the Magersfontein defeat on Dec. 11th, for which, however, the next Amajuba Day--Feb. 27th, 1900--brought us ample compensation in the surrender of Cronje and his 4000 veterans, with the ever memorable sequel to that surrender, the occupation of Bloemfontein by the British forces.
[Sidenote: A capital little Capital.]
It would probably be difficult to find anywhere under the sun a more prosperous and promising little city, or one better governed than Bloemfontein, which the Guards entered on the afternoon of Tuesday, March 13th, 1900. There is not a scrap of cultivated land anywhere around it. It is very literally a child of the veldt; and still clings strangely to its nursing mother. Indeed the veldt is not only round about it on every side, but even asserts its presence in many an unfinished street. You are still on the veldt in the midst of the city; and the characteristic kopje is in full view here, there, and everywhere. On one side of the city is the old fort built by the British more than fifty years ago, and soon after vacated by them, but it is erected of course on a kopje, on one slope of which, part of the city now stands. On the opposite side of the town is a new fort; but that also crowns a kopje. This metropolis of what was then the Orange Free State, thus intensely African in its situation and surroundings, was nevertheless an every way worthy centre of a worthy State.
Many of its public buildings are notably fine, as for instance the Government Offices over which it was my memorable privilege to see the Union Jack unceremoniously hoisted; and the Parliament Hall, on the opposite side of the same road, erected some twelve years ago at a cost of £80,000. The Grey College, which accommodates a hundred boy boarders, is an edifice of which almost any city would be proud; and "The Volk's Hospital," that is "The People's Hospital," is also an altogether admirable institution. From the commencement of the war this was used for the exclusive benefit of sick or wounded Boers and of captured Britishers who were in the same sore plight. Among these I found many English officers, who all bore witness to the kind and skilful treatment they had uniformly received from the hospital authorities; but when the Boer forces hurried away from Bloemfontein they were compelled to leave their sick and wounded behind; with the result that as at Jacobsdal, the English patients at once ceased to be prisoners, while the Boer patients at once became prisoners. So do the wheels of war and fortune go whirling round!
With a white population of under ten thousand all told, a large proportion is of British descent; and presently a positively surprising number of Union Jacks sprang forth from their hiding-places and fluttered merrily all over the town. Everybody was thankful that no bombardment had taken place; but many even of the British residents regarded with sincere regret the final extinction of the independence of this once self-governed and well-governed Republic.
[Sidenote: Famished men and famine prices.]
The story has now everywhere been told of the soldier lad who, when he caught sight of his first swarm of locusts, wonderingly exclaimed as he noted their peculiar colour, "I'm blest if the butterflies out here haven't put on khaki." Bloemfontein very soon did the same. Khaki of various shades and various degrees of dirtiness saluted me at every point. Khaki men upon khaki men swarmed everywhere. Brigade followed brigade in apparently endless succession; but all clad in the same irrepressible colour, till it became quite depressing. No wonder the townspeople soon took to calling the soldiers "locusts," not merely out of compliment to the gay colour of their costume, but also as aptly descriptive of their apparent countlessness. They seemed like the sands by the seashore, innumerable. They bade fair to swallow up the place.
That last expression, however, suggests yet another point of resemblance. For longer than these men seemed able to remember, the order of the day had been "long marches and short rations." When, therefore, they reached this welcome halting-place they were simply famished; insatiably hungry, they eagerly spent their last coin in buying up whatever provisions had fortunately escaped the commandeering of the Boers. There was no looting, no lawlessness of any kind; and many a civilian gave his last loaf to a starving trooper. There was soon a famine in the place and no train to bring us fresh supplies. All the bakeries of the town were commandeered by the new government for the benefit of the troops; but like the five loaves of the gospel story, "What were they among so many?" I saw the men, like swarms of bees, clustering around the doors and clambering on to the window-sills of these establishments, enjoying apparently the smell of the baking bread, and cherishing the vain hope of being able to purchase a loaf when at last the ovens were emptied.
So too at the grocers' shops, a "tail" was daily formed outside the door, which at intervals was cautiously opened to let in a few at a time of these clamorous customers, who presently retired by the back door, laden more or less with such articles as happened to be still in store; but muttering as they came out "this is like Klondyke," with evident reference not to Klondyke gold, but to Klondyke prices. It was not the traders that needed protection as against the troopers, but the troopers that needed protection as against some of the traders. Even proclamation prices were alarmingly high, as for instance, a shilling for a pound of sugar. Sixpence was the popular price for a cup of tea, often without milk or sugar. The quartermaster whose tent I shared was charged four shillings for a single "whisky and soda," and was informed that if he wanted a bottle of whisky the price would be thirty-five shillings. On such terms tradesmen who, before the war, had laid in large and semi-secret stores now reaped a magnificent harvest. One provision merchant was reported to have thus sold £700 worth of goods before breakfast on a certain Saturday morning, in which case he would perhaps reckon that on that particular date his breakfast had been well earned. It probably meant in part a wholesale army order; but even in that case it would be for cash, and not a case of commandeering after the fashion of the Boers.
A crippled Scandinavian tailor told me that his constant charge, whether to Colonels or Kaffirs, was two shillings an hour; and that he thought his needle served him badly if it did not bring him in £6 a week. About the same time a single-handed but nimble-fingered barber claimed to have made £100 in one week out of the invading British; but his victims declared that his price was a shilling for a shave and two shillings for a clip. At those figures the seemingly impossible comes to pass--if only customers are plentiful enough. Oh for a business in Bloemfontein!
[Sidenote: Republican Commandeering.]
The Republicans of South Africa have always been credited with an ingrained objection to paying rates and taxes even in war time; but they frankly recognise the reasonableness of governmental commandeering, and apparently submit to it without a murmur; especially when it hits most heavily the stranger within their gates. Accordingly, the war-law of the Orange Free State authorises the commandeering without payment of every available man, and of all available material of whatsoever kind within thirty days of war being declared. During those thirty days, therefore, the war-broom sweeps with a most commendable thoroughness; and all the more so, because after that date everything must be paid for at market values. Why pay, if being a little "previous" will serve the same purpose?
A gentleman farmer whom it was my privilege to visit, some fifteen miles out from Bloemfontein, told me he had been thus commandeered to the extent of about £3100; the value of waggons, oxen, and produce, he was compelled gratuitously to supply to his non-taxing government. A specially prosperous store-keeper in the town was said to have had £600 worth of goods taken from him in the same way; but then, of course, he had the compensating comfort of feeling that he was not being taxed! Even Republics cannot make war quite without cost; and by this time some are beginning to discover that it is the most ruinously expensive of all pursuits.
The Republican conscription was equally wide reaching; for every capable man between the ages of sixteen and sixty was required to place himself and his rifle at the service of the State. Even sons of British parentage, being burghers, were not allowed to cross the border and so escape this, in many a case, hateful obligation. Their life was forfeit, if they sought to evade the dread duties of the fighting line, and refused to level reluctant rifles against men speaking the same mother tongue. Some few, however, secured the rare privilege of acting simply as despatch riders, or as members of the Boer ambulance corps.
[Sidenote: A touching story.]
One of the sons of my Methodist farmer friend had been thus employed at Magersfontein, but had now seized the first opportunity of taking the oath and returning to his home. With his own lips he told me that on that fatal field he had found the body of an English officer, in whose cold hand lay an open locket, and in the locket two portraits; one the portrait of a fair English lady, and the other that of a still fairer English child. So, before the eyes of one dying on the blood-stained veldt did visions of home and loved ones flit. Life's last look turned thither! In war, the cost in cash is clearly the cost that is of least consequence. Who can appraise aright the price of that one locket?
Yet, appositely enough, as, that same evening, I was being driven back to town in a buggy and four, a little maiden--perchance like the maiden of the locket--wonderingly exclaimed as she watched the sun sink in radiance behind a neighbouring hill: "Why! just look! The sky is English!" "How so?" asked her father. "Can't you see?" said the child; "it is all red, white, and blue!" which indeed it was!
[Sidenote: The price of milk.]
But our title to this newly-conquered territory was by no means quite so unchallenged as such a complacent and complimentary sky might have led one to suppose. The heavens above us were for the moment English, but scarcely the earth beneath us; and certainly not the land beyond us. Great even thus far had been the price of conquest; but the full sum was not yet ready for the reckoning. No new Magersfontein awaited us, and no new Paardeberg; but the incessant risking of precious life, and much loss thereof in other fashions than those of the battlefield.
Possibly one of the most distressing cases of that kind occurred only two days after near Karee, a few miles beyond Bloemfontein. The officers of the Guards had become famous for their care of their men, and for their constant endeavour to keep them well served with supplementary supplies of food. They foraged right and left, and bargained with the farmers for all available milk and butter and cheese and bread. Men on the march cannot always live on rations only, and good leadership looks after the larder as well as after the lives of the men. On this gracious errand there rode forth from the camp as fine a group of regimental officers as could possibly be found; to wit, the colonel of the Grenadiers, his adjutant and transport officer who, beyond most, were choice young men and goodly; also the colonel of one of the Coldstream battalions, and one orderly. Hiding near a neighbouring kopje was a small body of Zarps watching for a chance of sniping or capturing a seceding Boer. Of them our officers caught sight, and with characteristic British pluck sought to capture them. But on the kopje the Boers found effectual cover, plied their rifles vigorously and presently captured all their would-be captors. As at Belmont, and on the same day of the month, the colonel of the Grenadiers was wounded in two places; the transport officer, the son of one of our well-known generals, lost his right arm; the adjutant, a younger brother of a noted earl, was shot through the heart, and the life of the other colonel was for a while despaired of. It was in some senses the saddest disaster that had yet befallen the Guards' Brigade; and it was the outcome not of some decisive battle, but of a kindly quest for milk.