[Sidenote: A pleasure jaunt.]
During this six weeks of tarrying at Bloemfontein I found myself able to visit a most interesting Methodist family residing some twenty miles south of the town. For my sole benefit the express to the Cape was stopped at a certain platelayer's hut, and then a walk of about a mile across the veldt brought me to the pleasant country house of a venerable widow lady. Her belongings had of course been freely commandeered by the Boers on the outbreak of war; nor had the sons, being burghers, though loyal-hearted Britishers, been able to elude their liability to bear arms against their own kin. The two youngest, schoolboys still, though of conscript age, had been sent down south betimes; and so were well out of harm's way, but the two elder were not suffered to thus escape. One as a despatch rider, and one as a commissariat officer, they were compelled to serve a cause that did violence to their deepest convictions. On the first appearance therefore of the British, both brothers following the bidding of strongest blood bonds, transferred their allegiance, if not their service, to the other side. Thereupon they were so incessantly threatened with a volley of avenging Boer bullets they felt compelled to take a holiday trip to the Cape. Thus was their gentle mother with war still raging round her gates bereft of the presence, protection, and sorely needed aid of all her sons.
We arranged for the holding in her home of an Easter Sunday evening service; and then returning to the railway were cheered by the speedy sight of a goods train bound for Bloemfontein. Whereupon I scrambled on to the top of a heavily loaded truck, and there, being a first-class passenger provided with a first-class ticket, travelled in first-class style, sitting awkwardly astride of nobody knows what. On the same truck rode a Colonial, an English cavalryman, and a Hindu who courteously threw over me a handsome rug when the chilly eve closed in upon us. A decidedly representative group were we atop that truck-load of miscellaneous munitions of war. And on into the darkness, and through the darkness, we thus rode till late at night we reached the lights of Bloemfontein.
[Sidenote: Onwards but whither?]
On Saturday, April 22nd, the colonel of my battalion informed his quartermaster that the next day his men would leave Kaffir River, proceed to Springfield, and thence to "worlds unknown!" That is precisely where we soon found ourselves. Early on Sunday morning I said "Good-bye" to Bloemfontein, expecting to see its face no more, for surely this must be the long looked for start towards golden Krugerland! At Kaffir River I found the Guards were some hours ahead of me, but was just in time to catch the tail of a long train of transport waggons belonging to them, so that fortunately there was no fear of my being left alone, and lost a second time upon the veldt. Thus commenced a long Sunday march, as we all supposed, to Springfield. Later on we learned it certainly was not Springfield we were slowly approaching; but that possibly night-fall would land us somewhere near the Waterworks recently shattered, and still held, by the Boers. Yet "not there, not there, my child," were our weary feet wending. We began to wonder whether they were wending anywhere; and to this hour nobody seems to know the name of the place where we that night rested. Perhaps it had no name! Soldiers on active service seldom walk by sight. It is theirs always "to trust and obey." Even regimental officers seldom know precisely where their next stopping-place will be, or what presently they will be called upon to do. They often resemble the pieces on a chess board, which cannot see the hand that moves them and cannot tell why this piece instead of that is taken. To keep our adversaries if possible in the dark, we have ourselves to dwell in darkness; but it is a source of sore distress all the same. The troops hunger for information and seldom get it; so, to supply the lack they invent it; and then scornfully laugh at their own inventings. They would sooner travel anywhere than "through worlds unknown"; and yet somehow that becomes for them the commonest of all treks!
[Sidenote: That Pom-Pom again!]
While the afternoon was still new we heard on our near left the sound of heavy shell firing; of which, however, the men took no more notice than if they had been manoeuvring on Salisbury Plain. They marched on as stolidly and cheerily as ever, chatting and laughing as they marched. But presently there broke upon our ears the familiar sound of the pom-pom, which months ago at the Modder had so shaken everybody's nerves. Instantly there burst from the whole brigade a cry of recognition, and every man instinctively perceived that some grim business had begun. Another Sunday battle was raging just over the ridge, and the rest of that day's march had for its accompaniment the music of pom-poms, the rattle of rifle fire, and the thud of shells. But at the close of the day an officer somewhat discontentedly reported that "if" our artillery had only reached a certain place by a certain time, something splendid would have happened. Many of our rat-traps proved thus weak in the spring, and snapped too slowly, specially on Sundays. Some such disastrous "if" seemed to spring up in connection with most of our Sunday fights, though we still seem to cling fondly to the belief that for fighting the Lord's battles the Lord's day is of all days incomparably the best. It was on Sunday, December 10th, the disastrous attack on Stormberg was delivered; and on the evening of that same fatal Sunday the Highland Brigade marched out of the Modder River Camp to meet their doom on Magersfontein. Similarly on the night of Sunday, January 22nd, our men set out to win, and lose, Spion Kop. The Paardeberg calamity, the costliest of all our contests, was also a Sunday fight; and though in the face of such facts no man may dogmatise, such coincidences, all happening in the course of a few weeks, in the conduct of the same war, make one wonder whether Sunday is really a lucky day for purposes so dread, and whether the Boers are not justified in their supposed refusal to fight on Sundays excepting in self-defence. In that respect, I at any rate, am with the Boers as against the Britons.
[Sidenote: A problem not quite solved.]
When night at last arrived, we had neither tents nor shelters of any sort provided for us, though the cold was searching, and everything around us was wet with heavy dew. Men and officers alike spread their waterproof sheets on the bare ground, and then made the best they could of one or two blankets in which to wrap themselves. Through the kindness, however, of my quartermaster friend, since dead, I was privileged to push my head and shoulders under a transport waggon which effectually sheltered me from wind and wet; and there, in the midst of mules and men, mostly darkies, I slept the sleep of the weary.
Brief rest, however, of a more delicious kind I had already found in the course of that toilsome afternoon tramp described above. During a short halt by the way I lay upon my back watching a huge cloud of locusts flying far overhead, and thinking tenderly of those just then assembling at our Aldershot Sunday afternoon service of song, not forgetting the gentle lady who usually presides at the piano there. Then I took out my pocket Testament, and read Romans xii.: "If thine enemy hunger, feed him." But about that precise moment the adjoining kopje, with a shaking emphasis, said to me, "pom-pom," and again "pom-pom." But how to feed one's enemy while thus he speaks with defiant throat of brass, is a problem that still awaits a satisfactory solution!
[Sidenote: A touching sight.]
In the course of the day I was greatly touched by the sight of an artillery horse that had fallen from uttermost fatigue, so that it had to be left to its fate on the pitiless veldt. It was now separated from its team, and all its harness had been removed; but when it found itself being deserted by its old companions in distress and strife, it cast after them a most piteous look, struggled, and struggled again to get on to its feet, and finally stood like a drunken man striving to steady himself, but absolutely unable to go a single step further. Ah, the bitterness alike for men and horses of such involuntary and irrecoverable falling out from the battle-line of life! Not actual dying, but this type of death is what some most dread!
[Sidenote: Rifle firing and firing farms.]
When on Monday we resumed our march, it was still to the sound of the same iron-mouthed music; but now at last we could not only hear, but see some of the shell fire, and watch a few of the men that were taking part in the fight. Far away we noticed what looked like a line of beetles, each a good space from his fellow beetles, creeping towards the top of a ridge. These were some of our mounted men. Lower down the slope, but moving in the same direction, was a similar line of what looked like bees. These were some of our infantry, on whom the altogether invisible Boers were evidently directing their fire. As you must first catch your hare before you can cook it, so you must first sight a Boer before you can shift him; and the former task is frequently the more difficult of the two. In more senses than one short-sighted soldiers have had their day; and in all ranks those who cannot look far ahead must give place to those who can. Henceforth the most powerful field-glasses that can possibly be made, and the most perfect telescopes, must be supplied to all our officers; or on a still more disastrous scale than in this war the bees will drop their bullets among the beetles, and Britons will be killed by Britons.
Later in the day, to my sincere grief, a beautiful Boer house was set on fire by our men, after careful inquiry into the facts by the provost-marshal, because the farmer occupying it had run up the white flag over his house, and then from under that flag our scouts had been shot at. Such acts of treachery became lamentably common, and had at all cost to be restricted by the only arguments a Voortrekker seemed able to understand; but the Boers in Natal had long before this proved adepts at kindling similar bonfires, though without any such provocation, and cannot therefore pose as martyrs over the burning of their own farms, however deplorable that burning be.
[Sidenote: Boer treachery and the white flag.]
At Belmont a young officer of the Guards named Blundell was killed by a shot from a wounded Boer to whom he was offering a drink of water; and about the same time another Boer hoisted a white flag, which our men naturally mistook for a signal of surrender, but on rising to receive it, received instead a murderous volley of rifle fire, as the result of which the correspondent of The Morning Post had his right arm hopelessly shattered.
At Talana Hill, our first battle in Natal, the beaten Boers raised a white flag on a bamboo pole, but when our gunners thereupon ceased firing, "the brother" instead of surrendering bolted! At Colenso, a company of burghers with rifles flung over their backs, and waving a white flag, approached within a short distance of the foremost British trenches, but when our troops raised their heads to welcome these surrendering foes, they were instantly stormed at by shot and shell. At length General Buller found it necessary in face of such frequent treachery, officially to warn his whole army to be on their guard against the white flag, a flag which to his personal knowledge was already through such misuse stained with the blood of two gallant British officers, besides many men.
It is said that when Sir Burne Jones' little daughter was once in such a specially angry mood as to scratch and bite and spit, her father somewhat roughly shook the child and said, "I do not see what has got into you, Millicent; the devil must teach you these things." Whereupon, the little one indignantly flashed back this reply:--"Well the devil may have taught me to scratch and bite, but the spitting is my own idea!" With equal justice the Boers may claim that though the ordinary horrors and agonies of war are of the devil, this persistent abuse of the white flag is their own idea. Of that practice they possess among civilized nations an absolute monopoly, and the red cross flag has often fared no better at their hands.
But then it would be absurd and most unfair to blame the two Republics as a whole for this. No people on earth would approve such practices, and doubtless they were as great a pain to many an honourable Boer as they were to us. But upland farmers who have spent their lives in fighting savage beasts, and still more savage men, are slow to distinguish between lawful tricking and unlawful treachery, and are apt to account all things fair that help to win the game.
[Sidenote: The pet lamb still lives and learns!]
During this long trek through worlds unknown, our pet lamb, perchance taking encouragement from the example of the two chaplains, followed us all the way on foot, and became quite soldierly in its tastes and tendencies. It scorned even to look at its brother sheep on the veldt modestly feeding on coarse veldt grass; but on sardines and bacon-fat it seemed to thrive astonishingly; and both my bread and sugar it coolly commandeered. So rapid and complete is camp-life education, even when a pet lamb is the pupil!
[Sidenote: Right about face.]
On the morning of our fifth day in "worlds unknown" we breakfasted soon after four, by starlight; and before sunrise were again trekking hard. About ten miles brought our almost interminable string of waggons to two ugly river drifts, across which, with much toil and shouting they were at last safely dragged. Then we suddenly halted and to our amazement were ordered to return whence we came. So across those two ugly drifts the waggons were again dragged; four o'clock in the afternoon found us on the precise spot where four o'clock in the morning had watched us breakfasting; and by the afternoon of the following Sunday we were back in Bloemfontein from which on the previous Sunday we had made so bold a dash for fame and fortune. In the course of those eight excessively toilsome days the Guards had captured three wounded Boers; but what else they had accomplished no one could ever guess. Somebody said, however, that something wonderful had been done by somebody somewhere in connection with that week of wonders; which was of course consoling; but it was only long after we learned that De Wet after laying siege to Wepener for seventeen days had made a sudden rush to reach his sure retreat in the north-east corner of the Free State; that we with other columns had been sent out to intercept him; and had as by a hair's breadth just managed to miss him. Such are the fortunes and misfortunes of war. As an attacking force, De Wet in the course of the war made some bold and brilliant moves, though always on a comparatively small scale; but in the art of running away and escaping capture, no matter by whom pursued, he has given himself more practice than probably any other general that ever lived. "Oh my God make him like a wheel!" We were a lumbering waggon chasing a light-winged wheel; and the wheel was winner!
[Sidenote: From worlds unknown.]
While on this long trek I lighted on a newly-arrived contingent of Canadian mounted infantry which had come to our aid from worlds unknown. They proved to be a splendid body of men, and worthy compatriots of the earlier arrived Canadians who had rendered such heroic service at Paardeberg. Their Methodist chaplain, the Rev. Mr Lane, of Nova Scotia, seemed incontestably built on the same lines; a conspicuously strong man was he, and delightfully level-headed. I therefore all the more deeply deplored the early and heavy failure of his health, as the result of the severe hardships that hang round every campaigner's path, and his consequent return, invalided home.
[Sidenote: The Bushmen..]
About this same time another equally remarkable body, the Australian Bushmen, who, like the Canadians, had come from worlds unknown, were in the far north making their way through worlds unknown to the relief of Mafeking. Their advance, says Conan Doyle, was one of the finest performances of the war. Assembled at their port of embarkation by long railway journeys, conveyed across thousands of miles of ocean to Cape Town, brought round another two thousand to Beira, transferred by a narrow gauge railway to Bamboo Creek, thence by a broader gauge to Marandellas, sent on in coaches for hundreds of miles to Bulawayo, again transferred by trains for another four or five hundred miles to Ootsi, and then facing a further march of a hundred miles, they reached the hamlet of Masibi Stadt within an hour of the arrival of Plumer's relieving columns; and before that week was over the whole Empire was thrilled, almost to the point of delirium, by learning that at last the long-drawn siege of Mafeking was raised; and a defence of almost unexampled heroism was thus brought to a triumphant end.
[Sidenote: The Australian Chaplains.]
From start to finish the Bushmen were accompanied by an earnest Methodist chaplain, whom I met only in Pretoria, the Rev. James Green, who, most fortunately, throughout the whole campaign, was not laid aside for a single day by wounds or sickness; and who, after returning home with this time-expired first contingent of Australian troops, came back in March 1902 with what, we hope, the speedy ending of the war will make their last contingent.
Between Mr Green's two terms of service I was, however, ably assisted by yet another Australian Wesleyan chaplain, the Rev. R. G. Foreman, though he, like so many others, was early invalided home.