After resting for two days at Smaldeel, the Guards set out for Kroonstad on the Valsch or False River, so called because in some parts it so frequently changes its channel that after a heavy freshet one can seldom be quite sure where to find it. This march of sixty-five miles was covered in three days and a half; Smaldeel seeing the last of us on Wednesday and Kroonstad seeing the first of us about noon on Saturday. In the course of this notable march we saw, or rather heard, two artillery duels; the Boers half-heartedly opposing our passage, first at the Vet River just before we reached Smaldeel, and then at the Sand River, long since made famous by the Convention bearing that name.
[Sidenote: The Sand River Convention.]
Though Great Britain is supposed to suffer from insatiable land hunger it is a notable truth that she has voluntarily surrendered more oversea territory than some important kingdoms ever possessed; but not one of these many surrenders proved half so disastrous to all concerned as that on which the Sand River Convention set its seal in 1852. At that time our colonial possessions were accounted by many overtaxed statesmen to be all plague and no profit, involving the motherland in incessant native wars out of which she won for herself neither credit nor cash. That had proved specially true in South Africa. When, therefore, the Crimean war hove in sight with its manifold risks and its drain on our national resources, it was resolved to lessen our liabilities in that then unattractive quarter of the globe. The Transvaal was at that time a barren land, given over to wild beasts, and to Boers who seemed equally uncontrollable. An Ishmael life was theirs, their hand against every man's and every man's hand against them. Every little township was a law unto itself and almost every homestead; so the British Government threw up the thankless task of governing the ungovernable, as soon as a life and death struggle with Russia appeared inevitable. The Sand River Convention gave to the Transvaal absolute independence save only in what related to the treatment of the natives. There was to be no slavery in the Transvaal; but no Convention ever yet framed could apparently bind a Boer when his financial interests bade him break it. So set he his face to evade the conditions both of the Pretoria and the London Conventions of later date; and the one requirement of this first Convention he set at nought. During several following years he still hunted for slaves whom he took captive in native wars; sjamboked them into serving him without pay; bought them, sold them, but never called them slaves. They were "apprentices," which was a fine word for a foul thing. So was the Convention kept in the letter of it and broken in the spirit of it. For five-and-twenty years of widening and deepening anarchy that Convention remained in force, the Transvaal fighting with the Orange Free State, and Boer bidding defiance to Boer with bullets for his arguments. When little Lydenberg claimed the right to set up as an independent republic, Kruger himself reasoned with it at the muzzle of his rifle, as we have since been compelled to reason with him. So at last Shepstone appeared upon the scene to evolve order out of chaos; and though he knew it not, he was the true herald of the Guards' Brigade, and sundry others, that after many days crossed the Sand River to make an end for ever of all that the Sand River Convention involved.
The year following that in which the Convention was signed, another step was taken in the same direction and independence was forced on the Orange Free State. The people protested, and pleaded for permission to still live under the protection of the British flag; but their prayers were as unavailing as "the groans of the Britons," which, as recorded in the early pages of our own island story, followed the retiring swords of Rome. Now, after nearly forty years of uttermost neighbourliness, the Orange Free State, with machine gun and mauser hurls back the gift once so reluctantly accepted, and forces us to recall what now they still more reluctantly surrender. How bewildering are the ways of Fate!
[Illustration: From a photograph by Mr Westerman
Broken Bridge at Modder River.]
[Sidenote: Railway wrecking and repairing.]
The crossing of the drifts at the two rivers was almost as difficult a task as the overtaking of our ever retreating foes. The railway bridges over both these streams had been blown up by dynamite: some of the stone piers were shattered, and some of the iron girders hurled all atwist into the watery depths beneath; here and there culverts had similarly been destroyed, and at many a point the very rails had been torn by explosives till they looked like a pair of upturned arms imploring help from heaven. We noticed, however, when we got into the Transvaal that the Transvaalers took pity on their own portion of the line, and studiously refrained from shattering it. Some of them were probably shareholders. The less serious damages the Railway Pioneers and the Royal Engineers repaired with a speed that amazed us; and our supply trains never seemed to linger long in the rear of us, except when a massive river bridge was broken. Then a deviation line and a low level trestle bridge had to be constructed. At that fatigue work I have seen whole companies of once smart-looking Guardsmen toiling with spade and pick like Kaffirs, whilst some of their aristocratic officers, bearing lordly titles, played the part of gangers over these soldier-navvies. It was a new version and a more useful one of Ruskin and his collegiate road-makers.
[Sidenote: The tale, and tails, of a singed overcoat.]
Bridge or no bridge, many a mile of transport waggons, of ammunition carts, of provision carts, with sundry naval guns, each drawn by a team of thirty-two oxen, had somehow to be got down the dangerous slope on one side of the drift, then across the stream, and up the still more difficult slope on the other side. It was a herculean task at which men and mules and horses toiled on far into the night. Meanwhile, when the troops reached their camping ground some miles beyond the river, they found they would have to wait for hours before they could get a scrap of beef or biscuit, and that it would probably be still longer before their overcoats or blankets arrived. For the hungry and shivering men this seemed an almost interminable interval, and for their officers it was scarcely less trying. A devoted Methodist non-commissioned officer perceiving my sorry plight most seasonably procured for me the loan of a capital military greatcoat. I also fortunately found a warm anthill, which the Boers earlier in the day had hollowed out and turned into an excellent stove or cooking-place. I stirred up the hot ashes inside with my walking-stick, but could find no trace of actual fire, so lay down beside the mound for the sake of its gentle warmth and instantly fell fast asleep. In my sleep I must have leaned hard against the anthill, for presently a burning sensation at my back awoke me, to discover that already a big hole had been charred in the coat I wore; and "alas! master, it was borrowed." Boer rifle fire never harmed a hair of my head, but this Boer fire did mischief nobody bargained for. Clearly our pursuit was much too hot for my personal comfort!
[Illustration: From a photograph by Mr Westerman
The Deviation Bridge at Modder River.]
A little earlier in the evening another glowing anthill had been found by one of our officers, and the thought of possible soup at once suggested itself. A three-legged crock was borrowed from a native and a fire of green mimosa shrub was laboriously coaxed into vigour by a young aspirant to a seat in the House of Lords. Into the crockful of water one of us cast a few meat lozenges reserved for just such a day of dire need; another found in his haversack a further slender store, which instantly shared the same fate. Somebody else cast into the pot the contents of a tiny tin of condensed beef tea; and with sundry other contributions of the same kind there was presently produced a delightful cup of soup for all concerned. To mend matters still further and to improve the no longer shining hours, an officer caught sight of a stray pig upon the veldt and shot it, just as though it had been a sniping "brother." A short time after a portion of that porker took its place among the lozenges and condensed beef tea in that simmering crock. So in an hour or two there followed another cup of glorious broth, with a dainty morsel of boiled pork for those who desired it:--
"Oh ye gods, what a glorious feast!"
Soon after, our Cape cart with its load of iron mugs and tinned provisions reached that same crock side; while waggon loads of blankets, beef and biscuits, made possible a satisfactory night's rest, even on the frosty veldt, for all our well-wearied men.
Kroonstad, the but recently proclaimed second capital of the Orange Free State, is a very inferior edition of Bloemfontein. There is not a single stately building, public or private, in the whole place--the Dutch Reformed Church, afterwards taken for hospital purposes, being the best, as it is meet and right God's House should always be.
[Sidenote: Lord Roberts as Hospital Visitor.]
It was while I was visiting the sick and suffering laid, of course without beds, on the bare floor of this extemporised House of Healing that our ever busy commander-in-chief called on a similar errand of pitying kindliness. Fortunately for all concerned the master-mind of the whole campaign is of a devout as well as kindly type. Lord Roberts not only encouraged to the uttermost all army temperance work, being himself the founder of the A.T.A., but like Lord Methuen took a lively interest in the spiritual welfare of the troops. Yet never was a general more loved by his men, or more implicitly trusted. They reposed so much the calmer confidence in his generalship because of their instinctive belief in his goodness, and as an illustration of that belief the following testimony sent by a certain bombardier appeared in a recent report of Miss Hanson's Aldershot Soldiers' Home:--
"Lord Roberts! Well, he's just a father. Often goes round hospital in Bloemfontein, and it's 'Well, my lad, how are you to-day? Anything I can do for you? Anything you want?' and never forgets to see the man has what he asks for. Goes to the hospital train--'Are you comfortable? Are you sure you're comfortable?' Then it's 'Buck up! Buck up!' to those who need it. But when he sees a man dying, it's 'Can I pray with you, my lad?' I've seen him many a time praying, with not a dry eye near,--tears in his eyes and ours. It don't matter if there is a clergyman or anyone else present, if he sees a man very ill he will pray with him. He is a lord!"
Whether in this story there is any slight touch of soldierly imaginativeness, I cannot tell, but happy is the general about whom his men write in such a fashion; and happy is the army controlled by such a head!
[Sidenote: President Steyn's Sjambok.]
On the Friday evening, a few hours before our arrival, President Steyn stood in the drift of the Kroonstad stream, sjambok in hand, seeking to drive back the fleeing Boers to their new-made and now deserted trenches; but the President's sjambok proved as unavailing as Mrs Partington's heroic broom. The Boer retreat had grown into a rout; and the President's own retirement that night was characterised by more of despatch than dignity. He is reported to have said, "Better a Free State ruined than no Free State at all." For its loss of freedom, and for its further ruin, no living man is so responsible as he. But for his sympathy and support the Boers would have made less haste in the penning of their Ultimatum, and war might still have slept. =Steyn's ambition awoke it!=
Whilst its President-protector fled, Kroonstad that night found itself face to face with pandemonium let loose. The great railway bridge over the Valsch was blown up with a terrific crash. The new goods station belonging to the railway, recently built at a cost of £5000, and filled with valuable stores, including food stuffs, was drenched with paraffin by the =Boer Irish Brigade=, and given to the flames; while five hundred sacks of Indian corn piled outside shared the same fate. No wonder that, as at Bloemfontein, the arrival of the Guards' Brigade was welcomed with ringing cheers, and the frantic waving by many a hand of tiny Union Jacks. Our coming was to them the end of anarchy.
It is however worthy of note that the Boers who thus gave foodstuffs to the flames, and strove continually to tear up the rails along which food supplies arrived, yet left their wives and children for us to feed. About that they had no compunctions and no fear, in spite of the fabled horrors ascribed to British troops. They knew full well that even if those troops were half starved, these non-combatants would not be suffered to lack any good thing. Even President Kruger, though careful to carry all his wealth away, commended his wife to our tender keeping. Some of us would rather he had taken the wife and left the wealth; but concerning the scrupulous courtesy shown to her, no voice of complaining has ever been heard. When we ourselves were famished we fed freely the families of the very men who set fire to our food supplies; and their children especially were as thoughtfully cared for as though they were our own. War is always an accursed thing, but even in this dread sphere the Christ-influence is not unfelt.
[Sidenote: A Sunday at last that was also a Sabbath.]
To my intense delight after so many Sabbathless Sundays, I found myself privileged to conduct a well-attended parade service for the Nonconformists in the Guards' Brigade at 9 A.M., and for the men of General Stephenson's Brigade at a later hour. In the afternoon I paid a visit to the native Wesleyan church which has connected with it about twelve hundred members in and around Kroonstad. The building, which is day school, Sunday school and chapel all in one, is already of a goodly size, but it was about to be enlarged when the war began. I found a capital congregation awaiting my appearing, the women sitting on one side, the men on the other. There were three interpreters who translated what I said into Kaffir, Basuto and Dutch; an arrangement which gives a preacher ample time to think before he speaks; though once or twice I fear I forgot when number two had finished that number three had still to follow. I noticed when the collection was taken, there seemed almost as many coins as worshippers, and all the coins were silver, excepting only two. Yet this was a congregation of Kaffirs!
At night, assisted by the Canadian chaplain, I took the service in the Wesleyan English church, where the singing and the collection were both golden. So also was the text; and delightsomely appropriate withal. "The Most High ruleth the kingdom of men and giveth it to whomsoever He will." Of the sermon based upon it however it is not for me to speak. So ended my first Sunday in Kroonstad, where I was the favoured guest of Mr and Mrs Thorn, late of Bristol, and still Britishers "to the backbone the thick way through."
[Sidenote: Military Police on the march.]
This memorable march from the Valsch to the Vaal was, in consequence of the transport difficulties already described, one of the hungriest in all our record. To all the other miseries of the men there was added an incessant pining for food which it was impossible for them to procure in anything like satisfying quantities, and I have repeatedly watched them gather up from the face of the veldt unwholesomenesses that no man could eat; I have seen them many a time thus try with wry face to devour wild melon bitter as gall, and then fling it away in utter disgust, if not despair.
Yet at the head of the Brigade there marched a strong body of Military Police whose one business it was to see that these famished men looted nothing. When a deserted house was reached no pretence at protecting it was made. Such a house of course never contained food, and our men sought in it only what would serve for firewood, in some cases almost demolishing the place in their eagerness to secure a few small sticks, or massive beams. Nothing in that way came amiss.
But if man, woman or child were in the house a cordon of police was instantly put round the building. The longing eyes and tingling fingers passed on, and absolutely nothing was touched except on payment. Tom Hood in one of his merry poems tells of a place:--
"Straight down the crooked lane
And right round the square,"
where the most toothsome little porkers cried "Come eat me if you please." That, to the famine-haunted imagination of the troops, was precisely what many a well-fed porker on the veldt seemed to say, but as a rule say in vain. After thousands of troops had gone by, I have with my own eyes seen that lucky porker still there, with ducks of unruffled plumage still floating on the farmhouse pond, and fat poultry quite unconscious how perilous an hour they had just passed. Yet the owner of the aforesaid pig and poultry was out on commando, his mauser charged with a messenger of death, which any moment might wing its way to any one of us. No wonder if the famished soldiers could not quite see the equity of the arrangement which left him at liberty to hunt for their lives but would not allow them to lay a finger on one of his barndoor fowls. It would be absurd to suppose that, in the face of such pressure, the vigilance of the police was never eluded; and our mounted scouts were always well away from police control. As the result their saddles became sometimes like an inverted hen-roost; heads down instead of up; but they were seldom asked in what market they had made their purchases or what price they had paid for their poultry.
It would require a clever cook to provide a man with three savoury and substantial meals out of a mugful of flour, about a pound of tough trek ox, and a pinch of tea. Yet occasionally that was all it proved possible to serve out to the men, and their ingenuity in dealing with that miserable mugful of flour often made me marvel. They reminded me not unfrequently of the sons of the prophets, who, in a day of dearth went out into the fields to gather herbs and found a wild vine, and gathered thereof wild gourds and shred them into the pot and they could not eat thereof. Violent attacks of dysentery and kindred complaints only too plainly proved that occasionally in this case also, as in that ancient instance, there was apparently ample justification for the cry, "Oh thou man of God, there is death in the pot." Nevertheless, and notwithstanding the lynx-eyed vigilance of the police, the smell from the pot was sometimes astonishingly like unto the smell of chicken-broth; which clearly shows what good cooking can accomplish even on the barren veldt.
[Sidenote: A General's glowing eulogy of the Guards.]
This amazing ability of the Guards to face long marches with short rations was triumphantly maintained, not for a few months merely but to the very end of the campaign. In the February of 1901 it fell to the lot of the Scots Guards, for instance, to accompany General French's cavalry to the Swaziland border. They took with them no tents and the least possible amount of impedimenta of any kind. But for three weeks they had to face almost incessant rain, and as they had no shelter except a blanket full of holes, they were scarcely ever dry for half a dozen hours at a time. The streams were so swollen that they became impassable torrents, and the transport waggons were thus left far behind, with all food supplies. For eight or ten days at a stretch men and officers alike had no salt, no sugar, no tea, no coffee, no jam, no flour, bread or biscuits; no vegetables of any kind; but only one cupful of mealies or mealie meal per day, and as much fresh killed meat as their rebellious stomachs could digest without the aid of salt or mustard. Yet the only deaths were two by drowning; and at the close of the operations the general addressed them as follows:--
General French's farewell speech to the 1st Brigade, Scots Guards at Vryheid, on April 1st, 1901:--
Major Cuthbert, officers, N.C.Os. and men of the Scots Guards. The operations in the Eastern Transvaal are brought to a close, and I have had the opportunity of addressing the Royal Horse and Field Artillery and Cavalry; but, although you were with me in the Western Transvaal, this is the first time I have had the pleasure of addressing you on parade. The operations from Springs to Ermelo, and from Ermelo to Piet Retief, were conducted under the most trying circumstances and severe hardships. Lying on the ground, which was under water, with no shelter, with very short rations and for sometime none at all, you had to exist on the meagre supplies of the district, which were very poor. At one time it caused me the deepest anxiety, as in consequence of the weather all communications were temporarily suspended; but the cheery manner and disposition of this splendid battalion did a great deal to disperse this anxiety. What struck me most forcibly was your extraordinary power of marching. I have frequently noticed that when the cavalry and mounted infantry were engaged (happily very slightly) in these operations, I have been surprised on looking round to see this splendid battalion close behind and extended ready to take part in the fighting, and have wondered how they got there. Another important item I wish to remark upon is the magnificent manner in which this battalion performed outpost duty and night work. On several occasions news has come to me through my Intelligence Department of a meditated attack on the camp of this column, but owing to the skilful way in which the outposts were thrown out and the vigilance of the sentries the attack was never developed.
Another thing I noticed was the highly disciplined state of the battalion. It is not always in fighting that a soldier proves his qualities. Though at the commencement of the campaign you had hard fighting and heavy losses, the past few weeks stand unsurpassed, I believe, for hardships in the history of the campaign! I thank every officer and N.C.O. for the great assistance given to me during these operations. Should your services be required elsewhere, or further hardships have to be endured, I know you will do as you have done before. I wish you all good-bye.
[Sidenote: Good news by the way.]
Among those who, like myself, on October 21st left England in the same boat as General Baden-Powell's brother, the most frequent theme of conversation was the then unknown fate of Mafeking. Its relief was the news most eagerly enquired for at St Vincent's, and we were all hugely disappointed when on reaching the Cape we learned that the interesting event had not yet come off. Some toilsome and adventurous months brought us to May 21st, our last day at Kroonstad; and it proved a superbly satisfactory send-off on our next perilous march to learn that day that the long-delayed but intensely welcome event had at last actually taken place just four days before. It filled the whole camp with pardonable pride and pleasure, though the sober-sided soldiers on the veldt scarcely lost their mental balance over the business as the multitudes at home, and as all the great cities of the empire seem to have done. We know it was a tiny town defended by a tiny garrison of for the most part untrained men; and therefore in itself of scant importance; but we also know that for many a critical week it had held back not a few strong commandoes in their headlong rush towards the Cape; it had for weary months illustrated on the one hand the staying power of British blood, and on the other the timidity and impotence of the Boers as an attacking force. Not a single town or stronghold to which they laid siege had they succeeded in capturing; the very last of the series was safe at last, and after all that had been said about British blunderings, this event surely called for something more than commonplace congratulations. Hereward the Wake was wont to say, "We are all gallant Englishmen; it is not courage we want: it is brains"; but at Mafeking for once brains triumphed over bullets. A new Wake had arisen in our ranks, and so Mafeking has found a permanent place among the many names of renown in the long annals of our island story.
It was an admirably fitting prelude to another historic event of that same week. On the last anniversary we shall ever keep of our venerable Queen's birthday, on May 24th, the Orange River Colony was formally annexed to the British Empire, and Victoria was proclaimed its gracious sovereign. That empire has grown into the vastest responsibility ever laid on the shoulders of any one people, and constitutes a stupendously urgent call to the pursuit and practice of righteousness on the part of the whole Anglo-Saxon race. It is a superb stewardship entrusted to us of God; and "it is required in stewards that they be found faithful."
[Sidenote: Over the Vaal at last.]
All that week the Guards continued in hot pursuit of the Boers without so much as once catching sight of them. Repeatedly, however, we scrambled through huge patches of Indian or Kaffir corn, enough, so to say, to feed an army, but all left to rot and perish uncut. It was one of the few evidences which just then greeted us that war was really abroad in the land, and that they were no mere autumn manoeuvres in which we then were taking part. Some of the rightful owners of that corn were probably among our prisoners of war at St Helena, spending their mourning days in vainly wondering how long its hateful unfamiliar waves would keep them captive. Others had, perchance, themselves been garnered by the great Harvester, who ever gathers his fattest sheaves hard by the paths of war.
Occasionally we came, in the course of our march, on a recently-deserted Boer camp, with empty tins strewn all about the place and the embers of camp fires still glowing, but never so much as a penny worth of loot lying on the ground. Either they had little to leave, or else they so utilised the railway in assisting to get their belongings away that in that respect they had the laugh of us continually. This final service rendered, the Boers made haste to prevent the rail being used by us; and so far as time or timidity would permit, they blew up every bridge, every culvert, as soon as their last train had crossed it. Fortunately of the long and beautiful bridge across the Vaal we found only one broad span broken.
About nine o'clock on Sunday morning the troops reached Val Joen's Drift, the terminal station on the Orange Free State Railway. This drift it was that President Kruger had once resolved to close against all traffic in order the more effectually to strangle British trade in the Transvaal. Another mile or two through prodigiously deep sand, brought us to the Vaal River coal mines, with their great heaps of burning cinders or other refuse, which brought vividly to many a north countryman's remembrances kindred scenes in the neighbourhood of busy Bradford and prosperous Sunderland.
Then came the great event to which the laborious travel of the last seven months had steadily led up, the crossing of the Vaal, and the planting of our victorious feet on Transvaal soil. Here we were assured the Boers would make their most determined stand; and the natural strength of the position, together with the urgent necessities of the case, made such an expectation more than merely reasonable. Yet to our delighted wonderment not a single trench, so far as we could see, had been dug, nor a solitary piece of artillery placed in position. From the top of a cinder heap a few farewell mauser bullets were fired at our scouts, and then as usual our foemen fled. Once in a Dutch deserted wayside house I picked up an "English Reader," which strangely opened on Montgomery's familiar lines:--
"There is a land of every land the pride;
Belov'd by Heaven o'er all the world beside.
Where shall that land, that spot of earth be found?
Art thou a Man, a Patriot? Look around!
Oh thou shalt find, howe'er thy footsteps roam,
That land thy country, and that spot thy home!"
Boer patriotism we had supposed to be not merely pronounced, but fiercely passionate; and "a Dutchman," said Penn, "is never so dangerous as when he is desperate"; yet when the Guards' Brigade stepped out of the newly-conquered Free State into the about to be conquered Transvaal, scarcely a solitary Dutchman appeared upon the scene to dispute our passage, or to strike one desperate blow for hearth and altar and independence. In successive batches we were peacefully hauled across the river on a pontoon ferry bridge; and as I leaped ashore it was with a glad hurrah upon my lips; a grateful hallelujah in my heart!