Towards sundown on Tuesday, September 24th, while most of the Guards' Brigade was busy bathing in the delicious waters of the Koomati at its juncture with the Crocodile River, I walked along the railway line to take stock of the damage done to the rolling stock, and to the endlessly varied goods with which long lines of trucks had recently been filled. It was an absolutely appalling sight!
[Sidenote: Staggering Humanity.]
Long before, at the very beginning of the war, the Boers, as we have often been reminded, promised to stagger humanity, and during this period of the strife they came strangely near to fulfilling their purpose. They staggered us most of all by letting slip so many opportunities for staggering us indeed. Day after day we marched through a country superbly fitted for defence, a country where one might check a thousand and two make ten thousand look about them. Our last long march was through an absolutely waterless and apparently pathless bush. Yet there was none to say us nay! From Waterval Onder onwards to Koomati Poort not a solitary sniper ventured to molest us. A more complete collapse of a nation's valour has seldom been seen. On September 17th, precisely a week before we arrived at Koomati, special trains crowded with fugitive burghers rushed across the frontier, whence not a few fled to the land of their nativity--to France, to Germany, to Russia--and amid the curious collection of things strewing the railway line, close to the Portuguese frontier, I saw an excellent enamelled fold-up bedstead, on which was painted the owner's name and address in clear Russian characters, as also in plain English, thus:--
P. DUTIL. ST. PETERSBURG, RUSSIE.
That beautiful little bedstead thus flung away had a tale of its own to tell, and silently assented to the sad truth that this war, though in no sense a war with Russia, was yet a war with Russians and with men of almost every nationality under heaven.
[Sidenote: Food for Flames.]
Humanity was scarcely less severely staggered by the lavish destruction of food stuffs and rolling stock we were that day compelled to witness. In the sidings of the Koomati railway station, as at Kaap Muiden, I found not less than half a mile of loaded trucks all blazing furiously. The goods shed was also in flames, and so was a gigantic heap of coals for locomotive use, which was still smouldering months afterwards. Along the Selati branch I saw what I was told amounted to over five miles of empty trucks that had fortunately escaped destruction, and later on proved to us of prodigious use.
A war correspondent, who had been with the Portuguese for weeks awaiting our advent, assured me that the Boers were so dismayed by the tidings of our approach that at first they precipitately fled leaving everything untouched; but finding we apparently delayed for a few hours our coming, they ventured across the great railway bridge in a red cross ambulance train, on which they felt certain we should not fire even if our scouts were already in possession of the place; and so from the shelter of the red cross these firebrands stepped forth to perform their task of almost immeasurable destruction. It is however only fair to add that the great majority of these mischief-makers were declared to be not genuine Boers, but mercenaries,--a much-mixed multitude whose ignominious departure from the Transvaal will minister much to its future wholesomeness and honesty.
[Sidenote: A Crocodile in the Koomati.]
Next morning while with several officers I was enjoying a before breakfast bathe, a cry of alarm was raised, and presently I saw those who had hurried out of the water taking careful aim at a crocodile clinging to a rock in midstream. Revolver shot after revolver shot was fired, but I quickly perceived it was the very same crocodile I had seen at that very same spot the day before; and as it was quite dead then I concluded it was probably still dead, though the officers thus furiously assailing it had not yet discovered the fact; so leaving them to continue their revolver practice I quietly returned to the bubbling waters and finished my bathe in peace.
[Sidenote: A Hippopotamus in the Koomati.]
Later on a continuous rifle fire at the river side close to the Guards' camp attracted general attention, and on going to see what it all meant I found a group of Colonials had thus been popping for hours at a huge hippopotamus hiding in a deep pool close to the opposite bank. Every time the poor brute put its nose above the surface of the water half a dozen bullets splashed all around it though apparently without effect. The Grenadier officers pronounced such proceedings cruel and cowardly, but were without authority to put a stop to it. The crocodile is deemed lawful sport because it endangers life, but the Hippo. Transvaal law protects, because it rarely does harm, and is growing rarer year by year. I ventured therefore to tell these Colonials that their sportsmanship was as bad as their marksmanship, and that the pleasure which springs from inflicting profitless pain was an unsoldierly pursuit; but I preached to deaf ears, and when soon after our camp was broken up that Hippo. was still their target.
[Sidenote: A Via Dolorosa.]
On the second day of our brief stay at Koomati Poort, I crossed the splendid seven spanned bridge over the Koomati River, and noticed that the far end was guarded by triple lines of barbed wire, nor was other evidence lacking that the Boers purposed to give us a parting blizzard under the very shadow of the Portuguese frontier flags.
Then came a sight not often surpassed since Napoleon's flight from Moscow. Right up to the Portuguese frontier the slopes of the railway line were strewn with every imaginable and unimaginable form of loot and wreckage, flung out of the trains as they flew along by the frightened burghers. Telegraph instruments, crutches, and rocking chairs, frying pans and packets of medicinal powders, wash-hand basins and tins of Danish butter lay there in wild profusion; likewise a homely wooden box that looked up at me and said "Eat Quaker Oats."
At one point I found a great pile of rifles over which paraffin had been freely poured and then set on fire. Hundreds more, broken and scattered, were flung in all directions. Then, too, I saw cases of dynamite, live shells of every sort and size, and piles of boxes on which was painted
"Explosive Safety Cartridges
Supplied by Vickers, Maxim & Co.; for the use of
the Government of the South African Republic."
Likewise boxes of ammunition, broken and unbroken bearing the brand of "Kynoch Brothers, Birmingham" were there in piles; and it was while some men of the Gordons were superintending the destruction of this ammunition that a terrific explosion occurred a few days later by which three of them were killed and twenty-one wounded, including the "Curio" of the regiment, who was stuck all over with splinters like pins in a cushion; and in spite of seven-and-twenty wounds had the daring to survive. Byron somewhere tells of an eagle pierced by an arrow winged with a feather from its own breast, and in this war many a British hero has been riddled by bullets that British hands have fashioned. Moreover, among these bullets that thus littered that railway track I found vast quantities of the soft-nosed and slit varieties of which I brought away some samples; and others coated with a something green as verdigris. It is said that in love and war all is fair; but we should have more readily believed in the much belauded piety of the Boers, if it had deigned to dispense with "soft noses" and "explosive safeties," which were none the less cruel or unlawful because of British make!
Whole stacks of sugar I also found, in flaming haste to turn themselves into rippling lakes of decidedly overdone toffee; and in similar fashion piled up sacks of coffee berries were roasting themselves not wisely but too well. Pyramids of flour were much in the same way baking themselves into cakes, monstrously misshapen, and much more badly burnt than King Alfred's ever were. "The Boers are poor cooks," laughingly explained our men; "they bake in bulk without proper mixing." Nevertheless, along that line everything seemed very much mixed indeed.
[Sidenote: Over the Line.]
On reaching the Portuguese frontier I somewhat ceremoniously saluted the Portuguese flag, to the evident satisfaction of the Portuguese marines who mounted guard beside it. There were just then about 600 of them on duty at Resina Garcia, and as they were for the most part dressed in spotless white they looked delightsomely clean and cool. Indeed, the contrast between their uniforms and ours was almost painfully acute; but it was the contrast between men of war's men in holiday attire, which no war had ever touched, and weary war-men tattered and torn by ten months' constant contact with its roughest usage. A shameful looking lot we were--but ashamed we were not!
As these foreigners on frontier guard knew not a word of English, and I unfortunately knew not a word of Portuguese, there seemed small chance of any very luminous conversation; but presently I pronounced the magic word "Padré," and pointed to the cross upon my collar, when lo! a look of intelligence crept into the very dullest face. They passed on the word in approving tones from one to another, and I was instantly supplied with quite a new illustration of the ancient legend, "In hoc signo vinces." In token of respect for my chaplain's badge, without passport or payment, I was at once courteously allowed to cross the line and set foot in Portuguese Africa. There are compensations in every lot, even in a parson's!
The village immediately beyond the frontier is little else than a block or two of solidly built barracks, and a well appointed railway station, with its inevitable refreshment room, in which a group of officers representing the two nationalities were enjoying a friendly lunch. But great was my surprise on discovering that the vivacious Portuguese proprietor presiding behind the bar was a veritable Scotchman hailing from queenly Edinburgh; and still greater was my surprise on hearing a sweetly familiar accent on the lips of a Colonial scout hungrily waiting on the platform outside till the aforesaid officers' lunch was over, and he, a private, might be permitted to purchase an equally satisfying lunch and eat it in that same refreshment room. It was the accent of the far away "West Countree," and told me its owner was like myself a Cornishman. Yet what need to be surprised? Were I to take the wings of the morning and fly to the uttermost parts of the earth, I should probably find there as at Resina Garcia, thriving Scotchman in possession, and a famished Cornishman waiting at his gate. To these two, in this fashion, have been apportioned the outposts of the habitable globe!
[Sidenote: Westward Ho!]
It was to everybody's extreme surprise and delight that at noon on Thursday we received sudden orders to leave Koomati Poort at once, and to leave it not on foot but by rail. The huge baboon, therefore, which had become our latest regimental pet and terror, was promptly transferred to other custody, and our scanty kits were packed with utmost speed. We soon discovered, however, that it was one thing to reach the appointed railway station, and quite another to find the appointed train. Two locomotives, in apparently sound condition, had been selected from among a multitude of utterly wrecked and ruined ones, but serviceable trucks had also to be warily chosen from among the leavings of a vast devouring fire; then the loading of these trucks with the various belongings of the battalion began, and long before that task was finished darkness set in, so compelling the postponement of all journeying till morning light appeared. It was on the King of Portugal's birthday that morning light dawned, and it was to the sound of a royal salute in honour of that anniversary we attempted to start on our westward way, while the troops left behind us joined with those of Portugal in a royal review.
[Illustration: From a photograph by Mr Westerman
Boer Families on their Way to a Concentration Camp.]
As all the regular railway employés had fled with the departing Boers, it became necessary to call for volunteers from among the soldiers to do duty as drivers, stokers and guards. The result was at times amusing, and at times alarming. Our locomotives were so unskilfully handled that they at once degenerated into the merest donkey engines, and played upon us donkey tricks. One of these amateur drivers early in the journey discovered that he had forgotten to take on board an adequate supply of coal, and so ran his engine back to get it, while we patiently awaited his return. Soon after we made our second start it was discovered that something had gone wrong with the injectors. "The water was too hot," we were told, which to us was a quite incomprehensible fault; the water tank was full of steam, and we were in danger of a general blow up. So the fire had to be raked out, and the engine allowed to cool, which it took an unconscionably long time in doing, and we accounted ourselves fortunate in that on a journey so diversified we escaped the further complications that might have been created for us by our ever invisible foes, who managed to wreck the train immediately following ours--so inflicting fatal or other injuries on Guardsmen not a few.
Meanwhile we noted that "fever" trees, with stems of a peculiarly green and bilious hue, abounded on both sides the line; trees so called, not because they produce fever, but because their presence infallibly indicates an area in which fever habitually prevails. Hundreds of the troops that followed us into the fatal valley were speedily fever-stricken, and it is with a sense of devoutest gratitude I record the fact that the Guards' Brigade not only entered Koomati Port without the loss of a single life by bullets, but also left it without the loss of a single life by fever.
At first at the foot of every incline we were compelled to pause while our engines, one in front and one behind, got up an ampler pressure of steam, but presently it was suggested that the hundreds of Guardsmen on board the train should tumble out of the trucks and shove, which accordingly they did, the Colonel himself assenting and assisting. So sometimes shoving, always steaming, we pursued our shining way, as we fondly supposed, towards Hyde Park corner and "Home, sweet Home."
At Waterval Onder we stayed the night, and I was thus enabled to visit once again the tiny international cemetery, referred to in a formerCHAPTER, where I had laid to rest an unnamed, because unrecognised, private of the Devons. Now close beside him in that silent land lay the superbly-built Australian, whom I had so often visited in the adjoining hospital, and whom our general had promised to recommend for "The Distinguished Service Medal." Not yet eighteen, his life work was early finished; but by heroisms such as his has our vast South African domain been bought; and by graves such as his are the far sundered parts of our world-wide empire knit together.
[Sidenote: Ruined farms and ruined firms.]
Throughout this whole journey I was painfully impressed not only by the almost total absence of all signs of present-day cultivation, even where such cultivation could not but prove richly remunerative, but also by the still sadder fact that many of the farmhouses we sighted were in ruins. Along this Delagoa line, as in other parts of the Transvaal, there had been so much sniping at trains, and so many cases of scouts being fired at from farmhouses over which the white flag floated, that this particular form of retribution and repression, which we none the less deplored, seemed essential to the safety of all under our protection; and in defence thereof I heard quoted, as peculiarly appropriate to the Boer temperament and tactics, the familiar lines:--
Softly, gently, touch a nettle,
And it stings you for your pains;
Grasp it like a man of mettle,
And it soft as silk remains.
Amajuba led to a fatal misjudgement of the British by the Boer. In all leniency, the latter now recognises only an encouraging lack of grit, which persuades him to prolong the contest by whatever tactics suit him best. Its effect resembles that of the Danegeld our Saxon fathers paid their oversea invaders, with a view to staying all further strife. Their gifts were interpreted as a sign of craven fear, and merely taught the recipients to clamour greedily for more. Long before this cruel war closed it became clear as noonday that Boer hostilities could not be bought off by a crippling clemency, and that an ever-discriminating severity is, in practice, mercy of the truest and most effective type.
How great the pressure on the military authorities became in consequence of these frequent breakages of the railway line, and how serious the inconvenience to the mercantile community, as indeed to the whole civil population, may be judged from the fact that only on the day of my return from Resina Garcia did the Pretoria merchants receive their first small consignments of food stuffs since the arrival of the British troops some four months before. Clothing, boots, indeed goods of any other type than food, they had still not the faintest hope of getting up from the coast for many a week to come. War is always hard alike on public stores and private cupboards; but seldom have the supplies of any town, not actually undergoing a siege, been more nearly exhausted than were those of Pretoria at the time now referred to. For hungry and impecunious folk the City of Roses was fast becoming a bed of thorns.
[Sidenote: Farewell to the Guards' Brigade.]
From Pretoria I accompanied the Guards on what we all deemed our homeward way as far as Norval's Pont. Then the Brigade, as such, was broken up for blockhouse or other widely dispersing duties; and I was accordingly recalled to headquarters for garrison work. At this point, therefore, I must say farewell to the Guard's Brigade.
For over twelve months my association with them was almost absolutely uninterrupted. At meals and on the march, in the comparative quiet of camp life, and on the field of fatal conflict, I was with them night and day; ever receiving from them courtesies and practical kindnesses immeasurably beyond what so entire a stranger was entitled to expect. Officers and men alike made me royally welcome, and won in almost all respects my warmest admiration.
Their unfailing consideration for "The Cloth" by no means implied that they were all God-fearing men; nor did many among them claim to be such; but gentlemen were they one and all, whose worst fault was their traditional tendency towards needlessly strong language. To Mr Burgess, the chaplain of the 19th Hussars once said, "The officers of our battalion are a very gentlemanly lot of fellows, and you never hear any of them swear. The colonel is very severe on those who use bad language, and if he hears any he says, 'I tell you I will not allow it. If you want to use such language go out on to the veldt and swear at the stones, but I will not permit you to contaminate the men by such language in the lines. I won't have it!'"
Not all battalions in the British army are built that way, nor do all British officers row in the same boat with that aforesaid colonel. Nevertheless, I am prepared to echo the opinion expressed by Julian Ralph concerning the officers with whom he fraternized:--"They were emphatically the best of Englishmen," said he; "well informed, proud, polished, polite, considerate, and abounding with animal health and spirits." As a whole that assertion is largely true as applied to those with whom it was my privilege to associate. Most of them had been educated at one or other of our great public schools, many of them represented families of historic and world-wide renown. It was, therefore, somewhat of an astonishment to see such men continually roughing it in a fashion that navvies would scarcely consent to do at home; drinking water that, as our colonel said, one would not willingly give to a dog; and sometimes sleeping in ditches without even a rug to cover them.
Wild assertions have been made in some ill-informed papers about these officers being ill-informed, and even Conan Doyle complains that he saw only one young officer studying an Army Text-Book in the course of the whole campaign; but then, when kits are cut down to a maximum weight of thirty-seven pounds, what room is there for books even on tactics? The tactics of actual battle are better teachers than any text-books; and a cool head, with a courageous heart, is often of more value in a tight corner than any amount of merely technical knowledge. It is true that some of our officers have blundered, but then, in most cases, it was their first experience of real war, especially of war amid conditions entirely novel. It was more personal initiative, not more text-book; more caution, not more courage that was most commonly required. To inspire his men with tranquil confidence, one officer after another exposed himself to needless perils, and was, as we fear, wastefully done to death. But be that as it may the Guards' Brigade, men and officers alike, I rank among the bravest of the brave; and my association with them for so long a season, I reckon one of the highest honours of a happy life.