[Sidenote: The fighting near Belfast.]
On August 24th the tiny little town of Belfast was reached by General Pole Carew's division, including the Guards' Brigade; but though our advent was unopposed, there was heavy fighting on our right, where General Buller, newly arrived from Natal, had the day before approached the immensely strong Boer position at Bergendal. There the Johannesburg police, the most valorous of all the burgher forces, made their last heroic stand three days later, and were so completely wiped out, that Kruger is reported to have been moved to tears when the tidings reached him. It was the last stand the Boer still had nerve enough to make, and after Belfast their continuous retreat quickened into almost a rout. It was on Sunday, the 26th, the Guards moved out to take part in the general assault, and waited for hours behind the shelter of Monument Hill while General French developed his flanking movement on the left. Boer bullets fell freely among us while thus tarrying, and compelled our field hospital to retire further down the slope to a position of comparative safety. Late that afternoon the Guards marched over the brow to face what bade fair to be another serious Sunday battle, yet without any slightest sign of flinching. "How dear is life to all men," said dying Nelson. It may be so; but these men and their officers from first to last, when duty called, seemed never to count their lives dear unto them. A few casualties, caused by chance bullets, occurred among them before the day closed, but scarcely so much as a solitary Boer was seen by the clearest sighted of them. Once again outflanked, "the brother" once again had fled, and in the deepening darkness we groped our way to our next camping ground.
In our Napoleonic wars the favourite command alike on land and sea was, "Engage the enemy more closely." Each fleet or army kept well in sight of its antagonist, and the fighting was often at such close quarters that musket muzzle touched musket muzzle; but at Belfast Lord Roberts' front was thirty miles in width, and our generals could only guess where their foemen hid by watching for the fire-flash of their long range guns. In offensive warfare the visible contends with the invisible, and it is good generalship that conquers it. At Albuera Soult asserted there was no beating British troops in spite of their generals. But Lord Roberts' generalship seems never to have been at fault, however remote the foe, and thanks thereto Belfast proved to be about the last big fight of the whole campaign.
[Sidenote: Feeding under fire.]
Early next morning we were vigorously shelled by the still defiant Boers, but from the, for them, fairly safe distance of nearly five miles. Just as the Grenadier officers had finished their breakfast and retired a few yards further afield to get just beyond the reach of those impressive salutations, a shell plumped down precisely where we had been sitting. It made its mark, though fortunately only on the bare bosom of mother earth; but later on in the same day, while we were finishing lunch, another shrapnel burst, almost over our heads, so badly injured a doctor's horse tethered close by that it had to be killed, and compelled another somewhat rapid retirement on our part to the far side of a neighbouring bog. In war time all our feasts are movable!
[Sidenote: A German Doctor's Confession.]
Before leaving Belfast I called on a German doctor who had been in charge of a Boer military hospital planted in that hamlet, and who told me that for twelve months he had been in the compulsory employ of the Transvaal Government. Commandeered at Johannesburg, he had accompanied the burghers from place to place till he had grown utterly sick of the whole business; and all the more because he had received no payment for his services except in promissory notes--which were worthless. He also stated that over three hundred foreigners had been landed at Delagoa Bay as ambulance men, wearing the red cross armlet; as such they had proceeded to Pretoria for enrolment, and there he had seen every man of them strip off the red cross, shouldering instead the bandolier and rifle. Thus were fighting men and mercenaries smuggled through Portuguese territory to the Boer fighting lines; and in this as in many other ways was that red cross abused. He wastes his time who tries to teach the Boers some new trick. In this war they have amply proved that in that matter they have nought to learn, except the unwisdom of it all, and the sureness of the retribution it involves. Even in battle and battle times clean hands are best.
[Sidenote: Friends in need are friends indeed.]
On leaving the neighbourhood of Belfast we soon found ourselves marching through Helvetia, the Switzerland of South Africa, a region of insurmountable precipices and deep defiles, where scarcely any foliage was found, and in that winter season no verdure. There rose in all directions towering hills, which sometimes bore upon their brow a touch of real majesty; and when crowned, as we saw them, with fleecy mist, resembled not remotely the snow-clad Alps. Indeed, during that whole week the toils and travels of the Guards brought to the mind of many the familiar story of Hannibal and his vast army crossing the Alps; only the Carthaginian general had no heavy guns and long lines of ammunition waggons to add to his already enormous difficulties; his men had little to carry on their broad backs compared with what a modern Guardsman has to shoulder; nor did Hannibal take with him a small army corps of newspaper correspondents to chronicle all the petty disasters and delays met with by the way. Few commanders-in-chief are lovers of correspondents, whether of the professional or of the private type. Tell-tale tongues and pens may perchance do more mischief than machine guns and mausers!
At the latter end of the week our men had to climb over what seemed to be the backbone of that terrific region, with results almost disastrous to our long train of transport waggons. Botha, whose retreat towards Lydenberg our flanking movement had apparently prevented, we failed to find; so after fighting a mild rear-guard action, we scarce knew with whom, we encamped that night for the first and last time side by side with Buller's column.
The major part, however, of the Grenadier battalion remained till next morning far away in the rear to guard our huge convoy while climbing up and climbing down the perilous ridge just referred to, with the result that some of us forming the advanced party found ourselves without food or shelter. Yet the soldierly courtesy which has so often hastened to my help during this campaign did not fail in this new hour of need. A sergeant-major of the bearer company most graciously lent me his own overcoat, the night being bitterly cold; the officers of the Scots Guards not only invited me to dine with them, but one of them supplied me with a rug, whilst another pressed on me the loan of his mackintosh "to keep off the dew," and thus enwrapped I lay once more on the bare ground, well sheltered behind a sheet of corrugated iron, which I fortunately found stuck on end as though put there by some unknown Boer benefactor for my special benefit. In fashion thus lordly were all my wants continually supplied. The wild wind that night blew away a second sheet of iron that another young officer, with almost filial thoughtfulness, placed over me after I had gone to rest, but the original sheet maintained its perpendicular position, and by its welcome protection supplied me with a fresh illustration of the familiar saying, "He stayeth His rough wind in the day of His east wind."
[Sidenote: An Invisible Sniper's Triumph.]
Thus toiling we reached at last a plateau about 5000 feet above sea level, from which we looked down into the famous Waterfall Gorge, a sheer descent of 1000 feet. Down into it there drops from Waterval Boven the cogwheel section of the Delagoa Bay Railway, and in it there nestles a Swiss-like village, with hotel and hospital and railway workshops. As at Abraham's Kraal we captured the President's silk hat but let the President's head escape, so here we captured the President's professional cook, but the day before we arrived the President's private railway car,--his ever-shifting capital,--had eluded our pursuit, together with the President himself and the golden capital, in the shape of abounding coin he carried with him. The tidings proved to us a feast of Tantallus, so near and yet so far! How our men sighed for a sight of that car, and for the fingering of that coin! "At last I have him," said the exulting French General Soult of Wellington, at the battle of St Pierre, but his exultation proved distressingly premature. So did ours! Car and capital vanished just in the nick of time through that Waterfall Gorge, and to this day have never been disgorged.
From even descending into that gorge the whole brigade of Guards was held back for four-and-twenty hours by a solitary invisible sniper, hidden, no one could find out where, in some secure crevice of the opposite cliff. One of our mounted officers riding down to take possession of the village was seriously wounded; and some of the scouts already there were compelled through the same course to keep under close shelter. So the naval guns, the field guns, and the pom-poms were each in turn called to the rescue, and gaily rained shot and shell for hours on every hump and hollow of that opposite cliff, but all in vain; for after each thunderous discharge on our side, there came a responsive "ping" from the valiant mauser-man on the other side. Then the whole battalion of Scots Guards was invited to fire volley after volley in the same delightfully vague fashion, till it seemed as though no pin point or pimple on the far side of the gorge could possibly have failed to receive its own particular bullet; but
"What gave rise to no little surprise,
Nobody seemed one farthing the worse!"
Just as the sun set the last sound we heard was the parting "ping" of Brother Invisible. So no man might descend into the depths that night, hotel or no hotel! Even at midnight we were startled out of our sleep by the quite unexpected boom of our big guns, which had, of course during daylight, been trained on a farmhouse lying far back from the precipice opposite to us, and were thus fired in the dead of night under the impression that the sniper, and perhaps his friends, were peacefully slumbering there. If so, the chances are he sniped no more. Next day at noon we began to clamber down to the level of the railway line, and found ourselves in undisturbed possession, after so prolonged and costly a bombardment called forth by a single, stubborn mauser.
[Sidenote: "He sets the mournful prisoners free."]
Meanwhile the eighteen hundred English prisoners who had so long been kept in durance vile at Nooitgedacht, the next station on the rail to Portuguese Africa, received their unconditional release, with the exception of a few officers, still retained as hostages; and all the afternoon, indeed far on into the night, these men came straggling, now in small groups and now in large, into our expectant and excited camp. They told us of the crowds of disconsolate Boers, some by road, some by rail, who had passed their prison enclosure in precipitate retreat, bearing waggon loads of killed or wounded with them. Among them were men of almost all nationalities, including a few surviving members of the late Johannesburg police, who declared that during that one week they had lost no less than one hundred and fifteen of their own special comrades.
The prisoners also informed us that the Boer officer who dismissed them expressed the belief that in a few days more Boer and Briton would again be friends--an expectation we were slow to share, however eager we might be to see this miracle of miracles actually wrought. In the very midst of the battle of the Baltic, Nelson sent a letter to the Danish Prince Regent, with whom he was then fighting, and addressed it thus: "To the Danes, the Brothers of Englishmen." Within little more than half a century from that date the daughter of the Danish throne became heir to the Queenship of England's throne; and our Laureate rightly voiced the whole nation's feeling when to that fair bride he said:
"We are each all Dane in our welcome of thee."
When Nelson penned that strange address amid the flash and fire of actual battle, it was with the true insight of a seer. The furious foes of his day are the fast friends of ours, and by the end of another half-century a similar transformation may be wrought in the present relationship between Boer and Briton, who are quite as near akin as Dane and Englishman. But to lightly talk of such foes becoming friends "in a few days" is to misread the meaning and measure of a controversy that is more than a century old. Between victors and vanquished, both of so dogged a type, it requires more than a mere treaty of peace to beget goodwill.
[Sidenote: More Boer Slimness.]
Some of these now released prisoners were among the very first to be captured, and so had spent many weary weeks in the Waterval Prison near Pretoria, and were among those who had been decoyed away to these remote and seemingly unassailable mountain fastnesses. They had thus been in bonds altogether ten interminable months. Multiplied hardships had during that period necessarily been theirs, and others for which there was no real need or excuse; but they frankly confessed that as a whole their treatment by the Boers, though leaving much to be desired, had seldom been hard or vindictive.
There were others of these prisoners, however, who were sick or wounded, and therefore were quite unable to climb from the open door of their prison to our lofty camp; so to fetch these I saw seven ambulance waggons made ready to set out with the usual complement of medical orderlies and doctors. These I seriously thought of accompanying on their errand of mercy, but was mercifully hindered. Those red cross waggons we saw no more for ever. The Boers were said to be short of waggons, and asserted that in some way some of our men had done them recent wrong which they wished to avenge. But whatever the supposed provocation or pretext, it was in violation of all the recognised usages of war that those waggons were captured and kept. It was no less an outrage to make prisoners of doctors and orderlies arriving on such an errand. No protests on their part or pleadings for speedy return to duty prevailed. They were compelled to accompany or precede the Boers in their flight to Delagoa Bay, from thence were shipped to Durban, and after long delay rejoined the Brigade on its return to Pretoria. For such high-handed proceedings the Transvaal Government clearly cannot be held responsible, for at that time it had ceased to exist, and more than ever the head of each commando had become a law unto himself. It would be false to say that a fine sense of honour did not anywhere exist in the now defunct Republic, but it is perfectly fair to assert that on the warpath our troops were compelled to tread it was not often found. Yet in every department of life he that contendeth for the mastery is never permanently crowned unless he contend lawfully.
[Sidenote: A Boer Hospital.]
The prettily situated and well appointed hospital at Waterval Onder was originally erected for the use of men employed on the railway, but for months prior to the arrival of the British troops had been in possession of the Boer Government, and was full of sick and wounded burghers, with whom I had many an interesting chat and by whom I was assured that though we might think it strange they still had hope of ultimate success. Among the rest was a German baron, well trained of course, as all Germans are, for war, who on the outbreak of hostilities had consented at Johannesburg to be commandeered, burgher or no burgher, to fight the battles of the Boers, in the justice of whose cause he avowed himself a firm believer. He therefore became an artillery officer in the service of the Transvaal, and while so employed had been badly hit by the British artillery, with the result that his right arm was blown off, his left arm horribly shattered, and two shrapnel bullets planted in his breast. Yet seldom has extreme suffering been borne in more heroic fashion than by him, and he actually told me, in tones of admiration, that the British artillery practice was really "beautiful." On such a point he should surely be a competent judge seeing that he was himself a professor of the art, and had long stood not behind but in front of our guns, which is precisely where all critics ought to be planted. Their criticisms would then be something worth.
[Sidenote: Foreign Mercenaries.]
The baron's case was typical of thousands more. Men from all the nations of Europe, and therefore all trained to arms, had been encouraged to settle in various civil employments under the Transvaal Government long before the war began--on the railway, at the dynamite works, in the mines; and so were all ready for the rifle the moment the rifle was ready for them. At once they formed themselves into vigorous commandoes, according to their various nationalities,--Scandinavian, Hollander, French, and German. Even after the war began these foreign commandoes were largely recruited from Europe; French and German steamers landed parties of volunteers for the burgher forces nearly every week at Lorenço Marques. The French steamer Gironde brought an unusually large contingent, a motley crowd, including, so it is said, a large proportion of suspicious looking characters. But the most notorious and mischievous of all these queer contingents was "The Irish American Brigade." As far back as the day of Marlborough and Blenheim there was an Irish Brigade assisting the French to fight against the English, and with such fiery courage that King George cursed the abominable laws which had robbed him of such excellent fighting material. But at the same time there was about them so much of reckless folly that their departure from the Emerald Isle was laughingly hailed as "The flight of the wild geese." New broods of these same wild geese found their way to the Transvaal, and there made for themselves a name, not as resistless fighters, but as irrestrainable looters. These men linked to the bywoners, or squatters, the penniless Dutch of South Africa, did little to help the cause they espoused, but many a time have caused every honest God-fearing burgher to blush by reason of their irrepressible lawlessness.
[Sidenote: A wounded Australian.]
Among the British patients in this hospital was a magnificent young Australian, who it was feared had been mortally wounded in a small scrimmage round a farmhouse not far away, but who apparently began decidedly to mend from the time the general came to his bedside to say he should be recommended for the distinguished service medal. "That has done me more good than medicine," said he to me a few minutes after. Nevertheless, when ten days later we returned from Koomati Poort, he lay asleep in the little Waterval Cemetery, alas, like Milton's Lycidas, "dead ere his prime."
These Australians being all mounted men, and of an exceptionally fearless type, have suffered in a very marked degree, in just such outpost affairs, by the arts and horrors of sniping. Sportsmen hide from the game they hunt, and bide their time to snipe it. It is in that school the Boer has been trained in his long warfare with savage men and savage beasts. A bayonet at the end of his rifle is to him of no use. He seldom comes to close quarters with hunted men or beasts till the life is well out of them; and so in this war he has shown himself a not too scrupulous sportsman, rather than a soldier, to the undoing of many a scout; and in this fashion, as well as by white flag treachery, the adventurous Australians have distressingly often been victimised. At Manana, four miles east of Lichtenberg, one of their officers, Lieutenant White, was thus treacherously shot while going to answer the white flag displayed by the Boers. He was the pet of the Bushmen's Corps, and concerning him his own men said, "We all loved him, and will avenge him." So round his open grave his comrades solemnly joined hands and pledged themselves never again to recognise the waving of a Boer white flag. My assistant chaplain, with the Bushmen, himself an Australian, emphatically declared that as in the beginning so was it to the end; his men were killed not in fair fight but by murderous sniping. He was with them when Pietersburg was surrendered without a fight, but when they marched through to take possession they were resolutely shot at with explosive bullets from a barricaded house in the centre of the town, till the angry Bushmen broke open the door, and then the sniper sniped no more. On reaching the northern outskirts they again found themselves sniped, they knew not from whence. Several horses were wounded, a trooper was killed on the spot; so was Lieutenant Walters; and Captain Sayles was so badly hit he died two days afterwards. Yet no fighting was going on. The town was undefended, and the Boers in full retreat. This sniper was at last discovered hiding almost close at hand in a big patch of tall African grass. He turned out to be a Hollander schoolmaster, who, finding himself surrounded, sprang upon his knees, threw up his arms and laughingly cried, "All right, khakis, I surrender!" But that was his last laugh; and he lies asleep to-day in the same cemetery as his three victims.
That cemetery soon after I saw; and in the adjoining camp messed with a group of irregular officers, some of whom ultimately yielded to this spirit of lawless avenging, but were, in consequence, sternly court-marshalled, and suffered the extreme penalty of the law. It is, however, the only case of the kind that has come to my knowledge during thirty months of provocative strife.
[Sidenote: Hotel Life on the Trek.]
Close to the railway station at Waterval Onder was a comfortable little hotel, kept by a French proprietor, whose French cook had deserted him, and who would not therefore undertake to cater for the Grenadier officers, though he courteously placed his dining-room at their disposal, with all that appertained thereto; and sold to them almost his entire stock of drinkables, probably at fancy prices. The men of the Norfolk Regiment are to this day called "Holy Boys" because their forbears in the Peninsular War, so it is said, gave their Bibles for a glass of wine; but the Norfolks are not the only lovers of high-class liquor the army contains, though army Bibles will not now suffice to buy it. British officers on the trek, however, not only know how to appreciate exquisitely any appropriate home comforts, when for a brief while procurable, but also how to surrender them unmurmuringly at a moment's notice when duty so requires. We had been in possession of our well-appointed hotel table only two days when a sudden order sent us all trekking once again.
It is worth noting that this French hotelkeeper and the German baron in the adjoining hospital had both fought, though of course on opposite sides, in the great Franco-Prussian war of thirty years ago, and now they found themselves overwhelmed by another great war wave in one of the remotest and seemingly most inaccessible fastnesses of South Central Africa. In this new war between Boer and Briton the German lost a limb, if not his life, and the Frenchman a large part of his fortune. So intimately are men of all nationalities now bound in the same bundle of life!
[Sidenote: A Sheep-pen of a Prison.]
On Monday afternoon we marched to Nooitgedacht, where the prisoners already referred to had been confined like sheep in a pen for many a weary week. That pen was made by a double-barbed wire fence; the inner fence consisting of ten strands of wire, about eight inches apart, and the outer fence of five strands, with sundry added entanglements; and a series of powerful electric lights was specially provided to watch and protect the whole vast area thus enclosed. It gave me a violent spasm of heart sickness as I thought of English officers and men by hundreds being thus ignominiously hemmed in and worse sheltered than convicts. They had latterly been allowed to erect for themselves grotesquely rough hovels or hutches, many of which they set on fire when suddenly permitted to escape, so that as I found it the whole place looked indescribably dirty and desolate.
Even the shelters provided for the officers, and the hospital hastily erected for the sick, were scarcely fit to stable horses in, and were by official decree doomed to be given to the flames as the surest way of getting rid of the vermin and other vilenesses, of which they contained so rich a store. Here I found huge medicine bottles, never made for the purpose, on which the names of sundry of our sick officers remained written, to wit: "Lieut. Mowbray, one tablespoonful four times a day. 3. VIII. 1900." In one of these bunks I found a packet of religious leaflets, one of which contained Hart's familiar hymn:--
Come ye weary, heavy laden,
Lost and ruined by the fall;
If you tarry till you are better,
You will never come at all.
Not the righteous,
Sinners, Jesus came to call.
Although, therefore, religious services were never held in that prison pen, the men were not left absolutely without religious counsel and consolation. I was unfeignedly glad thus to find in that horrible place medicine for the soul as well as physic for the body, and some of those leaflets I brought away; but the physic I thought it safest not to sample.
Over this unique combination of prison house and hospital there floated a very roughly-made and utterly tattered red cross flag, which now serves as a memento of one of the most humiliating sights it ever fell to my lot to witness, and I could not help picturing to myself the overpowering heartache those prisoners must have felt as hour after hour they were hurried farther and yet farther still through deep defiles and vast mountain fastnesses into a region where it must have seemed as though hope or help could never reach them. But "men, not mountains, determine the fate of nations"; and to-day, through the mercy of our God, that pestilential pen is no longer any Englishman's prison.
[Sidenote: Pretty scenery, and superb.]
Our next halting place was at Godwand River, still on the Delagoa line, and here we found a wee bit of river scenery almost rivalling the beauty of the stream that has given to Lynmouth its world-wide fame. At this little frequented place two rivers meet, which even in the driest part of the dry season are still real rivers, and would both make superb trout streams, if once properly stocked, as many a river at home has been.
But just a little farther on we found scenery immeasurably more grand than anything we had ever seen before. The Dutch name of this astounding place is Kaapsche Hoop, which seems reminiscent of "The Cape of Good Hope," though it lies prodigiously far from any sea. It apparently owes its sanguine name to the fact that hereabouts the earliest discoveries of gold in the Transvaal were made. But it is also popularly called "The Devil's Kantoor," just as in the Valley of Rocks at Lynton we have "The Devil's Cheesering," and other possessions of the same sable owner. This African marvel is, however, much more than a mere valley of rocks, and it bids absolute defiance to my ripest descriptive powers. It is a vast area covered with rocks so grotesquely shaped and utterly fantastic as would have satisfied the artistic taste, and would have yielded fresh inspiration to the soul of a Gustave Doré. The rocks are evidently all igneous and volcanic, but often stand apart in separate columns, and sometimes bear a striking resemblance to enormous beasts or images that might once have served for Oriental idols.
Indeed, looked at by the bewitching but deceptive light of the moon, the whole place lends itself supremely well to every man's individual fancy, and even my unimaginative mind could easily have brought itself to see here a once majestic antediluvian city with its palaces and temples, but now wrecked and ruined by manifold upheavals of nature, and worn into rarest mockeries of its ancient splendours by the wild storms of many a millennium.
What I did certainly see, however, among those rocks were sundry roughly constructed shelters for snipers, who were therefrom to have picked off our men and horses as they crossed the adjacent drift. Terrible havoc might have been wrought in the ranks of the Guards' Brigade, without apparently the loss of a single Transvaaler's life, but there is no citadel under the sun the Boers just then had heart enough to hold.
Immediately adjoining this unique city of rocks is a stupendous cliff from which, our best travelled officers say, the finest panoramic view in the whole world is obtained. The cliff drops almost straight down twelve or fifteen hundred feet, and at its base huge baboons could be seen sporting, quite heedless of an onlooking army. Straight across what looked like an almost level plain, which, nevertheless, was seamed by many a deep defile and scarred by the unfruitful toil of many a gold-seeker, lay another great range of hills, with range rising beyond range, but with the town of Barberton, which I visited twenty months later, lying like a tiny white patch at the foot of the nearest range, some twenty miles away. To the right this plateau looked as though the tempestuous waves of the Atlantic had broken in at that end with overwhelming force, and then had been suddenly arrested and petrified while wave still battled with wave. It is such a view of far-reaching grandeur as I may never hope to see again, even were I to roam the wide world round; and could Kaapsche Hoop, with its absolutely fascinating attractiveness, be transplanted to, say Greenwich Park, any enterprising vendor of tea and shrimps who managed to secure a vested interest in the same, might reasonably hope to make such a fortune out of it as even a Rothschild need not despise.