War and worship live only on barest speaking terms, and to the latter the former makes few concessions; so it came to pass that Whitsunday, like so many another Sunday spent in South Africa, found us again upon the march, with the inevitable result that no parade service could possibly be held. Everybody, however, seemed full of confident expectation that the next day we should reach Pretoria, and perhaps take possession of it.
[Sidenote: Whit-Monday and Wet Tuesday.]
"If we take Pretoria on Whit-Monday," said one of the Guardsmen, "they will get the news in England next day, and then that will be Wet Tuesday"; which was a prophecy that seemed not in the least unlikely to be fulfilled, inasmuch as an Englishman's favourite way of showing his supreme delight is by accepting an extra drink, or offering one. Others were of opinion that, with a ring of forts around Pretoria on which hundreds of thousands of pounds had been expended, the Boer commanders would make a desperate stand in defence of their much loved capital, and so keep us at bay for many a day. But nothing daunted by such uncertainties as to what might be awaiting them, our men were on the march towards those famous forts early on Monday morning, and we soon found a lively Bank Holiday was in store for us. Shortly after noon, General French's cavalry having worked round to the north of the town, General Pole Carew prepared to attack on the south and our bombardment of the forts began, but drew from them no reply. All the Boer guns were elsewhere; and a little way behind our own busy naval guns, though hidden by the crest of the hill, lay the Grenadier Guards awaiting orders to take their place and part in the fray.
Presently a sharp succession of Boer shells, intended for the aforesaid naval guns, came flying over our heads, and dropping among our men. One hit a horse, which no man will ride again; one struck an ambulance waggon, and scared its solitary fever patient almost out of his senses; one dropped close to where a group of generals had just before met in consultation; but only one of these Boer Whitsuntide presents burst, and even that, strange to tell, caused no casualties, though it drove a few kilted heroes to run for refuge into a deepish pit, near which I sat upon the ground, and watching, wondered where the next shell would burst. When a little later the Guards moved further to the right to take up a position still nearer to the town, Boer bullets came flying over that same ridge and planted themselves among our left flank men; but when we tried to pick up some of these leaden treasures to keep as curios, so deeply imbedded were they in the soil they could not be removed. Yet they were playfully spoken of as spent bullets.
[Sidenote: "Light after dark."]
This grim music of gun and rifle was maintained almost till sunset, and then died away, leaving us in doubt whether the next day would witness a renewal of the fight, or whether, as on so many former occasions, the Boers under cover of the darkness would execute yet another strategic movement to the rear. That night we slept once more on the open veldt, made black by the vast sweep of recent grass fires; and next morning, after a starlight breakfast, I as usual retired to kneel in humble prayer, imploring the Divine guardianship and guidance for all in the midst of whom I dwelt. Presently I was startled by an outburst of wildest cheering from one group; and a moment after from a second; so springing to my feet I found our lads hurling their helmets in the air, and shouting like men demented. Not for the chaplains only that glad hour turned prayer to praise, and thrilled all hearts with patriotic if not pious pride.
An officer was riding post-haste from point to point where our men were massed, bearing the delicious tidings that Pretoria too had unconditionally surrendered. The news swiftly sped from battalion to battery, and from battery to battalion. First here, then there, then far away yonder, the cheering rang out clear and loud as a trumpet call. Comrade congratulated comrade, while Christian men, with tear-filled eyes, reverently looked up and rendered thanks to Him of whom it is written, "Thine is the victory."
[Sidenote: Why the surrender?]
Remembering how feeble Mafeking was held for months by the merest handful of men pitted against a host, it is not easy to understand why this city of roses, so pretty, and of which the Boers were all so proud, was opened to its captors after only the merest pretence at opposition. Lord Roberts is reported to have said that in his opinion it occupied the strongest position he had yet seen in all South Africa; and to my non-professional mind it instantly brought to remembrance the familiar lines which tell how round about Jerusalem the hilly bulwarks rise. The surrender of such a centre of their national life must have been to the burghers like the plucking out of a right eye, or the cutting off of a right hand. How came it to pass, without an effort to hinder it?
The German expert, Count Sternberg, who accompanied the Boers throughout the war, declared that though considered from the continental standpoint they are bad soldiers; in their own country, in ambushes or stratagems, which constitute their favourite type of warfare, "they are simply superb." He adds they would have achieved much greater success if they had not abandoned all idea of taking the offensive. "For that they lack courage; and to that lack of courage they owe their destruction."
But their flight, like their long after continuance in guerilla types of warfare, points to quite another cause than this lack of courage. The Boer is proverbially a lover of his own; and so, though with liberal hand he laid waste bridge and culvert and plant, as he retreated along the railway line through the Orange River Colony, which was not his own, he became quite miserly in his use of dynamite when the Transvaal was reached, which was his own, and which would infallibly be restored to him, so he reckoned, when the war was over. So was it to be with Pretoria too! To the very last the fighting Boer believed that whatever his fate in the field of battle, if he were only dogged enough, and in any fashion prolonged the strife sufficiently, British patience would tire, as it had tired before; British plans and purposes and pledges would all be abandoned as aforetime they had been abandoned, and he would thus secure, even in the face of defeat, the fruits of victory. The importunate widow is the one New Testament character "the brother" implicitly believes in and imitates. Her tactics were his before the war, in the matter of the Conventions; and the wasteful prolonging of the war was a part of the same policy. Great Britain was to be forced by sheer weariness to give back to the Transvaal in some form its coveted independence, and with it, of course, Pretoria also. So he would on no account consent to let the city be bombarded. Our peaceful occupation was the best possible protection for property that would presently be again his own; and while he still went on with his desultory fighting we were quite welcome, at our own expense, to feed every Boer family we could find.
Thus, like our own hunted Pretender, he held that however long delayed, the end was bound to restore to him his own; and he had not far to look for what justified the fallacy. In 1881, for instance, as one among many illustrations, an English general at Standerton formally assured the Boers that the Vaal would flow backward through the Drakenberg Hills before the British would withdraw from the Transvaal. Three successive Secretaries of State, three successive High Commissioners, and two successive Houses of Commons deliberately endorsed that official assurance; yet though the Vaal turned not back Great Britain did; and to that magnanimous forgetting of the nation's oft-repeated pledge was due in part this new war and its intolerable prolonging. It does not pay thus to say and then unsay. Thereby all confidence, all sense of finality, is killed.
[Sidenote: Taking possession.]
"Take your Grenadiers and open the ball," said Sir John Moore, as he appointed to his men their various positions in the famous fight at Corunna; and on this memorable 5th of June when the British finally took possession of Pretoria the Guards as at Belmont were again privileged to "open the ball." But whilst they were busy seizing the railway station and stock, with other points of strategic importance, I took my first hasty stroll through the city; and among the earliest objects of interest I came upon was the pedestal of a monument, with the scaffolding still around it, but quite complete, except that the actual statue which was to crown and constitute the summit was not there.
"Whose monument is that?" I meekly asked. "Paul Kruger's," was the prompt reply; "but the statue, made in Rome, has not yet arrived, being detained at Delagoa Bay."
That statue now probably never will arrive, and possibly enough some other figure,--perchance that of Victoria the Good,--will ultimately be placed on that expectant pedestal, so making the monument complete. "Which thing," as St Paul would say, "is an allegory!" That monument in its present form is a precise epitome of the man it was meant to honour. It is most complete by reason of its very incompleteness. The chief feature in this essentially strong man's career, as also in his monument, has reference to the foundation work he wrought. It was the finish that was a failure, and in much more important matters than this pile of chiselled granite, the work the late President commenced in the Transvaal its new rulers must make it their business to carry on, and, in worthier fashion, complete. We cannot begin de novo. For better for worse, on foundations laid by Boers, Britons must be content to build.
Close by, forming the main feature on one side of the city Square, stood a remarkably fine building, intended to serve as a palace of justice, but, like the monument in front of it, it was still unfinished. In the Transvaal there was as yet no counterpart to that most important clause in our own Magna Charta, which says "We will not sell justice to any man." Corruption and coercion were familiar forces alike in the making and the administration of its laws. In more senses than one the Transvaal Government had not yet opened its courts of justice. They mutely awaited the coming of the new régime.
In one of the main streets leading out of the Square stood the President's private residence; a gift-house, so it is said, accepted by him as a recompense for favours received. Compared with the Residency at Bloemfontein it is a singularly unpretentious dwelling and was in keeping rather with the economic habits, than with the private wealth, or official status, of its chief occupant. British sentinels had already been posted all about the place, and on the verandah sat a British officer with a long row of mausers lying at his feet. There too, one on each side of the main entrance, crouched Kruger's famous marble lions, silently watching that day's novel proceedings. Not even the presence of those men in khaki, nor that sad array of surrendered rifles, sufficed to draw from those stony guardians of their master's home so much as a muffled growl. They are believed to be of British origin, and I suspect that, so far as their nature permits, they cherish British sympathies; for they certainly showed no signs of lamenting over the ignoble departure of their lord. All regardless of the griefs of his deserted lady, they still placidly licked their paws; and as I cast on them a parting glance they gave to me, or seemed to, a knowing wink!
[Illustration: From a photograph by Mr Jones, Pretoria
Dopper Church Opposite President Kruger's House Built by the Late President.]
Precisely opposite the Residency is the handsome Dopper Church, wherein the President regularly worshipped, and not infrequently himself ministered in holy things. The church is nearly new, and like much else in Pretoria is still unfinished. The four dials have indeed been duly placed on the four faces of the clock tower; but in that tower there is as yet no clock; and round those clock dials there move no clock hands. No wonder Pretoria with its dominant Dopper Church, and its still more decidedly dominant Dopper President, mistook the true hour of its destiny, and madly made war precisely when peace was easiest of attainment. Kruger, dim-eyed and old, lived face to face continually with clock dials that betokened no progress, but, merely mocked the enquiring gaze. Which thing, the Chelsea Sage would say, was symbolical and significant of much!
In the centre of the before-mentioned Square is the large and usually crowded Dutch Reformed Church, doomed long ago, we were told, to be removed because of its exceeding unsightliness. Throughout the Transvaal in every town and hamlet, the House of God is invariably the central building, as also it is the centre of the most potent influence. In both Republics the minister was emphatically "a Master in Israel"; and in the welcome shadows of this great church I waited to witness one of the most interesting events of the century--the proclaiming of Pretoria a British city by the official hoisting in it, as earlier in Bloemfontein, of the British flag; and by the stately "march past" of the British troops.
Facing me, on the side of the Square opposite to that occupied by the Palace of Justice, were the creditably designed Government Buildings, including the Raadsaal, which was surmounted by a golden figure of Liberty bearing in her hand a battle-axe and flag. On the forefront of the building in bold lettering there was graven the favourite Transvaal watchword,
EENDRACT MAAKT MAGT,
which, being interpreted means, "Right makes Might"; and that motto, as every Britisher could see, precisely explained our presence there that day. Inside there still remained, in its accustomed place, the state chair of the departed President, in which, later on, I ventured to sit; and all around were ranged the, to me, eloquent seats of his departed senators. In that very hall, just nine months before, those senators, in secret session, had resolved to hurl defiance at the might of Britain; and so precipitated a war by which two sister Republics were, as such, hurried out of existence. Now the very corridors by which I approached that hall were crowded with Boers wearied with the fruitless fight, and eager to hand in their weapons.
In the waiting crowd outside I found a friend who courteously supplied me with a copy of a quite unique photograph--the only photograph taken of the solemn burial, a few hundred yards from where I stood, of a Union Jack, when that flag was hauled down in the Transvaal, and the British troops ingloriously retired. As shown in the photograph, over the grave was erected a slab, and on that slab was this most notable inscription:--
THE BRITISH FLAG in the Transvaal; which departed this life
August 2nd, 1881.
Aged 4 years.
In other lands none knew thee
But to love thee.
No such burial had the world seen before, and few bolder prophecies than that "I shall rise again," can be found in the history of any land; but a few minutes it became my memorable privilege to witness the actual fulfilment of that patriotic prediction. As in Johannesburg, so here, it was Lady Roberts' pocket edition of the Union Jack that was used; and we looked on excitedly; but the Statue of Liberty looked down benignly, while that tiny flag crept up nearer and nearer to its golden feet. Liberty has never anything to fear from the approach of that flag!
While in Pretoria the following story was told me by the soldier to whom it chiefly refers:--
[Sidenote: A Striking Incident.]
At the Orange River a corporal of the Yorkshire Light Infantry received a pocket copy of the New Testament from a Christian worker, and placed it in his tunic by the side of his "field dressing." A godless man, who had been driven into the army by heavy drinking, he merely glanced at a verse or two, and then forgot its very presence in his pocket till he reached the battlefield of Graspan a few days later on. Then a Boer bullet passed right through the Testament and the dressing that lay beside it, was thereby deflected from its otherwise fatal course, and finally made a long surface wound on his right thigh. That wound he at once bound up with one of his putties, but for two hours was unable to stir from the place where he fell.
Then he managed to limp back to his battalion, and piteously begged his adjutant not to let his name be put down on the casualty list, for, said he, "my mother is in feeble health, and if she saw my name in the papers among the wounded she would worry herself almost to death, as years ago when she heard of my being hit in Tirah." That brave request was granted, and he remained in the ranks marching as one unwounded.
Yet neither this Providential deliverance nor the terrors that soon followed at Modder River sufficed to lure to either prayer or praise this godless, but surely not graceless, corporal. On the 27th of August, however, which happened to be his thirtieth birthday, a devout sergeant had the joy of winning him to Christian decision; and that day, as he told me in Pretoria, he resolved to find out for himself whether after thirty years of misery the mercy of the Lord could provide for him thirty years of happiness.
[Sidenote: No canteens and no crime.]
On board the Nubia, amid piles of literature put on board for the amusement of the troops during the voyage, I discovered a quantity of pamphlets entitled "Beer Cellars and Beer Sellers," the purpose of which was to prove that the beer sellers were England's most indispensable patriots; that the beer cellars were England's best citadels; and that the beer trade in general was the very backbone of England's stability. It was horribly tantalising to the men in face of such teaching to find that there had been placed on board for them not so much as a solitary barrel of this much belauded beverage. Through all the voyage every man remained perforce a total abstainer. Yet there was not a single death among those sixteen hundred, nor a solitary instance of serious sickness. What does Burton say to that?
As at sea, so on land, the authorities seemed more afraid of the beloved beer barrel than of the bullets of the Boers; and for the most part no countersign sufficed to secure for it admittance to our camps. An occasional tot of rum was distributed among the men; but even that seemed to be rather to satisfy a sentiment than to serve any really useful purpose. At any rate, some of the men, like myself, tramped all the way to Koomati Poort, often in the worst of weather, without taking a single tot, and were none the worse for so refraining, but rather so much the better.
The effect on the character of the men was still more remarkable; and while in Pretoria I was repeatedly assured that some who had been a perpetual worry to their officers in beer-ridden England, on the beerless veldt, or in the liquorless towns of the Transvaal, speedily took rank among the most reliable men in all their regiment. To my colleague, the Rev. W. Burgess, a major of the Yorkshires, said "Nineteen-twentieths of the crime in the British army is due to drink. As a proof I have been at this outpost with 150 men for six weeks, where we have absolutely no drink, and there have been only two minor cases brought before me. There is no insubordination whatever, and if you do away with drink you have in the British army an ideal army. Whether or not men can be made sober by Act of Parliament, clearly they can by martial law!"
With the men so sober, with a field-marshal so God-fearing, the constant outrages ascribed to them by slander-loving Englishmen at home, become a moral impossibility; and to that fact, after we had been long in possession of Pretoria, the principal minister of the Dutch Reformed Church in the Transvaal bore ready witness in the following letter sent by him to the Military Governor of Pretoria:--
Not a single instance of criminal assault or rape by non-commissioned officers or men of the British army on Boer women has come to my knowledge. I have asked several gentlemen and their testimony is the same.... The discipline and general moral conduct of His Majesty's troops in Pretoria is, under the circumstances, better than I ever expected it would or could be. There have certainly been cases of immoral conduct, but in no single instance, so far as I know, has force been used. They only go where they are invited and where they are welcome.
(Signed) H. S. BOSMAN.
When such is the testimony of our adversaries, we need not hesitate to accept the similar tribute paid by Sir Redvers Buller to his army of abstainers in Natal:--"I am filled with admiration for the British soldiers," said he; "really the manner in which they have worked, fought, and endured during the last fortnight has been something more than human. Broiled in a burning sun by day, drenched in rain by night, lying but three hundred yards off an enemy, who shoots you if you show so much as a finger, they could hardly eat or drink by day; and as they were usually attacked by night, they got but little sleep; yet through it all they were as cheery and as willing as could be."
Men so devoted when on duty, don't transform themselves, the drink being absent, into incarnate demons when off duty; and no dominion, therefore, has more cause to be proud of its defenders than our own!